An End to Work

This is a section of a larger essay I wrote on anarchist economics, I won’t bore anyone with the full essay but this section I think is particularly exciting. I promise I won’t define work/inclined labor/productive play/frivolity in every essay I write.

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The question of “abolishing work”, “the right not to work”, and “full automation” are popular ones in leftist circles lately, or at least mildly popular; from demands for universal basic income and full automation to so-called “primitivists” demanding the destruction of industrial production altogether, the range of answers to the “what”, “why”, and “how” of abolishing work is extensive and often incoherent. But I believe there is value to the concept of eliminating work from society and keeping it as a goal of the way we should choose to structure our economy in the future. The first leftist rage against work that I’m aware of came from the Marxist Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law, interestingly enough) in his work The Right to be Lazy, in which he says “the Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labor: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind…The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods.”[i] Later condemnations of work came from Bertrand Russell (In Praise of Idleness) and the Situationists. One of the most influential pieces on work is The Abolition of Work by post-left anarchist Bob Black, in which he declares “no one should ever work”.[ii]

So what is this “work” that everyone’s getting so mad about, and what separates it from other forms of human activity? To me, there are two kinds of human activity relevant to these questions: labor and play. And within those there are two kinds of each activity. The two kinds of labor (at least for our purposes here) are inclined labor and work. The two kinds of play (again, for this purpose) are productive and frivolous. The difference between labor and play is a difference in the motivation for taking part in the activity: labor is outcome-oriented, while play is process-oriented. This is not to say that certain things can’t have both a desirable process and a desirable outcome (it would be excellent if all things could have both), or that the lines between the two aren’t blurred, but drawing the line somewhere helps smooth the analysis along. So while labor is undertaken because of something you get out of it, play is undertaken for the experience of the undertaking.

What I call “inclined labor” is labor which one feels an inclination to do (seems simple enough). Labor which is enjoyable to the one doing it, even if it may be strenuous or difficult, and performed voluntarily. Labor such as helping a friend move their furniture, woodworking, cooking for other people, and the vast quantity of volunteer work that gets done are all inclined labor; often one’s “work” is even inclined labor at times. Which brings me to work, which is involuntary labor, or labor done under either threat of force or promise of privilege (this “privilege” is usually predicated on the notion that being able to feed, clothe, and house yourself is a “privilege”). Even if one doesn’t agree that this is a proper definition of “work”, it shouldn’t be too hard to agree that what I describe as “work” is an injustice. In his piece Does Work Undermine Our Freedom?, John Danaher summarizes Julia Maskivker’s argument against work in the following:

  1. If a phenomenon undermines our freedom, then it is fundamentally unjust and we should seek to minimise or constrain it.
  2. A phenomenon undermines our freedom if: (a) it limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) it limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and/or (c) it involves exploitative/coercive offers.
  3. Work, in modern society, (a) limits our ability to choose how to make use of our time; (b) limits our ability to be the authors of our own lives; and (c) involves an exploitative/coercive offer.
  4. Therefore, work undermines our freedom.
  5. Therefore, work is fundamentally unjust and should be minimised or constrained.[iii]

On the other hand, there is play, the process-oriented form of human activity, which can either be productive (producing goods necessary for or complementary to life) or frivolous (not producing anything but still good fun). Some modern examples of productive play could be gardening, fishing, or painting. Very often the lines between inclined labor and productive play are blurred because there are some activities in which the process and the outcome are both wonderful things which people desire.

The idea of supplanting work, which produces clothes, cars, and medical supplies, with productive play and inclined labor, which generally do not produce those things, may seem a little silly at best. However, there are various solutions to get around the problem of reaching the productive capacity necessary to sustain life while minimizing work. The first one would be the elimination of what David Graeber so eloquently calls “bullshit jobs”[iv]. These are jobs which don’t produce anything, but instead what he calls the “administrative sector”, which the rise of has led to “the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.” Graeber goes on to say “it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” He says that the issue lies not in economics, but in the social and political realm. The purely economical thing for a corporation to do would be to reduce the number of jobs people do so they can cut down on costs, but Graeber claims that the ruling classes have found that a happy population with lots of free time is a horrific danger to the status quo (Murray Bookchin noticed this same trend in the 1960s in Post-Scarcity Anarchism[v]).

So a significant portion of work can be eliminated because it really isn’t productive, or even what it produces is destructive, but what about the rest of it? Some people are in favor of “full automation”[vi], but to me the idea of completely automating production, while not a bad goal, is a far-off dream (though perhaps not as far off as some believe), especially if we want to maintain an ecological balance and not make what damage we’ve already done to the environment worse. However, even if technology can’t eliminate human labor from the productive process completely, it can fundamentally change the process itself. This is an idea Bookchin brings up in his writings on technology and labor (Bookchin was never “anti-work”, but semantics are basically what separates his ideas from mine here), he believed that we could use technology to eliminate the most onerous parts of the productive process, leaving only the creative, enjoyable, fulfilling parts to humans[vii]. I say we should take it one step further, and even if we can’t fully-automate the tasks which are now difficult and onerous, we can however use technics to redesign the process by which human labor is utilized in production, such that what is now work can become inclined labor or productive play.

The formation of cooperatives for producing and distributing goods in this manner could potentially make enough for people to live well, free from work in the way we know it now. And control over production and distribution by municipal assemblies would allow and in fact make such a formation almost inevitable, as the face-to-face communication of needs, desires, and abilities would blur the lines between producer and consumer and allow people to know their community members’ needs and abilities better. And while such an arrangement isn’t yet possible or in use, having the economy under the control of the general public in such a manner creates a system in which people are no longer competing with each other for resources or privileges (such as employment over unemployment), and therefore have an incentive to eliminate unnecessary labor and create a society in which everyone can contribute in ways that are enjoyable and fulfilling to them. There will be an incentive to make life as enjoyable as possible, rather than simply accept the fate of toil at worst and boredom at best that we are subjected to and cannot change now. What I have proposed here is nothing more than the most libertarian interpretation of the first half of Marx’s famous description of communism, “from each according to his ability”.[viii]

[i] Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue /1883/lazy/index.htm

[ii] Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work”, in Instead of Work (LBC Books, 2015). 1-31. Or see http://deoxy.org/endwork.htm

[iii] John Danaher, “Does Work Undermine Our Freedom?”, in Abolish Work: A Lazy Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia ed. Nick Ford (LBC Books, 2016). 117-118.

[iv] See David Graeber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, https://libcom.org/library/phenomenon-bullshit-jobs-david-graeber

[v] See Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland: AK Press, 2004).

[vi] See Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso Books, 2015).

[vii] See Murray Bookchin “Towards a Liberatory Technology”, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism. 41-84.

[viii] For an intelligent and humorous discussion on the concept of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, you can listen to episode 81 of The Srsly Wrong Podcast at http://srslywrong.com/podcast/ep-81-from-each-according-to-their-ability-to-each-according-to-their-need/ They also have multiple episodes which discuss work and its abolition.

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