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Wage Slavery, Bullshit, and the Good Infinite.

Work deploys a network of techniques and effects that make it seem inevitable and, where possible, pleasurable. Central among these effects is the diffusion of responsibility for the baseline need for work: everyone accepts, because everyone knows, that everyone must have a job. Bosses as much as subordinates are slaves to the larger servomechanisms of work, which are spectral and non-localizable. In effect, work is the largest self-regulation system the universe has so far manufactured, subjecting each of us to a generalized panopticon shadow under which we dare not do anything but work, or at least seem to be working, lest we fall prey to an obscure disapproval all the more powerful for being so.

The downturn of 2008 proved every anti-capitalist critic right. The system was bloated and spectral, borrowing on its borrowing, insuring its insurance, and skimming profit on every transaction. The FIRE sector--finance, insurance, real estate--had created the worst market bubble since the South Sea Company's 1720 collapse, and nobody should have been surprised when that latest party balloon of capital burst. And yet everybody was. It was as if a collective delusion had taken hold of the world's 7 billion souls, the opposite of group paranoia: an unshakable false belief in the reality of the system. The trouble was that, in the wake of the crisis, awareness of the system's untenability changed nothing.


The government bailout schemes--known as stimulus packages, a phrase that belongs in the pages of porn--effectively socialized some failing industries, saddling their collapse on taxpayers, even as it handed over billions of dollars to the people responsible for the bloat in the first place. Unemployment swept through vulnerable sectors in waves of layoffs and cutbacks, and "downturn" became an inarguable excuse for all manner of cost-saving action. Not only did nothing change in the system, the system emerged stronger than ever, now just more tangled in the enforced tax burdens and desperate job-seeking of individuals.

Capitalism is probably beyond large-scale change, but we should not waste this opportunity to interrogate its most fundamental idea: work. A curious sub-genre of writing washed up on the shore of this crisis, celebrating manual labour and tracing globalized foodstuffs and consumer products back to their origins in toil. (1) The problem with these efforts, despite their charms, is that they do not resist the idea of work in the first instance. The pleasures of craft or intricacies of production have their value; but they are no substitute for resistance. And no matter what the inevitabilists say, resistance to work is not futile. It may not overthrow capitalism, but it does highlight essential things about our predicament--philosophy's job ever.

The values of work are still dominant in far too much of life; indeed, these values have exercised their own kind of linguistic genius in creating a host of phrases, terms, and labels that bolster, rather than challenge, the dominance of work. Ideology is carried forward effectively by many vehicles, including narrative and language. The vocabulary of work is itself a kind of Trojan Horse within language itself, naturalizing and so making invisible some of the very dubious, if not evil, assumptions of the work idea. This is all the more true when economic times are bad, since work then becomes itself a scarce commodity. That makes people anxious, and the anxiety is taken up by work: Don't fire me! I don't want to be out of work! Work looms larger than ever, the assumed natural condition whose "loss" makes the non-working individual by definition a loser.



BERTRAND RUSSELL'S wry little book In Praise of Idleness (1932) is in fact more incisive about work than about idling, which he seems to view as the mere absence of work (what I would instead call slacking). Russell usefully defines work this way:
    Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or
   near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter;
   telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill
   paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. 

Russell goes on to note that "The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given." This second-order advice is what is meant by bureaucracy; and if two opposite kinds of advice are given at the same time, then it is known as politics. The skill needed for this last kind of work "is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising."

Very little needs to be added to this analysis except to note something crucial which Russell appears to miss: the greatest work of work is to disguise its essential nature. The grim ironists of the Third Reich were exceptionally forthright when they fixed the evil, mocking maxim Arbeit Macht Frei--"work shall make you free"--over the gates at Dachau and Auschwitz. We can only conclude that this was their idea of a sick joke, and that their ideological commitments were not with work at all, but with despair and extermination.

The real ideologists of work are never so transparent, nor so wry. But they are clever, because their genius is, in effect, to fix a different maxim over the whole of the world: work is fun! Or, to push the point to its logical conclusion, it's not work if it doesn't feel like work. And so celebrated workaholics excuse themselves from what is in fact an addiction, and in the same stroke implicate everyone else for not working hard enough. "Work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind," said that barrel of fun, Thomas Carlyle. "Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else," added J. M. Barrie, perhaps destabilizing his position on Peter Pan. And even the apparently insouciant Noel Coward argued that "Work is much more fun than fun." Really? Perhaps he meant to say, "what most people consider fun." But still. Claims like these just lay literary groundwork for the Fast Company work/play manoeuvre of the 1990s or the current, more honest, compete-or-die productivity language.

Work deploys a network of techniques and effects that make it seem inevitable and, where possible, pleasurable. Central among these effects is the diffusion of responsibility for the baseline need for work: everyone accepts, because everyone knows, that everyone must have a job. Bosses as much as subordinates are slaves to the larger servomechanisms of work, which are spectral and non-localizable. In effect, work is the largest self-regulation system the universe has so far manufactured, subjecting each of us to a generalized panopticon shadow under which we dare not do anything but work, or at least seem to be working, lest we fall prey to an obscure disapproval all the more powerful for being so. The work idea functions in the same manner as a visible surveillance camera, which need not even be hooked up to anything. No, let's go further: there need not even be a camera. Like the prisoners in the perfected version of Bentham's fiber-utilitarian jail, workers need no overseer because they watch themselves. There is no need for actual guards; when we submit to work, we are guard and guarded at once.

Offshoots of this system are somewhat more visible to scrutiny, and so tend to fetch the largest proportion of critical objection. A social theorist will challenge the premises of inevitability in market forces, or wonder whether economic "laws" are anything more than self-serving generalizations. These forays are important, but they leave the larger inevitabilities of work mostly untouched. In fact, such critical debates tend to reinforce the larger ideological victory of work, because they accept the baseline assumptions of it even in their criticisms. Thus does work neutralize, or indeed annex, critical energy from within the system. The cultural figure we call the slacker is the tragic hero here, a small-scale version of a Greek protagonist. In his mild resistance--long stays in the mailroom, theft of office supplies, forgery of timecards, ostentatious toting of empty files--the slacker cannot help but sustain the system. This is resistance, but of the wrong sort; it really is futile, because the system, whatever its official stance, loves slackers. They embody the work idea in their very objection. (2)


NONE of that will be news to anyone who has ever been within the demand-structure of a workplace. What is less clear is why we put up with it, why we don't resist more robustly. As Max Weber noted in his analysis of leadership under capitalism, any ideology must, if it is to succeed, give people reasons to act. It must offer a narrative of identity to those caught within its ambit, otherwise they will not continue to perform, and renew, its reality. As with most truly successful ideologies, the work idea latches on to a very basic feature of human existence: our character as social animals jostling for position. But Freud was precipitate when he argued, in Civilization and Its Discontents, that all human action was motivated by this narcissism of minor differences, the tiny distinctions between winner and loser. In fact, the recipe for action is that narcissism plus some tale of why the differences matter.

No tale can be too fanciful to sustain this outcome. Serbs and Croats may engage in bloody warfare over relatively trivial genetic or geographical difference, provided both sides accept the story of what the difference means. In the case of work, the evident genius lies in reifying what is actually fluid, namely social position and "elite" status within hierarchies. The most basic material conditions of work--office size and position, number of windows, attractiveness of assistant, cut of suit--are simultaneously the rewards and the ongoing indicators of status within this competition. Meanwhile, the competition sustains itself backward via credentialism: that is, the accumulation of degrees and certificates from "prestigious" schools and universities which, though often substantively unrelated to the work at hand, indicate appropriate elite grooming. These credentialist back-formations confirm the necessary feeling that a status outcome is earned, not merely conferred. Position without an attendant narrative of merit would not satisfy the ideological demand for action to seem meaningful.

The result is entrenched rather than circulating elites. The existence of elites is, in itself, neither easily avoidable nor obviously bad. The so-called Iron Law of Oligarchy states that "every field of human endeavour, every kind of organization, will always be led by a relatively small elite." This oligarchic tendency answers demands for efficiency and direction, but more basically it is agreeable to humans on a socio-evolutionary level. We like elite presence in our undertakings, and tend to fall into line behind it. But the narrative of merit in elite status tends to thwart circulation of elite membership, and encourage the false idea that such status is married to "intrinsic" qualities of the individual. In reality, the status is a kind of collective delusion, not unlike the one that sustains money, another key narrative of the system.


At this stage, it is possible to formulate "laws"--actually law-like generalizations--about the structure of a work-idea company, which is any company in thrall to the work idea, including (but not limited to) bureaucracies. Parkinson's, Pournelle's, and Moore's Laws of Bureaucracy may be viewed as derivatives of the Iron Law, understood as ways in which we can articulate how the system sustains itself and its entrenched elite. While expressly about bureaucracies, these generalizations speak to the inescapable bureaucratic element in all workplaces, even those that try to eschew that element. In short, they explicate the work idea even as that idea works to keep its precise contours implicit.

Parkinson's Law is minimalist in concept but wide in application. It states: "There need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned." This despite the lip service often paid to the norm of efficiency. Parkinson also identified two axiomatic underlying forces responsible for the growth in company staff: (1] "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals"; and (2) "Officials make work for each other." The second may be more familiar as the Time-Suck Axiom, which states that all meetings must generate further meetings. And so at a certain threshold we may observe that meetings are, for all intents and purposes, entirely self-generating, like consciousness. They do not need the humans who "hold" them at all, except to be present during the meeting and not doing anything else.

Examining the company structure at one level higher, that is, in the motivation of the individuals, the science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle proposed a theory he referred to as Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy. It states that "In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely." In other words, just as meetings become self-generating, so too does the company structure as a whole. The company becomes a norm of its own, conceptually distinct from whatever the company makes, does, or provides.

Once this occurs--most obvious in the notion of "company loyalty," with the required "team-building" weekends, ball caps, golf shirts, and logos--there will be positive incentives for position-seekers to neglect or even ignore other values ostensibly supported by the company. More seriously, if Pournelle's Law is correct, then these position-seekers will become the dominant position-holders, such that any norms outside "the company" will soon fade and disappear. The company is now a self-sustaining evolutionary entity, with no necessary goals beyond its own continued existence, to which end the desires of individual workers can be smoothly assimilated.

Moore's Laws take the analysis even further. If a bureaucracy is a servomechanism, its ability to process an error signal, and so generate corrective commands and drive the system away from error, is a function of the depth of the hierarchy. But instead of streamlining hierarchy and so making error-correction easier, bureaucracies do the opposite: they deepen the hierarchy, adding new error sensors but lessening the system's ability to respond to them. Large bureaucracies are inherently noisy systems whose very efforts to achieve goals make them noisier. Thus, Moore concludes, (1) large bureaucracies cannot possibly achieve their goals; as a result, (2) they will thrash about, causing damage.

He suggests five further laws. The power wielded by bureaucracies will tend to attach above-mean numbers of sociopaths to their ranks. Hence (3) large bureaucracies are evil. Because the mechanism of the system increases noise as it attempts to eliminate it, system members in contact with the rest of reality will be constrained by rigid, though self-defeating, rules. Thus (4) large bureaucracies are heartless. They are also (5) perverse, subordinating stated long-term goals to the short-term ambitions of the humans within the system; (6) immortal, because their non-achievement of goals makes them constantly replace worn-out human functionaries with new ones; and finally (7) boundless, since there is no theoretical limit to the increased noise, size, and complexity of an unsuccessful system.


So much for elites looking backward, justifying their place in the work-idea, and finding ever novel ways of expanding without succeeding. Pournelle's and Moore's laws highlight how, now looking forward, the picture is considerably more unnerving. The routine collection of credentials, promotions, and employee-of-the-month honours in exchange for company loyalty masks a deeper existential conundrum--which is precisely what it is meant to do.

Consider: It is an axiom of status anxiety that the competition for position has no end--save, temporarily, when a scapegoat is found. The scapegoat reaffirms everyone's status, however uneven, because he is beneath all. Hence many work narratives are miniature blame-quests. We come together as a company to fix guilt on one of our number, who is then publicly shamed and expelled. Jones filed a report filled with errors! Smith placed an absurdly large order, and the company is taking a bath! This makes us all feel better, and enhances our sense of mission, even if it produces nothing other than its own spectacle.

Blame-quests work admirably on their small scale. At larger scales, the narrative task is harder. What is the company for? What does it do? Here, as when a person confronts mortality, we teeter on the abyss. The company doesn't actually do much of anything. It is not for anything important. The restless forward movement of companies--here at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net, we are always moving on--is work's version of the Hegelian Bad Infinite, the meaningless nothing of empty everything. There is no point to what is being done, but it must be done anyway. The boredom of the average worker, especially in a large corporation, is the walking illustration of this meaninglessness. But boredom can lower productivity, so a large part of work's energy is expended in finding ways to palliate the boredom that is the necessary outcome of work in order to raise productivity: a sort of credit-default swap of the soul. Workaholism is the narcotic version of this, executed within the individual himself. The workaholic colonizes his own despair at the perceived emptiness of life--its non-productivity--by filling it in with work. (3)

It can be no surprise that the most searching critic of work, Karl Marx, perceived this Hegelian abyss at the heart of work. But Marx's theory of alienated labour, according to which our efforts and eventually ourselves become commodities bought and sold for profit to others, is just one note in a sustained chorus of opposition and resistance to work. "Never work," the Situationist Guy Debord commanded, articulating the baseline of opposition. Another Situationist slogan, the famous graffito of May 1968, reminded us that the order and hardness of the urban infrastructure masked a playful, open-ended sense of possibility that was even more fundamental: Sous les paves, la plage! Under the paving-stones, the beach!

Between Marx and Debord lies the great, neglected Georges Sorel, a counter-enlightenment and even counter-cultural voice whose influence can be seen to run into the likes of Debord, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara; but also Timothy Leafy, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey. Like many other radical critics, Sorel perceived the emptiness of the liberal promise of freedom once it becomes bound up with regimentation and bourgeoisification of everyday life. Sorel was a serial enthusiast, moving restlessly from cause to cause: a socialist, a Dreyfusard, an ascetic, an anti-Dreyfusard. In the first part of the twentieth century he settled on the labour movement as his home and proposed a general strike that would (in the words of Isaiah Berlin, who had tremendous respect for this against-the-grain thinker):
    call for the total overthrow of the entire abominable world of
   calculation, profit and loss, the treatment of human beings and
   their powers as commodities, as material for bureaucratic
   manipulation, the world of illusory consensus and social harmony,
   or economic and sociological experts no matter what master they
   serve, who treat men as subjects of statistical calculations,
   malleable "human material, forgetting that behind such
   there are living human beings." 

In other words, the whole modern shebang.

We might wonder, first, why such resistance is recurrently necessary but also, second, why it seems ever to fail. The answer lies in the evolutionary fact of language upgrade. In common with all ideologies, the work-idea understands that that victory is best which is achieved soonest, ideally before the processes of conscious thought are allowed to function. And so it is here that language emerges as the clear field of battle. Language acquisition is crucial to our evolutionary success because it aids highly complex coordination of action. But that same success hinges also on misdirection, deception, control, and happy illusion carried out by language, because these too make for coordinated action. Thus the upgrade is at the same time a downgrade: language allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality, but it also allows some of us to persuade others that appearances are realities. If there were no distinction, this would not matter; indeed, it would not be possible. Deception can only work if there is such a thing as truth, as Socrates demonstrated in the first book of Plato's Republic.

Jargon, slogans, euphemisms and terms of art are all weapons in the upgrade/downgrade tradition. We might class them together under the technical term bullshit, as analyzed by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. The routine refusal to speak with regard to the truth is called bullshit because evasion of normativity produces a kind of ordure, a dissemination of garbage, the scattering of shit. This is why, as Frankfurt reminds us, bullshit is far more threatening, and politically evil, than lying. The bullshitter "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are." (4)

Work language is full of bullshit. Special vigilance is needed about work bullshit because the second-order victory of work bullshit is that, in addition to having no regard for the truth, it passes itself off as innocuous or even beneficial. Especially in clever hands, the controlling elements of work are repackaged as liberatory, counter-cultural, subversive: you're a skatepunk rebel because you work seventy hours a week beta-testing videogames. This, we might say, is meta-bullshit. And so--far from what philosophers might assert or wish--this meta-bullshit and not truth is the norm governing most coordinated human activity under conditions of capital markets. Thus does bullshit meet, and become, filthy lucre; and of course, vice versa.

As the work idea works itself out in language, we observe a series of linked paradoxes in the work world: imprisonment via inclusion; denigration via celebration; obfuscation via explanation; conformity via distinction; failure via success; obedience via freedom; authority via breezy coolness. The manager is positioned as an "intellectual," a "visionary," even a "genius." "Creatives" are warehoused and petted. Demographics are labelled; products are categorized. Catchphrases, acronyms, proverbs, cliches, and sports metaphors are marshalled and deployed. Diffusion of sense through needless complexity, diffusion of responsibility through passive constructions, and elaborate celebration of minor achievements mark the language of work.

And so: Outsourcing. Repositioning Downsizing. Rebranding. Work the mission statement. Push the envelope. Think outside the box. Stay in the loop. See the forest and the trees. Note sagely that where there is smoke there is also fire. Casual Fridays! Smartwork! Hotdesking! The whole nine yards! Touchdown! You-topia!

These shopworn work-idea locutions have already been exposed, and mocked, such that we may think we know our enemy all too well. But the upgrade/downgrade is infinitely inventive. Even this glossary cannot be considered the final word on wage-slave verbiage. If The Idler's Glossary naively declared glossaries over, the present volume warns that the work of language care is never over.

YOU might think, at this point, that the solution to a language problem is a language solution. The very same inventiveness that marks the ideology of work can be met with a wry, subversive counterintelligence. Witness such portmanteau pun words as "slacktivism" or "crackberry" which mock, respectively, people who think that blogging is a form of political action and those who are in thrall to text messages the way some people are addicted to crack cocaine. Or observe the high linguistic style of office-bound protagonists from Douglas Coupland's Generation X (1991) to Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End (2007) and Ed Park's Personal Days (2008).

These books are hilarious, and laughter is always a release. But their humour is a sign of doom, not liberation. The "veal-fattening pen" label applied to those carpet-sided cubicles of the open-form office (Coupland) does nothing to change the facts of the office. Nor does calling office-mateyness an "air family" (Coupland again) make the false camaraderie any less spectral. Coupland was especially inventive and dry in his generation of neologisms, but reading a bare list of them shows the hollow heart of dread beneath the humour. (5) Indeed, the laughs render the facts more palatable by mixing humour into the scene of domination--a willing capitulation, consumed under the false sign of resistance. This applies to most of what we call slacking, a verb at least as old as 1530, when Jehan Palsgrave asked of a task-shirking friend "Whye slacke you your busynesse thus?"

That was the main reason we were at pains to distinguish idling from slacking in the previous glossary. Slacking is consistent with the work idea; it does not subvert it, merely gives in by means of evasion. As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out a half-century ago in The Affluent Society (1958), such evasion is actually the pinnacle of corporate life:
    Indeed it is possible that the ancient art of evading work has been
   carried in our time to its highest level of sophistication, not to
   say elegance. One should not suppose that it is an accomplishment
   of any particular class, occupation, or profession. Apart from the
   universities where its practice has the standing of a scholarly
   rite, the art of genteel and elaborately concealed idleness may
   well reach its highest development in the upper executive reaches
   of the modern corporation. 

Galbraith's "idleness" is not to be confused with genuine idling, of course; the "concealed" that modifies the noun shows why. A slacking executive is no better, and also no worse, than the lowliest clerk hiding in the mailroom to avoid a meeting. But neither is idling, which calls for openness and joy.

And so here we confront again the Bad Infinite at the heart of work. What is it for? To produce desired goods and services. But these goods and services are, increasingly, the ones needed to maintain the system itself. The product of the work system is work, and spectres such as "profit" and "growth" are covers for the disheartening fact that, in Galbraith's words, "[a]s a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied." Which is only to echo Marcuse's and Arendt's well-known apercus that the basic creation of capitalism is superfluity- with the additional insight that capitalism must then create the demand to take up such superfluity. (6) Galbraith nails the contradiction at the heart of things: "But the case cannot stand if it is the process of satisfying wants that creates the wants. For then the individual who urges the importance of production to satisfy the wants is precisely in the position of the onlooker who applauds the efforts of the squirrel to keep abreast of the wheel that is propelled by his own efforts." (7)


STILL, all is not lost. There is a gift in the excess that the economy of work is constantly generating. Indeed, that gift is the growing aware., ness that there is always a gift economy that operates beneath, or beyond, the exchange economy. Any market economy is a failed attempt to distribute goods and services exactly where they are needed or desired, as and when they are needed and desired. That's all markets are, despite the pathological excrescences that lately attach to them: derivatives funds, advertising, shopping-as-leisure. If we had a perfect market, idling would be the norm, not the exception, because distribution would be frictionless. As Marcuse saw decades ago, most work is the result of inefficiency, not genuine need. This is all the more true in a FIRE-storm economy.

Paradoxically, idling is entirely consistent with capitalism's own internal logic -which logic of course implies, even if it never realizes, the end of capitalism. This insight turns the Bad Infinite of work into a Good Infinite, where we may begin to see things not as resources, ourselves not as consumers, and the world as a site of play rather than of work.


The great Marxist and Situationist critics of work hoped that critical theory-accurate analysis of the system's pathologies -would change the system. The latest crisis in capitalism has shown that it will not. But a system is made of individuals, just as a market is composed of individual choices and transactions. Don't change the system; change your life. Debord's "Never work" did not go far enough. Truly understand the nature of work and its language, and you may never even think of work again!
    Here lies the present paradox: work has totally triumphed over all
   other ways of existing, at the same time as workers have become
   superfluous. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization,
   automated and digital production have so progressed that they have
   almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in
   the manufacture of any product. We are living the paradox of a
   society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption
   and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed
   to distract us. 

It is perhaps no surprise that the authors, viewing this superfluous majority as set off against the self-colonization desires for "advancement" in the compliant minority, suggest that the current situation "introduces the risk that, in its idleness, [the majority] will set about sabotaging the machine" (The Coming Insurrection, pp. 46- 48).



(1) See, for example, Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft (Penguin, 2009) and Main de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (Pantheon, 2009). Andrew Ross summarizes the political puzzle posed by these books: "It is an unfortunate comment on the generous intellects of these two authors that they do not see fit to acknowledge, in their respective surveys of working life, the nobility of those who resist" ("Love Thy Labor," Bookforum, Fall 2009, p. 16).

(2) Corinne Maier's otherwise excellent Bonjour Laziness (Orion, 2005; trans. Greg Mosse), especially on the language of work, is unstable on this point. She acknowledges the work system is impervious to challenge, and yet finally urges: "rather than a 'new man', be a blob, a leftover, stubbornly resisting the pressure to conform, impervious to manipulation. Become the grain of sand that seizes up the whole machine, the sore thumb" (p. 117). This confused message would seem to indicate insufficient grasp of the slacker/idler distinction.

(3) More extreme measures can be imagined. In J.G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes (2000), bored executives at a sleek French corporate park are advised by a company psychiatrist that the solution to their lowered output is not psychotherapy but psychopathology: once they begin nocturnal sorties of violence on immigrant workers and prostitutes, productivity rates soar.

(4) Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005), a huge international bestseller which was in fact a repurposed version of a journal article Frankfurt had published many years earlier, included in his collection The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, 1988).

(5) See, for example,

(6) Arendt famously distinguishes work, labour, and action--the three aspects of the vita activa--in her magnum opus, .The Human Condition (1958). In this schema, labour operates to maintain the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing) and is unceasing; work fashions specific things or ends, and so is finite; and action is public display of the self in visible doings. Work as we are discussing it in the present essay is obscurely spread across these categories. As a result, Arendt could indict the emptiness of a society free from labour--the wasteland of consumer desire--but could not see how smoothly the work idea would fold itself back into that wasteland in the form of workaholism.

(7) Compare a more recent version of the argument, in the nihilistic words of the Invisible Committee, a group of radical French activists who published their antimanifesto, The Coming Insurrection, in 2009; it has been anonymously translated into English by Semiotext(e).

MARK KINGWELL is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and the author of fifteen books, most recently Glenn Gould (2009) in Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series. He is working on a book about democracy.
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Date:Jun 22, 2010
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