They Pay Us To Own Us
Foundational BQE Works: Work Won’t Love You Back (part I)
This post is part of “Foundational BQE works,” an occasional series of reactions to what I’ve dubbed canon works for anyone developing their “Big Quit Energy”—trying to beat workaholism, set boundaries, fight back against workhumpers, or simply seeking better attitudes on work.
If our work—and not our free choice—was all we sold away at our jobs, would we still be this bitter, and would I be writing this blog?
Of all the interesting takes in Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back, I’d like to start at how she defines “the working class”:
“Those with little individual power to set the terms of their labor.”
Notice she doesn’t define them by sector or income, but by how much choice they have at the workplace. Basically, working class = not the boss.
(Many managers are in the interesting position of being in both camps, “working class” because they don’t set the terms of their own job yet dictate the terms of those “below” them.)
The difference in agency at the heart of this definition, I believe, underlies most antiwork thinking and maybe even most anticapitalist thinking.
When “success” feels like dominating others
At the risk of sounding obvious, I’d like to make explicit a truth that goes with this definition: that bosses feel, to some degree, “ownership” over those who work for them. And they enjoy this feeling.
There’s evidence of this everywhere. For example, take the demand for constant availability. My boss looks to hire freelancers but complains that most aren’t “on call” at all times, ready like a home appliance to provide instant attention to their needs.
In more extreme cases, this demand spills into creepy neediness. I remember an “inspirational lunch and learn” where the speaker emphasized the importance of texting your boss back at 9 pm. “I don’t expect you to do work at that time, but at least answer me to show you care.” Who are you, my overbearing boyfriend?
I should note that enjoying power over others is, unfortunately, a very human trait that even “cool” bosses (and I do consider my boss a cool person) fall prey to, if just subconsciously. It’s intoxicating, and why Apple sold Siri to the masses as the wet dream of having a servant you can command—like elites get to do to real humans.
Post lockdown, many have pointed to this feeling as the main motivator for companies aggressively calling employees back to the office, even if it’s not necessary for the job.
Chris Thompson, from Defector:
“The point of getting workers back into the office is control. Why would you want your employees to have the agency to cleanly silo off work from the rest of their lives when you can keep under your watch, while also throwing the commercial real estate lobby a bone?”
All this, he points out, despite a “raft of studies” showing that people get more done at home.
Ed Zitron, across much of his writing, identifies this control as part of the “reward” of moving up the ladder, and argues that those who feel they’ve earned that reward lose the chance to enjoy it when they lose the office.
“…they’re so obsessed with the aesthetics of success…[they want the] satisfaction from being able to vaguely gesture to an office full of people, or to stomp through there when they’re in a bad mood with the knowledge that those around them will scatter out of fear of facing their wrath.
Without the office, [they’re] ultimately just another person walking on the street, even if they have nice shoes or an expensive haircut.
The unspoken definition of “success” as “power over others” is the crux of the issue. The glamour of calling the shots and seeing others spring to action. The unmistakable joy on my boss’s face when you scramble after they change their mind at the last minute. Again, I swear they’re cool—I see them as proof that this happens to the well-meaning.
Employers’ natural megalomania
If left unchecked, these relatively mild power trips slowly become more invasive demands on how you live your life, attempts by employers to expand into your home life. For example:
Employers not letting remote working parents choose for themselves how to handle their kids by demanding they contract daycare
Workplaces, like the New York Yankees, that dictate your appearance when it’s not functional to the job
Monitoring software to track whether you stay at your desk and move your computer mouse enough
You may say that the above are within the bounds of reason. I disagree, but fine. Let’s welcome back Jaffe, with a more totalitarian example: an all-American company dictating that your wife can’t work if you want to keep getting paid.
“Ford, as part of the Fordist compromise, would give a ‘family wage’ only if the [worker’s] wife had ‘full-time domesticity’ and would send investigators to check.”
By the way, Henry Ford also founded a whole city to impose midwestern American sensibilities and diets on Brazilian workers in the Amazon. And while yes, these examples are from the “bad old days,” the dream of employer-cities where work is constantly the backdrop of your life remains alive and well.
Owning the worker begins at home
This gets extra interesting when you consider that Jaffe spends a lot of the book talking about work in the domestic space, even though we don’t often think of it as work per-se.
“In the age of the “two-earner family” we hear a lot about “work-life balance” but not enough about how…“life” (code for “family”) often means “unpaid work.”
This expansive definition of work is fascinating unto itself, with implications including the idea that homemakers should be paid (I can’t do it justice here—you’ll need to read the book). But it also layers even more loaded connotations onto “ownership over the worker,” in line with how humanity has thought about marriage (as a property transfer) for most of history.
Through that lens, I understand the people who are against the institution of marriage a bit better. For many people (mostly women), marriage just another shitty job.
Let’s sell ONLY our work
All this gets at what’s fundamentally revolting to me about the job as an institution. Not so much the work part, but the “unspoken ownership” part--the lopsided relationship between who buys the work and who provides it.
As we make this distinction explicit for ourselves and others, perhaps we’ll make the “ownership perk” of being a boss increasingly embarrassing instead of a status symbol. Maybe then, employers will stop insisting on such an undignified arrangement as the default.
A final, friendly reminder, whether you’re an underpaid welder or an overpaid paper pusher like me: If you don’t own your own company and someone’s bossing you around, you are working class. Act like it.
We’re all on the same team and, short of abolishing work, our common goal should be to achieve conditions where we only sell our work, never our agency.