The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself, by Peter Fleming
Part lecture, part call to arms, this study argues that work has become an addiction
Slippery slope: Tom Sellick as Magnum PI, taking his work to the beach
The Mythology of Work - How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself
Who needs dystopian novels when we’ve got nonfiction books like these? Peter Fleming’s The Mythology of Work doesn’t just paint a bleak portrait of modern life under late capitalism: it also holds that notions of the dignity of labour in the 21st century have become redundant, a joke. Work no longer produces surplus income; it exists to service myriad forms of infinite debt: student loans, mortgages, childcare fees, utility bills or credit-card and car-loan payments, not to mention expenses incurred by the very act of working.
This is a world in which the new Big Brother – your boss – has a 24-hour direct line to your brain stem via your BlackBerry, and recreational time has shrunk to a few hours in which to glug a bottle of wine or binge on a box set.
“The patent dysfunctions of building a world around our jobs (or lack thereof if we are unemployed) are now becoming clear,” Fleming writes. “We work, pay taxes, take care of the bills and commuting costs for one single reason: not to ‘survive’ but so that the governing elite gains its privileges for nothing. Our labour is designed to provide freedom for the rich.”
If that sounds a tad radical for a professor of business and society at City University London, cast your mind back to the 1970s concept of employment. Breadwinners were usually home by 6pm and rarely gave thought to the job until they clocked on again next morning. You paid your union dues and retired at 65. Weekends were for family, socialising and recreation.
Reaganomics and Thatcherism put an end to such postwar ideals. Then the computer boom kicked in. The geeks would inherit the earth. Definitions of employment changed fast. Freelancers aspired to reinvent themselves as corporations of one (“the branded self”, in Fleming’s words).
But as the millennium approached, the nature of work itself became more ephemeral. IT and marketing specialists and consultants replaced tradesmen and artisans; “bullshit jobs” replaced real ones.
Under the new neoliberal regime a job was no longer a job but a religion. Multinationals encouraged their employees to swear allegiance to the corporate ethos and take part in team-building weekends. Technological advances enabled constant connectivity. Workers took calls from the boss at 10pm on Saturday. Office life replicated “the psychological hang-ups, backbiting, mind games and spirit-crushing guilt at the heart of the modern family”.
The result, Fleming claims, is that the culture of work has become a pathology, a psychological addiction. Because we’re always contactable we’re never not at work. The job is an open prison. The well-trained drone feels guilty when he absconds to the beach for the weekend, panics if he takes a walk in the woods and discovers he’s got no mobile-phone signal.
Fleming terms this the I, Job syndrome, one that plays right into the hands of the capitalist overlords. In 21st-century professional life, notions of paid overtime and pensions have become quaint. Human- resources departments and managerial systems have replaced union representation. Zero-hour contracts are rife. No more job satisfaction, just a hamster wheel of repetitive and meaningless button-punching tasks performed in open-plan offices under the eye of harassed technocrats.
The Mythology of Work is a hybrid of a book, part sociopolitical lecture, part call to arms. It’s a detailed study, although the author declines to comment on government agencies massaging unemployment statistics by coercing jobseekers into working for multinational corporations. Nor does he examine the plague of experience-hungry interns prepared to work for free, displacing skilled workers – a sort of sanctioned scab labour. He also fails to note that management-speak has begun to infest schools, grooming the next generation for subservience.
The author deserves credit for sticking his neck out and suggesting solutions. For example, he proposes a surplus living wage of at least £30,000 (€40,000) and the transfer of all monopolistic and “oligopolistic” enterprises (railways, banks, healthcare providers, suppliers of water, electricity and food) into public hands. The bad news: such measures would require nothing less than a full-on social revolution. The good news? Such revolutions are often more achievable than we think.
Peter Murphy is author of Shall We Gather at the River and John the Revelator (Faber)