EP 417: [Dispatch] "All parasites have value"

My husband was in line at the antique store when the customer at the register said:

"I haven't worked my whole life to pay for somebody else."

When the store owner told her what we owed—including our 6% sales tax in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the customer took that as a cue to complain about "moochers."

The next day at the grocery store, we walked past a car with a bumper sticker that professed the same sentiment. Behind us, I could hear another shopper tell the car owner how much she liked the sticker.

Americans love people who work.

Except when they're organizing for better working conditions. Or when they're immigrants. Or when they need accommodations for a disability or chronic illness. Or ask for a flexible schedule. Or, god forbid, request a living wage.

In the United States, the best someone who doesn't work can hope for is to be forgotten. Worse, they become the object of public derision. And worst of all, they can end up completely cut off from social relations and public services.

We’re in a moment of collective hand-wringing about the problems with work today. And we can't seem to decide whether we want people to suck it up and deal with harmful working conditions or whether we hope work—presumably our work—gets a little easier and the rewards a little more concrete.

This might come as a surprise, but there are many more people working today than is required to maintain our standard of living in the United States. Some 37-40% of workers surveyed in the UK were convinced that their jobs contribute absolutely nothing to their places of employment or society at large.

Instead of our work creating needed value for our communities, our work fuels our economic obsession with growth through consumption.

For many of us, the part we play in the economy is this: we work to shop.

And the work we do provides the means for others to shop.

And yet, we lack the imagination to envision a world where a significant portion of the population just doesn’t need to hold down a job in the capitalist sense. We lack the imagination to support people who don’t work. We can’t imagine the many activities that are impossible to quantify in economic terms but immensely valuable to our culture. What’s more, that lack of imagination also contributes to our inability to change how we go about our own work and how we manage those who work for us.

I don't believe we can have a constructive conversation about creating more sustainable work practices without first learning to value those who don't work.


Speculative fiction writer Becky Chambers tackles this subject in A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the second of the two Monk & Robot novellas.

Dex is a "tea monk" going through a bit of an existential crisis. They meet up with Mosscap, the first robot to interact with humans in hundreds of years after its kind achieved sapience and peaced out on human society.

As a monk, Dex devotes their service to Allalae, the god of small comforts. They find the work profoundly meaningful, but… they're burnt out. Unfortunately, they have a hard time extending the philosophy of their service to themself.

Dex tells Mosscap:

“I say it out loud, all the fucking time. You don’t have to have a reason to be tired. You don’t have to earn rest or comfort. You’re allowed to just be. I say that wherever I go. … But I don’t feel like it’s true, for me. I feel like it’s true for everyone else but not me. I feel like I have to do more than that. Like I have a responsibility to do more than that.”

Like a good robot life coach, Mosscap simply asks, “Why?”

Dex explains that they’ve benefited from others' care, attention, and labor to be able to do the work they do with such skill. They feel a responsibility to keep doing it—never “running off into the woods” for a break.

Dex tells Mosscap, "[It] doesn't sit right with me, not at all. I'd just be a leech if I did that."

Mosscap is puzzled. It wasn't that much earlier that Dex had explained how humans’ moneyless system of exchange worked and how no one deserved to go without simply because they had the "wrong number next to their name."

So Mosscap asks, "What's wrong with being a leech?"

Dex explains that "leech" is a metaphor, a word for someone who benefits from but doesn't contribute to society. Mosscap is clearly caught off guard. Dex has been kind and accepting as long as the two have been traveling together.

So Mosscap challenges the metaphor. "You're basing that shorthand off of the human relationship to leeches, not the entire experience of being a leech," it says. "They're as vital a part of their ecosystem as anything else."

Dex responds as if Mosscap is overthinking things. And then Mosscap delivers a profound, if low-key, line:

"All parasites have value, Sibling Dex. Not to their hosts, perhaps, but you could say the same about a predator and a prey animal. They all give back—not to the individual but to the ecosystem at large."

All parasites have value. Our inability to accept that is one of the reasons we have such a hard time inventing a better system to meet our needs than getting as many people as possible into jobs. It's why, even as individuals, we have a hard time going slower, taking a rest, or asking for what we need at work.

We're too afraid to be labeled a "leech" to take our own needs seriously.


As a society, we’re much more comfortable with the “industrious poor.” Those who may struggle with poverty but also hold down 2 full-time jobs and never see their kids.

But anthropologist David Graeber would like to challenge that notion “by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor.” He closes his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by challenging our idea of the institution of work as an unassailable good, a responsibility so naturalized as to be unquestionable. As if paid labor is the only way to contribute to one’s community. As if simply being weren’t enough.

He asks to consider the value the non-industrious poor create in our communities:

"At least they aren't hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they're probably improving the world more than we acknowledge. Maybe we should think of them as pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one's penchant for self-annihilation."

Forward-thinking personal growth experts like to remind us that we shouldn't derive our self-worth from our professional achievements. We're worthy no matter our title, salary, or accolades. And I think the vast majority of us would sign off on these beliefs.

But like Dex says, "I don’t feel like it’s true, for me. I feel like it’s true for everyone else but not me. I feel like I have to do more than that. Like I have a responsibility to do more than that.”

Dex is dealing with what psychologist Robert Kegan and education researcher Lisa Laskow Lahey have called an "immunity to change."

It seems that Dex's existential crisis may be rooted in a conflict between their sincere beliefs in the necessity of small comforts and their personal narrative around hard work denoting value and belonging.

It’s this conflict—between a stated desire and a "big assumption"— that Kegan and Lahey see as the obstacle to change. Until one can accept that the assumption is untrue, it's difficult to act on the desire for change.

For instance, if I want to cut down on the time I spend working directly with clients, but I assume that what clients really value is the time I spend working directly with them…

…well, I’m going to have a really hard time actually making changes to my schedule or working arrangements.

When Mosscap reminds Dex that "all parasites have value," it attempts to invalidate their big assumption. It asks Dex to question how they assign value to themself and others. Mosscap knows that Dex won't be able to do what's needed to recover from burnout without accepting their value independent of their work.

We have the same problem—not only on an individual level but on a cultural one. We can't recover from our broken employment systems and unsustainable working conditions until we accept that all members of our community have value. We need a new cultural and personal narrative about the "non-industrious poor," the "leeches," and anyone who doesn’t work, whether work is available to them or not.

Our culture in the United States has a significant immunity to change. The American mythology assumes that hard work, personal responsibility, and perseverance are equalizing forces. Our economic policies assume that more jobs are always the solution to suffering—even as those same policies maintain a reserve workforce of unemployed people.

These assumptions are obstacles to a more equitable, just, and humane future.

And even if we yearn for those outcomes and for doing things differently to achieve them, until we bust those assumptions, we’ll keep coming up short.

James Boggs proposes a new narrative for work in his book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. Boggs outlines a Declaration of Human Rights fit for our Age of Abundance. Even in 1964, Boggs recognized how much the need for work had decreased thanks to technological advances. He writes, “We must accept the plain fact that we are moving towards an automated society and act on the basis of this fact.” Even in the 60s, this wasn’t a new idea, of course—Keynes had predicted a dramatically shorter workweek for future workers back in 1930.

Boggs argues that the very first right in this declaration must be that everyone has “a right to a full life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, whether he is working or not.” And even more forcefully, he continues, “The question of the right to a full life has to be divorced completely from the question of work.”

Our immunity to change concerning work stems from our lack of imagination about the fundamental nature of work.

Our big assumption is that work is how we contribute to society. That work is a prerequisite for belonging.
And that it’s through work that we justify our access to the public services we use.

We assume, uncritically, that work is what we do in exchange for the privilege of a life with relatively few discomforts. But what happens when we make a full and meaningful life a right rather than a privilege contingent upon work?

We can’t change—that is, adopt more sustainable work practices, take more time off, hold stronger boundaries, find our own pace, accept more help—until we wrestle with this underlying belief.

And that means deconstructing how assumptions about how the prevailing work ethic applies to us—even if, like Dex, we know intellectually, passionately even, how it applies to others.

We all have value. We all contribute. We all give back—if not through paid work, then to the human ecosystem.

EP 417: [Dispatch] "All parasites have value"
Broadcast by