End of Work as Endtimes

Work, a topic that comes up a lot. The US is a society obsessed with work as identity and as a way of life, not just as a means to an end. We idealize work ethic, the greatest praise being that an individual is hard-working and the harshest criticism being that someone is lazy.

We broaden it as an entire cultural ethos, the supposed Protestant work ethic, even though Catholic Americans seem just as obsessed with work. The traditionally Catholic Hispanics used to be stereotyped as lazy, but I doubt that was ever true. The stereotype is now changing and Hispanics are perceived as hard-working, which is their ticket into mainstream American society and their pathway to assimilation not just as Americans but also into potential whiteness.

Black Americans, of course, aren’t given the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness, no matter their real or perceived work ethic. It has been assumed by centuries of whites that blacks are inherently lazy, a justification for slavery and then later forms of prejudice and oppression, including the reinstatement of slavery through chain gangs. The reality, however, is that the whites who complain the most about others being lazy are probably projecting. This country was built with the labor of minorities, along with poor (often ethnic) whites, both supposedly being without the proper work ethic of upper class WASPs. I imagine many of those upper class WASPs wouldn’t know real work if they ever saw it.

There is endless weirdness, besides bigotry, around American notions of work and all that goes with it. In recent years, some have begun to worry about the end of work. It is through work that we have defined our society. The end of work sounds like the end of the world as we know it, which I suppose is true. If machines took over most human work, then what would we do? The fear is the lazy masses, without anyone forcing them to work for survival, would just laze about and do nothing productive at all. We better build work camps to keep the masses occupied or else they might start thinking about creating a free, democratic society.

Even many left-wingers can’t seem to imagine anything genuinely different. Labor has been the pillar of left-wing politics for long before Marx was born. We talking about the lower class as the working class. That is what they are. They are what they do, work. They have no inherent value beyond that. Organizing the masses inevitably means labor organizing or so it has meant in generations past.

I get the sense that there is something odd about all this. It’s not just the obsession with work, as identity and ethic. It’s one of those issues that seems to be about something else entirely. Most of the time when people talk about work I don’t think they’re actually talking about work. It’s maybe a symbolic conflation, like abortion, pointing toward something else. That something else has to do with the social order and social control.

To give this some contrast, consider hunter-gatherers. They don’t worry about work. In fact, they do as little as possible for survival and they probably never think of it as work. Almost everything hunter-gatherers do is a social activity. It’s the social part, not the work part, that defines who they are. Hunter-gatherers don’t have specialization, as everyone does a little bit of everything. Besides, most of their time is spent doing social things, as the most important part of being human in a tribal society is the fact that you belong to a tribe. That is who you are. Work is only important for what it accomplishes for the tribe and one’s place in the tribe, not as an end in and of itself.

What if modern society ends up back where we all started? Hunter-gatherers don’t work that much in order to maintain their lifestyles. What if in the future we too won’t work much to maintain our lifestyles? Would that be such a horrible thing, that like hunter-gatherers we spent more time with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities?

The hyper-focus on work is one of the most bizarre aspects of modern society. If you can’t imagine life beyond work, the problem is in your mind not in the world. Just because cars will eventually start driving themselves, civilization isn’t going to collapse nor will the moral fiber of humanity be rent asunder. Calm down. I’m sure humanity will somehow survive the end of work.

Americans will probably find other ways to work endlessly, such as mowing their lawns more often. That is the future of the US, Americans mowing their lawns everyday because robots took over their jobs. Sure, those future Americans could buy one of the new fancy robot mowers, but then they’d lose all meaning to their existence. To preoccupy themselves, Americans will have mowing contests to prove their human worth and to prove their being part of respectable society.