Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work acts both as a bread and butter introduction to why and how work under capitalism is so bad, and as a provocation to the left’s standard understanding of work and organising.
By Amelia Hogan
Most of us have, at some point or another in our lives, experienced the drudgery, hardship or harm of a bad job. Many of us will spend our whole lives working without sufficient compensation to live a fulfilling life, let alone enough to meet our basic needs.
Sinsterly, we are often expected to enjoy the bad work we do, buy into the notion that we really like our zero-hours minimum wage retail job and, as work becomes “fun,” the things we do to escape from work (hobbies, fandoms, pastimes and so on) have become “jobified”’ activities to be leveraged for financial gain. This mixing of work and non-work activities has been exacerbated by the decline of the office. Remote working technologies have created a pressure to be on call at any time.
Amelia Horgan’s Lost in Work acts both as a bread and butter introduction to why and how work under capitalism is so bad, and as a provocation to the left’s standard understanding of work and organising. It offers a concise documentation of a society that increasingly revolves around work (or lack of it).
It is a difficult task to write a text that is of use to multiple audiences, yet this book achieves it. Its biggest contribution however is to expand the terms of what we think of as work, and also what we think of as resistance to work. The gendered nature of (often) unpaid and unrecognised care work is one that has been much discussed in recent decades. A chapter on the unpaid work of social reproduction is a welcome, and obviously necessary, inclusion.
The Covid pandemic has laid bare stark inequalities in contemporary work. One of the many infuriating episodes recounted in Lost in Work comes early on in the pandemic, when Guardian columnist Owen Jones was decried as a misogynist by a certain section of broadsheet opinion writers for saying that (poor, largely female) domestic staff such as cleaners should be paid to remain home as a matter of workplace safety.
It was misogyny, according to the likes of Sarah Ditum, to expect well-off families to do the housework usually performed by their help. Across Britain we saw a certain section of workers allowed the refuge of working from home whilst others — teachers, couriers, supermarket workers, and the like — were left exposed.
If there is a criticism to be made about Lost in Work, it is that it moves through its chapters a tad too quickly. Of course, this is somewhat unavoidable in a short book but the reader is at times left with a feeling that arguments could be more fully examined. Thankfully, the text does a good job of pointing the reader towards further reading, so the book never feels particularly limited by its length.
The strongest sections of the book come towards the end with discussions of resistances to work, both through “traditional” trade union organising and through informal everyday actions to take back time and agency. Although some of the references are a little rote, the overall argument for “deep” organising — which doesn’t simply defend ever-dwindling gains but seeks out unorganised sectors and workers to engage in struggle — is potent.
Unlike some books on work, which prescribe policy changes and regulation as solutions, Lost in Work places agency and power in the place where it is most potent — workers. It also, rightly, criticises pushes for more equitable access to select “good” jobs and argues for a drive towards improving pay and working conditions for jobs at the bottom of the ladder.
One of the few bright spots in the past years has been the growth, and repeated victories, of radical worker-led unions like the IWGB and UVW. It seems clear that a part of any radical strategy will be growing and strengthening the kinds of grassroots organising they represent.
The election of Sharon Graham to lead Unite, on a specific mandate of workplace organising, may signal a shift in the wider trade union movement.
But we have no time to wait for that, if it comes at all. Any organiser should act strategically, understanding the wider context of contemporary work under capitalism and expand the terrain of struggle.
Lost in Work helps us do that.
~ Adam Barr