“I do not have a dream job. I do not dream of labor.” — TikTok posted by @mrhamilton
There is surprising the amount of discourse and metadiscourse that can be jammed into a 60 second video. That’s especially true when these videos are strung together across users, across a “For You” page, and across time, allowing ideas to emerge, subside, take on revisions and additions. If you find your way onto the niche leftist communities of TikTok, you’ll find no shortage of anti-capitalist rhetoric sandwiched between videos of frog videos and surrealist memes.
I get recommended a good chunk of these videos and have my finger on the pulse of subcommunities, including bimbo TikTok (a parody of the male gaze which seeks to use hyperfemininity as a political tool), lesbian cottage core TikTok (an embracing of traditionalism and pastoralism but without men), and “guy walking down a dark street and quoting Hegel” TikTok. One evening during winter break when I was lying in bed feeling miserable about myself—as I’m apt to do when I don’t have a long laundry list of tasks to achieve with firm deadlines attached to them—a video came across my “For You” page which attempted to demystify the fantasy of labor under capitalism. The TikToker in question used the phrase, “if you do what you love you will never work a day in your life” as a starting point. They said that this thinking was fallacious because capitalism attempts to get us to dream of labor as an individual goal, an inherent virtue, a purpose. Their response was, “I do not have a dream job because I do not dream of labor.” Their argument, put succinctly, was that labor is not a goal to strive towards but a necessity, a burden under capitalism. While I can understand this perspective, I believe it’s a distorted attitude toward labor. As a leftist, I dream of labor.
Many anti-capitalist communities on TikTok pedal alternative lifestyles which boast leisure as opposed to labor. Some of them are fantastical, like the cottage core videos which idealize spending all of one’s time living in the woods, foraging for mushrooms, and eating homemade baked goods. Others are actual lifestyle alternatives, such as communes. Many of these videos are overly romanticized, highlighting slow moments in life, waking up late, and wandering through fields and meadows. There is nothing wrong with this inherently. I dream of living on a small, self-sustaining farm as much as the next girl. But the framing of pastoralism and returning to simpler living as alternatives to labor misunderstands the problem presented by our current economic system.
The view of labor as the enemy perhaps emerges out of recent liberal responses to hustle culture and grind culture. The hustle culture in question—and perhaps what comes to mind when I say I dream of labor—include YouTube videos which encourage earlier and earlier wake times, suggest reading self-help books to sharpen the mind, and tout that anyone can become the next CEO of Facebook if they only spend the right number of hours at the gym, eat the right protein powder, work hard, and “hustle.” Self-care culture touts the opposite of grind culture and encourages rest and rejuvenation. Both responses to the work day, however, have internalized the same messaging: that human beings are inherently lazy, inherently crave stasis. One side attempts to combat this perceived inherent laziness while the other leans into it and says if your body craves rest, rest. If you are tired, sleep. Self-care itself has been turned into a commodity. Expensive bath bombs, face creams, and luxury makeup brands, all wrapped up in millennial pink packaging and toting an environmentally friendly ethos, are at the ready should you ever choose to Put Yourself First.
Over the long and grey winter break, I had many a moment to Put Myself First, to indulge myself. To be fair, I needed a few weeks of rest after finals. However, as December crept into January, I soon found myself growing even more exhausted than I had been during the semester. I felt sluggish, foggy, hardly motivated to even get dressed or cook myself a meal. Much of my time was spent in my pajamas scrolling through TikTok, watching videos about escaping from labor when a structured work day was what I was really craving. No amount of bath bombs and self-care could have cured my growing anxiety. I am not an inherently lazy person. Inherently, I want to work. I seek tasks, as I believe most people do. The problem with work or labor as we envision it under capitalism comes when the worker is alienated from that which they produce. A factory worker does not own the items they produce, neither does an office worker own the value they provide while on the clock. That goes to someone else. This creates a sense of disconnect.
Anti-capitalist communities on TikTok, while they may present themselves as anti-labor, are precisely the opposite. They envision a world in which one can enjoy immediately and fully the product of one’s own work. The idea of living in a little cottage and baking bread all day is enticing because you both get to be there for the process of making the bread and your ability to consume it. Living in a pastoral space or wilderness space means that acquiring the very basic necessities of living is your work. You put in work and you receive a material reward rather than having the product of your efforts snatched away.
Most of these videos are a fantasy. They imagine what life could be outside of a post-industrial hellscape, one which we believe to be defined by over work. But even in our fantasies of escaping from work, we imagine chores, creation, and production as integral parts of our lives and happiness.
The idea that labor itself is punishment to the human body and mind is a very capitalist notion. It is profitable to the industrial machine for you to believe that you’re lazy. The consequence of this belief is the idea that you have simply not worked hard enough to make it, or that the cure to your fatigue is to buy more products, to turn leisure time into consumption. But labor itself is a human drive, a drive to feel necessary and needed, a desire to see the results of your own work. So, as a leftist, I dream of labor and work which is not alienated from its products. And I also crave a cottage in the woods, a place where I can bake my own bread and eat it.
Katie Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.