The Changing Meaning of Labor and the Rise of the “Lying Flat” Phenomenon

Since when, the sacred meaning of labor has long disappeared, the virtues of diligence are no longer followed by the public, and labor has returned to being merely a means for individuals to earn a living. At the same time, the concept of “lying flat” has become the desire of more people, signifying a rejection of existing, dull, tedious, and meaningless work.

The concept of labor has undergone a historical change. In ancient societies, labor was considered natural and necessary, rarely imbued with a sacred meaning.

From the 17th century onwards, the English philosopher Locke began to contemplate the concept of labor. He viewed labor as the process by which humans cultivate the land to extract resources and materials for the production and processing of goods. Labor was seen as a crucial difference between humans and animals – while animals also seek food for survival, only human labor, the process of extracting resources from the earth for processing, is truly considered labor. In simpler terms, both agricultural and industrial labor are part of this process, representing a mainstream form of labor in the 17th century.

Moving into the first half of the 20th century, with the development of modern social stratification, the division of labor became increasingly specialized, encompassing a wide range of job types. It was not just the manufacturing and processing of goods in Locke’s sense that was considered labor.

Weber reinterpreted the concept of labor. Starting from him, work that does not produce tangible goods, such as planning, analysis, management, organization, and education at the administrative level, was also considered labor. Every aspect of social division of labor could be categorized as labor, and labor subjects were no longer limited to farmers or workers producing material goods.

Significantly, for a long time, women’s domestic work was excluded from the concept of labor. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, with the rise of feminist movements, household work, especially women’s private activities at home including housework and childcare, were also categorized as labor.

Today, with the rise of various service industries, particularly with the expansion of media and the internet, many new types of jobs and labor have emerged. Italian theorists introduced the concept of “immaterial labor,” where such labor does not even result in any material products; it is related to communication and exchange, producing information, emotions, and discourse. Today, there is an increasing focus on the so-called “affective labor.”

To understand the phenomenon of “lying flat” today, we may need to rethink labor from another perspective, distinguishing between two types of labor: autonomous labor and employed labor, or active labor and passive labor.

Autonomous labor involves working for oneself, where labor is actively chosen, the outcomes of labor belong to the individual, and importantly, apart from benefiting from their labor, individuals also find joy in their work – for example, the creative activities of artists. Such labor can stimulate a person’s creativity and imagination, allowing for active creation and free expression, evoking excitement rather than fatigue.

In contrast, passive labor is mechanical, repetitive, and depleting. It is employed labor, meaning you work for someone else, and while you may receive compensation, the primary aspect is that you also create surplus value – an analysis deeply explored by Marx, which remains relevant today.

Passive laborers often lack a sense of accomplishment. They are passive in their work. In such jobs, it is challenging to find joy and freedom, easily leading to prolonged exhaustion and feelings of weariness.

Why do people constantly switch jobs? It is to find work that brings them happiness and a sense of creativity. The concept of “lying flat” appears only among employed, passive laborers who have grown tired of such work.

However, “lying flat” should not be simplistically interpreted as a permanent state of idleness. It is always targeted; it rejects a specific existing job. Ceasing that job does not mean never working again.

In essence, “lying flat” is a negation of existing, dull, tedious, and meaningless work; a rejection of employed and exploited labor. Only by rejecting one’s current job can new possibilities emerge, potentially leading to creative work.

In this sense, “lying flat” is both negative, a rejection of current work, but it can also be positive, a beginning towards engaging in meaningful work.

Strictly speaking, the phenomenon of “lying flat” within employed labor is not unique to today; the concept can be traced back to the 1960s. During that time, Italy saw a workers’ movement organization with a significant slogan called “never work.”

The famous Situationist movement also had a slogan of “never work.”

What are the characteristics of “never work”? For them, not working meant liberating oneself from capitalist exploitation and employment relationships.

For them, “never work” meant rejecting capital and the capitalist system, questioning existing production relations and systems by halting and interrupting work, thereby opening up new possibilities. For them, refusing to work was not about directly smashing capitalist production machinery to revolt, nor adopting union struggle methods to negotiate or bargain with employers within the capitalist system, but rather directly withdrawing from this unreasonable relationship.

Workers, in this manner rather than violently destroying machines, created a series of crises within capitalism. This was the thinking of Italian workers in the 1960s.

However, the popular “lying flat” concept today differs from the theoretical and practical considerations of “never work.” “Lying flat” is simply a change in labor and life views among young people, triggered by a complex array of real-world factors.

Regarding the concept of labor, it is worth noting that for generations, people have been enveloped in the discourse of the glory of labor, toiling tirelessly without choice, even in passive labor, yet still viewing labor as honorable. Laziness was recognized as a vice, part of a strategic discourse. The increasing popularity of “lying flat” signifies the diminishing effectiveness of this discourse.

The notion of the dignity of labor was actually constructed over time. In ancient times, people did not ponder much on the meaning of labor. What was labor to them? Gathering food from nature to survive; this was labor, a very instinctual, necessary means to satisfy life’s needs. Labor was the most natural of actions.

In the 17th century, the meaning of labor underwent some changes. Initially, Christianity affirmed labor’s other meanings: labor could overcome laziness and desires, labor could be ascetic, labor was a means to ultimately enter heaven and obtain salvation, labor possessed a religious, sacred dimension – a response to God’s holy teachings, with the fruits of labor being gifts from God. Humans were expected to work as God created the world, and as humans were born sinners, they had to work to redeem themselves before God. The consciousness of diligent labor was thus ingrained into the bones of new believers, eventually transforming into the diligent workers of modern society.

However, in modern society, this religious consciousness has waned, and labor is no longer associated with the divine. Nevertheless, praises for labor have emerged in other ways, such as how labor drives social and human progress, enhances societal efficiency, improves human conditions, ultimately leading to human liberation, and more. Labor always holds meanings and goals beyond itself.

Today, labor has been stripped of its transcendent meanings. It no longer follows God’s commandments to construct a path to heaven, nor does it aim to liberate humanity in this world. Labor has regressed to its intrinsic nature, merely a means for individuals to earn a living.

It has devolved from grand spiritual explorations of value to personalized desires for fulfillment: if a job cannot earn me money and causes me great pain, why should I continue it? There are no longer mythical narratives of transcendent meaning to overcome the negative effects of labor itself.

The negative effects of labor manifest in various forms. Every laborer experiences significant physical exertion, the most direct form of labor’s pain.

Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Marx discussed the cruelty of labor for workers, where the surplus value created from their excessively intense work is mostly appropriated by capitalists. Their earnings only suffice for their basic survival, enabling them to reproduce their labor power and continue engaging in surplus value production.

In the 20th century, Marxist critique traditions, whether from Lukacs or the Frankfurt School, delved deeply into critiquing the labor system of capitalism: the machinery and institutions of capitalism turn people into one-dimensional beings, mere components of machines, operating like machines, devoid of critical thought, emotions, and individuality, transforming individuals into numb and objectified entities, modern-day slaves.

Even today, in the realm of information labor, this critique stands true. For example, Stiegler believes that human dependence on technology renders them entirely foolish, information labor deprives individuals of their minds and consciousness, and human labor becomes entirely passive and adaptive.

Broadly speaking, a long-standing leftist tradition criticizes how capitalism deprives humanity of its essence, capabilities, and potential.

However, Agamben argues that capitalism deprives people of their impotence. Drawing on Aristotle, he introduces the concept of “potential.” There are two dimensions to this concept: potential that can be realized and actualized, and potential that remains unactualized.

In essence, potential also includes a dimension of not doing; not doing signifies our ability to refrain from doing. Agamben particularly values this latter dimension of potential. We should practice this potential of not doing today. We should not only exhibit this impotence in the realm of technology but also in political life. An individual should retain the capacity to abstain from certain actions.

“I can” is the law of capitalism, “I must be able,” everything encourages “I can,” and “I can” becomes the judgment of one’s value orientation. Everyone feels ashamed of incapacity: I cannot not, I cannot admit I cannot. Capitalism thoroughly deprives individuals of the experience of their impotence.

This differs from the Frankfurt School. If the Frankfurt School and Stiegler critique how capitalism’s machinery and technology render individuals incapable, Agamben critiques how capitalism aggressively pushes individuals to be “I can” and deprives them of their inability.

Prior to this, Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue proposed the right to laziness, and Roland Barthes also mentioned similar ideas of daring to be lazy. These propositions aim to uphold the right of individuals to be incapable.

However, capitalism both deprives individuals of their capacity – machines destroy human abilities, turning people into objects, a process known as objectification – and also deprives them of their incapacity: it demands that you must act, continuously and tirelessly, that you must be able to do everything, to the point where individuals believe they can do everything. It requires individuals to work endlessly and tirelessly.

In this sense, individuals also become labor machines, perpetual motion machines.

Labor does not necessarily lead to liberation and freedom? Is labor itself meaningless?

This cannot be generalized. Labor is crucial to our lives. We can differentiate types of labor or work based on utility.

There is a book titled “Bullshit Jobs,” recently translated into Chinese, written by the influential anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics. He argues that modern society is filled with a plethora of jobs that are meaningless.

What are these “bullshit jobs”? They offer no joy, no tangible benefits to society, yet individuals are compelled to do them because these uncreative, meaningless jobs still provide a paycheck for survival.

Simultaneously, society requires such jobs, as if many individuals do not work and have ample leisure time, it could lead to various social problems. In other words, inefficient and meaningless jobs contribute to social stability.

He lists many such meaningless jobs, including receptionists, security guards, public relations, human resources, and even Wall Street financiers. These jobs are deemed meaningless for society, regardless of how much money they earn.

He believes that truly meaningful work, work that brings a sense of accomplishment, is what cleaners, caregivers, volunteers, and early childhood educators do. Their roles are indispensable to society; without this work, society would struggle to function, yet they receive very low wages.

This highlights the irrationality of labor: valuable, meaningful work often yields little return, while meaningless work yields excessive rewards. There is a discrepancy between the value of labor and its rewards.

People often strive to find work that can earn them money, rather than working for ideals or meaning? Is labor no longer a means to freedom or liberation? Isn’t progress achieved through labor?

For many individuals, labor today is simply about fulfilling personal desires. However, this fulfillment does not equate to freedom.

We have seen many people work hard to earn money, and indeed some have earned substantial wealth through labor. However, if this labor itself does not bring joy, it is the rewards of labor that bring happiness.

If one earns a lot of money through labor they do not enjoy, then uses that money to fulfill personal desires, this is not true freedom. It instead makes them slaves to their own desires: they labor painfully to satisfy their desires.

As long as this labor itself does not bring you joy, it is challenging to experience true freedom. Conversely, engaging in active, creative labor will fill you with joy, allowing you to experience the freedom and meaning that labor can bring; this joy is not derived from money but from creation, a form of labor-induced happiness.

This is a practice of human freedom, or rather, the essence of being human is the ability to joyfully labor, finding happiness through work.

I would say that such labor also embodies dignity – one could argue that all labor contrary to one’s will is undignified labor.

Is there a way to free ourselves from this passive labor?

It remains uncertain whether technological advancements can lead us to that point; this represents the potential positive aspect of technology.

Thus far, the technologies we have witnessed have entangled individuals further into passive constraints. However, could there come a day when technology entirely replaces human labor, liberating humanity from all tedious and painful work?

Yet, if such a day truly arrives, where humans no longer engage in painful labor, will humanity still exist? Or rather, will humanity still possess autonomy?

Perhaps, with the emergence of a new intelligent form, humans indeed will not need to labor anymore. However, humans could also become slaves to this new entity, no longer labor slaves but slaves to a new form of intelligence.

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