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In love with work, Amazon style


Not long ago, a gradual reduction in working hours was considered a sign of progress. Now, productivity-enhancing technology has colonised life beyond the office and in a complete reversal of common sense, overwork has become a badge of prestige

Last month the New York Times carried a lengthy report on what it’s like to work at Amazon, the world’s biggest online retailer. It was not a pretty picture. Based on interviews with over 100 current and former employees, the article depicts a brutal workplace where people “tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings”, executives weeping is a common sight, and workers “toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered)”.

Amazon, according to the reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, uses a “self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.” Employee performance is subject to continual algorithmic monitoring. Those unable to cope with the “unreasonably high” productivity expectations are weeded out in the annual staff culling.

Motherhood, caring for the elderly, cancer treatment, recovery from a miscarriage — none of these are allowed to even minutely dilute the relentless focus on work. Describing it as a “bruising workplace”, the article concludes that Amazon is “conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

Predictably, the report caused a storm. Several ‘Amazonians’ sprang to the company’s defence, terming the report misleading. But interestingly, even the defenders could not — and did not wish to — dispute the basic thrust of the piece, which is that Amazon is not an easy place to work.

Rather, they turned it around to argue that Amazon is the best place for those who love their work. Such an employee, then, would embrace the extreme work pressure as an opportunity to grow rather than view it as a problem.

While Amazon may represent an extreme case, it is hardly unique in presenting a ‘pressure cooker’ environment that squeezes out the last drop of value from every worker. In fact, this is rather common in the technology and finance industries. It is the norm for most blue collar work. And in sweatshops across the global South.

What is significant about the Amazon “experiment” is the evidence it offers that even white collar work could be headed the same way. In that case, it is worth looking at the social costs and ideological armour of a culture that not just normalises but also valorises overwork.

Working for love

Traditionally, the professional-managerial class has aligned itself with capital, and in opposition to the working class. But in the face of increasing proletarianisation of white collar work, sustaining the illusion of being distinct from the working classes calls for fresh ideological engineering.

It is this ideological operation that the American cultural critic Miya Tokumitsu dwells on in her brilliant new book, Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness. ‘Follow your passion’. ‘Do what you love’. Many of us have received or proffered this advice at some point. Most young graduates today hope to make a career out of what they love. Allied to this idea is that of defining one’s identity through work. This is the assumption behind the question we often ask of kids: what do you want to be when you grow up?

The ideological nature of this conception of work becomes clear when we consider that for the vast majority of the world’s workforce, doing what they love, or self-definition through work, is not an option.

As she traces the origins and history of the “Do What You Love” (DWYL) ethos, Tokumitsu expands on its pernicious outcomes.

The first and most fundamental effect of DWYL is that it divides work and workers along class lines — into those who do ‘lovable’ work, which is creative, intellectual and socially prestigious; and those who do ‘not-so-lovable’ work, which is repetitive, unintellectual, and undistinguished. “Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education… while comprising a small minority of the workforce.”

Second, even as it divides workers along class lines, the creed of DWYL covers up this division. According to Tokumitsu, it disguises the fact that being able to choose a career based on what we love to do is a sign of socioeconomic class. That’s not all. “By keeping us focussed on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labour, whether or not they love it.”

Indeed, nowhere is the narcissism of DWYL more evident than in the case of Steve Jobs, whose commencement day speech at Stanford University in 2005 is a dazzling feat of DWYL evangelism. In an essay, “In the name of love”, Tokumitsu writes that “by portraying Apple as a labour of his individual love, Jobs elided the labour of thousands in Apple’s factories, conveniently hidden from sight on the other side of the planet — the very labour that allowed Jobs to actualise his love.”

This brings us to the third aspect: the erasure of the non-lovable work and those who perform it.

Most of us achieve public visibility via our work. When we meet someone new, the first thing they ask is “what do you do”. Tokumitsu contends that lovable work is, by definition, visible work. We are unlikely to meet anyone passionate about washing cars “for the sake of it”. Tellingly, she wonders, “What do those in the invisible workforce call themselves in their social media profiles?” What work-based social identities are available to those who clean hotel rooms, stock shelves, empty garbage bins?

Next, by cloaking the exploitative dimension of paid labour, DWYL facilitates it even more. “Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love,” notes Tokumitsu. “When passion becomes the socially accepted motivation for working, talk of wages or rational scheduling becomes crass.”

Measuring ‘passion’

Fifth, if passion is the key determinant of work, how does one measure it? Sadly, the only available measure so far is also the stupidest: the hours spent at the office. Tokumitsu points out that the DWYL paradigm, in seeking to institutionalise ‘passion’ by measuring it in hours, has caused a “runaway inflation” of the work week. The 9-to-5, 40-hour work week is dead. There isn’t a salaried, white collar worker who hasn’t felt the pressure to linger in the office long after her work for the day is done. In the ultra-competitive universe of Amazon, this translates into the anxiety that every minute spent away from work is a minute utilised by a colleague to forge ahead. It is, therefore, only rational to spend all of one’s time working. Which is what Amazon and its many replicants want.

Last, DWYL neutralises the worker as a political category by eliminating work itself. Tokumitsu sums it up thus: “In ignoring most work and reclassifying the rest as love, DWYL may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around. Why should workers assemble and assert their class interests if there’s no such thing as work?” In the words of political theorist Kathi Weeks, cited by Tokumitsu, the ideology of DWYL “delivers workers to their own exploitation”.

The ‘Amabots’

For all these reasons, and despite them, doing what one loves has become “the unofficial work mantra” of our time. It is because they love what they do that Amazon’s star performers don’t mind putting in 80-hour weeks, or spending money from their own pockets for official work. As the Times report puts it, “the genius of Amazon is the way it drives [employees] to drive themselves”. There is apparently a term for those successfully socialised into the Amazon way, “the Amabot”.

So, is a planet of Amabots the ultimate summit of human civilisation? Not too long ago, a gradual reduction in working hours was considered a sign of progress. Economists used to write about how advances in technology will increase leisure time, allowing everyone to pursue diverse interests. Instead, productivity-enhancing technology has only enabled work to colonise life beyond the office. In what constitutes a complete reversal of the common sense of a century ago, overwork has become a badge of prestige.

Of course, it’s great if one’s work is emotionally satisfying. But as Tokumitsu reminds us, emotionally fulfilling work is still work. There is no earthly — or heavenly — reason why everyone should have to prioritise work above every other aspect of life. As the very term ‘Amabot’ suggests, the DWYL ethic only dehumanises the worker, turning her into an inferior avatar of a machine.

Tokumitsu’s Do What You Love underscores the importance of acknowledging all of our work — loved or unloved, passion or drudgery — as work. Only then can we “set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.”

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