A Monstrous Job Culture and What It’s Cost Me

“It’s really horrific to use the threat of poverty and homelessness as a work incentive…that’s monstrous.”
Karl Widerquist

I confess that I sometimes fear I’m doing people—including myself—a disservice by publishing The Anticareerist.

I worry that it’s irresponsible of me to promote a hopeful outlook on building a world beyond “earning a living” when it’s actually very unlikely that most of us will be in a position to do this in our lifetimes. After all, this culture considers it perfectly morally acceptable—laudable, even—to use the threat of poverty and homelessness as a work incentive. It’s so thoroughly normalized that few people even question it, let alone spend 20 years writing deep-dive critiques of the structural injustices involved.

I’m also reckoning with what it’s cost me to do this work for the past 20 years.

My critique of job culture, my anger at entrenched systemic economic justice, and my inability to put on a happy face, swallow the ideology of coercive paid employment, and play the career game…these critical stances have cost me entire circles of friends. They’ve strained my family relationships. They’ve directly contributed to the loss of my marriage. They’ve cost me a lot of respectability – in academia and in general. They’ve cost me two decades of lost earnings, and before the days of Obamacare they indirectly contributed to the loss of my health insurance. I even spent a small inheritance keeping myself afloat at a basic level for a year while I did the research and acquired the basic web design skills that enabled me to launch whywork.org back in 1998-1999.

Nonetheless, a stubborn voice that’s lived inside me all my life insists that this project that began its life as Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery (CLAWS) somehow must live on, even if I can only publish something once a year. Even when I tell this mule-headed voice to just leave me alone—I mean, I gotta do what I gotta do—it won’t shut up. The voice keeps insisting that even if my work can’t do much to help bring about socio-economic justice for the workers of the world, nonetheless there are people out there who need to read these words just as desperately as I’m driven to write them. I hope that’s true, because reckoning with what it’s cost me over the years to keep on writing about these things year after year is sobering, to put it mildly.

If I let myself dwell on these things for longer than a few minutes, the question always arises: why do I still do this? I’m not an academic. I have zero institutional support. I have no reliable funding. This work is not marketable and never will be. I’ve already made so many personal sacrifices over the past two decades just to keep doing this work. Why don’t I just shut this project down?

Well, aside from the fact that the inner voice is unbelievably obstinate and won’t leave me alone, one thing that has kept me hanging on in spite of what it’s cost me is camaraderie. Re-reading the work of writers such as David Frayne and Ivor Southwood reminds me that I’m not fighting this uphill battle alone.

Lately I’ve been re-reading Frayne’s The Refusal of Work and Southwood’s Non-Stop Inertia.

Frayne, for example, critiques the ways the media and government portray poverty and joblessness as individual or cultural issues, despite glaringly obvious structural problems. He also rightfully points out that these explanations are reinforced because they keep the structural issues hidden:

“Resistance…is not explained as something related to the inequality of the capitalist labour process, but rather a matter of personal problems within the worker – a negative attitude, an inability to be a team player or shirking one’s duties. In other words, the contemporary pathologies of work are pushed onto employees themselves, and are internalised as personal demeanours and characteristics that must be ‘worked through’ in team meetings, development assessment seminars and ‘self-help’ consumption in the private sphere.

“Another common media response to labour disputes is the deployment of the Could Be Worse argument. […] If the UK public sector workers who went on strike in 2012 believed that they were victims of injustice…they should have considered those who were earning less, working in poorer conditions, or struggling to find work. By providing suggestive examples of situations that are worse than the insurgent’s, journalists once again peddle the message that it is individuals and their sense of entitlement that are at fault.
The Refusal of Work, pp. 102-103

Whether explicit or implicit, this message is delivered so routinely and in so many forms that it’s difficult to even keep track of them all. I’m reminded of the concept of “microaggressions.” These are like micro-shamings. It’s difficult for even the most accomplished, confident people to avoid succumbing to shame when this ideology is repeated often enough.

Frayne then goes on to quote Southwood:

In order to avoid sanctions, the claimants to Jobseeker’s Allowance have been required to display a fully accountable commitment to job hunting, to accept offers of employment judged reasonable by Jobcentre Plus bureaucrats, and to attend job-seeker’s training programmes deemed likely to increase the chances of finding work. The critic Ivor Southwood argues that, given the known shortage of jobs in many areas, these activities often have a performative quality, forcing claimants to project a phoney display of positivity and enthusiasm for low-status work roles: ‘To refuse to go along with this performance and its mutual suspension of disbelief risks bringing the full weight of the institution down on the “customer”’.
The Refusal of Work, p. 104

Yes. The mandatory positivity required for employability – “happification” as Southwood puts it in other writings – is maddening.

Elsewhere I’ve written that when I worked as a house cleaner during the Great Recession and its aftermath, I had to perform positivity and display enthusiasm for house cleaning in a convincing enough way that the people hiring me didn’t think they were personally exploiting me. Of course they, as individuals, were not directly exploiting me. They couldn’t rightfully be held personally responsible for a system that was not of their creation. So it wouldn’t have been accurate or fair to imply that they were at fault as individuals for my predicament. It’s not as if they personally endorse the systemic exploitation that gives rise to situations like mine.

But structurally speaking, the need to find a paying job – ANY job – was definitely exploiting my labor, and my clients benefited from this at my personal expense. In order for them to rest and have time for their projects, I had to work. In order for them to have more free time for their activities, I had to give up my free time and slow down progress on my own writing projects. Yes, they paid me, and that mattered a lot. Nevertheless, the larger injustice of coercive wage labor remained unchallenged.

I never discussed my frustration about this systemic injustice with my clients, because I knew no good would come of it. For one thing, I knew it wouldn’t be wise to risk losing any of my clients, as house cleaning was my sole source of income. Plus, I actually wouldn’t have minded doing some house cleaning here and there for cash if I weren’t structurally coerced into doing it full time out of desperation and lack of alternatives. If I’d been there of my own free will, I might have even enjoyed it sometimes.

If I complained, who would I even take my complaint to? It’s not as if my clients could be held personally responsible when the responsibility for coercive wage labor is systemic. If I’d mentioned it at all, most likely the response would have been some variation on: “Well, if you didn’t want to do house cleaning, why didn’t you just find another job?”

As if jobs just grow on trees for a middle-aged divorced woman whose ex absconded with her share of the money from the sale of the marital house. Right before the Great Recession, no less. Once again, the underlying message is that it’s me as an individual who is at fault.

And even worse: even if I openly acknowledged the systemic factors, I knew I was powerless to do anything about them all by myself. So why even bring it up?

And yet. And yet.

If the systemic injustices of coercive wage labor are not openly addressed somehow, somewhere, by someone, then it becomes more difficult to maintain the courage of one’s convictions. It’s all too easy to succumb to the relentless internalized social and cultural pressure to frame this as primarily (if not exclusively) an individual problem, because that framing is reinforced almost everywhere. It’s institutionalized.

If we don’t name these problems and identify them as collective problems that manifest individually, then the predicaments of workers like me continue to remain invisible to the people who could actually make a difference.

Furthermore, being stuck in a government-induced poverty trap as a person born and raised middle-class carries its own set of maddening problems that remain “hidden in plain sight.” Many people assume, consciously or not, that my obvious class privilege as a white, university-educated professional writer who lives in a family-owned condo means I couldn’t possibly be so hard up for cash to cover basic needs that I’d need to rely on food stamps for ten years, and clean houses for five of those years. People with class, race, and ability privileges don’t fall into the stereotyped categories of “poor people.” So if I’m struggling, the narrative implies, it must be because of irresponsible spending habits. Or, perhaps, because I haven’t worked through my own internalized money shame. Or something else that carries the implicit message that I’m at fault for my financial situation, and if I’d just take “personal responsibility” then I’d be fine. Maybe not wealthy, but basically OK.

The dominant narrative is heavily weighted toward pointing fingers at individual habits as the reason for financial struggles, which serves the status quo well. As long as we focus attention on what we see as individual failings, the systemic reasons for our struggles are rarely even identified, let alone examined with a critical eye.

Even in cases where the systemic reasons are accurately identified and examined critically—which is happening more often these days; the critique of job culture is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, it seems—these problems can’t be solved at the individual level. So while I can articulate the critique as an individual (and even that ability took years and years of unpaid research and critical thinking), I still can’t improve my own situation beyond a certain level without a lot of help.

And if I publicly admit that I’m upset about being coerced into paid employment, there’s often an undercurrent of suspicion. Angry women are easily dismissed if they’re “too emotional” or display a “bad attitude.” This tone policing adds an additional layer to my existing mental load. The burden is placed on me as a benefits claimant to demonstrate that I’m worthy of having my basic needs met through expressing willingness to accept a job – any job, as long as it’s paid.

The same underlying dynamic applies even now that I get paid to do marketing copywriting. While this work is much better (and certainly less stigmatized) than house cleaning, it’s still full-time wage labor.

Nearly every day I wake up with my mind brimming over with ideas I want to write about, but by the end of my waged workday I have little left to give. So another day passes in which I don’t do much of the deeper daimonically-driven work I’m capable of—the work my soul keeps insisting I need to do. And if I have the audacity to complain? Well, I’m lucky to have a writing job at all! If I don’t want it, there’s a long line of people who’ll gladly take my place!

So to some people I’ll only ever be known as the cleaning lady or the marketing copywriter.

They’ll never know the budding writer who “published” her first “book” at the age of nine—by taping some pages she wrote inside a manila folder and decorating the cover with contact paper.

They’ll never have a chance to meet the writer whose ninth-grade English teacher once told her mother: “I hope your daughter is writing. She’s very talented.”

They’ll never get to know the writer who won her high school’s nomination to represent the school in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Writing Awards competition.

Nor the writer who received a high school Quill & Scroll journalism award and loved her AP English class.

Nor the fledgling music writer who once wrote album reviews for her high school newspaper.

Nor even the writer who keeps on writing about the injustices of wage labor because some cursed insistent voice inside her won’t shut up even when she begs it to leave her in peace because she’ll never make money this way, and she needs money to live.

They’ll only know the cleaning lady. Or the marketing copywriter.

I’m not angry at any of my clients. I like them and don’t wish them ill. They’re people of conscience and they grapple with the moral implications of the system just as I do. I suspect some of them feel just as trapped in their day jobs as I do in mine, even though there was an inescapable power imbalance in our relationship because they make enough money to afford to hire a house cleaner and I don’t.

No, I’m not angry at them.

I’m angry at this monstrous lying job culture.

I’m angry at a culture that would buoy me with youthful hope by encouraging me to use my gifts and write and do what I love, leave me chronically deprived of ways to fully develop these gifts while still being able to afford food, shelter, and health care, and then add insult to injury by blaming me for my slow progress toward my creative goals. I’m angry at a culture that allows the gifts of countless other writers, musicians, and artists to be squandered unless they can be corralled into the service of capital.

Fuck your mandatory positivity and micro-shaming, monstrous culture. I don’t want another fake life of employment that I’m paid to live. I want my real life. And I want everyone else to have their real lives, too.

I don’t need extravagance. I just want a chance to do the work I’m here for—the work I was led to believe I could do one day if only I trusted the callings of my heart and all that New Age claptrap. I want to use my talents for the purposes they’re meant to serve, and for something I actually believe in.

I want that hopeful, youthful writer version of me back. She’s got a ‘bad attitude,’ and that’s one reason I miss her: because she’ll never swallow your monstrous lying job culture bullshit.

But that ‘bad attitude’ has cost me dearly. For 20 years.

And camaraderie, wonderful though it is, doesn’t pay the bills.


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