On (the absence of) meaningful work

Tank Green/ July 17, 2022/ Thoughts

Sometimes I wonder if we all have a single conundrum that we wrestle with all our lives or if it’s just me. As I have indicated before, the singular issue for me is about finding meaningful work.

Someone recently asked me why we even have the notion that work should be meaningful. My immediate response was Protestantism. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I definitely still subscribe to Weber’s theory that the Lutheran notion of being called to serve God by our activities in the world has become institutionalised in Protestant and capitalist cultures. Being called to serve God is de facto meaningful for those who believe and so, whilst we may have lost the Protestant framing over the centuries, the notion that we should find meaning in our work remains.

But obviously we don’t though, do we? Okay, some people may be lucky enough to do work that they’d do even if they didn’t need the money, but I do not think this describes 98% of people’s lives. I think that most of us rent out our time to the highest bidder in the least worst ways we can find only because we have to.

Before the pandemic, I was writing a novel I was calling Tools Down. In the writing, I was exploring how someone could stop participating in capitalism. How a person could quietly resist. How a person could just ‘down tools’ and walk away from their bullshit job and stop participating in the extractive and exploitative system that is capitalism. I got about 23,000 words out before I was sexually assaulted which my piece of shit boss thought was hilarious, so I quit my job. Shortly after that, the pandemic struck and during the time of my best life, I started on two other pieces of long-form writing (lawd), neither of which I have finished either. I think I have about 5 unfinished books on my laptop at the moment…

Anyway, the point is: do you want to give me about £750,000 so that I can quit most of my jobs and concentrate on writing and living my best life for the rest of my life? Thanks in advance.

The other point is, and maybe I’m just really, really slow here, but what if this strongly hegemonic notion that work should be meaningful was actually deliberately cultivated by our overlords to mask the extractive and exploitative fact of capitalism? Believing that work should be meaningful obscures that we rent out so much of our life for nothing, really. If we are conned into thinking that our jobs are (supposed to be) meaningful, then we don’t notice how badly we are being shafted. If we feel unhappy in our professional lives, we think we have to keep looking for the ‘right job’ and spend all our mental and emotional energies on that, rather than on overthrowing or reforming the system. 

My disability means that I can only work part-time and therefore I have always had to make do with considerably less in terms of material wealth and goods. Thankfully, I am not a competitive person, so I have never perceived that fact negatively. It is what it is and perhaps an upside of the disability is that in developing ways of managing it/me, I have come to develop my own theory and practice of meaning-making. Perhaps it is precisely the disability which enables me to see through to a different way of being in the world. In that sense, perhaps I can view it as a blessing, even though it rarely feels that way. Conversely, I think it is the fact that most part-time jobs are bullshit jobs that makes me dwell on this question at all.

Most of the things we do to maintain human systems are not necessary and a great many more could be done by machines. If we reframed our needs away from wants and towards genuine needs, then so much of what is currently ‘necessary’ to maintain the system would fall away. I would chose a relaxed and joyful simplicity over a frenetic and stressful complexity every day – wouldn’t you?

I just went for a run and then lay in the middle of the marshes getting some vitamin D as I watched and listened to the leaves on the trees shimmering in the light and breeze. I would much rather be able to do that whenever I want, than to spend my time in unnecessary labour so that I can buy more things I don’t genuinely need. Wouldn’t you? Or are my values really so different to other people?

You ever wonder if this cost of living crisis is actually because lockdowns helped people realise the above? A lot of people had their best life that first summer of lockdown, not just me. You ever notice how, post-lockdown, we went from talking about a 4-day working week to suddenly having to work more because everything has become so expensive?

I cannot, and likely will not for the rest of my life, get past the fact that my labour does not benefit me, the vast majority of ordinary human beings, nor the natural world in the slightest. I do not understand why more people do not recognise this fact in their own lives. I’ve got this image in my head of how most jobs are the equivalent of attempting to inflate a leaky airbed. What’s the fucking  point since no-one’s going to be able to sleep on it anyway? And yes, I know, I need to read David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. It’s been on the list for a long, long time.

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