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

Nick’s Notes: Split this into two parts (part one here) because it got so long and this seemed like a logical cutoff point!

II: The Value of Suffering and the Meaning of Work

Let’s go from that last quote to the next paragraph down where William continues his criticisms by highlighting whether abolishing work is desirable. Before we do that however, here’s how William summarizes my position:

[Abolishing Work] is desirable: The “work” that wants to be abolished is labor done in pursuit of something else, i.e. not for its own sake. Since we wouldn’t do it for its own sake, this is work that we don’t really want to do. So, pedantic technicalities about what qualifies as free choice aside, it’s involuntary work. This sucks, and so we should get rid of it.

What’s wrong with work? It’s unpleasant. I don’t mean that dismissively – sometimes it’s very unpleasant, and that can be the source of great suffering and missed opportunities. However, questions of degree aside for the moment, the problem with work is that it is unpleasant and undesirable. So, a principled objection to work means a principled objection to the unpleasant and unwanted aspects of life.

William misunderstands my position here I admit I am partially to blame for that. During my conversation with him and another friend I emphasized intrinsic meaning vs. extrinsic a bit too much. I didn’t really have time (or mental energy, honestly) to talk about the factors of constraint or individualism that I wish I did.

This led William to emphasizing certain parts of my conception of work that distort it and thus make it much more open to criticism. So, as I said before, my criticism of work isn’t simply because work “sucks” (i.e. it’s unpleasant). And while intrinsic meaning is an important part of why I oppose work it isn’t the only one and by itself wouldn’t give me good enough reason to oppose a task (e.g. picking up the trash) on that basis alone.

That disagreement aside, let’s look at what William says in the second part of his criticism:

The trouble with this is that rich lives require personal growth and development, which is a dialectical process. It only happens through a dance with those major obstacles that compel us to challenge, build, and ultimately transform who we are.

Ask any successful (or generally happy) adult, and they will tell you that they owe their success and happiness to the adversities they have had to overcome. The same goes for society at large: social and economic progress result from tons of really not fun sacrifice by millions of individuals. To oppose the unwanted in principle is therefore to oppose growth.

It’s unfortunate that William’s (relatively small) misunderstanding of my view has led to this kind of disagreement. I have nothing against people suffering (I can’t wait for people to take that out of context!) and I agree with William that suffering can be a process by which we learn and grow as individuals.

If I really thought work should be abolished principally because it encouraged suffering on an unnecessary scale then perhaps a “principled” objection would apply more widely than I originally intended. But luckily, my argument against work isn’t limited to the fact that it imposes unnecessary costs to us.

Which is part of something I’d want to say even if my conception of work was tantamount to the one William has given here. Work often gives us suffering in unnecessary ways and while it’s true that suffering can help us develop our character it’s also true that the type of suffering matters. If the suffering we receive feels pointless, cruel and completely out of our hands, then how much can we grow as people in the long-run?

I think the type of suffering matters in a given society. It isn’t that work merely gives us “adversities” but that it forcibly puts us into situations we’d rather not be in, all the while we’re hating the process of being there because it undermines our goals, desires and person. This isn’t a type of suffering that I’d want to encourage (even minimally) in any society and I’m puzzled at how keeping it would be a good thing.

William says that large-scale progress has to come from non-fun sacrifice by millions of people but I think that’s what capitalism relies on. I don’t think we need that for economic systems as a rule, only when those systems are designed to benefit those at the top, like state-capitalism has throughout history.

The trouble here is that William is letting the history of the dominant economic systems (you know, the systems he and I both oppose, I assume) tell the story of other and more free economies before they even have a chance to get started. I don’t really want an individualist/mutualist society that crucially depends on the sacrifice of millions and their individual interests and desires in crucial ways.

When I say “crucial” ways I’m implicitly allowing that any system of human relations is likely to undermine our individuality in some sense. But it’s also the case that not all forms of individual devaluation is a bad thing. Sometimes these things can make you a better person, as William is suggesting. I just disagree that those types of relations to activities should be the mainstay of any economy worthy of the anarchist monkier as is the case under state-capitalism.

Otherwise, I don’t disagree with William’s point(s) about the value of suffering being bounded. I also don’t disagree on the difference between something that’s simply suffering on a character building level and suffering that comes from things like institutional bigotry that rely on violence and dehumanization. That said, doesn’t work in its modern form revolves around violence and dehumanization? If so I’m not sure why work would be exempt from William’s analysis.

III Concluding Thoughts and Questions for William

There’s a footnote at the end about automation I want to comment on before I wrap this up:

1  If they don’t, we have a bigger problem on our hands: our “tools” are autonomously in charge of everything, which means humanity is now a petting zoo for robots.

This puzzled me and it’s a slightly different conversation, perhaps but at the same time it’s a big claim to make about technology and our relation to it, especially in such a small space. If technology is largely automated and doesn’t require our input than I don’t see how this inherently reduces our autonomy in any meaningful way. It would reduce the amount of interaction we might have with certain parts of the economy and our lives but we can always create new ones.

In fact, I don’t see why people wouldn’t create sectors of the economy where they’re able to engage in autonomous labor with or without robots. Maybe it’ll revolve around art, certain sorts of cooking, building or whatever individuals want to do for a challenge, for fun, for pleasure, for play and to make their lives more meaningful.

And even this sort of society reduced our autonomy in some meaningful way, why would it reduce us to zoo animals of all things? I don’t understand William’s train of thought here so it’s difficult to criticize it at length here.

Also, William seems to be forgetting about transhumanism. If we’re able to fuse our minds and bodies with automated technology then it seems less likely that we’ll lose much autonomy in the process. If anything we’d gain autonomy by having enhanced abilities, eliminating aging and death, etc.

My main question for William, now that I feel like I’ve answered his criticisms in a much more substantial way: What’s the alternative? If anti-work isn’t the answer, what does William see as the next-best thing? There are some other questions I’ve asked throughout these two responses but I think that’s my main question. William doesn’t even give us a sketch of a possible alternative to anti-work, if that’s not the answer. So I’m curious what his own solution looks like.

Overall, William’s criticisms are probably some of the most interesting and solid criticisms I’ve gotten, but they also tend to fail at illustrating substantive problems. They fail to either make anti-work less attractive in any particular way or rely on misunderstandings of the anti-work position (which, again, I admit partial responsibility for).

That being the case, I still advocate anti-work and feel it’s the best way forward.

Certainly for the dreamers, if no one else!

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