Why Should we Abolish Work? (Or, My Follow up Notes to “Introduction” Part Three)

Re-Introducing the Opposition

In my previous post I discussed where I was coming from in my views on capitalism and in the post before I defined what work was. To bring together the strands of both posts I am going to try to explain why work needs to be abolished.

But first let’s refresh our minds on definitions and anti-capitalsim for a second. That’ll be easier than making you go through those last two posts, the latter of which is especially long.

To start with then, I define work in similar terms to Bob Black in his, The Abolition of Work when he says that work is defined by compulsory produced, force labor or, more generally.

Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick.

Now, someone emailed me recently picking a bit of an issue with this definition.saying that it was too broad and could apply to any labor. I countered that that was entirely the point to begin with! Most labor in today’s economy can be described as Black does and that is exactly the point and the problem.

My interlocutor still found this vague and asked at what point does it become “work” when people just don’t want a freeloader. He gave the example of three people who live together and one of them must do the dishes (I presume through voluntary agreement beforehand) and decides instead to slack and to not do it. And so the other roommates threaten to kick him out if he does not do the dishes. Wouldn’t this too be “production enforced by … the carrot or the stick.”?

In point of fact it isn’t. Or at least not in the sense that Black and I are getting at.

As far as I can tell Black is getting at certain political and economic structures that are limiting people’s options and also limiting their ability to live the ludic life. And another thing well worth keeping in mind is that Black’s minimal idea of labor is forced and thus probably wouldn’t have to do as much with peaceful social pressures (I presume the “kicking out” here isn’t literal or going to require violence). Especially if it was part of a pre-existing contract (though contracts should always be negotiable by all parties involved) and it was agreed to beforehand and the person involved had other choices available to them from the start.

Another problem with this comparison is a matter of bargaining power. The bargaining power between you and your roommates who are, let’s presume, all paying the same amount of rent, are likely to be much better than the dynamic between a worker and a boss in the modern economy. And given that Black, myself, et. al. are usually discussing a relationship with the latter sort of power dynamic. Thus, it seems irrelevant to point out that your roommates may have certain expectations of you through a contract that likely was much more equal than the situations actually being discussed.

Furthermore the sort of work that this person is talking about brings me to the Marxist Andre Gorz and what he calls “domestic labor” or “work for oneself” in his Crisis of Work.

By that term I mean:

…work done not with a view to exchange but in order to achieve a result of which one is, directly, the principal beneficiary. `Reproductive’ work, that is, domestic labour, which guarantees the basic and immediate necessities of life day after day – preparing food, keeping oneself and one’s home clean, giving birth to children and bringing them up, and so on – is an example of this kind of work. It was and still is often the case that women are made to do such work on top of the work they do for economic ends.

That is really the sort of work that is going on here. And that sort of work is certainly not optimal in the current economy but if the burdens were made widely shared, technology lessened the drudgery and so on then I think it would be a lot more in line with a freed society.

Furthermore there isn’t anything wrong with using social pressures on others. Personally I would find a contract that says that one can be put out on the streets just because they don’t do the dishes once to be a really unfair contract. But even putting that to the side (it is a hypothetical after all) there isn’t anything about what is being suggested (at least I don’t think) that carrots and sticks are always bad.

What’s really being objected to is the current use of sticks and carrots in the modern economy. The fact that they restrain laborers options, give them artificial choices and impress upon them a Puritan work ethic. On the other hand, I definitely think social forces can be morally objectionable at times. But that isn’t what is really being critiqued or brought up with this definition of work. The stick and the carrot more have to do with the state and capitalism and less to do with those housemates of yours..

Speaking of capitalism, what’s the definition I am working with here?

Well there are many definitions, I typically go for a multiple choice of definitions.

So for example, in Gary’s Chartier’s Advocates of Freed Markets Should Embrace Anti-Capitalism:

capitalism-1 an economic system that features property rights and voluntary exchanges of goods and services.

capitalism-2 an economic system that features a symbiotic relationship between big business and government.

capitalism-3 rule — of workplaces, society, and (if there is one) the state — by capitalists (that is, by a relatively small number of people who control investable wealth and the means of production)

Or in Charles Johnson’s, Libertarian Anticapitalism:

  • Free Enterprise. This is a relatively new usage (coming mainly from libertarian writing in the 1920s-1940s). “Capitalism” has been used by its defenders just to mean a free market or free enterprise system, i.e., an economic order — any economic order — that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion). This is the meaning that is almost surely most familiar to those who spend much time reading libertarian economic writing; it is offered as, more or less, a stipulative definition of the term in Friedman, Mises, et al.
  • Pro-Business Political Economy. “Capitalism” has also been used, sometimes by its opponents, and sometimes by beneficiaries of the system, to mean a corporatist or pro-business economic policy — that is, to active government support for big businesses through instruments such as government-granted monopolies, subsidies, central banking, tax-funded infrastructure, “development” grants and loans, Kelo-style for-profit eminent domain, bail-outs, etc. Thus, when a progressive like Naomi Klein describes government-hired mercenaries, paramilitary torture squads or multigovernment financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, as examples of the political economy of “disaster capitalism,” capitalism here must mean something other than markets left free of major government intervention. Rather, this is the state intervening, with a very heavy hand, to promote the interests of a particular class of economic players, or promoting a particular form of economic activity, as a matter of policy. This second meaning of capitalism is, of course, mutually exclusive with the first meaning — state-driven corporatism necessarily consists of projects funded by expropriated tax dollars, or regulations enforced from the barrel of a gun, and so to be a “capitalist” in the sense of a free marketeer means being an “anti-capitalist” in the sense of opposing the corporate state, and being “pro-capitalist” in the sense of state “growth” policy means coming out against “capitalism” in the sense of genuinely free markets.
  • The Wage-Labor System. “Capitalism” has also been used to refer to a specific form of labor market, or a distinctive pattern of conditions facing ordinary working people — one in which the predominant form of economic activity is the production of goods or the performance of services in workplaces that are owned and managed, not by the people doing the work on the line, but by an outside boss. In this third sense, you have capitalism when most workers are working for someone else, in return for a wage, because access to most of the important factors of production is mediated through a business class, with the businessmen and not the workers holding legal titles to the business, the tools and facilities that make the shop run, and the residual profits that accrue to the business. Workplaces are, as a result, typically organized in hierarchical fashion, with a boss exercising a great deal of discretion over employees, who are generally much more dependent on keeping the job than the boss is on keeping any one worker. (This sense is most commonly seen in Marxian writing, and in older writing from the radical Left — including a great deal of pro-market writing from Anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.)
  • Profit-Dominated Society. Finally, the term “capitalism” is very often used (outside of the debating circles of libertarian economists, this is in fact probably the modal use of the term) loosely to mean something like the commercialization of everyday life — that is, a condition in which social interactions are very largely mediated through, or reshaped by, overtly commercial motives, and most or all important social and economic institutions are run primarily on a businesslike, for-profit basis.

I am ambiguous on capitalism1 (or free enterprise as Charles puts it), against capitalism2 (or pro-business political economy) and am against capitalism3 (or the wage-labor system) and am also against the “profit-dominated society” version of capitalism.

I believe work as Black defines it is most prominent in capitalism2 and 3 as well as the fourth definition Charles gives. Though I also believe the “free enterprise” version of capitalism (with the right presumptions, predictions, frameworks favored patterns of ownership, etc.) can undermine both the current ethic of work and the tools that enable it to be so widespread, i.e. the state and capitalisms two to four.

So that is where I am coming from but how does this tie together with why we should oppose work?

Opposing Work, Favoring Freedom

My own personal opposition comes from a few main considerations:

  1. The Restriction of My Liberty: My individual wants and needs (unless either mandated otherwise by law or given through pity or allowance by my managers) isn’t as valued as much as the higher ups are. This means that what I want to actually accomplish during work is secondary to whatever my managers want me to do. Thus my movements and actions are restricted in systematic ways. Not only this but these restrictions are enforced through threats of punishment, surveillance (either through cameras or fellow workers) as well as shaming and more. The managers will get their way and displace my own interests to theirs through whatever means they can. All of this necessarily means a lack of autonomy in the workplace.
  2. The Feeling of Drudgery: This is where Daniel’s idea of “ickiness” comes from, I think. For I often feel hollow, lacking and unfulfilled at work.It isn’t just how authority operates which makes it illegitimate but also the way it makes you feel. Going to a place that you hate every day, to work for people you don’t like, involving things you don’t care about is not only not good for your self-esteem but your sense of control over your life. It makes you feel weak and powerless. This certainly isn’t true for everyone but it has largely been true for me and my experiences at times. There was recently a day that I thought I had been fired without even being told and instead of feeling happy like I thought I would I felt grossly disempowered and helpless in an area of life that, due to its importance, I should probably have way more control of. And this doesn’t even really get at the boring aspects of work or the aspects of it that make the hours drag (hours that you will never get back) and make your days stretch from one unpleasant time period to another. Is this the kind of life we want to live?
  3. The Theoretical Problems/Problems with Ideal vs. Reality, etc.: Fundamentally speaking for an anarchist work is something that almost always goes against my principles. It reduces my individual liberty by making me subservient to others, makes me aid a capitalist economy in direct ways, helps me benefit corporations that I don’t think should exist to begin with and so on. Admittedly even if this is a perhaps more fundamental reason it isn’t the one I think most about. I mostly think about the first two before I even consider this one. That’s largely because even though it is perhaps the “biggest” of the reasons theoretically speaking it has the least relevancy in terms of what I practically feel or really can express within the workplace itself. That said, it’s fairly important to me personally as this feeling means I need to (as much as possible) in the long run get myself out of these traditional wage-relations.

Of course these are just my personal reasons for opposing work. They are my main ones (or at least the three main ones that I could think of offhand, perhaps in the future there will be a different list) and while I think they should be appealing to anyone else they may not necessarily be.

In which case there are other reasons to oppose work which I would also offer as perfectly valid reasons.

Chief among those reasons would be that as Black says, “to define work is to despise it”. The very existence of this thing itself is a good enough reason to abolish it. Because when we discuss work we are talking about labor that even if you enjoy hasn’t been created within a free context. This doesn’t mean if work were abolished that you need to stop doing what you love or how often you do it. Instead it just means abolishing that context so that work can become autonomous and more freely chosen by now. Under present conditions with options artificially limited and people’s ability to be self-employed also limited, traditional employment in firms is anything but a “voluntary matter”.

Another big reason why you should support abolishing work is because of the culture that it comes from. In society today (and I am specifically referring to the US but this could probably be applicable to many other places) things like the Puritan work ethic and the demands for more jobs and using labor-saving technology as a way to do more work is all fairly standard. And if we want to liberate ourselves from these expectations and social norms that rely on inherently limiting leisure, pleasure and creativity (or at least redirects this creativity for the majority benefit of others) then we’re going to be interested in at least radically reforming work if not abolishing it outright.

Past all of this, I think the idea of work, that you work for a certain number of years doing the same thing over and over and hope to be successful even if you don’t actually like it and all it does is pay the bills makes a mockery out of our lives. I am inclined to agree with the movie Office Space, in that I don’t think it’s some sort of obvious fact that we should all be cooped up in cubicles or running around in retail for the rest of our lives. And that we should all have shitty wages, shitty hours, shitty conditions and a real lack of control over a major part of our life.

Because from my point of view a life like that simply isn’t one worth fighting for. It is something to be opposed and create alternatives to so that we can all live a better life.


Hopefully this three part series has illustrated where I am coming from. That was my main goal coming in and moving on to other things I hope to further prove how work as it exists today makes a mockery out of human life and we would all be better without it.

Definitions about complicated things like capitalism and work will always require redefinition and reconsideration of what is going on in each conversation. So in that sense I don’t claim that the definitions I gave or sourced are always gonna be the best ones to use.

For example, sometimes people conflate work with effort or use it in that sense. In that case I wouldn’t be anti-work and I’d hasten to add that I don’t think there is anyone is.

For capitalism, people can mean all sorts of different things and while sometimes thinking about people’s motives for certain definitions can be helpful to understand where they are coming from I typically find it helpful to just accept it at face value. Argue from their own definition if you can and try to prove why even what they’re arguing is either unhelpful or untrue in some way.

This series was to explain my feelings and ideas about work. It is still for me very much a learning experience and part of the reason for doing this site is to give myself an excuse to research more and more about work and what constitutes it and what doesn’t,etc. Hopefully this will end up being a learning experience for everyone else too.

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  1. Pingback: The Use of the Word Capitalism (Or, My Follow up Notes to "Introduction" Part 2) - Abolish Work

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