In a recent Buzzfeed News article, the author describes why she and people she knows feel compelled to be working all of the time, how everyone needs to cultivate a brand on Twitter, Linkedin, and so on and how that can be done at any time and so it will be done all the time and how they are always accessible via email and Slack and even though they’re told they don’t need to be available after work hours, that makes them want to be more available because it will set them a cut above in the constantly precarious employment situations that abound. They have to grocery shop, cook, clean, run errands, go to the post office, do bills, etc., and that’s hard for them because it cant be done while simultaneously writing an article and eating Chipotle and whatever to maximize efficiency. Then she talks about burnout and a psychoanalyst and ends on the note that recognizing that she is enthralled to this system that uses you up until you can’t go on and then you’re still compelled to go on was somewhat cathartic and that confronting the reality that these issues are systemic and pervasive is the only relief until capitalism and patriarchy, the ostensible and amorphous progenitors of our current condition, are overthrown.
Its very Byung-chul Han, his book is even called The Burnout Society, but he is not mentioned in the article. Reading it got me thinking about the specific conditions she describes and who they really seem to apply to. A leftist critique of Han would be that while he describes the psychopolitical, neoliberal system in terms that might give you the impression that it is a universal condition, the specific aspects such as writing work emails at night and feeling compelled to constantly push towards toward new projects and greater efficiency out of a sense of insecurity and anxiety, all of that stuff seems to be true of middle class white collar workers but not necessarily of farmers or soldiers. Granted, the psychopolitical system and the general cultural narcissism described by Lasch and Alone are close to if not universal, but the achievement-subject who auto-exploits himself into breakdown seems more specific.
Software devs are definitely overworked but usually (in the United States) compensated for that at a rate that’s better than an adjunct professor or a journalist, and I don’t think there is any attendant necessity for them to be cultivating a brand or a following to “leverage” because the only people who need that are people who need an audience, i.e. journos and public “intellectuals”.
I think different professions have conditions with create a tendency toward becoming achievement-subjects at different degrees of intensity. Construction workers, tradesmen, farmers, grunt soldiers, and that sort of thing are relatively untouched. They come with their own hardships, as will anything, but the hyper self-exploitation of various kinds of “white-collar” work are not a part of the hardships of blue collar work, in my experience and as far as I can tell. The work of building and maintaining objects in the world, growing food, or standing around with guns requires little in the way of a Linkedin brand. In the case of consturction and the trades, if you work after 5 P.M. and you’re not working under the table you can make time and a half for it. I am sure that at least feels better than the guy adjuncting at 3 different colleges for way less.
The idea of the side hustle and its reality as a package of contract labors you perform via a smartphone app at odd hours of the day and night to either supplement a traditional job or to form their own form of primary income would to me represent an extension of the kind of conditions one has to face generally in the service industry/”unskilled” labor positions. Being a cog in a large logistics machine is probably some of the worst of this kind of work, but having to endure horrifying conditions and being chained to a physical location and made to work til physical collapse seem more reminiscent of the Gilded Age but updated for the 21st century. You’re physically and mentally crushed by the bosses but when you leave you aren’t there and you are not the locus of your own exploitation. Extend these ideas, to a lesser degree of hardship, through restaurants and retail and so on.
A journo, an author, a professor, a full-time YouTube star, an Instagram influencer and so on are the people who are primarily pulled into a reality of:
a. You have no job security at all.
b. You need a following and a social media brand to some extent.
c. You need to be publishing papers or videos or content on a pretty consistent basis or you risk losing your job or your following or your future prospects.
d. There wont be a clear distinction between your work and leisure life (which is in itself bad but better than the newest stage of you’re always participating in alienating labor)
What do the professions I listed have in common? They deal in non-physical commodities, for one. The means of production are a laptop and in some cases a nice microphone or video camera. The idea of having all the tools housed in company buildings and on company property under company supervision, the ideal bureaucracy of Weber, has fully given way to the shifting of the items which ambiguously inhabit people’s lives into the means of their labor. Leisure and work are both happening nebulously at once and not at all, all the time, on your computer.
Writers, journalists, professors, and social media influencers are all basically expected to work all the time as there are way more people who want to do this than there seemingly is room for them all to do it and make money, so you’ve always gotta keep your edge or you could lose it all. If you’re a professor you’re living off of nothing and chasing the fading dream of tenure, but in the other professions there really is not even that amount of security to dream of. All of these professions are also different facets of the unending stream of propaganda, especially the people in these groups who think that they aren’t.
Anyhow, one answer to this situation, if you’re somebody who did 8+ years of university, is to find the quickest way possible out of your industry if you’re not one of the few very successful and secure people in it. There are other things you can do for money, sure you may have a liberal arts degree from an institution in no way qualified to teach anyone the liberal arts but you can move on and do your best and try to break into something else. If you haven’t done any university, then even better, you could go to school and pursue a degree that requires a lot of technical training and hopefully come out with a low amount of debt and far more prospects for employment. There’s always STEM or some niche field that’s having major growth. Certainly there are things you could do that would still slot well with your talents but not place you in a position to be constantly screwed.
You can keep writing if you love it but do it in a blog and on your own time. If you want to be teaching then start a YouTube channel and make the production quality reasonably good and people will come find you and watch it. Take advantage of the avenues to accomplish your calling without having to remain an Information-Serf. Ivan Illich’s dream of a non-cenralized system for people to connect to one another and learn together as peers without schools or teachers is more possible than it has ever been, and I feel like a lot more learning is going on in those places than in a lot of university classrooms. I would wager that even if you were doing one of these things and also trying to build a base of followers on social media and a brand and all that, it still wouldn’t necessarily translate into burnout so long as you didn’t directly connect your entire financial future to this enterprise.
I don’t doubt that to extent it can, the operating system of self-exploitation and psychopolitics does already extend into the lives of everyone, to the extent that they are surrounded by the images and screens which are conduits of the images, and the data mining, and the subtle suggestion, the ads, and so on. Whatever human beings are not automated out of will probably come to resemble this form more and more.
All of us in the middle class who have some sort of education and move relatively easily in most circles are in a better position to reinvent ourselves than many others. Not that other people couldn’t do it too, but their road would probably be far more difficult. We are not illegal immigrants who have our opportunities very heavily proscribed. There are plenty of fields that you could try to jump ship to, where your overall conditions are at least significantly better than a media studies professor. It seems that the people most afflicted by Burnout Society stuff are the people who have a real shot of doing something else. This doesn’t discount, of course, that it is certainly a terrible and concerning social condition and that it’s not always so easy as just changing everything. But in some cases here, people getting regularly published who have doctorates may not be chained to that life forever if they don’t want to be.
Anyways, the lesson at the end of the piece was to keep going and remember that no real change is possible until capitalism and patriarchy are amorphously ended and turned into something amorphously new. To what extent, I wonder, are many Marxograds unwittingly using the vague cultural leftism of their social class as a utopian dream to enable them to bear what they otherwise would find intolerable? And are they dreaming it in lieu of practicing an actual “material” analysis of their situation? One that would lead them to conclude that not only is remaining in the media and in academia a losing proposition for most people but if you’re ostensibly against the status quo then by the very nature of these institutions you are a direct servant and reproducer of the status quo, no matter what you say or do? Why stay?