In Nebraska - and elsewhere - the forced-labor camps that some prisoners are sent to have been rebranded. They're called "Work-Ethic Camps" now, and prisoners do 30-40h/week of hard labor for $1.21/day, interspersed with "intro to business" courses.

As Jamiek McCallum writes in Aeon: "If there was a formula for obliterating the work ethic, giving people undesirable jobs with long hours and barely paying them sounds exactly like it."


McCallum is reiterating the thesis of his 2020 book, "Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream," which presents discourse about work-ethic as "a severe anxiety about a fundamental precept of the American civil religion."

Americans fret that a failing work-ethic is symbolic of national decline.


Which is weird: hours for all workers rose by 13% between 1975 and 2016, and millennials are more likely than their elders to say "hard work is important to getting ahead."


The white-collar workers who locked down for the pandemic *increased* their hours worked:

The precarious "essential" workers who risked their lives and stayed on the job contended with irregular schedules and low pay.


We have a "work ethic" problem - but it's not too little work ethic - it's too much.

McCallum: "overwork, unstable schedules, and a lack of adequate hours define the paradoxical time signature of the work life today."

But, McCallum argues, the work ethic doesn't create the bad working conditions. Rather, we dream up the work ethic to resolve the cognitive dissonance of unsustainable, brutal working conditions.


That's why surveys show workers who express a preference for shorter hours report satisfaction with their working conditions when their hours get longer - workers don't "get what they want" so they "want what they get."

This rationalizing of the bruising effects of overwork as the virtuous expression of good morals is essential to capitalism. Capitalism requires that we prove ourselves "worthy" - of food, shelter, education, leisure - by succeeding in the market.



It's not shocking that a Wisconsin school district is ending free school meals for young children in order to improve their work ethic. If you can't afford food, you don't deserve food.

The cult of the work ethic is the flipside of the aristocrat's leisure-as-status-symbol - the use of hobbies and "idleness" as a way to demonstrate your membership in the ruling class - think of preppie chic, with its emphasis on golf- and boating-clothes.


Early capitalists demanded leisure for themselves and hard work for the proletariat - but so did their enemies. Marxists valorized work and workers, creating the worker-hero.

But the left has also always had a pro-leisure/anti work ethic tendency, embodied by the likes of Woody Guthrie, whose "Talking Hard Luck Blues" is a smart and savage assault on the idea that overwork is a virtue.


> I held 125 head of wild horses, put saddles and bridles on more that that

> Harnessed some of the craziest, wildest teams in the whole country

> I rode 14 loco broncos to a dead standstill and let 42 hound dogs lick me all over

> Seven times I was bit by hungry dogs and I was chewed all to pieces by

> Water moccasins and rattlesnakes on two separate river bottoms

> I chopped and I carried 314 armloads of stove wood, 100 buckets of coal


> And I carried a gallon of kerosene 18 mi over the mountains, got lost

> Lost a pair of shoes in a mud hole

> I chopped and I weeded 48 rows of short cotton, 13 acres of bad corn

> And cut sticker weeds out of 11 back yards

"All on accounta' cause I wanted to show her that I was a man a I liked to work."

In "Talking Union," Guthrie says the point is LEISURE:

> You get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay, take the kids to the seaside.


The work ethic hustle hasn't just robbed us of time for leisure - it's transformed leisure into a self-Taylorizing time-and-motion hustle. Conquering Disneyland requires a project manager, a spreadsheet and a stopwatch.

This is why we call it "late-stage capitalism." It's not just precarious workers logging destructively long shifts and losing the leisure time to imagine, dream, love and live - it's also the 1%, who sometimes pay for the privilege.


It's a system that punishes the winners, albeit less severely than the losers.

McCallum closes his essay with some remarks from Andrew Russell, an inmate at a Nebraskan Work Ethic Camp. Russell worked a series of sub-survival jobs before finding a living wage selling meth, a gruelling job that he worked long hours at before his arrest.


Russell actually escaped from the WEC but was turned in by a friend who needed the reward money, and had to serve an extra year as punishment. He served three years and was released in 2019, having earned "enough money to buy a bus ticket to his parents’ house."


"I know how to work just fine, been doing it as a kid. What are they trying to prove? I like to work hard, but there’s gotta be a point, so I don’t feel I completely wasted my time. I wanna do real work. What really matters is everything we do outside our jobs to strengthen our community - that's the real work."


religious cruelty towards jobless persons, Middle Age 

@pluralistic Have you heard of Robert Castel? He wrote an 800-pages book on "the metamorphoses of the social question" and our relationship to work.

His book accounts for a brilliant research from Christian charity to France's 90s on disaffiliation and it shouldn't be reduced to a series of anecdotes, but he shows how there was this Christian ideology of redemption by work: in Amsterdam's Rasphaus, jobless prisonners could have to pump in a flooded cave to avoid drowning.
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