Saturday, 9 April 2011

Career is a four letter word

In 1985 Bob Black wrote an essay called “The Abolition of Work”. Erudite, entertaining and also lacking in any really substantial notions of precisely how and by whom work would be abolished its core argument is that man is effectively here to play not labour, he is homo ludens, and work is a self-reinforcing system of domination and oppression that colonizes the mind and forces this ludic spirit to atrophy.

Coming as it does in the mid-eighties The Abolition of Work stands at a kind of crossroads in the culture, the point at which the promise of the Sixties and Seventies, The Leisure Society is already evaporating and work itself (and workers) are being rebranded. As a fourteen year old in 1984 I remember watching, with mounting dismay, a Sunday afternoon discussion in which the notion of the Job Portfolio was introduced. In the future you will have to be a multi-tasker and omni-skilled: there will be no single job-for-life, you will take on multiple roles in your lifetime and be required to train–up and re-skill in order to do them. This was the precarity-to –come pitched as opportunity and innovation.

Work would now dominate life more than ever, it would no longer simply be thirty five hours of enforced drudgery but an endless and all-consuming quest. A part of the shift attendant on de-industrialization and Britain’s brave embracing of new economic models was the notion of “the career”, the “democratization” of this mode of self-realization. A career is something that only a few professionals used to have, people for whom work was a central concern, the rest of us just wanted a job, to work as little as possible and concentrate on those things that made life worth living: family friend, hobbies, reading, a spot of gardening, getting pissed, whatever your passion was, therein lay your real life, work itself was a un/necessary evil, a “four letter word”.

The rebranding of work required that work itself, now about to become more than ever the central anxiety and focus of existence, was regarded not as a nightmarish imposition but as an exciting adventure, a land of opportunity. Work is glamorous, dynamic, sexy, fun. Even prior to the full-flowering of the “creative industries” the distinction between work and play, between life and work was being elided. In lots of ways Black’s Homo Ludens and the neoliberal Homo Economicus look the same, the worker rescued from the factory and transformed into an entrepreneur (the entrepreneur being the highest form of human expression for the Austrians) a seeker after opportunity, a protean seller of self, not a slave or a serf but a liberated and fully realized individual dizzily and gratefully taking his place in the market. The entrepreneur and the careerist are those for whom work is the central life concern, for them the distinction between work and play doesn’t exist, as such one route to the abolition of work is the abolition of an anti-work, anti capitalist subjectivity. Try to think about it all differently.

Certainly work-as-play and the office/corporation as a dynamic social space has been remorselessly sold to us over the past thirty years, from The Secret Of My Success through to Sex and the City among innumerable and interminable others. The phrase “The Leisure Society” the term that was used in the post war period broadly dubbed “the age of affluence” to speculate on what would come next, was even laughably revived in the Nineties as one sector of the British public went on a credit card fuelled, cheap holiday, second homes and consumer tat binge, despite, as we all know, fewer people working longer hours for less money in real terms than they did in the Seventies.

Black’s notion is that we should work a few hours a day, that 95% of work is socially useless and that this should be made as much like free play as possible (Mining? Bob?! Working in A and E?) to limit its alienating and existentially damaging qualities, the neoliberal version trumps even this by simply positing the total elision of work via the limitless possibilities for self actualisation of the free market, as people like to say of sulky shop assistants ”if they don’t like this why don’t they do something else for a living?” Remake, remodel, retrain.

If you have a job, you only have yourself to blame.

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