On the ‘Lazy Bums Who Refuse To Work’ Rhetoric

Quote from D. JoAnne Swanson on the 'lazy bums' rhetoricFor quite some time now I’ve had an essay in the works (“USA: Land of Suffering With a Smile”) about some of the ways that living and working in the USA resembles a normalized abusive relationship, writ large. The material for this essay has expanded as I write. It’s adapted from “Do What You Love, Lazy Bums Who Refuse  to Work, and Other Lies of Job Culture,” a chapter from my in-progress book On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture.

This material began its life as a critique of the horrible abusive rhetoric directed at welfare benefits recipients (who are unfairly denounced as “lazy” or “moochers,”), but it quickly expanded in scope. I’m now thinking it may eventually become a series of essays, in addition to a book chapter.  As I write it, I keep coming up with more ways that life in the USA is like living inside an abusive relationship…and there are so many of them that I’d never be able to fit them all into one book!

Here’s a sneak peek at an extract from the text. This may (and probably will) be edited before the book is released, but it’s a good summary of the “Lazy Bums Who Refuse to Work” section of the chapter, so I’m sharing it with you here.

You must suffer to earn money. You are expected to “earn a living.” “Earning a living” means enduring your job and paying your dues like everyone else, in order to prove you’re worthy of subsistence in the eyes of capital, and in the eyes of those among your fellow hapless wage laborers who have internalized the Protestant work ethic.

And you must suffer in the proper way: silently, while  performing “positivity.” It’s not enough to be structurally exploited  by the need to sell your hours to employers so you can survive.  It’s not enough to conceal your misery about it, either. You must also express gratitude for your job. After all, it could be worse.  You’re lucky to have a job at all!  If you speak up about your  suffering, you risk being branded as “difficult” or “entitled” – a  complainer who deserves their fate.

This is what passes for a work ethic in the USA: the logic of the abuser, writ large.

This is one of the reasons people on benefits are so frequently  denounced as “lazy” or ”mooching off the system”: they have managed to  escape the suffering of the wage laborer, or so the story goes. The  message behind this rhetoric is: You should suffer, like everyone else.

The vitriol directed at “laziness” reveals how much most Americans hate their own jobs.

The expectation that we paste on a smile and present as “positive” is  just one of the many insidious ways affective labor is extracted from  Americans in service of capital – while preventable suffering and  structural violence continues on, largely unacknowledged and  unaddressed. This pattern can be seen everywhere – from stressed-out  (but smiling!) retail workers to the way strangers ask us a perfunctory  “how are you?” and the only socially acceptable answer is some variation  on “good” or “fine…”

Perhaps all this is not too surprising for a  country in denial about the fact that it was founded on settler colonialism and  genocide, but still.

Laying the blame on individuals for structural problems is a  time-honored ideological tradition in the USA.

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