There’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the word “work”. By now I’ve concluded rather strongly that most people have a different sense of the word than I do. But that’s OK given that I don’t think anarchism is synonymous with chaos, or that capitalism is synonymous with free markets or that polyamory requires sex at all, let alone lots of it.
So I’m used to having different opinions than most people on a given subject. I don’t think that by itself tells us much about who is right or who isn’t. Definitions certainly come from usage and the way that it is used should be respected and acknowledged. But we don’t have to bow our heads at the common way of saying a given word just because it’s common.
For example, it’s true that “anarchism” has meant chaos in many different contexts within a given speakers vocabulary. In this case they are using the word “anarchy” as a more verbose way of expressing the word “chaos” perhaps in a song or in a flourish of rhetoric. Whatever the case may be, we can see many cases where this is the case but that doesn’t mean that this particular definition is the best.
What helps us decide what is the best isn’t just use-value but also who is using these words.
And if we look at the history of the word “anarchy” we can see from people who actually identified as anarchists that they almost never thought of it as synonymous with chaos. In fact, one of the main symbols of the anarchist movement is the circle “A” with its famed black and white coloring.
This symbolism represents “anarchy is order” and has been a staple among the anarchist movement for hundreds of years. But none of that changes the fact that most people still don’t conceptually identify anarchism as anything but synonymous with chaos, either verbally or just consequently. It isn’t uncommon, for example, for folks to cite the fact that maybe the word itself doesn’t necessarily mean “chaos” but that’s what the idea as a political order would result in.
And while that may or may not be they are admitting that anarchism has had multiple popular usages throughout history that are all competing with each other. At this point most dictionaries and encyclopedias as well as basic 101s to anarchism will all admit this fact. So when pressed it seems hard that we could conclude anything but that anarchism has multiple important (but competing) meanings throughout history and that this should be taken into consideration.
I think it’s similar for “work”, which often has contrasting meanings within popular culture as opposed to the various radical circles. Sometimes work means, “effort” and other times it means “a passion project” and other times it means “oppressive economic arrangement” while still other times it means “any and all activities”.
It can mean so many things that it’s a wonder I’ve been able to talk about it in such a cogent (in my own humble opinion) way for the past 2 years or so. Part of the reason I’ve been able to do that is I picked a definition and I stuck with it. I have tried to expound upon it, build upon it through other similar theories and consider alternative theories, but I’ve largely stuck with what I think works and tried to, as consistently as possible, define work in that same vein.
Just as a refresher I define work as:
The constrained performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for substituting your own ends with an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward.
This definition comes from Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work and John Danaher’s Should We Abolish Work as well as my own personal interests such as individualism and self-interest. It isn’t an exhaustive definition and I don’t even necessarily claim it’s the best (personally, I think splitting work into multiple categories as the post-Marxist Andre Gorz does is another excellent method that may work just as well) but I think it’s illuminating and helpful.
That’s my baseline for definitions or labels. Are they helpful to the conversation? Do they bring new insights and ideas into how we can analyze reality? If they don’t, then they’re likely not terribly useful to continue using, but luckily I feel that I’ve come up with a fairly solid definition and experience has backed me up on this.
Throughout my book tour and whenever I gave this definition I had minimal issues. People knew where I stood and they knew why I stood there to begin with because I clarified it. Actually, writing about my book tour reminds me that I need to post the structured talk I eventually started giving at my shows! Expect to see that posted before the week is over.
In any case, the only issues I had with my definition were minimal as I said and mostly just referred to edge cases. What about the military? What about freelance or creative work? Questions like these were interesting and I was happy to get them from an audience that was engaged with the definition, but I was generally able to deal with it, while still keeping my original definition largely unchanged.
With the military (as I wrote before) the “voluntariness” of the situation is highly questionable given the various benefits you get for doing into the military (such as helping you out of student loans). And to add to that, you are certainly giving up your own self-interest to something else (the nation-state) and often in the hopes of some sort of monetary return. It might not be as clean cut as it is in some other cases how much is your self-interest, but generally your deferring your own autonomy to a third party that claims to know what is best for your life more than you do.
When it comes to the freelance and creative work, that’s my bread and butter (at least at times). This kind of activity in the state-capitalist economy can often be oppressive (see here for a first-hand account by blogger MayMay) and while maybe on a better schedule for you or allowing more “freedom” the freedom is more relative than absolute.
In any case, I’d still prefer that sort of work over retail or other kinds. It doesn’t mean I don’t keep getting retail jobs (I just got another one, just waiting for the background check and whatnot to go through) but it also doesn’t mean I don’t think about doing other things with my time that I’d rather do.
Interestingly Marx said that “work” is highly necessary for us as a species, but he was speaking about work as a series of obstacles. As was Sherlock Holmes when he said that his mind rebelled at stagnation and he preferred to have “work” so that he would be in his “proper atmosphere”. But if we’ve all read or watched Sherlock Holmes, it would be difficult to say that Holmes isn’t living the sort of life he’d want.
So, do we need work to structure our lives?
Depends on who you ask and what definition they’re using.
But I suppose that’s a “No shit, Sherlock.” sort of answer.
So to elaborate: If it’s “any and all activities” then obviously we do. But if it’s my sort of definition, then I don’t think so (and I’ve argued at length by now about why that’s the case). If it’s “passion projects” then that may be slightly more subjective but it’s still likely the case that we need those sorts of tasks to guide us in finding meaning.
But work, as I define it, isn’t necessary to derive meaning and in fact gets in the way, more than it helps.
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