Reflections on Len Bracken’s “Aphorisms Against Work”

Work is like a crocodile in the river? According to Bracken…

Len Bracken is an interesting fellow.

Bracken is something of a conspiracy theorist who digs the situationists, is anti-work and wants to reclaim conspiracies for the left. Conspiracy theories aren’t really my thing and I’m not so much interested (for now) in the situationists. But Bracken’s insistence on the importance of refusing and resisting work has my attention.

One of Bracken’s bigger pieces on the subject of work is Aphorisms Against Work (also see a pamphlet version here).

It’s not much of a philosophical screed or manifesto, and honestly I had seen this before and passed it up. But buying it at the Boston Anarchist Bookfair from Little Black Cart and re-reading it, I was struck by some of the things that Bracken said. I wouldn’t call what follows a “review” of Bracken’s piece, mostly because I don’t know that I think terribly much of it as a whole. But some parts of it gives us some interesting foundational space for discussion at any rate.

So instead of reviewing the piece as a whole I’m going to pick my favorite aphorisms and add some of my own thoughts.

There are three types of labor – wage work, domestic labor and autonomous activity, the latter being (in most cases) exempt from charges of drudgery and slavery.

Here, Bracken is taking insights from the post-Marxist Andre Gorz. And more specifically Gorz’s chapter on The Crisis of Work. This distinction that Gorz also makes clarifies that the sort of work that Braken, Gorz and myself all want to abolish is the sort that is done not for the individuals’ ends but the ends of others.

Where I part ways with Gorz and Bracken is that I don’t think we should abolish work done for money. But I also would prefer the wage system (also see here) to be abolished in some sense. So I can at least sympathize with where they’re coming from to an extent.

Also in this quote, the qualification “in most cases” that Bracken gives here likely refers to Gorz’s own qualifications about domestic labor. That, when such labor, isn’t shared equally or at least shared in some equitable sense to the participants involved, the labor is likely to become much more akin to work in the sense we’d want abolished.

Such examples might include the unfair burdens on mothers that are typically propagated by sexist stereotypes that sadly still exist about who should be responsible the most for children. Biologically mothers may be predisposed in some important ways to care for children. But there’s no reason why they cannot have assistance, cannot help others develop the same habits they use to care for their children, etc.

We shouldn’t let biology get in the way of freedom.

Slaves feel tired just thinking of all the work they’ve yet to do.

I’m not a huge fan of the “slavery” comparison as it often comes from white people (white dude here, by the way) who want to dictate what slavery looks like. And to me, this seems like an unfortunate inclination on the part of anti-work or otherwise anti-wage labor folks.

Now, I’m fully aware there are different kinds of slavery. Obviously the chattel slavery in the US isn’t the same sort of slavery that existed in Ancient Greece. The slavery that existed and still exists in the prison systems isn’t the same sort of slavery that existed in Jamaica before the revolts.

That said, I’m never quite sure what definition of slavery folks are using. It can’t be unpaid labor that happens through duress and it likely isn’t something like labor that is coerced into being performed with violence being employed if they leave. The comparison is often trying to compare being someone’s boss and being someone’s master in some sense. But I guess it isn’t immediately clear to me how well this analogy works within the context of slavery.

To be clear, I’m not saying the wage system isn’t coercive and I’m also not saying that there aren’t plenty of things wrong with wage-work in the current market. But at the same time, it seems like leftists are throwing around these evocative terms to shock or impose value judgments more than making a substantial argument.

Regardless, I do get tired sometimes just thinking about the work I have to do.

So I’ll give Bracken that bit.

Creativity constrains the return of work; be creative and put severe constraints on work.

When I’ve worked any of my retail jobs it’s always been reading books, thinking about future essays, thinking about new ideas or twists on old ones, that has helped me the most. They always detached me from the situation at hand and tended to put me in a slightly better situation than I would’ve been otherwise.

So I think there’s something to what Bracken says here.

Use your creativity, harness it, slack off!

The legends of paradise teach us to curse work, reminding us that laziness is the essential goal of humanity.

It’s interesting to note that the Garden of Eden is a place where no one has to work. And in many utopias (though certainly not all) work is often minimized, if not totally automated or abolished in some other way. When people dream of a better world, they usually dream of a world for more play and less work.

Let’s try to live our dreams.

All power to zeroworker councils – impose a strict regime of laziness!

This is just a funny idea.

Anarchist communists typically have the idea of “worker councils” which will have the power in a given community to make rules and decisions on the basis of horizontal organizing and consensus.

But here, Bracken explicitly mocks that idea by saying we should have a sort of council that paradoxically enforces a strict lazy order among the communities.

I mostly love this one just for its playful reversal of a typical anarchist communist concept.

Work is the graveyard of bad intentions.

This is just a cool sounding aphorisms.

…Okay, besides the aesthetics of it I also think it reflects the classic “the path to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Similarly the path to hard work is paved on the backs of good intentions that are attempting to point to things like virtue, productivity, happiness, meaning and so on.

All of this is part of why the concept of “work” is so hard to wrestle away from the minds of other people. They are ingrained with this idea of “work” somehow inherently connecting to many other things that they feel are necessary for their lives. So without work, where will they be?

In a ton of work, there’s not an ounce of love.

Again, aesthetics. I just think this aphorism is kind of “cute” for a lack of a better word.

It’s also often true that the more effort you put into something, the less you’re likely to enjoy what you’re doing. That’s not strictly true, obviously. But it’s not uncommon to enjoy doing something for an hour or two but to hate it by the 5th hour.

Work is a ball and chain.

I like the imagery here and can relate to it a lot. Whether you’re at work, going to work, getting away from work and hell, even if you’re quitting work to one degree or another, work is still there. Just waiting for you to come back.

Here’s another few “cute” ones I liked:

Put your best efforts into laziness and prepare for the coming inaction.

Waiting for the Waterloo of work…

Work for full unemployment.

But a bit more substantially…

The culture of productivism employes work for social discipline and control – in a word, domination. Look around you in the subway – you share the world with masses of domestic slaves on the way to, or recovering from, their latest paroxysm of work.

I’ve said before that I don’t have anything against productivity per se’ but I certainly have something against fetishizing productivity in the way that society seems to. Instead of having it as something we as individuals harness so we can control as much of our lives as possible it’s given to the bosses. And the bosses then use this cultural norm as a toxic idea that spreads from themselves unto us and causes us to internally monitor ourselves.

As the old saying goes, “kill the cop in your head.”

Every prison is built with work.

As someone who supports prison abolition, this really speaks to me.

Whether we’re talking about the structure of the prisons themselves, or their upkeep, or the things that they produce on the backs of prisoners. Prisons are often actual places of slavery where prisoners are paid dollars per hour (if anything) to do intensive work that would yield at least minimum wage if not more outside of it.

And of course if prisoners did try to escape…

After all, if God doesn’t work, why should I?

Okay, that one was just funny.

Sacrifice work for the sake of life (or at least snarl at your boss and give him the finger).

I love this one especially because it highlights the importance of the smaller resistant actions. Even if you can’t always slack off for your whole shift you can at least give your boss a hard time in the smaller ways. They may not lead to the end of work, but at least you’ll be a bit happier all the same.

Production for the sake of production is as vapid as art for art’s sake.

I’m not sure that this is true. Is Bracken trying to say that anything that’s done for the sake of itself is vapid? If so, why? Why is art for the sake of art vapid, exactly?

Freedom begins where work ends.

Let freedom ring.

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