By John Merrick
February 19 2021
The past month has been the least productive of my life. I have read a little, and written a bit — I spent at least a week wasting time online, clicking randomly onto whatever sparked my interest at that particular moment.
If it’s not obvious what’s going on, then I should probably clarify: I’m out of work. In fact, for the first time since I left high school, I have spent more than a month without any meaningful employment.
It’s been a strange experience. A few times this week I’ve felt myself becoming panicked at the looming void of my day. I’ve noticed my body long for purposeful activity: a physical and psychical urge for work. I’ve been trying to mitigate the worst parts of this, slowly getting used to being unemployed and forcing myself to confront the long hours of days with little planned. And it has, in fact, been getting easier. But the anxiety does return, not least when I leave the house during the day, trying in some way to switch off.
‘Switching off’ seems an apt metaphor, not least because for me, as for many, most of my working life has been spent on a computer. In fact, the majority of my time outside work has been lived through a screen as well, and the shift between the two has become increasingly blurred. The cognitive switch required to ‘turn off’ for the day seems difficult to find, the work ethic so internalised that all time has to be made productive. Attempting to fight this has been hard, requiring far more effort than I would have supposed.
In my previous article, I quoted the unemployed miner Jock Keenan on the contradictions of work. He noted how hating one’s job doesn’t necessarily impinge upon the meaning that it gives to one’s life. As the narrator Marlow puts it in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “I don’t like work, no man does — but I like what it is in the work — the chance to find yourself”.
“Find yourself”. For whom do you exist? For your boss? Yourself?
Perhaps it was a little wrong earlier to have suggested that I’m currently unemployed. More accurately, I’m off work – albeit temporarily and voluntarily – and only for 6 months. Even still, I’ve found it difficult — both practically and mentally — to reconcile an internalised work ethic with the reality of my current situation. This isn’t uncommon, and I imagine all of us would feel something similar in differing degrees.
Yet this malaise can pose some intractable problems for attempts to transform the current social order. If work is both a task we undertake on pain of penury, as well as a life-defining activity that allows us all to ‘find ourselves’, then we are faced by a dilemma that appears difficult to surmount.
The other side of this is what Mark Fisher called ‘responsibilisation‘. ‘For some time now’, he says
one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures.
Those who are out of work are taken to be personally culpable for their situation, led there by laziness or lack of worth. At the same time, future reinvention remains entirely a matter of one’s own force and will. We determine our life course alone, in a world shaped by what Fisher calls ‘magical voluntarism’.
At stake here is a moral individualism. We often experience – and are told to experience – unemployment alone. The isolation and loneliness engendered by lack of work are real, and all too acute under lockdown. But we should not overlook the reality of unemployment as a structural force within capitalism – a social phenomenon necessary to its functioning.
For Michael Denning in his brilliant essay on ‘Wageless Life‘, unemployment sits at the heart of the economy, neither an outdated relic of the past, nor a waste product from capitalism’s margins. ‘Capitalism’, he says, ‘begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living’. We would all wish to be without work — or at least have greater freedom within and from it — if this imperative ceased to exist. What underwrites the market is not so much the employment relation, but the condition of unemployment. The wageless worker precedes the waged one: capitalism begins not with the worker turning up at the factory gates to start the day, but the proletariat with nothing to sell but their labour power.
Conversely then, unemployment itself needed to be invented. Before a distinction can be made between work and not-work, we need the generalised dependence experienced under capitalism, where all aspects of life rely upon access to the commodity form through the sale of our labour power. But this also means that should we dare to look beyond capitalism, we might glimpse the end of ‘unemployment’: free, purposeful activity, neither employed nor unemployed.
Spend, spend, spend
Viv Nicholson, the Yorkshire woman whose husband won the (then) huge sum of £150,000 through the football pools of the early 1960s famously said, when asked what she’d do with the winnings, that she’d “spend, spend, spend”. And spend she did. Perhaps we’d be more prudent after such a win — by the end of the decade Nicholson has been declared bankrupt — but who among us hasn’t dreamed of walking into our places of work to slam a letter of resignation down in front of the boss? Who hasn’t fantasised about an escape from wage labour through winning the lottery?
Wageless life might be the foundation of the capitalist economy, but its anxieties and dreams also structure psychic life within it. The experience of unemployment is both the dream of freedom from toil and the fear of destitution, twin poles of our existential condition under capitalism. Its affective power is therefore undeniable if ambivalent, offering both a glimpse of a utopian beyond, and a grim reminder of our inability to – as yet – escape wage labour.
If many of the high points of the twentieth century labour movement came during the historical anomaly of full employment, then rebuilding social power to include forms of wageless life will require a new imaginary. Post-war social democracy placed the wage-earning worker at its centre, while those forced out of the employment relation — women and the formally unemployed, most notably — were obscured. There was little place there for toil that occurred beyond the factory gates.
Whatever we build next will need to displace the experience of waged employment, while avoiding seduction by the ‘immediacy’ of common alternatives, from the lumpenproletariat, to ‘the people’ or ‘the mob’. Tarrying with the psychological and social ambivalence of wageless life is no easy task, but remains inescapable for the decades to come.
- Conrad, J. (1899)  Heart of Darkness. Penguin Books: London.
- Denning, M. (2010) ‘Wageless Life’, New Left Review (66): 79-97
- Fisher, M. (2014) ‘Good for Nothing’, The Occupied Times. Accessible at <http://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12841>
John Merrick is a writer originally from Crewe, who now lives in London. He writes on culture, class, place, deindustrialisation, and British and Global history, and his work has appeared in TLS, New Statesman, Tribune, Jacobin, New Left Review, Boston Review and elsewhere. He is currently writing a book about the experience of working class life in Britain.