Decoupling Practicality and Work through Daoism

Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism.

This post is actually an excerpt cross-posting of my post “Daoism as Meta-Practicality,” but it is also more than that, for making such a cross-post would be insufficient (the actual excerpt cross-posted post will be featured at the end of this introduction, meaning after the horizontal line). I want to make clear what relevance this piece on Daoism I am linking to and excerpt cross-posting might have to postwork and anti-work thinking. The relevance that Daoism has to post-work and anti-work ideas is, of course, through the Daoist principle of wu-wei, but in what way or form? In the piece “Daoism as Meta-Practicality,” I set out to demonstrate the relevance of Daoism also to critiques of instrumental rationality, and I attempted to define “instrumental rationality” in a way that would refine the connection between popular critiques and the real-world by taking certain conceptual distinctions into account, instead of taking how the world contingently expresses, and thus phenomenally presents, these relations at face value. I.e., it was necessary to separate means-end thinking from the object of the critique so that the critique would remain relevant to the culprit that characterizes our experience of modernity, particularly in the context of both work and education. My definition of “instrumental rationality” was “futural monopoly practicality,” or the “the valuation of the future as a retrospective starting point for the present, and thus a starting point for a determination of the effectiveness of the past.” This means that our practical decision-making stakes itself in the future, which is to say that whenever we are looking for the best practical route of action our notion of what is most “practical” is already covered by a temporal bias that requires us to think of our actions and plan our actions specifically from the perspective or stand-point of the future. In what way does “instrumental rationality” then relate to work?

It would seem that all work is not simply characterizable as “compulsory activity,” thought that is certainly central to understanding work as an experience about activity specific to modes of production (activity compelled by the carrot can very well be considered compulsory, after all). But work is additionally characterized by a “strenuousness.” It is quite popular to assume that all activity involves strain, but often in making strain inherent to activity there is no distinction that is made between exertion and strain, as well as between physical and psychical strain: exertion is broadly speaking an expenditure, and one which is directive and thus seeks a return to itself while strain is a specific mode of, or experience of, exertion; physical strain is characterized by loss or waste, while psychical strain by tension with the object of exertion. It would appear that this conflation is a mechanism for the ideological normalization of “strenuousness.”

Without this conflation, the societal hostility to “laziness” and “procrastination,” would be rendered nonsensical; for then either of these activities would not only be seen as truly relative, but would also be seen as relativistic due to their not being operative as societal burdens, and thus their not being interpretable as personal damnations. Furthermore, the idea of the “necessity of work” would be further challenged; the reason Bob Black’s definition of work has not caught on popularly is because the conflations noted allow people to also identify activity with work, allowing them also to dismiss all activity that is not work as “passivity.” People, one could say, having a predisposition to be active, not simply in the sense of being but in the sense of becoming, would then, in this confusion, face boredom and interpret it as a call to work. For, boredom then can take the function of a psychological notification that one is not being active enough until one works. “Productivity” incorrectly translates lack of work into passivity, itself exerting a claim on a person’s capacities. Productivity is something to be achieved, rather than something to be done. It is no surprise that people’s most productive hours, as declared by a work culture, which is supposed to be their most active, are also the hours in which they are most docile, most dependent–in an ironic sense, most passive. But what is the condition that allows for this conflation? Precisely “instrumental rationality,” to the extent that futural monopoly practicality is conducive to alienating us from our goals.

The alienation from our goals allows us to experience present activity as strain and not just exertion. Think back more deeply about the structure of exertion, a natural result of human intentionality: in exertion, one expends for a return. The experience of strain in exertion is precisely made possible by this structural relationship between exertion and return. It is possible depending on our denomination of both return and exertion for them to be off-kilter, but the condition of being off-kilter has everything to do with both speed and acceleration. Mario Wenning himself, who I talk about in the post I’m cross-posting here, speaks about the extreme, and developing, acceleration of late capitalism. While means-ends thinking makes the experience of strain possible, it is not a source of strain except in relevant contexts. To “take one’s time” is not possible with instrumental rationality, because as futural monopoly practicality it compels a strict fixation upon a given point in time as both the course of motivation for exertion and as exertion’s object.

By the motivation for action being located in the future, what is meant is not that the reasons for action use expectations for the future, but that, whatever reasons for acting, they are meaningless to the task unless the carrying-out of the action itself is evaluated from a futural perspective rather than a present one. The reasons themselves are not in question here, but the impetus of all action including the reason-making; or, put another way, needing the future itself to be able to justify any action being undertaken, rather than merely particular goals, configurations of space, that one expects in the future, is what is being put to question. Second, what is meant by the “object” as object-fixated-in-time is not the goal itself of an action, which coincides with the reason for practice and allows action to have unity, but refers to the future itself; that is, the future is first-and-foremost the goal of the undertaking, and not just the goal itself independent of temporal considerations. In other words, it is not a particular spatial configuration of living that is being put into consideration. As a result, the possibility of immersion into one’s own action is undermined by the omnipresent interruption of the future. That is to say, the psychological temporal asymmetry of futural monopoly practicality has nothing to do with what libertarian economists call “time preference,” although it may well affect time preference given the relationship one has with time itself is a precondition for time preference (the ordering of goals into priorities in the context of time).

Since exertion, as a result of intentionality, is object-focused, this circumstance increases the probability of strain, since this tension between the object and the demands of time, both in the performance of the object through action that wishes to fulfill it (the “object” of an action can be, after all, described as constitutive of it) and the impediment given to action wherein it cannot ascertain its object to begin with (action only ascertains its objects within the horizon of time, rather than outside of it; and going outside is necessary to the displacement of the object of action to a temporal fixation). Rather than acting with the object, which means to be sensitive to its time, we fixate on a particular (abstracted) point in time, the future, from which to look at our action, which sacrifices all temporal dimensions of the object and therefore both our possibilities of action and the efficiency of achieving the object in question. The rate of exertion to return thus has a tendency to lead to strain–there is more exertion than return. Otherwise, the energy one expends would be immediately returned in the enjoyment of the object of exertion, rather than swallowed up by the future itself, which is where energy must go prior to manifesting back into the action via the object constitutive of it. With instrumental rationality, one either goes too fast or too slow, not in relation to some fixed span of time, but in relation to the object of action; “taking time” means to act with the object, rather than to work against it. Here’s what I mean here, more concretely:

[…] just look, for example, at the modern hegemony of ‘time management’ as a work ethic value and the negative rhetoric that surrounds so-called ‘procrastination’: the former is considered a facilitator to, and the latter an impediment to, the achievement of goals, often nebulously just referred to as ‘achievement,’ as though time without regimentation stops action short of achieving anything and as though procrastination does not itself get anything done.


The futural monopoly practicality of instrumental rationality as I have defined it here, not only does not free people to the several means of doing something, but fails to free them in such a way that lessens the potential for having to come ‘against the tide’ of one’s self. The latter result is a consequence of the fact that futural monopoly practicality disrespects the predispositions and inclinations of individuals by converging disparate goals into a singular act, likely, in the case of futural monopoly, an act of planning.

The latter is exemplified in the predominance of the one-track plan to success that the majority of our lives are ruled by, appearing to us as the most practical and likely options for personal achievement, and even the fulfilment of our values in the abstract (even with all the concrete conflict these values truly express with the contemporary model of success): Pre-K > Kindergarten > Elementary/Grammar School > Middle School/Junior High > High School > College > Career.

Futural monopoly practicality is what makes monopoly planning possible, and futural monopoly practicality is a result of capitalism. Strain when doing activity is a specific result of certain arrangements of activity that can be denoted as “work.” In the sense of the use of the word “work” that means “strenuous activity,” “work” may well still exist in an anti-work society, to the extent that it is possible for individuals to overestimate or underestimate their exertion; but these societies, we presume, would have a corrective mechanism that makes strain lack any kind of efficaciousness as a mode of living: if one underestimates or overestimates their exertion, we presume in an anti-work social system that one can quite easily choose to rest, because one would presume also that such a society would allow people to “take their time,” whether or not every person’s taken time coincides, unlike our current society ruled by instrumental rationality. Right now, people seem to have their time stolen from them. You can’t be against central planning, or hierarchy, and yet support the existence of work or rationalize inequality by appeal to time preference.

To go back to what I said about Bob Black’s definition of work not catching on popularly: it may have a lot to do with the fact that the use of the word “work” is almost always associated with strain. Bob Black’s definition of work isn’t “wrong,” but simply out of alignment with the popular use of the term; but in a certain sense, it still is relevant to popular use given that the term, within the structure that it exists in, carries cultural and ideological baggage that can be hoped to be addressed and criticized by pointing out the underlying compulsion that characterizes or must characterize the predominance of strenuousness in our activities. Daoism, however, also has great potential to criticize work through its wu-wei principle, which advocates a kind of psychological temporal symmetry in expressing our agency, and adds to the richness of our idea of freedom in a positive way, rather than just a negative way that’s a function of repudiating compulsion.

I certainly do not have enough knowledge or experience of Daoism, nor do I have enough experience of Daoist tradition, to understand the general impetus of Daoism as a religion. It is often asserted that it is difficult to pin down Daoism to begin with; while the most identifiable feature of Daoism is a commitment to the Dao (), often translated as “the way,” this is an inadequate definition to the extent that the usage of the word points to a complex intersection of traditions and cosmological/cosmogenic beliefs that became inseparable from the conceptualization of “the way” as the concept was developed within the historical progression of Chinese culture. But it is conceivable that this bare-bones, simplistic definition can just as easily frame our discussion, especially in the face of ignorance, for a few reasons: (1) whatever the complexities of the development of Daoism, the interaction amongst the various elements would, with the intent of tradition, be mediated through or at the least pitted against under the framework of, the concept of the Dao–thus, a commitment to Dao without the entire cultural context that allows it to continue as Chinese tradition can be problematic, politically and socially, as an appropriation, but is intellectually workable when it comes to constructing a belief system that can be identified as Daoism; (2) a focus on the Dao itself can lead us to more straightforward implications on de () and therefore allow us to develop a form of critical Daoism once Daoism as Chinese cultural or religious tradition is engaged (though I don’t plan to do this in this post).

Notice in the first point I mentioned that the approach is socially and politically problematic; while intellectually it may make sense to identify the end-result as “Daoism,” even of a specific form detached from Chinese historical circumstances, it is also the case that this very intellectual move is one that would be historically situated and may become embattled with itself as it tries to deal with its relationship to established Daoist religion and Chinese tradition. So, it may be best to treat the endeavour as a blind eisegesis (or perhaps more accurately a partial or selective exegesis), rather than (meticulous, thorough, integrated) exegesis, of Daoism. As a speculative detour out of Daoism and into territory that “Daoism”-as-it-is can choose to contest or not, without mere appeal to tradition or authority, and which could lead to its retention of the label to its specific philosophical pedigree. I am personally wary of taking on the Daoist label despite my light flirtings with the religion because despite the intuitive affinity some of its ideas spark in me at first glance, I feel I have a responsibility not to misrepresent the religion in an appropriation situated outside of, and without direct ethnographic contact with, the tradition.

All of that being said, I will try to at least give some clout to the thesis I will be expounding in this post: Wu-wei (無為) refers to a meta-practical framework that precedes practical enquiries of human experience, such framework entailing a particular metaphysics of the entity and its confrontation with X. I say “X” because it is not definite yet. In the research I did to bolster this post, I noticed that someone else, namely Mario Wenning, had already written on the potential of a critical Daoism with a critique of modern instrumental rationalization. However, having read it, it seems to me my own idea has a bit of a different flavour than the one given in the article in question, “Daoism as Critical Theory.” Why do I think this? Well, my critique of so-called “instrumental rationalization” diverges from the critique painted by Wenning in the context of Daoism, and thus I explain Daoism’s critical role a bit differently. I believe the differences aren’t entirely substantial over-all, but may be substantial when regarding the details of concrete practice, which is to say of de. In fact, it may or may not be the case that Wenning and I ultimately agree, and Wenning’s language simply betrays his thought. After all, I do not have background on Wenning’s contribution to the politics, ethics, of time and the temporality of action beyond the aforementioned journal article (I have not read his collaborative book with Peter Sloterdijk, Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation). I am not implying he does not have significant contributions, but merely commenting on my relative ignorance before attempting to show what I see as drawbacks in Wenning’s analysis.

Before I indulge the differences between Wenning’s ideas and my own, let me preface with an examination of what the Dao is to begin with, which is to say […]