Life

Why Work Perpetually Sucks Under Capitalism

A Q&A with Amelia Horgan, author of 'Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism' about work culture, unions and why slacking at work feels so good.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB
June 11, 2021, 8:00am
A Q&A with Amelia Horgan, author of 'Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism' about work culture, unions and why messing around at work feels so good.
Image: VICE

When she was supposed to be writing her first book about the reality of work culture, Amelia Horgan was experiencing post-COVID viral fatigue. It was at its worst in summer 2020. “I just couldn't remember basic words, and you know when you're making a cup of tea and you stand while the kettle boils, I couldn't stand up for that long,” she says. “I've gotten a lot better since then but I'm definitely not back to how I was before.”

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The irony of writing a book about work while ill from the virus that was threatening the jobs of people across the country was not lost on her. “It meant that when I was writing the book, I couldn't work very much per day. Basically, my normal target was 250 words or something. So it was a very drawn-out process and quite scary.”

Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism explores many of the problems we have with work today. Why is it so difficult to get a job that doesn’t exploit us? Why does work fill us with anxiety and make us feel worthless? Why are the odds for fighting back stacked against us – and how can we try to make work better? Her aim was to write a book that explained problems with work to young people, in a way that was both easily understandable and theoretically rich.

The Cult of Busyness

I interviewed Horgan about Lost In Work, the power of unions and why wasting time messing around at work feels so good.

VICE: I still feel quite surprised by the prominence of working from home, when it was framed before the pandemic as so beyond the realms of imagination or possibility, even for people with chronic illness. And now it’s opened up as a more permanent option, if workplaces and managers are flexible in certain industries. 
Amelia Horgan: It’s really interesting, that dynamic. There's also a big question mark over whether we're gonna see more workplace monitoring, because in many ways it's cheaper for employers to let people work at home. But the cost is that control. It’s kind of frowned upon to have that intense monitoring but there's a lot of interest in this technology. Perhaps if it is brought in, it will be under the guise of wellbeing rather than, you know, spying [laughs]. But that's a worry about future dynamics. It'd be interesting to see whether that continues, and how employers respond to this longer term and what workers can do to resist that remote control. It's the merging of the two spaces [then] which is really, really troubling.

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I know your PhD is in philosophy, but how did you become initially interested in work?
This is somewhere we spend a huge amount of our lives and the discussion on it was often quite limited. Less so now: public discussion as well as discussion within academic philosophy moved on a few years ago. Work was seen as natural, neutral. There might be abuses in some parts or there might be really exploitative practices, but in general, we don't need to be particularly worried about it. And that seemed very odd to me. There's so much of a kind of unfreedom there. The book also seemed like a really good opportunity to talk about capitalism in some detail.

You describe good work as being “well paid, secure and fulfilling”. How did you come to that conclusion? How do we define work as fulfilling when nearly everything about modern life, including work, feels bad most of the time?
There’s stuff which is just more observable: control over the conditions, pay, knowing when you'll be able to go into work, having some kind of autonomy over the tasks. That kind of stuff is really easy to point to. The question of fulfilling is hard. When I talk about good work, I'm interested in it as a phenomena, which is disappearing. So the possibility of that kind of full-time secure work, where you have an ability to find some kind of meaning or enjoyment in it, or you have some kind of control of the task you do, when you do them. In some ways we seem to be getting quite a bifurcated job market with fewer of these lovely jobs, and more and more of the jobs which have less control over the conditions.

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But the question of whether any job can be good under capitalism is an interesting one as well. If we imagine a professional musician, they have to play particular things in particular ways. Despite the activity being close to “ideal” or the “dream” they still do not generally have control over the conditions of what they're doing. They’re still alienated. Even though there's a distribution of work with some jobs having better conditions and more potential for finding meaning than others, the nature of capitalism is such that the real possibility of freedom and truly wonderful activity is more or less precluded for everyone.

Amelia Horgan, Lost in Work

The “we're a family” rhetoric from management has dominated workspaces over the last five or so years. I was wondering if through your research you discovered when that sort of way of speaking began as a way of management controlling staff.
It operates in different ways in different sectors. That kind of pull has always been there for something where that work is relational or intimate, like a nanny or a carer. But in terms of its spread to sectors where it doesn't really make sense, I think it is relatively recent. The labour journalist Sarah Jaffe goes into the history of this change in her book Work Won’t Love You Back. The traditional Fordist workplace is super hierarchical. People wouldn't say we're a family, they'd be like, “this person manages me, that person manages them”. But the Fordist work pattern broke down, and was replaced by this more flexible work, which in some ways co-opted the critique of Fordist work, which was that it was boring, hierarchical and didn't offer freedom.

I guess a lot of this stuff comes from this kind of mythical, mythological Silicon Valley workplace, where things are especially non-hierarchical, everyone works together as a team. It seems perhaps most bizarre and ones where it's very obvious that people aren't a team or a family. It's hard if you work for a really small business, which is described as like a family business. That kind of manipulation can be used more effectively.

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I loved that you pointed out that with regards to fast fashion, the mainstream discussion is so centred around the ethics of consumption, rather than questioning the actual rights of people in these jobs. It’s very true.
It’s a really fascinating area of work, because it does seem like for so long the discussion was just “is it okay to buy this thing or is it not okay to buy this thing” or you know, that discussion when like, there were queues outside Primark, and it was “is it right that people are going to a shop”. It kind of misses the point. We focus on the on the consumption side rather than the production side and and it's not that like these consumer campaigns have no effect, but they don't have the effect that the trade unions and garment workers organising have. Some of the contemporary anti-fast fashion influencers do talk about the working conditions, but in general, it seems easier to find out about the living conditions of the sheep from which the wool of your jumper was made.

Especially with fast fashion, just the sheer cheapness of the clothes should point to some kind of quite worrying problem, right? How could it be possible that something is being sold for that cheap? There must be some kind of extreme exploitation going on. It is kind of hidden from us but at the same time, that inequality is always in the background, whether that's in Britain or globally. Even when people point to the cheapness of the things we can buy, that inequality isn't necessarily foregrounded in those discussions. 

I was really laughing through the resistance at work chapter, because whether it’s taking ages in the toilet on your phone to get a break or taking up smoking so you can doss about outside, you're not really supposed to do these things or admit to them. Were you surprised by the fact that this is going on across different industries and is it almost a universal impulse?
It comes back to this tug of war between workers not wanting to be completely wiped into the ground versus management and employers desperately trying to claw as much time from their workers as possible. Part of it is just that I'm quite a lazy person and I have always looked for the ways of doing this in any job and for the other people who do this in any job. And everywhere I've worked, I've seen that this is what people do. It’s coming up with a sneaky way to make it look like you're working on your computer screen. Or if you're in an office, making sure you're not the person who sits next to your team manager or whatever. And it does seem like a pretty universal impulse to resist that complete control over your time and that intensification of your work that comes from it comes from those particular work environments.

It’s interesting because we're not supposed to talk about it. But there's definitely this subtle coordination that goes on, so if you're all in a meeting together, you know that you don't let on how long something actually takes. And if someone says, “oh, that shouldn't take that long’” you're like, why have you said that? Or when someone's new, and they’re going to find out how long tasks actually should take or how difficult things actually are, there’s this interesting dynamic where you don't want people to spend how long things actually take.

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And if someone’s gunning for a promotion, you're thinking, stop doing so much because it's making everyone else look bad.
Exactly. This is especially a thing in career-y jobs that require effectively lots of free work or lots of sucking up to people above in higher positions. There’s a form of minor resistance in merely good enough at your job, and not having to try to constantly get better and constantly do everything faster. Just being like, no, I'm working to my contract and doing the things I'm supposed to do and nothing more. And resisting the intensification of work that way.

You present unions as a key way in which we can make work better. How can we encourage younger people to join unions?
There is sort of this massive propaganda against unions. Unions are seen greedy, as partial, as putting their members’ interests before everyone else. Whereas actually it's a kind of a “rising tide lifts all boats” thing. Improving working conditions helps other workers do the same in other workplaces. When attitudes towards tube drivers in the press are negative, it's “they've already got high salaries, why are they asking for more?”. Well, the reason they’ve got high salaries is because of years of really dedicated militant trade unionism. Fighting that ideological anti-union stuff is really important.

When we managed to get our union at VICE recognised, it made staff feel empowered. Because the political landscape was and is so bad, I know unions have the capacity to show young people that they can actually call out inequality and change people’s circumstances. And it's sad to think that so many young people might not experience that at work. 
I think you’re so right there, it's a really profound feeling. And it's so different to the really limited feelings of agency that people get through these consumer campaigns or whatever. It's being part of something that has this power, and that has this ability to change things within your workplace in a really serious way, it is such an amazing feeling. And rebuilding that from the kind of highest point of union membership back in the 70s, it's gonna be hard, especially when that has been destroyed. And it has been really, really attacked.

Successive governments basically did go to war with trade unions and broke up their power. And not for no reason. You don't you don't pick fights with someone for no reason. It's because they had the ability to really change things and to really build something better.

@hannahrosewens