Why Are We Still Working? (If Not Now, When?)

One morning recently I woke up thinking about how everyone I know (myself included) is still going to work. What is so damn important that we continue to work while 7 million people have died in just over a year, with as many as 900,000 in the US, and many more than that experiencing long term disabilities as a result of this illness?

Throughout the last year, I have had many conversations with loved ones about how concerned and reactive we should be to the political failures and crises around us. Should we have a go bag on hand? Should we be ready to flee? Where would we go, and when would we do it? One question seems to lie at the heart of these: What crisis is THE crisis? When is the moment when everything changes?

I have learned from history as well as from the experiences of my friends and comrades, and even from my own experiences, that such a moment does not necessarily exist. In this past year in the US, many of us seem to feel that if we were really in a social collapse (akin to the ones we’ve read about or seen in movies over and over), we would know it. It’s too easy to miss the point that most people inside of historical events didn’t know or did not change their behavior to recognize and engage the social crises they were living through.

The reality is that during a dictatorship, during a genocide, during a rebellion and a revolution, daily life continues. People go to work, people cook meals, people go to school, there are in fact some people whose lives can feel almost unaffected by what is going on around them. The testimonies of people who were tortured during the last military dictatorship in Argentina are rife with anger about the silence of their neighbors as they were being kidnapped from their homes, as well as a whole slew of films examining how upper class and otherwise privileged people convinced themselves to ignore what was going on in dictatorships throughout the Southern Cone and beyond as they reaped the benefits of “social order.”

But you can see the same social life playing out in the background of countless other situations, too. People continue shopping, working, participating in the economy and other institutions to which they belong, while others may be actively refusing all of that and uprooting their lives completely (or having it foist upon them). A few years ago in Honduras, Karla Lara explained another version of this dichotomy by saying there are two kinds of “bubbles”: activists, political people, and those being victimized by the state are aware of the situation there—the narco-dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernández— while the other “bubble” is full of people who shop, go to work, watch the TV news, and think things are generally fine.

Put in such a way, the “everything is fine” bubble sounds incredible. But put another way, it’s not incredible at all. The same concept has already been happening in small and large ways in the US since its foundation; after all, the majority of us go about our daily lives never thinking about the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the US, or the torture, sexual assault, and other forms of harm that befalls them every day, in part because we believe in the necessity of such a system.

I do not mean to flatten the important differences between all of these examples. But I believe there are also important similarities as well here too, and they are worth thinking through. The pandemic is perhaps only the latest version of the question: should we be going to work with this number of people dying each day? It seems critical to explore this question because it’s uncomfortable to think about the forces that compel most of us to keep going on with our normal-ish daily lives as if nothing was the matter when so much is the matter.

One reason we continue to work is that we need to. We work in order to have money to feed ourselves and our families. We need to work to have a place to live. And work is not the same for all of us, it is not socially valued in the same way for all of us, some work is both critical and unpaid, and, crucially, we are not all in equivalent need of money for food and shelter. I cannot of course deal with all these differences here, nor do I mean to try. My goal here is to point out that even within, between, and across these differences, there are overarching moments for collective and individual reflection.

What I want to point out is that if we feel we must work even in the midst of social collapse because otherwise we will lose food and shelter, this is not an accident. This is a purposeful entanglement of capitalism. It bears repeating and highlighting. It’s also certainly worth noting that capitalists themselves had a banner year last year despite all the hand-wringing about “the economy.” In a year of catastrophe, some individuals made unimaginable sums of money even as the people responsible for their profits lost their lives on the job and millions more lost their jobs. The 719 billionaires in the United States made $1.62 trillion dollars between March 18, 2020, and April 12, 2021, including Jeff Bezos, whose income has grown by 74 percent, and Warren Buffett, whose income has grown by 50 percent in this period.

If we are forced to continue to work even when thousands of people per day are dying in our own society (to say nothing of worldwide death tolls), or when the National Guard is occupying your city to quell a rebellion against the continual execution of people on the streets by police, when would be the moment that we would or could refuse work? These are both individual and collective questions.

While I mean for these questions to be provocative in the literal sense, I don’t mean for these questions to be rhetorical. I don’t think I have all the answers or that the answers for our times—or for each of us—will necessarily be obvious. I think these questions merit and require examination, and perhaps merit continuous reflection, beyond the expression of exhaustion and mild pushback to being asked to meet the same productivity standards.

I ask these questions both as someone who did refuse to continue working in an unsafe service job during the pandemic, but only once I found another job option. Not so long ago, I was also convinced to go into work and teach a class at the university when a toxic cloud of uncontrolled flames could be seen from both my house and the window of my classroom.

If we haven’t yet refused work (again the “we” is both individual and collective) how could we each go about loosening our relationships to work, or conversely, strengthening our ability to refuse work when it becomes dangerous for us individually and collectively?

Like other forms of refusal of the status quo, it is important to think about these questions and actively practice the pieces that answering them will require in our lives before the moment arises. So much of our daily life, in movements but also at work, at home, wherever, is also a rehearsal. One of the functions of certain social movements or collective spaces has sometimes been to create protected spaces to “rehearse” ways of being with each other. In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James Scott gives a good example of practicing disobedience by occasionally breaking small laws or rules like refusing to wait for a traffic light when no one is around. The idea is being prepared to disobey and practicing it as a counter to the deep socialization in which we are steeped.

One important piece of the puzzle of rehearsal (but not the only one), are the simple abilities to say no and to experience conflict. The ability to refuse work is first premised on the ability to say no. Are we still working because we haven’t practiced this? It seems that we must be able to say no to protect our boundaries, and to say no for whatever reason. Can we say no to our bosses, for both little and big things? And if not, how can we practice that? And what else must we first practice? Because it will only get harder when the stakes get higher.

Given that the climate crisis is already intensifying and that many of us work for revolutions of various kinds in our social conditions, I think it is necessary to ask ourselves these questions and reflect on them. Who are we, and what role do we expect to play in various kind of social crises and events that are either already happening or that we can foresee or hope to see happen in the future? Under what conditions would we stop working, if not now? Why is it so damn important to go to work, and who are we enriching with our labor? And if we don’t feel we can quit work, how can we strengthen our ability to do that in the future?

Moving in to Year Two

This week, I celebrated an important milestone: it has been one year since I launched my freelance public sociology business. It has been a strange year, to be sure, and an uncertain one in which to be working on a freelance basis without institutional support. But I am happy to say that this first year has been a huge success, and I want to take a moment to thank everyone, because I could not have done it without all of you, clients, readers, and friends!

I have been extremely lucky–a concept that always comes with a heaping side dish of privilege–in the ways I’ve been able to weather the pandemic economy so far despite the cancellation of several speaking events in the spring. I especially want to thank everyone who invited me to give talks (special shout out to the folks at Macalester for making the Minneapolis trip possible!), hired me to do editing or research work, shared my work with their friends, or helped me design this website. I have learned an incredible amount this past year, from self-employment tax deductions to writing white papers, but the most exciting is that I have been able to connect almost so much of my work to movements for social justice. Out here, I have created the academic home for myself that did not exist in the academy, doing work that I believe matters to the struggle for a better world.

In the coming year, I plan to focus on growing my diversity, equity, and inclusion work on improving workplaces for trans and gender nonconforming people–especially now that we have civil rights in all 50 states! And let me clarify: I believe my program is different, because I’m not just offering one-day trainings for employees. I’m offering a comprehensive consultation that uses research, evidence-based workplace change, and management-level trainings to create a gender-friendly workplace. As always, let me know if you want work together.

This is a critical time to do transformative work with the insights and skills of social science in the broader world. Last year I decided to take a leap of faith in order to pursue my belief in the importance of doing just that; I stopped looking for other jobs and decided to create my own. I was not certain whether I could turn that leap into something sustainable, but I was willing to try. This year, that work–the work of public sociology–is my everyday reality.