Work -What is it good for?
Presented at AltExpo #13 “Lucky”
Imagine spending most of your life in one place, context or situation. This situation is typically tedious, repetitive, and requires little skill. Economically speaking, it wouldn’t be too far to say that you’ve been forced into this situation. In this situation you are constantly ordered around and treated like you often are by politicians, like children. And all the while the money you make from this experience is only mostly given to you. There are two different parties (for the sake of simplicity) that take the rest of the wealth from you. To top it off, both of these parties benefit from each others existence and your own, but only insofar as you give them some value they want.
The point of my talk is telling you that I want libertarians to work towards abolishing this situation. This situation is, of course, work. I define work as the sphere of current economic activity wherein people are economically limited in their options and are thus coerced into putting themselves into positions they wouldn’t freely take up otherwise. Whether that means under a boss, working for a sub-par (at best) wage or being heckled by an awful co-worker, the basic fact is one that most of us recognize already: work sucks!
Now, terms should be kept clear right out of the gate. I’m not interested in everyone in the world just doing nothing. While I’m sympathetic to the idea of pure idleness, I prefer a productive form of idleness. One that allows people to pursue their interests given an abundance of choices.
But how do we acquire, as the anarchist without adjectives Voltairine de Cleyre termed in her essay, “Ye Will Always Have the Poor”, “voluntary abundance”? Why does work prevent such abundance and what should be done to minimize work in both unjust and just societies?
In this talk I want to outline my opposition towards work as a libertarian project. By that I mean a project that aims to promote the individual liberty of ourselves towards certain political goals. For me this includes leftist goals like a much more economically egalitarian society via mutual aid, communities based on solidarity, equality of authority and more.
I also have other political goals in mind (political meaning the traditional meaning, aka polis or a community not necessarily meaning legislatures, etc.) but I want to focus on the opposition to work as a historical tradition. Not necessarily within the libertarian tradition but also around it and sometimes even edging it in certain directions that it wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
The Anti-Work Tradition
“But men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in the old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
The eulogists of work. –
Behind the glorification of ‘work’ and the tireless talk of the ‘blessings of work’ I find the same thought as behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual. At bottom, one now feels when confronted with work – and what is invariably meant is relentless industry from early till late – that such work is the best police, that it keeps everybody in harness and powerfully obstructs the development of reason, of covetousness, of the desire for independence. For it uses up a tremendous amount of nervous energy and takes it away from reflection, brooding, dreaming, worry, love, and hatred; it always sets a small goal before one’s eyes and permits easy and regular satisfactions. In that way a society in which the members continually work hard will have more security: and security is now adored as the supreme goddess…
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Dawn, p. 155 (online PDF version)
Advocating the abolition of something as grand as the idea of work seems odd but it has come from many places. Ranging from the Marxist, Paul Lafargue, in his, “The Right to be Lazy”, to the situationist movement, various post-Marxists and most notably the post-left anarchist Bob Black in his essay, “The Abolition of Work”.
Before I get to some of these thinkers and their individual contributions to the anti-work tradition though I just want to briefly discuss the proto-libertarian Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau’s contributions to the anti-work tradition came from his minimal living and his philosophical consideration for how he wanted to live his life. Thoreau lived very simply and describes such a life in his book Walden.
In addition Thoreau also talks about his lack of interest in commercializing his life in Life without Principle.
And as we can see with the above quote, Thoreau also explicitly condemns work as a way to distract people from the important things in life. Things like observing nature, good friends (Thoreau was not a hermit), self-reflection, etc. To Thoreau, work in this context means not necessarily things that are difficult or undesirable. Nor does he mean things you have to do (like cutting up some branches for a fire so you can be warmer at night for example) but working in the factories in Concord when you have no interest of being there.
In addition, the idea of work has been attacked from different angles and this helped shape what part of the anti-work tradition you’d be in. Root causes have ranged from the state, to the culture of subservience that has grown in tandem with states (but isn’t necessarily dependent on the state), capitalism, the bourgeois and so on.
For some anti-work advocates the idea of work is based on the Puritan work ethic. According to them, this ethic teaches that work for the sake of work is a fine and noble idea and should be a prominent feature in society. Some who believe in this ethic think it should be a popular cultural norm imposed through the shaming of those who don’t. While others may advocate legislation to enforce this norm. Others might want some combination of both plus additional tactics.
Thaddeus Russell, is a critic of work that is a good example of someone who also criticizes the Puritan work ethic and from a somewhat libertarian perspective, though Russell doesn’t see himself as a libertarian.
Russell is a professor at Occidental College who teaches American History and is author of, among other things, A Renegade History of the United States. I recommend the book but in particular a point that Russell makes that’s relevant to being anti-work. Russell’s claim is that the Puritan work ethic has permeated the larger culture due to many of the leaders in society at various times. These times range from the founding fathers, the prohibitionist movements, their supporters and others. And this has given people a harsher view on how work should be treated. Because of this, work is something to be seen as something merely done for the production of things and not because you actually want to do it.
The accumulation of hard work and things is then merged with the original idea of salvation via the Puritans and the idea of economic salvation in capitalism makes it all end up as one rather disheartening ideal.
This is reminiscent of what de Cleyre calls “thing-worship” in, “The Dominant Idea”,
We dabble in many things; but the one great real idea of our age, not copied from any other, not pretended, not raised to life by any conjuration, is the Much Making of Things, – not the making of beautiful things, not the joy of spending living energy in creative work; rather the shameless, merciless driving and over-driving, wasting and draining of the last bit of energy, only to produce heaps and heaps of things, – things ugly, things harmful, things useless, and at the best largely unnecessary.
Insofar as work in the current economy exists it seeks (whether intentionally or not) to exalt such thing-worship as a virtue and to not be self and collectively involved. Instead we should replace the values and ideas we genuinely have for ones the bosses say we should. I don’t have anything against people owning things (especially not things they create themselves) but there’s a difference between owning the fruits of your labor and having a culture wherein it’s largely decided for you what you eat and what you don’t. The choice between Burger King and McDonald’s may be a choice but how substantial of a choice is it actually? Libertarians need to ask themselves these sorts of critical questions.
The answer is that so long as things like thing-worship, the work ethic of the Puritans and false choices are made “freely” available to consumers, we won’t have a truly freed market, or at least not one worth celebrating.
What is Work?
So there is this thing called “work” that we now know many different people have opposed. But what is it and why is it important to talk about? Why it important for libertarians to resist work and what does that mean for libertarian movements?
Noam Chomsky has an excellent definition of anarchism that I think will aid us understand why libertarians, as anarchists if nothing else, should oppose work:
…any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself- none of them are self-justifying. Whether they’re in individual relations, or international affairs, or the workplace, or whatever- they have a burden of proof to bear, and if they can’t bear that burden (which they usually can’t), they’re illegitimate and should be dismantled and replaced by alternative structures which are free and participatory and are not based on authoritarian systems.
For me, the workplace is one of the biggest centers of authoritarianism in society. It tears people’s families apart, causes thousands of injuries per year in the United States, bosses frequently abuse their authority and much more. Work is a place that most people spend much of their entire lives in. At work, people are surveyed constantly, not trusted to do the right thing, given quotas and generally ordered around.
Are these good reasons de facto to abolish work?
But if these things are all true it at least gives us good reasons to be suspicious of libertarians who talk about the freedom of the modern workplace.
But let’s say these reasons are sufficient for advocating abolition. What would abolishing work even mean?
First, what abolishing work does not mean.
It doesn’t mean advocating uselessness in terms of human action. I want us all to reach our potential insofar as this doesn’t harm the individual liberty of others. That means I still believe in applied effort, effort for the sake of being productive and so on.
In terms of what work itself means I’ll be using the definitions of Andre Gorz in his Critique of Economic Reason: Summary for Trade Unionists and Other Left Activists, chapter three The Crisis of Work. In this chapter, Gorz differentiates between work for economic ends, domestic labor[sic], work-for-oneself, and autonomous activity.
Work for Economic Ends – This is work done with payment in mind. It’s not necessarily done for the benefit of the individual who is working; it may have absolutely nothing to do with their long-term interests apart from giving them some money. Whatever joy or happiness you would get from work like this would be secondary to the payment in terms of a hierarchy of interests. These are the sorts of jobs I’ve worked and also the jobs I’d most like to completely abolish.
Domestic Labor and Work for Oneself – These types of working are the middle ground for Gorz’s three levels of work. They typically involve working for economic ends to one degree or another but also contain more of a genuine appreciation for whatever is involved. This work is therefore an odd mix of what we currently have and what we’d desire to see in a freed society.
Examples of this that Gorz provides are,
…preparing food, keeping oneself and one’s home clean, giving birth to children and bringing them up…
Now, I don’t believe Gorz’s point here (and it’s not mine at any rate) is that these types of work are inherently bad just because they have an interest in the economic ends still at heart. Obviously a lot of the tasks Gorz mentions are very much necessary to our survival and can be beneficial to all parties involved. So I’d tend to say that this form of work needs to be radically reformed rather than abolished. Make it less about the economic end but about the individual’s desire in the matter.
Of course, if the desire is the economic end then that’s fine because these types of work are still inherently doing some individual good and also based on some genuine need. I believe other examples indicative of this type of work might be balancing your checkbook or taking out the trash.
Finally, autonomous activity are things individuals perform freely and not from systemically imposed necessity.
All these activities require `work’ in the sense that they require effort and methodical application but their meaning lies as much in their performance as in their product: activities such as these are the substance of life itself. But this always requires there to be no shortage of time. Indeed, the same activity – bringing up children, preparing a meal or taking care of our surtoundings, for example – can take the form of a chore in which one is subject to what seem like oppressive constraints or of a gratifying activity, depending on whether one is harrassed by lack of time or whether the activity can be performed at leisure, in co-operation with others and through the voluntary sharing of the tasks involved.
Ultimately this is the type of work I’d like to have established in a freed society.
A so-called “free” society that has more domestic-labor than autonomous labor or more economic-end driven work than autonomous labor is one that is suspect, at best. That’s because these other types of labor mainly rely on vast economic inequalities maintained by privileged organizations (i.e. corporations and the state). And if such inequality pervades a society then I believe those inequalities will spill over into the way in which we deal with each other, the way we look at each other and hence the way the economy will function.
In short, I believe that when a portion of our lives that we spend a lot of our time in are out of our control that we should take this concern seriously. Whether this happens in the private home, the workforce or in our relation to the broader society or the so-called “legitimate” governing forces “representing” it, it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to libertarians. I think this applies whether you’re an anarchist or not. But especially to those libertarian-anarchists.
As I’ve already said, I don’t desire people being idle to the point of uselessness or to have a world full of garbage with no one picking it up. And furthermore I am not interested in any scenario in which human potential can’t be striven towards if not desired as long as it does not harm others. Instead, a society in which autonomous work majorly coincides with our day to day lives and the lives of those whom we care about should be striven towards.
These things are important because they’re issues of authority that very often can go very wrong. The authority that’s built into to being a boss often lays the foundation for things that libertarians can be sensitive to if it’s done by the government.
Black in his previously mentioned essay The Abolition of Work mentions examples such as: surveillance, bureaucracy, lack of respect for dissent (or “insubordination”), lack of competition in terms of who’s in charge, etc.
More often in work you’re treated as if you’re a child in public school. You are treated as if, just because your role is below the boss, that you are somehow in total a lesser person and you deserve to be treated as one. I’ve had personal experience with this when one of my managers treated me like I was a lesser individual than him. I’m not saying we can’t recognize differences in people, but I do believe that treating people as something approximating sub-human just because of those differences (when they seem to me rather negligible) is problematic to say the least and should be opposed. There are of course managers who treat us far better for that, as long as we stay in line, but often when we decide to do something according to our own moral code, we are punished for it.
Leisure, Play, What’s Next?
There are various alternatives to work; they range from pure idleness to productive idleness, to encouraging play in society, to experience more leisure in their day to day activities, etc. But it can be difficult to trace out the differences and similarities between these things. If we desire more play, as Black suggests, what should we do? If we want more leisure as Black also suggests, what should we do? And what about idleness? The British magazine The Idler or Bertrand Russell in his essay In Praise of Idleness both advocate idleness, should that be desirable as well?
To start with play, Black defines it as an always voluntary activity that is free and involves the people playing to get something out of the experience itself and not necessarily the end result. This obviously flies right in the fact of things like work for economic ends that Gorz talks about. It can even come into conflict to a lesser extent with work for-oneself and domestic labor. To the extent that play becomes more involved with a given end than the experience itself it can sometimes drift towards work. But this doesn’t mean that play shouldn’t involve consequences.
In fact, Black briefly touches on the subject of play and consequences in his aforementioned essay,
Bernie de Koven has defined play as the “suspension of consequences.” This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is).
Leisure is a mixed affair however; Black claims it’s something that is mostly a hangover of work. Others may see it as a more general activity that should be explored in a freer society. For example, on whywork.org they say they are pro-leisure and In Praise of Idleness Bertrand Russell also speaks positively about the activity of leisure. From my perspective leisure seems to be something taken for granted in today’s society and is something that’s often used as a way to get away from work and not much else.
However, I don’t find that a compelling enough reason to abandon leisure altogether and I think there’s plenty of room for leisure in a truly freed society. The reason for this being that people, while they definitely wouldn’t really be working in the typical sense that we see all around us today (i.e. Gorz’s, economic-ends based work) may still need a break from their domestic labor or even autonomous activity. Even play, while it may be fun, can also be physically taxing at times. So I see a place for leisure in a truly freed society, albeit a probably much more limited one than what exists today.
Idleness is the last sort of alternative to work that I want to focus on. First off, if you haven’t already and you actually live in the UK I recommend checking out The Idler, which as I said before, is a British magazine that advocates anti-work positions. It also holds the distinction of being largely edited and put together by anarchists. The editor is Thomas Hodgkinson, Hodgkinson has written a lot of pieces on the Guardian that I find especially interesting in terms of discussing idleness. Hodgkinson has also written the book (which I sadly have not yet read) called How to be Idle which has a largely positive review on the New York Times website. In terms of The Idler though, there is an email list you can subscribe to if you can’t subscribe in a monetary sense.
There’s much we can learn from Hodkinson even from just his work in The Guardian (having not read his work in The Idler I can’t comment on that). We can see, for example from his many entries entitled “Idle Thoughts” that he had various ideas on how to be less work-orientated, who to look to for more inspiration of how to do it (one example was John Lennon and his “stay in bed for peace” campaign) and so forth. Idleness for Hodkinson is exactly what it typically means: doing nothing. But doing nothing can often turn into something. Whether that means careful reflection, time to recharge, time to plan things you want to do later or just sit and stare. Idleness doesn’t need to lead to certain things though because like play, being idle can be good for its own sake and still be an enjoyable act.
If you want to abolish work I think idleness can compliment play as well as leisure. Obviously all three of these things can overlap to differing degrees and especially when we have things like being productively idle which is more about idleness, not necessarily for the sake of it but after certain goals and having those in mind as you’re idle.
In terms of how productive idleness can be we can look at John Lennon’s pretty famous stint in his bed with Yoko Ono while they protested the Vietnam War. See how much press, attention and conversation this all sparked to further the anti-war cause against the Vietnam War. It turns out advocating idleness can quite easily turn into being anti-war in some cases. After all, if we’re all too busy just relaxing, taking it easy, who’s going to want to go to war?
As Bertrand Russell points out it seems that a lot of war is just the work ethic codified into industries and people’s behavior and relations with each other. As well as how they relate with the outside world. In other words, the work ethic kills and it can sometimes kill en masse.
From Busy-Work to Idle-Work
Once you explore life outside of work, it becomes addictive. The less you work the less you want to work. At first the odd afternoon off seems like a fantastic luxury. Before long, you are opting for a four-day week. Then a four-day week becomes an intolerable demand on your time, so you find a way of moving to a three-day week. Before long, even those three days wear heavily, and you start hunting for ways to cut down your working time yet further.
–Thomas Hodgkinson, Idle Thoughts, June 16th 2006
So now that we’ve seen what work can do what can we actually do to abolish it? There are many different ways and I want to start by suggesting some of the easiest. Most of them come from Hodgkinson and his articles in The Guardian and others come from publications like the Escapologist, personal knowledge as well as historical examples.
Black encourages replacing the work that can be salvaged (and he adds that he thinks most work that exists today is not salvageable) should be turned into more play-based activities. Black also takes issue with housewife work and the way the division of labor is traditionally spread so that women often become much more burdened in supporting the family in certain ways than other individual members of the family. And because for Black this is fairly widespread it’d be useful for anti-work people to take notice and oppose that. In terms of this particular idea I think that there are definitely gender issues when discussing duties involved with child-rearing (Gorz also raises this issue) and sometimes this work-for-oneself can get tiring if not shared more equally.
One specific thing to talk about is automation and how this affects work both today and for the future. I agree with Black that automation seems like a mixed affair, just from a sort of surface level approach though. For instance, I agree if some jobs that are very labor intensive yet don’t produce many useful things, they should likely be automated. But at the same time I am concerned about dependence on technology. Either way, I think there’s room for valuable and important concerns about technology and how it interrelates with work. I don’t think I know enough about the intricacies of technology and labor to go much further though so I’ll direct my attention elsewhere.
Finally Black wants us to consider play to be the substitute for work in as many cases as it possible:
The secret of turning work into play, as Charles Fourier demonstrated, is to arrange useful activities to take advantage of whatever it is that various people at various times in fact enjoy doing. To make it possible for some people to do the things they could enjoy it will be enough just to eradicate the irrationalities and distortions which afflict these activities when they are reduced to work.
Bertrand Russell wants to reduce the working hour to four hours but isn’t as interested in abolishing work per se. He just wants to increase the amount of positivity towards idleness in society. This is great but Russell’s ideas don’t really come to the point where he addresses how to get there. Increasing the public’s opinion of being idle (which is the main idea of his essay) could be a good way in its own right but Russell neither makes this explicit or tries to explain how effective this could actually be. Nor does he say what are the most effective ways to do this in the first place.
In addition, because Russell still believes in work (and consequently while sympathetic to anarchists he also supports government) he’s only interesting in shortening the chains of work, not smashing them. So while I recommend Russell’s essay for his analysis of idleness and work I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to find a way out.
For Hodgkinson his methods to improve idleness and take away from work involve mostly simple ideas: Take a nap, odd jobs, slow living, having more public benches, walking, taking breaks and so on. As I said these ideas are rather simple and they’ll also largely have self-involved results. They’ll likely only spread if the person intends (as I think they should) to have a much more idle culture in general as well. Spreading information about these ideas can be an odd experience and it can seem like at first glance that a lot of these things wouldn’t do much to undermine the work culture as it stands. I can understand that perception but I think it’s worth keeping in mind that these small things can be built up within yourself and then your inner circles and then your inner circles other circles, etc.
In terms of specificity though taking naps (and Hodgkinson differentiates “power naps” from actually restful naps done for oneself which he calls “pleasure naps”) can be a wonderfully empowering way to keep you going throughout the day. Or it can be to just give yourself a break (though a more specific kind) from the day.
He advocates naps as a way to get through a culture that is always telling us to be moving and never stop working. So this tactic, if you can call it that, is more of a way to deal with the present day work-culture. Hodgkinson defines a “pleasure nap” as, “[A nap] that is taken for its own sake, but which also has the happy result of making the long days easier to cope with. It is a way of creating a delicious oasis of dreamy indolence in the day.”
Slow living is a general approach that may have more potential to widely affect the populace around you. Slow living comes from movements like slow food where people are organizing against things like fast food and encourages farming as well as traditional and regional foods. The slow living movement is less about living in the so-called “fast lane” of life.
Examples of that may include things like alternatives to driving everywhere, taking your full lunch break, less consumption, etc.. Implementing these things in your life can have the effect of slowing down your life in relation to how fast society would typically want you to be. In conjunction with that then, slowing your own life down can also slow how much you interact with the larger work culture. None of this means that we need to be anti-technology or live like the Amish do (though if you’re into that, that’s fine, just know the risks).
Conclusion: The Libertarian who Cried Work
Claire Wolf points out in Dark Satanic Cubicles – Let’s Smash the Job Culture! that,
In a healthy human community, jobs are neither necessary nor desirable. Productive work is necessary – for economic, social, and even spiritual reasons. Free markets are also an amazing thing, almost magical in their ability to satisfy billions of diverse needs. Entrepreneurship? Great! But jobs – going off on a fixed schedule to perform fixed functions for somebody else day after day at a wage – aren’t good for body, soul, family, or society.
Jobs suck. Corporate employment sucks. A life crammed into 9-to-5 boxes sucks. Gray cubicles are nothing but an update on William Blake’s dark satanic mills. Granted, the cubicles are more bright and airy; but they’re different in degree rather than in kind from the mills of the Industrial Revolution. Both cubicles and dark mills signify working on other people’s terms, for other people’s goals, at other people’s sufferance. Neither type of work usually results in us owning the fruits of our labors or having the satisfaction of creating something from start to finish with our own hands. Neither allows us to work at our own pace, or the pace of the seasons. Neither allows us access to our families, friends, or communities when we need them or they need us. Both isolate work from every other part of our life.
Work in our present economy is dehumanizing.
Under state-capitalism many of us work at places we hate, for people we hardly know, who claim to be above us because of their material success in the world. Not only that, but we’re working for companies we have little stock or interest in and are closed off from board room meetings that explicitly have nothing to do with us our our needs. Workers are bossed around incessantly and when they cry out asking for a solution the libertarian will typically turn their back and proclaim:
Well if you don’t like it, you can just leave and find another job!
This is perhaps the worst of ironies.
Don’t we, as libertarians lament it when people say the same thing about our claims with regards to government? If so, then why do we so easily dismiss these arguments? Are we going to limit our critique of the system only in terms of state oppression and, when we’re being a bit more honest with ourselves, state-capital collusion? Aren’t we going to confront cultural authoritarianism too? When people make unfair or unnecessarily harsh and strict contracts under the basis of a system that inherently tends to decrease people’s options and material basis for making decisions then how “free” can these people be? How can you be free when the system above you puts shackles on you?
When it comes to work I don’t think it’s hard to come to the conclusion that many libertarians dismiss one of the greatest causes of misery on this planet. And then when people don’t take libertarianism seriously as a radical critique of the prevailing “order” these same libertarians get outraged. I think it’s time for a little bit of self-reflection on the libertarian movement’s part when it comes to work. If not, then I seriously wonder how much good a movement for liberty can do if they’re not attacking the assaults on liberty wherever they occur.
Again, as Chomsky said if you see authoritarianism in the workplace and it cannot justify itself then it’s time to look for alternatives that are far more participatory and free and not based in a system of authoritarianism. And, the explanation of, “Well it’s voluntary!” and “They’re free to leave!” is not a valid justification.The type of liberty I am an interested is an individual one but it’s an individual one that applies in as many areas as possible, that includes the workplace.
Denying that that sort of authoritarianism doesn’t exist because people make choices about their lives isn’t a very convincing reason in of itself to keep work-for-economic ends around. Especially when many people in popular culture (whether it be the popular comic strip Dilbert or the movie Office Space) seem to strongly disagree. I don’t mean to imply that just because many people in popular culture disagree that this makes them right. But it definitely requires a more considerate approach to addressing these concerns because such concerns are so widespread.
And when you’re denying that this sort of cultural authoritarianism not only can exist but does exist when there are many strong and fairly convincing voices to the contrary it gets a bit tricky. Especially when even the popular culture gets this on a pretty basic level. It’s no surprise that no one will be taking you or your philosophy very seriously when you say that you’re interested in liberty.
If you want to end work I encourage you to advocate and practice a much more ludic life and to join the workers of the world in the best thing (even better than organizing/uniting) relaxing.
To quote Bob Black,
Workers of the world, relax!