Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Work And Dignity

Meaningful Work and Politics

Why does money have to spoil things?

Russell Muirhead


Work was once at the center of political theory, but in recent decades it has been relegated to the margins. The centrality of work derived from the Reformation’s affirmation of ordinary life and the power of Marxist criticism of work under capitalism. In everyday life, work is still at the center of things; along with love, it is the most important element of a satisfying and happy life.11xCharles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) 211; Jonathan Haight, Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic, 2006) 219. Its importance in a life well-lived presents a challenge for young people, who today believe they need to find not only a job, but a job they care about and for which they have a certain kind of passion. In ordinary life, the ideal of “meaningful work,” or work that has sufficient scope for self-direction, complexity, and consequential effects to support pride and a sense of purpose, is more relevant than ever.

Yet meaningful work has become more of a therapeutic concern than a political one. Take, for instance, the reception of Matthew Crawford’s powerful account of manual labor, Shop Class as Soulcraft.22xMatthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin, 2009). See also the earlier article of the same title in The New Atlantis (Summer 2006) This spirited and thoughtful defense of artisanal work in a postindustrial age shows how manual work gets its meaning from the way it develops one’s judgment, understanding, and power. Although Crawford’s book is explicitly concerned with a public education system that displaces manual work from the curriculum, it was not generally received as part of a political argument. And although Crawford is a political philosopher, the book was not generally seen as a criticism of the polity. It was seen as philosophic biography or a guide to living well—but not as something political.

Something similar might be said of Richard Sennett’s subtle and illuminating depictions of the effect of postindustrial work on the human personality. As he showed first in The Corrosion of Character and has subsequently amplified in a series of allied books, the demand for flexibility in the contemporary world of work undercuts the steady habits of mind and heart that go by the name of character.33xRichard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New york: Norton, 1998). See also his subsequent works: The Culture of the New Capitalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) and The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). When workers must stand ever-ready to change employers and industries, the experience of work cuts against the gradual accumulation of ability, renders expertise irrelevant, and makes it hard to conceive of our careers (and perhaps our lives) as possessing any unity.

When The Corrosion of Character first appeared fifteen years ago, a friend of mine— only a year or so into his first job—emphatically agreed with its account of how the accretion of impersonal expertise and skill was displaced by a more nebulous commitment to flexibility. Although Sennett intended his critique to be empowering—and empowering in a political way—the point of Sennett’s account for my friend was not that the world of work might change, or could change, to better fit our ideals. At best, we might find a niche that suited our own predilections; at worst, we would have to adapt ourselves to what we could not resist.

Critical accounts of the working life have come to possess a more therapeutic than political function in part because of what’s left of the Left. Marxism remains an important point of orientation for social criticism but is less potent as a comprehensive alter- native for conceiving of economic and political life. When I was a student prior to the revolutions of 1989, it was common enough to encounter teachers who were Marxists of some stripe. They believed it was possible (and necessary) to imagine a fundamental alternative to the dominant mode of organizing society. And though very few were doctrinaire in their devotion to Marx, most accepted his thought as a necessary guide to forging a more just political economy. In politics, yesterday’s Marxists are today often something else—liberal egalitarians, neorepublicans, recognition theorists, postmodernists, feminists, multiculturalists. With the diminution of Marxism came a broadening of political theory in some respects, but also a restriction of the political imagination that severed considerations about work from political theory. Sociological criticisms of work no longer seem to point to politics. few still believe that a different economic and political order can bring a fundamental improvement to the human condition.

To be sure, it did not require the revolutions of 1989 to make ideals like meaningful work therapeutic rather than political. The depoliticization of work reflects a deeper rejection of utopian ideas that gained force after World War II.44x Isaiah Berlin, The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). To be liberal, in contrast to communist or fascist, was to resist the pull to arrange social, political, and economic things according to any perfectionist ideal. Political perfectionism (“perfectionism” is the subtly derogatory term in political theory that stands for any theory based in an idea of what it means to live a good life) fails to respect individuals’ freedom to form and follow their own plans of life.

The consequence of antiperfectionism is to assert that meaningful work is an ineliminably individual question. “Who is to say what counts as meaningful work?” This argument (posing as a question) encapsulates the case against making ideals of meaningful work political. Sociologists have shown how people create meaning in low-paid factory work, in domestic service work, in retail service-sector work, and so on. Some might find meaning in the social purposes their work contributes to, even when the activity of the work is monotonous; others might find the intrinsic activity of their work fulfilling even when it does not seem to serve any urgent social purpose. Good purposes and fulfilling activities are hard to specify impersonally in any case—and any attempt to do so would insult individuals’ freedom to define such things for themselves. In this view, no single ideal of meaningful work could cover the variety of individual tastes and inclinations, nor accommodate the remarkable ability of people to invest their work with meaning even when the work has little to offer in the way of variety, authority, complexity, or social standing.

This is why even those who care profoundly about the quality of work insist that the definition of meaningful work should not be “a problem of justice.”55xJohn Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971) 258. Justice concerns the distribution of resources like wealth and income, not the distribution of meaningful work. The hope in this approach is that a fair distribution of rights, opportunities, and basic resources will ensure that “no one need be servilely dependent on others and made to choose between monotonous and routine occupations which are deadening to human thought and sensibility.”66xRawls 464. A just allocation of resources secures the conditions for a political economy that offers “meaningful work for all,” but it does not define what meaningful work must be or regulate the kind of work that people offer or perform.77xRawls 464.

Because we disagree so intensely and so persistently about what kinds of lives are most worth living and how various goods ought to be arranged and prioritized in an overall “good life,” it seems both prudent and just to try to keep these disagreements out of politics and not to use the coercive power of the state to settle them.

The antiperfectionist impulse is sown so deeply in contemporary understandings that it is almost obscene to resist it. To sympathize with perfectionism in politics seems to place one in alliance with those who would abridge freedom for the sake of winning the whole truth for the social world. Antiperfectionism by contrast seems the safer understanding. But it can also underwrite a constriction of political imagination and a corresponding political disempowerment.88xMichael Walzer, Reclaiming Political Utopianism, The Utopian (14 December 2009) It makes what is in fact political merely personal. The crude logic of antiperfectionism obscures how ideals like meaningful work are a public thing.

Meaningful work can mean many things; as the antiperfectionists might say, meaningful work is whatever individuals happen to find meaning doing (and who is to say what that should be?). But in a more general way, meaningful work might be taken in one of two senses. In the first sense, meaningful work is bounded. In the second, more romantic sense, it is a source of personal fulfillment. At first sight, these two ideas seem contradictory: one would contain the claims of work so as to preserve human powers in other domains, while the other looks to work itself as a source of passion and devotion. But, in fact, they share a common core conviction.

Liberal Boundaries

To bound work is to limit it both in time and in the kinds of tasks and energies it demands. These limits are in turn set by the purposes that make sense of specific job roles. “The sergeant,” John Locke says, who “could command a private to march up to the mouth of a cannon, or stand in a breach where he is sure to perish” nevertheless cannot take “one penny of his money.”99xJohn Locke, Of the Extent of Legislative Power, Second Treatise of Government (London, 1689) section The sergeant’s power is limited by the purpose of an army: it is absolute, but not arbitrary. In a less dramatic way, it is now considered wrong or at least impolite for an executive to ask her assistant to fetch coffee or pick up her dry cleaning: the assistant’s job is not to serve the personal needs (or whims) of the executive (there are now “personal assistants” for that), but to assist the executive in completing her job, as defined within the larger enterprise.

A job description is liberating: it invests specific jobs with meaning by linking them to broader purposes (or a firm or an enterprise) that are public, while at the same time insulating a sphere of (private) life from the demands of work. It defines what one is charged with undertaking and connects individual jobs with the larger purposes of the firm, rather than the personal desires of a particular individual. It converts the personal power (of bosses) into rational authority. By describing what jobs are meant to accomplish (as well as what they are not meant to do), job descriptions give a certain kind of meaning to particular jobs. Most of all, settled and defined job descriptions prevent the authority of the workplace from becoming a form of personal domination. They link jobs to productive purposes and insulate workers from serving the “inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary” will of another.10John Locke, Of Slavery, Second Treatise of Government (London, 1689) section 22.

To have a job with no description is a deprivation—it is to serve a person rather than a purpose. for example, no subject was more discussed in the late nineteenth-century popular press than “the problem of domestic service.”

Yet what exactly the problem was is not easy to say. It seems to have consisted in the inability of potential employers to attract and retain the kinds of servants they wished to have; women would accept a position in a household only to quit a short while later and repeat the cycle in another household shortly after. Some argued that the inferior position of servants was inconsistent with democratic equality and that to solve the servant problem, servants should be treated more like members of the family. But this only compounded the trouble, by making servants in the family yet never of the family. The real problem, one observer argued, was that servants were subject to indefinite hours and undefined demands. And the solution was to somehow make household work more contractual.1111xI. M. Rubinow, The Problem of Domestic Service, Journal of Political Economy 14.8 (October 1906)

The problem of domestic service remains with us in a very similar form. On one hand, stories about how difficult it is to find “good help” abound in affluent precincts throughout the country. On the other, domestic workers rightly complain that they are denied the rights and privileges that are packaged with ordinary jobs, such as protections that govern minimum wage, overtime, and sick pay. The underlying problem remains the same: household workers remain vulnerable because their roles are rarely bounded and defined.1212xSee the effort to pass a domestic workers bill of rights in California and the more general reforms advocated for by the National Domestic Workers Alliance Without any settled contract, they lack public recognition as a “job” and fail to equip those who do them to lead the kind of full and independent lives off the job that is so essential to the social standing of democratic citizens, equal in their pursuit of happiness.

Personal Fulfillment

This idea of meaningful work—we could call it the “liberal idea,” since it focuses on contract and consent—is more radical and more liberating than it is often given credit for. But from another angle, it is also a restrictive conception. It restricts work to a supporting role in enabling a meaningful life, but concedes that the activity of work itself is lacking (which is why it needs to be bounded). To experience meaningful work more perfectly and completely would be to find intrinsic rewards in the activity of work itself. This possibility has become a staple of contemporary career advice: young people are urged to start by identifying their “passions” and then map these onto the world of work. The idea that you can do what you love raises the bar and places a new demand on what counts as meaningful work. It is not enough that work is remunerative or secure— ideally, it should also be something about which we can be passionate.

The relationship of money to the romantic ideal of meaningful work is profound and problematic. The romantic conception elevates work above money—work is its own point, whereas money is merely instrumental. (In this, the romantic ideal of work has something in common with the older Protestant ethic.) But work in a market economy is also always in part about getting paid, and money threatens to degrade the meaning of work. Recent research in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that the intrinsic satisfaction people take in an activity can be diminished by getting paid; even more surprising, job performance also suffers. This is less the case when work is routine and repetitive—when it follows established procedures toward identifiable goals. But it is clearly evident when work requires problem solving, discovery, or creativity. Our ability in these domains diminishes in the presence of extrinsic rewards like money.1313xDaniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (New York: Penguin, 2009) 46.

From the perspective of economic rationality, this does not make sense. Money is good, and the more of it, the better. Work is generally cast as a “disutility,” but even when it is experienced as meaningful, the addition of money should only make it better. But economic rationality misses something essential about fulfillment and happiness. Some psychologists speculate that people have an innate need for mastery, challenge, and autonomy. When work has some scope for self-direction and challenge, they can convert it into a game of sorts and enjoy it; in the most enthusiastic cases, they feel a passion for it.

Why does money spoil things? Getting paid for doing an activity does not change the activity itself, after all. But it can change the meaning of the activity. In an experiment at Israeli day care centers, economists imposed a fine at some centers for parents who were late to pick up their children. The result? More parents picked up their children late. What had been an obligation to teachers (to pick up your children on time so teachers could get home) was converted into a service, available for a fee.1414x As described in Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New york: farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012) 119; for the study, see Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, A fine Is a Price, Journal of Legal Studies 29.1 (January 2000). Something similar may happen at work, especially work that requires a personal investment of thought, imagination, and sense of purpose. People enjoy work more, find it more meaningful, and do better at it (at least work that requires rudimentary cognition or creativity) if they invest themselves in it personally. At the same time, people recoil at the prospect of selling what is elementally personal—of selling, in a sense, themselves. The money, especially pay-for-performance, is a reminder that the job belongs to someone else. It belongs to a firm or a boss. That reminder prompts people to put boundaries around the job and, in the process, to put boundaries around the part of themselves they are willing to sell in order to get the job done.

Here, the liberal conception of meaningful work and the romantic conception meet. Both point to the importance of insisting that there is something about us that should not be for sale. The liberal conception does this by imposing public boundaries around the job, defending workers by putting a limit on what can be demanded of them and preserving them for the pursuit of happiness outside of work. The romantic conception, which seemed at first sight to erase these boundaries in a passionate embrace of self and work, in the end shows how critical they remain. The romantic ideal of fulfilling work and the liberal ethic originate in the same conviction: that human labor is not a commodity like a bushel of hay and that the most essential human powers cannot be bought and sold.

The Public Status of Meaningful Work

At the core of the ideal of meaningful work is a conception of both the person and the polity: one that defends individuals against predation and domination while equipping them to pursue their own happiness. This conception of the person sits in an uncomfortable relationship with commercial society. The polity needs to insulate individuals from the logic of commercial society that would, on one hand, remove boundaries from routine jobs and, on the other, remove intrinsic enjoyment from more interesting tasks. Whether we are the sort of society where meaningful work is a real ideal is not a matter of individual discretion: it is a collective decision that bears with particular emphasis on labor law and income distribution. To depoliticize an ideal of meaningful work not only invites its opposite—alienation—by distracting us from these sorts of connections, but also causes us to misunderstand ourselves.

In the past, it might have been said that the idealism of the romantic conception of meaningful work means that it applies only to the lucky few. A few years ago, a friend of mine who found his job almost unbearably deadening shared his thoughts with his father. “That’s why they call it work,” his dad said. for his father’s generation, the disutility of work was obvious, and the idea that work should be fulfilling or purposeful could only breed disappointment. But it is the liberal conception of meaningful work that today looks increasingly unrealistic. The erosion of jobs as “offices,” or stable bundles of rights, privileges, and obligations, and the rise of contingent work make it more difficult to inscribe firm boundaries around settled job descriptions. The rise of service sector work that demands a kind of emotional performance (often elaborately and inanely scripted by management) also puts pressure on maintaining the distinction between the job role and the person in the job. The unsettled character of work along with the offshoring of routine jobs makes the liberal conception increasingly utopian and the romantic conception increasingly realistic.

To take the romantic ideal seriously as a public thing is to enquire about the social and economic conditions that make it more achievable for individuals. It seems, for instance, that in a general sense compensation needs to become a background condition rather than the visible motivating force in order for workers to keep the intrinsic rewards of work in view. for compensation to disappear into the back- ground, people need to know that it is adequate to their needs and fair in relation to what others make.1515xPink 60. Ambition needs to be oriented more toward doing a job well (for its own sake) and less toward out-earning others. And the honor of work needs to be rooted more in excellent performance than in the status that comes from cashing in. A society where earning a low income comes with the penal- ties of inadequate schooling for one’s children and no health insurance and where the growing gap between the top and the rest makes it increasingly incredible to believe that compensation is fair is one where meaningful work will be more scarce than it might be. Locating meaningful work is not just a therapeutic question for individuals to settle as they can. It is also a public question that reflects the kind of economy—and country—we create for ourselves.