On the Right to Criticize Work
7 min read

On the Right to Criticize Work

This article on the Independent's website got me thinking about the relationship between work and free speech. Since this was the only article on the Independent's website to get me thinking in the past year, I felt it safe to assume that this was blog-worthy.

The facts of the story were roughly this. A girl in Texas applied for a job in a pizzeria, was given the job in said pizzeria, swiftly went to Twitter to complain about having to start this "fuck ass" job and found herself soon being fired over Twitter for this infraction before her first shift. Now I think for most people the lesson here was one about responsible use of social media and knowledge of the limits of what its possible to declare in public. I took a different lesson from this. Namely that it is indicative of tendency towards curtailling free-speech in relation not only to individuals employers, but to the notion of work itself.

Now when it comes to the protection of free speech we've become much more proactive as a culture. As the whole Charlie Hebdo affair shows we don't as a culture believe it to be acceptable for individuals to exercise their right to free speech with the threats of suicide-murderers hanging over them. Quite rightly we don't think that the act of speech should entail a life or death choice. Yet we are comparatively less concerned about the idea that an act of speech contains a choice between for example employment or unemployment. As a culture we have effectively internalised the idea that we should be careful about what we say in relation to our employers, our jobs and our very notion of work lest we put them at risk.

Now I'm not too concerned in this article with simply the free speech implications of this. But it seems fairly evident that implicit in the exercise of free speech is the presence of some material security to speak freely and that this needs defending in equal measure.

Yet what seemed more interesting to me in this case was that the act of speech in question concerned work. In this case the girl in question managed to express nothing more than a  fairly expletive reluctance to undertake service-work in a Pizzeria. Yet what is so horrifying about such a reluctance? Who really is full of glee in anticipation of working in a Pizzeria or undertaking menial, repetitive or boring work, that is probably poorly paid and involves working unsocial or precarious hours? Is it not really the reaction that most of us have to the thought of such work? Was she not just expressing a rudimentary truth we all already know? If you read an essay as wonderful as E.P. Thompson's "Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism" its perhaps fair to describe such a reaction as completely normal and in no way pathological.

As Thompson describes, the idea of work as we have come to know it has its advent in the development of industrial capitalism. The notions of discipline, standard time and measured output is therefore not an inherent component of work but something peculiar to work undertaken within the remit of modern manufactures. By contrast Thompson will show how in the pre-modern economy of early 18th century England economic production worked to a different rhythm punctuated by holidays, Saints-days and days of rest, relatively loose deadlines (meaning that like most contemporary students work was pilled on as deadlines approached), freedom over their labour process, and stoppages necessitated by the technical limitations of the time. The work process was therefore one of intense bouts of labour which were swamped by periods of idleness. As an old rhyme has it:

You know that Munday is Sundayes brother;

Tuesday is such another;

Wednesday you must go to Church and pray;

Thursday is half-holiday;

On Friday it is too late to begin to spin;

The Saturday is half-holiday agen.

Well with a defeatist attitude like that  they'd never get anything done.  Or take this account Thompson references of John Houghton,

When the framework knitters or makers of silk stockings had a great price for their work, they have been observed seldom to work on Mondays and Tuesdays but to spend most of their time at the ale-house or nine-pins . . . The weavers, 'tis common with them to be drunk on Monday, have their head-ache on Tuesday, and their'tools out of order on Wednesday. As for the shoemakers, they'll rather be hanged than not remember St. Crispin on Monday . . . and it commonly holds as long as they have a penny of money or pennyworth of credit.

Now if you read the anthropological and historical literature its quite possible that such a culture of work isn't peculiar to a certain historical period but forms something like the normal working rhythm of human beings. And certainly if you read most accounts of human creativity there is a clear correspondence.

That we have designed a culture of work that is completely at odds with this tendency in human beings has certainly been said before, though perhaps is not reflected upon enough. But if this is something like a typical reaction to work, then even worse than this is that we have stopped people freely admitting such a reaction.

Implicit today is not simply the requirement to work, or even the requirement to work hard and well, but more than this, the requirement to affirm ones desire to work, ones enjoyment of work and ones wish for more work. Just imagine going to an interview and stating that you simply need the money or you didn't really wish to be working at the moment but knew you had to be for various contingent reasons, or complaining openly on social networks about why your work is tediously boring, your treatment poor, or the work completely pointless.Thanks however to growing unemployment and labour precarity we've all been included in a race to be the most enthusiastic which we can no longer control, and conscripted to be ideological spokespeople for a cause we don't as such care for or advertisers for jobs and companies we might wish to oppose.

Yet what this creates is a certain type of individual, an individual who has to consistently lead a double life, partake in double speak, and exist in a relationship of self-censorship with themselves.  It produces an individual who possesses what W.E.B. Du Bois termed a "double consciousness" as a permanent struggle between two antithetical identities. What this produces I think is a dominant tendency towards a sort of unhappy resignation. Individuals know very well a certain truth about work, they are also sure that all other individuals are certain of this truth aswell, nevertheless they are confronted by a world which is run on a completely antithetical principle to this truth. Worse than this they don't experience the suppression of this truth as coercion. There is no formal prohibition on speaking of your true feelings, and you are not forced to pronounce another truth you are rather solicited to join the sphere of work only if you really want to. With the choice between struggling outside of work or modifying oneself in order to participate in work individuals come then to freely suppress their true experience of work and throw themselves into . Yet insofar as this suppression is experienced as a free choice, their continued resistance to the prevailing notion of work doesn't meet an external authority but is expressed in an internal struggle in which individuals continually reproach themselves for accepting a given truth and solicit themselves to continually accept such a truth such that individuals come to turn against themselves. Now is not the worst of all possible worlds the world in which not only do you have to do what you do not wish to be doing, but you also have to freely accept that you want to do it. Not only do you have to work but you also have to immerse yourself in work and make it an expression of your life.

But imagine if we stopped playing this game of lip-service to work and freed ourselves to say what we really thought. To free up speech regarding work wouldn't I think just secure the right to criticize work it would also I think bring a whole series of important changes.

1. Individuals could exist in a more honest relationship with themselves. They could simply do that which they rationally know needs to be done without the requirement to be happy about it or endorse it. After all isn't it a strange principle of modern governance that in relation to an exercise of power individuals don't simply have to know it to be reasonable but have to actively be able to be in complete agreement with it. But why is such an endorsement so necessary?

2. Individuals would therefore be free to develop other life projects outside of the sphere of work.  And work becoming a rational contract would allow for individuals to make decisions on where it is to stand within their lives as regards to other goals. If individuals wish to free up their time to indulge in art they can do this freely without self-censorship.

3. You could gain work not on the basis of wanting work or being able to show a past desire to work but simply on the basis of an ability to undertake the work. Most of us will have undertaken menial or pointless work at some point in our lives, yes we don't like it and yes its a waste of time, but knowing this doesn't stop us from doing the work. Is it not better for work to become simply functional matter which wouldn't define an individuals sense of self or their identity but would allow for this to be developed outside of work.

4. Employers would be incentivised to improve the kinds of jobs they offer - exposed to open criticism of work itself, and particular forms of work isn't it possible that employers would increasingly seek to justify themselves to individuals, as opposed to the reverse?

Now its quite possible that such hopes are utopian, or would perhaps be only limited in effect without more fundamental changes. But i think even a modest change in perspective would be enough to develop a more rational perspective on work and an important expansion in the liberty available to individuals.

Couldn't we therefore instead of just fighting for better forms of work today fight instead for the right to criticize work? So that even if people might not wish to be doing their "fuck ass" job they can still keep it and that "because I need the money" would become a legitimate motivation for work. It would at least constitute progress of a sort.