Toil vs. Productiveness

Thursday, December 12, 2013

In The New Statesman, author Steven Poole makes a somewhat rambling case against what he calls the "cult of hard work". There is much I disagree with in his essay, but he does make some good observations about what one could also call "'productivity' as a fad" -- or perhaps "toil-worship".

Poole begins his case with the following observation:

Recently, I saw a man on the Tube wearing a Nike T-shirt with a slogan that read, in its entirety, "I'm doing work". The idea that playing sport or doing exercise needs to be justified by calling it a species of work illustrates the colonisation of everyday life by the devotion to toil: an ideology that argues cunningly in favour of itself in the phrase "work ethic".
This egoist has no problem with justifying -- to oneself -- what one does with his time; but I do frown upon the idea of the primary focus being on telling others about it all the time. (Granted, the person described above may or may not be guilty.)

Poole argues from a Marxist angle, which strikes me as amusing since Marxism, like the Christianity that gave us the term "work ethic", treats work in some form or fashion, as if it has nothing to do with sustaining human life. The former treats work somewhat as if it is imposed upon poor proletarians by "the bougeoisie", the latter somewhat as if it is a punishment from God. Both also give short shrift (to put it mildly) to the role mental effort plays in productivity. Nevertheless, since most ideologies fail to tie morality to practicality -- or to properly ask what the purpose of morality is -- Poole is able to observe a great deal of prestige-seeking second-handedness (as above) and hypocrisy-cum-rebellion:
The paradox of the autodidactic productivity industry of GTD, Lifehacker and the endless reviews of obscure mind-mapping or task-management apps is that it is all too easy to spend one's time researching how to acquire the perfect set of productivity tools and strategies without ever actually settling down to do something. In this way, the obsessive dream of productivity becomes a perfectly effective defence against its own realisation.
So, while Poole's Marxist leanings cause him to view work in a dim light, he does make some good observations about the fad. His distaste for the fad also causes him to make a case of sorts for what he calls "loafing". That noted, one would done well to view the need for leisure in the same way that one should view the need for productivity -- in the context of how each promotes one's own life as an individual human being. When one does this, he is better able to judge whether something (work or leisure) really is productive (i.e., promotes his well-being) or is just needless toil or mere indolence. And he will feel justifiable pride either way, and probably not feel the need to spout about what he does to others.

Poole ends thus:
Perhaps I shouldn't mock. All that time saved every morning by knowing the exact location of the baseball cap you want to wear will surely add up, earning you hours more freedom to hunt and hoard ever more productivity tips, until you are a purely theoretical master at doing nothing of value in the most efficient way imaginable.
Whether storing baseball caps in such a way deserves mockery depends on context, but if all it does is provide more time to obsess over becoming better able to brag about the amount of toil one can do, then he should. Productivity, properly understood, is indeed a virtue; pointless toil a vice, no matter how acceptable it may seem to brag about it.



Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "Poole argues from a Marxist angle, which strikes me as amusing since Marxism, like the Christianity that gave us the term "work ethic", treats work in some form or fashion, as if it has nothing to do with sustaining human life."

Heh, there ya go, unintentionally making a song cue...In case you haven't heard it, there's a fine song along those lines by The Proclaimers, "Follow the Money." You can read it as a well-formed statement of principle or as...not; me, I love Scottish accents, so I just enjoy listening to it. (Seriously, content-wise I view it as similar to The Kingpin's "Let's Go to Work." If you're not a fan of working hard when necessary, it'll strike you as satirical or deluded; if you have no great aniums to rolling up your sleeves, it's a fun exaggeration for artistic effect. And most important: Musically, both are top-notch songs.)

Gus Van Horn said...

Love "Let's Go to Work". Look forward to "Follow the Money" when the house is awake.