Covid-19 Is an Opportunity to Rethink Work

The Covid-19 pandemic has been an experiment in different kinds of work – but it hasn't forced society to ask the question: why do we spend so much of our time working?

At one point during the Covid-19 lockdown, more than a quarter of the UK’s workforce was furloughed. We had entered, inadvertently, a mass experiment in worklessness, or at least temporary, paid joblessness. Of course, as the government forces a hasty and unsafe return to work, the possibilities and contradictions of that moment seem distant.

It was during this moment that I read Mareile Pfannebecker and James A. Smith’s Work Want Work, a critical exploration of contemporary work. While work, in the sense of the daily activity of people’s jobs, receded temporarily, the kind of non-work work – activities that were once rigidly divided from work but are now colonised by it, those activities that Pfannebecker and Smith dissect – did not. To take one – overdone? overproved? – example, bread-making. Why, in the middle of a mass break from work, were thousands of people engaged in a particularly intensive form of culinary effort?  

Why were the lucky furloughed diligently feeding their sourdough starters and instagramming perfected crumb? For the perennially-angry-online the answer is a simple one, young people – who don’t know they’re born – can’t do anything without showing off about it, and while they’re at it maybe if they stopped feeding their sourdough starters avocados they could afford to buy a house.

An illuminating counterproposal might be found in Pfannebecker and Smith’s reading of Richard Sennet’s descriptions of not-quite-bakers. Sennet met and interviewed Boston bakers first in the 1970s and then in 1998. During that time, baking went from a specialised and unionised craft to a flexiblised, non-unionised, generic and automated job.

This tragedy, of ‘not being a baker’, of the removal of permanent ties to place and practices, through career or profession, replaced by portable skills, Pfannebecker and Smith suggest, is the fate of many, including and increasingly white collar ‘professionals’. Simultaneously with the destruction of the traditional career, capitalism sets more and more of human social life to work. So while not being a baker everyone also gets to be a baker for fifteen minutes, or a little more provided it becomes a side gig they can monetise.  

While Sennet characterises ‘not being a baker’ as a tragedy, we need not romanticise the boredom and monotony of older patterns of work. When you consider the long and anti-social hours – bakers worked all night – hard-work and miserable conditions of traditional bread-making, the appeal of the automated bread making of the 1990s isn’t so hard to see.

In the early days of the Paris Commune, just four days after the destruction of the Vendôme Column, the Communards abolished night-work for bakers. Similarly, with today’s workplaces ruled by the of tyranny of flexibility and an omnipresent duty of neoliberal self-improvement, it’s easy to see why subjecting yourself to the sovereign power of your sourdough starter is psychically appealing to today’s workers rather than being a merely millennial habit.

As traditional or typical spaces of work have become dislodged – whether temporarily in the pandemic’s quarantine or more durably in changes to patterns of work over decades – work remains just as persistent, and work as an organisational regime extends into more and more of our everyday lives. As Work, Want, Work puts it, this is a world in which ‘your fun looks like work too. Your social media is a continually rolling modelling portfolio, show-reel and curriculum vitae’.  

The terrain of the Left’s contemporary debate about work is polarised and moralised: according to its contrary logic, you’ve either got into bed with the neoliberals who hate work and love UBI, just like you, or you’re a blinkered jobs-guarantee workerist with as serious an analysis of Fordism as a Lana Del Rey chorus.

Work Want Work is a theoretically rich intervention into a fight that takes itself so seriously it has ended up unserious. In place of mudslinging, it offers a critique of both positions: against nostalgia for an irrecoverable work regime but also against the structural problem of much post-work thought. This problem is that in proposing something as a possibility for the good life we might pursue in the absence of work, it can quickly become a prescription for what we should be doing.

This is most obvious in historical examples – William Morris’s invocation of a future of handicrafts and rosy-cheeked young women, or even in Adorno’s positive description of academic life, without a harmful divide between work and leisure – but is a problem with imagining the future more generally. 

Pfannebecker and Smith offer a sophisticated and convincing critique of both sides of the work debate, arguing against a moralising that sees desires as fixed rather than mutable, and a theorising that fails to see the possible variety of political openings a leftist leap of faith requires. This openness is the book’s strength. Drawing on the idea of désoeuvrement – unworking” – the authors develop a series of concepts to make sense of the paradox of contemporary work: that even as the possibilities of a career or stable job recede, work reasserts itself as the dominant fact of human social life.

One potential problem with foregrounding the ways in which non-work activities like leisure, like baking, become work-like is that the workplace itself moves from view. In some ways, this parallels an actual shift in work practices – what is the workplace when everywhere (your bedroom, a cafe) can become one? But keeping sight of the relationships of power that shape that workplace is crucial, even as the space of work extends. For this reason, it is a shame not to have the exciting, open and even joyous theorising in this book brought to bear on the third branch of the Left’s current work debates: domination and freedom within workplaces themselves. 

Thinking about work means thinking about desire, about how our desires are set to work, and about how work itself becomes a site of complex, contradictory desires. As a mass experiment in worklessness, lockdown has not been, for the most part, pleasurable. It has been a time suffused with anxiety, with the lie that governments exist to protect people becoming visible on a mass scale. It has been a moment in which, for some, the activity of work has been temporarily decreased, but it has not been a moment of désoeuvrement.

To challenge and overcome the logics of work, more is required than a pause. That said, the political space that even a minor reduction in working-time has propagated is worth remarking on; would the mass anti-racist uprisings have happened without the time afforded to their organisation through a reduction in work?

Such an experience of a temporary shut down of work points to new or renewed terrains of struggle which can open up in unexpected ways, and is a reminder of the ways in which politics has its own incandescence. Work Want Work manages to take seriously such an openness, creating, playfully and seriously new paths in an often too-closed set of debates, and, more crucially, in a world increasingly enclosed by work. In fact, the book is a reminder that to be serious, to think seriously, especially about the future might even require playfulness and openness.