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One of the most notable features of capitalist domination is the nature and necessity of work. Most adults spend most of their time and energy working; selling themselves for a wage and trying to meet goals they have not chosen. Clearly the experience of work is very different depending on where someone is and what they are doing, but it always takes our time from us and often links a sense of self-worth and respectability to the efficient execution of a job. The work ethic embeds the values of the system into the stories we tell ourselves about what is good and bad; it implies that being hard working (productive; efficient; disciplined) is better than following our desires or being critically engaged with the world. Like other ideologies, it grounds people who are afraid of ambiguity and gives them something to do every day so long as they are employed. What we do “for a living” comes to define us socially as we move through life whether or not it is connected to our interests. Even when the work we do does relate to something we are passionate about, it still serves, in its daily grind, to alienate us from our enthusiasm and limit the way we are able to think about what is possible.
The work machine is more all-encompassing than the experience of working; it creates a situation where we cannot easily satisfy our physical and emotional needs without a job and limits the ways in which we are able to enjoy time off. Work and leisure are two sides of the same machine, the lived manifestation of the production-consumption engine at the heart of capitalism. Leisure activities serve as a release valve for the pressure of work, encouraging people to associate satisfaction outside of work with products created by it. Whereas discipline and productivity are encouraged at work, distraction and consumption become the easy habits of leisure. Desires for products and mediated experiences are created and satisfied while people are encouraged to forget that they might desire to escape work and leisure altogether.
Many have described this problem and tried to posit elegant solutions, from Fourier s concept of passional attraction to Black s exhortation to be playful in “The Abolition of Work”. Recognizing our domination and imagining more joyful alternatives is interesting but figuring out how to motivate ourselves in the present without falling into the habits of work and leisure is not so clear. It is easy to say that we must learn to embrace a free sense of play rather than the moribund cycle of work and leisure; to follow desires that are not addressed by the system we reject. Practically, however, it has been difficult for me to distinguish my “authentic desires” from those that have been fed to me by capitalism or to determine whether my actions conform to the cycle of work and leisure or transcend it.
When I have tried to limit my interaction with the work machine, either by taking part-time, non career oriented jobs or finding ways to extend periods of planned or unplanned joblessness, I have usually made some attempt to reject concepts that I associate with the logic of work and to prioritize and embrace the things that bring me joy. I have tried to pursue my passions, enjoy my body, connect with people and follow my thoughts wherever they go.
The problem is that some of my desires need a regular focused practice to be achieved meaningfully. Without strategies in place for overcoming obstacles, I have tended to take the path of least resistance, indulging my most easily satisfied impulses. This feels good for a while, but frequently leaves me in a place that I do not find particularly interesting; unable to get through the books I want to read or make headway on the pieces I want to write. I end up feeling adrift; unwilling to infuse meaning into my life by accepting the tenets of the system and unable to figure out how to motivate myself without structures. I do not regret seeking to satisfy sensual desires and embrace self indulgence, but without a way to focus on other kinds of projects, the conversations, stories, and sexual pursuits become dull and rather than freeing myself from the machine, I find myself more completely ensnared.
Some people avoid slipping into aimless states of leisure by applying a strong work ethic to their non-work projects. They avoid critiquing the theoretical underpinnings of the work ethic and focus instead on rejecting the system s attempt to treat unpaid endeavors less seriously. This can be successful in a way but for most people the energy needed is unsustainable and it becomes more difficult to slip out of work mode when it is time to relax. Whether we struggle to buckle down and complete projects because we have not figured out how to be productive outside the context of work or prioritize getting things done so much that we do not examine the assumed logic that drives us for fear of breaking our momentum, we are stuck.
All desire has become tainted by the logic of capital; it is impossible to exist outside of the machine. This means that making decisions about which desires we pay attention to and how we choose to pursue them is not about escaping the system of work and capital unscathed but finding a way to live defiantly in it s midst; embracing the power we have to shape the stories we tell ourselves about what is necessary and important. In this context, the story about how all the tools that we might use to motivate ourselves should be discarded because they resemble the system s methods of control is just as useless as the story about how the machine can be dismantled without questioning its logic.
A more useful story is one that allows us to take apart the tools of the system and use some of the pieces to build new tools for our own autonomous purposes. Abandoning the complete rejection of concepts like self discipline, efficiency and productivity is not the same as the uncritical acceptance of these things as they are used by capitalism and being serious about our passions does not exclude absurdity, joviality, enjoyment, or a sense of play.
Devoting time, energy and resources to projects outside of institutions like schools, jobs or businesses can be difficult. Some people may be able to create a solitary practice of getting shit done through sheer will but most of us need some variety of structures and deadlines (even if they are self imposed) in order to meet our goals. My big non-work projects right now usually involve reading, research and writing. Setting up or joining established reading and writing groups with other people who have similar goals is one thing that helps me develop habits of taking these things seriously. Figuring out which alternate structures will best support our enthusiasms and cultivate habits of getting stuff done without amplifying the logic of the work machine is a process of getting to know ourselves honestly and having a clear sense of what we want to do.
I am for the creation of moments worth living and dying in. I want to experience the indulgent pleasure of a vacation and the accomplishment of a productive day at work every day. Rejecting the division between work and leisure necessitates the destruction of both. Work has already taken so much of our time, the projects that interest me are the ones that do not feel like drudgery. Finding and exploiting situations where we can transcend the boredom of the machine allows us to develop practices of taking things seriously and getting stuff done that amplifies our enjoyment of and connection to the world.