Oscar Rickett at Vice UK interviewed me for this excellent piece on work’s changes and crappiness. I love it because he quotes me going on about Gramsci, but also because he talks about Oscar Wilde’s ideas on work. He writes:
“Our relationship to work can change under capitalism, because it has,” says the American journalist Sarah Jaffe, author of the forthcoming book Work Won’t Love You Back. “It can change. It might get worse.” Aidan Harper, researcher at the New Economics Foundation and co-author of The Case for a Four-Day Week, believes that cultural norms – “the natural conservatism that tends to believe that, if things change, it will be for the worse” – need to be overcome in order to bring about a shift in our attitude towards work.
Sarah Jaffe references the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci when she tells me that such assumptions are the product of history – material forces that shift with material conditions.
In the age of Fordism, Jaffe says, unionised American workers clocked in and clocked out. They didn’t have to pretend to love their work: it was often repetitive, but it paid pretty well and allowed for a decent standard of living. This was also deemed “men’s work”, and Jaffe sees a gendered change in the makeup of working class jobs today, with jobs in hospitals, social care and the service industry taking the place of heavy industry.
Today’s workplace, too, is defined by a culture that demands employees love what they do, buying into the company brand (one games company calls itself a “Fampany”) while being afforded far less job security. Either way, we are battling still against what the late Mark Fisher called “capitalist realism”, the idea that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative”.
In opposition to this, Jaffe’s book profiles a wide range of workers fighting for better conditions, and also shows how powerful the kind of hegemony Gramsci defined remains. Jaffe writes that she often asks people what they would do if they didn’t have to work, and that while she hears answers relating to spending more time with family and friends, or pursuing different interests, harassed workers tend to always return to the fact that a life without work is impossible and almost unthinkable.Read the whole thing at Vice