Wherein I was Lazy and You (Almost) Bailed me Out: With Apologies to Alex Strekal

Who are the Brain Police? (Hint: It’s not me!)

With everything that has been going on these past few days, doing another blog on Hardly Working just kept going in and out of my mind.

And then there it was on my Facebook news feed:

A five paragraph comment by my friend Alex Strekal responding to my first Hardly Working post from last week.

But then I found out that direct responses/personalizing the blog isn’t really what I am supposed to do. Which makes sense, it’s for a general audience and about broad topics of work. It’s not my personal blog (and strictly speaking neither is this) to just use to respond to anyone who comments on the blog.

So I’ll just post my direct response here instead. It still helps me out because this site has been a little off and on lately due to cleaning and other projects of mine.

With all of that out of the way I want to thank Alex for taking the time to read and give feedback to my blog. Whatever our political differences I’d like to note that I personally appreciate that.

Part of the reason for that is because I actually have a bit of a history with the Alex. I know none of you are interested in hearing it so I’ll give the short roundup.

Alex and I met originally back in ye olden Myspace days. Back when I was a minarchist and he was (I believe) either an an-cap or already a left-libertarian. My memory isn’t the best. From there we managed to keep in touch throughout the years on Facebook where he has continually been (and I say this with respect) an intellectual thorn in my side.

See, in the time that Alex and I have gotten to re-know each other on Facebook he has been (an ex-libertarian. Sort of an anti-libertarian libertarian. I am not sure what he actually believes besides some sort of vague “social anarchism” coupled with his hatred of American libertarianism.

Which evidently has included left-libertarianism and now my left-libertarian version of anti-work.

So Alex, we’ve gone through this a bunch of times before (also see here) and I am hopefully not being too blunt when I say that I am not sure what either of us will get out of the conversation.

Then again, when has that has ever stopped me before?

So let’s start off where Alex is just flat out wrong. I don’t mean subjectively, I mean factually wrong about the claims he makes.

To his credit there are not many but this in particular struck me:

…you engage in an analysis that entirely blames the problem on state intervention (such as IP and licensing restrictions)…

 

I guess this would be true if one didn’t know me (which as I’ve shown above, he does) or if one hadn’t read the rest of my post but for sake of charity and good faith I will presume Alex did and just didn’t connect the dots.

Because, sure, you could take (emphasis mine):

These lack of options come from state-granted monopoly privileges like intellectual property to big corporations and licensing restrictions (the taxi medallions being a good example) that make independent work harder to obtain.

And make it into the idea that I only think the state is to blame.

But then later on I say (emphasis in original):

Of course, abolishing work is not just concerned with the economic sphere, but also the personal sphere (especially because these two things are intimately connected). I don’t want people free from the abuse of a system of work that is in place, but also from the cultural norms that reinforce the work environment. Cultural norms and attitudes, the Puritan Work Ethic for example, that reduce slackers and people who prefer leisure as “losers” or “deserving” their poverty.

If Alex is saying that I engage in an analysis in that first section alone where I very narrowly blame the state, then that’s fair. But my analysis overall is certainly not reducible to anti-statism. Alex knows my positions on thick libertarianism as well so as to think my analysis would be that short-sighted seems a bit…well shortsighted.

I will cough up though to poor wording and making it seem like the state was the only thing to blame in that section. But I certainly don’t believe that.

So in that respect I appreciate Alex’s mischaracterization because even though he is factually incorrect I can see why he thought that due to my poor word choice. In the future I will try not to make claims that look like that because it doesn’t reflect my beliefs and sends a misleading message and I apologize for that.

Moving on, here is another claim I find interesting:

The two closest examples of a non-work society would be either hunter-gatherers or some form of communism in which abundance makes much of work obsolete.

The first example seems misleading to me since hunter-gatherers basically needed to survive first and then live and relax later. It was always about getting the food or raising the children or something that requires near consistent effort. So I don’t think in that respect hunter-gatherers would be that close to my goals but I am open to being corrected. More generally I don’t think primitivism would be very helpful to my goals but that’s another topic.

As for some sort of techno-communism, I don’t agree that the means of production should be wholly collectivized or communalized and I don’t find that an attractive or effective means of deciding how to allocate non-scarce resources. I know the point of communism (especially the sort Alex is talking about) is to make non-scarce things less scarce but seeing how I think that approach has its limits I think communism will necessarily have to face its own systematic failures in some way or another.

But sure, I think more abundance and technology is generally speaking the way to go for anti-work folks. But that is why I support markets.

I also want to be clear here that I acknowledge and respect the fact that Alex is not advocating for either of these positions (primitivism or techno-communism). He is simply testing the logic of what I believe and trying to figure out how it could lead to markets.

Alex also takes issue with the alternatives I suggested to work:

…mostly in terms that apply to people’s ability to either start their own business (I.E. to become capitalists themselves)…

When I talked about liberating markets and what their results would be I explicitly said that the possibilities would be wide. And within that gulf of new organizations possible I suggested self-employment and independent contracting.

Both of which, yes, means starting ones own business.

I do not, however, see what is wrong with that. If people want to use their money to create a more formal organization that they can use to get more money from others by providing services that other people want then what is the problem? I never suggested these people should get their resources through exploiting others or through some dastardly means. So I am unsure what is Alex’s exact problem with this arrangement.

Is it wrong for someone to use their resources to get more resources and thus help them thrive instead of just perpetually living?

I also don’t consider self-employment in a free society to be “work” the same way that I consider wage-slavery to be work. Being independent means eliminating the hierarchy and inequality in the workplace by removing bosses from the equation. It also means that you have way more flexibility about when you work or how you want to work. This is especially the case when pesky government licenses are out of the way and people don’t need them to braid hair

…or to enter into a particular specialized labor market (I.E. to engage in systematic work), which might not be most people’s interests.

Sure, but I didn’t say what anyone needs to do. I said what they might do.

Anarchism isn’t in the interests of the ruling class but that doesn’t mean it’s bunk.

I find it a bit odd that while you talk about anti-work, you simultaneously suggest a bunch of manifestations of work within a couple paragraphs.

It’s even odder that Alex wouldn’t even define work.

Earlier in his comment he seems to buy my under systematic duress definition but also thinks that this necessarily entails market abolitionism because the market systematically pressures us all to work. I’m not sure exactly how because he never explained.

But let’s assume that Alex is taking my definition and applying it to markets.

Well how exactly are markets freed from capitalism, the state and presumably a up-tight work ethic society going to put pressure on people who don’t work?

Markets are the results of certain exchanges and networks between individuals and unless those individuals are coming from some sort of work-ethic background I don’t see how a culture of duress is just going to magically appear because markets exist. I am not saying it’s impossible but just looking for the logic here.

And now, to quote Inception, “let’s go deeper”:

The existence of work is not a product of state intervention.

I guess we are playing the “if you just had added this one word I would’ve agreed with you” game because adding the word just would have been great.

But okay, explain then how the modern work place became how it was without referring to state intervention. I am interested and think its perhaps plausible. But I’d like to see more than just bare assertions.

The flavor I get from some of what you’re saying is more like a proposition for a new kind of capitalism that theoretically has a larger amount of smaller businesses. Does this really address the fundamental issues with capitalism and the system of work?

Well if that was what I was calling for I guess it wouldn’t.

But then I’m not and you’re just plain wrong.

I don’t know what you mean by capitalism (here we go…) but I don’t just think small businesses are the answer. I think loosely connected and networked businesses are fine and so are independent artisans. And those same artisans forming loose and networked confederations with each other in a given locale or more if they want seems fine as well to me.

Boiling all of that down to “small businesses” seems to really be missing my point which was in support of free social experimentation and not size regulation.

We’re nearing the end,

What about your statement that no worker’s revolution or violence is necessarily involved? It’s not as if the state falls, and then the rich abandon ship and all that property being held by powerful economic interests is going to be left laying around for anyone to appropriate, and the market will just automatically become harmonious. As if existing economic interests don’t have ways to secure their power?

There’s already been some stuff that left me scratching my head and pondering how I am either such a poor writer or how Alex came up with his point independently of the point that I thought I made.

But here I am just baffled.

I am in no real position here to detail The Anarchist Plan for Success nor do I really know how to address some of what Alex has in mind here to some extent.

But here’s a few quick points:

The anarchist idea of revolution, from anyone really, isn’t just to attack the state and leave the rich alone in the process.

For instance there is the essay Let the Free Market Eat the Rich which is also distributed by the ALL Distro so left-libertarians more generally aren’t silent on this issue. But even just personally speaking I’m not just interested in attacking the state. I believe that wide disparities in wealth (and especially ones attained through violence or from background of violence) are subject to criticism, skepticism and restructuring through mutual aid and direct action.

But sure, existing economic interests have ways to secure their power and that’s why it is crucial for us as anarchists to not only “dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear“ the state but also (emphasis added) “all the wheels of this great machine”. That means not just making sure politicians are knocked out of power but also their corporate allies, cronies and so on.

Lastly, I agree that just eliminating the state would not tie up all loose ends. I don’t think all of the wealth that has been concentrated into the hands of the ruling class will just disappear once The Revolution happens. I think it will take a societal shift towards valuing other commodities and vales that necessarily undermine the values that privileged people have. This means creating alternative money systems (LETs, mutual banks, community based currencies, barter networks, etc.) and working to make them sustainable alternatives to business as usual.

And lastly,

Your examples of the good slacker life, as you seem to be aware of by name, seem to ring of aristocracy. The kind of life described is the life of a rich aristocrat – because that is generally the position one has to be in to truly have the capacity to live your whole life out in leisure. But then this would seem to mean that you have to come up with a way to make us all rich. Otherwise, the descriptions of the good leisure life starts to ring of primitivism instead.

I think there are other options here besides just making us all rich (which is relative to the given society’s standard of living and valuation on being wealthy to begin with). But the one that mainly comes to me is the fact that it seems like now (and then) only the aristocrats can be free and lazy. My point was a fairly Tuckerite one (albeit in a different context) that the goal would be to dissolve such distinctions so that we are all aristocrats in a way.

And by that I don’t mean top hats and canes for everyone but rather leisure and flexibility for everyone.

There’s not a lot richer than that.

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2 thoughts on “Wherein I was Lazy and You (Almost) Bailed me Out: With Apologies to Alex Strekal

  1. Nick, I appreciate at some level that you give a nod to the idea of culture mattering, but I believe our disagreement lies more at the level of the question of the economic sphere itself and the question of what capitalism is. You and many left-libertarians often talk of capitalism in terms of being a political system, and overwhelmingly define the criticism of it in terms of explaining it in terms of economic interventionism, but you never seem to understand capitalism as a system of economic relations. In some ways economic forces influence and can transcend culture – they can even manufacture culture.

    I think the power relations of markets in modern technological societies are complex in ways that go so far beyond state intervention that to focus so much on it in ones analysis is to miss much of the forest for the trees. You want to show your “thickness” by saying you blame the culture in addition to the state, but you don’t seem to blame the machinations of the modern economic organism itself – its “emergent properties” shall we say. In order to do that you’d have to absorb the thoughts of people to “the left” of “left-libertarians”.

    The meaning and consequence of genuinely being against institutionalized labor entails something much more communistic than you think it does. It certainly should logically lead you toward post-scarcity, which is a position that renders markets obsolete. So I think that there is inherent dissonance between using that kind of rhetoric while simultaneously using the lens of free market economics and a “libertarian class analysis” that places the bulk of its emphasis on state intervention as the cause of socio-economic problems.

    I think that markets contain internal problems that such notions can’t properly account for, and that the tradition of free market economics that many libertarians draw from is tainted with bogus claims that are sociologically blind. Being a “thick libertarian” seems to matter little if one is still bound by principles and theories that allow for economic power dynamics and circumstances that perpetuate relations of competition, profit motive, and exploitation. And those relations have a power of their own that can’t all be explained away in terms of market distortion and breaking libertarian principles.

    Even Mr. “thick libertarianism” himself, Charles Johnson, had to reveal himself as bound to the theoretical legitimacy of institutional racism while simultaneously being personally against it. That tells me, at the very least, that most “left-libertarians” are still bound by the narrowness of how libertarian principles are defined and the limits of a free market analysis.

    Nick rather quickly tries to do away with the example of hunter-gatherer societies. It is well known through many channels of research that while there may be some rough aspects to their existence, the people in such societies are noted for having much more leisure time than people in modern capitalist societies. I hardly see how this can be brushed off as irrelevant to the idea of being against work! That doesn’t mean that one has to find such a society desirable or attractive overall – it’s simply one of the logical possibilities that leans in the direction of leisure over work, and in fact one of the only empirically known ones.

    Nick does away with the idea of techno-communism by more or less saying that he doesn’t believe collectivization of resources works – although I think he still may be missing the point of the techno part of the equation. He makes no argument really, but I’m going to assume he’s vaguely referencing the well-known liberal/libertarian arguments against socialism and communism. Again, the point is that whether or not Nick finds these ideas feasible or desirable, they are the ones that are most logically and theoretically consistent with the idea of abolishing work. Work abolition is the idea of communists and assorted far left radicals – not free marketers. It would be hard for anyone well acquainted with those groups to not perceive Nick as engaging in a bit of cultural appropriation.

    If Nick doesn’t want to go in the direction of primitivism and the sheer thought of anything overtly to the left of left-libertarianism is off-putting to him, the technological side of things in itself would presumably be an attractive alternative. This then would entail the belief in a capacity for certain technologies to move us toward post-scarcity. The general point he seems to miss is that post-scarcity is what is necessary to truly abolish all work – and that post-scarcity necessarily entails market abolitionism. Which brings us right back to confronting communism and more radical ideas. Yet he continues to talk in terms of a competitive market with various small business models and economic lifestyles. Hence my objection.

    Nick’s way out of this seems to be in his above claim that technological progress is why he supports markets. I think he is conflating technological progress with markets, and this gets him into territory where he may have to defend some free market dogma that could easily come from the Mises Institution. They are different things – invention in and of itself is done by brilliant minds. Its successes can’t be contributed to faceless markets as such. Invention is invention, whatever the economy is like.

    The plain reality one has to deal with is that we currently live in a technological world with a large and growing population, with a huge interconnected global economy, in which there is a system of mass-production of goods that is self-perpetuating in a way, that produces its own consumption, that is based on continual growth, and wastes a lot of resources. *And the amount of labor required to sustain this way of life is enormous*. Talk of abolishing the state in these circumstances as a lead-in to a non-capitalist society seems utopian when one really grasps the enormity of the problem of capitalism. It’s a huge human problem that transcends a libertarian political analysis, and I don’t think that economic ideas resembling a bazaar are a realistic solution to anything or that Nick is truly aware of the sacrifices it would entail.

    Nick does not seem aware of the general structural elements of capitalism that make suggesting self-employment and independent contracting a weak “alternative to capitalism”. These mechanisms might be good for the people engaging in them, but in a broader social context they are still likely functioning in a broader system of power relations and exploitation. The relation to production and consumption is not irrelevant, and the profit motive isn’t irrelevant. Nick wants to ask what issue there is with gaining resources from resources, which to me highlights that he doesn’t see what the problem with capitalism is at some level. A self-employed person is still functioning in the broader context of the capitalist system.

    It looks like Nick tries to dodge me pointing out that his “anti-work” article quickly makes mention of a state intervention *in the way of more work*, by making a distinction between what anyone needs to do and what they might do. I don’t see how that addresses the contradiction I pointed out. That someone “might do” something, that he’s arguing to open up the option for, is enough. Especially when that thing he is arguing to open the option for, is to join institutionalized work! To be integrated into a previously barred institutionalized field of work! This is an inevitable dissonance that seems to arise from Nick simultaneously wanting to tote the free market libertarian argument, to mesh it with his anti-work rhetoric.

    Nick wants to accuse me of waffling on the definition of work, but this was based on him misunderstanding my point, which was part of an argument making a contrast between the kind of “bare minimum necessary work to survive” in a hunter-gatherer society, with the kind of institutionalized work in modern capitalist society. Of course, modern markets thrive on institutionalized work in order to function. He then attempts to challenge me with how “markets free from capitalism”, but this begs the question. I don’t believe you can create “markets free from capitalism” by just suggesting state abolition and giving a sappy lecture on “changing the culture”. There is no “market free from capitalism” in the way Nick wants to project.

    This is because we disagree on what markets actually are. Nick claims markets are simply the spontaneous, cumulative result of exchanges between individuals. I say markets entail systematic social dynamics that makes this description highly inaccurate, and this is a big root of the problem behind the free market theory that Nick’s analysis hinges on. The description of markets in terms of “methodological individualism” are severely limiting and lacking in social context. Nick appears to me to be naïve in the sense that he assumes that a mere cultural background of a work ethic could be the only thing compelling people to work in a “true free market”. Nothing could be further from the truth – crude, material realities in a world of scarcity, competition, and economic power compel people to work.

    This bears on Nick’s next comment objecting to me saying that work isn’t the product of state intervention. He wants to challenge me to provide some proof of how work could have otherwise come about. And some of what I’ve already said kind of already answers that. Basic sociological observation really should be sufficient. Nick also talks about artisans. I find this talk of artisans to be outdated – it’s basically a 19th century idea that is largely inapplicable to the modern world. Then near the end he leaves us off with the idea of alternative currencies – another idea that, while interesting, doesn’t seem like a real solution to anything. It only seems like a way of diversifying capitalism. Alternative currencies does not resolve issues of poverty and the exhaustion of labor.

    End of rant post.

  2. “I find this talk of artisans to be outdated – it’s basically a 19th century idea that is largely inapplicable to the modern world. ”

    Well to be fair I do think that crypto currencies and block chain communities could make those production archetypes possible again. What ultimately matters is productive play in the long wrong. The crypto currencies and block chain might be a bridge to that reality if things break the right way as opposed to becoming what Baudrilard would call a ‘mirror of production’.

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