Voices: What everyone’s still missing in the antiwork subreddit drama

·5 min read

Freelance culture writers are not paid especially well. I make up for it to some degree by working basically all the time, seven days a week. Between research, planning, and actively writing, 60-70 hour weeks are the norm. Today, for example, I started working at 8:30am, and will finish probably around 8:30pm — a 12-hour day. (I worked during lunch but took a break for dinner.)

Does all this work make me especially admirable? Am I a better person than someone who just works 9 to 5 every day, or who just works part time? Does my endless typing equate to endless virtue?

Jesse Watters, host of the Fox News show Jesse Watters Primetime, seems to think so. In an interview with Doreen Ford, a moderator of Reddit’s r/antiwork, Watters smirked and sneered at the idea that people might be happier and more fulfilled by working less. “We want to reduce the amount of work that people feel like they’re forced to do,” Ford explained. Watters responded, “Are you encouraging people to be lazy?” and then mocked Ford for working as a dog walker, and for having ambitions to be a philosophy professor.

The interview was a publicity disaster for r/antiwork; the subreddit has been widely ridiculed, and had to shut down many of its threads because of the contentious arguments. Those in and outside the r/antiwork have blamed Ford for not presenting the community in the best light. She has already been fired from her role as moderator.

It’s true that Ford is not as slick or as media-ready as the guy whose entire job is to look slick on television. But the larger problem is that r/antiwork is trying to push back against a powerful mainstream cultural belief that work is the measure of morality and value, and that, therefore, more work, and more money, is always better.

r/antiwork was formed around 2013; its slogan is “Unemployment for all, not just the rich!” The community has boomed during the pandemic, as workers exposed to unsafe working conditions have been forced to confront how little their lives mean to their bosses. It now has 1.7 million users and was the fastest growing non-default reddit as of January 26.

Again, Ford is not a professional media person, and doing an interview on Fox as a leftist when you are not a professional media person is generally a strategic error. But she was trying to make some good points — and the backlash illustrates just how important those points are.

Perhaps Ford’s most provocative moment came when she said, “I think laziness is a virtue. In a society where people constantly want you to be productive 24/7…it’s good to have rest.” She added that she works about 25 hours a week.

Watters scoffed at the idea that there could be any virtue to downtime or to taking it easy. But is this idea really all that bizarre? Time off work means time to spend with your spouse, children, parents, or loved ones. It means time to enjoy a walk in the park, or read and think. It means time to study philosophy and the meaning of life. At work, you’re doing someone else’s bidding all day every day. On your own time, you’re able to do those things that are most meaningful to you and that make you and your loved ones happy. Why is it wrong to value freedom and happiness more than endless labor?

Another unspoken assumption that became spoken in the interview was the idea that highly paid, high-status jobs are more virtuous than lower status ones, and that people who work in low-status jobs are ridiculous and worthy of scorn. Watters was contemptuous because Ford said she loved dogs, and that she’s happy walking them. He was also contemptuous of her interest in philosophy, claiming that professors don’t work very much (which is untrue — a survey in 2014 found college faculty worked an average of 61 hours a week.)

Yet, Watters’ own job mostly involves pushing right-wing propaganda and creating egregious videos. Being a fifth-rate Tucker Carlson wannabe is lucrative and has gotten him much notoriety and money. But is it somehow more honorable than caring for dogs? What does it say about our values if we think it is?

It’s difficult to get people to rethink deeply held beliefs. The conviction that people only deserve happiness, or compassion, or shelter, or food is so ingrained that even Bernie Sanders will say things like, “Nobody who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” Whatever Sanders’ good intentions, that’s rhetoric that suggests that it’s okay for people to lack food or shelter if they work less than 40 hours a week — because they’re disabled, because they have child-care or elder-care responsibilities, because they have dreams beyond the endless grind of making a fortune for someone else.

The US is the richest country in the world. Yet it is also the country where people work the longest hours in the world. Wealth could give us time to care for each other and pursue human flourishing. Instead we mostly use our vast resources to chain everyone to an accelerating treadmill. We value life outside of work so little that even our healthcare is contingent on having a (full-time) job.

There are a lot of policies that could address this fetishization of work: universal healthcare, a universal basic income, the kind of generous paid maternity leave available in many other countries. But to get to those policies, we also need to confront the ideology that says, with a superior smile, that we’re only valuable if we are rich and powerful and/or work all the time. As I type these last words at 7:45pm, I’m in a position to say that a society which valued work less would be a society that could value kindness, happiness and human beings more.

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