“When I think of the many ways in which we – workers, neighbors, people in community with each other – fail, I think first and foremost of the institution of work as we know it.”
There are many people in my life, myself included, who find meaning in their work. Despite this, I dream of a day when the purpose I derive from my work can be separated from capitalism’s demand for productivity, and instead channeled into what I truly seek joy in, such as community, pleasure, creativity and abundance. When I think of the many ways in which we, workers, neighbors, people in community with each other, get it wrong, I think first and foremost of the institution of work as we know it.
I’m the director of programming for a nonprofit that works to reduce food insecurity in South Florida. We were born into the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a small team of six artists with day jobs, we see firsthand the failures of our local and state governments, and the complete lack of support and recognition from the federal government. Most of my job is to make sure people have the resources they need to survive.
On the face of it, we match homebound and immunocompromised people with a volunteer who brings them free food and house 10 community fridges in free-for-all food deserts. The reality is that food insecurity isn’t the only thing our customers worry about, but rather, it’s just one link in a long chain of struggle. We’re also setting up food stamps, finding housing for the undocumented, and running crowdfunding campaigns for people with outrageous medical bills, rent issues, and more.
These are jobs that shouldn’t exist – it’s only because of the failure of the US government that the nonprofit industry is so prevalent. Still, doing the work I do feels like I’m not wasting the time I can live for. It’s complicated and heavy and can rack up guilt and expose my privileges to the fore, but in the end I feel a little better about how the world can be. I am able to find purpose while paying all my bills, which seems increasingly rare to me, especially now that the the federal minimum wage is so far from a living wage.
Nevertheless, the national mood has been darker than usual lately. Every day I report to work, I feel a deep sense of urgency: every email I answer, every grant I send out is a persistent reminder that we’re wasting time. We’re too busy conforming to the way the world is instead of fighting for what we think it should be. For me, a better world is one that encourages what we really would be far from what we become when we struggle to survive.
According to Pew Research Center“American earners with high family incomes again say they are the most satisfied [with their jobs].” The same 2016 survey cites that nearly half of American workers link their identity to their work. When individuals and families are not concerned with meeting their basic needs, there is more room for creativity, joy, abundance, pleasure, etc. There is more freedom to explore identity outside of work.
Together we must organize for a real living wage, better working conditions and safe and affordable housing for all. Nearly 17.3 million people live at some level below the poverty line. Even with a full-time job, these people can’t make ends meet. It is only when we ensure that we all have dignity and fair compensation in our work that we can truly thrive as full human beings.
Uniting collectively to fight for the freedom of people to exist outside of work is an abolitionist practice. This means abandoning traditional capitalist practices, such as extremely long working hours, lack of work-life boundaries and burnout, in order to gain the time and ability to attend local government meetings. , support local and national unions, organize labor strikes and get to know the people you work with and fight for. When we all live with our most basic needs met, then we can become ourselves and fight together for true liberation from white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy and capitalism. Like the anarchist writer Emma Goldman so rightly asked“With human nature locked in a narrow space, whipped into submission daily, how can we speak of its potentialities?”
In practice, I stopped asking new people I meet what they are doing right now. This is a default question and it doesn’t tell me who you are or what interests you. Partly, I don’t want to talk about the work that I do myself. I am not the work I do, nor the money I receive for housing, food and clothing. Instead, I want to know what someone does to find joy. I want to know what they thought. I want to know where they see themselves in the process of making the world fairer. I want to ask about the abundance in their lives, the community they live in, and what makes them feel free. I want to share the connection between who we are as workers and who we want to be as people.
It’s a relatively small way forward in anti-capitalist practice, but it changed my thinking about how we can encourage movement building. It has helped slow down the urgency I feel, grounding me in the reality that organization is always slow and intentional, with unlimited potential. If we are willing to learn more about each other rather than the ways we compulsively participate in capitalism, we can begin to act collectively for a better future for all.
is a queer writer, archivist, and organizer from Ohio who currently lives in Miami, Florida. They write about politics, gender and sexuality, and things that make them curious.