Anti-Work Liberalism as the Problem, Not the Solution


You might be asking yourself, “But Nick! How many times are you going to keep bashing liberal and reformist takes on anti-work theory? Can’t you just be happy that anti-work is becoming more popular?”

And I would ask you…where you came from and how you got into the house I’m in right now.

It’s a pretty secure house, you know.

The popularization of anti-work theory through the dozens of 2016 articles (see here and here for examples) I’ve scoured to be  inadequate in their radical aspirations. Most of them want to do away with work so we can give the government a lot more power in society (also see here) for one purpose or another. Usually it’s so we can have a much stronger social network but it can be for any myriad of reasons. Perhaps the government is also going to help automation happen more quickly or they’re going to institute a universal basic income (UBI) for us, so we won’t have to work.

The problem I have with these liberal interpretations of anti-work theory is that they’re fundamentally conservative, just like any good modern day liberal is. To be clear, what I mean by “liberal” is a philosophy that espouses the ideals of democratic government. A government that respects our individual liberties but is still involved in our lives to guarantee us all of the basic things we need (i.e. healthcare, food, income, etc.).

It’s worth pointing out from the get-go that these articles hardly make use of any actual notable anti-work thinkers. There’s no references to Paul LaFargue, Bob Black, Bertrand Russell or any of the lesser known but more recent critics of work like John Danaher, Brian Dean or (not to toot my own horn too much but…) myself.

And it isn’t like you have to put in these references in your anti-work article to either know what you’re talking about or do a serviceable job. But it helps to know that you aren’t just pushing the rhetoric of anti-work and you actually care about its deeply anti-authoritarian history built on the backs of anarchists and socialists who tended to be critical of governmental solutions to the problems of the world.

I don’t claim to be well read on LaFargue and Russell past their signature anti-work essays but from what I know of Russell he was well acquainted with and often found himself in agreement with anarchists. LaFargue, as far as I know, would have sooner talked about guillotines than meaningless liberal attempts to make government “better”. Not that I think his option is better, but the point is that he’s still radically different.

The history of anti-work thought whether it be from Henry David Thoreau, William Morris or more contemporary thinkers like Apio Ludd, Kevin Carson, Alfred M. Bonnano and many others, there’s a nearly consistent strain of anti-authoritarian politics. A politics that is deeply suspicious of reform, of liberalism, of trying to get this crooked system to work for us instead of against us, like it’s always done.

And I guess that’s what really bothers me: This liberalization of anti-work theory isn’t necessary given the tremendous articles we already have on the same ideas that far surpass them in terms of solutions. And even if they were necessary for some sort of mass appeal (though I think such things are overrated) they would be horribly twisting their own supposed history that they don’t even take the time to properly pay homage to.

None of this is to say that contemporary anti-work theory with its anarchic roots and anarchic outgrowths into modern discourse is perfect or beyond reproach. I find some anti-work theorists more overall agreeable than others (e..g Kevin Carson over Bob Black) and I find some approaches more advisable than others.

But whatever I think of contemporary discourse, I think it’s worth pushing back against articles like this on Aeon by James Livingston. It’s called What if jobs are not the solution but the problem? Which is a great lead-in and only furthered by its subtitle/blurb, Fuck Work: Economists believe in full employment. Americans think that work builds character. But what if jobs aren’t working anymore?

This article had all of the makings of a great one and it starts off great too:

Work means everything to us Americans.

For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills…

One nitpick is that there’s no mention that the belief of the market being relatively efficient in allocation comes from a mistaken belief that the market is simply acting on its own incentives, with no artificial incentives coming from the government. But this ignores the fact that the government tends to distort prices via subsidies to large corporations.

The fact that Livingston’s narrative doesn’t really contain that important tidbit of information is part of what makes this article weaker than it could be. His partial criticism of the market is actually a larger criticism of the government but he misses that for the more mainstream approach that conflates markets and capitalism.

I appreciate Livingston’s bluntness at some points though, for example:

The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face. (emphasis mine)

I haven’t kept up to date with the unemployment rates (though I figured they weren’t good) but this raises an interesting point. Even if everyone is employed, what would it matter if their wages aren’t sustainable to keep them living by any decent standard and that they hated the jobs they were at? What would employment matter then?

These are, of course, rhetorical questions. With the more general point being that employment is taken as a net good regardless of whether most people are suffering under it or not. And the fact that we treat employment as a per se’ good is something I’ve criticized before in a letter to the New York Times that I wrote recently.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers.

Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

What’s interesting to me here is that (presuming the statistics are correct) most adults won’t (or don’t) take advantage of a possible way to get through poverty a little easier. Why is this? Some of it might be shame over having to turn to the government for assistance. Or it could be pride in that they don’t need the assistance and they can make it on their own.

Perhaps it’s ignorance, they don’t even know they qualify for food stamps. Perhaps it’s a lack of resources to apply to begin with which puts them in a Catch 22 of energy and resources. They need more resources to apply to a program that would give them more resources. Some have tried but failed and gotten discouraged and haven’t tried since. That’s how it has been for me and disability.Lastly, maybe it’s political motives. They’re individuals of a radical nature or at least of an oppositional nature to the current system and don’t want to give it support, regardless of whether they know they need it or not or whether they have the resources, etc.

Some of my anarchist and libertarian friends, even dear ones that I consider very intelligent and self-reliant are liable to fall under that last category. For myself, I’ve never seen it as a bad thing to apply for food stamps. I don’t buy the notion that we are “starving the beast” (the government can always print more money) but I don’t think it’s immoral to take whatever benefits we can from an organization that routinely steals from us (taxation).

Anyways, that’s all a side-note.

Here’s where things get going in the article:

For example, the Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the book Race Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.

This Great Recession of ours – don’t kid yourself, it ain’t over – is a moral crisis as well as an economic catastrophe. You might even say it’s a spiritual impasse, because it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character – or whether character itself is something we must aspire to. But that is why it’s also an intellectual opportunity: it forces us to imagine a world in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives.

In short, it lets us say: enough already.

Fuck work.

I almost wish this had been the end of the article.

Sure, it would have been much too short and it wouldn’t have done much to answer many questions we could ask about what this would even entail. But it still would have been a punchy ending to a rather promising article that I would’ve enjoyed, even if it was a little on the abrupt side of things.

As for what we can imagine, I’ve imagined plenty (see also here and here).

Briefly though, I think it’s likely play will replace work. That we will have plenty of time for friends, celebrations, relaxation, silence, art, intellectual inquiry, love and everything else we want more out of our lives today. It won’t be a perfect world but it’ll be a much better one where our incentives to do well are structured more efficiently, especially due to the lack of governments and other centralized and hierarchical institutions bossing everyone around.

Unfortunately, Livingston doesn’t really see it that way:

We already have some provisional answers because we’re all on the dole, more or less. The fastest growing component of household income since 1959 has been ‘transfer payments’ from government. By the turn of the 21st century, 20 per cent of all household income came from this source – from what is otherwise known as welfare or ‘entitlements’. Without this income supplement, half of the adults with full-time jobs would live below the poverty line, and most working Americans would be eligible for food stamps.

Transfer payments or ‘entitlements’, not to mention Wall Street bonuses (talk about getting something for nothing) have taught us how to detach the receipt of income from the production of goods, but now, in plain view of the end of work, the lesson needs rethinking. No matter how you calculate the federal budget, we can afford to be our brother’s keeper. The real question is not whether but how we choose to be.

Lots of questions on this one:

  1. Just because something has trended towards a certain result, does that mean it’s the right answer?
  2. Are there artificial reasons why this trend could’ve become the dominant one to begin with?\
  3. Could those reasons speak more against this trend than for it?
  4. Even if we remove these things, could we not try to learn from history and use better alternatives?
  5. Even “we” can be our brother’s keeper, should we? Should we continue to use a highly bureaucratic system that is often inaccessible (as Livingston himself inadvertently points out earlier) to the poor themselves?

There’s many other questions I could conceivably ask of this proposal but Livingston doubles down and I’d rather address that:

know what you’re thinking – we can’t afford this! But yeah, we can, very easily. We raise the arbitrary lid on the Social Security contribution, which now stands at $127,200, and we raise taxes on corporate income, reversing the Reagan Revolution. These two steps solve a fake fiscal problem and create an economic surplus where we now can measure a moral deficit.

Here Livingston reveals one of the biggest farces of liberal notions of anti-work and other liberals who think they’re being radical when they criticize corporations: They then say the government should regulate the corporations!

This makes absolutely no sense if we keep in mind that corporations are a legal fiction created by governments in the first place. And that the people who are often shareholders, stockholders, on the board of directors and so on in these corporations are often those same politicians who are also going to Washington to make political decisions.

Basically, for a critic who just lambasted the role of the rich, of corporations, of systematic legal decisions made in favor of those same corporations, Livingston seems to fail to recognize the basic relationship between corporations and governments, at least in the US. The relationship between governments and corporations here has always (always) been a mutually beneficial (to a point) power struggle where both subsidize each other against the masses.

This isn’t some conspiracy theory, it’s pretty obvious from the basic ways that governments and corporations constantly interact with each other in the economy, in law, in politics and in the culture. Anti-authoritarian leftists might get it partially right by saying that corporations own the government and the economy but then they fail to notice how that ownership often relies on various laws and statues that they lobbied the government for.

All of this is why anti-work liberalism will never function in any coherent or useful way. It ignores the symbiotic (even if often toxic) relationship between corporations and governments. It would rather see governments as a tool and a misguided one currently but a tool that can be properly put back on course to defend our rights from corporations.

Except, corporations are often able to violate our rights because the government has written these laws that disproportionately harm the poor, working class and folks just scratching by that ultimately benefits the corporations and their abilities to dominate this supposedly “free market” that liberals think we have.

But Livingston doesn’t even think we have a free market, which is what makes his analysis even more maddening:

When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug-cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above) – just business as usual on Wall Street – while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realise that my participation in the labour market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.

Work has also been the American way of producing ‘racial capitalism’, as the historians now call it, by means of slave labour, convict labour, sharecropping, then segregated labour markets – in other words, a ‘free enterprise system’ built on the ruins of black bodies, an economic edifice animated, saturated and determined by racism. There never was a free market in labour in these united states. Like every other market, it was always hedged by lawful, systematic discrimination against black folk. You might even say that this hedged market produced the still-deployed stereotypes of African-American laziness, by excluding black workers from remunerative employment, confining them to the ghettos of the eight-hour day.

But wouldn’t you also realize that appealing to the government whose votes you admitted are being bought out is a bad idea? Why would the government tax corporations whose interests often (though not always) align with theirs? Why would the same individuals who are on these regulatory agencies that also go to DC for politics care?

And more fundamentally: How would these things even practically happen without some sort of widespread cultural change about work and isn’t that the more important effort in any case?

I completely agree with Livingston’s second passage and don’t quote it to disagree but rather to highlight to him and anyone else reading this that it cuts against his points on all fronts. It isn’t that we should have less faith in markets (necessarily) but more that we should have less faith in governmentally controlled marketplaces.

On a more positive note, I noticed an interesting similarity of this bit by Livingston:

And by ‘we’ I mean pretty much all of us, Left to Right, because everybody wants to put Americans back to work, one way or another – ‘full employment’ is the goal of Right-wing politicians no less than Left-wing economists. The differences between them are over means, not ends, and those ends include intangibles such as the acquisition of character.

To this passage by Bob Black:

Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full *un*employment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry.

But if all the ideologues (as they do) advocate work — and not only because they plan to make other people do theirs — they are strangely reluctant to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us.

Among themselves they quibble over the details.

Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women.

Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.

Brief tangent: I think that’s true of liberal feminism…but I’ve talked about this ad naseum so I won’t repeat myself here.

Speaking of gender, I’ll admit that Livingston has some interesting ideas about the effects of a post-work world on gender:

Think about the scope of this idea.

Work has been a way of demonstrating differences between males and females, for example by merging the meanings of fatherhood and ‘breadwinner’, and then, more recently, prying them apart. Since the 17th century, masculinity and femininity have been defined – not necessarily achieved – by their places in a moral economy, as working men who got paid wages for their production of value on the job, or as working women who got paid nothing for their production and maintenance of families. Of course, these definitions are now changing, as the meaning of ‘family’ changes, along with profound and parallel changes in the labour market – the entry of women is just one of those – and in attitudes toward sexuality.

When work disappears, the genders produced by the labour market are blurred. When socially necessary labour declines, what we once called women’s work – education, healthcare, service – becomes our basic industry, not a ‘tertiary’ dimension of the measurable economy. The labour of love, caring for one another and learning how to be our brother’s keeper – socially beneficial labour – becomes not merely possible but eminently necessary, and not just within families, where affection is routinely available.

This is a very attractive idea to me and one I think we should all celebrate and tout as a great part of the anti-work ideology. But it isn’t something we need the government for. After all, the government is one of the main tools we use to divide genders (bathroom bills anyone?) and make what might otherwise be a playful concept we can all wrestle with as individuals and communally into strict dichotomies and laws that are enforceable through violence.

However, a criticism Livingston makes of work strikes me as odd:

Though work has often entailed subjugation, obedience and hierarchy…

Wait, but doesn’t the government more than any other institution require those same things?

Whether it’s through subjugating us to laws we may not agree to, hailing obedience as an inherent virtue, or being themselves a hierarchical organization that has, in turn, spawned many others under it, thus furthering the subjugation, obedience and hierarchy further down, doesn’t government epitomize all of these negative traits?

Why would we rely on an institution that bears a striking resemblance to the way work operates today so that we can move away from work?

But by now we must know that this definition of ourselves entails the principle of productivity – from each according to his abilities, to each according to his creation of real value through work – and commits us to the inane idea that we’re worth only as much as the labour market can register, as a price. By now we must also know that this principle plots a certain course to endless growth and its faithful attendant, environmental degradation.

Why is the problem that the market sets things as prices and not.government? Government is ultimately an institution that tends to inflate or deflate prices through the printing of money, licenses, artificial subsidies to failing corporations and industries and son on.

I also don’t understand how the government could do much better than the market on any of this.

Until now, the principle of productivity has functioned as the reality principle that made the American Dream seem plausible. ‘Work hard, play by the rules, get ahead’, or, ‘You get what you pay for, you make your own way, you rightly receive what you’ve honestly earned’ – such homilies and exhortations used to make sense of the world. At any rate they didn’t sound delusional. By now they do.

I agree with Livingston here but am unclear on how this isn’t a painful indictment against the government.

Here’s the last of the article:

So the impending end of work raises the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. To begin with, what purposes could we choose if the job – economic necessity – didn’t consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change as the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?

Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the essential ingredients of healthy human being. Of course he was right. But can love survive the end of work as the willing partner of the good life? Can we let people get something for nothing and still treat them as our brothers and sisters – as members of a beloved community? Can you imagine the moment when you’ve just met an attractive stranger at a party, or you’re online looking for someone, anyone, but you don’t ask: ‘So, what do you do?’

We won’t have any answers until we acknowledge that work now means everything to us – and that hereafter it can’t.

This is the other notably bad part of this article: It asks a lot of questions but it either refuses to give us answers or when it gives them, they’re woefully inadequate to the task.

But then, that makes sense.

Such is the way liberalism works.

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