against work


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The well-read Red has been reading about working and about not working.

With unemployment rates in the US hovering around 16 percent, we might take to heart comments from French activists  protesting changes in unemployment law some years ago. Taking a page from the Situationists, they protested that

The best way to abolish unemployment is to abolish the work and the money that are linked with it.

It is both morally and strategically justified to make particular demands, such as for higher unemployment benefits or free public services. But a social movement should not limit itself to such demands. To do so amounts to asking for justice from the very forces that are based on injustice.

It's absurd to demand the "creation of jobs." Enough riches already exist to take care of everyone's basic needs; they only need to be shared around. . . . We don't want "full employment," we want full lives!

Audre Lorde, in her essay "Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power," suggests that

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need--the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.

It's no wonder that the system of wage slavery has over the years led some to call for the abolition of work, the refusal of work, the right to be lazy. Slackers and idlers, artists and anarcho-punks, those living on unemployment and those living with voluntary simplicity: we might see them all as resisting the mystification of wage slavery and the glorification of work.

Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law-of Karl Marx, argued for "The Right to Be Lazy." He asserts, in the essay of that title, that the "dangerous delusion" of the "love of work" brings "the . . . woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity" under capitalism. "Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work." But "If . . . the working class were to arise. . . . not to demand the Right to Work but to forge a brazen law forbidding any [one] to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her." Lafargue concludes, "O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!"

And Bertrand Russell similarly argues in his 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness," that "a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work."

In his discussion of the Italian Autonomist movement, Franco Berardi notes that

Refusal of work . . . . means that . . . the general transformation of social institutions are produced by the daily action of withdrawal from exploitation, of rejection of the obligation to produce surplus value, and to increase the value of capital, reducing the value of life. . . . Autonomy is the independence of social time from the temporality of capitalism.

Bob Black, in his essay on "The Abolition of Work" asserts that "No one should ever work. . . . Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working." Black defines "work" quite specifically as "compulsory production, enforced by economic or political means."

But as Neala Schleuning observes in her essay on "The Abolition of Work and Other Myths," there are forms of work that are necessary without being compelled of individuals by chattel slavery or wage slavery, and the refusal of work is not itself a full solution to the problems of capitalism and exploitation. She writes, "Demanding the right to be lazy or refusing to work is a position of resistance only.. . . It is a politics. . . " probably most available to the "young and strong and healthy who have no responsibilities (or who think they have no responsibilities) for the care of others." She notes that

By its very nature, work requires a long term commitment. Much of the work to be done in any society is not a matter of choice. . . . seeds must be planted and tended, . . . food gathered, stored. . ., prepared, and cooked…; fuel and shelter must be arranged for cooling and warmth; children must be tended, people must be healed, clothed. In much of the world, most of this work is done by women. . . . Moreover, if we remain committed to our modern, . . . urban/industrial societies, . . . a vast infrastructure must be maintained and work must remain highly coordinated…. Streets and sidewalks must be repaired, garbage must be removed, water must be brought to people, and waste must be carried away and processed in environmentally safe ways. The …. heat, water, electricity and telephone must be maintained. "Someone" must do all this work - co-operatively, individually, by lot, by coercion - the work must be done.

But as she admits, we can certainly "organize our work in a more meaningful way."

As Audre Lorde suggested, the possibility of reclaiming the erotic value of at least some of our work, possibility of meaningful work on the margins and in the interstices of capitalism, the possibility of "erotically satisfying experience, whether it is dancing, building a bookcase, writing a poem, examining an idea. . . . can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world."

Or as the heirs of the situationists put it, Whether we are workers, students or unemployed, what we all really need is the space and time to meet, to share dreams, to recreate our lives. We should demand [not full employment, but full enjoyment!]


For the Old Mole Variety Hour, February 15, 2010.