Labour Days

Your work doesn’t care about you. It couldn’t give a shit.

We’re all suffering from a mass delusion that our work is meaningful and significant

If your boss could replace you with an AI who never had to sleep you’d be gone quicker than you can say exit interview.  

We’re all suffering from a mass delusion that our work is meaningful and significant – I need to get back to the office to send some bullshit email to meet some arbitrary bureaucratic deadline for work which is SO ImPORtant. Where do you see yourself in five years well work work work until you burnout and become a watercooler anecdote the person who couldn’t hack it the quitter.

Perhaps I suffer from this delusion more than most because I’m a lawyer and we are one of the worst at glorifying our largely meaningless jobs. Every time I meet another lawyer at the High Court there’s a peacocking script you have to engage in ‘I’ve just been working all week on this case yaar I thought Asad Umar was still our FM’ or ‘you’re complaining about working Saturdays, I haven’t had a Sunday off since Jon Snow was stabbed’.

To paraphrase Fisher, it’s easier to imagine the apocalypse than it is to imagine a world where people don’t work. Work gives our lives meaning – it performs the role that community, religion, and family did before – taking all of our time and devotion.

How did we get to this point where our very existence is tied to our GDP? Where we’ve internalised the language of self-optimisation so much that we’ve become projects instead of subjects, constantly trying to maximise our productivity. We’ve allowed our work to define us to the exclusion of everything else. Where would our self-worth be if it wasn’t based on what we do for a living?

It’s easier to imagine the apocalypse than it is to imagine a world where people don’t work.

So let’s imagine it. You’ve found a wormhole in the time-space continuum. Machines now do your job and are better at it. You live off the money their labour produces – a basic income. What would you do with your time your energy your productivity – what’s left? What would you dooo?

Most people think they’d get bored, what is there to fill your days with without work? We’ve been reared to think we should be working all the time, without that our lives lack definition and discipline but isn’t that just such a sad indictment of our culture. Leisure has become a trivial and silly thing inhibiting efficiency – something to be indulged in sparingly to ‘recharge’ so you’re even more productive.

Bertrand Russell imagined a post-work world and wrote ‘In Praise of Idleness’ about a world where we only work for four hours a day. Every person with scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, every painter will be able to paint without starving never mind how good his pictures may be, young writers won’t have to write sensational pot-boilers and “above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.” Bertrand was writing in 1932 so missed things off that list that you’d need time for now like Netflix and instastories.

Russell’s ideas sounds great – we will all have to cultivate hobbies and interests to fill the time and do something a robot can’t do, like make art or write a novel. But without work as its antithesis, leisure time becomes just time and has less value. Much like the palliative power of a vacation – it’s a great distraction, something to look forward to and be blue over when you come back to work. But what’s the value of it when it doesn’t operate as a break from its opposite? The idea of an infinite vacation doesn’t appeal. Its emancipatory potential is stifling.

But maybe the fear of this unbridled liberty is what we need to create a new form of living. It’s absolute, open-ended nature will allow us to question the virtue and dignity we attached to work and what we should value now. Allow us to question what we produce and consume as a civilisation. What we want to collectively toil for. An opportunity to learn, socialise, flourish, pursue happiness.

That sounds terrifying.

The only point of reference I have are my monthly trips home on an old bus from Lahore to Abbottabad. The bus leaves at around noon and pulls into a small Abbottabad terminal seven hours later as dusk blooms into night. In Lahore, as the journey begins I start with a checklist in mind, a plan to make the time worthwhile but by the fifth hour my phone is out of charge and my laptop is lying defunct in my bag. The next two hours, as the sun sets through my window, are just spent trying to get somewhere – it’s not leisure time, it’s just empty time.

The AC is either too cold or non-existent. There’s a squeak coming from somewhere of plastic rubbing on plastic. I have to decline all offers of beverages from the bus attendant on account of my bitch-ass bladder that betrays me at the first sight of water. The sun sets further. I forgot my book at home, maybe on purpose.

Because it’s always at this point I actually think about my life – all the were’s, weren’ts, should’ves – and it’s utterly utterly depressing. But those hours are probably the only time I’m able to think with a mind uncluttered with opportunity cost calculations. This space between spaces is a chasm of productivity and efficiency and self-betterment. There is nothing to produce here, internet-less on a squeaky bus to Abbottabad. The only thing being cultivated is boredom.

Maybe Russell’s post-work vision will operate like that – a fertile ground we need in which we can actually give CPR to our feelings. Time emptied of to-do-lists or the ability to be productive. Time to just be.  

Until we get there I’ll be treating my job like it treats me; a bulb which gives light until it fuses.

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