Are you tired of working your shitty nine-to-five? Do you feel overworked and underappreciated? Forget a “dream job,” quit working for the Man and become a luxury travel influencer instead!
That’s the theme of a popular TikTok meme, which started off life as a viral tweet with a quite different meaning. The saying “I don’t dream of labor” has been everywhere on social media in recent years, most notably in a TikTok audio featuring the voice of user @mrhamilton stating in a mock mid-Atlantic accent, “Darling, I’ve told you several times before, I have no dream job — I do not dream of labor.” The audio has since been used in over 51,400 videos. The quote is often falsely attributed to the likes of James Baldwin; in fact, it seems to have originated with Twitter user @thetrudz, whose tweet “My ‘dream job’ is . . . not working. No work. I don’t dream about labor” went viral in 2019.
Understandably, the statement resonated: a record-breaking 50.5 million US workers quit their jobs in 2022, on the heels of a previous record of 47.8 million quits in 2021, in what has become known as the “Great Resignation.” With the COVID-19 pandemic creating a tighter labor market, especially in lower-wage service occupations, workers not only recognized they deserved more, they started to demand it. But these demands largely took the form of individuals switching jobs or asking for higher wages instead of organizing collectively.
On Twitter, the “I don’t dream of labor” meme retained its intended meaning as a critique of how capitalism shapes our desires. But the statement quickly began to take on a different shape through a rapid-fire game of social media telephone. TikTok users began using the audio as the background music to luxury travel vlogs and designer shopping sprees, flaunting their wealth while “I don’t dream of labor” plays in the background. The phrase has been transformed from a pithy anti-capitalist critique to an endorsement of neoliberal capitalism’s worst excesses — used to justify wealth without work and mindless consumption, feeding the capitalist need for endless growth.
The repackaging of the slogan in this context may come as a surprise, but it is understandable that individuals want to try to stop thinking of labor and instead lead carefree lives of luxury. Workers are recognizing the brutality of labor under capitalism laid bare by the pandemic. Yet the “I don’t dream of labor” meme is unfortunate proof that one can recognize capitalist exploitation as the root of their problems without understanding collective action to be the solution.
As Vivek Chibber argues in his recent book, The Class Matrix, cultural trends in values and norms, including those that bubble up on platforms like Twitter and TikTok, are often downstream of material economic realities. Under capitalism, workers must sell their labor for a wage to survive; if they can’t find and keep a job, they face poverty, homelessness, or worse. A rational awareness of the costs and risks involved in collective action — it can get you fired, for example — leads workers to resign themselves to their exploitation. For many, their best option is to try to improve their situations on an individual level; with levels of union and other class organizations already at historic lows, individual workers typically calculate that the costs and risks of organizing collectively outweigh those of trying to find a new job or even striking out on their own as entrepreneurs.
Today the United States remains at record lows of union density, despite a recent wave of new organizing drives, largely among young workers at Starbucks and college campuses, and historic wins like the repeal of right-to-work laws in Michigan. But workers in France, rather than “quiet quitting,” have kicked off weeks of general strikes, protests, and riots in response to the government’s attempted increase of the national pension age. Some say this difference is a result of “American individualism,” but the collective efforts of workers at various points in US history suggest a different explanation. “Class consciousness is the consequence of class organization,” Chibber says — not, as many have suggested, the other way around.
As long as capitalism persists, only the capitalist class can afford to “not dream of labor.” A select few are allowed to avoid the thought of work, while the toiling masses are left to do the very labor that enables the ultrarich not to think about it. The world of designer bags and luxury travel depicted in the many videos participating in the “I don’t dream of labor” meme cannot exist without the labor of the workers who stitched the bags, the baristas who poured the coffee, the people who generated the wealth featured in these videos in the first place. This luxury for the wealthy few requires the exploitation of workers en masse.
A world without any labor is probably not possible, at least not anytime soon. But socialists dream of a world of less work and better work: one where socially necessary labor is shared fairly, where unnecessary labor for private gain is eliminated, and where major decisions about production and distribution are made democratically.
Getting to this better world will require work from all of us. It will mean organizing collectively against the systems that exploit us, not individually striving to make our own lives more lavish at the expense of others. We may not all be able to be luxury travel influencers, but we can all join the growing rank-and-file labor movement and leverage worker power to win change on a massive scale. Instead of dreaming of either the exploited labor of capitalism or the self-indulgence of the idle rich, we can dream of a world that is more beautiful, more just, and freer for everybody.