Working Man Dead

A review of Dead Man Working, by Carl Cederstrom and Peter Fleming, Zero Books, 2012 ISBN-10: 1780991568.

Marianna Cage

Dead Man Working is a deviously irreverent, swooping dismissal of the de-humanising world of work. The book shows the dangers of simply accepting a management way of thinking about work, which is ultimately a form of discipline over freedom and time. It also laments the paucity of genuinely creative moments within the day-to-day experience of work, and always in a funny, engaging and light-hearted prose.

A generous smattering of cultural references from popular books and films helps present a very clear statement about the living death of our working lives and how work invidiously consumes the total time of life. Readers of generation-online will be pleased to see a nice mix of familiar theorists thrown into the cultural mix and put to work in understanding these shifts in the work-life balance.

Saying all these positive things, I did feel something is lost in this effort to generalise the experience of work. What Fleming and Cederstrom say seems to ring true most for office work, and perhaps work that is customer facing, or affective and service based. Sure, this is a large chunk of the economy now, and so-called soft skills are high in demand. But too often the authors slip from one register, the academic writing his lectures late at night, to another, the tedium of the manual worker, without a great deal of attention to the type of work, worker and product. Arguably their circumstances and experiences are different and can’t be conflated. Or if they can be conflated, or are so, how so? But why pick holes in a powerful, targeted polemic?

Ok, well, one more then. The authors also haven’t seriously considered the workplace as a site of socialisation and encounter, or when they have, they only see one side of it, the one imposed by the manager. Have they forgotten the extent to which it is here rather than simply in our frivolous time of consumption that we grow as individuals and understand ourselves in relation to other people? For many the world of work still offers escape and relief from the mundane or repressive precinct of the family or school. Witness the camaraderie that exists amongst trades people, the exchanges of knowledge and experience in specialist shops; look at the pilfering (whether the photocopier, the stationary cupboard, or tools and materials) that continues apace, and the networks that help people stay in employment.

The authors’ enthusiastic endorsement of Cioran’s “In the modern world, work signifies a purely external activity; man no longer makes himself through it, he makes things.” …is only half true. It is often a significantly better experience than the mundane one of consumption, and of the de-habilitating anxiety of having to make choices over what to do with one’s time.

Being made to do things we don’t want to do often helps us grow. We are not always the best judge of how and why we should do things, as much as we might aspire to that. This is not an argument against Dead Man Working, just a suggestion that the same question could potentially be looked a positively i.e. what work based practices of guidance, assistance, care and so on, exist in spite of management. At the risk of sounding nostalgic and possibly naïve, people like doing useful things and doing them well, and will often enter otherwise unappealing arrangements and badly functioning environments (like NHS hospitals, schools) to do so.

So I would oppose work to something like purposeful activity, but that’s straying from the rightful target of this book. Fleming and Cederstrom value their non-work time, and there is every reason they should. Too much that passes for work today, especially in marketing and related service industries, is simply noise pollution and a waste of social energies. The less of it the better.

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