Continuing a reflection that began with our last post on David Graeber’s criticism of “bullshit jobs” (and with an earlier series of articles posted under the collective title “Against labour, against capital“), we share below an article that was originally published in Green Anarchy (Spring 2013) by Jeffery Shantz, entitled “Reflections on the end of work”, and which was also more recently posted on the Anarchist Library.
(The Anarchist Library has taken the initiative of publishing a series of articles from the old magazine Green Anarchy (2001-2008). A full archive of the magazine can be found here).
Work: The Theft of Life
“What is the bombing of a judge, the kidnapping of an industrialist, the hanging of a politician, the shooting of a cop, the looting of a supermarket, the burning of a commissioner’s office, the stoning of a journalist, the heckling of an intellectual, the thrashing of an artist, in the face of the deadly alienation of our existence, the much too early sound of the alarm clock, the traffic jam on the expressway, the goods for sale lined up on the shelves?”
The alarm clock disrupts your sleep again — as always, much too early. You drag yourself from the warmth of your bed to the bathroom for a shower, a shave and a shit, then run down to the kitchen where you wash down a pastry or, if you have the time, some toast and eggs with a cup of coffee. Then you rush out the door to battle traffic jams or crowds in the subway until you arrive… at work, where your day is spent in tasks not of your choosing, in compulsory association with others involved in related tasks, the primary aim of which is the continued reproduction of the social relationships that constrain you to survive in this manner.
But this is not all. In compensation, you receive a wage, a sum of money that (after paying rent and bills) you must take out to shopping centers to buy food, clothes, various necessities and entertainment. Though this is considered your “free time” as opposed to “work time”, it too is compulsory activity that only secondarily guarantees your survival, its primary purpose again being to reproduce the current social order. And for most people, moments free of these constraints are fewer and fewer.
According to the ruling ideology of this society, this existence is the result of a social contract between equals — equals before the law that is. The worker, it is said, contracts to sell her labor to the boss for a mutually agreed upon wage. But can a contract be considered free and equal when one side holds all the power?
If we look at this contract more closely, it becomes clear that it is no contract at all, but the most extreme and violent extortion. This is currently exposed most blatantly at the margins of capitalist society where people who have lived for centuries (or, in some cases, millennia) on their own terms find their capacity to determine the conditions of their existence ripped away by the bulldozers, chainsaws, mining equipment and so on of the world’s rulers. But it is a process that has been going on for centuries, a process involving blatant, large-scale theft of land and life sanctioned and carried out by the ruling class. Bereft of the means for determining the conditions of their own existence, the exploited cannot be said, in honesty, to be contracting freely and equally with their exploiters. It is clearly a case of blackmail.
And what are the terms of this blackmail? The exploited are forced to sell the time of their life to their exploiters in exchange for survival. And this is the real tragedy of work. The social order of work is based on the imposed opposition between life and survival. The question of how one will get by suppresses that of how one wants to live, and in time this all seems natural and one narrows one’s dreams and desires to the things that money can buy.
However, the conditions of the world of work do not just apply to those with jobs. One can easily see how the unemployed searching for a job from fear of homelessness and hunger is caught up in the world of work. But the same holds for the recipient of state aid whose survival depends on the existence of the assistance bureaucracy… and even for those for whom the avoidance of getting a job has become such a priority that one’s decisions come to center around scams, shoplifting, dumpster diving — all the various ways to get by without a job. In other words, activities that could be fine means for supporting a life project become ends in themselves, making mere survival one’s life project. How, really, does his differ from a job?
But what is the real basis of the power behind this extortion that is the world of work? Of course, there are laws and courts, police and military forces, fines and prisons, the fear of hunger and homelessness — all very real and significant aspects of domination. But even the state’s force of arms can only succeed in carrying out its task because people submit. And here is the real basis of all domination — the submission of the slaves, their decision to accept the security of known misery and servitude rather than risk the unknown of freedom, their willingness to accept a guaranteed but colorless survival in exchange for the possibility of truly living that offers no guarantees.
So in order to put an end to one’s slavery, to move beyond the limits of merely getting by, it is necessary to make a decision to refuse to submit; it is necessary to begin to reappropriate one’s life here and now. Such a project inevitably places one in conflict with the entire social order of work; so the project of reappropriating one’s existence must also be the project of destroying work. To clarify, when I say “work”, I do not mean the activity by which one creates the means of one’s existence (which ideally would never be separate from simply living) but rather a social relationship that transforms this activity into a sphere separate from one’s life and places it in the service of the ruling order so that the activity, in fact, ceases to have any direct relationship to the creation of one’s existence, but rather only maintains it in the realm of mere survival (at whatever level of consumption) through a series of mediations of which property, money and commodity exchange are among the most significant. This is the world in we must destroy in the process of taking back our lives, and the necessity of this destruction makes the project of the reappropriation of our lives one with the projects of insurrection and social revolution.
From Willful Disobedience (Volume 3, number 1)
Reflections on the End of Work
The meaning of work is once again on the agenda and gaining increasing relevance for contemporary struggles. Within movements such as ecology, work is being examined from novel and challenging perspectives and with a growing sense of urgency. Beyond prior theoretical understandings, either as the basis for identity (as in classical Marxism) or, conversely, as being of no relevance to social transformation, the category “jobs” is (re)opened as a crucial site of struggle. “What about work?” is returning as a key question for transformative politics at the turn of the millennium.
There are perhaps two principal, but very different, impulses for an emergent critique of work: firstly, the anti-productivist visions of social relations coming from social movements — most significantly ecology — which have encouraged a rethinking of the character of work; and secondly the cybernetized restructuring of global capital with its jobless recovery and institutionalized levels of unemployment. The first impulse tends towards radical and critical approaches to the decline or end of jobs, while the second is commonly reflected in expressions of anxiety, desperation and political reaction.
Numerous authors (Polanyi, 1958; Black, 1995; Bridges, 1995) have discussed the historic emergence of “jobs” — meaning “to work for wages” — as something distinguished from the performance of work — specific tasks engaged to meet direct needs. This transformation was closely related to enclosure of common lands and the separation of home life and work life as people left villages to work in the factories of the cities. Through industrialism work became transformed into jobs. The new job-work gradually contributed to the destruction of traditional social relations and served to undermine prior ways of living. The job is a social artifact, although it is so deeply embedded in our consciousness that most of us have forgotten its artificiality or the fact that most societies since the beginning of time have done fine without jobs.
According to futurists such as Bridges, we have recently entered a new period signaled by further transformations in what is to be meant by jobs. “Now, once again, we have come to a turning point at which the assumptions about living and working that people had grown comfortable with are being challenged” (Bridges, 1995:45). Fellow Nostradamian Jeremy Rifkin argues that the global economy is in the midst of a transformation as significant as the Industrial Revolution. He suggests that we have entered a “new economic era ”marked by a declining need for “mass human labor”. As computers, robots and telecommunications networks and other cybernetic technologies replace human workers in an increasing range of activities we have entered the early stages of a shift from “mass labor” to highly skilled “elite” labor accompanied by increasing automation in the production of goods and the delivery of services” (Rifkin, 1995).
Bridges suggests that changes in technology and the global market have transformed work relations in such a manner as to suggest the disappearance of the very category “job”. Cybernetization of capital has provided a context in which it is not unreasonable for workers to expect that their jobs will be eliminated. Bridges also suggests that each increase in productivity seems to make jobs redundant.
Corresponding to this may be a shift in peoples’ perceptions of work. More and more, people are “searching for alternatives to jobs and job descriptions” (Bridges, 1995: 46). Rifkin suggests that the “jobs” question is “likely to be the most explosive issue of the [present] decade”.
More interesting than the futurists are those calling for the outright abolition of work in its job form. Recognizing that the category “job” signifies a dependency relationship disguised as independence (the “freedom” to consume), work abolitionists call for workers of the world to relax in a gleeful rejection of the leftist mantra of full employment (Black, 1995). The abolitionist appeal is not a project for further integration of the working classes through preservation of jobs at all costs and over-reliance upon parliamentary mediation towards that end. Rather it expresses traditionally anarchic or libertarian sensibilities which journey beyond the reductionist contortion which has seen work come to be equated with jobs. This unconventional approach is made manifest primarily through emphases on creativity, self-determination and conviviality of relations. The category “jobs” is understood as marking a restriction of peoples’ capacities to care for themselves and those within their communal/ecological groupings and is therefore rejected as a point for a radical activist convergence.
Work abolitionism suggests a movement not “of class” but rather “against class”, i.e., against the commodification of creativity and performance. Jobs or employment within the “anti-class” milieu refer to the idea that one must sell oneself to any function in order to receive sustenance, i.e., the imperative of wage labor. The category “jobs” speaks to the compulsory character of involvement in production — production enforced via relations of economic and political control and power. Questions of what one is doing are removed given this construction, of course. Work is no longer done for its own sake but for secondary effects, such as wages, which are not characteristic of or inherent to the work itself. It might be said that jobs form a condensation point for complex relations of power around the trading of time for money, or what Zimpel, quite poignantly, refers to as “a transaction of existential absurdity”.
Jobs, as characterized by an extension of organizational control over people as workers signify a system of domination practiced through forms of discipline which include surveillance and time-management. The regimentation and discipline of the job serves to habituate workers to hierarchy and obedience while also discouraging insubordination and autonomy. Jobs as regimented roles replace direct, creative participation and initiative through arrangements of subservience. Bob Black argues that employment is capital’s primary and most direct coercive formation, one which is experienced daily.
Anti-work themes are not new, of course. They find antecedents in Fourier, Lafargue, and even (especially?) in Marx’s critique of alienated labor. For radical abolitionists, (see Negri, 1984) the liquidation of wage labor is not a given; it is a question of political struggle.
Here a convergence between anti-work theorizing and the analyses developed within autonomist Marxism are particularly interesting. Drawing from Marx’s analysis of automation within a wage system, autonomist Marxists have argued that the Cybernetization of capital will not usher in a leisure society (who would want it anyway?) but would instead encourage an enlargement of the realm of work as labor displaced from primary and secondary industry becomes reabsorbed by the tertiary, quaternary, or quinary sectors as farther and farther flung domains of human activity are assimilated within the social factory. Cybernetized capital, through the commodification of expanded and novel realms of human activity, can maintain wage labor, incessantly recreating its proletariat, unless it is forcibly interrupted by the organized efforts of workers to reclaim their “life-time”.
Projects of both the left and the right, however, have maintained an almost devotional commitment to employment and job creation as social goals. Differences only emerge over details, such as wages, hours, or profitability. Until recently there had been little debate around the future of work and radical responses to the Cybernetization of production.
While most activists — feminists, civil rights, labor — have sought increased participation in the job market, some greens have begun to question participation itself. Perhaps more than other activists, abolitionists have increasingly come to understand jobs, under the guise of work, as perhaps the most basic form of unfreedom, one which must be overcome in any quest towards liberty. Too often, previously, the common response has been one of turning away from workers and questions relating to organization of working relations. Radical politics can no longer ignore those questions which are posed by the presence of jobs, however. Indeed it might be said that a return to the problematic of jobs becomes the starting point reformulation of radicalism, at least along green lines.
So, what forms has the organization of “workers-against-work” taken? Earlier Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) demands for a four-hour-day may be understood as an expression of opposition to the extension of capitalist control over labor and the reduction of workers to one-dimensional class beings. They suggest a movement for autonomy wherein labor achieves some distance from capital and the extension of control over creativity. The shortened workday might be best understood as the opening of creative time, outside of capitalist discipline and command, and the expansion of time available for such “frivolous” undertakings as bringing about the end of industrial capitalism. In limiting the duration and intensity of the work day, labor asserts its own project counter to that of capital.
The mythic use of the general strike by Wobblies might also be understood in this manner. Anarcho-syndicalists have long argued that for co-operative, community-based ways of living to endure workers will have to stop producing for Capital and State. Given current political economy, this implies that workers must stop producing, period! In other words, class is only abolished through not working — a general strike. Through the general withdrawal of labor might the megamachine be ground to a halt and left to rust!
Historically, unions had responded to technological changes and increases to productivity with demands for a shortened work-week. However, Rifkin reports that the union officials with whom he has spoken are “universally reluctant to deal with the notion that mass labor — the very basis of trade unionism — will continue to decline and may even disappear altogether.” Mainstream unionists have been incapable of any radical rethinking of their politics which might address the crucial transformation in jobs. Such failures to adapt, or even to remember their own radical histories, speak to the difficulties facing workers within traditional unions in the contemporary context.
Rifkin — while not discussing specifically the ecological significance of a shortened work-week — recognizes that such a shortening could serve as a rallying point for a powerful convergence of social struggles. Rifkin’s analysis remains productivist (among other things undesirable), however — even arguing that a shortened work-week could be beneficial for capital in allowing for a doubling or tripling of productivity! Rifkin never questions the legitimacy or the desirability of capitalist relations. Indeed a major reason for concern over “vanishing jobs” is that the transformation threatens a capitalist collapse through a weakening of consumer demand. Rifkin’s main desire is to see an increase in the “purchasing power” of workers so that “[e]employers, workers, the economy, and the government all benefit”.
Like sociological “structural-functionalists” of old, Rifkin’s primary concern is with the possibility of “strain” in the system and the alleviation of any such strain. Rifkin (1995b) worries that the decline of jobs could threaten the foundations of the modern state (Yikes!) through the destabilizing impact upon social relations which previously rested upon a shared valuing of labor — what he calls the heart of the social contract. Rifkin even fears that the crisis in jobs will open the door to renewed militancy and to extralegal expressions of politics (Oh, horror!).
In like fashion, Bridges’ optimism over possibilities for the transformation of jobs speaks only to the strata of well-skilled, well-paid workers in an increasingly polarized workforce. The conclusions drawn by Bridges never question the hegemony of capital in structuring possible responses to the “death of the job”, leaving the “employee” as an intact category facing such unsatisfactory and increasingly tenuous options as freelance work, part-time work, or piecework. The decline of the job simply comes to mean that those who are working have more work to do. Even limited concerns over what is being produced, how, by whom and for what purpose never appear on the horizon of Bridges schema. Neither do questions regarding what happens to those newly “liberated” — the jobless.
Among abolitionists, the “end of work” suggests much more intriguing possibilities. Far from being irrational responses to serious social transformations, workplace rebellion and workers’ self-determination become ever more reasonable responses to the uncertainty and contingency of emerging conditions of (un)employment. They offer worker and community self-determination as alternatives to neo-liberal perspectives on unemployment. Such alternatives provide an articulation of the end of work which emphasizes workers actively overcoming their own workerness, against pessimistic or cynical responses such as mass retraining which simply reinforces dependence upon elites.
An objection might well be raised that abolitionism need not imply a transformation of capitalism; after all, the “abolition of work” is a reference also employed by some neo-liberal post-industrial theorists. There, however, the abolition of work is understood as completely realizable under capitalism. The possible end of work is conceptualized as coming from the application of innovative technological resources within capitalist relations — not as a destruction of those relations. At its most dramatic, it implies a leisure society enabled through the development of artificial intelligence and robotics.
These are not acceptable alternatives. It is not conceivable how any ecological lifestyles could be constituted otherwise than with the outright cessation of capitalist production. Only the end of production can necessarily imply the end of nuclearism, weapons production, clear-cutting, toxic waste products — the varieties of harmful applications to which nature is commonly subjected (again, Black states this most effectively). Among the prerequisites for ecological change is a reduction both in the amount of work being done and in the character of what is done. Much of work, involving massive appropriation of natural elements, is useless. That includes the defense and reproduction of work relations in political (ownership and control) and economic (circulation and consumption) forms.
Abolitionists envision work being performed through direct, democratic, participatory means within which work is conceived more as craft or play. Growing concerns over the regimentation and alienation of working conditions along with the fatal ecological consequences have contributed to the emergence of anti-technology/anti-civilization (anti-tech/ anti-civ) discourses arguing quite persuasively that humans must abandon not only industry and technology, but civilization itself.
Abolitionist visions are raised against the undermining influences of work in contemporary conditions of globalism. They offer but one, though perhaps the most interesting, contribution to the problem of jobs and to the refusal of authoritarian and coercive social relations.
Black, Bob. 1995. The Abolition of Work and Other Essays. Port Townshend: Loompanics Unlimited
Bridges, William. 1995. “The Death of the Job.” The National Times September: 44-48
Negri, Antonio. 1991. Marx Beyond Marx. New York: Autonomedia
Polanyi, Karl. 1958. The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press
Rifkin, Jeremy. 1995a. The End of Work. New York: G.P. Putnamís Sons.
Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin
Witheford, Nick. 1994. “Autonomist Marxism and the Information Society.” Capital and Class 52 (Spring): 85-125
Zimpel, Lloyd (Ed.). 1974. Man Against Work. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
The Green Anarchy Collective also highly recommends to our readers the excellent article, “Work: The Theft Of Life”, (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/various-authors-willful-disobedience-volume-3-number-1#toc3) which appeared in the insurrectionary anarchist journal Willful Disobedience, Volume 3, Number 1 (available for two dollars from PO Box 31098 Los Angeles, CA 90031)