Neoliberal Exploitation, Work Within Christian Culture, and the “Do What You Love” Philosophy

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In masking the very exploitative mechanisms of labor that it fuels, DWYL is, in fact, the most perfect ideological tool of capitalism. It shunts aside the labor of others and disguises our own labor to ourselves. It hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

This month, Jacobin magazine posted an illuminating, deeply provocative and insightful – not to mention frightening – article entitled, In the Name of Love. It maps the exploitive nature of the popular wisdom, “Do what you love,” and its participation within an employment culture based on cheap or free labour through internships and the like, as well as its deepening of and position within class society and struggle.

I want to blog in light of it because I was struck, as I read it, at how this philosophy – and the Jacobin article’s analysis of it – resonated so precisely with my past experiences of working and seeking work within evangelical Christian culture.

My thoughts and experience of this function on two levels: 1) my awareness of the sorts of words and phrases used by Christians who want to “do what they love” within their respective Christian community, and 2) my experience trying to “do what I love” through various internships, and the like, in different Christian schemes and communities.

What I hope might become clear in what follows is just how popular Christian consciousness has been coopted by and can be seen to participate within an exploitive, competitive, neoliberal framework by way of an unthinking absorption of its ideological refrain, “Do what you love.” It will not be within my field of interests to offer a “Christian” response to this paradigm, as I see it. I shall offer my analysis for the near indictment that it is and leave it at that.

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When it comes to the words and phrases that get deployed under the Christian appropriation of the “Do What You Love” philosophy, nothing comes to mind faster than “passion.” One must do what one is “passionate” about. This word is DWYL encapsulated. One should know or work out what best inspires them and then invest in this idea with great entrepreneurial gusto – for Christ. Is it a coffee shop? Is it a “ministry” of some kind? Doesn’t matter! Forget the costs – if you’re “good” at it, if it’s you’re “calling,” you should follow it through in such a way that pleases God.

What is disguised under and within this talk of “passion” is the matter of class – for not everyone has the privilege of “doing what they love” and/or are “passionate” about. The advice regarding passion will frequently be parroted by an upper-middle class leadership for whom doing what one loves has never been a matter of concern when it comes to finance, education, or ability. As the Jacobin article makes clear,

“Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class.

One would not find it hard to quickly come to the realisation that those most able to follow this passionate advice passionately will be, broadly speaking, located within a certain segment of class society. But then, of course, as with Jacobin article, was the advice meant for anyone else?

A further phrase or notion trumpeted in this vein is that of “gifts.” Follow and identify your gifts, please! What should you do within the Christian community? Where will you “serve”? Well, know your gifts, your innate abilities, so you can better outsource your labour!

“Passion” and “gifts” coalesce and work together. Gifts are an easy thing to suggest that one should be passionate about, and if the concept is emptied of its most peculiar and limited spiritual content, then a lot is opened up for potential use.

In the basic sense, there is nothing especially malevolent about offering to do things one is good at if those abilities are needed: the most decent of human beings will often have no trouble providing services such as these – especially if this agrees with initial stipulations (e.g. the service is occasional, none to taxing etc.). This occurs frequently in many settings – not just within Christian communities. However, this is not where my concern lies. My concern is to be found in how these notions come together in the specific terrain of contracted labour and employment. In many cases, once this becomes the focus and goal, such emphasis upon knowledge, use, and development of “gifting,” as well as how “passionate” one is about said talents takes on a strikingly neoliberal, competitive edge. Know how to “sell yourself” (it amazes me this phrase is allowed to exist), know how to pursue and cultivate your talents, and do it all in the name of God/love. The unrestricted development and cultivation of desires and abilities is, of course, to be valued highly, but not for truncated reasons such as employment and prostituted labour.

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If it hasn’t been clear, the dominant situation all that I have said thus far applies to, in my mind, is that of the hope of work or some form of contracted work within Christian culture. Broadly, the encouragement of work (business, law, whatever) that could be networked with a Christian community is an advantageous extension of these notions, but is not my primary concern or thought.

The contracted work, or cultivated hope thereof, I am thinking of has broadly to do with Christian ministry – particularly that of cheap or unpaid labour that may or may not result in the labourer experiencing a net loss, financially. I am thinking here of many Christian communities’ embrace of the system of internships, which has been observed to be developing “an ever larger presence in the [neoliberal] workforce.”

Between DWYL and the emergence of internships as a form of employment, what can be observed is that,

What unites all of this work… is the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for doing it.

You are “passionate,” you are “gifted,” and having been socialised into a DWYL culture that unquestioningly accepts neoliberal economic and social ideologies – well, how else do you proceed? You want to please God, and there are no other options. Vague quasi-Christian ideas of service etc. can be and often are mobilised to make the realities of being cheap labour go down easier – Jesus would oblige himself to this, wouldn’t he?

This has been my own personal experience. I worked several internship jobs, and applied and got accepted to another before torpedoing it a week before starting. Each were in churches – actually, one was technically under the auspices of the denomination to which I belong – all, especially the latter, were not exactly economically challenged. If we aggregate the amount of work I did a week (I’ll only count the jobs that qualified as “full time”) at 35 hours, and putting that in relation to my wage per month (£217), I earned approximately £1.55. Thankfully, this particular job came with accommodation and, to a certain extent, food. However, in the case of the job I torpedoed, the money was to be more or less the same, with no accommodation or food coverage.

It would also be appropriate to recognise that Christian ministry has an implicit ambiguity – there is the contracted work, and then the rest of it. When exactly is one not working? If one is a youth minister and one is called upon spontaneously outside of work hours, is that work? If one socialises with those who one is responsible for and pastoral issues arise, is that work? All in all, the net amount of hours work can be excessive – this is accepted and expected.

In my case, how was the work to payment ratio acceptable exactly? Good question. Any reasonable analysis suggests it is insane – or perhaps that I was for agreeing. This should be contextualised within a denomination willing to spend millions on refurbishments, and congregations willing to spend nearly the same on equivalent enterprises.

It would appear that in the minds of those in charge, God is okay with situations of need and borderline poverty coexisting within environments of profound wealth. Yet, in many ways, what one is undergoing in these contexts is – like internships in fashion, legal, and economic environments – a desperate effort to network, so as to demonstrate what will endure so to “earn” recognition that shall lead to something better.

This is pervasive. I know of churches and para-church organisations in which what is endured and expected is much worse than my own experience. Yet the categories apply still: people have their “passion” and their “gifts;” as well as their willingness to be employed to do some highly-skilled and responsibility-laden work (whether the effects of this work are positive or negative is another question), all in the name of God/love – earning them next to nothing.

An additional note here should be to reiterate the intrinsic class nature of this whole affair, for,

Excluded from these opportunities, of course, is the overwhelming majority of the population: those who need to work for wages.

While the rules of this are a little more ambiguous within Christian communities, the rule holds well enough. Not just anyone gets these positions or applies for these jobs – certain standards are expected. That is you can almost guarantee the familial, educational, and economic background (i.e. heteronormative, third-tier, middle class) – how else could the applicants sustain themselves? How would the work get done? Basic qualifications are expected. Yet, all this further highlights the implicit class-centred nature of this feedback loop.

Within a culture that has been effectively socialised to believe this is what has to be endured, passio/n will suffer it – in the name of God/love.

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What then is to be said of all this? Well, as I noted earlier, I do not wish to theologise or analyse it on the basis of how “biblical” or “Christian” it may or may not be. Of course, this trend can and should be denounced in this way, and liberationist, political, and Christian communist theologies can be called upon to do just that. However, insofar as it is happening, it is Christian; and what this suggests to us is just how desperately implicated within and how fully notions of what is acceptable when it comes to work, within Christian culture, resonate with neoliberal ideology – that is, participating fully within the class systems it perpetuates and the aggressive exploitation and competition it encourages.

We should make no bones about highlighting the abusive and damaging nature of these attitudes and expectations toward work within Christian culture. There is no comprehensible or justifiable sense in which the wages offered should be what they are; there are desperately needed questions that must be asked of how churches reiterate and affirm class divisions; there is a frightening need for linguistic revision when “passion,” “gifting,” “calling” etc. so easily parrot  neoliberal competition and plasticity.

Christian communities, to the extent that they participate within these paradigms, must needs recognise something profoundly wrong with this love, with this God, and what they expect people to do for it.

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