I am slow to anger, but it really pisses me off when people prescribe for others some purportedly virtuous (or at least dutiful) behavior they’d never embrace in their own lives. In the financial sector, they call it “skin in the game.” Have you risked some of your own money on the advice you are doling out to others? If not, you have no skin in the game. This sound principle applies to many types of activity: the healthcare or housing programs that politicians approve for low-income families would not be substandard if their own ethics obliged them to accept the same provision for their own families. They would have skin in the game.
The current case in point: when Miya Tokumitsu published ”In The Name of Love” in Jacobin early this year, she set off an avalanche of links, reprints, and citations. I was busy, so I ignored all the messages telling me to read and respond. But now, on vacation with time to think, someone sent me Gordon Marino’s exegesis of the same idea, “A Life Beyond ‘Do What You Love,’” recently published in The New York Times. My internal barometer hit the roof.
Marino summarizes Tokumitsu’s thesis: “Tokumitsu argued that the ‘do what you love’ ethos so ubiquitous in our culture is in fact elitist because it degrades work that is not done from love. It also ignores the idea that work itself possesses an inherent value, and most importantly, severs the traditional connection between work, talent and duty.” Marino himself enlists Kant in support of his argument, which he states succinctly in his final line: “Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.”
Tokumitsu focuses on groups such as artists and adjunct faculty, condemning the tradeoffs they make—low-paying or unpaid internship for a leg up in a field; part-time salary and no benefits for a future chance at a book or a bursary—as a form of capitalist exploitation. She also says that taking the principle to do what you love as a guide blinds you to the suffering of others: Steve Jobs’ exhortation to “love what you do,” for instance, seems to her to lead directly to his indifference to Apple factory workers. Did Jobs hold both attitudes? Evidently. Are there people who counsel pursuing what you love who also work for fair wages and conditions for factory workers? Of course. Is there proof that one of these attitudes causes the other? Neither Tokumitsu nor Marino offers any.
Tokumitsu’s bio comprises one line: “Miya Tokumitsu holds a PhD in art history from the University of Pennsylvania.” Her public Facebook page lists only a few group affiliations: Princeton grads, Fulbright scholars, art historians…. I have no way of knowing whether she worked her way through Princeton cleaning houses or standing on an assembly-line, or had parents or grants to ease her way. She says exactly nothing about her own economic circumstances, relationship to work, or experience with organizing—all subjects on which she has a great deal to say with respect to the circumstances and attitudes of others. Marino, a philosophy professor, includes only one such personal revelation, that his father “labored at a job he detested so that he could send his children to college.”
What has me so pissed off? Let me count the ways:
I hate it when intellectuals advocate denying others the freedoms (or guilting others into eschewing the freedoms) that evidently lubricated their own professional paths. Both essays reek of nostalgia for an inherited idea of duty that is very close to knowing one’s place in society, often portrayed (almost always by people who aren’t following this principle) as sucking it up and doing the hard thing for the good of all. I wonder whether either writer would have traded away the freedom to make choices that led to their PhDs, accepting instead the intrinsic compensations of duty?
It’s not as if these ideas about duty and worked popped up free-range without historical reference. Kant’s philosophical proposition borrowed by Marino considers whether a man of means has an obligation to develop and use his gifts even if necessity doesn’t come into it. We can’t know what Kant would have made of a proposition concerning a woman without means but with courage, and a choice between pursuing a passion and submitting to duty. We can’t know because Kant didn’t write about such women. I wonder if Tokumitsu or any other woman would truly want to return to a time when even in industrialized societies, duty trumped the opportunity to do what you love.
I have skin in the game. My father was a uneducated man who painted houses and hung wallpaper for a living, dropping dead at 47 from a previously undiscovered congenital heart defect. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m certain the chemicals in mid-20th century paint did nothing to prolong his life. He took great pleasure in craftsmanship, cultivating a talent for mimicking wood grain with paint. In his off-hours, he liked elaborate paint-by-numbers kits; I remember watching him dip tiny brushes into the capsules of paint, newspapers spread on the diningroom table to catch spills. He encouraged my own talent for drawing, which led to the work I did until I was 30 or so: painting, illustration, graphic design. I had no scholarships, mentors, trust funds, or even help from home. I worked part-time jobs from the time he died (I was 10) and taught myself what I wanted to learn. Before I was able to support myself with my artwork, I waited tables, sold gloves and hosiery in a department store, designed a coffee-shop menu and flyers for a real-estate business. I made posters for antiwar and civil rights groups, braiding my political and artistic commitments. As a novice in my field, I had to work for very little to establish that my work was worth paying for. I recognized all of these as common tradeoffs for the freedom to do what I loved.
Tokumitsu writes that “‘Do what you love’ disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class.” This is hogwash. Only one whose attitudes are shaped by the self-ratifying assumptions of the owning class would be able to say it without blushing. Every artist I know who came up in a working-class family, who lacked economic privilege, chose to do the same thing, entering into a form of self-financing apprenticeship, whether with a single master or in a self-guided framework. And so it has been for artists—and many types of skilled workers—throughout recorded history.
Pursuing what I love saved my life, even though it has entailed living for long stretches with a level of economic insecurity that would drive most of my friends nuts. It freed me from having to serve an idea of familial obligation that effectively placed me in servitude to others’ self-gratifying desires. It made me someone who, despite marginal and challenged beginnings, sees myself as having agency and choice. I know from experience that even if you don’t get what you want, understanding what you love and following that path adds to life’s vibrancy and flow.
Both Tokumitsu and Marino equate doing what one loves with egotistical self-indulgence, as in I love chocolate so much I’ll eat it for every meal. Their idea of love is juvenile and reductive beyond belief. I love my work because it uses me fully, gives me pleasure, and affords me the opportunity to help others. Many people love to extend themselves both in mastery and in service. Marino uses the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of self-sacrifice as opposed to the pursuit of what one loves, and sacrifice is clearly a part of MLK’s story. But I have no doubt that his oratory and the response it received gave him tremendous personal pleasure, the kind a musician derives from a masterful performance. I’ve known organizers whose pleasure in their work is as near to sustained bliss as most of us can attain. Beyond that, both writers fail to perceive the elitism in their own attitudes toward “unlovable” work. Tokumitsu is clear that taking care of the infirm is pure drudgery; Marino seems challenged to imagine that skill in a trade can have its own satisfactions of mastery and appreciation. Reading their definitions of “real” work leaves a bad taste in my mind.
I’m not arguing against the observation that many people are forced to take work they dislike out of economic necessity; I’ve been in that position myself. It’s an enduring feature of capitalist economies as well as socialist and state-run economies. My own response is to advocate for economic justice, including a basic income grant, which would extend freedom to do what we love.
It is unassailably correct to say that economic justice, including fair pay for fair work, is a human right. It is idiotic to suggest that apprenticeship is an artifact of late capitalism, generated by exploitation. It is correct to say that labor organizing—individuals joining to right common injustices—may improve compensation and working conditions for their workforce sector. In a nation of steadily declining unionization, where most of the pathetically low 11% of the workforce that belongs to unions is now in the public sector (and even in that sector wage and benefit cuts are repeatedly forced) it is idiotic to suggest that adjunct faculty or interns who organize are bound to succeed. It is correct to point out that many forms of work are being squeezed out of the marketplace. It is idiotic to point to the principle of “do what you love” as a cause and fail to mention the oligarchic corporatization of absolutely everything which is actually creating these conditions.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Tokumitsu’s piece in particular was so enthusiastically taken up by some of the people whose grievances she writes about—by some junior academics, artists, publishing interns, for instance—because it casts the very real economic challenges of their work lives as a form of exploitation, allowing them to nestle into the frame of an oppressed class, which can be a tremendous relief compared to the contest of personal merit that is the usual frame. Whether or not that leads to courageous action for common cause remains to be seen, as is whether such action will succeed.
But the bottom line on this argument is wrong. Part of the pleasure of living is discovering what we love, and understanding ourselves as having choice, including the choice to trade other things for the freedom to pursue what we love if we wish to do so. Class differentials color that right, of course; but everyone has it, and to say that they don’t is to serve oppression while claiming to do the opposite.