The COVID-19 pandemic shattered our work routines and expectations. Workers are currently rejecting low-paying jobs across America, undermining the long-held assumption that we will always need a job more than the job needs us. “The pandemic has shone a light on relationships of power in the workplace,” says Amelia Horgan, author of the new book Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. “The memory of how workers have been treated during the pandemic is likely to linger.”
Horgan, a writer and Ph.D. candidate at the United Kingdom’s University of Essex who is researching the politics of work, wrote much of the book during the pandemic, while she was suffering from the effects of long COVID. Lost in Work smartly defines the present moment in labor politics and draws attention to where we might locate solutions. In a recent interview Horgan spoke to Teen Vogue about fast fashion, the Green New Deal, side hustles, and more.
Editor’s note: This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Teen Vogue: Lost in Work opens with an exploration of how influencers and fast fashion conceal the reality of waged industrial labor and the supply chain. How do we address the social and environmental impact this industry has?
Amelia Horgan: While increasing demand for more sustainable options is not totally insignificant, the only way to really intervene and change what is sold and the conditions under which it is sold is through building and deploying the power of workers in the supply chain.
Nineteenth- and early 20th-century consumer campaigns about poor working conditions in the sweatshops of New York were eerily similar to today’s, including special labels for garments produced under better conditions. They did little to address the actual conditions of production. By contrast, workers in trade unions won a slew of victories through the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Intervening in the conditions of production is something that trade unions have been able to do with a great deal of success, including reducing working hours, improving legal standards on health and safety, the weekend, and more. Shaping what is produced as well as the conditions of its production is harder. We don’t want to just produce the same kind of destructive and environmentally damaging things but under better conditions. This is where something like a Green New Deal comes in.
TV: In the book you describe all work under capitalism as inherently violent and dangerous, and therefore inherently a threat to our health. How do the dynamics you mention in the book impact our mental well-being?
AH: My own experiences of working in retail were just emotional exhaustion. In the face of sexual harassment, unpleasantness, and just being asked the same questions all the time, you have to remain composed and customer-friendly. What damage comes from the psychic onslaught of the customer always being right? It’s much easier in situations where your job is pretty secure and you don’t feel the constant pressure to smooth over every single interaction with a customer. It’s worse when your salary is tip-dependent. The pandemic has made this worse as hospitality workers are made to police customers on mask regulations, for example.
Work that requires emotional effort — managing your emotions to induce some emotional state in others — isn’t just something that happens in the service sector, though the combination of crap conditions and low pay can make it even more exhausting. Teaching and other jobs that involve relational and emotional elements, like therapists, can involve emotional effort but often afford the worker more control over how they express their own emotions. At the other end of the spectrum, call centers routinize the emotional effort of workers through the use of scripts.
It’s not that we entirely lose our sense of selves through this process. People are pretty good at splitting off their inner thoughts from a projected appearance (you can definitely see this in TikToks by service sector workers), but it is often quite a tiring and demanding process, and that has really negative effects on workers.
TV: You explain “new work” as something underpinned by the invisibilized labor of the supply chain, like warehouse workers, as well as the gig economy. Can you expand on this idea a bit?
AH: In some ways, new work isn’t all that different from old work — the background relations of power remain unchanged. What is different is that demands for autonomy and creativity of work have been captured and folded back into exploitation. If [mid-20th century] work was routine, hierarchical, mind-deadening, mechanical, and tied people to one task, sometimes even one movement, for the rest of their lives, the “new work” promised itself to be flexible, exciting, fast-paced, based on teamwork, and full of variety.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this seemingly attractive flexibility, new work lacked a certain depth. New work is flexible (this almost always confers advantage to their employer over the worker), based around the management of emotions (both the worker’s emotions and the emotions of customers), undertaken by allegedly decentralized “teams” over supply chains that extend across the global market. Work has the appearance of informality; it is bound up with social relations and personal social capital, promising to be indistinct from sociability — offering friendship, or even family — in both good and bad jobs. New work is very good at capturing something human and putting it to work.
In the book, I give the example of the quote boards at station entrances. A few years ago, workers in a London tube station decided, of their own accord, to write quotes on the service updates whiteboard in their ticket hall. The quotes were a mixture of the sentimental, the humorous, the earnest, the capital-I-inspirational, and occasionally, the genuinely moving. People took pictures of the board and shared them on social media. This spontaneity is transformed into a central directive: Each station is [now] emailed the same quote ready for the next morning, [and] these are written on each whiteboard.
TV: Your discussion of how algorithms change the dynamics of control in the workplace reminded me of the stories we’ve heard in the past year about students being surveilled while taking tests or doing homework remotely. Do you think the surveillance culture in workplaces is creeping into education too?
AH: The education system is a really useful training ground for the kind of surveillance technologies that employers are often interested in. In education, these technologies can be used in a way that gives the appearance of helping students and pupils, making sure they’re “engaging” or getting the support they need. In reality, these systems are often part of really violent and cruel parts of the education system, measuring and sorting children into deeply unequal outcomes and then giving those outcomes, typically the result of structural conditions, the appearance of the child’s free choice.
TV: You describe the “jobification of everyday life,” something we’ve seen constantly with the optimizing of hobbies and side hustles during COVID. You were also recovering from long COVID during the writing of the book. I’m curious what you think about side-hustle culture, and where this fits into your vision of a worker-oriented society.
AH: For some people, the response to developing a new hobby is to think, Okay, great, now how can I monetize this? Some of this points to the fact that for many, a secure job that can reliably cover your living expenses is not guaranteed.
As someone in Britain, I often find it quite shocking how on some U.S.-based meme page you’ll get a sudden announcement about the page owner having unexpected medical costs and needing to crowdfund. For some people, running a successful meme page is presumably a better guarantee of getting health care than through work. This isn’t to say that the health care system here is perfect, but it shows how work does not guarantee a minimum standard of decent living.
Of course, sometimes this jobification is not really much to do with an individual’s financial situation and more a sort of entrepreneurial orientation towards the world. I think people’s “side hustles” can give them a sense of fulfillment and autonomy that they don’t typically get in the workplace. Hustle culture is very much a symptom of a deeply troubled society rather than its cause.
The term also captures really different experiences and practices, and there’s something of a tendency to universalize from the experience of precarious young professional(ish)/creative workers who feel very strongly that they must be working on their personal brand. But cultivating your “personal brand” or online reputation is a very different experience for an Uber driver, a nanny, or an Instacart worker.
TV: In your book you also discuss the relationship between climate change and capitalism. What are your thoughts on the Green New Deal or similar environmentally focused jobs and economic plans?
AH: We desperately need transformative projects like Green New Deals. But we can’t have a version of the Green New Deal that promotes some minor changes and does nothing to change underlying relationships of power and ownership. Green New Deals must involve a just transition for workers in sectors that are environmentally harmful. This means trade unions and workers must be involved in the development of Green New Deals. Common Wealth, a U.K.-based think tank looking at ownership, has looked at how to green the steel sector as part of a green industrial strategy that would retain good quality unionized work.
TV: After making it clear that work dissociates us from ourselves, you conclude the book with a refreshing solution: a call to “denaturalize” work. Where do you see the seeds of that work being planted?
AH: Radicalizing demands for control over time is something I think is really important. Things like a reduced working week (with no reduction in pay), the right to switch off from work emails and calls, the right to a paid commute, and more worker control over scheduling. In Britain, 37% of all workers, according to the Living Wage Foundation, are given less than a week’s notice of shift patterns by their employer. You can’t plan your life like that — it’s not living. Your time is not your own. Demands over more and better quality time away from work, time that can’t be interrupted by your employer calling you to come in, are going to only increase as work becomes something that happens less in one fixed place.
I spoke to Rohan Kon, an organizer with Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise, who makes the case for avoiding false distinctions between the workplace and wider community. Because when we do so, “we artificially compartmentalize our lives and limit our organizing solutions to issues, from pay and hours to housing and public services.” In place of this, we need “a community of low-wage workers, fighting alongside our families, friends and neighbors, [a] powerful force to win huge gains for the working class.”
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