Lost in Work by Amelia Horgan Book Summary

Lost in Work, Escaping Capitalism by Amelia Horgan


Work is transforming under the pressure of automation, generational shifts and the lasting marks of the COVID-19 pandemic. To inform conversations about what work is and what it should be, academic Amelia Horgan offers an impassioned and well-researched account of the exploitative nature of large-scale capitalism. Horgan focuses on the poor conditions low-wage workers in the United Kingdom and United States face as a result of under-regulated capitalist forces. Her proposed solution may not be new, but it is enjoying a revival: unionization and collective bargaining.


  • Since the Industrial Age, capitalism has subjugated and exploited workers.
  • Capitalism degrades and debases work.
  • Capitalism makes work and constant self-improvement the dominant aspects of life. 
  • Capitalism exacts a physical and mental toll on workers.
  • A good job and a better future elude many workers today.
  • Governments are removing protections and slashing public support, squeezing the working class.
  • Capitalism has provided more than any past system, but it generates inequities and harms the planet.
  • Push back against excessive consumerism and commercialism.
  • Alone, people have little power or influence. Collective action is required.
Lost in Work Book Cover

Lost in Work Book Summary

Since the Industrial Age, capitalism has subjugated and exploited workers.

Industrialization, the advent of globalized capitalism and the erosion of collective bargaining forced many workers into servitude and drudgery. In the early 20th century, the industrialist Henry Ford and the industrial efficiency innovator Frederick Taylor, for example, sought to eliminate all unnecessary movement from their assembly lines. They aimed to control every aspect of workers’ productivity, including how much time they took for bathroom breaks. Today’s information-era work was supposed to relieve the monotony of factories, but some employers made these promises only to dispel the need for unions and public services – under the cloak of neoliberalism. In some instances, technology has only made intrusions into workers’ personal lives more sophisticated.

“We are not directly coerced into working, but society is structured in such a way that we must work.”

Capitalist owners possess virtually all power in the workplace, and some wield it coercively. Except for the wealthy, everyone must work, many under dehumanizing and often dangerous conditions that prevail in an increasing percentage of employment today. Those who don’t work face poverty. Society assesses people’s stature and worth by the work they do, and the media and leaders often shame those who opt out. By design, the system ensures everyone needs a job – and often more than one. The system constantly reminds workers that they need work more than work needs them.

Capitalism degrades and debases work.

Karl Marx, the seminal economist and author of Das Kapital, noted that people naturally engage in collective and creative pursuits. According to Marx, however, capitalism degrades and debases those pursuits. Most things that people used to make and do for themselves and their family, they now purchase from others. The capitalist system tore people away from what Marx termed the “means of production,” first by removing people from their land – thereby making them dependent – and then by forcing them to work in factories to earn money to pay rent, clothe themselves and put food on the table – simply to survive.

Capitalism has long taken advantage of labor. Until the late 19th century, British law forced workers to remain in their contracts. In the United States, even after slavery ended, forced labor continued to exist in a prison system that put the incarcerated straight back to work in cotton fields. Today, men, women and children toil to fill the developed world’s supply chains for low wages and often in dangerous conditions.

“There are more people in slavery today than at any other point in history.”

For centuries, women labored in the home – unpaid and unrecognized – to support male workers and raise the children who would become their replacements. It took decades of activism for women to gain a place in the world of paid work. Yet despite calls for access to public day care and other types of support, women and families – now even those in the working class – have to purchase labor-saving technologies and outsource cleaning and care work. Typically, low-paid women further down the socioeconomic scale perform the domestic work their better-off counterparts don’t have time to do.

Capitalism makes work and constant self-improvement the dominant aspects of life.

Work invades more and more of employees’ emotional space with its excessive demands and micromanagement. Beyond the obvious demands of most paid work, employers also exercise domain over workers’ emotions, especially in the service sector. Employers monitor workers’ phone calls and customer interactions to make sure they project positivity even under diress. Employers encourage workers to treat co-workers like friends or family and to act like they enjoy their work.

“All work under capitalism harms workers because of the coercion that pushes us into it and the lack of control we face during it.”

Though champions of the so-called “new work” point to the greater autonomy and flexibility it is supposed to bring, most members of the working class now submit to even greater controls than before. Some employers maximize each second of workers’ time and reduce their flexibility through rigid, arbitrary scheduling. Some companies spend enormous sums to employ people and technologies whose only purpose is to monitor the performance of those doing the real work. At Amazon, for example, artificial intelligence-based algorithms calculate each warehouse worker’s productivity. When that productivity drops below a predetermined level, the algorithm fires the employee.

Capitalism exacts a physical and mental toll on workers.

In the United Kingdom alone, more than a million workers suffer employment-related health issues each year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, already bad conditions worsened for essential workers in many sectors, most notably in health care and other services. In retail, workers faced a significantly higher risk of death than average citizens, and death rates for Black people almost doubled those of whites.

With little control over their work, workers suffer physically and mentally. Work presents dangers, whether people work shifts or sit at a desk all day. Pressure to perform and continuously improve fuels stress, and the increasing intrusion of work into evenings and weekends – often without extra pay – robs workers of recovery time, leading to constant fatigue and increasing burnout. Younger workers often become exhausted by the combined demands of achieving an education that differentiates them – one laser-focused on acquiring job skills – while working a job to pay for that education. After graduating, they struggle to find sufficient work to justify the enormous expense of their schooling.

Employers might not order workers to stay late or work weekends, but the culture they create – one that society celebrates – leaves many workers little choice. Owners determine the environment for work, set the agenda and influence workers’ career progression. No wonder, then, that people who work in low-level positions suffer far worse health than their bosses and senior leaders. In most cases, the latter must work to live, too, but they exercise greater autonomy, have more means to take vacations and enjoy more freedom to focus on their health than the former.

“The promise of work, expressed in our individual jobs, is beginning to appear more illusory to more and more people. Rather than making us rich and happy, work leaves most of us poor and miserable.”

During the pandemic crisis, wealthy people and those in elite employment isolated themselves from its worst effects. In many cases, they showed public appreciation for others in their own class who took risks to continue to work – doctors, for example – while ignoring the plight of the majority. Some politicians went a step further, accusing people who didn’t work during the pandemic of wanting to live off government handouts.

A good job and a better future elude many workers today.

Prestigious and secure jobs have dwindled and continue to do so. Workers lucky enough to obtain one of these positions sit at the top while the rest struggle with jobs in the fast-growing, low-paying service sector. The system promises a good job to those who make investments to acquire skills and degrees, yet for most, their only reward is a mountain of debt.

“Poverty and unemployment become individual failings rather than unwanted features of the economy.”

Workers find themselves forced to take gig or temporary work without benefits, or part-time work with unpredictable schedules. The media and politicians blame workers for any failures at work, and age-old myths around the virtues of hard work and the shame of idleness lead people to blame themselves.

Governments are removing protections and slashing public support, squeezing the working class.

Public services such as transport, hospitals, schools, welfare, unemployment insurance and other supports – day care, for example – continue to erode. Governments erase gains unions worked hard to win. The gig and temporary job market lets employers hire and fire without concern for workers. In the developing world, even worse conditions prevail.

“The extent to which we can find enjoyment or fulfillment is shaped by how much control we have over our work.”

Work should offer meaning, dignity, respect and self-expression – but it seldom does. 

Capitalism has provided more than any past system, but it generates inequities and harms the planet.

Capitalism wrests control from workers and grants it to owners. It resorts to the myth of meritocracy to justify inequities. At the top, the wealthy and connected worry about their social and economic dominance. This pits elites against the working class and creates mistrust that harms society. The desire on the part of some to maintain power perpetuates disparities and divisions.

“The expectations of capitalists – that they will continue to make and invest profits – are not compatible with the continuation of life.”

The relentless pursuit of profits creates incentives for firms to extract and burn fossil fuels, denude forests and generate ever-increasing amounts of toxic, nonbiodegradable plastics and other materials that are destroying the environment.

Push back against excessive consumerism and commercialism.

Owners seek profits, period. If a thing costs less to produce by gig workers or overseas, even by children or slaves, the capitalist incentive is to produce it that way. Consumers know this, but the system encourages consumption: People define themselves and achieve status through the things they buy, so they buy more, and the cycle continues. For centuries, society has embraced the myth that trading and consuming form core elements of human nature. Capitalism organizes itself around these myths. But people shouldn’t simply parrot the “capitalism is bad” mantra – they should know an alternative exists.

Push back. Don’t participate in the excessive consumerism and commercialism that could eventually destroy the planet. Stop to consider the processes and labor that go into the things you buy. For example, in the past, most people made their own garments by hand. Production gradually moved into factories in the 18th century, and as production of cotton increased – the result of slavery – textile mills boomed. Over the decades, standardization in sizes permitted efficiencies through equipment and automation. Today, clothing is a commodity, its production farmed out to the lowest bidder. Workers make our clothing in the dangerous sweatshops of the poorest nations. Meanwhile, influencers and celebrities earn obscene amounts to wear and promote brands.

“A future without the indignities, petty cruelties, exploitation and misery of capitalist work is possible, and it is one worth fighting for.”

Resist employers’ efforts to extract every ounce of productivity from you. Talk with colleagues. Understand the tools and algorithms that manage you. Work from home when possible to escape micromanagement, and make yourself aware of the surveillance technologies employers use to monitor and spy on you. Where possible, overcome your own fungibility by learning to do something no one else can, thereby making yourself indispensable. Fight the monotony of work by switching jobs and employers. Don’t pretend to feel passion for your job if you don’t. 

Alone, people have little power or influence. Collective action is required.

Personal protest matters, but meaningful change requires collective social action. Unions, which began to scale in the mid-19th century, give power back to workers. It took the better part of a century for workers’ unions to gain legal protection, but far less time for their influence to wane. Media, corporate leaders and politicians often demonize unions, portraying their members as lazy and greedy. These and other tactics have contributed to a significant reduction in union membership and influence since the 1980s.

“Workers are numerically the largest class in society, but as individuals, are isolated and atomized.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought renewed interest in unions. For some unions, membership grew from 2019 to 2021, for the first time in many years. Though unions have never wielded power in proportion to owners, they remain a viable vehicle for some workers to win fair pay and ward off arbitrary abuses of power. Unions and workers must demand a livable, dignified floor below which no worker can fall. They should aim for the abolition of one-sided work agreements that seize control of workers’ lives.

About the Author

Amelia Horgan

Amelia Horgan is an academic researcher and lecturer at the University of Essex. She writes on work-related topics for a range of media, including The Guardian, VICE and Tribune.

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