Shadow Work in the Epoch of Self-Management

The March Towards Households of One

Image: George Tooker, “The Subway” (1950), Wihitney Museum of American Art, (source). Used without permission.

My alarm used to wake me up. For some reason of late I haven’t needed it. Every morning I am drawn from slumber well ahead of when I’d like to be by the fact that I need to be at work. Every morning, although I don’t work for two days out of seven.

I haul myself from bed, shave, shower, and dress myself. I choose pants that I bought because they are comfortable while professional. They cost three times what I’d pay for a good pair of jeans. I select from a number of business shirts, shirts I’d wear nowhere else. It took time to locate and try on these clothes, and money to buy them. It takes time to choose them every morning, to wash them, iron them, and hang them up. I do up the collar, and the cuffs. Fun fact: did you know the piece of fabric that sits across your shoulders when you wear a button-up shirt is called the ‘yoke’?

I eat muesli and make myself coffee. I put the empty crockery in the dishwasher, turning it on if it’s full, maybe emptying it if it’s clean from the night before. I walk to work, powered by calories bought and ingested myself, or sometimes pay to catch the tram. The walk takes half an hour, the tram ride 15 minutes. I’m one of the lucky ones, living this close to my place of employment.

Everything I’ve just described is work. It’s just not paid work. It’s the work I do — we all do — to be able to work. It’s ‘Shadow Work’.

The term ‘Shadow Work’ was coined — at least in this form — by the 1970s cultural theorist Ivan Illich. Illich is a bizarre figure in the history of cultural theory. He had a Russian name, yet migrated from Austria to the United States. He served briefly as a priest in South America. He spoke five languages. His work disregards even the most basic of academic conventions as readily as he argues against institutionalised education of all forms. It’s impossible to say whether he was influenced by Foucault or Arendt, even though his work clearly has congruence with theirs. He feels at times like a poststructuralist, at times like an Anarchist. He defies categorisation.

Andrea Komlosy, who makes prominent use of the concept in her , explains Shadow Work like this:

Image: George Tooker, “Government Bureau” (1956), The Metropolitan Museum of Art and DC Moore Gallery (source). Used without permission.

The last point is significant. Shadow Work is, at least in the 20th century, gendered female. In his 1981 book of the same name, for Illich, Shadow Work included

One of the most important aspects of Shadow work is that it arose at the same moment as wage labour; wage labour is in fact impossible without the existence of Shadow Work, and vice versa:

Illich could have been writing about Uber Eats.

Image: George Tooker, “Lunch” (1964), The DC Moore Gallery (source). Used without permission.

Historically, Shadow Work was a product of the same leaving of the household that was produced by a shift to an industrial economy, built around factories, themselves built around centralised energy generation. As men left the household to work, household economies built around subsistence farming mixed with piece-work for money were supplanted by a main household wage intended to place all subsistence on the market. It involves the “redefinition of needs in terms of goods and services mass-produced according to expert design” and the “rearrangement of the environment in such fashion that space, time, materials and design favour production and consumption while they degrade or paralyze use-value oriented activities that satisfy needs directly.” The existence of Shadow Work, then, is the product of historical change. It would have been “unthinkable in societies where the whole house served as a framework in which its inhabitants, to a large extent, did and made those things by which they also lived.”

From my observation, we exist now at the high tide of individualism. 35 years of relentless neoliberal propaganda means that it has become a radical proposition to suggest the possibility of a “life in common,” as Tim Dunlop puts it, or to “act in concert,” as Arendt called it. The recent revelation that people in the United States are having less sex was explained by one sociologist as the product of individualism. The ‘echo chamber’ effect of social media that reflects our own ideas back at us is well known. The only way we could better foster self-interest would be if we all spent our lives in a doorless, windowless room made of mirrors. This would be only a slight nudge towards total solipsism.

Image: George Tooker, “Supermarket” (1956, source). Used without permission.

We are all expected to be self-managing and accountable subjects, engaged in free competition on the market. The fifteen photographs discarded in favour of the one good Instagram post, the minutes spent pruning characters from a carefully edited tweet, the careful curation of our Linkedin profiles, the hours wasted on unsuccessful job applications — these are all added to the shopping, cleaning, maintenance, grooming, and commuting we do as a way to prepare ourselves to face this market. Not to mention all the pieces of work we now do for ourselves that used to be someone else’s job — the self checkout at the supermarket, or the work we do to be the dispatcher for our own Uber.

Illich noted that “shadow work is by far more common in our late industrial age than paid jobs” and he predicted that “[b]y the end of the century, the productive worker will be the exception.” What he didn’t predict was that the household had further to shrink. The world that Illich wrote in was one of heterosexual nuclear family units. These were a far cry from the massive medieval households that predated the advent of wage labour and shadow work. They were also a far cry from the Millennial reality we now face. Singleness is on the rise (in the United States at least). We are trending towards households of one.

Hannah Arendt noted that the way we use the word ‘economy’ — which comes from the Greek word , meaning ‘household’ — would be unrecognisable to Plato’s contemporaries. The management of finances was a household matter, managed by one woman in the household on behalf of all its members. This was true of the 1950s nuclear family as well, though in the intervening centuries the household had dropped from around twenty to just two adults.

Singledom is on the rise, so the number of people doing household chores and keeping budgets is as well. The division of household labour is collapsing. Everyone cooks their own meals and cleans their own dishes. Everyone is their own dietician and personal trainer. If we were talking about agriculture, we’d call it inefficient. As it is, we just insist it’s ‘personal responsibility’. Illich was right: Shadow work has invaded our lives to the point where none of us have any free time at all. The price of being alive at the high tide of neoliberalism is: your whole life.

Shadow work matters because there are ultimately only four ways you can get money, and shadow work isn’t really one of them. The vast majority of us either get paid for work we do — wages — or receive some sort of government payment — welfare, or ‘transfer payments’. Shadow work is the cost we pay to engage in wage labour, and given that it takes time, and time is ultimately what we sell to our employers, shadow work is robbing Peter to pay Paul. Except we are Peter and our employers are Paul.

The only other ways to get money are through profits, which in a Marxist sense is unpaid labour, but to the rest of us is just a reward for a combination of risk and effort in the market, and then there’s dividends, which is basically when your money grows on its own. Both of these types of money creation require considerable capital to begin with — they are out of reach of most of us.

Wages have been dropping as a share of GDP — which means it’s getting harder and harder to convince the wealthy to part with their money in return for labour. Given that a job is ultimately the way you “earn a living,” or in other words, prove that you get to stay alive for one more day, that’s an enormous problem. It is desperately important that we find a way to unhook survival from wage labour. Wage Labour is getting harder and harder to secure, and it’s not like we’re in a famine. In an age of growing inequality, nobody should have to convince someone else that their time is worth money as a prerequisite to eating.

We can’t go back to a Feudal economy, nor should we want to. Despite Arendt’s seeming love for the ancient Greeks, and Illich’s luddite hagiography of the medieval household, we have to recognise that those ways of being are behind us. We could no more return to them than the medieval peasants who inhabited them could inhabit our lives. Besides, just because the gendered division of labour wasn’t as stark in, say, 1450, doesn’t mean that labour wasn’t gendered. It also depended on a strict and immutable social hierarchy we call ‘feudalism’ — hardly something we’d want to institute afresh.

But Shadow Work is a scourge. It fills our time, and benefits us only because it’s the price of engaging in the free market. It accelerates our disconnection from one another by helping to daily recreate us as agents who use their free choice to compete against one another, striving to secure access to scarce resources. But we live in an age of surplus; there is no need to behave like there’s not enough to go around. Especially if the price is, ultimately, the possibility of human connection.

The beauty of historical change is that studying it forces us to confront the fact that a world other than our one is possible. We may not know which changes to institute to end the world that does us harm, and we can never know the full consequences of any of our actions. That’s no reason not to try. Illich argued that even talking about Shadow Work as a thing in itself was taboo, so maybe the first step on the way to finding a new way to distribute the fruits of our collective labours is to name the problem.

Shadow Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your collars, cuffs, and yoke.

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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