A (Laurie) Penny for Your Thoughts on Work

Laurie Penny

I am seriously a big fan of Laurie Penny.

I’m not the biggest fan in terms of being well-read on her. I’ve read her piece on polyamory (and more recently here) as well as her piece on Scott Aaronson (and then Scott Alexander’s response and then a sort of meta response to them both? I was kind of addicted to this conversation at the time…) and that’s probably it.

I did some research on her when I thought she was going to come to the Boston Anarchist Book Fair a few years ago and was enthralled by the few pieces I read. Her ability to put out some hard-hitting feminist pieces of rhetoric and logic while still being really cogent and persuasive as well as intellectually charitable is truly a marvel in The Discourse.

Even better, I finally got around to reading this piece on sex work and how it underlies why we should abolish work itself instead of abolishing sex work. In doing so I did some research on other posts Penny and I found a litany of anti-work posts ranging from mental health, to automation, to feminist takes on anti-work and more.

Reading over these articles I got the sense that Penny takes a rather harsh stance against work but doesn’t exactly have a great follow-through. The fundamentals of Penny’s position(s) are the usual: That work is degrading, that it is based on a reduced amount of choice based on capitalism (though she doesn’t single out the state as much as I’d like) and that it’s a contributor to declining mental health and would be better off automated in many fields.

A lot of those positions are great ones and ones I either agree with or heavily sympathize with minimal fuss. But still, her articles don’t usually illustrate ways of living without work (such as play) and she spends more of her time playing the role of social critic than utopian, which granted, has its benefits and drawbacks.

On the one hand, when Penny is criticizing “neo-liberal” (a nebulous term in my mind, but I’ll pass over that) work and trying to explain why it’s so destructive in its present form, she’s great. But when she looks for solutions to our problems she either writes out a very vague call to action or says we should favor (wait for it) a Universal Basic Income.

I’ve written a few times now (here and here) and hosted a few pieces (here and here) that are what I’d call neutral-negative / critical-positive of the concept. Sure, it’d be an improvement over the current US (and I’ll presume UK) welfare system(s) to replace with a vastly less bureaucratic redistribution system. I don’t (and probably never will) argue that the UBI wouldn’t be some sort of improvement over the current ways of redistributing money in the economy.

At the same time, it doesn’t seem like giving the government the power over our monthly checks is a great idea even if the core idea of the government reducing its power to govern was somehow a viable idea. As an anarchist, I am highly skeptical (to say the least) that the government would intentionally reduce its own power over a given populace. Sure, it might do this accidentally via a bill that no one took the time to read well enough or some loop hole.

But the UBI isn’t some quick bill that would go through congress or parliament, it would require a fundamental cultural shift on the part of US (or UK) citizens. And, ironically, if we somehow achieved such a cultural shift I think we could then demand far more radical solutions (i.e. anarchism) as opposed to a UBI a lot easier. It’s similar to when some of my libertarian friends want to vote for someone and say that the voting is what’s important and not the cultural impact.

Somehow for them (and for some UBI supporters perhaps) the cultural effects are secondary to policy proposals and as someone who sees conquest theory as the most viable way to explain the origins of the state, I don’t have a rosy idea of how that would go for UBI supporters. Perhaps it’s possible that in some countries (like the Nordic ones like Finland) this could happen inch by inch but even there it seems like a struggle.

I don’t want to focus on the negatives of Penny’s approach though, I think focusing on some of her analysis is also pertinent, especially since I’ve praised it (and will continue to).

So, let’s start by highlighting some great portions from her article on sex work and work itself:

To describe sex work as “a job like any other job” is only a positive reframing if you consider a “job” to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice. We are encouraged not to think about this too hard, but to accept these conditions as simply “the way of the world”.

In one paragraph Penny sweeps the common presumption that jobs are inherently value right off of its footing and parallels the ways that modern jobs are much like sex work.

And in case you think this parallel is a little too strong, I can easily think about all of the jobs I’ve had and describe them as “boring” and “soul-crushing” and at times “disgusting” (cleaning a bathroom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and it’s not cracked up to be much).

You might respond that I don’t need to sell my body and I would agree – in part.

It’s true I don’t need to sell my sexual organs specifically but I am still selling my body as much as sex workers are. Not in the same way and surely not in the same circumstances and without those same risks (especially as someone who easily passes as a cis man, unfortunately) but I am still selling my labor via the use of my body.

And it isn’t as if retail has some sort of monopoly on the body market. All jobs whether they’re retail focused or not need our bodies to some extent or another. It isn’t as if artists aren’t in need of a body and only need their brains because even then they need their hands for illustrating or their mouths for negotiation or their legs for commuting, etc.

The point being that there isn’t anything special about sex-work or retail in terms of needing your body to get money. This is a common theme in all sorts of jobs and so when socialists or anarcho-communists use the “sell your body” argument against wage labor itself. But there are many areas of our lives where we need our bodies to make money or to receive value so that we may keep living our lives and I don’t think that makes them necessarily immoral.

Indeed, the fact that we get a wage for the use of our bodies (in my mind) isn’t inherently unjust. For me, it has more to do with the hierarchy of power between workers and capitalism, workers and bosses, workers and the state, etc. It has to do with issues of power and authority being used to rule over individuals as if they belong to them. If we can challenge these assumptions (which Penny does well) then I think we can have a great start to a shift in ideas about work.

My own ideas about strategy mostly rely around writing, speaking out, collaborating on artistic projects and using symbols and communication as our main methods of protest. Street protests are great, even riots can be good and helpful sometimes but they aren’t the bulk of my preferred methods. As someone who is trans, lower-class and would prefer to not get the shit beaten out of them for “dressing the wrong way” I tend to use more internet based methods.

That doesn’t mean the stakes are any less important in contemporary times as Penny pointed out in a separate article about mental health and work:

When people take their own life, it is not often that one can point to a single, external factor that pushed them over the edge. However, in the case of France Télécom, not unlike the well-publicised suicides at Foxconn in China in 2010, employees left notes blaming the unbearable conditions at work. Workplace suicides are on the rise across the world as work becomes more precarious and badly paid. Economic growth is concentrating in the hands of top earners and ordinary workers pay the price in the form of insecure contracts, low wages and falling living standards, which is a polite way of saying that the things that make life worth living are getting harder to secure even as we all work harder than ever.

Now, if I could nitpick (and because I can, I will) Penny doesn’t actually cite her sources on the idea that workplace suicides are on the rise. But on the other hand it’s not exactly hard to find articles to back this assertion up:

A new study today in the American Journal of Preventative Health took a deeper look at this upward trend and found that while workplace suicides decreased between 2003 and 2007, they sharply increased from 2007 to 2010. Several factors placed some people at higher risk of workplace suicide than others, according to Hope Teisman, the lead author on the study, and an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

So the need for an anti-work movement is therefore very real and much needed. But how we shape this movement is important too. To that end I suggest actions based on direct action, counter-economics, education and other ways to physically and verbally undermine a system that feeds on our lifeblood to continue.

Direct action through programs like Food Not Bombs, direct action through mutual aid which supports us when unjust landlords act against tenants in coercive or otherwise oppressive ways, direct action though setting up our own alternative organizations such as cooperatives to fight against state-capitalism.

Counter-economics through gray and black market processes that while a-legal or completely illegal remain intentional in their drive and resolve to undermine the authority of state and capitalism. They would be predominately peaceful but can also be defensive against the inevitable attempted repression of the state. Examples of counter-economic processes could be as simple as someone selling goods or services unlicensed but could scale up to larger efforts.

Examples of the scaled up sort range include the underground economy in the Soviet Union which while not done with anti-authoritarian intentions in mind, did much to help the Soviet populace survive despite brutal repression.

Education is something I mean literally (like educating folks) but also institutionally via things like expanding alternative ways of forming education via Montessori schools and Sudbury models of schooling. As well as forming unschooling and homeschool cooperatives that teach children that they can live without schooling entirely.

I say all of this so (for starters) I’m less of a huge hypocrite for actually rounding off this post with some ideas for strategy instead of just saying that work sucks, etc. etc. I mean, that’s typically what I do anyways and then I try to give some crushing blow to work at the end via some witty one-liner…but sometimes I try to offer at least a few practical ideas too.

So yeah, I’m not much better than Penny to be honest.

But hopefully she understands that I’m a writer and that we tend to eat our own.

…Please don’t eat me, Laurie Penny.

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