(Nick’s Notes: This is the second of two unpublished Hardly Working posts that I had for C4SS. It was originally written in late May)
For a while now I have been trying to wrack my head and figure out how to tell a story about the anti-work position to better exemplify its means and ends. It would be just as easy to only offer a dictionary definition or a definition from a favored author of mine, but I have tried this with multiple people and each time it tends to fall short. So I want to try a different tactic and tell a story instead.
Now, within this encapsulation I want to define where this anti-work position comes from, where it is going and how it approaches this point of origin, as well as a hopeful future full of rest and relaxation. This seems like a fairly daunting task, but I think it is within the realm of the possible to at least tease out certain themes that would be a part of any such story.
I have found a few instructive pieces by the anarchist thinker Voltairine de Cleyre that I think exemplify the themes or ideas that would be a part of any good anti-work story. Voltairine de Cleyre is not very well known in anarchist circles, perhaps even more so within the anti-work movement. She was an “anarchist without adjectives” that touched on many social issues ranging from marriage to direct action to the Mexican revolution.
Although the subject of work was never her main concern with her essays or her poems, she wrote a few sketches that touch on the subject. These sketches bring up themes or ideas that I believe would aid the telling of any anti-work story.
To start then, I believe that a major theme of any good anti-work story would involve the issue of silence.
This is because as with any systematic pressure or cultural norm there is going to be a lot of reasons to get lost in a fatalistic fog. We will find ourselves either unable or unwilling to confront the problems in front of us. Our position will be either “there are no alternatives” or “we can’t even begin to think of an alternative” to the present state of affairs.
For an hour I had been staring thru the window at that chill steam, thickening and blurring out the lines that zigzagged thru it indefinitely, pale drunken images of facts staggering against the invulnerable vapor that walled me in,—a sublimated grave marble! Were they all ghosts, those figures wandering across the white night, hardly distinguishable from the posts and pickets that wove in and out like half-dismembered bodies writhing in pain? My own fingers were curiously numb and inert; had I, too, become a shadow?
We are cut in half and made a mess by work at the end of the day and somehow, at the same time, we are called upon to revolt, to rebel, to resist and to refuse with all of our passions and hearts. This task becomes much more difficult, when the fog makes us all less distinct to each other. We can not as easily tell friend from foe, comrade from counter-revolutionary and fellow worker from brown-nosing worker. The lines become blurry and difficult to measure and our strategies of resistance become harder to plan out, much less conceive on a fundamental level.
Work does this to us through the constant belittlement of our efforts and dignity. It affronts our individual value and accosts us whenever we try to assert it through ingenuity or something that may harm the institutional place of the bosses. It harms us anytime we try to strike out on our own within the workplace. If we try to give customers advice that may help them get around the corporate bureaucracy, then, in many cases, we are at risk of being fired. If we speak even a word of our own lives, activism or radicalism on social networks then we risk, once again, being fired. If we talk back to the boss or even just offer constructive advice, we risk being fired.
Even more than that this fog makes us all ghosts to each other. We phase through each other as if their loss could not be our loss. Or as if their flesh does not even remotely resemble our own when it is frayed.
Work as we know it cuts down on the potentiality and possibilities with regards to solidaristic labor struggle as well as being able to carve out our own way in this world. Our visions are dimmer, our lives seem duller and we cannot possibly imagine a world that is better. At least, not as vividly as we’d like to.
Work isn’t just this theme of blindness, there is a larger theme of perpetuating non-existence within society. It diminishes our state of being, our history and past into a tiny paper we call a “resume” and regards us as nothing more than the sum of our actions that we perform. Our personal problems and reasons or feelings for not wanting to participate are disregarded.
In the second sketch by Voltairine, To Strive and Fail, Voltairine explains to us what this systematic and historic non-existence looks like,
Behind the fading picture, stretched dim, long shadows of silent generations, with rounded shoulders and bent backs and sullen, conquered faces. And they had all, most likely, dreamed of some wonderful thing they had to do in their world, and all had died and left it undone. And their work had been washed away, as if writ in water, and no one knew their dreams. And of the fruit of their toil other men had eaten, for that was the will of the triune god; but of themselves was left no trace, no sound, no word, in the world’s glory; no carving upon stone, no indomitable ghost shining from a written sign, or song singing out of black foolish spots on paper,–nothing. They were as though they had not been. As as they all and died, she too would die, slave of the triple Terror, sacrificing the highest to the meanest, that somewhere in some lighted ball-room or gas-bright theater, some piece of vacant flesh might wear one more jewel in her painted hair.
“My soul,” she said bitterly, “my soul for their diamonds!” It was time to sleep, for to-morrow—WORK.
This perpetuating of non-existence is, in a sense, another way of silencing us, but it is also a much bigger sort of silencing than simply turning us into less distinct individuals. It banishes our very history and makes it nearly impossible to look to either the present or the past for any sort of hope.
Work not only takes away our valuable time, time we could spend devoted to our own dreams and desires, but it silences past generations who tried and, most likely, failed in the same way that we may also fail. Our stories may very well end with no goals in mind at all for ourselves or for all of the goals in the world, but whatever road we pick we may be doomed to perpetuate the history of non-existence that work helps create. Instead of pursuing our dreams we must pursue the making of others diamonds. We must pursue other people’s pleasures, passions and dreams.
We have no individual desires or wants or limits to be broken, we have nothing and work has everything.
Work has a history. It is the history of the laborer who never stopped working, who are on friendly terms with their boss, who wants the white picket fence and the family dog along with their 2.5 kids. They just want to live quietly and have picnics and cookouts with their neighbors. They are of course white, middle-class and well endowed with wealth (or at least enough to get by and keep up middle-class appearances). There are no ghettos where they live, there are no fogs or ghosts or perpetuity of non-existence in their lives. They need no giants to stand on for they are the giants.
What can we do, the silent ghosts with no history, against these giants?
We can make demands and we can try to reach them.
And in the third and final sketch, The Sorrows of the Body, Voltairine shows us some base desires we could aim for:
Air, room, light rest, nakedness when I would not be clothed, and when I would be clothed, garments that did not fetter; freedom to touch my mother earth, to be with her in storm and shine, as the wild things are,–this is what I wanted—this, and free contact with my fellows;–not to love, and lie and be ashamed, but to love and say I love, and be glad of it; to feel the currents of ten thousands years of passion flooding me, body to body, as the wild things meet. I have asked no more.
This should not seem like a radical demand, but it becomes one through the existence and prevalence of work.
It will not give us time to be ourselves, to have voices, to be physical beings who are not cut into millions of different pieces, each serving the needs of someone else. Work will not let us alone. It is like the fly that Voltairine mentions in her essay Crime and Punishment, saying that she, as the fly, will not let us alone until we know oppression. The fly in this case is a creature for work and thus will not let us alone until we know work.
It will not let us alone until the breath of work become our breath. Until the strides that we make with work become our strides. Until the identity of work becomes our identity. Until we cannot even know or conceptualize what peace means. When people ask what others will do with their free time they are, explicitly, telling us that the fly has not only spoken to them but is inside them. It has infested their brain and told them that there is no alternative, but for us all to work ourselves into the dust.
This fly is the same sort of being that The Sorrows of the Body‘s main character has to deal with. Their soul is constantly pushing them away from the beach, from relaxation, from love, from enjoying their meals and from any “beastly” pleasures that they deem unfit for the person they inhabit.
And once it finally eased up, the person they inhabited decided it was better to be dead then to keep living as they had been.
Killed by their work ethic.
Killed by work itself.
So we know our demands, but how will we reach them?
To end, we return to the beginning and take another look at A Rocket of Iron where we are given a picture of resistance, one that is quiet but loud at the same time:
A comrade called, a sudden terrified cry. There was a wild rush, a mad stampede of feet, a horrible screech of hissing metal, and a rocket of iron shot upward toward the black roof, bursting and falling in a burning shower. Three figures lay writhing along the floor, among the leaping, demoniac sparks.
Along the way, as she is telling this story, Voltairine constantly reverses the narrative and forgets this or that detail that was originally involved. What was the face of the culprit? What was her reason to be there? Voltairine will constantly reverse and revise the narrative of this tragic event while implying that the fog, that I mentioned earlier, is so great that it makes the details equally foggy. This loud act of resistance then becomes a quiet one and ends simply.
This isn’t to say that acts of terrorism are what I or Voltairine advocate, but it is interesting to note that most of the resistance that happens in any given system are similar actions – ones that are loud but quiet at the same time. Ones that could possibly be forgotten if the fog gets any thicker around us, but ones that silently cut through the fog, undermine it and allow us to recognize each other as individuals.
In any given workplace there are always going to be acts of silent resistance such as leaving a little early, going to lunch early, collectively deciding to walk off early or ignore a bosses one small command and pursuing what we want to do instead. Individually these acts happen all of the time, but collectively they need to happen more.
Anytime I would walk off by myself during work I risked being reprimanded, but whenever I did it with other co-workers I knew that this silent yet loud action would be a lot less likely to get me individually reprimanded. A simple tactic for the quiet yet loud resistance then is solidarity as well as individualized resistance that happens both informally and formally. Both seem important in undermining work as it stands.
What then is the anti-work story?
Hopefully, from drawing upon these three sketches by Voltairine, I have given some of the themes of an anti-work story, what our basic aims may look like and a way to get there. What remains to be seen is who are the protagonists and antagonists.
The anti-work story is fundamentally our story because it has us as the main character and the ruling class as its perpetual antagonists. Not only are these its antagonists but any manifestations of this ruling class or its helpers (the fly for example which represents the Puritan Work Ethic) must also be regarded as things we are in perpetual opposition to. These are things we cannot allow to exist if we wish to flourish and if we are to realize that the basest of demands should not be radical ones.
The anti-work story is one of raising our voices, giving people ample space and time to cultivate these voices and ultimately to re-appropriate our physicality and identities.
We do all of this so that we may one day escape this fog and be silent ghosts no more.
Our bodies are our own, let us take our stand against work now and forever!