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From the cover of the 2013 Penguin edition of E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class.

It’s the Moral Economy, Stupid

The reason nobody wants to work anymore is no mystery

The last few years of public discourse on our changing relationships to work have been whiplash-inducing. At the onset of the pandemic, the sudden upheaval of “business as usual”  was at first attended by silver-lined laudings for “essential workers” and boosterism around “all being in this together.” But applause for “essential workers” having long since dissipated, the fixation with shifting behaviors and attitudes toward work among mainstream media and social commentators shows no signs of abating. Studies are regularly cited lamenting two job openings for every one jobseeker, while media cycles hop from one trend to the next: hyping a “Great Resignation,” repackaging self-help tips for “burnout,” introducing new buzzwords like “quiet quitting.” And, seemingly every few months, hirers’ age-old complaint that “nobody wants to work anymore” is rehashed again and again.

This cultural fascination with changing norms and attitudes toward work also bleeds into discussion of “the economy,” with real implications for markets and policy. The past year has witnessed persistent pontification by experts and investigators, with debates over a worker shortage or holdout taking on the air of a quasi-official inquiry. A particularly rich tweet by former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, positing the existence of some “social phenomenon” which must explain “non-work” and “general alienation,” recently put the cherry on top of this official mystery.

@LHHSummers’s tweet on the subject.

Substantial changes underlying the rhetorical circus are not mysterious to anyone paying attention. Well before the pandemic, dissent against the intensifying culture of work within American capitalism—the accelerating pace, the rise in precarious employment, the pernicious demands on workers’ free time and even their sense of self—was already gathering force. 

Signs of frustration, indignation, and exhaustion regarding work in general have, since 2020, however, moved from the margins to the center of everyday working life in America. In the past 18 months, spontaneous walk-outs by retail and fast food employees, strikes at over-over-extended food processing plants, and the current unionization wave—at Starbucks cafes, Amazon warehouses and other workplaces—are all concrete manifestations of an emboldened refusal to accept the status quo. 

Nor is spreading disillusionment surrounding work limited to workers at the brunt end of the capitalist system. Rising quit-rates across industries and incomes and trepidation over corporate employers’ back-to-office plans are attended by increasingly common expressions of dissatisfaction, burnout, and moral conflict toward work and the system at large—in particular among Millennial and Gen Z adults. While not so concretely manifested, such anxieties are palpable in online channels and popular forms of entertainment, where broadly “anti-work” sentiments—intersecting with the issues of climate change and racial injustice—now find resonance well beyond their once-predictable niches of radical politics.

The dissonance between mainstream discussion of work and “the economy” and such broadly-registered cultural shifts is jarring, to say the least. But it is also telling. Public fascination and anxiety over workers’ shifting dispositions toward work suggest a deeper ideological fissure: a waning of the neoliberal culture of work which until recently dominated the American mainstream. 

Fully appreciating this malfunction in the once-smooth capitalist ideology, and its possible implications for social change, requires reaching beyond a strict materialist analysis. Disillusionment and forms of alienation are today spreading among segments of society previously insulated from them; the social and political implications of these ideological fissures should not be underestimated.

Capitalist Ideology and Neoliberal Cultures of Work

These latest developments in Americans’ attitudes toward work and reward can be situated in the broader historical and systemic contexts of capitalist ideology. The need to exchange one’s labor-power for wages in order to survive is, after all, a defining feature of the capitalist system.1Building on the foundations of Marx, Engels and Gramsci, many historians and sociologists have studied capitalist ideology. Such research seeks to explain how particular logics and attitudes useful to the perpetuation of capitalism serve ideological functions — by rationalizing its property relations, for example, or occluding labor and environmental exploitation — thereby “manufacturing consent” for a system of domination in supposedly free societies. That said, broadly-shared forms of understanding and available structures of feeling—shaped largely by mass-media—play a crucial role in the perpetuation of capitalist systems. Far from being monolithic, these formations have been shown to evolve over time, responding to material conditions as well as criticisms against the system itself.

Cover of The New Spirit of Capitalism, 2018, Verso Books, Promotional Material.

French Sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello provide a useful primer on this dynamic process in their book, The New Spirit of Capitalism (2007). Boltanski and Chiapello’s work underscores the ways in which beliefs and attitudes predominant within capitalist societies at a given moment undergo constant mediation.

In addition to general theory, The New Spirit of Capitalism offers a rich description of the specific culture-ideological constellation dominant in mainstream American culture and other areas of the capitalist core from the end of the 1970s onward. The norms, attitudes and ideas surrounding work and reward now recognized as neoliberal are intimately familiar to most anyone who’s been on the labor market. Adjusting to the disappearing job stability and relatively repetitive characteristic of industrial ‘factory-town’ work, the new cultural constellation elevated particular ideals around employee mobility and entrepreneurial dynamism. Magazine and TV ads boosted affirmative images of “go-getters” and “innovators” accompanied by “cutting-edge” 80s-era signifiers—think power-suits, clunky car phones—which have by now been caricatured beyond the point of pastiche.

With its enterprising acclamations, the neoliberal culture of work sat comfortably alongside the Reaganite political regime and subsequently became equally compatible with ‘third-way’ Clintonite liberalism. Indeed, the neoliberal work ethic has functioned as part and parcel of the broader reactionary ideology which came to dominate in the U.S. and elsewhere within the global capitalist core.2There are many parallels in this regard to the Thatcherite and Blairite U.K., indicative of this cultural-ideological formation’s breadth throughout the world’s capitalist core. The hallmarks of this now-familiar national policy regime—financial deregulation, the eroding power of organized labor, offshoring of manufacturing jobs, disinvestment from social safety nets, state insistence on “market-based solutions,” etc.—had their mirror image for the individual in the lean, mean, hyper-competitive neoliberal ideals regarding work. From the ballot box to the cubicle, the leitmotif of neoliberal culture-ideology has been the privileging of individual over collective frames of mind, part of what Wendy Brown and Frederic Jameson have described as “a peculiar form of reason that configures all aspects of existence in economic terms.”

Boltanski and Chiapello showed how culture-ideology can uncannily respond to, and even co-opt, disenchantment with consumer-capitalist society, thereby helping perpetuate the system. Importantly, their empirical framework identifies the role of shared rationalizations, justifications, and motivations demanded by a tightly-organized capitalist social order. Analyzing counter-cultural dissent against the welfare-capitalist paradigm that predominated during the 1960s and 70s (i.e., before neoliberalism), the book shows how workers’ and employers’ rationalization of their work and justification of the exploitative system evolved in response to cultural challenges, adopting fresh means of motivation. As welfare-capitalism gave way to neoliberal capitalism, it demonstrates how the emphasis shifted from notions of stability and belonging to ideals of meritocracy, disruption, and dynamism as the ideological underpinnings justifying wage labor.

Culture-ideology, in other words, plays a pivotal role in managing peoples’ rational, emotional, and moral responses to the subjective experience of working and living in the capitalist system. It is easy enough, following their account, to imagine how culture-ideology has functioned to normalize the emergent features of corporate employment young people were increasingly graduating into. Revamped constructs of career-building achievement, celebrations of technological innovation, and representations of business as dynamic and exciting offered credible structures of desire3A notion informed by cultural theorist Raymond Williams’ concept of “structures of feeling” as a way of understanding “affective elements of consciousness and relationships”, as well as more recent work, such as philosopher Jason Read on capitalist subjectivity and individual striving. capable of rationalizing one’s frenetic busyness in the “rat-race.” Any feelings of futility regarding the ends of your day-to-day drudgery, or the mundane frustrations of adapting yourself under top-down corporate management, could be assuaged by the modes of living and aspiration modeled in mass advertising and popular culture. Middle class workers’ comfortable material advantages compared to lower-income and precarious workers could be justified by a political economy promising that GDP growth would result in trickle-down prosperity.4Politicized notions of an “undeserving poor”, and “welfare dependency” also served to justify this state of affairs.

Framing any competitive, no-holds-barred business activity as ultimately socially beneficial was a widespread cultural counterpart of the laissez-faire market-state paradigm. This culture is epitomized in the “greed is good” ethic which animated the shift to post-industrial employment.5Deregulation removed constraints on the growth of any and all business activities, regardless of how far removed they might be to social reproduction. Combined with the decline of employment in manufacturing, that meant that more and more Americans found their daily work more and more removed from the kinds of bread-and-butter production and service-provision—activities more easily rationalized and justified as contributing to a relatively high material standard of living across broad swaths of the U.S. (albeit still largely a racially-composed majority). Underpinning it all were vague, mythological assurances of continual progress linked to the increasing globalization of trade, downplaying doubts about global injustice or mounting environmental harms.

Even this highly generalized sketch gives a sense of how the neoliberal culture of work actually functioned in people’s everyday working lives. Its motivations and justifications cast an insulating bubble around the harsh emotional edges of work in the capitalist system. In short, instead of working through the cognitive dissonance between capitalist modernity’s self-proclaimed “progress” and its results, the culture-ideology encouraged denial.

The Great Resignation and the Moral Economy

What seems abundantly clear now is that the very plausibility of past neoliberal justifications for the ills of working and living in the capitalist system have been eroding in real time. With a litany of traumatic upheavals and events unfolding since 2020, symptoms of systemic dysfunction have become the fixtures of our daily news feeds. These upheavals have notably been interpolated largely through work itself: through a cascade of shifting directives and reflections issued by management, HR, or other authorities.

It’s no coincidence that some of the first workers to register discontent with the neoliberal work ethic were lower-wage workers employed in supplying basic goods and services. The strikes by exhausted supply chain workers and a wave of mass-quitting among fed-up fast food and discount retail employees in 2021 were followed in the past year by the renewed wave of labor organizing at Amazon facilities and Starbucks cafes and subsequently spreading elsewhere. The grievances around pay, conditions, and callous management are familiar, but a common rallying cry has underscored the gross discrepancy between workers’ demands and record-high profits—a repudiation not of particular bad apples, but of the systemic injustice of profit-maximization amidst a crisis.6Newer efforts also notably cite the precursor actions of Amazon and Starbucks employees as inspiration to act collectively on their own circumstances, evidence of a shift in working peoples’ sense of what’s possible in the face of such injustice. 7A significant amount of this labor unrest also seems closely related to the trauma of the COVID crisis which, thanks to the decisions of the ruling class, overwhelmingly fell on the “essential workers” in these industries. Frances Madeson wrote a review for the magazine’s online section of a book with oral testimonies from workers to this effect. —Eds.

Quit-rates and reported intent to quit remain high across the pay-scale. Reports of workers’ increasing willingness to quit are generally cast in market and self-interested terms, with mainstream media tending to portray quitters fleeing a mean boss, chasing earnings or perks, or as whimsically ‘switching things up’ for novelty’s sake.

Evidence of profound dissatisfaction with the system at large is not difficult to identify. As in past moments of widespread social disillusionment, there are noted generational contours.

A slew of surveys since 2021 tell of the growing disillusionment among younger adults with work under capitalism. One by Gallup found the Millennial generation the least “engaged” at work, with less than one-third “emotionally and behaviorally connected to their job and company.” Another by YouGov explains that 51% of Millennials and Gen Z either didn’t believe their job “made a meaningful contribution to the world”, or were unsure on the matter. And a 2022 survey by McKinsey cited top reasons for job-hoppers’ leaving including ‘lack of meaningful work’ (31%), unsustainable expectations (29%), unsupportive colleagues (26%), and ‘lack of support for health and well-being’ (26%)—have nothing to do with material self-interest.8Unsurprisingly, the analysis states that it’s Gen Z and Millennial workers who care more, on the whole, about the immaterial factors than so-called ‘traditionalists’. Finally, surveys between 2019 to 2021 showed that the share of 18-34 year-olds who view capitalism positively shifted from 58% down to 49% (Views among those 35+, incidentally, hadn’t budged).

Beyond the surveys, there’s also been a growing prevalence of broadly “anti-work” sentiment in young-adult oriented media. Progressive outlets such as Vice and Teen Vogue have all, since 2020, turned decisively anti-hustle in their coverage of corporate employers and work-life trends. Subtler parallels are palpable in fictional streaming content: nuanced explorations of the interplay between work, success, and moral agency—what could be called the the emotional micro-politics of work—run through acclaimed, Millennial-created streaming series like Atlanta, I May Destroy You, and Severance (often inflected by intersections with race- and gender-based oppression). Then there are the increasingly commonplace Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit posts venting fed up frustrations with work, ridiculing employers’ unsustainable expectations and talking candidly about burnout. Accounts like @TheNapMinistry, R/anti-work and @FuckYouIQuit aggregate such commentary, spreading sardonic memes carrying anti-work sentiments well beyond the predictable radical political bubbles—distilled to their essence in variations on the lament of “working through the apocalypse.”

Cover, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, 2013 Ed., Penguin Books, Promotional Material. E.P. Thompson’s discussion of the Moral Economy can be found specifically in his article “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.”

In willfully ignoring peoples’ manifest displeasure with working for the very interests sapping society and driving environmental extraction, the neoliberal world-view echoes the classic liberal political economy of the industrial revolution. The dissonance between a widely-shared subaltern sense of reality versus the ‘official mystery’ of workforce malaise recalls the often-marginalized notion of “moral economy.” Popularized in the mid-20th century by Marxist historian E.P. Thompson to describe righteous indignation during the English bread riots, calls to “moral economy” have a long history. James Bronterre O’Brien was among the first to use the term in his 1837 criticism of contemporary political economists:

True political economy… does not consist solely in slaving and saving; there is a moral economy as well as political… These quacks would make wreck of the affections, in exchange for incessant production and accumulation… It is indeed the moral economy that they always keep out of sight.

To bring the moral economy squarely into view today is to apply sorely-needed context not only to labor dynamics, but to the gravity of social crises, notably that of mental health. As of July, one quarter of US adults are now diagnosed and medicated with depression, anxiety or A.D.H.D.—among the highest rates globally.“9The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time,’ as Mark Fisher argued, “cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.” It expands analysis beyond the narrow economistic concern with wages, prices, and monetary wealth to consider social relations, well-being, and opportunities for meaningful work and fulfillment.

Indeed, a holistic grappling with social and economic phenomena allows us to state plainly the observable results. Disillusionment and alienation are spreading, and workers’ souring postures toward capitalist employment cannot be reduced to a lack of work ethic or exasperation with “exogenous” events, such as the pandemic or gas prices. With longstanding iniquities and systemic dysfunction increasingly laid bare, the ideological structure of the “greed is good” productivism on which capitalist motivation and justification for work once rested is now straining. Though we remain dependent on selling our labor-time to survive, more and more are now left to face these facts, free of illusory comforts. Amidst such a reckoning, quitters and unionizing workers are increasingly saying the “quiet” part out loud: that “nobody wants to work any more” because the social order is morally bankrupt.

Author

  • Jared Spears

    Jared Spears is a New York-based writer whose essays on culture, work, and ecology have appeared in Jacobin, Yes! Magazine, Futures of Work, It’s Freezing in LA!, The World Transformed, and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in Cultural and Critical Studies from the University of Westminster, London.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.