Anti-Work is for Dreamers: A Response to William Nava (Part 1/2)

Nick’s Notes: If you haven’t read William’s critiques yet, make sure you do that first!

I’ll separate my response into two parts as William does with his critiques. The first part will revolve chiefly around “aspiration culture” as William calls it and automation. The second part will center around the meaning of work, suffering and character building in present day society as opposed to an anti-work ideal.

I: Work as Anathema to Aspiration

William criticizes the possibility of abolishing work first, so I want to start there.

I don’t disagree with the way he summarizes my view of it but just so we’re clear on terms here’s my definition of work:

The constrained performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for substituting your own ends with an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward.

This is the position I roughly tried to give William a few weeks back but admit I likely parsed some parts of this so as to perhaps change its meaning. That’s on me and so I take at least partial responsibility for William’s misunderstandings of my positions that follow.

My objection is .. based on the following intuition: with lower costs come higher standards for what counts as “basic necessities,” increased possibilities for value creation, and greater ambitions.

With costs down, it will be easier to meet basic necessities as we currently perceive them. But basic necessities today are not what they were centuries ago. There are people – at least a billion, in fact – living in conditions that today we call barely survivable and yet would have counted as more than meeting basic necessities in the middle ages. This happened because the costs of necessities came down in such a way that allowed us to raise our standards. Further decreases in costs should yield further increases in our standards.

William’s general point is an interesting one. I’d never really considered that what we may think of now as basic necessities might become trivial in the future as a problem. So perhaps abolishing work will make present day necessities an easy thing to acquire without engaging in drudgery, but what about when our standards change? Wouldn’t we need to just engage in drudgery to get those basic needs?

Is this a problem for the anti-work position? Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

Part of the reason for that is that, as interesting as this critique strikes me it ultimately seems trivial. I don’t think it really matters what our necessities or values are in a few hundred years or even a few decades or so. Anti-work, like any philosophy, doesn’t claim to solve all of our problems for all time.

The basic claim of anti-work, as far as I understand it, is that current day basic necessities are more attainable than we relate to them. That the artificial limitations of the state and capitalism in particular condemn us to a life of artificial scarcity instead of (relative) abundance.

Perhaps our standards will rise if anti-work succeeds, but if so, what of it?

Our standards rising doesn’t cut against anti-work in any meaningful way. When we have better access to better tools and a much better economic and social system to obtain them from, then even the greatest of ambitions seem trivial relative to the present day. But that also doesn’t make them actually trivial. They still may require a lot of effort and involve things we don’t want to do and heck, it could even be stressful.

But none of that is antithetical to the anti-work position, as I understand it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now consider the following scenario: poverty is a thing of the past, and costs are way down.

I meet all my requirements for survival and comfort by doing occasional and pleasant labor, and so do not need to “work.” I then get struck by a sudden passion for creating some monumentally unnecessary piece of elaborate cinema. This is a type of cinema that back in 2017, when costs were so high, would have been a logistical and technological impossibility. Even now, with all our costs down, it’s quite expensive. But it’s possible.

The idea of creating something so intricate and unprecedented livens me up, and I’m determined to do it. The mutual aid groups I belong to won’t break the bank to support my new obsession. But I’ve heard there’s someone who has a way of facilitating my project; he also has an esoteric, and rather unpleasant, need that I can fulfill.

You see where this is going.

If my definition of work was reducible to “esoteric … and rather unpleasant” tasks then I’d be worried about an anti-work future and the aspirations of many individuals. But thankfully my argument about work is more complex than that. My opposition to work doesn’t come from the fact that it’s merely unpleasant, it also comes from the fact that work is also inherently undermining of our individuality and comes from constraint on your abilities. Neither of these things seem prominent to me in William’s example.

Pursuing something that’s unpleasant but also directly compliments our abilities to pursue our goals doesn’t sound like undermining our individuality, at least not inherently. William does a lot of academic work that he finds grating, but as he says, it’s not work compared to what his other options may have been a few hundred years ago:

One might object that, given automation, people won’t generally have needs that require unpleasant work. But, just as our standards for value and necessity go up, so do our standards for what counts as unpleasant work.

Returning to 2017 for a moment, I’m currently a tutor and teacher. Lesson planning is work for me. This is because, within the scope of what seems possible for me, I can realistically envision living off more rewarding labor. Plant me back in the middle ages (or some other context), and I might find lesson planning the most rewarding job imaginable.

Similarly, I’ve disliked most of the jobs I’ve had because I feel no personal investment or stake in them. I’m not working in retail to help build my dreams, I’m doing it to (more or less) stay alive.

Most of my dreams (writing a comic book, producing an album, producing a poetry chapbook, etc.) aren’t directly being helped by my current job. Partially because it’s barely helping me get food, rent and transportation, let alone while I pile on electrolysis and music lessons. And that’s with state insurance that allows me to (at no cost) get prescriptions for hormone replacement therapy and other needs.

It’s true that the money indirectly helps me produce an album (eventually) by getting music lessons. And because I can pay for rent and food I can work on my comic book script a little more freely, etc. But this process comes from a degrading job that I’d prefer not to do, in a company I have no (literal or metaphorical) stock in and the money isn’t mainly used for those things.

So the struggle of doing a degrading service, for low amounts of money, to barely get by and only casually aid in me achieving my long-term goals, is terrible. And William recognizes that this should be abolished:

So what about those who have to work demeaning and physically exhausting jobs for eighty hours a week for barely any pay? Isn’t that also “dehumanization”?

It is, and I favor abolishing that type of work.

What William is talking about here is the majority of the kind of work in the US economy, as far as I can tell.

It’s what the post-Marxist Andre Gorz called “work for economic ends”:

This is work done with payment in mind.

Here money, that is, commodity exchange, is the principal goal. One works first of all to `earn a living’, and the satisfaction or pleasure one may possibly derive from such work is a subordinate consideration. This may be termed -work for economic ends.

But in William’s example, commodity exchange isn’t the principal goal. His long-term goals are nearly synonymous with the efforts he may find unpleasant in some respect. And the person he’s going to work for within the sort of economy I envision (an individualist/mutualist one) isn’t one where the person he’s going to work for is going to be higher up on the “chain” than him, in all likelihood.

That’s because another part of my definition of work is that it’s got a built in suspicion of hierarchy.

Substituting your ends for the ends of someone else is something that hierarchical systems excel at. But in the economy I’m envisioning the unpleasant work William may engage in would be built on cooperation, not hierarchy. And so a lot of the drudgery and lack of individualism is taken out of it once workers have more power within their workplace. It doesn’t remove it entirely, but it’s a large element of that removed.

So, for example, if workers own the means of production (whether independently, through an artisans network, through a council model, etc.) then the chance of you feeling like your individuality is being undermined in some crucial way is much smaller. I’m not claiming it’d never happen, I’m just talking about probabilities based on how hierarchical systems work as opposed to cooperatives ones.

I’ll put it this way: If someone paid me $12 an hour to do something unpleasant (let’s say retail, cause that’s what I know) and all of that money went to my comic book project, the people I worked with respected me as an individual (which would mean much more equal relations) and I had actual say in the company, then I wouldn’t likely feel like my work was drudgery and needed to be abolished.

That’s not to say it’d somehow be perfect, I don’t think cooperatives, independent contracting, partnerships, etc. are free of the issues of work (especially within state-capitalist systems). For example, I think you can have informal hierarchies develop within cooperatives and you can have regular old material hierarchies based on wealth as well, if the system is poorly designed. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t abolish work, it just means it’s never completely gone, but again, this seems like a trivial concerns.

To formally put an end to something (AKA abolish) doesn’t mean to end every instance of it ever, this would be an impossible demand for any philosophy to live up. And anarchists in particular are susceptible to William’s critique, which would make his critique self-defeating.

Namely because rulership is unlikely to ever completely go away. But we don’t back away from (or at least I don’t!) the label of anarchism and its history just because rulership will never hit perfect zero. And when (more reasoned) libertarians talk about the non-aggression principle, they don’t envision a society where violence never happens but where it is far less likely to occur and will be better handled when it does.

Thus, William has unrealistic expectations of both the anti-work movement and the phrase “abolish”. Expectations that would cut against his own anarchism as much as they would my anti-work ideas.

Moving on, let’s talk about automation:

So, back again to our automated mutualist society: our technological tools need maintenance and supplementary labor1. Most of that might not be physical labor. But, so long as it involves time and any kind of effort, people will relativize it against their norm and find anything less than exceptional to be “work.”

I’m not convinced that the first sentence is even true, at a certain point.

But even if it was true (and I’ll grant it for the sake of argument) why wouldn’t there be people who take great pleasure from maintenance and supplementary labor, depending on the trade? The work would likely be much easier, much less hierarchical, less necessary for our flourishing and overall be a much more pleasant experience. This is especially the case as technology continues to improve thanks to the abolition of capitalism and especially intellectual property.

Just to be clear, I don’t think it’d be the case that no one would derive displeasure from it, but again, displeasure isn’t the only thing I disagree with about work. So this isn’t an issue for me, necessarily.

I’m also not convinced that people would redefine “anything less than exceptional” to be work.

And if they do, well that’s their problem, to be blunt.

Namely because that would cut against my definition by going by a completely different set of standards (which is what William is talking about) and so it’d say nothing about my model of anti-work. In fact, as far as I can tell, William’s ideas here are just predictions based on the outcome of certain economic patterns of ownership and distribution. But I don’t think we have many good reasons to think those predictions are correct to begin with.

People aren’t allergic to time and effort inherently (and neither am I) right now and so if we have a society that’s treating effort and time as intrinsically work then that’s not an anti-work society I’m interested in. I think things we care about and want to pursue can take time and effort and that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. It can have it’s problems, but that’s more based on how the system is designed than the system itself, e.g. through hierarchy, lack of individual investment, lack of respect for individuals, etc.

For all of William’s interesting and thoughtful critiques this is perhaps his weakest. Mostly because it depends on the conflation between my definition of work and the idea of spending time and effort. And that’s a conflation I’ve complained about endlessly on this site and elsewhere. So it’s surprising and disappointing to see it come from William as well.

If people in the future are conflating “time and effort” with work then that’s on them, not on my theory of work. Relatedly, I think abolishing work in these quotes is being conflated with abolishing stress, which William Gillis has talked about before as a problem in the anti-work scene ironically:

While it’s perfectly rational to talk of a world in which we are no longer forced to take actions we’d rather not, eliminating all perception of weightiness to those actions is a different and much stronger type of impossible. There are plenty of actions we ultimately want to take that at the same time inspire trepidation and tension.

Relieving stress is great, but when it’s set in artificial either/or conflict with caring enough to get wrapped up in an undertaking — vigilantly struggling to affect some consequence — what results isn’t a liberation of our desires, but a broadening flatness to our lives.

Pursuing desires is part and parcel of being human, and it’s ridiculous to presume that that won’t occasionally require investments, risk and the attentive concern that comes with that.

But the mere fact that such projects can be a stressful, taxing commitment is not proof that they’re dismissible reproductions of the forms of labor we seek to abolish.

Here we have perhaps the most ironic point William (Nava) could make about anti-work:

The larger point is that automation and wealth are insufficient. To abolish work, you also need to abolish aspirational culture. In other words, you need to abolish the tendency to labor toward perceived progress at the expense of comfort and pleasure. Whether this is possible, I don’t know. But, for reasons outlined below, I don’t think it’s desirable.

If there’s anything that will aid “aspirational culture” then it’s anti-work.

Being able to pursue our dreams much more freely thanks to having our basic necessities being met (food, housing, transportation, etc.) is a wildly liberating idea. It’s an idea that will surely liberate us far more than keeping capitalism and the state (as William may agree) but also much more liberating than going for half-measures which don’t take automation and radical abolition to their logical extremes.

And if there is anything in this world that is in perpetual opposition to aspiration: It’s work!

This is part one, you can find part two here.

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2 thoughts on “Anti-Work is for Dreamers: A Response to William Nava (Part 1/2)

  1. So, I clearly wrote up a big long objection to a version of “Abolish Work” that isn’t the “Abolish Work” you’re pushing for. Most important disagreements come down to semantics, don’t they?

    I’ll say only a couple things. One, I did not conflate “time and effort” with “work.” I was clear throughout that I was speaking specifically about UNPLEASANT and UNWANTED “time and effort.” My point is that, what may not be especially unpleasant and unwanted now may become so later, as that relativization to norm process happens. So, work happening in the future (that today wouldn’t be unpleasant) will be unpleasant and unwanted to the people of the future. Though I didn’t say this in what I wrote, I do think that what goes for unpleasant also goes for dehumanizing. What isn’t dehumanizing now may be considered so in the future.

    You said that anti-work relates to work as it is in the present, and it is not meant to apply to the standards of the future. That’s a fine response, and if that is what anti-work means, then I’m on board with anti-work. As I said in my objection, I’m down with abolishing the more dehumanizing kinds of work that people today do. I’m CERTAINLY down with eliminating the conditions that force people to have to do those kinds of work for so many hours per week that they hardly have the time to enjoy the supposed fruits of their labor.

    But, if there’s anywhere I still disagree, it’s in the move to disregard the relativization process as you do. What sucks about dehumanizing conditions is that they get EXPERIENCED as dehumanizing. So, even if way better conditions emerge, if people (bc they relativize to their norm) experience them as dehumanizing, that should still be considered a problem (and not something that, “to be blunt,” we totally disregard). I tend to care more about phenomenology than economics, if I may put it that way.

    With that said, I probably over-emphasized that whole relativization point. It’s unlikely that, when you make conditions better, people will just adjust and make everything feel just as shitty. That happens to SOME EXTENT, but not to the extent that I seem to suggest in my objection.

    I leave off the discussion with the following thought: the difference between dehumanizing and unwanted is a blurry one. The distinction between being forced to do something to survive, and freely choosing to do something awful because it will give you the capital you need to pursue a dream (eg, as in my filmmaker example) is also blurry. Somewhere in this blurriness lies our disagreement.

    In any case. I keep my semantic reservations for the reasons mentioned above. I’m down to continue discussing them if you like. However, for all practical purposes – and certainly as far as present day dehumanizing work is concerned – you may consider me on board with Abolish Work.

    • Hi, William! Thanks for your thoughtful follow up comment.

      Just a few comments of my own:

      “One, I did not conflate “time and effort” with “work.” I was clear throughout that I was speaking specifically about UNPLEASANT and UNWANTED “time and effort.””

      In the specific quote I highlighted you didn’t make that distinction and you were also talking about people in the future and not yourself. Perhaps this was what confused me?

      “My point is that, what may not be especially unpleasant and unwanted now may become so later, as that relativization to norm process happens. So, work happening in the future (that today wouldn’t be unpleasant) will be unpleasant and unwanted to the people of the future. Though I didn’t say this in what I wrote, I do think that what goes for unpleasant also goes for dehumanizing. What isn’t dehumanizing now may be considered so in the future.”

      That’s fair, but it’s also *unfair* to expect anti-work (or any philosophy) to predict and adapt to every change of standards, right? So I don’t think this is a point against anti-work so much as the limits of our imagination or designing robust systems to respond to oppression. Which all ideologies suffer from.

      “But, if there’s anywhere I still disagree, it’s in the move to disregard the relativization process as you do.”

      Well, I’m not sure I “disregard’ it. I just don’t see it as an issue for anti-work or maybe just not as much as you do. I’m not saying it’s not an issue or could never be one (I think I allowed for the possibility of being wrong here among other places) but that you overestimate it, which is what you said. I think we just disagree about the level of overestimation but at any rate I *did* give reasons for *why* I “disregard” your point here.

      “What sucks about dehumanizing conditions is that they get EXPERIENCED as dehumanizing. So, even if way better conditions emerge, if people (bc they relativize to their norm) experience them as dehumanizing, that should still be considered a problem (and not something that, “to be blunt,” we totally disregard). I tend to care more about phenomenology than economics, if I may put it that way.”

      Sure, I agree. I don’t think we should ignore it but I guess I also don’t see it as likely as you do.

      I agree with you about blurry lines and am glad to have you on board! 🙂

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