Should we Abolish Work to be More Productive?

The Daily Struggle...for liberals.

The Daily Struggle…for liberals.

There’s an essay by an anarchist named Charles Johnson entitled Libertarianism Though Thick and Thin which discusses different complimentary features of the ideology. Should libertarians care about anti-racist struggles? Or is property rights and non-aggression the only things that matter? This is a great discussion and I encourage everyone who thinks that libertarians can’t be accommodating of other ideas to give this a read.

At one point during the essay, Johnson remarks:

Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of political inequality, you could—in principle—have a consistent authoritarian social order without any use of force. Even in a completely free society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-upon) town Chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey whatever restrictions and regulations he tells them to follow over their own business or personal lives, or agree to give him as much in voluntary taxes on their income or property as he might ask.

So long as the expectation of submission and the demands for wealth to be rendered were backed up only by means of verbal harangues, cultural glorifications of the wise and virtuous authorities, social ostracism of unruly dissenters, and so on, these demands would violate no-one’s individual rights to liberty or property. But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning—or even championing—this sort of social order, it would certainly be weird.

I get a similar feeling when I think about people who want to “unleash our productivity” through less (or even no) work in a society (see here, here and here as an example). Sure, it’s not necessarily incompatible with the anti-work philosophy…but to be against the spirit of things, doesn’t it? I don’t have anything against people being productive with their times as long as that productivity is geared towards their own self-interest(s). But should that be the prime motivator for a new society based around not working in the contemporary sense?

I can’t see an anti-work society based around the idea that it’ll get us to do more things. It’s not that doing things is wrong (it isn’t) but that the focal point of an anti-work society should be for us to relax more. An anti-work society would treasure our leisure time and the play we can engage in during that time. But if instead it seemed particularly dedicated to unleashing all of our creative juices and getting us to do 100% all of the time…well that just defeats the point.

Someone who argued for this point wouldn’t be necessarily dishonest in still wanting an anti-work society. If we only looked at an anti-work society as just a society that is motivated by folks individual interests which is out of the control of illegitimate external forces, then I don’t think it’d necessarily be amiss.

But such a thin adoption of the anti-work model ignores the fact that many anti-work theorists and activists have often called for things like play, leisure and idelness to replace all of the business that we’re doing right now. Sure, abolishing capitalism and the state are important things but it hardly seems like they are the only things that matter.

The cultural elements such as the Puritan work ethic, thing-worship, racism, sexism, etc. All seem related to our abilities to have a life that truly flourishes and not one that is only free of capitalism and state-managed economies. If we had a work free society that was still full of oppressive cultural narratives about women and their role at work or in the home, how would this affect their abilities to be able to flourish?

These are the sorts of question of whether capitalism and the state are gone, because that’s not the whole story.

Instead, much like for libertarianism there should be a thicker account of the anti-work belief system. I don’t think that’s as hard to ask from my fellow anti-work advocates who are already anarchists. Y’all likely know that anti-racism and fighting against transphobia, etc. are all really important things, that’s probably a basic fact to you.

On the other hand there are sometimes liberal think pieces on how work should be reduced (and even sometimes imagining a future without work) that seemingly prides itself on how much harder we’ll all work then. As if shooting ourselves in the foot and then tending to our arm is such a lovely idea.

Thankfully I don’t see this as much from my fellow anarchists (though some radicals more generally still seem to value productivity abnormally high, see here and here) but the mainstream outlets that keep reporting on the harms work does to us often have a double-edged sword. They might give us pertinent (though often unsurprising) information about work and the harms it does, but they don’t fully grasp the implications of these “new” findings.

Instead, they see it as a chance to subvert the idea of anti-work and make it a much more reformatory idea than it ought to be. Anti-work isn’t just about reminding that the current method of organizing workers like sardines in retail stores and factories is unhelpful and unhealthy. It’s also a radical demand for a better future that involves many healthier ways to interact with each other, while still getting what we want and need to get done, done.

There’s a concept called “productive play” via Bob Black that I’ve mentioned before, though for those who don’t recall the concept or just haven’t heard of it before, here’s the rundown:

…the production of use-values — with the best of play, which I take to be every aspect of play, its freedom and its fun, its voluntariness and its intrinsic gratification, shorn of the Calvinist connotations of frivolity and “self-indulgence”…

I know not everyone is the biggest fan of Black on a personal level and that’s fine, I’m not either. But I think he’s onto something with this concept and I haven’t seen many other people discuss it. If someone knows of another source to use then I will happily take it, but for now, I think Black gets to the heart of what an anti-work society may involve.


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