Doing Nothing vs. Being Nothing

Try not to end up like no-face, please.

VICE is commonly derided for having some outlandish articles. They seem to be a clickbait-based website, except that their clickbait has some sort of “cause” to it or it’s “wacky” in some sense. It’s very enmeshed with the alternative cultures of the day, or just whatever fad seems to be happening.

On the other hand VICE does some great work.

A recent article by Kit Caless called Your Job is Pointless is case in point.

For the most part Caless relies on remarks by Peter Fleming, author of The Mythology of Work (yes, I’ve added it to my reading list) to introduce why work might not mean much to us. I will mostly be replying to those remarks as most of the rest of the article relies on statistics, topics and so on that I’ve covered elsewhere.

And though I appreciate this article, there are some questionable remarks Fleming makes:

“The refusal of work movement isn’t about laziness.”

It puzzles me how Fleming could say this in any factual sense.

One of the leading texts of the anti-work movement is Paul LaFargue’s The Right to be Lazy. More recent anti-work thinkers like Apio Ludd have also written positively about laziness. Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work, one of the most popular anti-work essay of all time, says early on that he supports “the right to be lazy” (emphasis in original).

And I don’t think it’s be an exaggeration to say that most anti-work writers at least grapple with the subject of laziness quite often. Even if all of them don’t find it as appreciable most would say that there’s a deficit of laziness in our society.

For myself, I’ve written about laziness quite often:

That last one is an entire series of blog posts on LaFargue’s aforementioned work.

So what am I missing?

I don’t mean to be rude or confrontational towards Mr. Fleming, but I can’t understand why he would make such a bold claim. And not only does he make such a bold claim but he doesn’t provide any evidence that this his claim holds any weight. He doesn’t cite any argument he makes from his book and he doesn’t give us any good historical reasons from the anti-work movement itself to think that’s empirically the case in practice.

Though elsewhere Fleming remarks that, “Work itself is not intrinsically bad for you, it’s the social conditions around it that are the problem.” So perhaps Fleming and I are looking at work (and thus the anti-work movement) differently.

The quote on laziness doesn’t get much better from there:

In fact, he said, “it’s nothing to do with doing nothing. In fact, if you want to see people doing nothing, go into a large corporation. Some of us are very lucky that our work really is a labor of love, but that’s not the case most of the time.”

I think Feming is confusing doing nothing with being nothing.

Work gives us the latter and relaxing, slacking, being lazy refusing work, resisting work etc. give us the former. And the former can be good, bad, or nothing in particular. Sometimes “doing nothing” is a good alternative to doing something.

I’ve written about that here where I posited that:

People are throwing around “doing nothing” carefree without thinking about what it actually means. Those people on OK Cupid who think about “doing nothing” in a day aren’t thinking about doing nothing but rather doing nothing productive or meaningful for themselves.

Whatever exactly they think they mean by “nothing” it probably actually amounts to something but it just isn’t a lot of something to be more precise.

That isn’t to say that they don’t get anything out of those movies, bad foods or excess sleep. But perhaps not what they want to get out of their day. In that sense their day may be more filled with “nothing” than “something”. But is that state of affairs always objectionable?

For example there’s the notion of taking some R&R (rest and relaxation) days for yourself. Usually these are not only containing activities that’d contribute to a day being filled with “nothing” typically but instead that is those sorts of days primary purpose. So in such a case you could argue that you’ve turned nothing into something!

Similarly, I feel that Fleming is throwing around the word “nothing” a bit too freely here. When you’re doing nothing you might be enjoying yourself. Perhaps your meditating, relaxing, cuddling up to someone you love or just taking a nice nap.

Certainly any of these things could be pleasurable, enjoyable and worth doing for their own sake, right?

Work tends to make us into nothing. We feel like we’re doing nothing even when we’re actually doing something in some literal sense. But substantially we still feel like nothing we’re doing is actually contributing to our own well-being. And that’s the difference between being nothing and doing nothing. When you’re reduced to nothing by the machinations of capitalism, hierarchy, bosses and work, then of course you’re going to feel like you’re not doing anything of value.

But that doesn’t mean that literally doing nothing doesn’t have it’s own value.

Later in the article Fleming says:

The ideology of work has demolished all of the other traditional status structures related to religion, artistic endeavor, raising family, and other status symbols within communities. After demolishing these structures we have been presented with a situation that tells us the only thing that matters is the work you do—and therefore you should revolve and center your whole life around that. It’s followed the increased individualization of society, which has broken traditional communities apart.”

I agree that the “what do you do for a living” question is tedious and likely tied to work “demolishing” (as Fleming put it) alternative structures that we could extricate meaning out from. But that doesn’t mean it’s an increase in “individuality” that is to blame for the breaking of traditional communities such as religion, family or the arts.

None of that has to do with some sort of “selfish” nature of people coming out from going to work. If anything, work is anti-individualist. It asks us to sacrifice our own needs, wants, desires, luxuries or just about anything else so we can make a pittance of what we need to survive. It’s also not a particularly great institution to get into if you want to show off your own individual prowess.

That’s largely because hierarchy tends to be in conflict with individualism:

Large, hierarchical workplaces that tend to treat workers like cogs in a machine or tools of the employers are clearly not in line with the individualist philosophy. A workplace where the employees on the lower rungs are pushed around and treated with little respect from their employers ought to be objected to (non-aggressively) by anyone concerned about autonomy and respect for persons.

Just as a sidenote: I would be harsher on hierarchy than Cory is in some places, but overall I find his summation of the individualist anarchist position is correct. I(A) is likely existing somewhere between “the two extremes” of being against all hierarchy (anarchist communists) or only against the state and having no concern for hierarchy (anarchist capitalists).

To me this state of “being nothing” that I’ve been talking about is the ultimate in de-individualization. It tells you that your core identity is to be only made up of work. It leaves you for little personality or characteristics outside of your job as Fleming himself admits. So given that, how could work be a pro-individualist ideology? How could the increase of it lead to more “individualization” of society?

There is one excellent point Fleming makes and it’s one I’ve made as well:

On top of this, many more companies are now inviting alcohol into the workplace—drinking, as it’s known, “aldesko.” While drinks in the office on a Friday evening might sound like your boss is just being nice, Fleming is more cynical.

He thinks the blurring of work into play and non-work is dangerous.

The modern manager “wants to be your friend, and they’re actually nice people. It’s the worst thing that you can come across. If my manager thinks I’m their friend and I can joke with them, they have created a bond with me that’s inescapable. If I want to refuse an order, they will see it as a personal insult, like a friend being jilted. They can rightly say, ‘mate, friends don’t treat each other like that.'”

While I’ve experience this before most of the managers who have done this to me have often been (thankfully) genuine about their attempts to be friendly. I realize that I’ve been lucky however and some others aren’t quite as fortunate when it comes time for the boss to call in a few “favors” for being so “nice” to them.

Funnily enough, this reminds me of the “nice guy” concept that feminists talk about.

Geek Feminism defines that concept as such:

…men who view themselves as prototypical “nice guys,” but whose “nice deeds” are in reality only motivated by attempts to passively please women into a relationship and/or sex.

In relation to this the “nice boss” is really just being “nice” in their attempts to get a relationship out of the worker. Not necessarily a sexual one (though that could be the case) but an emotional one. One that makes you feel indebted to them in some way and makes you want to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise for your boss.

Another irksome remark Fleming makes with regards to individuality and work comes later on:

“The problem of resistance,” Peter says, “has been stymied by the economization of the work force. In order to economize, you individualize. You put everyone on individual contracts, self-employed. For example, it was reported in 2013 that 70 percent of Ryanair pilots are self-employed—they have to pay for their uniforms and stopover hotels. We need to re-collectivize and rediscover the power of labour.”

It always strikes me as a bit weird that state-socialists who are critical of work will take so little of capitalism at face-value. But when it suits the narrative of “individualism run amok” they’ll point to the label of “self-employed” and say, “See! See! Individualism is at it again!”. Fleming should know better than most that just because something is called a form of self-employment doesn’t mean it’s actual self-employment.

If you were self-employed you’d likely own your own business. If these workers are working for a corporation in order to make a living then full stop: they are not self-employed. The corporations are using double-speak so they can avoid extra costs that they want to avoid for this reason or another.

What might it look like to actually be self-employed?

You’d have your own decentralized and individualized means of production that you paid for, could use and dispose of as you pleased. You wouldn’t have to pay the many artificial costs and barriers to entry that the state and capitalism put in our way. You wouldn’t have to pay the costs of things like licensing, intellectual property, or fight with big corporations who are trying to vie for land grabs via the state, etc.

The link about self-employment, if you’re curious goes to a Daily Mail article on Ryanair pilots who were pressured into working even when they’re tired.

In happy bit of luck I’ve covered the issues of pilots before and this whole dynamic has nothing at all to do with a more “individualist” culture or relationship within work. The “zero hour” contracts that are so “flexible” also have nothing to do with individualism and instead have to do with the negation of the individual. It is the suppression of individual needs on an actual health level that drive workers to actually get other people potentially killed.

And as I said before, being “self-employed” here just means that they still work for a big corporation but the corporation doesn’t owe it as much. That isn’t any coherent concept of self-employment, it’s just a way for corporations to cut costs and risk the lives of others. Which they can afford to do given all of the subsidies they get from governments.

So none of this has to do with individualism. It has to do with Fleming, for some reason, believing corporate propaganda.

On the topic of being anti-individual however, let’s look at Fleming’s proposals for resisting work:

Fleming proposes some grand, sweeping ideas to think about: a surplus living wage, nationalized industries, a three-day working week, and de-fetishizing work.

Well 2/4 isn’t bad, I suppose.

I certainly support a three-day working week and de-fetishizing work. How we’re going to get to the first isn’t addressed by either Fleming or Caless and how we would do the second isn’t either. Nevertheless they’re basic reform-orientated improvements I think most of us would encourage.

What worries me is this “surplus living wage” and the “nationalized industries”.

I’ve seen time and time again, anti-work advocates calling for a “Universal Basic Income” (which is what I take Fleming to be advocating here, or something along similar lines). And it irks me every time. Because instead of getting the power out of the hands of the state towards the poor and disabled, we apparently should instead put all of the money they get into the hands of the state. Because the state has such a good track record with distribution of resources…

I grant that id’ likely remove a lot of the bureaucracy from the welfare state (at least in the US, I can’t speak for the UK). But that doesn’t mean it’d be our final goal or something necessarily even worth striving towards. Putting that amount of wealth into the hands of a heavily centralized, top-down and authoritarian institution which has such a voluminous history of oppressing the working class is not only aesthetically bizarre but completely backwards.

Never mind the fact that I’ve never actually seen how the state could act against its own interests in such a huge way by coming up with a bill like this. And I’m unsure what candidate would even back the charge on this sort of campaign and have some sort of chance of winning. I don’t even see it coming about through more direct and external pressures like civil disobedience, protest, education and so on.

And for those focusing on European countries that may have something similar, I think the UK and US are another animal entirely. Especially comparing a country like Sweden (just as an example, I’m unsure they have anything like a UBI) to the US seems like apples and oranges to me. Culturally, population wise, etc.

And in general I just don’t thnik the state would make such a grand policy change without some significant cultural changes on the outside. And if we have had that much change outside of the state then why use the state when we could  create much more effective mutual aid networks (see also here) instead?

An important caveat to all of this is that this review of UBI isn’t exhaustive by any means. And it’s likely there’s at least one proposal by someone that appeals to me more than the rest. But so long as a UBI boils down to giving more power to the state to decide what happens to the lives of the poor, you can likely count me out.

I’ll add that I intend to do a fairly exhaustive review of the UBI at some point. That’d include my likes and dislikes (not just my dislikes) and see if there was anyway I could give it a shot. But for now, that’s what I’ve got, since I felt I couldn’t stay silent on this issue in this particular article.

As for “nationalization” of resources, this just feeds into the common issues of calculation, knowledge and legibility.

To put it simply, the state has an advantage by having so much power but there are also disadvantages. Putting certain industries under the control of the state (the “nation”) just means that local knowledge (particularly by workers) will be ignored more than ever. We’ve seen throughout history that workers don’t always share the same interests qua workers and thus will sometimes act against each others supposed shared “class interests”. Imbuing some workers with the power that many others do not have is likely to reinvigorate the problems with bossism, just with different political colors.

This shift would also mean that the the failures of bureaucrats (worker ones or not) will be rationalized as the problems with society and not themselves. The phenomenon of high modernism will reign supreme and the mistakes of the past will be put in a “memory hole”, keeping accountability low. None of these things are inherent to “nationalization” per se’ but rather the state itself. Putting a different coating of paint on the state doesn’t change its issue of identifying what the people below it need in some relevant and accurate sense. These are the problems of legibility that the state hasn’t solved for hundreds of years, as discussed by the sociologist James C. Scott.

Lastly, putting that much economic power and signals into one institution’s control without any method of balancing out this power through competition means that the institution of the state will likely be (as it already is) overburdened. This will make its production process much slower, its distribution ineffective and its yield significantly less than it would be otherwise. This problem of calculation that applies here also applies to the corporations that Fleming is so critical of.

But because the institution of the nation-state is wrapped up in the public’s interest and flags it’s okay.

Now that is some anti-individualism!

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