How Our System Revenges Rest

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

Last week, when I trying to do all the things and then had to deal with a very sudden flat tire threatening to ruin all of my carefully laid plans, I was on my way to a long planned relatively short vacation. Wednesday through Monday. A very good number of days. I wrote last week’s newsletter on the plane, scheduled it to go out on Sunday, scheduled some social media posts to accompany it, and allowed myself four days of pretty much nothing. I read a book a day. I did not feel compelled to do anything touristy or otherwise edifying. I slept nine to ten hours a night. My body felt like it was caught in a long exhale.

I talk a lot about how vacations are not a cure for burnout, and I hold fast to that declaration. But they are certainly part of its amelioration: by Monday morning, I felt a real and invigorating hunger for the things I planned to write about in the weeks to come. It’s not that I couldn’t stop working, or wanted to work in that moment; it was more like what happens when you stop running for a week and then come back to your first run and it feels light and great and the inverse of a slog and you remember why you started running in the first place: that feeling, that right there.

But I did not have a smooth reentry. Last weekend, the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia was hit by another “atmospheric river” — which meant more rain in 36 hours than the area usually gets for the entire month of November. On the island where I live, local rain gauges read out at over six inches of rain in the space of two days. Rivers flooded, lakes flooded, farmland and lowlands flooded, Vancouver was effectively cut off from, well, everything.

This is what we returned to: a closed interstate, but also closed roads all over the county, and a shelter-in-place order for the peninsula and island where we live. You can get some of the scope of the damage here, but if you don’t live in the immediate area (or know someone who does) you probably had very little idea it was happening. This doesn’t surprise me, because the U.S. coastal (and even more importantly, East Coastal) media bias is very real but also because climate catastrophes have become so commonplace as to not merit catastrophic coverage.

We diverted. We did a quarter-mile reverse off a freeway ramp. We drove through at least two feet of water on the only road left open to the ferry dock and then it closed entirely a week after. To be very clear: our day-long struggle is truly nothing compared to those still figuring out how to salvage flooded crops and pasture and basements. But it was not a peaceful re-entry. It was overflowing with stress. Which seems just quintessentially pandemic, right? Or, more precisely, quintessentially of this (nearing) post-pandemic, climate catastrophe-infused, broken safety net, broken justice system, broken childcare system, broken supply chain, broken housing market, broken legislature moment.

If you have the means, you can go on temporary vacation from that brokenness — as we did. But it’s still waiting to envelop you when you return.

I spent the rest of the week dealing with the consequences of even that short break: my inbox was overflowing, I was behind on everything, the dogs were wily and needy, the to-do list I didn’t finish before leaving was still there, yet had somehow gained more power, like an old cheese. The freshness of the long weekend evaporated with a speed that was, frankly, astonishing. I ended this week just as exhausted, if not more so, than before I left.

I’m not asking for sympathy: again, even able to go on vacation, what a marvel, what a privilege! I am asking for us to think about the ways in which we’ve arranged life in a way that is intolerant, even actively hostile, to taking leave of everyday responsibilities — for whatever reason, for however long. I’m talking about vacation and rest, but I’m also talking about leave for sickness and disability and caregiving. There is just so little give in the system.

Our days have accumulated tasks and responsibilities that behave like invasive plants: if you neglect their maintenance, even for a day, they threaten to pull the entire enterprise asunder. The less societal privilege you have, the more true this feels. People with good credit, power and seniority within their organizations, and an emergency fund can afford to (momentarily) fall behind. Their apologies for a delayed email, a late bill, a late kid will be accepted. For everyone else, drop one ball and risk catastrophe: lost hours, lost jobs, lost credit, lost cars, lost homes.

Precarity snowballs and destroys the meager structures you’ve erected to protect against it. You’re blamed for a lack of emergency fund, for lack of foresight and planning, for not working or thinking harder about consequences — but no one person can plan or prep enough to protect against the wildness of our dying planet, the hungers of our growth-obsessed market, or the indifference of a society obsessed with individualism at all costs. As I wrote last week, I am increasingly convinced that community, in all of its forms, is the only way forward. But even the best, most nurturing communities of care cannot combat systems — of work, of government, of society in general — arranged to effectively revenge rest.

The ideal worker, after all, is a robot. A robot never tires, never needs rest, requires only the most basic of maintenance. When or if it collapses, it is readily replicated and replaced. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonatahn Crary makes the haunting case that we’re already training our bodies for this purpose. The more capable you are of working without rest of any form — the more you can convince your body and yourself to labor as a robot — the more valuable you become within the marketplace. We don’t turn off so much as go into “sleep mode”: ready, like the machines we’ve forced our bodies to approximate, to be turned back on again.

The principle holds true whether you’re a “knowledge worker” or a gig worker cobbling together hours; the difference, at least for now, is that one of those workers gets health insurance and maybe even therapy coverage when their body and mind begins to fall apart. The other just falls apart, with the measures they take to survive to make it through the damn day either criminalized or pathologized.

A robot works through an attempted coup, through constant push alerts about the latest case of racialized violence and injustice, through mass shootings and disintegration of women’s bodily rights and the erosion of democracy. A robot never gets sick, never has a kid that gets sick, doesn’t even needs a day off after their vaccination booster. A robot doesn’t have to dither over whether or not it should come back early from parental leave. A robot never despairs upon return from vacation because a robot never takes vacation. Two weeks of PTO and meager family leave policies are insufficient counters to the argument that ideal worker does not have a family, does not have responsibilities, does not have feeling — or, more to the point, does not have a body at all.

Part of the friction and fatigue of this moment, then, is derived from that gap between the embodied reality of labor and the robot ideal. As workers, we ricochet back in forth between the two extremes: one day you wake up and pledge to make yourself as optimized and productive as possible; the next, you can barely stay awake. Each mode disciplines and overreacts to the other. Within this paradigm, productivity always feels out of reach, but so, too, does actual rest. The return from vacation cancels out the vacation, which prompts you to feel like you yet again need a vacation. You try to come back to work before you’ve fully recovered from your cold; your still-weakened immune system then catches the next cold to enter the house. Working or resting, it’s never enough.

During the interviews for the upcoming book, I talked to a woman who runs a sort of high-end, long-term contract temp work agency. When someone goes on leave, or a team needs to temporarily staff up to accommodate the needs of a client or project, she helps place workers (in this case, largely in marketing) to fill those roles. She told me that twenty years from now, she thinks work will look like waking up in the morning, opening a device, and deciding the character and length of work that you’d like to do: a quick, day’s long project, a year-long commitment, whatever works for you, the worker, in that moment. Everyone a freelancer, everyone in control of the work rhythms of their own life, everyone able to take breaks when they need it, and even find legitimate, fulfilling part-time work if that’s what your body (or care demands) require. It would also be malleable to schedules disrupted by climate catastrophes, when people would be cut off from the ability to work for weeks at a time.

It’s a nice idea, right? Or, at least, a nicer idea than what we have now? But it only works with structures of support — for healthcare, but also for a base, live-able pay, with readily accessible and flexible childcare. It only works, in other words, with societal infrastructure decoupled from employment: universal healthcare, universal childcare, and the means to absorb, accommodate, and care for people displaced by climate events. It also means Universal Basic Income: a base amount of money, distributed to all, that frees them to do the best work they are able to do. That sounds expensive, right? Well good thing we have companies turning massive profits which are only going to get even more massive as they continue to replace human labor with the durable labor of actual fucking robots.

Now, I realize that there are all sorts of dangers — environmental, ethical, and more — to automation, particularly if spearheaded by the worst of our capitalist actors, and without significant foresight and sustained, thoughtful regulation. But we’re already living in a largely automated world, and so much of the worst labor exploitation, from factory work to package delivery, takes place in industries and workplaces ripe for automated transformation.And before you start yelling about drone traffic and Bezos dominance and Yang Gang Sucks, yes, again, all of this needs to be regulated in meaningful and substantive and even imaginative ways.

This is not a white paper with policy suggestions about the future of automation and UBI (although I am interviewing someone for the newsletter soon about how UBI has and could work!) It is a newsletter inviting you think about why it’s so enduringly hard to take even a day, let alone a week, away from work and everyday life — and why individual or even company policies are inadequate solutions to the structural problem of we should ideally be robots. It is asking you to think about why all of our technological advances have meant less rest, not more.

So sit with that for a bit. What did it feel like the last time you tried — or were forced — to opt out for a few days? Remember the bone-deep fatigue after the the Texas storm, the Iowa derecho, the wildfires and the smoke. Recall the struggle to juggle your responsibilities the last time your kid got sick, and then sick again, and again — or when it became apparent that your aging parent needed care now. Think about just how little space we have in this economy for someone who cannot, for whatever reason, work a full week — but doesn’t want to live in poverty.

Did you resist a sick day even when you felt like weathered shit after the Covid vaccine? Are your finances balanced so precariously that a day off feels like an invitation for disaster? What if we didn’t just normalize taking time, but created structures that made the taking of that time less catastrophic?

It’s one thing to try and give yourself grace. But what would it feel like to find yourself in a system tailored for it?

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