Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
There are a lot of people in my life, myself included, who find meaning in the jobs they do. Despite this, I dream of a day where the purpose I derive from my job can be separated from capitalism’s demand for productivity, and instead channeled into what I truly seek joy in, like community, pleasure, creativity, and abundance. When I think of the many ways we—laborers, neighbors, people in community with one another—are failing each other, I think first and foremost of the institution of work as we know it.
I am the director of programming for a nonprofit that works to reduce food insecurity in South Florida. We were born in the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a small team of six artists with day jobs, we see firsthand the failures of our local and state governments, as well as the total lack of support and acknowledgement from the federal government. Most of my work involves making sure people have the resources they need to survive.
At first glance, we pair homebound and immunocompromised folks with a volunteer who brings them free food, and host 10 community fridges in food deserts that are free for everyone. The reality is that food insecurity is not the only thing our clients worry about, but rather, it is just one link in a longer chain of struggle. We also set people up with food stamps, find housing for undocumented folks, and start crowdfunding campaigns for people with outrageous medical bills, rent issues, and so much more.
These are jobs that should not exist—it is only due to the failure of the U.S. government that the nonprofit industry is so prevalent. Still, doing the work I do makes me feel like I am not wasting the time I get to be alive. It is complicated and heavy and can pile on the guilt and expose my privilege front and center, but at the end of the day, I feel a little better about the way the world can be. I am able to find purpose while also paying all my bills, which feels more and more like a rarity, especially now that the federal minimum wage is so far from being a living wage.
Nonetheless, the national mood has been more bleak than usual lately. Every day that I clock in for work, I feel a deep sense of urgency: Each email I answer, each grant I send off are nagging reminders that we are wasting time. We are too busy complying with the way the world is instead of fighting for how we believe it should be. To me, a better world is one that encourages who we truly would be away from who we become when we are struggling to survive.
According to the Pew Research Center, “employed Americans with high family incomes again say they are the most satisfied [with their jobs].” The same survey from 2016 cites that nearly half of working Americans tie their identities to their jobs. When individuals and families are not worried about their basic needs being met, there is more room for creativity, joy, abundance, pleasure, and more. There is more freedom to explore identity away from work.
Together, we need to organize for a true living wage, improved working conditions, and safe and affordable housing for everyone. Nearly 17.3 million people are, on some level, living under the poverty line. Even with full-time work, these folks cannot make ends meet. Only when we ensure all of us have dignity and just compensation in our work can we truly thrive as full humans.
Joining collectively to fight for people’s freedom to exist outside of work is an abolitionist practice. What this means is abandoning traditional capitalist practices, like extremely long work hours, no work-life boundaries, and burnout, in order to actually make the time and capacity to attend local government meetings, support local and national unions, organize labor strikes, and get to know the people you are working with and fighting for. When we are all living with our most basic needs met, then we can become our true selves and fight together for true liberation from White supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and capitalism. As the anarchist writer Emma Goldman so rightly asked, “With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?”
As a practice, I’ve stopped asking new people I meet what they do for work right away. It is a default question and it doesn’t tell me who you are or what you care about. Partly, I don’t want to talk about the work that I myself do. I am not the work I do, nor am I the money I get for it to keep myself housed, fed, and clothed. Instead, I want to know what someone does to find joy. I want to know what they have been thinking about. I want to know where they see themselves in the process of making the world more equitable. I want to ask about the abundance in their lives, the community they live within, and what makes them feel free. I want to share in the bridging between who we are as workers and who we want to be as people.
It is a relatively small way to move forward in anti-capitalist praxis, but it has changed the way I think about how we can encourage movement building. It has helped slow the urgency I feel, grounding me in the reality that organizing is always slow and intentional, with limitless potential. If we are willing to learn more about each other rather than the ways we compulsively participate in capitalism, we can begin to collectively act for a better future for all.
Rachel Komich is queer writer, archivist, and organizer from Ohio currently living in Miami, Florida. They write about politics, gender, and sexuality, and things that make them curious.