Will the Anti-Workers of the World Unite to Invent a Better Tomorrow?
Much of the country reacted with curious disbelief in 2021 when numerous media outlets – from Business Insider (https://www.businessinsider.com/how-american-dream-changed-unraveled-housing-labor-supply-chain-shortage-2021-11) to The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/18/dont-rant-about-short-staffed-stores-supply-chain-woes-try-lower-expectations/) reacted to surging gas prices, labor shortages, and the limited availability of consumer goods at the grocery store by arguing that the collapse of the consumer economy had its upsides. The Washington Post celebrated the possibility that through such hardship, “spoiled” and “pampered” Americans might appropriately lower their expectations for convenience. Business Insider went even further in its piece, re-framing the crisis as the birth of a “new American dream” in which people don’t work and in which scarcity of goods induces people to live more frugally.
It’s important not to over-analyze these pieces. In large measure they are partisan editorials striving to spin negative news with the most positive possible take for the politicians on one side of the aisle. Most likely even their authors didn’t expect such messaging to stick with all but a scant portion of the American population. The publication of such pieces was a bit like throwing political darts.
Nevertheless, the messaging doesn’t come from nowhere. Anti-consumerism has long had some play within the electorate, and in the contemporary climate so too does anti-capitalism. If you’ve been on Reddit lately, you’ve probably seen that there are a lot of fed-up workers tired of low wages who might see labor shortages more as a triumph of the labor class than a crisis of the economy. Further, there are a lot of discontented Gen Z youth online discontented generally with their perceived lack of a stake in the economy overall. Who cares, then, if the whole house of cards collapses? Maybe a better version could replace it, they might argue.
Such sentiments are likely shocking to older participants in the country’s economy unfamiliar with many of the anti-capitalist and anti-societal movements brewing across the internet. Anti-work, for instance, is a movement pushing for the end not only of low-paid labor, but of labor overall. This separate piece in Business Insider (https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-antiwork-workers-quit-dont-work-strike-better-conditions-2021-11) frames de-participation in the economy in a positive light, its primary anecdote that of a father who, according to the article, has chosen no longer to pay for the expenses of his children’s upbringing because he didn’t want to put in the effort it would take to earn the money to do that. He lives rent-free in a trailer on his mother’s property. The piece frames the decision as part of a modern quest for “freedom” and the cornerstone of a movement seeking to abolish many aspects of the modern economy. Quizzical or not, at least a million souls who have joined the Anti-Work movement on Reddit apparently agree with the sentiment.
Anti-capitalist sentiment has transgressed further in other pieces to encompass nearly all of the features of modern society. This piece from Open Democracy (https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/coronavirus-crisis-shows-its-time-abolish-family/) explicitly calls for abolishing the nuclear family on grounds that it is unsafe. It draws from an extensive lexicon of terms recognizable from other anti-societal movements with explicitly dramatic language: “abolish”, “defund”, “dismantle”, and the like. Celebrities have canvassed Twitter with comments excusing shoplifting and vandalism as justifiable reactions to an unjust “system”.
Critics would likely concede that such sentiments may highlight legitimate areas for improvement within the current framework of modern society. They'd also likely argue that sentiments like “anti-work” and “anti-family”, which seek to leverage criticism of society as an excuse to quit or tear it all down, are absurd, naïve and unproductive responses that discount the many benefits wrought by modern civilization. They might dismiss the sentiments for taking for granted that the upsides of modern society are eternal guarantees, rather than acknowledging they require tremendous coordinated effort and shared sacrifice to sustain. In comparison to a hypothetical society without jobs, goods, and families, contemporary American society is remarkably prosperous, equitable, safe, and flush with choices and opportunities for everyone. Abandoning those things full-stop isn’t likely to lead to a better society. Much criticism of the “anti-work” and “anti-family” movements has come from those who have experienced more sinister alternatives, such as those who lived through the horrors and shortages of Soviet-occupied territories as little as three decades ago.
To such critics, the push for the dismantling of seemingly all aspects of our contemporary economy must seem like the inexplicable melting down of a society that upon the demise of the Soviet Union was widely recognized as the world’s greatest platform for the blissful cultivation of dreams. But if THIS American dream can’t make everyone happy, and incremental improvement, as many claim, isn’t enough to fix it, it does beg the question of what would comprise the “new American Dream” that gets built in its place. If the “New American Dream” means not having a job, not buying things, and not raising a family, what does the “New American Dream” actually look like? Surely it can’t be just a perpetual online life sharing tales of discontent with peers in the Metaverse. So what else? From the scraps of the melted down machine, what will be rebuilt in its place? How WILL we provide for the resourcing, development, logistics and distribution of critical goods and services, if we will at all? How WILL we acquire new things? And how WILL we raise children, if we bother in fact to care about them?
One interpretation of this sentiment for a “New American Dream”, if these articles are to be believed, is that it reflects a cultural yearning for something that recalibrates the balance away from Hamilton and more back toward Jefferson. Hamilton, famously, called for an industrialized American economy powered by banking and wage labor while Jefferson envisioned a nation of small, independent, and self-reliant farmers. Jefferson’s idea proved unrealistic over the first few decades of the 19th century, because running small farms took a lot of labor, and labor in those days meant having lots of children who inevitably grew up and didn’t want to stay on their parents’ farms. Wage labor was born because not everyone wanted to be a farmer or live at home, and America was better off for it. But wage labor seems to be a pressure point for the economy today. How, exactly, could we ever reach a truly satisfactory relationship between employers and workers? Is the only antidote to class conflict a dismantling of the wage labor system entirely and a return to Jefferson’s self-reliant farms? Most of us can barely fathom the antiquated-ness of a society in which everyone is a subsistence provider rather than a consumer of goods from a global economy. I’m not sure Jefferson’s America would offer the utopia the anti-work followers want. While he imagined a world of greater self-autonomy than we have today, neither Jefferson nor Hamilton envisioned a world without work at all. That, rather, is a new one.
Conceptualizing a “New American Dream” that is palatable to those in the Anti-Work movement is likely not going to be easy, nor is it likely to be the American Dream that actually shapes the next generation. At the end of the day the contemporary economy, which for all of the talk of automation still depends on human work, gives us too much in return to give up on it entirely. Incremental change to labor benefits is more likely, and at some price point most people from the so-called Great Resignation will go back to work. But conceptualizing the new Anti-Work American Dream is an interesting project.
Perhaps our universities can turn their attention from endlessly stoking criticism of the present economy to instead inspiring more ideation for incremental – as well as non-incremental – improvement for the future. That, at least, would let us compare alternatives. What would a world in which most people refuse to work actually look like? Mass starvation? Peaceful cooperation? Universal Basic Income? Universal automation? High wages for unskilled work? And what would become in such a scenario of the sentiments of those on the other side of the equation – the people whose labors fund the UBI or who are squeezed by seeing the relative de-valuation of their own more highly skilled labor for which they invested and accrued skills through years of training? It seems unlikely to lead to harmonious social bliss, and more likely to resemble something of many a failed state that has experimented with such collective egalitarianism, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring yet one more time. We might decide not to turn over the apple cart, but it might give us a few ideas for how to improve here in the moment.
If there’s one thing we can likely all agree on it’s that our world today contains a lot more sophistication and technology than the world of yesteryear. Our great grandparents would hardly recognize our world today. But what they would recognize, despite all the changes, is that after centuries’ worth of progress, social upheaval and cultural change, class conflict is forever a platform for resentment, its hypothetical solutions the fodder for the perpetual ideation of the utopian Imagineering class.
Despite per capita GDPs in this country approaching $70,000 per year, with sill robust social mobility, there will never be a ceiling to the inevitability that we could always do better. Meanwhile, it’s easier to forget the generations of failed efforts that preceded us that were worse. Rather, like Icarus, we’re likely to chase those stars until they burn us, but maybe this time we’ll hit it right, or at least get closer. But naïve reinvention upon reinvention of our world is a recurring, and often fatal temptation to the human condition. If we can imagine something better, let’s get to work imagining it. And then we can test it.
Or not. I’ve heard neither work nor tests are all that popular these days.
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