05 July 2012

The long-overdue reaction against being completely overwhelmed

An emerging critique of time pressure
Part 1 of 3 | Part 2
A burst of high-profile essays has recently sought to grapple with the intensifying time pressures afflicting those fortunate enough to be employed. Each of the authors wants to mount a critique of the increasing demands that our work is placing on us, finally giving some visibility to the deadly serious consequences of the seemingly mundane problem of always being busy. Yet if none of them is able to locate the fundamental source of the problem in the neoliberal organization of society, what are the consequences of such critiques likely to be?

The two most noted essays come at the problem from very different vantage points. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former high-level official in the Obama foreign policy establishment, tackles the oft-discussed “work-life balance”. You might think that the very formulation of the problem has already given the game away: by contrasting “work” with “life”, the individual experience of alienation under capitalism is put front and center. Work is a form of violence against our own plans and desires, it is the necessity that infringes our freedom. At least it is for most people.

But Slaughter is not addressing most people, as she herself admits. She is addressing a tiny elite of high-power decisionmakers and conceptualizers who don’t experience work as alienation but as fulfillment. The problem for them is not that work violates their freedom, but that another side of their freedom – Slaughter emphasizes family life but this could certainly be extended to all other pursuits outside professional work – is strangled by the demands of their jobs. It follows that the solution is not to do away with work as an alien force that dominates us, but to balance these two facets of a fulfilling life.

Let’s leave aside the bitter reality that most of the “fulfilling” work under consideration here (public policy, business, corporate law) involves reproducing the unfreedom of that large majority of the population denied access to fulfilling work. The problem with Slaughter’s formulation is not simply that it assumes an unjust (and, of late, deeply dysfunctional) status quo and then tries to make adjustments within it. The deeper flaw is that by excluding the larger society from consideration, Slaughter can’t even understand what is causing her (elite) problem in the first place. Thus her laughably naïve suggestion of a solution: elect women to high-level office.

The strength of Slaughter’s article is her unstinting rejection of the deeply neoliberal notion that if women simply work hard, then they can “have it all”. She insists that the problem is, instead, built into the structure of demands placed on women by their work, and that until this structure is changed there will be no improvement. But she never asks why this structure of demands developed in the first place. With few exceptions, the jobs she discusses – corporate executives, high government posts, upper-level legal and financial services, elite academia – were much less taxing in the 1950s and 1960s. With the end of Fordism and the consolidation of neoliberalism, the demands of these jobs starting running out of control, just as women for the first time gained access to them. The changing structure of elite work was driven by a necessity much deeper than the conscious desires or ideologies of the participants, something that no number of women in high elected office could have changed.

The other much-discussed article (for a while it was most-emailed on The New York Times website) is more interesting because it levels a much more fundamental critique at our society. Tim Kreider writes: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” However, Kreider insists, “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration”. This leads him to quote Arthur C Clarke: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.”

This is the revolution we want. Not Slaughter’s society of unfreedom for all but a tiny minority who experience their unfreedom as fulfillment. Not even a society that destroys its elites and then distributes unfreedom in equal doses. A society in which everyone is free.

It’s important that such an idea is getting such a wide hearing. But, like Slaughter, Kreider is not up to the task of explaining where the problem comes from. At one point he comes very close, writing: “It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.” What he’s reaching for here is a concept that can explain how the mass of discrete decisions made by people every day can somehow constitute a force alien from those very individuals, which then exerts an abstract tyranny over them. Marx’s conception of alienation, particularly Postone’s interpretation of it, would have provided a much more robust starting point.

But he scrambles back from the precipice and into the reassuring arms of neoliberal doctrine: it’s your own fault.
The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. … Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
His implied solution, far more naïve than Slaughter’s, is that we simply renounce our overwork and become artists in southern France.

In a lame attempt to escape this repugnant elitism, Kreider tries to differentiate between people forced into overwork by their jobs and those who are “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” It’s a tempting and very familiar distinction – between coercion and choice, between necessity and agency. Yet in making it Kreider loses the analytic purchase required to understand why everyone is exceedingly busy.

Part 3: The consequences of an incomplete critique

1 comment:

  1. I like what Kreider says about the hedge against emptiness. It points, within the framework of the larger analysis you are putting forth, of the relationship between conditions of work and how we feel about ourselves as social beings. Its actually rather Durkheimian in so far as it evokes the falling away of that which figures social (collective) life as meaningful, leaving the individual in a state of anomie: the absence of a force, produced by the collective, that can make us feel something outside ourselves. This is not to say that collective life is absent but it fails to produce such a force.