On my first read through I remember this twenty-five or so pager pamphlet sucking itself. So I was hoping to title it “WORKING SUCKS – SUCKS!” but on my second read through I realized that I had gotten so caught up with this title that I had mistaken what the quality actually was.
It’s not that Righteous’s attempt to prove work sucks, sucks…it’s just fairly bland and mediocre.
Now, I don’t really know Righteous and I doubt I’ll ever get to know him. In the pamphlet he strikes me as fairly sympathetic to primitivism (if not one himself) so I doubt I’ll see him around the worldwide web anytime soon. But in any case if you don’t have the pamphlet version (like I managed to get…I forget where) then here’s the online version.
One of my biggest problems with Righteous’s pamphlet is that he never cites his sources. Technically at the end he says,
“I stole most of the ideas and statistics from the books listed by Bob Black, Juliet Schor, and Paul Lefargue.”
And that is all well and good but I don’t know what statistics he cites comes from who and what pages let alone where those statistics came. I mean, I’m not particularly interested in disputing any of the statistics per se’ (it isn’t like they exactly contradict my anti-work ideology) but it’s just annoying to be told a bunch of information and then when the reader wants to be given more specifics pointed in the equivalent of an information Grand Canyon. Only to have them meekly add, “It’s a little to the left of a big boulder. Ya can’t miss it!”
To Righteous’ credit though that’s probably the most annoying thing in the pamphlet. I can’t say that anything he tries to accomplish here made me cringe or made me want to intellectually vomit. But none of it was particularly insightful for me either. I don’t think, however, that it was written with me in mind:
I wrote this pamphlet by combining some of Black’s and Schor’s ideas with my own, but using language that is accessible to high school-aged Americans. This pamphlet is targeted at Americans who identify themselves as middle class (90% of the population according to one survey)…
And if you’re curious, no, he doesn’t specify what survey or who did the survey or why we should believe them.
Yes, to some extent I am just nitpicking the presentation so let’s get into the more meat and potatoes of this piece.
There is a quote in the pamphlet that you don’t see online:
No matter how much I hated it, I had to face up to the fact that I would have to earn some money. I was like many fullbloods. I didn’t want to work in an office or a factory. I thought myself too good for that, not because I was stuck up, but because any human being is too good for that kind of no-life, even white people. I trained myself to need and want as little as could be so that I wouldn’t have to work except when I felt like it. That way, I got along fine with plenty of time to think, to ask, to learn, to listen, to count coup with the girls.” – John Lame Deer
At first I was a little confused at the dig at white people and reference to “fullbloods” but it turns out John Lame Deer was a Lakota Holy Man, so that all makes sense.
Unfortunatley I don’t think it makes sense to “train oneself” to need and want as little as you could. That seems to fly directly in the face of what Righteous says later:
Living cheap doesn’t mean suffering and starving. You can live cheap and also enjoy a comfortable, plentiful life. (8)
Ignoring the fact that the words “cheap”, “suffering”, “starving”, “comfortable” and “plentiful” are all words that could really be up for dispute it seems like Deer and Righteous may not agree on how best to get to a less work-filled society or life for themselves.
Adding on to this is that this sort of discipline sounds to me like a whole lot of effort, time and energy that one could be spending relaxing, enjoying, consuming and being themselves. Rather than trying to live up to some ideology that seems to encourage idle suffering for the sake of some grand goal. Poverty isn’t nobility and suffering doesn’t inherently make you a good person. We really need to get away from this romanticization of poor people and that’s coming from a poor person!
Moreover it’s just a bit silly to tell everyone to do the same thing that worked for you. Some people might be willing to self-discipline themselves like this so they can necessarily work less. I’ve certainly disciplined myself to some extent to make sure I get the most out my time, energy and money. And that was something that I did that has proven valuable to me.
But hey, if you can work a lot less and still get a bunch of money and buy that flat-screen TV that you’ve always wanted, why not?
Righteous’ answer is that buying these things is part of what makes most people “zombies” and helps get the advertisements to “brainwash” us.
Look, I have no doubt that TV and advertisements (of any sort) influence our thoughts, desires and behaviors. But to claim that everyone is just “brainwashed” and they just don’t know what’s good for them comes of as a bit patronizing. Some people do genuinely like the McDonald’s cheeseburger. Is that really the worst thing in the world? I used to like Burger King’s double cheeseburgers and for a while I liked Wendy’s and Sonic and now I pretty much don’t like any of them.
But I didn’t like them not because I was brainwashed by advertisements or because the TV “got me”. I just tried the burgers at the places I mentioned and I happened to like them and like it for the price they had them at.
Maybe I’m alone on this one though, it’s hard to tell since Righteous doesn’t really explain what being “brainwashed” means or use any data or even anecdotes to back up his opinions. So it just comes off as (unsurprisingly given his name) a holier-than-thou condemnation from on high with no real substantial analysis or thought behind it. Besides screaming the libertarian equivalent of “sheeple!”.
And it’s not just that Righteous’ rhetoric can be weak sometimes but his arguments just down right suck.
Take a look at this,
Working this hard is weird and unnatural.
He then decides to cite the hunter-gatherers, Naive Americans and medieval times in Europe as positive examples of people not working hard to make the case that working hard is “weird and unnatural”.
There’s a few problems here. Notably Righteous is making a reverse-liberal appeal to history saying that things that happened in the past was more “natural” than what happens and therefore good (which is an appeal to nature). But many of those Medieval City-States, Native tribes and hunter-gathers had awful norms about things like women, marriage, punishment, organization of their political structures and whatever else. The point being that things from a distant past aren’t inherently good just because they were more “in touch” with “nature”.
If you’re not picking up on the pattern by now, a lot of this language Righteous likes to use is really question-begging and vague.
Another big problem is how Righteous is defining work, which he doesn’t bother to define until three years later in his postscript:
…time and effort exchanged on the labor market for a wage or for a salary.
This definition however leaves me a bit puzzled.
What is a “labor market”? Is it simply exchanging a payment for a service someone gives them? But what if they enjoy this work?
What if I give a friend $50 to cut my lawn for me every month or so? They enjoy cutting grass and like making the lawn look better and they also enjoy helping out a friend and the payment seems fair to them. Is this still work? Is this a relationship we should be critiquing? Why?
If this is a relation that can happen in a “labor market” then I think Righteous is gravely mistaken if he thinks the anti-work POV is against it or at least inherently.
And what exactly wrong with receiving a salary or a wage? Is getting money from someone for doing something for someone else inherently demeaning for someone to do? How does Righteous figure this?
Another baffling use of work comes here:
Working less doesn’t mean being unproductive. Take gardening again: Gardening doesn’t pay. To make gardening pay, you would have to work like a farmer. But you can easily grow lots of vegetables, possibly enough to live on, simply by goofing around in your garden. Why work? (8)
Again, Righteous boils work down to simply doing something for pay. For Righteous you could work like a farmer and as long as you’re not getting paid there’s either nothing to critique or (judging by this pamphlet) not much to say about it (in general, Righteous has little to say about work ethic or work as a cultural force besides vaguely cited statistics and gasps of horror).
Further, how does obtain anything in a garden by merely “goofing off”? I’ve dealt with gardens and I can tell you right now that those hours I’ve spent on it wasn’t “goofing off”. Righteous is just engaging in idealizing things that he likes and pretends they must be universally enjoyable just because he enjoys it.
Honestly, in general he doesn’t seem to understand subjective valuation,
We made a decision to buy more rather than work less. Some of the things we bought really did improve the way we live. Very few homes in 1890 had running water, electricity, or flush toilets. But most of what we bought were fluff consumer products like big cars and color TVs that are fun to own, but that we don’t really need. (3)
So electricity, running water and toilets are necessary but we don’t need “big cars” or “color TVs”? How does Righteous exactly make this calculation for the rest of us?
I’m not suggesting we need cars or TVs (colored or not) but do we need running water, electricity or toilets? It doesn’t seem like an individual person would need these things given the right environment.
Don’t get me wrong, these things all massively help the human race (and individual humans) get by and they do that far more than cars or TVs. But that isn’t what Righteous is saying. He’s saying we need these things but we don’t need TVs and cars. But how does he figure this out?
Again, it’s hard to grasp with what Rigteous is trying to say or what he wants to prove because his language is so consistently weak and vague. What defines “need”? What does he define as “need”? What distinction are we drawing between color TVs and running water?
And I’m no expert on hunting-gathering but how relaxing could killing animals to just live have been for the men? Maybe women picking berries, general non-sentient food sources, childbearing, childrearing and god knows else was relaxing. I mean that sounds relaxing to me. Doesn’t it to you?
But okay, I’ve been pretty harsh on Righteous so far. Does this piece have anything to offer?
There’s some bits I smiled at, snickered at, found solace in and so on.
I’ll highlight a few passages I liked:
The price for this choice is high. Work saps our spirit and crushes our sense of freedom. Kissing our boss’s ass all day is humiliating. The worst is when we actually get used to being pushed around. Human beings need to be free to develop our independent selves. The more we work, the less we think like free people and the more we think like dogs: dull and obedient.
I’ll correct myself (in real-time!) to say that Righteous does make a point or two about work as a cultural force that are good. This is one of the few. Talking about how a culture of hierarchy and subordination can make us all think less and make us less interested in alternatives is a great point to make.
He also makes decent points about people who say that they like their job:
There are some lucky people who have better jobs or who work at jobs where they do something they like. If you are one of these people, you have to ask yourself, do you really like your job, or do you just hate your job less than most people? If you had a choice, would you choose to work at your job for 40 hours a week? Even sex would get boring after going at it for 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. Work can spoil anything. Many people love gardening, but farm-work is hot and back-breaking. Cooking can be fun, but working as a cook in a busy restaurant is hell. If you like your job now, you will like your job even more if you work less.
Some of these points I had never even thought to make to someone but they seem pretty spot on. If you do like your job you’re probably gonna be a lot less inclined to burnt out on it (either inevitably or not) if you spend less time on it and more time doing other things to balance it out. Having a given activity dominate our days or our lives tends to lead to bad results for our state of mind and our bodies. So why not the same thing for work?
I find Righteous’ methods of working less unequally good, sometimes they just seem like common sense (live cheaply, relax, think hard about going to college, try not to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant, etc.) and other things seem questionable (don’t buy a car, forget everything about high school, go vegetarian, etc.) but there’s some solid advice here and there.
The general advice to try to save on things seems reasonable to me. It depends on what we mean by “cheapness” (Righteous gives us no frame of reference or stories to explain his position as per usual) but generally speaking I can agree to that as a fairly sensible way to reduce your work hours.
Other things like “don’t get pregnant or anyone else”, “don’t buy a car”, “never take a management position” and so on are rather personal choices. I could be like an objectivist one of my friends knew who married a woman and after they both made a general calculation decided not to have kids because it’d cost too much or something. And yeah, that’s probably true that kids cost a bunch of money (hey mom!) but I’m not sure that’s the best thing to tell people who want kids.
Similarly although Righteous and I may have some agreements on car culture (fuck it) I don’t know that I’d tell someone who lives in a rural town or hell, even a middle-city like Worcester MA in some areas would I suggest people don’t need cars. Cabs can be expensive when the public (and by that I mean the state) infrastructure is weak (coughNewHampshirecough) and your network of friends doesn’t include many people with cars (or you’re just too racked with culture-guilt to ask).
Another big thing Righteous suggests is to live with multiple people to cut down on costs, shared work and so on. This isn’t a bad idea. But again, it’s not for everyone. Some of us are introverts or just aren’t a big fan of meetings every few days to figure out how we should live our lives. And some of us just don’t want to think about politics 24/7. We may even want to gasp, watch TV once in a while! The horror!
But for a lot of people shared costs would almost certainly reduce the costs of living and the need for work to some extent. So it isn’t as if Righteous advice here is bad…it’s just sort of lukewarm and a bit presumptive.
Though I do like the concept of a “low work tribe”…maybe not a “tribe” though.
To wrap things up, I understand that this is a pretty basic text. But even for a basic text I think it has a few too many problems for me to heartily recommend. It does make some good points in support of anti-work but honestly you could find these points and see them more interestingly expressed by some of his recommended reads at the end (LaFargue, Black and I am going to get Juliet Schor’s book on the “Over-Worked American” soon) than you’ll probably get here.
And though his postscripts and afterwords are a nice tough and more or less admit (in my eyes) that this is a fairly basic text I still don’t really see what you’d get out of most of it.
And for all of his decrying of work he only has a brief selection of not working at all (most of it is just dedicated to working less) which consists of:
…most of the living-cheap tactics and tips with squatting (living for free in abandoned buildings), shoplifting food, foraging for food, and using advanced dumpster diving techniques to live on practically no money at all. As you get more into the low-work scene in your town, you will probably meet some zero- work experts who can show you the tricks.
Not only is telling people to do fairly obviously illegal things that they could get arrested for without any tips and tricks fairly irresponsibly but the general gist of this is, “live like an outlaw as obviously as possible and somehow it’ll all work out”.
At the end of the article in the postscript that’s all Righteous really seems to demand of us, blind faith:
How will we eat if everyone refuses to work? We’ll figure something out – we always have. Human beings are nothing if not inventive and adaptable. With imagination and courage, we can create any future we desire.
Sorry Tim, but I think I’ll follow your advice and not buy what you’re selling.