Nick’s Notes: My friend William Nava raised some important and critical thoughts about why anti-work might not be a good position for left-libertarians to hold. I’ll consider these remarks and respond in the coming days.
Objections to Abolish Work
All I know about Abolish Work comes from one (relatively short) conversation with Nick Ford. So any objections I raise come with the caveat that I really know very little about the position. With that disclaimer out of the way, I have objections possibly worth considering.
Nick’s position, as I understand it, is twofold: we should want to abolish work (AW), and it is possible to abolish work. I’ll summarize both facets before raising my objections to each.
AW is desirable: The “work” that wants to be abolished is labor done in pursuit of something else, i.e. not for its own sake. Since we wouldn’t do it for its own sake, this is work that we don’t really want to do. So, pedantic technicalities about what qualifies as free choice aside, it’s involuntary work. This sucks, and so we should get rid of it.
AW is possible: Two developments would eradicate (or very heavily diminish) the need for this type of work: 1) the replacement of the state and capitalism by an individualist anarchist/mutualist political economy; and 2) the increasing automation of labor. Accomplishing #1 eliminates the conditions of poverty largely created and imposed by state capitalism, and by the same token, dramatically brings down costs in general (especially of basic necessities). #2 brings down demand for physical labor, and also contributes to lowering costs.
First, my objection to “AW is possible.” I’m not touching the prediction about decreasing costs. I’m not an economist, so I just grant it for the sake of argument. My objection is rather based on the following intuition: with lower costs come higher standards for what counts as “basic necessities,” increased possibilities for value creation, and greater ambitions.
With costs down, it will be easier to meet basic necessities as we currently perceive them. But basic necessities today are not what they were centuries ago. There are people – at least a billion, in fact – living in conditions that today we call barely survivable and yet would have counted as more than meeting basic necessities in the middle ages. This happened because the costs of necessities came down in such a way that allowed us to raise our standards. Further decreases in costs should yield further increases in our standards.
Now consider the following scenario: poverty is a thing of the past, and costs are way down. I meet all my requirements for survival and comfort by doing occasional and pleasant labor, and so do not need to “work.” I then get struck by a sudden passion for creating some monumentally unnecessary piece of elaborate cinema. This is a type of cinema that back in 2017, when costs were so high, would have been a logistical and technological impossibility. Even now, with all our costs down, it’s quite expensive. But it’s possible. The idea of creating something so intricate and unprecedented livens me up, and I’m determined to do it. The mutual aid groups I belong to won’t break the bank to support my new obsession. But I’ve heard there’s someone who has a way of facilitating my project; he also has an esoteric, and rather unpleasant, need that I can fulfill. You see where this is going.
One might object that, given automation, people won’t generally have needs that require unpleasant work. But, just as our standards for value and necessity go up, so do our standards for what counts as unpleasant work. Returning to 2017 for a moment, I’m currently a tutor and teacher. Lesson planning is work for me. This is because, within the scope of what seems possible for me, I can realistically envision living off more rewarding labor. Plant me back in the middle ages (or some other context), and I might find lesson planning the most rewarding job imaginable.
So, back again to our automated mutualist society: our technological tools need maintenance and supplementary labor1. Most of that might not be physical labor. But, so long as it involves time and any kind of effort, people will relativize it against their norm and find anything less than exceptional to be “work.”
The larger point is that automation and wealth are insufficient. To abolish work, you also need to abolish aspirational culture. In other words, you need to abolish the tendency to labor toward perceived progress at the expense of comfort and pleasure. Whether this is possible, I don’t know. But, for reasons outlined below, I don’t think it’s desirable.
What’s wrong with work? It’s unpleasant. I don’t mean that dismissively – sometimes it’s very unpleasant, and that can be the source of great suffering and missed opportunities. However, questions of degree aside for the moment, the problem with work is that it is unpleasant and undesirable. So, a principled objection to work means a principled objection to the unpleasant and unwanted aspects of life.
The trouble with this is that rich lives require personal growth and development, which is a dialectical process. It only happens through a dance with those major obstacles that compel us to challenge, build, and ultimately transform who we are. Ask any successful (or generally happy) adult, and they will tell you that they owe their success and happiness to the adversities they have had to overcome. The same goes for society at large: social and economic progress result from tons of really not fun sacrifice by millions of individuals. To oppose the unwanted in principle is therefore to oppose growth.
It might sound like I’m calling suffering a virtue. Why don’t I go all the way? Shouldn’t I be calling for mass torture and abuse, so as to facilitate “growth and development”?
My answer is simple: the value of suffering is bounded. Certain amounts of suffering call on people to develop themselves and live richer lives. Greater amounts break people, and impede them from living full lives at all. The “appropriate amounts of suffering” vary from person to person, and circumstance to circumstance, of course. But, very generally: limited amounts of suffering within otherwise supportive environments tends to bring out the best in people.
Child abuse, war, institutional bigotry, indoctrination, imprisonment, exile, starvation, torture, rape – these crimes go beyond unpleasantness, even that of a great degree. They involve something qualitatively different: violence and dehumanization. The institutions guilty of these crimes are the ones I do wish to see abolished. They go beyond suffering – they break people down, often kill them, and thoroughly poison the environments in which they grow up and live.
So what about those who have to work demeaning and physically exhausting jobs for eighty hours a week for barely any pay? Isn’t that also “dehumanization”? It is, and I favor abolishing that type of work. I favor abolishing the poverty that makes that type of work necessary. I favor raising our standards for what counts as dehumanizing. But I also acknowledge that even the standards we have now are, historically, incredibly cushy.
People will always relativize their sense of success to their context. So, while I advocate improving our conditions and our standards, I don’t expect we will ever stop doing work that we find unpleasant and undesirable. And, given the opportunities offered by limited suffering, I don’t think I want us to.
1 If they don’t, we have a bigger problem on our hands: our “tools” are autonomously in charge of everything, which means humanity is now a petting zoo for robots.