Pleasure Politics Part I: Employment, Economic Justice and the Erotic

This is a guest post by Taja Lindley. Taja is inspiring and aspiring wellness, creativity, and reproductive justice for women and girls of color. She is the founder of Colored Girls Hustle, a full-spectrum doula, a member of Echoing Ida, and a visual and performance artist. You can follow her on twitter or tumblr.

This is the first in a series that explores how women of color can live and work from a sustainable place of satisfaction and pleasure. It was originally posted at the Strong Families Blog.

Too often we are led to believe that work must be something separate from pleasure: that we are to do what we love on the side, in our spare time; that pleasure is an extra-curricular activity, a hobby, a side gig. As if only a privileged few are supposed to do work that is fulfilling and passion-driven. As if pleasure is a luxury, not a necessity.

Know: these are lies.

In the U.S. we have been conditioned to work to survive, to get by, to pay bills, to stay afloat, living a day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck existence. We have been conditioned to work most of our lives so we can enjoy pleasurable activities in our free time, pre-determined holidays, limited vacation and, if we’re lucky, during retirement. The U.S. “reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.”

Listen closely: when policymakers, public figures and the media talk about the current status of the economy and high unemployment, the discussion revolves around jobs. As it should: people are looking for work. But when the narrative around jobs is unconcerned with how work connects to the passion, purpose, ambitions and talents of workers, our economy does a disservice to our humanity and our creativity. The conversation reinforces a narrative that implies that any job will do. What about purpose? What about passion? Yes: we’ve got to feed our families, we’ve got to keep roofs over our heads, and there are bills to be paid. Survival is a primary need.

But we are so much more than our basic needs. In a world of haves and have nots, with widening disparities in wealth and income, the travesty of our global economy makes pleasurable work challenging to access. An economy organized in this way serves only the elite and powerful, whereby the majority of workers are employed and/or exploited to fill the vision and pockets of those who are already in power.

In short: systemic inequality makes pleasurable work more accessible for some than others.

As a policy and research fellow at a grassroots economic justice organization, I witnessed first-hand how this played out for long-term unemployed people on public assistance in New York. The sentiment that “any job will do” pushed many people on welfare into low-wage jobs with few (if any) benefits, and with little to no room for upward mobility. Case-workers were generally uninterested in helping people find the professional development and training programs that could help them move into the careers of their choice, opting instead to fulfill short-term goals of job-placement. Many case-workers were informed by stereotypes of the “undeserving poor,” their job responsibilities informed by public policies concerned with getting people off public assistance, not into satisfying work.

Beyond the safety net, there is still an indoctrination of working for necessity where people are encouraged to chase power, money and prestige and reserve pleasure for happy hours and vacation time. People are encouraged to embrace a lifestyle that costs just as much as their salary. It has its advantages: in exchange for a weekly commitment of at least 40 hours, you can pay off that exorbitant student loan debt and possibly save some money and accumulate wealth. Certainly, a savings account and strategic investments can pay-off in the long run, but high income and wealth does not equal happiness. What is our life worth when we sell it for only a few moments of pleasure?

In her essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde explains that the erotic is neither frivolous nor a luxury. She defines the erotic as:

a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings… an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing it’s power, in honor and in self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

Erotic autonomy, as suggested by Audre Lorde in her essay, is to live a fully embodied life where we are living our purpose and passions, and creating from our unique talents with an undeniable feeling of satisfaction. The erotic is the lens we use to scrutinize our choices so that we make decisions that support the fullest expressions of who we are.

So when we talk about the erotic as it applies to our work, it is about (re)claiming power over our lives and how we operate in this economy. It is a radical notion that values the talents, creativity and contributions of everyone, even those who have been marginalized and deemed unworthy of pleasurable work. Work that satisfies our internal desires and financial needs.

Wealth and purpose-driven hustles are not mutually exclusive. Imagine how different our world would be if people did work they were excited about, and not what they thought they had to do to get by. How might our economy change? What would be the meaning of work? How might there be more support for innovation and entrepreneurship, even amongst historically and currently marginalized and exploited communities?

Creating spaces and products that encourage people to feel good in their bodies is a critical part of my reproductive justice framework and an extension of my life work. So when I founded Colored Girls Hustle, it represented that erotic space for me: a place where I could be my authentic self as an artist and do work that affirmed women and girls of color. Part of Colored Girls Hustle’s work is to redefine “hustle” as passion and purpose driven. We create original media and feature women and girls color who hustle hard for their communities as artists, entrepreneurs, healers and activists. Colored Girls Hustle is actively contributing to a conversation about erotic expression and autonomy being an integral part of economic justice.

I hope you’ll join me in defining erotic autonomy within the context of work, prioritizing the erotic in economic justice for women and girls of color, and articulating the financially lucrative and sustainable ways this can manifest.

This blog post is the first part of how I want to contribute to this conversation. Stay tuned for the posts that follow and keep the conversation going with me on twitter and tumblr.

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80 comments for “Pleasure Politics Part I: Employment, Economic Justice and the Erotic

  1. June 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Great post, Taja!

    Check out Echoing Ida’s other fabulous writers and posts at

  2. EG
    June 10, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Love this piece! For me, the term “erotic” has too much baggage to be used this way, but I can do the necessary translation in my head.

    • Alexandra
      June 10, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      I don’t mind seeing the word erotic in this context because I primarily read and use the word in philosophic contexts (I studied Plato for a while), where it can be used to refer not only to sexual desire, but also to desire for beauty and wisdom. Sorry if you already knew this.

      • June 10, 2013 at 9:05 pm

        Thanks for the explanation! I tend to avoid philosophy like the plague (no judgment on philosophy, I just can’t wrap my head around non-Hindu thought there, and even the Hindu thought is the result of massive cultural exposure), so I was pretty confused.

      • Alexandra
        June 10, 2013 at 11:20 pm

        Well you know, a lot of people credit aspects of Platonic idealism to a Hindu influence. And definitely Plotinus had a Buddhist influence. ^.^

  3. June 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    “Imagine how different our world would be if people did work they were excited about, and not what they thought they had to do to get by.”

    Yes, but who does the crappy work that still needs to be done?

    • Alara Rogers
      June 10, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Some of it just doesn’t have to be done as paid work.

      Most states in the US allowed self-service gas stations. In states that don’t, one of the crappy jobs that needs to get done is pumping gas. In states that do, almost no one has to pump gas. There are still gas station attendants and every so often one might have to pump gas for a disabled customer, but no one has to stand out there in the fumes and pump gas for car after car.

      There are a lot of crap jobs that can be replaced with automation or self service. Right now, it may not be a good idea to replace those jobs, because at least they are jobs. But they are not jobs anyone should *have* to do, and it would be better to live in a world where everyone had access to what they needed to do what they loved and everyone could make a living that way, and those jobs did not need to exist.

      Obviously there will always be jobs that need to be done that probably no one wants to, but in a world where everyone does what they love, maybe those jobs are parceled in with other work that people do like.

      • June 10, 2013 at 11:53 pm

        But what other jobs are necessarily going to come into existence? Where are all the retail assistants and garbage collectors and plumbers and public servants and so on going to work?

        I live in Australia and our manufacturing sector has been gutted over the last three decades. It was all about how we were going to be the “smart country” and have an “information economy”. Trouble is, that doesn’t support nearly enough jobs, there isn’t the infrastructure to support the education needed, and people can’t necessarily afford said education anyway. Not everyone can be an IT whizz or whatever the career du jour is, even if everyone wanted to be.

      • Kyra
        June 11, 2013 at 2:35 am

        Why do there need to be more jobs, more work? Why can’t everyone just work less, and the jobs be split among everyone?

        The only reason any work needs to be done in the first place is to provide all the stuff (goods and services) we need to consume—because it won’t create itself. But if there’s a shortage of jobs to go around, making more work to correct the imbalance is solving the wrong problem.

        Sharing what work there is that has to be done would be better—including, perhaps, some degree of job-mixing—people spending ten hours on a less-pleasant but necessary job, twenty hours on work they find more enjoyable, and that’s all they need to do because once you eliminate the stuff that no one really NEEDS to do (the stuff that employers find convenient only because they can get it done for cheap) and split work between the entire workforce, there isn’t 40 hours per person anymore so the concept “full time” can get dropped down to 35, 30, or 25.

      • Taja Lindley
        June 12, 2013 at 2:55 pm

        I get your question: if there are jobs no one wants to do, what happens to getting that work done? Alara and Kyra had some great responses and suggestions… But lets not make assumptions about the work people will want or not want to do. I think it’s unfair to liken retail jobs, garbage pickup, plumbing and public sector jobs to “crappy jobs.” Some people may enjoy that work to some degree: for example, someone who works retail for a brand they support and respect, someone who is a plumber because they like to work with their hands, etc

    • June 10, 2013 at 9:24 pm

      ^ My thoughts exactly. There is not equal demand for all positions; and some of them are a lot more desired by job seekers than others, and always will be, even if all gave equal benefits and pay.

      Walmart is the largest employer in my state. How many people do you think are going to find their personal fulfilment working there? Yet they are the ones with the most demand, and I don’t see that changing. There is no way to turn Walmart’s job needs into an equal demand for more freelance artists or more avian veterinarians.

      And what about people like myself, who find work to be inherently unfulfilling? (That is, any act, regardless of how much I would typically enjoy it, is rendered unsatisfactory by the very commodification of the act.)

      All the buzzy phrases and positive slogans won’t change the realities of our work situations.

      • Donna L
        June 10, 2013 at 11:29 pm

        My former spouse, during our divorce process: “Work is a lifestyle that doesn’t appeal to me.”

        Hey. Me either.

      • Alexandra
        June 10, 2013 at 11:35 pm

        Hmm. I don’t know, I’m not deeply attached to the OP’s essay, but I saw her argument as having more of a Marxist thrust. I certainly know people who sincerely feel that the moment they are paid for their work and must do that work in order to survive, all the pleasure of the work goes out of it for them. But it’s one thing to say that when you are designing robots for the Navy, and quite another thing to say that when you are working a low-wage, menial job.

        I took the author’s point to be that alienation of labor is not something that we ought to accept unquestionably as a given – that it need not be the norm that most of us will toil in jobs where all of our efforts go to make other people rich, and where we achieve no tangible, lasting projects, have no hope of significant advancement, etc.

      • June 11, 2013 at 12:00 am

        Totally agree, Barnacle Strumpet. What’s the garbo I saw emptying the rubbish this morning going to do if his job disappears? It’s already been automated – one man instead of four or five. Where are those others working now?

        And what about people like myself, who find work to be inherently unfulfilling? (That is, any act, regardless of how much I would typically enjoy it, is rendered unsatisfactory by the very commodification of the act.)

        I feel very close to this. I can enjoy jobs to a greater or lesser degree – I’ve done things from dissecting specimens for a museum to correcting navigational charts – but it’s as much about the people and environment as the work itself.* I actively dislike doing anything that’s MINE for money. I’ve done a couple of commissioned artworks over the years and am knitting a jumper for pay now, and it just turns something done for my pleasure alone into a chore. When writing turned into “this has to be made into a book” I just stopped altogether; it was too much like being at school. I would much rather keep work, whatever it is, separate from things I do for pleasure alone. I don’t need pressure spoiling things that way.

        *As long as no figures are involved. They send my stress levels through the roof.

      • June 11, 2013 at 12:05 am

        You described my feelings on work exactly. It’s not that I’m lazy or opposed to working–it’s that anything, no matter how much I enjoy it, ceases to be as positive and pleasurable when it’s being turned into a matter of performance and service for other people.

        In general I like my work divided from my play. I don’t need stress and keeping a roof over my head dependant on how well I do the things I enjoy.

        Even with a guaranteed wage this will be the case, becase one’s reputation is at stake, as well as other people’s happiness.

      • Hrovitnir
        June 11, 2013 at 6:55 am

        I’m just going to reply right about here, why not?

        I personally feel that all else being equal (ha!) people tend to one degree or another be divided into live-to-work and work-to-live types.

        My partner is a work-to-live: he’s a regional manager, started off in the lab making paint, a few decades later is managing the factory making paint. He wants a job he can enjoy in as far as being good at it and having a good environment, and money to do the things he cares about.

        I am someone who thrives off the structure a job gives you and having a job I care about. I have worked as an animal caregiver at a shelter and been a vet nurse for about 6 or so years now: I’ve just gone back to uni to do genetics. I want a job I love.

        So I think in my paradise everyone would be given the opportunities to study and learn and excel, and menial jobs would be worth it in terms of hours, flexibility and pay. Plenty of people would be happy to do boring, physical work if they could afford to work 25 hours a week and make good money – and not be judged for it.

        And there are people who are awesome at customer service! Who would be happy serving people at the post office forever – if they got respect, flexibility and decent money. We do not value true retail “stars”, as much as companies so often demand it. Just because any idiot could do the job (not really) doesn’t mean they could do it well.

        This would require a rather different social system though, so I can’t see anything remotely like it happening. :(

        As a vet nurse I strongly resent the fact that jobs that are low paid are so often also low respect, high demand, crap hours… at least I enjoy the job and it’s respected but you work weekends and nights and public holidays, as well as 12 hour days when you get emergencies; and it’s a powerless position with the vet industry being so small and insular so there are lots of vets that have horrible working environments. You’re treated as disposable by bosses, are understaffed so taking time off is incredibly difficult on top of not being able to have time off over xmas (our summer holidays are also xmas here).

        Full time, I made 1/4 what my partner makes and worked harder most of the time, as he’s happy to admit.

        Never mind jobs like caregiving, which can be incredibly draining, and is barely above minimum wage.


      • Taja Lindley
        June 12, 2013 at 4:00 pm

        @Kitteh Yes, where you work makes just as much of an impact as what kind of work you do. Agreed. But let me ask: if you sold work you made already (on your own terms) would it be just as stressful (versus being commissioned for work)? If your basic needs were met, and work did not = survival, would doing something pleasurable for work still feel like a chore? Would you still feel pressure that spoiled your pleasure?

        And even if your answer is yes, the goal or point of my writing is not to say that you (or anyone else) cannot have pastimes, or that you HAVE to like your work, or that you HAVE to turn your hobby into a business. Having things you do just for yourself is perfectly fine and healthy. Everything you do for pleasure doesn’t have to be sold. And if you want to keep work and pleasure separate: good for you! But so many people are not making that decision for themselves, or do not have the means or resources to pursue pleasurable work, or have unquestionably bought into an idea that work has to be alienated from pleasure/joy/fulfillment.

        The questions I raise and the possibilities I consider are not gonna happen overnight, so the person who picked up your trash isn’t going to lose their job tomorrow. If you’d like to know what s/he would do for work if they could do something else: ask. Maybe they’d like to still pick up trash, maybe they have unrealized dreams of being/doing something else, or maybe they don’t know because they haven’t considered the possibility. I don’t know! I’m not here to say that garbage pick up is menial or crappy work, and I’m not here to say what everyone should be doing. What I’m asking readers to consider is what would it mean for you if joy and pleasure were serious considerations in your work.

      • June 12, 2013 at 8:38 pm

        @TajaLindley –

        @Kitteh Yes, where you work makes just as much of an impact as what kind of work you do. Agreed. But let me ask: if you sold work you made already (on your own terms) would it be just as stressful (versus being commissioned for work)? If your basic needs were met, and work did not = survival, would doing something pleasurable for work still feel like a chore? Would you still feel pressure that spoiled your pleasure?

        In short: yes, totally. Because the times I’ve done stuff on commission, and once for an exhibition/sale, it was just for extra cash. It wasn’t to live on.

        If I’m making something, it’s something I want to have, as well as to enjoy making. I don’t even get pleasure from making things as presents. Oh, I like giving them when they’re done, but the work itself (knitting a scarf and cap, for instance) just turns into another chore and I’ll put it off for as long as possible.

      • June 11, 2013 at 12:00 am

        @Alexandra: Yeah there are things about it I like and that I think are heading in the right direction…the problem is it’s buried in so much nothing.

        “Work can be erotic” = great! I can say work can be positively fucking orgasmic and if I don’t give a blueprint for that or any information based on reality I shouldn’t expect people who work for $7.25 an hour to get carpal tunnel, to pay me much attention.

        I’m hoping it’s the reliance on Audre Lorde’s fuzzy mystical bullshit ideas and wording that are bringing this post down, and that it won’t carry into the future ones. I like clarity. I don’t come home after working hard for peanuts to have to spend my little free time trying to wrap my head around some deliberately obscure, BS way of wording things because the author couldn’t spit out any real facts.

        This is a good post. This is complete and utter shite. I’m still not sure if Audre Lorde is using “psychic” literally or as a metaphor. Either way when a person starts talking about women being psychically oppressed I start to side-eye them.

        If the OP is wanting to appeal to your everyday downtrodden worker, quoting and imitating a writer you need an MFA to understand is not the way to go. Clarity is good. Sacrificing clarity for stylistic purposes is not the way to go when your intended audience is literally people who do not have time for BS.

      • June 11, 2013 at 12:30 am


        This. What sort of economy of any sort supports this airy-fairy stuff? Just how is everyone going to be cushioned from, oh, I dunno, things like climate change hitting farming at all levels? This has such a ring of the dreaded “first world problems” about it, like work for most of the people in the world has ever been sparkles and rainbows.

        “Work can be erotic” = great! I can say work can be positively fucking orgasmic and if I don’t give a blueprint for that or any information based on reality I shouldn’t expect people who work for $7.25 an hour to get carpal tunnel, to pay me much attention.

        BTW you owe me a cup of tea for that. ;)

        Me, I don’t care for the “erotic” bit at all. It seems to be extending the definition so broadly it’s meaningless. Work and sex, well, not unless my mind’s drifted right away from work to my beloved! Otherwise, eww, work and the erotic – maybe I should say “my erotic” – is even worse than mixing work and the pleasures that matter. Spoils one without adding anything to the other.

      • the_leanover
        June 11, 2013 at 9:03 am

        Fact-based direct clarity is important if the purpose of your writing is to directly communicate some clear facts, but if you think it’s the only important way of communicating then you might wanna give the entirety of literature and philosophy a wide berth. You don’t have to like someone’s style of writing, you don’t have to agree with their ideas, but this weird notion that any given blog or author is somehow obliged to write in a way that appeals to you because you don’t have time to bother trying to wrap your head around something new is kind of anti-intellectual bullshit. I mean, I’m not saying you should spend your free time trying to wrap your head around shit that you don’t get anything out of (for the same reason I don’t spend my free time reading physics journals, and for the same reason when a post comes up on Feministe or elsewhere that seems to have little interest or relevance to me I skim it or skip it) but no need to get so wound up about the fact that different ways of writing even exist. There are plenty of people – even people who work long hours in shitty jobs! – who are likely to get something out of it. And personally, I have little time for any movement that doesn’t have space for speculative and conceptual thinking as well as concrete fact-based policy proposal.

      • June 11, 2013 at 10:24 am

        Leanover, all you’re showing me is a lot of class and education privilege.

        “Stay away from literature and philosphy then”? Yeah sure. I was specifically talking about the fact that people without educational privilege have not been taught to interpret a bunch of code-words or literary tropes. The very fact that the word “erotic” is being used in a way that no one in this thread recognized except Alexandra, proves what I was saying. If she isn’t colleg-educated I’ll add another hat to my “to-eat” list.

        I like speculative and conceptual discussion as much as anyone; I don’t like it when it’s buried in BS or in code-words you have to be well-off and educated to understand.

        No one is obliged to write in any style for me, but I will call it out if someone is writing in a style that makes it inaccessible to a lot of people who haven’t been able to access further formal education.

        Even that aside, I’ve read Kant, Voltaire, Nietzche, and all of them were clearer about their ideas and aims, and easier to understand. And they wrote back when people would shit themselves if they saw a car coming down the street.

        Do not even TRY to claim that wanting ideas to be accessible to people with no education or with cognitive issues is “anti-intellectual bullshit”.

      • June 11, 2013 at 10:56 am

        then you might wanna give the entirety of literature and philosophy a wide berth

        Or, rather, I could ask for clarification, and expect a measure of using clear words in any article. Half the reason I have no intention of pursuing higher studies in literature is the number of literal gobbledygook articles that I have read in the course of undergrad research that somehow managed to get peer-reviewed and published. “Academic” is a synonym for “sounds fancy, seems good” way too often for me to conflate a call for clarity with anti-intellectualism. I mean…yes, obviously, the author of the piece gets to use whatever language they want to use, and I tend to take lack of knowledge of terminology in stride, myself, because I’m multilingual and I just don’t have the luxury, frankly, to wibble about every word I don’t know in every language I do. But there’s an overarching trend of “well, if you don’t get it, you’re a redneck plebe *sniff*” in academic writing that really pisses me off, and I don’t feel particularly like defending it even though I love reading the ideas put forward within its context.

      • June 11, 2013 at 11:03 am

        Like… I know this is probably a sacrilegious comment to make in feminist circles, and feel free to call me stupid, but am I the only one who ever read Judith Butler and came away primarily with “please put a period every two hundred words or so, commas are your friend, explain gooder”? Once I parsed the ideas, it wasn’t like they were difficult to understand, or even that revolutionary, personally, but the comprehension carnage caused by her inability to think in a straight line made me feel vaguely like Butler was inspired by this image.

        If the whole point of your (humanities, not talking about science here) writing style is to ensure that people need to have read fifteen philosophers and received two degrees in order to understand a word you’re saying, you’re either doing communication wrong, or you’re terrified they’ll find out you know fuck-all. That’s this anti-intellectual’s tl;dr.

      • EG
        June 11, 2013 at 11:22 am

        Mac, I want to push back against your aside that this applies to the humanities but not to the sciences. First, I agree that Butler is a dreadful writer, just dreadful. But that said…I don’t think I understand why the idea of expertise in the humanities is so offensive, particularly when you reference academic articles. Words that shorthand concepts that have been established professionally aren’t code-words; they’re specialist language. When I’ve spent many years of my life reading texts that are obscure to non-specialists but known in my area of expertise, why wouldn’t it make sense for me to cite those texts in my own writing? It does take time and resources to develop expertise, and education is rendered terribly inaccessible to most people, and that is true for any area of expertise, not just the intellectual. But that doesn’t mean that expertise and education don’t provide important concepts and epistemologies. Why is it so bad to use those concepts and that language? Why does humanities research have an obligation to be accessible to the non-professional while scientific research doesn’t?

      • June 11, 2013 at 11:35 am

        Why does humanities research have an obligation to be accessible to the non-professional while scientific research doesn’t?

        Sorry, I should have been more clear; I was trying to get across a) that I don’t know the sciences from a turnip and so to not extrapolate to that. Though also a b) that the whole “advanced degrees” issue with sciences has more to do with whether or not the knowledge is immediately accessible without context. For example, my reading Butler made it clear-ish to me that I don’t need extensive background in all those philosophers she cites, because I understood the concepts without having read them, once I got through the wharrgarbl prose, anyway. I don’t imagine I could attain a similar grasp over an article discussing some fine point of advanced physics without having any exposure to any of the theories a physics paper cites.

        It’s not expertise I’m pushing back against, or advanced terminology (which is why I, unlike Barnacle, don’t actually have a problem with OP’s use of terminology, even though I didn’t get it until Alexandra’s explanation). Terminology makes perfect sense, and I love a good shorthand as much as anyone. I’m pushing back against the ridiculous sesquipedalian loquaciousness that literature seems to support for no particular reason of clarity.

      • EG
        June 11, 2013 at 11:42 am

        Ah, then I think it’s a taste thing. I like loquaciousness!

      • June 11, 2013 at 11:47 am

        Ah, then I think it’s a taste thing. I like loquaciousness!

        Crap, the link didn’t get through! I meant to link it to the Tv Trope which is more about deliberate gobbledygook.

        I love it when it’s done right! I just seem to find it done right so very rarely in academia… but then I tend to like big words in fiction and small ones in technical writing, personally, so :P I guess my anti-intellectualism is showing. Also, I may be bitter because my texts for the fall just arrived, and I have a heapload of Fraud Freud to work through over the summer. (I’m taking a pre-req as a co-req thanks to this teacher, and this was part of the Deal, unfortunately.)

      • EG
        June 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

        Well, I also wonder if you’re undervaluing humanities specialization because you’re good at it. Believe me, there are plenty of people who don’t understand the concepts Butler is working with (and she is a particularly bad writer)–the fact that you do doesn’t mean those concepts are necessarily simple to understand without philosophical background; it probably means that you’re very good at this stuff (and as I’ve been following your writing and thinking on this blog for ages in internet-time, I STRONGLY suspect that you are very good at this stuff). Your strengths are strengths–I don’t know, for a long time I though that because things were easier for me, that meant they weren’t very hard or worthwhile at all. Apparently that’s not true, though!

        I don’t know if you’ve read Freud before; I find his writing simply beautiful–very clear, but also beautiful. But hell, tastes differ, and you may not.

        Anyway, apparently, good writing does not come easily or naturally to everybody, alas, and there are plenty of lousy writers in academe. But I tend to think that’s because it’s hard to write well, not because academia produces bad writers.

      • the_leanover
        June 11, 2013 at 1:13 pm

        As someone who’s pretty much hoping to make a career in academia, I absolutely do have education privilege, although my class privilege is a little more complex; I also happened to attend a university with a higher-than-average proportion of local and working-class students, and I have known many working-class people who have got an awful lot out of obscure academia. To be clear, that’s not to deny that class privilege is very much at the heart of academic institutions: it definitely is. However, there are two points I want to make here (and I’m trying to structure this because otherwise it’s going to become a rambling mess): firstly about the issue of jargon and accessibility, and secondly about clarity and creativity. So, first, terminology: while I agree that accessible debate and writing is an extremely important part of activism and social engagement, I also think that doesn’t mean that all writing that deals in social justice issues has to make itself accessible to absolutely everyone, because frankly that’s an impossible goal. Take the recent spate of whining about how words like ‘intersectionality’ (or, indeed, ‘privilege’) alienate working-class women from feminism. We all, presumably, agree that intersectionality is a terribly important concept, but can it not be argued that every time we use it without explanation, it makes our writing inaccessible to people who have never encountered academic feminism? Is it valid for a working-class white guy to ‘call out’ feminism’s inaccessibility when we use these codewords in most of our writing? (It may be worth mentioning, here, that scholars of race have often been the most successful at combining accessible activism with advanced academic work. Whether or not you like Audre Lorde’s writing, she was a really fucking important woman).

        I’m going to guess that part of your answer to that will be that terms like intersectionality are clearly defined concepts that can easily be wiki’d (though many would debate that point), while the language used in a post like this is nothing but bullshit, and that leads on to my second point. The issue I took with your post wasn’t that you didn’t like the writing; it was this notion that if writing is anything other than ‘clear’ in presenting a bunch of facts or proposals, it must be bad or useless writing. Now, I’m with EG on the fact that this is an issue of taste: speaking from an entirely personal place, I approach non-fiction essays as a form of literature in themselves (and that’s where I differ from you, mac: I don’t really see a blog post like this as ‘technical writing’ so much as critical writing, and to me good critical writing is more creative than technical). Sometimes I read blogs to find stuff out, but a lot of the time I read cultural critique as a creative springboard for ideas, a way of using words to make me think a little differently in the same way that fiction does. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I fucking love Butler and Haraway and Foucault while I have precisely zero time for Lacan or Deleuze, but it’s not because the former have greater clarity or stronger facts or are necessarily better: it’s because when I read them I find them exhilarating and fascinating and able to truly change the way I think about things. I also don’t think that people who despise Butler are stupid or wrong; it’s taste, and it’s what clicks with me, and it did far more to radicalise my politics that reading a dryly accessible factual article ever did.

        This is probably spillover territory now because I’m not precisely talking about this post so much as a general philosophy of writing, and the essay is one of my favourite literary forms and has had a huge impact on my political development, so it’s a bit of a personal thing. Again, I take no issue with your dislike of this particular piece of writing. I do take issue with the notion that all critical writing has an obligation to be stylistically bland for the sake of accessibility.

      • the_leanover
        June 11, 2013 at 1:18 pm

        Huge monster comment in mod, but in the meantime a big +1 to everything EG has said.

      • June 11, 2013 at 2:03 pm


        I’m interested in continuing this discussion (#spillover? If you could repost the huge comment there that would be awesome!), but I can’t always tell where you’re responding to Barnacle and where you’re responding to me, since you seem to be doing both…? At least that’s what I reckon, since I didn’t bring up class, etc.

      • June 11, 2013 at 8:55 pm

        @the_leanover – yanno, it’s funny, but I once emailed an actual-to-goodness historian asking him what he meant in an online article. He didn’t give me shit about not reading his stuff, or not being educated enough, or anything like that. He was chuffed at getting a fan letter, explained what he meant, and was amazed anyone had read his first book (on Cardinal Richelieu’s finances) ‘cos he said it was almost unreadable.

        Seems to me some people could learn from him.

      • the_leanover
        June 12, 2013 at 5:08 am

        I’m not sure where I’ve given anyone shit about not being educated enough, but he sounds like a very nice man. Though I’m gonna take a stab in the dark and say that you probably didn’t email him saying ‘why is your article full of airy-fairy bullshit, I like clarity and I don’t have time to wrap my head around your deliberate obscurity’. I am fully in favour of debate and discussion bringing greater clarity to the issues surrounding this piece or any other.

        @mac: yeah sorry, most of that was in response to Barnacle with a couple of asides to points you brought up. I guess it turned rambly after all.

      • June 12, 2013 at 9:05 am

        Crap, I didn’t respond to EG. Sorry, I didn’t see your post somehow!

        Thank you for the compliment; I suspect it’s probably at least somewhat true. (I’m a one-trick pony, but I think I do the trick well, lol.) I haven’t read Freud before, no, but I’m somewhat reassured by your recommendation. ^__^

        @the_leanover – Haraway and Foucault FTW!

      • Donna L
        June 12, 2013 at 12:02 pm

        I am told by my son that Freud’s writing — and I agree that he was a wonderful writer and an extremely creative thinker, whether or not one agrees with his various theories and conclusions — is actually clearer in German than in the English translation. Among other things, he used ordinary German words to describe concepts for which the translator invented new words. As one example, the Freudian term “the id” is simply the “Ich” — the “I” — in the original German.

      • Kyra
        June 11, 2013 at 2:50 am

        There is not equal demand for all positions; and some of them are a lot more desired by job seekers than others, and always will be, even if all gave equal benefits and pay.

        The answer to that is to play around with hours, pay, and working conditions until you get a sufficient number of willing applicants—and to rethink whether that particular job is really necessary in the first place.

        For example, more people would be willing to be garbage collectors if they only had to work at it 20 hours a week and that got them enough pay to live on comfortably. Or, more people would be willing to take it as a side gig for ten hours a week (and if it didn’t define the entirety of one’s job position, and thus a significant amount of one’s prestige).

        Have a job that’s boring or physically demanding? Offer shorter shifts and make it the norm for people to have two jobs—for example, warehouse work in the morning, and then the afternoon spent in a comfortable chair doing something more intellectually stimulating.

        Change certain aspects of the job to make it more pleasant—things like allowing cashiers to lounge in nice cushy seats, or having fast-food workers shift between four or five restaurants during the week so they can get a variety of free food.

      • June 11, 2013 at 3:01 am

        What about people living in areas where there isn’t that sort of flexibility? What about those physically isolated in rural areas, or high unemployment areas? It’s one thing to talk about ideals, but how is this supposed to be achieved?

        Anecdata: I have one job. It’s part time, thirty hours a week. But I have to commute five hours a day, almost as much time as I spend at work. Getting a second job isn’t going to happen, even if I were not fifty and with no tertiary education. I live in an outer suburb, because that’s what I can afford – but there’s no work here.

        It’s also fanciful, I think, to hope that businesses are going to pay higher wages for less time, especially in what’s bracketed as unskilled labour. It’s hard enough getting any sort of pay rise to go through for minimum wage earners now, without trying to cut their hours in any way that would allow them to work elsewhere if they wanted.

      • Ledasmom
        June 11, 2013 at 8:15 am

        For example, more people would be willing to be garbage collectors if they only had to work at it 20 hours a week and that got them enough pay to live on comfortably

        Show me the job where I only have to work 20 hours a week and I make enough to live on comfortably, and I am there.
        However, I think there’s too many shitty jobs for this to be generally viable.

      • the_leanover
        June 11, 2013 at 9:13 am

        Show me the job where I only have to work 20 hours a week and I make enough to live on comfortably, and I am there.

        I don’t think she’s suggesting that such a job exists. I think she’s suggesting that if we restructured our economy in such a way that it actually served the needs and wellbeing of the majority of human beings, instead of serving the abstract accumulation of capital and the associated necessity for growth and job creation for their own sake, then there wouldn’t be any actual practical need for people to work the absurd hours that they work right now. Of course it’s utopian; some days smashing patriarchy seems pretty fucking utopian too, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking and talking about other ways the world could be if we weren’t so deeply, inextricably entrenched in the shitty institutions that history has built for us.

      • Lyndsay
        June 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm

        “Change certain aspects of the job to make it more pleasant—things like allowing cashiers to lounge in nice cushy seats”

        They actually do this in many countries which was refreshing to see because when I was younger I did wonder why cashiers can’t sit down.

      • Ledasmom
        June 12, 2013 at 7:49 am

        It’s the sort of thing that I think of as an essential meanness. Providing more comfortable chairs for cashiers – or chairs, period – is going to cost so little. I mean it’s going to literally be less than the cost for toilet paper. There is absolutely no reason not to do it except a general idea that your cashiers aren’t deserving of basic human comforts. Well, that and not grasping the idea that low-wage job plus persistent back-ache from standing in one place for hours is worse than just having the low-wage job.
        N.B.: I am aware that many cashier stations are constructed on the assumption that the cashier will be at standing height. There is such a thing as a comfortable high stool.

      • Kyra
        June 11, 2013 at 2:58 am

        There is not equal demand for all positions; and some of them are a lot more desired by job seekers than others, and always will be, even if all gave equal benefits and pay.

        The answer to that is to play around with hours, pay, and working conditions until you get a sufficient number of willing applicants—and to rethink whether that particular job is really necessary in the first place.

        (Personally I’d say the answer is to get rid of Wal-Mart, which didn’t exactly rescue anywhere from high unemployment so much as it took over big chunks of the retail economy like a smiley-faced parasite. It may not be replaced with avian veterinarians and freelance artists, but its grocery department can be replaced with a Trader Joe’s, which pays its employees a LOT better, which gives those employees both more time and more money, with which they can indulge their interest in art, birds, or anything else.)

      • Ledasmom
        June 11, 2013 at 8:25 am

        Whereas I am all about Trader Joe’s, do they really serve the same population as the grocery section of Wal-Mart?
        (asks a person with little experience of the grocery section of Wal-Mart)
        I am asking because Trader Joe’s has a heavy emphasis on the sort of convenience foods that make cooking more convenient – that is, pre-chopped vegetables, frozen vegetable mixes and the like – which tend to be marketed slightly upscale, to those who have more money than time. That is not to say that you can’t get excellent bargains on basic foods: their frozen sliced leeks are a staple here, and their prices on fruit are comparable to or better than those of the supermarket across the way, though the selection is limited. Their greatest deficiency is in basic unimproved vegetables, meaning that you spend more to buy broccoli than at Shaw’s even though you are spending less for the same product (pre-chopped broccoli). They also, somewhat irrelevantly, have a history of dropping my particular favorites (the hazelnut chocolate spread! Why? Almond chocolate is not the same).

      • Willard
        June 11, 2013 at 1:52 pm

        Or keep Walmart, and make them take a hit to the bottom line by paying people better and stocking non-sweatshop stuff. The profitability of Walmart doesn’t come from any of the stuff that plenty of other retailers are guilty of, it’s their incredible inventory and supply chain management system. They’ve show with certain products in the past that they can eat a higher initial cost and counteract it by bringing their distribution infrastructure to bear.

      • Lucy Montrose
        June 12, 2013 at 8:57 am

        I found out that Whole Foods has an income requirement before they will open a new store in a given area. (although that may be changing; just Google “whole foods stores income neighborhood” and see stories of their first store in Detroit, as well as a broader push to open in lower-income areas.) Now, I’m lucky enough to live in an area flush with natural-foods stores; there are two big alternatives and several local alternatives to Whole Foods that, for the most part, are cheaper. I can see Sprouts or Trader Joe’s having an easier time making a go of it in low-income areas than Whole Foods. I also know of several empty big-box stores in my city at busy intersections, some empty for years, and think about what a great location those would be for a Trader Joe’s or other cheaper WF alternative. But some of these neighborhoods these empty stores are in have decidedly poor and elderly populations, and therefore may not pass such an income or demographics requirement. Location-wise, they’re great, though; and especially with WF’s likely relaxation of it’s standards it’s my hope they’ll reconsider.

        We ARE getting Trader Joe’s this fall, but so far only in parts of town that judged to have a lot of hipsters. That’s not enough, natural food retail industry.

      • June 12, 2013 at 11:13 am

        Trader Joe’s also has income and population requirements, although I don’t know that the specific figures have ever been published. It was recently announced that Alabama won’t be getting a Trader Joe’s any time soon for those reasons. So even in the largest city in Alabama, your choices are basically Whole Foods, Publix, Target, Piggly Wiggly, Walmart, and Western. And guess which of those are available within city limits.

      • Ledasmom
        June 13, 2013 at 7:57 am

        Unless Whole Food’s prices have come down a bit, they’re really not an alternative to other supermarkets. It’s not for nothing that they’re known as Whole Paycheck.
        I also have a grudge against them for swallowing up Bread and Circus, also expensive but with a much better name.
        I do miss the days when you could go into Bread and Circus or Trader Joe’s and pretty much have a meal off their free samples (everything from crackers, cheese, vegetable sticks, fruit to chocolate truffles). It may be that my older son and I were personally responsible for that becoming uneconomic.

  4. Slacker
    June 11, 2013 at 1:18 am

    I don’t buy it. The vast majority of jobs are things people get paid to do precisely because they aren’t much fun: they’re boring, tiring, physically unpleasant, stressful, or some combination thereof. For most jobs, that’s few to none. It’s going to be a lot of time until our society doesn’t need janitors or fire insurance claims adjusters or tech support reps or air traffic controllers, but those jobs aren’t very enjoyable and they’re never going to be.

    One way I think of it is to ask how many people would do something as a hobby if they had the time and resources to pursue whatever pastime/hobby they wanted. For most jobs, that’s few to none. By contrast, there’s not even such a job as “professional video game playtester,” because millions of people love playing video games and it’s easy to find people who will playtest for fun.

    I’m sure most jobs could be less tedious if the workplace were consciously redesigned with an end to improving the experience of the worker, but the idea that most jobs can be made “fulfilling and passion-driven” is a pipe dream.

    • Lucy Montrose
      June 12, 2013 at 9:12 am

      I’ve always wondered if the REAL managerial skill employers look for, is the ability to go without sleep and still perform at a high level. I think of all the white-collar workers taking pride in their ability to swear off the Z’s, the 60-hour-plus workweeks, the rampant use of ADHD drugs… And all the multiple jobs plus child rearing going on on the blue-collar side.
      Is what really separates top performers from mediocre ones, ability to think clearly and have a cheerful attitude while.getting less than six hours every night? Is that all it is? Because if that’s so, then I will never be a leader of anything, because I’m one of the unlucky ducks who HAS to get at least seven a night. Enjoy your better health and peace of mind, but welcome to the professional underclass.

      This should NOT be the determinant of who can be successful.

    • Ledasmom
      June 13, 2013 at 8:00 am

      It’s not actually thinking clearly on less than six hours of sleep. It’s being certain enough that you’re thinking clearly to go ahead with whatever you were thinking of doing.
      That is my five-hours-of-sleep-last-night theory, anyway. I think it’s clearly thought-out.

  5. June 11, 2013 at 9:47 am

    This blog post is the first part of how I want to contribute to this conversation.

    Seems to be the most relevant thing to me, here. I’d suggest holding off on critiques that hinge on “you didn’t say how” until seeing how OP does with that. This is pretty clearly an introduction.

  6. Datdamwuf
    June 11, 2013 at 10:27 am

    the work I dislike most is domestic, but I do get pleasure from a clean house – not the doing of it, the accomplishment. Too bad it has to be done over and over again :).

  7. xenu01
    June 11, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    This post is a very interesting thought experiment.

    In an ideal world, everyone would do what they like for exactly as long as they like to do it. I do see what has been said about menial jobs needing to be done by someone. I also do agree that it may be impossible for everyone to love their work.

    However, it is also true that un-degreed jobs are often seen as lower class for the reason that they are 1)lower paid 2)offer fewer or no benefits 3)often involve less power for negotiation in general/more potential for abuse of the employee by those in power over hir 4)often involve less hours in general.

    Think of the highly paid CEO. Why am I so jealous of this person? If they get cancer, they get state-of-the-art-care. If they are not feeling well, they stay home. They even get paid for it! They can go to the doctor because they feel like it, without having to weigh a complex cost/benefit scenario (how sick am I really?). They own their home. They either work <25 hrs per week or they work 40+ hours and love their job. If they DO get fired/laid off/quit, they get a generous severance package. Plus, they have savings accounts and investments which serve as a safety net.

    Here is what I would like to see:
    1. Cost of living goes down. Rent is directly proportional to how much space you are renting, and it is affordable to someone making minimum wage using the "1/4 of your income" formula.
    2. Every city in the country would offer IDs for people who don't have social security cards, like Oakland does. This would allow everyone to be able to get a bank account, and check cashing places would stop thriving. On that note, banks are no longer allowed to charge fees for checking transactions for those with low balances.
    3. The work-week is shrunk to 30 hours a week. Everyone is mandatorily given a certain number of paid! days off per year. They are required to use them. Employers pay a penalty if their employees do not use a certain percentage of their days off.
    4. Wages for work like housecleaning and janitorial work, retail and restaurant work go up. No more of this "your tips are your salary" nonsense.

    That's all I've got.

    • chana
      June 11, 2013 at 6:03 pm

      Good luck getting anyone to build any new housing or keep up the old housing stock with rent laws like that.

      • EG
        June 11, 2013 at 6:21 pm

        As things stand, the housing that gets built is housing I can’t afford, so that won’t make any difference to me.

      • chana
        June 12, 2013 at 11:42 am

        Au contraire! Every luxury condo that goes up downtown is full of people who won’t be gentrifying your neighborhood.

  8. AMM
    June 11, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Maybe I’m just having a grouchy day (or a grouchy life), but I just don’t buy it.

    First of all, the OP is clearly speaking from privilege. In order to have the option of choosing between more or less fulfilling work (let’s not even waste time on “erotic”), you have to have an enormous amont of privilege. For most people, the issue is not whether they can find fulfilling work, it’s whether they can find any work, however miserable, that will pay enough to survive and to provide for the people they care about. The traditional view of work — that it is a devil’s bargain by which one sacrifices a huge chunk of one’s life in return for a halfway decent life for one’s loved ones — makes a whole lot more sense if you’re in that situation. If you’re in that situation, even imagining that you could have “fulfillment” from work will just kill you — and in doing so, you will abandon your loved ones.

    Second, like others here, I don’t _want_ my job to be some orgasmic experience. It would be like having chocolate cake and ice cream for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’d rather reserve my erotic life for when I’m in the mood.

    • xenu01
      June 11, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      I do think, in defense of the OP, that her point was that people lacking privilege always get told they need to take work, whatever work, any work. What she is saying is that the ability to love your work shouldn’t just be for people with privilege.

      As a poor lacking in educational privilege, I believed and espoused that philosophy for the first ten years of my working life, and all it got me, over and over again, was overwork for terrible pay, health problems, smoking addiction (often the only excuse in blue collar jobs to take a break), and depression.

      • AMM
        June 12, 2013 at 9:58 am

        people lacking privilege always get told they need to take work, whatever work, any work. What she is saying is that the ability to love your work shouldn’t just be for people with privilege.

        The question is, what alternatives do people actually have?

        Right now, for a substantial fraction of the US population (and maybe elsewhere, too), their primary concern is not ending up on the street. They are quite reasonably more concerned with finding work that pays enough to keep them from destitution than whether they love the work, especially since finding anything at all is somewhere between difficult and impossible.

        I don’t object to the idea of giving people the option of work that they love (or at least don’t hate.) But first we need to give everyone (or almost everyone) the option of work that will keep the wolf from the door. And in the US, at least, we’re not only _not_ doing that, it’s gotten continuously and conspicuously (and IMHO intentionally) worse over the 6 decades of my life.

      • xenu01
        June 12, 2013 at 3:13 pm

        This is the collusion between the ideal and the current state of reality; the dreamer and the pragmatist.

        What alternatives do people have =/= what would our ideal society look like?

  9. AMM
    June 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Oh, the other point: it’s one of those “how wonderful life will be when we bell the cat” discussions.

    Has the OP seriously thought how we might get from where we are to this Utopia of “erotic work”? There have been many attempts to create a paradise on Earth, and so far, they’ve all failed. (The Marxist-Leninist “Workers’ Paradise” being only the most spectacular failure.) Before I listen to any more paeans to pie in the sky, I want some reason why, this time, we’re going to get a slice, and some evidence that it won’t just be a slice of food poisoning.

    • EG
      June 11, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      I suspect that’s why this is part “Part I,” rather than the whole thing.

    • June 11, 2013 at 8:59 pm

      Well said, AMM. This whole piece (part one regardless) just struck me as so much “first world problems” – and I don’t even like that phrase.

  10. Lucy Montrose
    June 12, 2013 at 2:30 am

    The part that concerns me is when companies try to capture our pleasure– turn our hobbies and pastimes into markers of workplace cultural fit. Facebook employees are expected to “sell” their personal lives as a way of selling the Facebook experience– both as a product and as a workplace. That induces a compulsoriness into our personal lives, turning them into job requirements.. or at the very least, badges of evidence that we are good, healthy, normal, happy enough, sociable enough… Human life as a competitor to work is the threat here, and it must be captured for corporate use… Facebook treats users’ personal activities as a series of opportunities to fill out the Facebook-owned social graph.from Dissent Magazine

    Americans are very good at turning desirables into requirements, and it’s our market values that drive this tendency. That’s what “the market” really does: induce businesses to act the same lest they lose their competitive edge. Health insurance companies may have started their pre-existing condition shtick with a bright idea from a single bright-eyed executive, but before long all health insurance companies were copycatting each other, because they HAD to or they would lose profits. The desirable became a requirement.

    I want to remain in control of my pastimes. So that they remain sources of relaxation, and not turn into yet another item I must tick on the employability checklist, yet another seal of Likeability and Interestingness. Because any playful thing that becomes something you have to do is no longer play.

    • June 12, 2013 at 4:58 am

      I want to remain in control of my pastimes. So that they remain sources of relaxation, and not turn into yet another item I must tick on the employability checklist, yet another seal of Likeability and Interestingness. Because any playful thing that becomes something you have to do is no longer play.

      THIS. So much this.

      That stuff about Facebook – ewww, ewww, ewww. I loathe that site anyway, for several reasons, but that is even worse. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the site whose users are its commodities treats its employees the same way. Gah, Zuckerberg, you ‘orrible little man.

      • Lucy Montrose
        June 12, 2013 at 8:37 am

        Exactly. It’s like all the stories I read about binge drinking at Silicon Valley work parties, and after-work networking sessions… It’s gotten to the point where if an activity is enjoyed by a majority of your workplace, or a majority of the executive staff, you wonder if it’s something you have to do; or risk losing your chance for a promotion, or even your job itself. Because you want to stay in the game, and that means doing whatever it takes to prove you “have soft skills” and “know how to have fun.”

        I actually wondered for a long time if I would have to get married just to prove I had a positive attitude and good people skills. Because, you know, of all the mounds of research saying married people were happier, humans as social creatures do better together than along, and let’s face it, having a loving life partner is a pretty big endorsement of your relate-ability. Now, this wouldn’t be such a problem in Silicon Valley, at least. But I imagine it would be elsewhere in the country, especially in the more religious states; and I wonder how many singles were passed over for jobs or promotions because “we need someone with as positive an attitude as possible.”

  11. mephistephanies
    June 12, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Frankly, this is exactly the kind of crap that has my old schoolmates working for $8 an hour, trying to pay off $200k in student loan debt because they “followed [their] dream” and got that degree in Sanskrit, or Ancient Egyptian Basket Weaving or whatever, and hey! Can’t find a decently paying job or support themselves.

    I went into Restaurant Management completely by accident, and I make twice their salaries with zero student loan debt. Is it the most fulfilling, erotic experience? No. Would I rather have gotten that Religious Studies degree, or Medieval Literature, or Classics or any of the other countless areas that really do it for me? Absolutely.

    But I need to eat, and more importantly, I need health insurance for myself and my son.

    I manage the working poor for a living. It sucks; the system is stacked against them in every conceivable way. Even though my company pays them a decent wage for their work (well above minimum), thanks to their union status, there are still myriad ways in which they are kept down. Limited literacy, for instance, or single parenthood that requires them to stay home with sick children (and lose their jobs over it). I have had employees that walk 20 miles one way at 5 am with three kids in tow. In Upstate New York. In January.

    What are we supposed to tell them? Follow your dream? Really? Most of them work 12 hour days and still need some form of public assistance. The full-time positions are fiercely sought and fought over. We are forced to promote based only on seniority, not on ability (Union again) and many of them become seriously disheartened at the lack of upward mobility for them.

    I find the idea of automating their jobs to help them both laughable, and appalling. There will always be a section of the population that cannot perform at the professional level, for a number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to earn a living for themselves. Social safety nets are awesome–I happen to think that Universal Healthcare would go a LONG way to solving a number of social ills–but we’re talking populations here; it isn’t going to be perfect, and we need to account for the people the system misses.

    We’ve heard the “follow your dream” schtick enough. A whole generation is being financially crippled by this motto as we speak, still having to live off their parents at the age 30. A fight for fair pay for “menial” work (though I cringe at calling it that; if you think plumbing is “menial”, you probably don’t know enough plumbers) is a good one. A fight for a broader social safety net that removes the link between work and benefits is a great one! But the whole tone of this post is condescending and dripping with privilege. If you think the answer to the liberation of the working poor is replacing them with robots, I am not sure there can be a serious conversation here.

    • Taja Lindley
      June 12, 2013 at 4:57 pm

      hmmm… I don’t agree that following dreams is solely responsible for a generation being financially cripple. I’m sure the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the predatory lending practices of banks and the student loan industry has something to do with that too.

      I do agree with you that significant changes in our social safety net makes a difference in how people can live and operate in the world. Removing the connection between work and benefits so people can have access to things like healthcare is not in opposition to what I’m suggesting. In fact, in order for an economy that values purpose and pleasure driven work, these kinds of changes are necessary (I’d even argue that in our current economy these things are necessary).

      I don’t think it’s condescending, or a perspective of privilege, to say that everyone deserves to do work they like. I think everyone’s life is valuable and worthy of fulfilling and satisfying work. Of course working poor people cannot up and quit jobs that they depend on to feed their families and keep a roof over their head. I never suggested that. I come from a community and a family that did (and still do) what we have to in order to survive. And I’ve seen the consequences of that, including illness, stress, panic attacks and other things. I think we deserve more. That isn’t privilege. That’s having self- love, valuing myself, and knowing that my life and the lives of my family and community are worth more than a paycheck. People shouldn’t have to walk 20 miles one way at 5 am with three kids in tow. In Upstate New York. In January. Nope. So the question becomes: what kinds of infrastructure, opportunities, leadership and public opinion do we need to have an economy that supports everyone’s ability to have fulfilling and satisfying work? To ensure that passion and purpose driven work isn’t only available to a few people? I saw some interesting suggestions in earlier comments. I’m not prescribing solutions. I’m generating and participating in a conversation about what this can look like. And I make it clear in my writing that I’m specifically interested in what this means for women of color.

      What I think is condescending is the tone of inevitability in which people describe low-income communities, what they think and what they consider… like “never have or pursue dreams because you cannot and never will be able to afford to” (kinda like the social workers I mentioned in my writing who are more concerned with pushing people off of public assistance into low-wage, low mobility jobs instead of helping them find education and training programs to do the work they want to do. so their desires for work are ignored)… or suggesting that woking poor people do not and will never have the skills to work other than what they do now.

      I think what makes folks uncomfortable about low/fixed/no income people being interested in doing pleasure filled work instead of so-called “menial” jobs is just that — who is going to do the work people stigmatize as menial and crappy and unfulfilling? (that question was posed by @kitteh earlier in the comments). That kind of discomfort is the real scandal — that is where I locate the privilege and condescension that comes out of this discussion.

      • June 12, 2013 at 5:59 pm

        I strongly disagree that the problem is that people are being told not to pursue class ascension; that is an ideal/myth that our society pushes very strongly: that anyone, regardless of background, is capable of attain what we’re told.

        I am a bit curious about the anecdotes of coworkers pushing people into jobs instead of education/training. College, even tech/vocational programs, make one ineligible for foodstamps or other forms of assistance, in the majority of states. In the short-term it would actually be worse to become a college student as a poor person; you lose your benefits and gain no income.

        Working a certain amount of hours each week AND going to college will allow you to retain your benefits in many cases. Thus, it likely IS the best thing for them to obtain a low-wage job while they’re pursuing training or education.

      • Taja Lindley
        June 12, 2013 at 6:27 pm

        In NY there is programming for people on public assistance to enroll in classes (including college) and training that can count toward their work requirements. The problem is the paperwork, bureaucracy, and lack of support in enrolling and staying in these programs. A lot of people on PA may not know about it or caseworkers are reluctant to support (i.e. find and file paperwork) or provide information.

        It’s been a couple years since I’ve been in the trenches of welfare and workforce policy and organizing but from what I remember, states have options (limited, but some options nonetheless) to have class hours count toward work requirements. Some of the issues happen in implementation: some states refuse to offer these options, or when they do, they fail to implement it so students can best take advantage of them.

        Also, incentives to move people into work are built into the contracts local government (in NYC) has with vendors who implement their programming. At face value there may be nothing wrong with that, but in practice vendors are being rewarded for moving people on public assistance into ANY job. The result: low-wage work and people end up having to use public assistance again…. this is not a long-term solution for the long-term employed.

        More importantly: federal policy changes in the mid 1990’s (and some local and state changes before then) during the Clinton administration changed welfare from AFDC, an entitlement program, to TANF, a block grant with a finite pot of money for public assistance programs that required work in exchange for benefits. The work requirements and work-first attitude made working a priority. Federal support for people on public assistance to go to college significantly decreased with TANF and it’s been a fight ever since to get more wiggle room for access for higher education written in state and federal law (not to mention implementation issues).

        And, as an aside: I’ve had people tell me that when they were figuring out their finances and work plan with a social worker, they were advised to consider adoption for their children as a way to deal with their poverty — to have less mouths to feed, less bills. Gross, racist, and sexist to say the least.

    • Lia
      June 13, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Thank you for a well thought-out response. Luckily, my parents never encouraged me to “follow your dream.” They advised me to get a practical degree in something that would be desirable to prospective employers, however — something that I was good at. This worked out well in the end, because I was able to parlay a degree in journalism into a myriad of career choices, from policy analyst to P.R. guru.

      IMHO, the term “working poor” should be rendered non-sequitous. If someone is working a full-time job, he or she should be able to sustain themselves with the basics of living, and there should never be any circumstance in which this shouldn’t happen. We (as a society) devalue the little guy — the man who picks up our garbage, the waitress who brings our drinks — and we show them their “worth” at the bottom line of their paycheck. How is this supposed to be any kind of incentive to show up every day?

      Although a Star Trek: TNG society is a pretty dream — a society in which everyone does “follow their dreams” — this is impractical thinking. There’s always going to be the need for jobs that no one else wants to do. I personally appreciate each and every person who accepts one of these jobs so they can put food on the table and dream of a day when they are justly rewarded.

  12. a lawyer
    June 12, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I am certainly interested to see what the OP has to propose. I’m a bit skeptical, though–and more than a bit put off by the apparent rejection both of “it’s OK to work as a means of obtaining pleasure elsewhere” and “most of us work because we just have to work, and that’s perfectly fine.”

    If those are lies, what’s the truth? The second followup post should be interesting.

  13. the_leanover
    June 12, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I do have to say that, as much as I’m all for a bit of Audre Lorde, the second half of this essay seems to be eclipsing the first half in terms of producing hostile responses; I’m really struggling to work out how it’s privileged or classist or condescending to propose that

    we are so much more than our basic needs. In a world of haves and have nots, with widening disparities in wealth and income, the travesty of our global economy makes pleasurable work challenging to access. An economy organized in this way serves only the elite and powerful, whereby the majority of workers are employed and/or exploited to fill the vision and pockets of those who are already in power.

    In short: systemic inequality makes pleasurable work more accessible for some than others.

    I’m really, really struggling to see any way in which it’s possible to disagree with that unless you actually endorse the idea that some or most of the working poor are in shitty unfulfilling jobs because that’s just all they’re cut out for. There also seems to be a bit of an assumption, in the critical comments, that when the author says ‘pleasurable’ work she means highly educated or skilled or ‘creative’ work; I think that’s indicative of the way we hierarchically value different kinds of pleasure, too. I don’t see any suggestion here that manual work or service work cannot be pleasurable work, if those industries were structured to accommodate the needs and desires of workers instead of being structured around profit-generating efficiency. Our economy is already geared towards pleasure, because profit is essentially the pleasure of the privileged extracted from the unpleasurable labour of the working classes. What if, instead of the economy being designed to produce pleasure for the privileged few, the economy was designed to engender pleasure and fulfilment at every level of production? I mean, you can argue with this on the grounds that it’s utopian pie-in-the-sky and incremental reform is the only way forward or whatever, but it’s not actually insulting to the working class to suggest that they ought to have the right to demand more from their working lives.

    • the_leanover
      June 12, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      And the key sentence for me is ‘As if pleasure is a luxury, not a necessity’. How I read this is not that everybody in the world ever must do work that is inherently pleasurable, or that menial or tedious work can be abolished altogether. How I read it is that, if a person is going to work absurd life-engulfing hours and invest their entire self and energy into that work – which many working people in shitty jobs are forced to do right now – then they should have the right to demand that their work be pleasurable or fulfilling in its own right. And if a person is doing work that is not inherently fulfilling, then it should be made more comfortable and enjoyable for the workers, and it should have reasonable hours and decent wages that allow its workers to access pleasure in other parts of their lives. The point is not that ‘people do unfulfilling work in order to obtain pleasure elsewhere and that’s always bad’ – there’s no problem with working for money in order to obtain pleasure elsewhere if that’s how you prefer to live. The point is that for vast numbers of people, work is actually not a means of obtaining pleasure directly or indirectly, it’s coerced and it’s a means of surviving, and it’s fucking bullshit that anybody is coerced into unfulfilling and exhausting work in order to simply survive. It’s reality, but our social reality is bullshit. How anyone could argue that it’s not bullshit is beyond me.

    • Alexandra
      June 12, 2013 at 7:50 pm

      Great, great comment. There’s a lot to unpack here, but I like what you’re saying about the difference between work being pleasurable vs work being highly creative or intellectually demanding. I have often taken pleasure in low-wage McJobs when those jobs provided me with a sense of camaraderie, a sense that I was working with other human beings toward a common end, even if that end were nothing more “substantial” than getting through the hell of a lunch rush in August in DC in a bakery when the AC had broken.

      There are a number of ways in which low-wage, unskilled work are made hellish. I will fess up right here that I haven’t actually read Marx (I know, bad lefty), but the first thing that comes to mind is this concept of alienation, that if you are doing the same repetitive tasks minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, and are not working on a project where you get to see the tangible result at the end but are instead doing something like making hamburgers on an assembly line or working at a cash register or cleaning a floor, the pleasure of accomplishment from work can really be diminished.

      However, a lot of work is like that – I hate cleaning the house because it just has to be done again; it’s sort of part of life. Repetitive, boring work becomes tolerable when you like the people you are working with; in fact, if the human relations with coworkers and customers/clients are good enough, even work that is intrinsically dull and alienating can be fulfilling. Another part of what makes a lot of low-wage work hellish is how impermanent and often hostile the relations between workers, management, and customers are. For a few months I was working overnight at a fastfood restaurant with a couple of wonderful people, and I truly loved them, and was actually happy in the work. But because of how impermanent the team was, we were all reassigned to different shifts, I stopped seeing my friends, and I wound up working under a manager who would repeatedly demand that we clock out and work overtime for no pay to cover for his incompetence.

      The third and probably most profound aspect is that if you are doing exhausting manual labor with people who treat you poorly and are never given the chance to form lasting relations with coworkers, and if you have to work two of these jobs because the pay is so low, your chance to have meaningful relationships with yourself and with your loved ones outside of work – and to have a fulfilling emotional, intellectual, or spiritual life outside of work – goes down almost to nil.

      IMHO, a lot of McJobs would be perfectly tolerable – even pleasurable – if the chance to form lasting relations with coworkers were there, if management practices weren’t so brutal and dehumanizing, and if pay were high enough that people wouldn’t reasonably have to work more than 40 hours a week to survive.

      A few other things that would be great

      – schedules published more than a week in advance at minimum; best practices allowing workers to negotiate a regular schedule with management.

      – management not being allowed to cut hours in retaliation to someone taking a sick day for themselves or their family

      – actual, enforceable breaks for manual workers so that people aren’t practically required to become cigarette addicts in order to get a little peace. When I was in RI, I got a half hour’s uncomped break every week. When I was in Maryland, I had to work ten hours straight to qualify for a fifteen minute break, and got no comped lunch. Guess which sucked more??

      – management not being able to schedule people for more than 40 hours/week in a 7 day period, regardless of pay schedules; not beign able to schedule people in back-to-back closing and opening shifts.

    • Taja Lindley
      June 12, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      thank you & co-sign.

  14. Tyris
    June 15, 2013 at 4:32 am

    Laying aside the obvious problems with “doing what makes you happy” while being multiple (such a discussion wouldn’t be a bit too tangential), one of said happy-making-things, that translates easily to a job, is building.

    Could we possibly pick a MORE misogynistic work environment?*

    The labour itself might be fulfilling and rewarding but the coworkers… not so much.

    *Probably, and isn’t that a depressing thought.

    • June 15, 2013 at 4:39 am

      That’s a whole bunch of depressing thoughts.

      • Tyris
        June 15, 2013 at 5:37 am

        Here’s a more cheerful one: what we do currently do is generate documentation for the pharmaceutical industry. It’s minds-numbing and the hours are long and nobody in this body actually enjoys it (which is at least fair to everybody) but we are doing good things.

        See this stuff? It literally cures cancer. Not all cancer, otherwise boy howdy would there be a fanfare heard around the world, but clinical trials have shown it to actually cause complete remission of leukaemia in some cases. And we helped with that!

        There’s more than one kind of job satisfaction.

        (such a discussion wouldn’t be a bit too tangential)

        That was meant to say “would.”

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