Suffering at work
When things go well at work, it can be an "existential emboldening and strengthening" but when things go wrong — such as having to deal with a dickhead — things fall apart very quickly for people says philosopher Jean-Philippe Deranty.
In this edited Q + A, Deranty explores the deeper implications of work.
WHY DOES WORK MATTER SO MUCH?
The first way to look at why work matters so much to people would be something philosophers would call ontological or anthropological — you have to describe what work is as a form of action, as a very specific type of human action and how that specific type of human action taps into something specific in the human being. But if you really want to answer the question, you have to do something which is really not fashionable today — you have to say something about human nature. In academia these days, you are not allowed to say what human beings are in essence.
BE UNFASHIONABLE. SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE ESSENCE OF HUMAN BEINGS!
A human being is someone who is like a complex animal, a complex organism with forms of intentionality and consciousness, who is constantly struggling almost every moment to maintain a form of stability. You try to maintain a sufficient sense of self-control, mastery of your external environments and not be too disoriented and too alienated in your immediate environment natural, physical and social.
We try to maintain this sense of self, this sense of identity — that’s the human subject and work by definition is a challenge. Work is never just fully fulfilling the prescription that you’ve been given from the outside. No work is simply following a blueprint and then leaving it at that.
Every form of work — even the simplest form of work — contains a challenge.
If there is no challenge with the work as some form of invention or creativity or creative use of the capacities — physical, cognitive and even emotional and psychological capacities — if there is no such thing, then work is even more of a challenge because it becomes drudgery, immediately boring and you have to sustain it over time.
If you look at the human subject as a subject who is intrinsically vulnerable with strengths but also intrinsically open to challenges and attacks from the outside and inside — if you take the human being like this, you can do a more precise analysis of what work is about.
Work can very easily undo the bundle of the psychosomatic identity that is a human being. It is very easy for work challenges to push the wrong buttons, and put the subject in a spin cognitively, physically or emotionally — a lot of the time it is simply emotionally. The psychological construct gets attacked from a particular dimension and if the subject is not strong enough, not resilient enough, then because work is intrinsically a challenge and often a challenge that doesn’t go away, then you understand how work can make people go bad very quickly.
On the other hand, there is a good story to tell. Precisely because it is a challenge, when the subject meets the challenge and fulfils the tasks, and does it well, then the self comes out not just confirmed but strengthened. It can be a physical skill or strength, it can be a cognitive improvement, knowing more stuff, remembering more stuff and being able to deal with more stuff. It’s like an existential emboldening and strengthening.
The other thing is what every worker knows — every worker knows intuitively that when we go to work, its going be 50/50. It’s like a game of two-up.
It could either go wrong and I could actually fail, I could fail the task, I could not do the job well, I could disappoint people, I could fall ill, I could be injured. Or work could make me stronger because we know it and we’ve experienced it. And that’s why it matters so much to people — it’s because their self is on the line for better or worse.
The best way to give a sense of why work matters to people socially in terms of the social interactions they have at work is recognition. If the work experience goes well, individual workers get different forms of recognition, which go back into the self and contribute to this sense of self-control, self mastery, increase of self, strengthening of self, self-confidence etc.
A FEW YEARS BACK PEOPLE IN FRANCE WERE KILLING THEMSELVES. WHAT DID IT TRIGGER IN PHILOSOPHY?
To talk about work and philosophy, we need to talk about Christophe Dejours, who is a very interesting person. He’s a public figure. He’s almost a household name. You see him on TV, you hear him on the radio. He trained as a doctor, a GP, he became interested in people’s psychic life so he trained as a psychiatrist, and a psychoanalyst and he always worked as a doctor, a psych and psychologist in a work environment. He gradually developed his own approach to work both for clinical practice but also to try understand what it is about work specifically that hurts people. He developed a school and a method to look at pathologies around work.
In the 2000s there were suicides at Renault the car company and at a large French telecom, which was a public company that had just become privatised. They were people who weren’t people working on the production line - some of them were managers, engineers, a lot of them were creative people working on new models for cars or engineers for new telephone systems. These people were put on huge management pressure and there were regular suicides once a month for several months.
Christophe was at the coal-face of things and said: “I have never seen that before. I’ve been studying pathologies of work for three decades.”
There are all sort of pathologies — up until the 70s you would have pathologies on the production line from physical work stress. Then you would have pathologies of people in office environments - muscular skeletal diseases. But never before had he seen people take their own lives because they had been put under so much pressure by management.
Christophe wrote about it and the public was concerned. It triggered a new wave of thinking in France and I’m part of that movement. There were quite a few people who took up the problem and basically started to write again about work — the subject had more or less been abandoned by philosophers. There was always a sociology of work but even sociologists had even more or less abandoned work and other humanities were not interested — it was an obsolete question compare to identity, race or gender.
So in France, in the last 10, 15 years there’s been a spate of younger people like myself comparatively speaking who basically took up Christophe’s ideas and started to develop projects and wrote books, articles, there was a major grant ARC-type it’s called ANR that funded a project on the centrality of work. I was part of it and my colleagues in France, and subsequently there’s been lots and lots of publications in France on work. Christophe is not universally accepted but many of his ideas have trickled into the public sphere and there is definitely a group of core academics who have tried to integrate it into a broader model which encompasses political philosophy, social theory.
WHAT ARE SOME KEY POINTS?
The work of Christophe and what we’ve done with him and in following him has emphasised the fundamental central importance of the work collective for the psychic health of workers. The work collective is absolutely central and it’s very different to the relationship you have with management, and it's different to the relationship you have with customers and the people to whom the work effort is addressed.
The other relationship is that each individual worker is inscribing themselves in society as a whole. The work ethic is addressed not just to people who will use the work, not just in relationship to management, not just with other co-workers. The work effort and outcome of work is addressed to society as a whole.
Some forms of work are denigrated, some have higher social value or there can be a gap between the income you get and the cultural evaluation. For example, real estate agents are not particularly esteemed in today’s society but get a lot of money. Bankers too. Whereas some people are highly valued — a nurse — but get little money for it.
There are sociological elements that come into play but always grafted onto the work effort.
WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF WORK? HAS IT ALWAYS BEEN IMPORTANT TO HUMANS?
The cliche is that in the Middle Ages work was not a central value.
People think that in the past people worked half as much as we do today because they had all these religious feast days and fete days where they wouldn’t work. That might be true but if you look at the way medieval society was organised, work was right at the centre of the construct. It’s a mistake to think that the centrality of work is a modern invention. There are countless examples from history to show that.
Work matters individually as a form of individual action and work matters socially and you can verify that throughout history. For example, there is a famous French anthropologist called Philipe Descola. His first thesis was based on his study of the Achuar people along the Amazon river - the men were hunters and the women were gardeners. The cliche for us modernists is that these people had completely different values and what mattered were the spirits of the forest, the spirit of the garden, familial relationships would have mattered and they didn’t have a word for work.
In fact, the whole Achuar society is organised around gaining skills, educating the kids to be good hunters if they are boys and if you look at world of women, the garden world, they have the good gardeners, the whole religious view of these people was around the spirits of the garden but the spirits of the garden are directly linked to how well you garden your garden. Why are your neighbours’ plants growing better than yours?
And the social recognition of the Achuar woman is directly related to how good a gardener they are. And these women have amazing gardening skills. They grow the same type of plant and there are like ten different types of species. Western botanists come to these people and they are experts in botany and they can’t recognise between the plants.
WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT DICKHEADS AT WORK?
What we’ve witnessed in recent years - as Christophe puts it - are unheard of levels and stress and forms of harassment. You can actually document it. It’s no longer good enough to rely on the hyper-individualised scenario of the perpetrator and the victim. If you do that, somewhere down the line there is a risk that you are going to blame the victim for the bullying mechanism. It’s always possible that you have these relationships but there are also structural forms of work organisation that favour pathologies in the relationship between workers.
Another important thing to do is realise that the dickheads are not just managers. There is a structural possibility open for forms of harassment and individualisation of the workers which makes them feel isolated, a breaking down of work collectives. Work collectives traditionally have been the bulwark against forms of bullying, ways in which individual workers have found protection against management encroachments. It’s important to see that dickheads are not just single individuals but can arise from those forms of structural opportunities that have opened up and we can analyse very precisely what type of new forms of management open up isolation and harassment.
There is an idea that the neo-liberal workplace has created work cultures where — not all of them of course— some forms of work organisation have basically opened up the opportunities for forms of bullying and harassment not just top down but across the work floor between colleagues.
Human beings do tend to have a temptation to enjoy being bad. And neo-liberal workplaces in some cases can make it possible to engage in forms of sadism because they have a direct commercial interest in that— that’s why we can witness these types of behaviour. Some workplaces become completely toxic where people are put on enormous pressure from management — typically evaluation procedures, for example.
We can also analyse the demise of professional cultures, union strengths and work collectives —the banding together of people who are involved in the same type of activity. If you analyse what needs to be in place for the work to be done well, the work collective is an essential part of it because you never work alone. You work with others — you share a work culture. If the work collective is not functioning, then individuals are left by themselves.