'Work/ life balance' is a capitalist myth & rejecting it is a liberating practice
Feat. the show Severance: A horrifying & hopeful glimpse at the plight & rebellion of workers
Today’s newsletter starts off a bit mysterious & dystopian but it winds up being hopeful, messy in a beautiful way, critical but practical, not theory but praxis oriented & ends on a “our love & solidarity will burn this s**t down” note. Deep breaths. We got this.
We’ve been socialized since day 1 to become every company, institution or workplace’s dream — a worker that leaves their “personal life” at the door. We don’t even question what the concept of “work/ life balance” even means because it’s been normalized, glorified & glamorized. It’s even framed as a ‘healthy’ goal we must pursue to be labeled as ‘well-rounded’, successful individuals by society. But, is it really possible for us to split ourselves into two halves- the work-self & the life-self? Can I morph into a worker the moment I step into the workplace and return to being a full, living being the moment I step out? Is there no toll that such severance or dissection takes on our body & soul? Should we chase a fragmented, two-faced existence where majority of our day is spent not living? We may need to dissociate at work to put food on the table. However, our freedom hinges on us confronting the reality that as workers, we must turn off our sentience, emotions, feelings, full spectrum of awareness & conscious sensation to do what we’re told.
Table of contents
Introducing Severance- How are workers made life-less by capitalism?
Dissociation- a worker’s ultimate coping tool but is it always helpful?
Self-reflection exercise: What have you given up for work?
Noteworthy scenes from Severance- do these bring up any realizations about your own reality & how you can rebel in small ways?
Solutions: Capitalism’s severance hasn’t fully worked on us either. How can we find hope in community, build solidarity & let go of capitalist BS?
FOR PAID SUBSCRIBERS ~~
Personal reflections on being disabled & severed by capitalism
Extra Reflection exercise: What parts have you been fragmented into? What parts have you been severed from?
Lessons on grief & ‘self-exploitation’ inspired by more Severance scenes
Do these lessons apply to gig workers, pink/ blue collar laborers etc? Yes.
Severance is a political-comedy-horror TV show that may light a fire in you
The series, Severance, is an unfiltered, in-your-face artistic depiction of the abuse & brutal oppression that us workers experience that we have all normalized to varying degrees. I use it in this newsletter to speak to things you likely already know deep within you but may have suppressed or not critically reflected on.
“The benefit of exploring a topic like workplace organizing in a sci-fi story like Severance is that its outlandish premise allows its viewers some remove from the cultural baggage we see as entrenched and unchangeable. It’s a narrative that puts the brutality of work front and center, and through stories, we can learn that what seems impossible is not. Even in the most dystopian version of corpocratic America imaginable, workplace empathy and uniting in our common struggle triumphs.” - Caitlyn PenzeyMoog
Warning: Some spoilers ahead (though I don’t personally think they take away from the weirdness & “oh good god this is my life” aspect of watching this for the first time)
Severance follows the employees of Lumon Industries who are required to undergo a neurosurgical procedure called ‘Severance’ to work for the shady corporation. This brain surgery splits, fragments & compartmentalizes the employee’s mind & consciousness into two halves creating two separate personas or identities- the work self called “innie” and the primary, whole self in the outside world called “outtie”. The surgery is designed to ensure that these two selves have no memories or knowledge of each other. Lumon glamorizes this voluntary procedure as a perk for their well-paid employees to biologically achieve an irreversible “work-life balance”. The main character, Mark chooses to undergo the procedure after the death of his wife, hoping to numb himself & forget about his pain for 8 hours everyday (which of course only prolongs his misery & suffering).
Every day, these workers drive to their jobs carrying all the burdens of existing in this world but when they enter the company elevator, a chip implanted during the severance procedure that is bifurcating their brain activates to turn ON the work-self & turn OFF the life-self which makes them forget who they really are including the things they care about. Once they ‘clock in’, they work with no knowledge of who they are in the “real world” outside work. They have no memories of their relationships, life, childhood, pain, joy, desires, community, wants, needs, etc. All they remember is the hours spent within the confines of the company’s building. At the end of the work day, workers enter the same elevator which deactivates the work-self & switches ON the outside life-self who has absolutely NO knowledge of what their innie does at work (how they’re treated, who their coworkers are etc).
The severed worker is the ultimate cog in the machine- loyal to no one but the company, hyper-focused on work with no distractions from the ‘outside world’ because they are severed from the full selves. Each day bleeds into the next as workers get on & off their monotonous hamster wheel of meaningless tasks. Doesn’t this sound an awful lot like the plight of us workers but maybe more in your face about the toll that work takes on our bodies & minds? Isn’t the mere fact that we refer to our non-work lives as the “outside world” indicative of the prisons that workplaces are designed to be? Note: The corporate bosses of Lumon are not severed pointing to the power imbalance that comes with workers lacking full informed consent. Get bread or get dead isn’t exactly a choice.
The workplace infrastructure is designed to robotify you
Lumon industries represents the quintessential “office” infrastructure— sterilized & lifeless whitewashed walls, an endless labyrinth of identical corridors & indistinguishable cubicles you can get lost in, insidious managers who plot your demise behind your back but smile extra-hard to your face, ridiculous “melon parties” to incentivize worker performance, cult-like rituals to fawn over the founder & CEOs, constant employee surveillance monitoring interactions & tracking productivity, wax figures of past CEOs with their inspirational quotes smeared all over the walls, carceral punishment policies for employees who disobey authority with internment camp-like disciplinary 're-education’ sessions with a company therapist AND an overall sense of doom, terror & fear of management. All social interactions at the workplace are meant to be superficial, rehearsed, meaningless & impersonal. There is no authentic exchange between because workers always have to watch their back. We call this professionalism.
How have you survived & coped with a lifetime of being told to do things you didn’t want to do? Was it ever a real choice if societal abandonment, state-sanctioned carceral punishment or death were the consequences of not making it? How did you cope in your childhood when you were told to obey made-up rules or norms, many of which didn’t make any logical sense or serve the greater good? To survive- we’ve had to fragment ourselves from within & become numb to our own wants, needs & desires. To survive school, nuclear family dynamics, individualistic societies, loneliness, colonial/ capitalist norms- we’ve had to split ourselves such that we may not even be aware of who we are outside what society has told us we should be.
The workers in the window-less “secret” department of Lumon have no clear idea what they are doing & what their assigned tasks are contributing towards. This represents the average worker in society who often feels no personal attachment to their work because they do made-up tasks as part of made-up schemes of the rich to get richer & have no clarity on who their work is truly helping but more often- workers are kept in the dark about our complicity in the oppression of others.
Dissociation is a worker’s favorite tool to cope with capitalism’s severance
The severance brain surgery may be fictional but the resulting plight of workers is accurate. Rather than a single surgical procedure, we’ve been severed slowly, gradually, subtly, over our entire lives by capitalism. To be able to survive, deal with the lack of agency & mold ourselves into what society tells us to be- we’ve created, practice, refined a wide array of coping tools. Some of them have helped while others worsened our plight since they are merely reactionary to our social conditioning without questioning the whole premise of the systems we’re forced to conform to.
All of us have tried to belong to these oppressive systems at some point. We’ve practiced being dissociated from ourselves since our earliest childhood days because capitalism/ colonialism severed us from our land, the rest of our ecosystem, from each other, from our communities, from our ancestors & our collectivist ways. We’ve practiced ignoring our instincts- those that enable rebellion & those that seek connection, love, community. Workplace infrastructure is designed to drain us & isolate us. Work is designed to turn us into mindless, emotionless, agency-less, obedient objects. Everything from the structure of our daily 9-5 schedules to the lack of communal infrastructure that drives loneliness & isolation- it is all meant to facilitate our total dissociation from our bodies & souls. If you have no energy to think critically or exchange information, no time to build meaningful relationships with your coworkers, then you have no chance to be self-aware about your exploitation which decreases the likelihood of you doing something about it. To survive- we may have had to turn it all OFF, turn our sentience OFF. However, this is not really possible even if we try. It takes a toll & it doesn’t ‘work’ for us even if we delude ourselves into thinking we are okay.
Reflection: What have you had to give up for work?
Most of us don’t realize how we’ve lived weekend to weekend, vacation to vacation, praying for the next period of brief relief when we can hopefully live out our hopes & dreams when in reality, we spend those periods recovering from burnout. What have you had to put on hold for work? What have you told yourself you will get to at some point in the hypothetical future when you are more free? What have you had to de-prioritize for work- a personal health issue, relational issues, a grieving or hurting loved one who needed you, the death of a loved one, a celebration of life, a birthday, a book you’ve been wanting to read, a trip you’ve wanted to take, a friend you’ve yearned to visit, plants you’ve wanted to care for, community you’ve craved to be around, rest, contentment, joy? What have you had to abandon for work? Did you feel like you had a real choice even in the moments you told yourself you chose this life or career path? How many people have you had to disappoint or hurt to prioritize your job? How many sleepless nights, anxiety driven days, hospital visits, breakdowns or days of numbness have you endured for work?
Specific scenes from Severance that depict critical themes & lessons for workers.
Even if you don’t end up watching it, the brief summaries below may catalyze some realizations about your own reality.
The opening scene of Severance: A white woman- Helly, with red hair in professional business formal attire (dress & heels) lies unconscious on a conference room table & is startled awake by a mechanical yet creepily positive disembodied voice from a speaker asking “Who are you?”
Helly is unable to recall who she is or how she got there & realizes she cannot leave. Mark, the voice in the speaker, is tasked with “orienting” Helly (who just underwent the severance surgical procedure) who is here to replace Petey, an ex-coworker that disappeared after he was suddenly fired by Lumon. Helly repeatedly tells Mark she wants to quit & does not consent to work at Lumon when she is made aware of the procedure. Except, Helly the outtie already signed a binding contract with Lumon & records a video for her innie saying “I am a person. You are not” & rejects her own innie’s appeal to quit. Ironically, the outtie is unaware of the full scale of the exploitation her innie is experiencing. The brain surgery aside- doesn’t this sound familiar? It is an eerie reflection of the lack of agency all workers have in determining our own fate. Any obligation we feel towards work should be critically interrogated thru a political lens— we never consented to work, we were just born in a world where we have to earn the right to live. That’s not a choice- it’s a pre-determined context we have to adapt within.
The severance procedure isn’t enough to stop workers from waking up to their own exploitation. Petey- the fired Lumon employee, now unhoused, traumatized & severely ill, tracks down Mark’s outtie who has no memory of any of his co-workers. Petey explains that Lumon fired him because despite the severance surgery, he somehow reintegrated— his consciousness merged his two halves back together which made him realize all the unethical, horrific things his innie did working for Lumon.
It’s clear that the splitting of his consciousness into the work-self & life-self caused serious physiological, emotional & psychological trauma. Petey asks “What if . . . you’re murdering people eight hours a day and don’t know it?” and Mark wonders, “Am I?” The innie (work persona) is forced & born into this world without consent. Lumon hopes that these innies can be endlessly exploited without consequences but ultimately, the severance procedure fails. The body adapts & fights its way back to wholeness. Eventually, the workers wake up, rebel & resist in all the ways that they can because they have each other & that is more powerful than you may think. Like a domino effect, one innie waking up paves the path for others to do the same. They plot a big, joint, collective resignation (a literal escape from the prison of work) by attempting to get their innie & outtie to communicate or become aware of the plight of the other. Lumon fails to break worker solidarity as they work together to reintegrate & find their way back to their whole selves.
Another worker- Dylan starts off as a bootlicker & is radicalized when he realizes his outtie is a father to a young kid. The boss wakes up his work-self (by activating the chip in his brain) to ask him some questions outside of work hours when the physical body of outtie Dylan is at home with his family. So his innie mind (work mode) takes over his outtie’s body (personal life mode). This blurring & crossing of boundaries catalyzes Dylan’s reintegration. The image of his son was enough to jolt Dylan’s innie awake because community is why we are alive- that is what gives us hope, meaning, purpose & a complex reason to exist. “I want to remember my f**king kid being born!” he later yells at his boss.
Solutions & lessons on solidarity
I firmly believe our pain is not from the lack of balance but from the mere existence of work itself in a society that forces us to earn the right to live by selling our bodies & minds to exploitative systems. Some thoughts:
We should abolish the myth of the “work/ life balance”. Instead of “work hard, play hard”, when we are able to- we should aim to work less. The work/ life balance myth was concocted BY capitalism itself to get us to chase a balance that is NOT meant to be possible. Except, it is meant to be an illusion- a carrot that is dangled in front of us to get us to spend our lives chasing a hypothetical future where capitalist wealth or success “frees” us.
Capitalism is not designed to create real safety, stability, happiness, contentment, comfort, resilience, complexity, joy or anything meaningful because those things come from community. Chasing the bag will leave us forever yearning for meaning and trapped in a cycle of loneliness & competition. How can it be possible to have a ‘healthy’, meaningful, whole, complex personal life embodying collectivist values of social justice AND be ‘successful’ in the capitalist sense. What it takes to be successful in the system is fundamentally unethical. There will be many forks in the road where we have to decide- how complicit will I be in the name of ambition?
F**k success. I want us all to be free. As workers, we are expected to not let personal or communal disasters or any personal relationship or health crises or loss affect our work or productivity or career trajectory. We can’t pursue our real passions unless we monetize them which is how capitalism sucks the joy & excitement out of even the things we care about. We aren’t allowed to live as conscious, sentient, aware, consenting beings at work so beyond doing what we need to survive & pay the bills, can we be critical of all the other things we’ve told ourselves we MUST do to attain SUCCESS, recognition, power or validation at work? Can we be critical of our egos & self-centered ambitions?
Occasional, intentional, selective & strategic dissociation can be protective. To not fully lose ourselves to work, we may have to sometimes dissociate at work. But total dissociation leads to a lack of awareness about our own oppression and active participation/ complicity in the oppression of others. Feeling our pain or discomfort alerts us to our boundaries or the areas where we may need to grow. This is a transitionary era as the empire burns down while we build what comes next so our adaptations will be equally messy & complex. That is ok. We can learn to carry that complexity together.
Build solidarity, unionize, focus on relationships & community— DESPITE the surgical severance procedure, the worker’s bodies are simply unable to remain fragmented. The toll on their bodies & minds essentially raises alarms & signals constantly which eventually become impossible to ignore for both the innie & the outtie. However, we cannot fight this battle alone & reaching for connection more openly can give our lives meaning outside of work.
It is also to be critical about the power imbalances at hierarchical workplaces. Those with more privilege can strategically leverage their power to create a safety net for those who have more to lose. This applies to all of organizing- some people can afford to take a hit for others & ultimately privilege is something we have to give away by risking our comfort.
P.S. I have no idea what turn the show will take in season 2. Mainstream Hollywood is a tool of state propaganda after all so I don’t put anything on a pedestal. If you watch it, be critical like with anything else, take what resonates & leave what doesn’t.
If you’re reading this, chances are capitalism’s severance tactics haven’t fully worked on you either
Many people, especially in colonial, western countries, ask “What is you name? What do you do?” when they meet someone new. Why should our jobs define our entire personality? Why would any career (or success in a brutal system) be an indicator of someone’s worth? We are so much more. We can eternally evolve into so much more. We can give each other the space to be more. Workers are stronger together because any living being is only as strong as the community & ecosystem they are enmeshed within.
Severance did not work on many of us & more will awaken
Despite our social conditioning, many of us question these oppressive systems & the state of our world. Many choose to care when we were raised to be cut-throat or felt guilty for competing against our peers even if we had to do it. Many of us have chosen to fight. Just like the brain bifurcating surgery wasn’t enough to kill the hope, will, resilience, compassion & love within Lumon’s workers, capitalism’s effort to sever us from what matters will fail. All empires fall. This one will too. We will reach for each other & build community even if the state never taught us to. We will not punish, cancel & police each other even if the state has taught us to. We will be militant, gentle, caring & bold in our love. We will learn & practice building reciprocal relationships even if colonialism tried to kill these collectivist values. Community is the fabric of all life on Earth. Capitalism/ colonialism will never fully sever the threads that connect us across space & time.