I’ve wanted to write a post about work for quite a while but haven’t been able to work it out because of work. So I’m going to justify it now on the grounds that, ultimately, blogging is work, a point I’ll return to in conclusion. To recap, then: Although I have too much work to do to be writing about work I’m going to let myself write about work anyway and call it work.

Exhausted? Me too.

I’m probably working harder right now than ever before in my career. So much for the notion that tenure means permanent vacation. And the biggest irony of all, of course, is that all this work is keeping me from getting my own work done — that is, from finishing the book I’m working on.

And yet I’m in a weirdly productive position to think about work, highlighted in some ways by the fact that I’m working, right now, in an expat situation where work — especially manual labor and service jobs — feels more visible than it does in the U.S. The situation of “workers” in the Gulf has received a lot of attention lately, due to Qatar’s successful World Cup bid. Because the country I live in also relies on a version of the kafala system for large portions of its workforce, some of these arguments — and stereotypes about workers and employers — feel a little familiar.


I’m not an international labor expert, though, nor am I really interested here in critiquing local labor policy. It’s not my job — or my place as a guest here. Plenty of other people are doing that work, and the attention given Qatar’s case is sure to put pressure, eventually, on many countries in the region to reform. Besides, I find it a little odd that some people get more worked up about labor issues in this region than in other parts of the world, something I think is linked to Islamophobia for some critics as much as it’s rooted in a genuine passion for social justice. I also wonder why less attention is paid to improving labor opportunities in the South Asian countries that supply so much labor in the Gulf than there is to unfair labor practices. Workers come here, obviously, because conditions are even worse at home, and yet left-minded HuffPo readers might not think much of toggling back and forth between a story about Gulf labor and a window in which they can order jeans from the Gap that were made by people whose labor is even less fairly compensated — and in worse working and living conditions — than that of construction workers in Qatar. Or they don’t think much about what would happen if all these construction and taxi-driving and domestic labor jobs just dried up. What would that do to already fragile economies in countries that supply these workers?

I really don’t have the training to know what to say about such things. Instead, I’m more interested in thinking through what living here has taught me about attitudes toward labor at home — in the U.S. For instance: I’ve realized that middle-class Americans really don’t like to watch manual labor in process, especially such fundamental jobs as custodial work. Janitors in the U.S. tend to work at night, after white-collar workers have abandoned the workplace. Anyone I know back home who has someone come in and clean — usually off the books — finds it impossible to be at home while that work is getting done. Euphemistically they “get out of her way.” I heard one woman in California this summer — not one of my friends, for what it’s worth — refer to the Mexican cleaners and gardeners she employs as “my little elves” who pull everything into shape while she’s at work. Again, Americans don’t like to watch people work for us. For this reason, it can feel initially unsettling to be in a place where janitors abound, ready to wipe down counters, mop floors, and collect litter. Americans are especially good, I think, at ignoring or normalizing work carried out by illegal immigrants or legal migrant laborers or convicts. How much of the food-growing sector, or the back-end labor in restaurants, or domestic service in the U.S. are conducted under the table relying on unregulated labor from illegal immigrants? Are these all just so many little Ragged Dicks, waiting to climb their way to small business ownership? Again, I don’t really have the training to quantify the comparison of legal migrant labor in the Gulf with illegal migrant labor in the U.S., and maybe there’s no point in making the comparison, but it’s hard not to, especially when you hear Americans get all uptight about labor issues elsewhere.

My daily confrontation with a substantial and visible migrant labor force — working- and middle-class — has certainly sharpened my awareness of my own place in the flows of global capital. Such awareness is another thing that also, somehow, seems less common in cities like New York or LA, where money, like labor, sometimes hides, than it is in newly rich Gulf cities, skyscrapers springing up by the dozen. When I go to the gym in the morning — in my own building (spoiled, I know) — I see a familiar set of faces, people who are employed in the building’s health club. Desk workers (who seem to be Lebanese, women who bring their children to work, or Filipinas, who generally enter the country for work leaving families behind), trainers and lifeguards (Egyptian), security guards making their morning rounds (also Egyptian for the most part), managers (Indian, in this case), and janitors (from Nepal, Bengladesh, or India). Over time I’ve become friendly with all of them, with the exception of the manager. I know most of their names and they know mine, or at least they know my kid’s name and refer to me as his father, or maybe they call me “Mr. B___.” The other day, after saying hello for over a year, I finally asked the morning janitor what his name is. It’s Salim. Middle-class families with white-collar professions from all the countries listed above also live in my building, and the jobs in the health club are by no means equal: a lifeguard’s lot may be boring — sitting up there all day while no one’s swimming, most hours — but Salim is constantly on his feet. He seems to get along with the rest, but I really have no idea what kinds of differences structure their own social relations. I’m sure they exist.

In any case, I’ve become more aware, over the last year, of the structural inequalities that allow me to be in a position to go to the gym in the morning or swim with my kid after school, options not open to some people I see working around me every day. We benefit unequally from flows of global capital, based on accidents of birth, access to education and financial systems, language acquisition, and other such things. Would they all rather be swimming or going to the gym or playing with their children? Probably. Would they rather be teaching my classes or sitting in the meetings I have to sit through? Maybe, maybe not. Would I rather be the beneficiary of an oil rich state, financially provided for without all the work I do? Maybe so. Nothing is clearer than the inequality of it all. I smile at these daily faces, say hi, call some by name, and on we go with our days. Structural inequality existed in New York too, of course, as it does just about everywhere I can think of, but for some reason Americans don’t get too worried about why some sectors of the economy are the special province of certain disenfranchised groups or illegal aliens. They mostly don’t ask where their gas comes from or whose blood, to paraphrase Nietzsche, is at the bottom of all good things.

As a result of such encounters, I feel slightly guilty when I complain about work, and then I feel guilty about feeling guilty, because that original guilt feels condescending somehow, as if I’m not imparting enough dignity to the people whose labor makes my life pretty damn comfortable. Who knows how many people back home are dependent on their wages? Who knows the relative comfort of their lives there and here? Who knows what honor they derive from gainful employment in a distant land? They do. I don’t.

I do know that in a post-Fordist economy like ours, everything’s work, which means that work never ends. (I’ve thought about this a lot ever since I taught this essay last spring.) It never stops. Working out — speaking of the gym — is part of work. We work on ourselves, brand ourselves, market ourselves, sell ourselves. We network, socially. Blogging’s work. Twitter’s work. The damn meeting I have to go to in 15 minutes is work. Time spent with family or friends, with gadgets switched off and attention focused, isn’t work, but it’s not easy to come by, either, and all the stuff we do to support those brief moments of leisure and love feels worth it in the end. I hope someday, when Salim takes home his wages and, with luck, has enough money to pay for a dowry, that he gets to say the same.

7 responses to “Work”

  1. Anony-Mo says:

    Having recently employed undoubtedly undocumented workers to perform manual labor (both skilled and unskilled), I have to say that much of this resonated with what I have been thinking about lately. The guys who have been doing the skilled labor are amazingly knowledgeable and do very good work. I can’t help but think that had they been born in this country and followed the same career path, they would be making much more money working for contractors (or even as contractors). That they weren’t makes them affordable to me, however, and I am the beneficiary. They may think of themselves as beneficiaries of the system but also its victims. Perhaps we all are both.

  2. Godfree says:

    Be forewarned: I didn’t edit this comment, and it goes on and on and on…

    What a lovely coincidence that you wrote this post on the very week that I’m teaching Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” Book 1, anyway! Being somewhat attracted to Marxism, I’ve so often discounted pro-capitalism arguments out of hand — Thomas Friedman’s ‘rising boats’ theory, for example, is such a vast oversimplification regarding the very real effect economic globalism has on people who live in more recently globalized countries. Lives are uprooted; ways of life destroyed; customs ended; families torn apart; and other effects like rising rates in STDs, drug addiction, spousal abuse, prostitution… I do understand that Mr. Friedman understands all of these things as well, and I’m not accusing him on intellectual simplicity, but his metaphor: rising boats. Oh how it grinds my gears!

    Anyway, so, I’ve been teaching Smith, and obviously thinking a whole lot about his argument — or really his observations regarding this rising thing: capitalism. I would like to point out this particular passage from TWON:

    The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer. . . is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country? How much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world? What a variety of labour, too, is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting- house, the brickmaker, the bricklayer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the millwright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them.

    Is this not an amazing observation — amazing, especially considering that it was written in the mid 18th C? But without boring you folks (the ones who’ve made it this far) any further. I’d like to, just for laughs, point out some of the positives that Smith sees in this think called the division of labour and the specialization of trade:

    1) One must consider that Smith is a man of the Enlightenment: he sees the promise of science, invention, philosophy, and so on as all leading to this thing that we take for granted: progress — the very idea that there is the possibility of a better tomorrow. By ‘better’ I mean that diseases will be cured, better bridges build, the secrets of nature revealed, and so on.

    2) Smith sees this division of labor as being key to the idea that if people don’t have to spend time doing things like making their own clothes or growing their own food then they will have more time to become better (more innovative) at what they do or specialize in. Here’s a contemporary example: I haven’t change my own oil for a long time. Why? Because it is so inexpensive to pay someone else to do it, and the benefit to this is that while I’m sitting in the lobby of my local Jiffy Fuck, I read, grade, or do some other such thing that makes me more efficient at what I do. If we add all of the time up that I have because there are other people to do these types of tasks, I have A LOT more time to become a better teacher. So what’s the point of this? According to Smith, I become a better teacher for my own self-interest, which is partially true. I teach because I get paid, but I become a better teacher because I love what I do, and because I love my students.

    3) And this brings me to the next point (maybe the final one). Who benefits from me becoming a better teacher? It is my students who benefit from me having more time by having Jiffy Fuck change my oil. So let’s take this back to that Enlightenment thing: Scientists can become better scientists if they have more time; philosophers can become better philosophers if they have more time; inventors can invent new technologies if they have more time. In short, progress happens because of this division of labor that permeates all levels of society.

    4) But yes, what of the people who do the shit jobs? I know; that’s the rub. There are shit jobs to do, and someone has to do them. I am glad that I am no longer working in the service industry! But here’s another thought. Yesterday, when I was teaching smith, I looked out at my community college class, which is composed of working class people like me, and I’ve come to realize what Smith really sees as the benefit of the DOL. It’s the democratization of intellectual endeavors. For example, if one of my students stops off on the way home to grab a bite to eat, that means that she doesn’t have to make her own dinner — someone else ‘specializes’ in that, so she has more time to study; more time to study means that she has a better chance of graduating college.

    5) So what does this all mean? That she has a better chance of contributing to this ‘progress’ thing! In other words, someone who would have been overlooked 50 years can now become someone who moves society forward. At least that’s the goal… So what I really like about this idea is that it strikes back at another political philosopher — Aristotle. By this, I mean that Aristotle’s argument for slavery is not only that some people are ‘naturally’ slaves, but also that without slaver, people like him (the elites) wouldn’t have time to figure shit out for the rest of us slobs. The key here is that we no longer need ‘elites’ to do this stuff, great ideas can come from different strata of our society.

    I certainly understand the huge problems that capitalism currently faces, the biggest being the environment and the vast wealth disparity that will likely lead to the disappearing of the middle class in the ‘developed’ world. But do I blame capitalism itself for these problems? I’m not so sure anymore. I think that people can be responsible regardless of the economic system in which they live. Perhaps this is all my way of justifying the shiny little trinkets that I own or the fact that I have cleaning elves. I don’t know, but I do love thinking about this stuff! Thanks for the post.

  3. LHD says:

    It was worth the work it took (and the work that didn’t get done) writing this post just to get this comment. Thank you, friend. I’ve never actually read Wealth of Nations and so I especially thank you for giving me that quote, which I’m sure I will use in many contexts for the rest of my life.

  4. LHD says:

    Godfree’s #4 is a tough one in the kind of global context I’m invoking, I think. When you work a 12-hr shift as a janitor or construction worker there’s not a lot of room for picking up food on the way home or taking night classes. If anything, you hope that kind of situation leads to someone else having a door later. But I do know, say, a Filipina housekeeper/nanny who is here to support not only her own kids (who live with her mother back home) but her sister’s family. Her relatively meager wages here allow her to put her niece through college. Similarly, I’m sure second-generation immigrants in the US have a better chance at education/upward mobility than their parents do.

    I’m with you re: the “be responsible wherever” argument, but it’s become harder and harder not to see the vast gulf that separates rich from poor, and how the rich (and even the disappearing middle classes) really do benefit from the cheap labor of people all over the world.

    The thing about the expanding reach of “work” in a post-Fordist economy is that I’m coming to resent all my work just going to make me a more productive member of the capitalist engine. Totally bums me out. But short of pulling up and moving into the woods and subsisting on ground roots and berries I don’t know how to get off this train, and for now I’m just trying to maximize my benefits in the name of keeping a family financially afloat. Pardon me while I go into the bathroom and cry now.

  5. LHD says:

    “really do benefit from the cheap labor of people all over the world,” he typed on his Macbook that was assembled by someone making next to nothing.

  6. Godfree says:

    I didn’t plan it out this way, but the same week I was teaching Smith, I was also teaching Immanuel Wallerstein. If you’re not familiar with his work, he argues that our current ‘world-system’ is simply a continuation of colonialism. Essentially, the argument goes that once the decolonization movement spread in the 50s and 60s, a system was in place for the same type of control over post-colonial societies. So, ‘Core’ states (the US, UK, Germany…) still have control over the same regions of the world (Africa, Central America, parts of Asia) because of 2 primary reasons:

    1) The undeveloped (or ‘Peripheral,’ as Wallerstein calls it) world still depends on the Core states for managerial and technical expertise because there were never firm systems of education or any real attempt at creating infrastructure in (most of) the colonies. So, for example, Nigeria still depends on corporations from Core states to drill, store, ship, and refine its oil.

    2) Because former colonies weren’t set up with the economic tools to exist in the world-system, they needed to borrow cash from the IMF (or some other lender). If you’re not familiar with the intended role of the IMF it is to give emergency loans to states that are teetering on the edge of collapse. Anyway, the IMF (as any lender) places conditions (‘conditionalities’) on loans. These conditionalities are usually attached to some type of ‘structural adjustment’ program, which includes: devaluing the state’s currency to make the state’s exports more attractive; lowering tariffs, subsidies, or any other type of ‘trade barrier;’ and (often) privatizing state-owned entities like oil companies.

    Anyway, the argument is that structural adjustment programs are simply a more effective type of imperialism because there is no need for physical coercion of the colonized state, but there is the same outcome — the Core’s control over economic and political policy of the Periphery.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Wallerstein’s observations, so yes, I absolutely see the inherent injustice in the system. But there is no need to worry, Wallerstein (and I) believe that our current system will last another 30-40 years max. Here’s a link to a brief interview with m’man Emmanuel:

  7. Dave says:

    Godfree, I’m so glad you brought up Wallerstein. To me, he represents a compelling counterpoint to the Adam Smith view of the division of labor. (I think what I find most compelling in Wallerstein in this regard is actually stuff he gets from Arrighi, or at least Arrighi expresses it with more theoretical clarity. But I’m just a dabbler here.) Basically, the classical view, derived from Smith, is that the division of labor allows a much more complex system of trade and manufacture to develop, and ultimately everyone is better off because there’s more and better stuff. The Wallerstein/Arrighi view is that, when you look at the division of labor in terms of core and periphery, it turns out that the prosperity of the core is actually an extractive prosperity, that is, a prosperity at the expense of the periphery. The global division of labor in the modern world system does create some benefit to the periphery, but it also exports a lot of problems to the periphery, like the way the metabolic processes of a cell or of an organism move energy to the center and then expel waste outward. So you see in the periphery huge amounts of state and non-state violence; poverty, famine, etc.; environmental degradation ranging from vulnerability to climate change to toxic building from manufacturing and resource-extraction processes; etc.

    (One of the many things I found fascinating when I watched this debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley recently was how Baldwin talks about this extractive inequality, mostly in respect to African Americans but also in a more generalized way.)

    To the OP:

    It’s very hard to grapple with the lived experience of the huge structural inequalities that we find ourselves embedded in. Simply acknowledging the inequality and keeping it present to mind is hard to do and unpleasant. LHD suggests that the very least we can do is treat everyone with respect and dignity. I agree with this. I also worry that it is a false comfort in some ways, letting me feel good about myself without really doing anything helpful, although I don’t actually think it’s nothing to be “democratic” about how one interacts with, say, service workers.

    I want to make an observation about the framing of the OP: I found it interesting that LHD declined to delve into the guest-worker issue because “It’s not my job — or my place as a guest here.” Then, after a paragraph of mild apologia, again a work-related refusal to go further in the analysis: “I really don’t have the training to know what to say about such things.” The writer is an academic, and it’s an admirable trait in academics to state when they don’t have the expertise to enter a discussion. (I obviously lack that trait.) And these are extremely complicated, troubling issues, so not having answers is perfectly understandable. But I find it interesting that looking at and attempting to understand the guest-worker situation, which is a specific instance of this generalized problem of capitalist inequality, is here framed as a type of “job” that requires specific “training” and is better not done at all than done poorly.

    And yet the author does attempt to grapple with the problems and with his own discomfort, and in fact the author’s non-expert “working through” of his observations about others and about himself constitute the essay itself. And sure, writing the essay is “work,” in a way, but it’s also something else. The pseudonymous author isn’t being paid for it, or even getting any career advancement from it. In fact, the essay isn’t part of the system of work as the author describes it, the system in which everyone does the best they can for themselves and their family within the (often shitty and unequal) context that is allotted to them. The essay is, in economic terms, a product of communism. It is offered freely as an outgrowth of the author’s abundance and as something that might help other humans. Its only place within the neoliberal system of work is the gap that created in the author’s work life — the time it took to write the essay in which the author was not doing productive, money-earning work.

    One way I try to deal with the injustice of the vertiginous inequality that we all experience is by insisting on certain minimal demands on myself, as someone who has a quite fortunate place within the world-system. One minimum is the “democratic address” to everyone, regardless of their station. Another minimum, which is harder, is looking at the situation and not blinking. A higher level of engagement, which I’m beginning to feel as a minimum requirement for myself, is some degree of solidarity, meaning not just thought but action. Of course it’s not clear what is the best form of solidarity for each person to engage in.

    Anyway, take this comment in the spirit of communism in which it’s offered. I have to go bill some hours now.