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Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism
Pluto Press, $14.95 (paper)
If there is a utopian kernel to be found in this pandemic, so replete with dystopian terror, it is most certainly that each day more and more people have grown to hate the world of work. Some of us, certainly a lucky few, might even enjoy our jobs, or certain aspects of them, but all the same, work under capitalism has become increasingly legible as a system of false promises—deferred freedom, self-actualization, leisure, joy, safety, or whatever else we might value that cannot be reduced to the accumulation of capital.
At the center of this network of false promises is the myth of the labor of love, currently “cracking under its own weight,” as labor journalist Sarah Jaffe argues in her recent book Work Won’t Love You Back, “because work itself no longer works.” Historically this myth applied to the work of caretaking as a way to naturalize the unwaged or low-waged labor of women, from childcare, eldercare, and housework to teaching and nursing. Today, “the conditions under which ‘essential’ workers had to report to the job,” Jaffe notes, “revealed the coercion at the heart of the labor relation.” Jaffe traces the expansion of anti-work critique in the years following the 2008 financial crisis, providing a powerful account of the political moment of Occupy Wall Street and its afterlives. If anything, COVID-19 has reaffirmed these political energies, producing a shared sense that, as Jaffe writes, “We are being punished for all the choices we have made even as we have continued to do what we are told—racking up student debt, working longer hours, answering work emails on our phones from parties, funerals, and bed, and doing more, always, with less.”
While there is certainly nothing new in this recognition of work as an instrument of violence under capitalism—the critique of work has a long and rich history—we are living in a time when anti-work thought and post-work longing are, quite remarkably, galvanized forces in our political imagination. Yet, just as the hatred of work grows more and more palpable, the idea of work has at the same time never seemed so totalizing. That is to say, intrinsic to what we hate about work is that we can’t imagine life outside of it.
Amelia Horgan takes on this predicament in her new book Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, an incisive and often challenging inquiry into the conditions for anti-work struggles today. Work as we know it under capitalism, Horgan agrees, “is beginning to appear more illusory to more and more people. Rather than making us rich and happy, work leaves most of us poor and miserable.” Today, she writes, instead of “work serving as a fixed time in someone’s life (after education, before retirement), work has become the defining mode of their life.” It is not enough, that is, to just do your job—in our current regime, “you must be improving and developing all the time.”
Out of a wave of recent anti-work books, Horgan’s is unique for its portrait of what it is like to be lost in this totality. She avoids forecasting various futures of work or expounding cautionary tales about our ever-worsening dystopia, instead submerging us into the problem of our capacity to imagine, much less enact, different futures. Contributing to this collective state of disorientation is what Horgan identifies as “the circular logic of the mock critique of capitalism offered by mainstream political commentators,” which merely elaborates a political imagination in which we can “[say] things are capitalist and bad because they’re capitalist but there’s not much we can do” about it.
While naming its central focus as the question of “how and in which sorts of ways things could be different,” Lost in Work, at its most powerful, shakes up our sense of what is politically imaginable. Throughout the book Horgan fleshes out tactical insights for workplace struggles and anti-work movements. She considers the stakes of union organizing and postulates about the strategies of contemporary labor movements, but always alongside everyday acts of refusal by individual workers. Underpinning all of these political practices, she stresses, are questions of post-capitalist imaginability. When we criticize work, Horgan warns, we come up against confusion, but more importantly fear: “This fear is not merely the product of a work ethic promulgated by elites. . . this is a genuine fear of a loss of self.” Work, as capitalism’s defining feature, “is a curtailment of the possibilities of our lives,” she observes, all with the hope of breaking it down.
Given the stakes of these struggles, it is important to get clear about exactly what we are talking about. An early chapter of the book thus surveys historical and contemporary debates about the definition of work, from Karl Marx to Uber. For Horgan, work isn’t so much a maze but a corner we’re all backed into. The book conceptualizes work capaciously as a shared condition of survival under capitalism, encompassing a variety of activities, regardless of being waged or unwaged, and whether or not marked as “productive” labor.
As Horgan notes, one of the historical legacies of the Wages for Housework movement (among Horgan’s key influences) has been the conceptual creep of “work” beyond the classical parameters of nineteenth-century political economy. Horgan is quite sympathetic to this move. “Generally,” she speculates, “the underlying intention seems to be showing that a given activity requires effort in cases where that effort is hidden.” At the same time, Horgan remains unconvinced “that it’s always helpful to talk about these activities in terms of ‘work’” without clarifying what these claims are demanding (compensation? redistribution? abolition?). Ultimately, Horgan suggests, both Marxism and its later feminist elaborations offer valuable lenses through which to diagnose “different regimes of capitalist exploitation.” While it is perhaps “easy to assume that finding something that looks like a gap in Marx’s theory means he has somehow been disproved,” she explains, these gaps can also be pursued as openings—points from which to advance our interrogation of capitalism, and to strengthen the project of destroying it.
Lost in Work never pretends to be anything but an anti-capitalist manifesto, though it is often hesitant about whether there is such thing as work without (or after) capitalism. This uncertainty can be both frustrating and provocative. In eleven succinct but potent chapters, Horgan sets out to “outline what work is, how it has been understood and contested,” and finally, to help us think about “what we ought to do about the problem of work,” all the while refusing to define her manifesto as a vision of abolishing work. For Horgan, there is always a possibility that work can be transformed, while there is never a question about whether capitalism should come to an end—even if we can’t quite imagine it.
Indeed, as the book’s subtitle indicates, Horgan’s central interest lies in “escaping capitalism.” For most, such escape appears as an impossible horizon. To the extent that we are all lost in work, we are together prisoners of capitalist realism—what theorist Mark Fisher conceived as the logic by which it is “impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative” to capitalism. Every day, we reproduce this dystopia through work. So many of us are stuck in this shared recognition of a problem with a dwindling hope that we can figure out what to do about it. From this rut, Horgan asks us to consider “not only control over our own lives, but over our collective destiny, our shared freedom and our shared joy,” and to hold onto our conviction that “a future without the indignities, petty cruelties, exploitation and misery of capitalist work is possible,” however unimaginable.
An essential part of the work of escape is thus ideological and imaginative. For Horgan, “Naming capitalism as a particular system rather than just the ways things are naturally and inevitably, is in one way, better than taking capitalism as a given.” But that act of naming is hardly sufficient. To recognize capitalism for what it is remains only a part of the project of its destruction.
Through examples and case studies ranging from the Lucas Plan to sex worker solidarity, Horgan models aspects of what alternatives to capitalist work might look like. Perhaps inevitably, this tendency often veers toward reformism instead of outright work abolition. “Addressing the problem of work must involve raising the floor rather than making it easier for a tiny number to puncture the ceiling,” Horgan argues. “Increasing minimum standards at work and making sure that these standards are upheld and enforced . . . would make a significant difference to the lives of many people, protecting them from the worst excesses of capitalist work.” At the same time, she contends that it will never be “enough for us to demand better minimum standards in work activity that is straightforwardly destroying the planet.” This is not to admonish union organizing or ongoing labor struggles in the slightest, but to insist on a proliferation of tactics. In this light, Horgan begins her last chapter with an epigraph from the late feminist Beat poet Diane di Prima: “NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us / shoving at the thing from all sides / to bring it down.”
Ultimately, then, there is no definite escape route offered up in Lost in Work, just glimpses of something else—“partially fulfilled dreams of a better world.” In some cases, the glimpses involve more squinting, and the dreams blur into nightmare, with our dystopia always lurking.
Of this project—imagining, and therein demanding the imaginability, of a post-work society—Fredric Jameson has written that we must “hammer away at anti-utopianism not with arguments, but with therapy: every utopia today must be a psychotherapy of anti-utopian fears and draw them out into the light of day, where the sad passions like blinded snakes writhe and twist in the open air.” This therapeutic utopianism is most palpable when Horgan turns to the Paris Commune, among the partially fulfilled dreams she conjures. Horgan finds inspiration in the Paris Commune for “[taking] its aim at not just production but all of social life,” echoing Kristin Ross’s account of the Commune as “a working laboratory of political inventions, improvised on the spot or hobbled together out of past scenarios and phrases, reconfigured as need be.”
Here and elsewhere, Horgan’s utopianism makes the everyday a site of political questioning. Part of insisting that a better world is possible, Horgan reminds us, is the collective endeavor to think different worlds in the present: when “everyday concerns are revealed, through collective translation, as political questions, they can become questions that get to the heart of work, that put pressure on the conditions under which it is carried out.” This kind of collective translation can be seen throughout different workforces today, but especially in the supposed “job shortage” of the service industry. As many have noted, what this really amounts to is a collective refusal of work. More and more workers are leaving their jobs, no longer willing to work for minimum wage in dangerous conditions.
At the same time, the pandemic has also exposed capitalism as a continuous crisis of care. COVID-19 has merely exacerbated the ways so many live in a state of being “forced to care,” as Evelyn Nakano Glenn has described unwaged and underpaid but necessary care work in the United States, performed with dwindling or non-existent social resources. Along these lines of care, the refusal of work brings up complicated questions. Simply put, some kinds of work cannot be refused. How we struggle against such work requires different tactics, demanding far more of our political imaginations.
In 1974, as part of the campaign for Wages for Housework, Mariarosa Dalla Costa famously denounced the possibility of a “general strike,” in a speech on International Women’s Day in Mestre, Italy. “In the factories of Porto Marghera there have been many strikes, many struggles,” she proclaimed, “But let’s make this clear. No strike has ever been a general strike. When half the working population is at home in the kitchens, while the others are on strike, it’s not a general strike.” These remain urgent questions for us today: What would it mean to have a truly general strike? What would that involve tactically, since the withdrawal from some work reproduces harm, often to those most vulnerable? How might care work move from the periphery to the center of anti-work struggle? This would involve thinking of the refusal of work not only as a form of negation and withdrawal, but as a collective process of active re-imagining. As Kathi Weeks put it in The Problem With Work (2010), “How might we conceive the content and parameters of our obligations to one another outside the currency of work?”
With a sense of vision and fearlessness, Horgan extends these questions into the world of work since COVID-19, in which more and more workers are dying, and being asked to die, for the sake of capitalism’s survival. A global study by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2016 determined that 745,000 people died from overwork that year, a health risk to which an estimated 488 million workers were exposed. The WHO also found that between 2000 and 2016, the number of overwork-related deaths from heart disease rose 42 percent, and from stroke increased by 19 percent. Since then, the U.S. death rate rose in 2020 to the highest it’s been since the early 1900s, including the 1918 flu pandemic, as workers now face the growing threat of the delta variant. On this shifting terrain of catastrophes, Lost in Work is an urgent call to find a way out.
Madeline Lane-McKinley is a writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer with a PhD in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her book Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times will be published by Common Notions in fall 2022.
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