Working for a Better World

By Brian Henderson and Rob Kilgore

This review is part of a preview of the forthcoming spring issue of Academe, which will be published in full in May.

Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism by Amelia Horgan. London: Pluto Press, 2021.

The neoliberal conventional wisdom is that work is getting progressively better: if you work harder, you will get a better job, and you will be more fulfilled in your work and your life. Writer Amelia Horgan puts the lie to such assumptions in her book Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, a powerful attempt to denaturalize the ideological and cultural conventions that shape how people think about work. Workers shouldn’t limit their focus to individual workplaces and personal achievements and attitudes but should expand that focus because “work under capitalism is bad for all of us.” Recognizing the exploitation inherent in capitalism is necessary in order for us, together, to challenge the system and make it better. These ideas, of course, have implications for our work in higher education.

Horgan comes to this topic as a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Essex and as a staffer at the UK-based left-leaning think tank Common Wealth. She has written for the Guardian about striking in 2019 at the University of Essex with the University and College Union and about her experience with long COVID—which she also discussed in a thoughtful interview by Sarah Jaffe, following the publication of Lost in Work, on Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. These lived experiences and others that she shares in the book, along with her research, allow her to quickly dispense with the notion that workers just need to try harder or adjust their attitudes about work.

Horgan also takes on the failings of the political Left and is disappointed by the fatalistic approach of those who focus on securing small successes for a tiny number of workers in the dwindling number of “good jobs.” That is certainly a dangerous attitude to have in the environment of US higher education, with its decades-long trend of eroding tenure, stagnating wages, inadequate public funding, failing shared governance practices, and threats to academic freedom. But Horgan means for us to look directly at the serious challenges facing us and recognize the kind of approaches necessary if we are to create a world where workers can more easily “stand up against daily indignities” of capitalist work by building—or rebuilding—the institutions of working-class power. In this book, she doesn’t argue narrowly for one path forward so much as call attention to a range of critiques that challenge our understanding of work and give us tools for regaining control of our time and our agency. And central to any progress is the task of what she calls “deep organizing.”

Horgan divides her book into three parts that get to the core concerns of deep organizing: (1) what work is, (2) what work does to us, and (3) what we ought to do about the problem of work. The first part is a laudable and effective effort to describe what work is under capitalism. Horgan draws on important thinkers—chiefly Karl Marx but also Adam Smith, Silva Federici, and Arlie Hochschild—and uses clear language to lay out complicated labor concepts such as capitalism, primitive accumulation, emotional labor, Fordism, and neoliberalism. She illustrates these concepts with lively examples taken from the history of garment making, sex work, higher education, and the UK rail industry. This is a good primer suitable for use in teaching, but Horgan also makes a persuasive argument: from the workers’ perspective, work is not getting progressively better despite the persistence of arguments that assume otherwise. She sets up the part of the book about what work does to us as individuals and as a society by defining (and denaturalizing) work historically and theoretically.

In the second part of her account, Horgan shows how work does a lot of harm, including physical and emotional injury, to individuals. Management encourages working to exhaustion, pushing workers to accept longer hours, to continuously improve, and to be in competition with other workers for rewards. She posits that these management practices give workers the “illusion of choice,” while management is systematically taking control of workers’ lives (Horgan relates this to Marx’s theory of alienation), and this loss of control is yet another harm. Provocative for faculty members reading this book (as they think about academic rank, contingency, and staffing at their institutions) is her discussion of how the class system—and its division of labor—exacerbates these harms for workers assigned “unskilled manual labour” and “denied access to the meaning, autonomy, and recognition of higher status work.” Horgan puts jobs on a continuum—with differences of degree, not of kind—to emphasize that “all work under capitalism harms workers because of the coercion that pushes us into it, and the lack of control we face during it.” Horgan’s discussion of education is particularly compelling, as she argues that students, teachers, and higher education workers are all instruments for the pursuit of capital in which “the raw materials to be worked on are one’s own personality.” What work under capitalism does to us as a society, she posits, is to exacerbate inequality among social classes and genders. This inequality simultaneously exacerbates the destruction of the planet.

In the final part of the book, Horgan explores potential solutions to the problem of work, beginning with individual acts of resistance. She cites the treatment of call-center workers as an exemplar for the managerial drive to capture every moment of potential labor through careful review of outcomes and continuous surveillance. However, even under those circumstances, Horgan points out that workers have discovered ways to thwart the system through sharing tactics for everything from faking illness to overloading call queues. What workers cannot escape, though, is the way the system forces them to tolerate regular racist and sexist abuse or risk getting fired. Through such examples, she builds her larger claim that the problem isn’t that people are simply unhappy with this job or this manager but with the nature of the work they are asked to do, entailing the cultural reproduction of hierarchy that is increasingly experienced as inseparable from work under capitalism. Ultimately, she demonstrates that individual resistance doesn’t get us very far if all it allows is the hope that our next job might be “slightly less bad.”

Horgan sees unions as an essential response to the conditions of capitalism through their efforts to improve workplace conditions and benefits (including sick pay, annual leave, and paid parental leave), but she argues that unions themselves need to be more democratic and to address issues beyond the workplace. To this end, she starts her history of labor organizing not with Marx and Friedrich Engels but with Flora Tristan, an early nineteenth-century French-Peruvian activist who created spaces for workers in France to organize, educate children, and care for the sick. The legacy of Tristan’s work continues in feminist critiques of unions, which Horgan accepts while still holding that unions are worth fighting for—that they must be “struggled within as well as through.” Horgan connects Tristan’s legacy with the American organizer and theorist Jane McAlevey to argue for deep organizing rather than “shallow mobilizing.” Horgan’s discussion of unions is also a discussion of experiments in communal living. It’s an ethical question for Horgan, who maintains that if we care about solving the problem of work, we should unite with the goal of making all workers’ lives better. The implications for higher education can include organizing by all college and university workers with attention to the relationships between institutions and their surrounding communities: the problem of work doesn’t end at the campus’s edge.

In daily conversations with our coworkers and students about issues of work and life, we have been sharing Horgan’s arguments and examples, which serve as good conversation starters about the nature of the problems we face at work and elsewhere—problems that extend beyond the particulars of current campus crises or any of our individual jobs. We believe this book is a useful text, especially for campus organizing work in which we must help colleagues debunk neoliberal conventional wisdom. Horgan shows that the possibilities in these conversations are “our collective destiny, our shared freedom, and our shared joy.” She concludes with an affirmation and a call to action: “A future without the indignities, petty cruelties, exploitation and misery of capitalist work is possible, and it is one worth fighting for.”

Rob Kilgore is associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, where he is immediate past president of the AAUP chapter and currently serves as an at-large member of the state conference executive committee. His email address is [email protected]. Brian Henderson is associate professor of English language and literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a past secretary and current member of the School Representative Council for the SIUE Faculty Association, affiliated with the Illinois Education Association and the National Education Association. His email address is [email protected].