The contradictions surrounding contemporary work are plentiful and perplexing. On the one hand we live in a world where social media influencers evoke “rise and grind” culture to encourage us to take on multiple jobs in the hope of a prosperous future. On the other, we are going through a well-documented crisis of “burnout” and unmanageable stress at work. The work that is most essential and deserves the most praise and acclaim—even earning nationwide applause during the pandemic—often attracts the lowest pay and rewards. Work is supposed to bring us meaning and fulfillment but can so often open us up to poor treatment, boring drudgery and low pay.

Two new books, Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism—by American labour journalist Sarah Jaffe and British researcher Amelia Horgan— probe these contradictions. Both authors ask important questions about the nature of work. Crucially they ask why, for a lot of us, does it seem to be getting worse?

Contradictory challenges

Jaffe and Horgan identify the beginning of the neoliberal era as an important turning point for how the culture surrounding work changed in the US and Britain. In the last 40 years or so, wages have stagnated, working hours have increased and inequality has widened. In other words the economic crisis which began in the 1970s was forced onto the shoulders of working people. In the same period, trade union activity has been actively targeted by successive governments in order to curtail the action of workers themselves to improve their conditions. The old heartlands of working class power were gutted in waves of closures and deindustrialisation. The newly constituted working class of the 2020s, more concentrated in service industries, is still paying for the defeats of this era. The number of strike days per year rumbles along at historic lows.

How do these contradictions hold? What holds contemporary working relations together in a period of falling living standards? What are the stories we’re told that keep people going into work, or accepting the promise of a shared prosperity if you work hard enough, when the evidence for it is shrinking?

Jaffe in Work Won’t Love You Back identifies the promise of “loving” your work as the glue that holds this together. She profiles nine workers from industries where love and care are central to the ideology surrounding their work. These include childcare, teaching, retail, nonprofits, art, internships, academia, technology and gaming and sports. Each profile moves from the personal stories surrounding their work into the theoretical and historical circumstances. Jaffe also draws out the lessons of the struggles surrounding that work, including histories of strikes and movements to even gain recognition that what they did was in fact work. The chapters end with the workers’ story of how they are organising and fighting in their workplace to improve their conditions.

Labour of love

 It’s revealed in the stories of the workers profiled that the “labour of love” ethos is often used to curb class struggle and individualise our experience of work. This ethos under neoliberal capitalism is a grossly alienating notion. It is premised on the idea that it is your responsibility to find work that you love, and that any attempt to fight to change the conditions of work is a sign of selfishness and you not having a job that you love enough. This can lead people to accept worse and worse conditions. If you hate your job, something is the matter with you or you just haven’t found the right job for you yet. Problems with work are individualised and depoliticised.

The profile of a Latina teacher and member of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) working in a large multi-racial and multi-language public school in California is an important example of resistance to this. The title of the chapter is “We Strike Because We Care” and it narrates the wave of teachers’ strikes in the US in 2019 from her perspective. Jaffe provides the historic, theoretical and personal details of the impact that teachers’ struggle has had. She explores how teachers are so often made to see their work as more than just a job, and as more of a calling. This has been used by governments as cover for funding cuts and swelling class sizes that lead to worsening and unequal educational outcomes. Teachers are expected to pick up the pieces when education is squeezed, buying class resources and working longer hours for the “love” of the job and the students they teach.

In teaching, this “love” and selflessness is expected and reinforced from the top of society. Any attempt by teachers to fight to improve their conditions—and as a result that of their students— are often targeted by school administrators, right-wing politicians or the bourgeois press as “selfish”. The narrative of the “labour of love” is turned into a source of guilt.

Jaffe tells how the teachers joined forces with students and their parents to build their strikes into whole community campaigns in 2019 about the state of education. They included explicitly anti-racist demands taken from the Black Lives Matter movement to get police out of schools. They supported the challenge of undocumented migrant students and families to the deportation regimes of successive governments. Such struggles point the way for strikes and demands by workers to go beyond purely economic demands. Workers engaging in struggles that take up political questions can raise the sights of the whole community for a better world. This also undermines attempts to pit groups of the working class against each other. Work Won’t Love You Back is filled with rich analysis of how contemporary work came to be, and how workers are mobilising to change it across industries.

Horgan approaches the question of work from an explicitly anti-capitalist framework. Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism begins by laying out a Marxist understanding of the unequal and exploitative nature of work under capitalism and how it is disguised. We are told a myth that says workers are free to choose where they work just as capitalists are free to choose who they hire. Supposedly, it is a freely made choice between equals on a free market. This obscures, in reality, a deeply unequal relationship. Workers, who have little to sell on the market but their labour power to survive, are confronted by capitalists who own and control the means of production and therefore wealth. By virtue of this, capitalists on an individual level wield a much greater amount of power in society than a worker. The relationship is unequal and exploitative.

By refusing to work, a worker can undermine the basis of their lives as they would not have a wage to buy food, shelter or clothes. As Horgan puts it, “we, almost always, need a job more than a job needs us. We enter into work unfree, and while we are there our time is not our own.”

Worse than that, the only way we are expected to develop ourselves as human beings is through our work. The only way we can expect the respect of our peers and society as a whole is through our work. This work is controlled by a capitalist and geared towards maximising their profits and out of our control. Here Horgan references concepts developed by Karl Marx in his theory of alienation, which says that under capitalism human relationships are distorted by the control of the capitalist over our lives and work. Our ability to labour, something central to our humanity, is made alien to us, something that is animated in the interests of another and which we have no control over. This alienates workers from the product of their labour, from each other, from the natural world and from ourselves. The effect of capitalist work is damaging not only to the worker, but to society as a whole and to the natural world that we inhabit.

New work

Examining how work has changed in the neoliberal era, Horgan explores how previously left wing demands for more freedom and less boredom at work have been co-opted by bosses in what she calls “new work”. This is illustrated by the hope of flexibility being traded in for job security or decent pay for gig workers, or the hope of being able to wear casual clothes at work and have social time with your colleagues being traded in for any control over your day. “New work”, according to Horgan, encourages us to blend our leisure and work time and see each hobby as a chance for self-improvement or a future employment or business opportunity. Social media, creeping into more and more of both leisure and work time, encourages us to monetise our personalities and our personal lives. The commodification of leisure and “freedom” with flexible, casual and so-called enjoyable work further obscures the unequal nature of capitalist work.

There are chapters in both Horgan and Jaffe’s books that examine women’s oppression and the work women are often expected to perform for free in the private home. They examine how this expectation of caring work can be extended from the family and the home into the workplace. The caring and cleaning roles that women—often black and migrant women— disproportionately perform attract low pay. The expectation is that women are naturally caring and therefore their work is not, in fact, work. A strength of both Jaffe and Horgan’s books is how they locate sexism and racism in class society and capitalist exploitation, and how they are used by the capitalist class to deepen exploitation.

Both Work Won’t Love You Back and Lost In Work do an important job of attempting to denaturalise the seemingly natural and unchanging nature of work under capitalism. The powerlessness that a lot of us are made to feel at work is deliberately constructed and built into the social relations. Depoliticised notions of love, fun and freedom are co-opted to degrade our conditions, worsen our work and hide the deeply unequal nature of society.

They both lift the veil on the way most of us experience the onslaught of atomisation and alienation that causes damage to us and to wider society. These books are useful and accessible introductions to the central part of life under capitalism for the vast majority of us. Both Jaffe and Horgan conclude that for us to be truly free at work and engage in building a society that works for the majority, capitalism must be overturned.

Collective struggles

 The question of what to do about work now under capitalism is a question fielded by both Jaffe and Horgan, with different answers. Jaffe shows, through historical and contemporary examples throughout, how workers fighting collectively has changed working conditions for the better. At the same time she concedes these gains are never completely safe while the profit motive and capitalism remain intact.

It is these collective struggles that point a way forward for those wanting to change work, and Jaffe emphasises the power of workers’ struggle to shape reality. She pleads with the reader in the conclusion to turn a love for work into a love of each other and to join together with other workers to fight for collective gains. In other words, to look for the growth of love and solidarity in struggle where we can find much more meaning than could ever be offered by capitalist work.

Horgan argues we should look to trade unions to lift the floor on the worst excesses of work, instead of buying into a hustle mentality and attempting to climb into better and wealthier positions within capitalist society. Horgan concludes that we should look to the work of labour movement author and activist Jane McAlvey and her “deep organising” tactics that will slowly and over time transform the trade union movement by drawing in more and more people.

A potential weakness of this analysis is that Horgan doesn’t explore the contradictions within trade unions, mainly that between the rank and file and bureaucracy. Workers should certainly join and be active in trade unions to try and pull them towards radical and militant action. Central to this is the self-activity of rank and file workers themselves, rather than trade union officials or structures. Strikes, demonstrations and action from the bottom up can inspire whole communities, transform a workplace and pull many more people into activity. We need more workers looking to trade unions, but we need a strategy to pull those unions towards action from below.

It could be argued that Horgan also puts too much emphasis on the rise of “precarity”. There can be a tendency in recent years to overstress the weakness of certain groups of workers, which focuses on their disposability as opposed to the age of “standard” and secure employment in the post-war period. Horgan states that work is increasingly polarised, with those holding onto full time and secure employment representing a privileged group in society. It’s worth noting here that precarious employment is still in the minority in Britain, and secure full time employment makes up the bulk of the labour market.

The growing insecurities of contemporary life for working class people—and especially young people—in accessing housing and a good standard of living can lead to a feeling of powerlessness. And it is true that workers on zero hour contracts face brutal exploitation. However this has always been a feature of capitalism, and certainly of the labour market in Britain. From the dock workers in the 1880s to the cleaners who have won gains in universities today, when these workers fight back they can overcome such precarity.

It is also not helpful to accentuate the divide between different groups of workers. The casualisation of work is something spread across sectors. Just look at the conditions of university workers who have been on strike in recent years. Instead we should focus on how collective action in the workplace can transform worsening and indeed less secure conditions. Those supposedly privileged and salaried professionals in education and public service have emerged as some of the most active trade unionists in recent years as marketisation and the bite of Tory austerity reaches into more and more workplaces.

Both Jaffe and Horgan provide important analyses of the changing world of work. The conclusions we can draw from such research can be a call to arms. While work can be where we experience the misery and brutality of capitalism most keenly, it is also where our collective power to transform the world is greatest. Capitalism relies on the labour of workers to create profits in the workplace and to perform the labour that keeps society ticking over. This gives them great power. When this power is exercised collectively and consciously it can transform not only the workplace but wider society and the working class itself. The experience of struggle can give workers a sense of their power and the confidence to fight for a completely new society, not controlled by a tiny minority but run by and for the vast majority where the fullness of human potential could be realised.

  • Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone, Sarah Jaffe, Hurst, £20.00 and Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism, Amelia Horgan, Pluto Press, £9.99.