The most thorough review of my book. Ever!

Happy Hour is 9 to 5A while back, I invited Kevin Carson of The Mutualist Blog to review my book (Happy Hour is 9 to 5) for the simple reason that he and I have wildly differently views on work. It’s not that we disagree (though we do on many issues) it’s just that we’re coming to the topic from some very different backgrounds.

His review is now up and it blows me away! It’s thorough, it’s critical – and above all it’s constructive. I learned a lot from reading it and from taking in Kevin’s views on this. As I knew I would.

Here’s how Kevin starts it:

I must confess I approached this book with a considerable amount of skepticism.

And at first glance, the rhetoric in Kjerulf’s book bears at least a strong superficial resemblance to such manipulative HR gimmicks as Fish! Philosophy, aimed at jollying the sped-up and underpaid workforces of downsized firms into loving Big Brother without any of the inconvenience of, you know, raising pay or decreasing workloads.

But on closer inspection, I believe this book is the real thing. Despite certain reservations, which I discuss at length below, I believe Kjerulf gets it. His book isn’t just another attempt to get workers’ minds right, a shortcut for inculating lobotomized happiness into people who are treated like shit. He spends a major part of the book, in fact, pointing out that shortcuts don’t work, and that there’s no way to simulate treating people like human beings.

Kevin’s main reservations about my book are:
1: The book goes too far in stressing subjective attitude at the expense of objective conditions.

For example, the employee newsletter at a particular hospital I’m thinking of–let’s call it the Official Happy Newsletter–once ran a fluff article titled “Choose Your Attitude,” which gushed (among other things) that if we “choose to provide extraordinary patient care,” we could do so, “regardless of your abundance or lack of resources.” In other words, the people who cut us off at the knees are assuring us that if we can’t run a marathon, it’s our own fault. The laws of time, space, and matter don’t apply–it’s all in your head, man! The amount of work that can be extracted from a single man-hour is infinite, like the number of people who can be fed with five loaves and two fishes.

I agree with Kevin on this. What I really advocate is not “changing your attitude to cope with a bad work situation” but as Kevin puts it:

Happiness and “choosing your attitude” are not things done instead of addressing working conditions, or even after addressing working conditions; they’re achieved, in large part, by means of addressing working conditions.

Yes. Kevin gets this better than I did! I’ll update my writing on this to express this more clearly.

2: There is not enough focus on the structural forces at the level of the political and economic system as a whole.

Thirty years ago the neoliberal Pharaohs decreed, “let them gather their own straw, but let not the tale of bricks be minished aught.” And in the years since that decree, an entire industry of labor consultants has come up with gimmicks like Fish! (enthusiatically embraced by Pharaoh’s overseers in Human Resources) aimed at convincing workers that “we [sic] can choose to do an extraordinary job making bricks, regardless of our abundance or lack of straw.”

In minimizing the importance of objective conditions, Kjerulf considers mainly the intrinsic character of the work itself. That is, he focuses mainly on the character of work as it varies from one job to another, as workers sort themselves into types of work that they consider more intrinsically enjoyable and avoid those that they consider unpleasant.

True – my focus is very much on making yourself happy at work within the system we already have. And it’s also true as Kevin notes, that the current system is fertile ground for some VERY unhappy workplaces. However, the current system has proven, mostly inadvertently, to also contain everything you need to create great, democratic, happy workplaces.

I absolutely agree that the system itself should be changed – and I believe that one of the best ways to change it is to create many happy workplaces. They will out compete the unhappy ones and happiness at work will then become the norm.

That being said, I WILL be reading some Ehrenreich :o)

3: A historical vacuum

One of the most exasperating things about Kjerulf’s book is the historical vacuum within which he views such issues.

It boggles my mind that Kjerulf simply accepts this enormous and radical change over the past fifty years as just another matter of fact, without stopping to ask why? Why has the workplace hollowed out the rest of life in recent decades? Why has an increasing portion of time been taken up by work, at the expense of the rest of our lives? Why is work (on the job, that is) “the basis for our standard of living,” as opposed to the household and informal economies? Why has the home been transformed into an adjunct of the imperial workplace, and the whole of life contaminated by the ideology of professionalism? Maybe it’s time to take our lives back from work–or rather, from our jobs.

The main reason I ignore the history of the workplaces is probably that I don’t know much about it. I’ll be fixing that :o)

Fortunately, there’s an equally long list of where Kevin thinks the book gets it right. Phew :o) Go read Kevin’s entire review – it’s great, great reading.

I cannot thank Kevin enough for reading my book with such an open mind and for contributing his thoughts and ideas in such a clear, constructive, interesting, funny and well-written way. It’s a huge inspiration for me and has shown me some ways to deepen and sharpen my message.

5 thoughts on “The most thorough review of my book. Ever!”

  1. This interaction between Kevin’s criticisms and your writing is very helpful.

    It is also a gread model of the kinds of fearless conversations our world needs if we are to find our way.

    Thank you for the ever enlarging conversation you have entered into around happiness and work!

    Keep creating,

  2. Thanks for the link, Alex. And thanks also, as I already said by email, for taking the review in the spirit in which it was written: wading through all the criticisms to get to the part where I fundamentally agree with you (I believe in getting the bad news out of the way first).

    As I suggested toward the end of the review, I think we probably agree on the potential for revolutionizing the system from below by transforming workplaces one at a time. But it requires killing off the little boss in our heads who tells us that Wobbly tactics of direct resistance on the job like “good work strikes” and “open mouth sabotage” are somehow “disloyal” to “our” employer. The nature of the labor relation as an incomplete contract, and the incredible barriers to effective monitoring of real performance, create a classic asymmetrical warfare situation; any measure the bosses take to monitor our performance will probably cost them ten times as much as it costs us to circumvent it. So once the dissatisfied worker gets to the point of saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more,” he’s pretty much an unstoppable force.

  3. Hi Alex,

    Are you planning a revised edition of you rbook soon then? ;-)

    I was planning to buy it, but if you’ve got plans in the near future for a 2nd ed, I’ll hold off.



  4. That’s way cool and refreshing, Alex. It’s hard to put yourself out there by blog or by book and deal even with honest and constructive feedback. Reminds me that feedback is golden and that good learning is where you find it.

  5. Mike: I had an idea you’d appreciate this!

    Kevin: I could not agree more! And I like the image of killing off the little boss in our own head. That guy can be a real jerk :o)

    Paul: I am going to revise it, but not for the next few months.

    Chris: Exactly! A great way to learn is to put yourself in the way of honest feedback.

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