Here at Lady Economist, I am lucky to be doing work that, for the most part, I love (some days more than others). Being a graduate student and a blogger is a privilege that gives me a sense of self-worth and purpose. I hope to turn this into a profession that I will love doing for many years to come. But this great piece “In the Name of Love” by Miya Tokumitsu over at Jacobin Magazine reminds me that the mantra of “do what you love” or DWYL is bound up in the obscured privilege of class. I have found what I love, so I will be able love what I do in my future career. My ability to do what I love rests of my background that let me become an economist. But by and large, the economy rests on armies of labor that did not approach their careers by self-exploration into doing what they love and loving what they do. In the larger economy, not everyone can be an economist who loves their job.
From the privileged position of doing work you love, it can be easy to disregard the labor of others whose work might be only that for them – work. Tokumitsu writes, “by keeping us focused 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 labor, whether or not they love it.” This is part of a larger capitalist mantra of individualism that encourages us to ignore systems of power that disadvantage some over others (think Sheryl Sandberg Lean In-style feminism). In the labor market, this feel good mantra of DWYL helps us disassociate ourselves from other types of workers and decreases what could be solidarity for better conditions for all types of work.
How people view their own work depends a lot on how much they need each pay check. When you are more financially secure, the connection between the labor process and the earned wages can be obscured by love for the work. This article reminds me of the book Temporarily Yours by Elizabeth Bernstein, where the author examines the relationship between sex workers and their work. She finds that low-paid “street walkers” in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district disassociate themselves and their identity from the sex acts they perform for pay and view it as a means to an end, earning money. On the other side of the spectrum, high-paid “escorts” view their work as part of their identity beyond just a way to make money. These two opposite views of sex work can be mirrored across the economy, where worker identity is wound up in class privilege.
But acknowledging our privilege is only the first step. As Miya Tokumitsu points out, even in our loved professions, sometimes this love is exploited so that we aren’t being paid for the labor that goes into what is our jobs in order to earn a living. Care workers are a prime example of this. People who do work that involves caring are expected to have an emotional commitment to their work, so why would they need fair pay for it? Don’t they care about the children/elderly/handicapped recipients of their care work enough to not try to get more money for it? The notion of DWYL divides us by class and contributes to different types of exploitation by class, but exploitation nonethless. Capitalism divide and conquer tactics.
Capitalism conspiracy theories aside, while most of the piece is spot-on, what Tokumitsu does not acknowledge is something I saw daily when I worked in member services at a janitorial union. She writes something about Steve Jobs and his ilk, who are progressively-minded folk blissfully blind to the exploitation they carry out while doing what they love. She mentions that office wastebaskets are emptied without acknowledgment. After having spoken to the people who do this very work, you might be surprised by how much pride people can take in doing what others might consider unskilled labor. Doing something well and being part of something bigger than yourself can be a great source of dignity for workers, whether or not you “love” doing it. But the key determinant here is those workers’ right to self-determination and power vis-à-vis their bosses, which is provided by a strong union that gives workers daily protection against poor working conditions and voice in their wages and benefits through collective bargaining. An equitable distribution of power at work can help all workers fight against exploitation, whether the basis for this exploitation is love for their work or lack thereof.