Anti-Work and David Autor’s Definition(s) of Work

Autor looks like he’s about to slap a robot.

Working on my collection means I’ve had to go through pieces that I’ve either entirely missed out on or didn’t look closely enough. John Danaher, who remains to be one of my favorite anti-work advocates, has a such a piece on automation and wage inequality. In it, Danaher explains the merits of arguing that automation such that it is exacerbates income inequality in some important aspects. I could get into my usual spiel about capitalism but I’ll desist in this case.

Instead, I want to discuss the sorts of definitions that David Autor, an economist who Danaher spends much time engaging with during the aforementioned blog post, gives about work:

Routine Work: This consists in tasks that can be codified and reduced to a series of step-by-step rules or procedures. Such tasks are ‘characteristic of many middle-skilled cognitive and manual activities: for example, the mathematical calculations involved in simple bookkeeping; the retrieving, sorting and storing of structured information typical of clerical work; and the precise executing of a repetitive physical operation in an unchanging environment as in repetitive production tasks’ (Autor 2015, 11).

Abstract Work: This consists in tasks that ‘require problem-solving capabilities, intuition, creativity and persuasion’. Such tasks are characteristic of ‘professional, technical, and managerial occupations’ which ‘employ workers with high levels of education and analytical capability’ placing ‘a premium on inductive reasoning, communications ability, and expert mastery’ (Autor 2015, 12).

Manual Work: This consists in tasks ‘requiring situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interactions’. Such tasks are characteristic of ‘food preparation and serving jobs, cleaning and janitorial work, grounds cleaning and maintenance, in-person health assistance by home health aides, and numerous jobs in security and protective services.’ These jobs employ people ‘who are physically adept, and, in some cases, able to communicate fluently in spoken language’ but would generally be classified as ‘low-skilled’ (Autor 2015, 12).

I agree with Danaher that this division “makes sense” but something more interesting is who it makes sense for.

Does it make sense for the anti-work advocate to see work split up like this? What could we do with this different re-calibration of what work looks like to us?

I: Routine Work

Going from top to bottom, I think the anti-work critique would have most to say about the routine work which is much of what makes up bullshit jobs in today’s economy. The routinization of work is something that me and other anti-work advocates throughout history have lamented. The fact that our efforts are so simple that…well a machine could do it, if properly programmed, is finally turning out to be true. And although capitalism concentrates the benefits of such automation into the wrong hands (i.e. the capitalists, not society) it’s still a good thing overall.

This is partly because many of these jobs suck to work at anyhow. The jobs that are being replaced by machines are often (though not always) heavily routine-orientated work and jobs that people dislike doing anyways due to its dullness. On the other hand since the welfare state is hardly a good way to help out those same workers many anti-work advocates turn to the Universal Basic Income, which I feel is impractical and inadequate.

For more on that you can see here and here.

In any case, the point of this article isn’t to convince y’all one way of the UBI. But more to the point I just want to highlight the point that automation per se is not an evil that needs to be fought against. The way capitalism uses automation is surely sub-optimal and should be resisted but automation itself shouldn’t be.

Even still, I don’t think ant-work would want to abolish routine-orientated work. The solution seems to me to be to simply automate most of it and particularly the sort of work that isn’t necessary for our flourishing as it is. For example, you’d have a tough time arguing to most people that being a fast food worker is necessary for a flourishing society. Why not let robots do it if they’re just as effective? And so far as the social safety net goes, this is where I think mutual aid comes in.

This isn’t the post to really outline how that’d work and I have no Earthly idea anyhow. Which you may find dissatisfying as my reader and I can understand. But the fact that we could somehow know how this would work is something I find far more specious than those who admit otherwise. Though, for what it’s worth, I think we can look to current mutual aid organizations and try to draw inspiration from them and build on their successes and failures.

But past that I can’t (and don’t think I want to) try to add to how this will all exactly play out. One of the great failures of governments is the fallacy of thinking they can plan out societies. That they can make us all extremely legible to them and then regulates us accordingly. But whether social engineers are acting within the confines of a government or whether they’re trying to build up such legibility within a social movement, I think the approach is wrong-headed.

II: Abstract Work

As someone who is autistic I spend a lot of time in my head.

Whether it’s because of Impending Doom, anxiety, memories, obsessions, Special Interests or why I haven’t fucking finished Knights of the Old Republic yet, I spend a lot of time in my head thinking about…things. And sometimes those things aren’t actually important and sometimes they super are because I actually have Priorities in my life…at times.

So, I’m inclined to say that we shouldn’t be targeting abstract work within anti-work movements. On the other hand, the definition we’re given there includes (for some reason) managers. Who, I guess, have to think of creative ways to deal with all of the calculation and knowledge problems that they have to go through to do anything right?

Whatever the case may be, this sort of thinking in abstraction is my jam. I’m totally game for a society filled with more of the work that is challenging, creativity enhances or fueled by such, etc. But I think in such a society I don’t think that “mastery” would have such a professionalized feel to it. I think folks would have a much more equitable level of access to being able to engage in the types of work that gets them thinking and makes them happy.

Now, I don’t want to be too positive about this sort of work (where’s the fun in that?) because there are side-constraints of how our minds interact with reality and the limitations therein. For example, I’ve mentioned the professionalization of mastery and that ties into academia and issues of accessibility. Which leads us into bigger discussions of student debt, how the universities are formed and organized to begin with and much more.

None of these are conversations I want to totally dive into, but they are constraints on my positivity and biases that I’d like to make apparent. Much like David Graeber, I don’t think teachers and abstract thinkers more generally are going anywhere but I think it’s quite likely they’ll be radically remodeled by an anti-work world. It’ll be a place where more people are allowed to be their own teachers much easier or be able to master the things they want to do much easier as well.

I think that anti-work has mostly positive things to say about abstract work.

But I say that as a writer.

III: Manual Labor

Surprisingly, this one is a bit tricky for me.

I’ve always felt more positive about manual labor as opposed to retail work and I’ve detailed why before.

But even that being said and understood, I certainly don’t want to glamorize manual labor. There’s something to be said about the feeling of reward and completion that you get when you do manual labor. I know when I was busy helping people with their houses (usually unfinished) a few years or so ago, it was very exhausting but rewarding work.

There were even times where I could get into the work because it had clear motivations, the people I was working for were typically friends and the things I was getting in return were often great investments. So it remains difficult for me to be able to be able to castigate manual labor as much as some folks might think I’d be inclined to.

Automation however has and will continue to clearly affect manual labor so that it becomes less and less of a necessity. And as that continues to be the case I believe that manual labor can be made more and more voluntary and people who want to do that sort of work will have plenty of tools at their disposal to do so. I think a post-work world offers much in the way of people wanting to get their hands dirty and feeling good about the projects they have completed.

There is a sense of direct accomplishment when you’re doing things manually and especially when it’s done for friends. The payment of whatever sort is usually pretty good (in my limited and privileged experience) and it seems like something you could more easily do independently than work for a strict corporate boss.

On the other hand there are plenty of farmers, migrant workers and so forth who would strongly disagree with me and my characterization of manual labor. This is a totally fair reaction and to that I’d say that we should fucking smash the borders,undermine bossism all while pushing for automation and worker empowerment through mutual aid.

IV: The Anti-Work Takeaway

I don’t think Autor’s classification of work does much for us in terms of ideas, strategies or much of anything else. It’s nice to give us a better sense of why sorts of work exist in society (and I should note that they often all intersect in a given job or task) but I don’t think it tells us much else.

It may point to how automation may or may not come about and how we could best harness it for our own benefits and not the benefits of a distinct and privileged minority in society. I’m not sure exactly how much these classifications could do that as opposed to others, but it’s at least worth thinking about and engaging with on some level.

My general dissatisfaction with Autor’s classification of work from not thinking it moves us much closer to figuring out what sorts of work should be abolished or not. I thnik we’d have to get more into specifics about particular jobs using these labels and even then we need to add more onto these definitions. Personally, I find Gorz’s definitions superior.

Granted, Danaher was only using this for a discussion around automation which isn’t always the same thing (more automation doesn’t always mean total automation, if I may nitpick) and Autor surely wasn’t either.

Still, it’s always a good idea to look around for new ways to frame work so that we can more effectively resist it. I don’t think Autor’s definition doesn’t do anything on that front but it’s a bit too surface level for my own purposes.


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