In Defense of Do What You Love
Rejoining alienated critiques of capitalism
It’s fashionable these days to critique the idea that one should pursue their passions in their work, that you should “do what you love.” Perhaps the most insightful critic of the Do What You Love (DWYL) ethic is Miya Tokumitsu, who argued in Jacobin Magazine that the mantra serves as the perfect ideological foundation for the American brand of 21st century capitalism: reframing workers as “creatives” who are “pursuing their passion” serves as a cover for exploiting them.
But where did this “most elegant anti-worker ideology” come from?
Tokumitsu suggests that it is a bourgeois culture foisted upon the working masses by the ruling class. One New York Times opinion piece credits “neoliberal masterminds,” while another points the finger at WeWork. What these critics agree on is that the DWYL mantra serves as ideological legerdemain, a bait-and-switch that fools workers into continued participation in a fucked-up system.
This explanation is at best overly simple and at worst counterproductive for any anti-capitalist agenda. The DWYL ethic facilitates exploitation, yes, but it also represents a legitimate critique of alienated labor under modern capitalism. The problem is not with the idea that one ought to like what they do; the problem is that this critique of capitalism is only partial, that it’s separated from other equally valid, and necessary, critiques of exploitation and poverty.
Instead of condemning the DWYL ethic as a capitalist sleight of hand, we would do better to understand it as the latest equilibrium in a recurring cultural compromise between capital and workers. Following crises of capitalism, capital and labor renegotiate the terms of their co-existence, giving and taking ground around different anti-capitalist critiques. To understand this process, we must first name these critiques, and then show how these negotiations have played out in America during the 20th century.
Ideology as Compromise in the 20th Century
In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello delineate four enduring critiques of capitalism: those concerned with (1) exploitation; (2) poverty and inequality; (3) workers’ alienation from their labor; and (4) the destruction of traditional social bonds. The different ideologies of work operating in each era of accumulation — what they call the “spirits of capitalism” — emerge from tactical responses to these four critiques.
Rather than puppet shows put on by a bourgeois class, the spirit of capitalism in each era represents a negotiated compromise between workers and capital. Faced with these four critiques simultaneously, capitalism runs an ideological divide-and-conquer strategy, perhaps increasing wages while deepening alienation, or further destroying social bonds in the name of cheaper consumer goods.
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, American industrial capitalism faced formidable critiques on all four fronts. Labor agitators challenged exploitation on the factory floor. Social reformers decried the squalor of new urban slums. Many wrung their hands over the destruction of traditional small-town life. Even Charlie Chaplin mocked dehumanizing industrial labor on the silver screen.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, it threw fuel on all these fires, threatening to burn the entire system to the ground.
In the long wake of that crisis, American capitalism renegotiated its position, giving significant ground on the first two critiques — exploitation and poverty. The post-war political economy that emerged from these negotiations was characterized by union work in manufacturing, salaried positions in giant corporations, and a broad middle-class.
But when capitalism gave with one hand, it took with the other: with focus trained on questions of just compensation, employers took more ground in terms of workplace alienation. Workers largely accepted the bargain: the factory worker willingly traded fifty deadening hours of labor on the line for twenty-four hours at the lake; the salary-man agreed to push papers for three-decades in exchange for a picket fence and a pension.
The post-war spirit of capitalism reflected this new equilibrium: hating one’s job was out of style, material gains were celebrated.
Origins of Do What You Love
By the mid-1960s, however, American capitalism faced a new kind of crisis of legitimacy. The post-war system was under attack from all directions: from inner city uprisings, from the specter of socialist alternatives abroad, and from a mass of white college students threatening to “drop out” of the economy altogether. Versions of all four critiques — exploitation, poverty and inequality, alienation, and the destruction of social bonds — were in motion.
Once again, capitalism split up its challenges and took the white kids’ concerns the most seriously. Their critique was two-pronged. When college radicals swore off working for “the man,” they were condemning the kind of monotonous, meaningless labor they saw their fathers doing on the line. When they built communes, they were fighting asphyxiation-by-bureaucracy and searching for authentic community.
American capitalism rolled with the punches. Over the next few decades, it slowly accommodated these critiques of alienation and the destruction of social bonds, while simultaneously pulling back in others.
Corporations launched management models based on semi-autonomous “teams” of workers in the firm. Capitalism even incorporated sixties jeremiads, encouraging workers to ditch the corporate job altogether and strike out on their own. By the early twenty-first century, revolutionary calls for people to free themselves from “wage slavery” were no longer coming just from hippie bungalows; they were being published in the Harvard Business Review.
At the same time that the “creative” became the cultural protagonist of the post-industrial economy, wages stagnated, inequality ballooned, and everyone was told to make and sell their own artisanal wares. Capital took ground on exploitation and poverty and inequality, separating workers from profits via downsizing, outsourcing, technology, and attacks on unions.
By the 21st century, the new spirit of capitalism — Do What You Love — had found its footing.
Steve Jobs formed the perfect bridge during this transition. A child of the sixties moment who famously dropped acid and stayed on communes in his youth, Jobs carried this particular kind of creative rebellion with him as he pioneered the vanguard tech industry. The passionate “creative,” personified by Jobs himself, was transformed from the ideal anti-capitalist human being, into the ideal worker of the new economy.
Partial Critiques and the Anti-Capitalist Agenda
It does feel like a bait-and-switch at times: we are given a dream of un-alienated labor to chase while our pensions and health care are swept out from under us. But the idea of a bait-and-switch confuses the dynamics involved. The story of ideology under capitalism is not just a tale of workers getting hoodwinked by capitalist cultural manipulation. It is also a story of negotiated compromises, measured out in response to worker critiques.
David Harvey has pointed to capital’s material agility, its hydraulic ability to continually find cracks and create new markets for accumulation. Viewed through this lens of cultural negotiation, capital is equally ideologically fluid, working through all kinds of cultural configurations with its bargaining strategy.
What, then, do we do with the DWYL ethic? DWYL’s critics propose a total extrication of passion and identity — of the self — from work in the name of calling work what it is: an exchange of labor power for money. There is obvious truth and value in doing so.
But in asserting this framing, they negate one of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. When Tokumitsu calls out a desire to enjoy one’s work as the exclusive domain of the hipster with parents that “pay for art school and cosign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment,” she is abandoning the alienation critique. She is bargaining with capitalism, accepting the logic of labor commodification in order to get down to the “real concerns” of material exploitation or poverty.
As we’ve seen, we can trade in one critique of capitalism for another endlessly but recostuming the drama of capitalism only keeps the show going.
To break free of this cycle, we need to keep our critiques of capitalism bundled tight. Rather than turn against the very idea of unalienated labor in order to draw attention exploitation, we have to hold them both at once: demanding the right to do work we love and get paid for it.
The spirit of capitalism pushes forward through the spaces we allow it between our critiques. We need to hold the line in all of these areas to ultimately move beyond capitalism.
Patrick Sheehan is a writer and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. His writing has appeared in Jacobin Magazine, In These Times, AlterNet and Occupy.