Work and Hackwork


Dan Hicks


October 13, 2014

Should you love what to do, or “live to work”? This post suggests not:

Under neoliberalism, Lordon argues, employers have enough leverage to insist that workers’ desires align completely with that of employers, so that all their life force essentially goes into enterprise.

For example,

Pret à Manger notoriously demands this kind of excitement from its fast-food workers (they are supposed to smile and make small talk with customers and rate other employees in terms of their team spirit and so on) — in Lordon’s words, such employers aim for “the ultimate behavioral performance in which the prescribed emotions are no longer merely outwardly enacted, but ‘authentically’ felt.” They have to smile and “really” mean it. They have to eradicate pretending, eradicate the gap demarcated by the concept of “service” and sell the pretense that customers and servants are equal, only the servant has graciously and eagerly volunteered to kiss the customer’s ass.

In other words, the notion that you should love what you do is just another way for your employer to control and exploit you. If you “should” love what you do but in fact don’t, you “deserve” to lose your job.

On the other hand, there are long traditions of love of work in both the crafts and professions. A skilled craftsperson takes appropriate pride in her or his technical achievements, which are the product of many long hours of apprenticeship and practice. Professionals choose their vocation (clergy, academic, physician) not as “just a job” — not for the sake of money — but in response to a “call.”

But skilled workers don’t love all of the work that they do. They love the most valuable and challenging aspects of their work, the things that can lead to great achievements. Call this edifying work. I’m inclined to agree that love of edifying work is a virtue. But there’s also hackwork, which is work done without skill, intelligence, or imagination. Hackwork isn’t edifying — it doesn’t cultivate our abilities or lead to any other improvements — and it’s not valuable for its own sake — it’s just a means to get by and survive another day. Consequently, love of hackwork is a vice. A virtuous worker loves edifying work — lives to do edifying work — but does hackwork only grudgingly or with resignation and when it’s necessary.[1]

Pret à Manger is not trying to cultivate a love of edifying work among its employees — or, at least, I’m guessing that it’s not. This is because — again, I’m guessing — working at Pret à Manger generally does not involve much skill, intelligence, or imagination, at least for “team members.” The tasks of team members are routinized and highly regulated. In other words, the kind of work done at Pret à Manger is hackwork. And so the problem is that Pret à Manger is trying to cultivate vices among its employees.

My friend Charles shared the blog post above on Facebook, with some vague musings about its relevance to higher education. Traditionally, of course, education is one of the professions; and consequently educators are supposed to love what we do. This is in line with what I’ve said above: given that education is edifying work, it’s virtuous to love being an educator.

However, in the names of “accountability” and “efficiency,” there are several prominent efforts to make education more routinized and regulated. Educators at all levels must regularly document their work in order to satisfy accountability requirements. MOOCs and other projects are attempting to replace live interactions and personalized feedback with prerecorded lectures and automated quizzes. These efforts are gradually making education more hackwork than edifying work. Consequently, the love of being an educator is becoming less of a virtue and more of a vice.

This does not imply that we should abandon our love of education. The alternative is to resist the efforts to transform education into hackwork.

  1. One important exception: Sometimes hackwork can be done as a sort of break. For example, chopping wood and some kinds of cleaning (such as washing dishes or routine sweeping) are clearly hackwork. And many people enjoy doing these activities, as a way to “take their mind off things.” I would suggest that, in these cases, hackwork is enjoyed as recreation; that is, as a way to rest and refresh oneself, especially mentally and emotionally.  ↩︎