Bob Black’s The Abolition of Work

[ Bob Black wrote this article 23 years ago and it remains one of my favorite antidotes to our work-obsessed culture.  You can find more of his writings here, there and elsewhere on the web.  This version was copied from one of the various version’s out there.  Enjoy! ]

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.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop doing things. It does mean creating a
new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic conviviality,
commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s
play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in
generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance. Play isn’t
passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and
slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but
once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want
to act. Oblomovism and Stakhanovism are two sides of the same debased
coin.

The ludic life is totally incompatible with existing reality. So much
the worse for “reality,” the gravity hole that sucks the vitality from
the little in life that still distinguishes it from mere survival.
Curiously — or maybe not — all the old ideologies are conservative
because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most
brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they
believe in so little else.

Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should
end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following
Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be
lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists — except
that I’m not kidding — I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists
agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry. But
if all the ideologues (as they do) advocate work — and not only because
they plan to make other people do theirs — they are strangely reluctant
to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working
conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly
talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our
thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its
saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over
the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time
of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the
price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians
think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which
form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these
ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the
spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to
power as such and all of them want to keep us working.

You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and
serious. To be ludic is not to be ludicrous. Play doesn’t have to be
frivolous, although frivolity isn’t triviality: very often we ought to
take frivolity seriously. I’d like life to be a game — but a game with
high stakes. I want to play for keeps.

The alternative to work isn’t just idleness. To be ludic is not to be
quaaludic. As much as I treasure the pleasure of torpor, it’s never
more rewarding than when it punctuates other pleasures and pastimes.
Nor am I promoting the managed time-disciplined safety-valve called
“leisure”; far from it. Leisure is nonwork for the sake of work.
Leisure is the time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but
hopeless attempt to forget about work. Many people return from vacation
so beat that they look forward to returning to work so they can rest up.
The main difference between work and leisure is that work at least you
get paid for your alienation and enervation.

I am not playing definitional games with anybody. When I say I want to
abolish work, I mean just what I say, but I want to say what I mean by
defining my terms in non-idiosyncratic ways. My minimum definition of
work is forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements
are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political
means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by
other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its
own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the
worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what
work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it. But work is
usually even worse than its definition decrees. The dynamic of
domination intrinsic to work tends over time toward elaboration. In
advanced work-riddled societies, including all industrial societies
whether capitalist of “Communist,” work invariably acquires other
attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness.

Usually — and this is even more true in “Communist” than capitalist
countries, where the state is almost the only employer and everyone is
an employee — work is employment, i. e., wage-labor, which means
selling yourself on the installment plan. Thus 95% of Americans who
work, work for somebody (or something) else. In the USSR or Cuba or
Yugoslavia or any other alternative model which might be adduced, the
corresponding figure approaches 100%. Only the embattled Third World
peasant bastions — Mexico, India, Brazil, Turkey — temporarily
shelter significant concentrations of agriculturists who perpetuate the
traditional arrangement of most laborers in the last several millenia,
the payment of taxes (= ransom) to the state or rent to parasitic
landlords in return for being otherwise left alone. Even this raw deal
is beginning to look good. All industrial (and office) workers are
employees and under the sort of surveillance which ensures servility.

But modern work has worse implications. People don’t just work, they
have “jobs.” One person does one productive task all the time on an
or-else basis. Even if the task has a quantum of intrinsic interest (as
increasingly many jobs don’t) the monotony of its obligatory exclusivity
drains its ludic potential. A “job” that might engage the energies of
some people, for a reasonably limited time, for the fun of it, is just a
burden on those who have to do it for forty hours a week with no say in
how it should be done, for the profit of owners who contribute nothing
to the project, and with no opportunity for sharing tasks or spreading
the work among those who actually have to do it. This is the real world
of work: a world of bureaucratic blundering, of sexual harassment and
discrimination, of bonehead bosses exploiting and scapegoating their
subordinates who — by any rational-technical criteria — should
be calling the shots. But capitalism in the real world subordinates the
rational maximization of productivity and profit to the exigencies of
organizational control.

The degradation which most workers experience on the job is the sum of
assorted indignities which can be denominated as “discipline.” Foucault
has complexified this phenomenon but it is simple enough. Discipline
consists of the totality of totalitarian controls at the workplace —
surveillance, rotework, imposed work tempos, production quotas,
punching -in and -out, etc. Discipline is what the factory and the
office and the store share with the prison and the school and the mental
hospital. It is something historically original and horrible. It was
beyond the capacities of such demonic dictators of yore as Nero and
Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible. For all their bad intentions they
just didn’t have the machinery to control their subjects as thoroughly
as modern despots do. Discipline is the distinctively diabolical modern
mode of control, it is an innovative intrusion which must be interdicted
at the earliest opportunity.

Such is “work.” Play is just the opposite. Play is always voluntary.
What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. This is axiomatic.
Bernie de Koven has defined play as the “suspension of consequences.”
This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The
point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean
play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous.
Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and
transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share
an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of
playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience
of the activity itself (whatever it is). Some otherwise attentive
students of play, like Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens), define it as
game-playing or following rules. I respect Huizinga’s erudition but
emphatically reject his constraints. There are many good games (chess,
baseball, Monopoly, bridge) which are rule-governed but there is much
more to play than game-playing. Conversation, sex, dancing, travel —
these practices aren’t rule-governed but they are surely play if
anything is. And rules can be played with at least as readily as
anything else.

Work makes a mockery of freedom. The official line is that we all have
rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like
we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders
or-else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under
regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smaller
details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are
answerable only to higher-ups, public or private. Either way, dissent
and disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the
authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing.

And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern
workplace. The liberals and conservatives and libertarians who lament
totalitarianism are phonies and hypocrites. There is more freedom in
any moderately deStalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary
American workplace. You find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline
in an office or factory as you do in a prison or monastery. In fact,
as Foucault and others have shown, prisons and factories came in at
about the same time, and their operators consciously borrowed from each
other’s control techniques. A worker is a part time slave. The boss
says when to show up, when to leave, and what to do in the meantime.
He tells you how much work to do and how fast. He is free to carry his
control to humiliating extremes, regulating, if he feels like it, the
clothes you wear or how often you go to the bathroom. With a few exceptions
he can fire you for any reason, or no reason. He has you spied on by
snitches and supervisors, he amasses a dossier on every employee. Talking
back is called “insubordination,” just as if a worker is a naughty child,
and it not only gets you fired, it disqualifies you for unemployment
compensation. Without necessarily endorsing it for them either, it is
noteworthy that children at home and in school receive much the same
treatment, justified in their case by their supposed immaturity. What
does this say about their parents and teachers who work?

The demeaning system of domination I’ve described rules over half the
waking hours of a majority of women and the vast majority of men for
decades, for most of their lifespans. For certain purposes it’s not
too misleading to call our system democracy or capitalism or — better
still — industrialism, but its real names are factory fascism and
office oligarchy. Anybody who says these people are “free” is lying or
stupid. You are what you do. If you do boring, stupid monotonous work,
chances are you’ll end up boring, stupid and monotonous. Work is a much
better explanation for the creeping cretinization all around us than
even such significant moronizing mechanisms as television and education.
People who are regimented all their lives, handed off to work from
school and bracketed by the family in the beginning and the nursing home
at the end, are habituated to heirarchy and psychologically enslaved.
Their aptitude for autonomy is so atrophied that their fear of freedom
is among their few rationally grounded phobias. Their obedience
training at work carries over into the families they start, thus
reproducing the system in more ways than one, and into politics, culture
and everything else. Once you drain the vitality from people at work,
they’ll likely submit to heirarchy and expertise in everything. They’re
used to it.

We are so close to the world of work that we can’t see what it does to
us. We have to rely on outside observers from other times or other
cultures to appreciate the extremity and the pathology of our present
position. There was a time in our own past when the “work ethic” would
have been incomprehensible, and perhaps Weber was on to something when
he tied its appearance to a religion, Calvinism, which if it emerged
today instead of four centuries ago would immediately and appropriately
be labeled a cult. Be that as it may, we have only to draw upon the
wisdom of antiquity to put work in perspective. The ancients saw work
for what it is, and their view prevailed, the Calvinist cranks
notwithstanding, until overthrown by industrialism — but not before
receiving the endorsement of its prophets.

Let’s pretend for a moment that work doesn’t turn people into stultified
submissives. Let’s pretend, in defiance of any plausible psychology
and the ideology of its boosters, that it has no effect on the formation
of character. And let’s pretend that work isn’t as boring and tiring
and humiliating as we all know it really is. Even then, work would still
make a mockery of all humanistic and democratic aspirations, just because
it usurps so much of our time. Socrates said that manual laborers make
bad friends and bad citizens because they have no time to fulfill the
responsibilities of friendship and citizenship. He was right. Because
of work, no matter what we do we keep looking at our watches. The only
thing “free” about so-called free time is that it doesn’t cost the boss
anything. Free time is mostly devoted to getting ready for work, going
to work, returning from work, and recovering from work. Free time is
a euphemism for the peculiar way labor as a factor of production not
only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace
but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance and repair.
Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewriters don’t do that.
But workers do. No wonder Edward G. Robinson in one of his gangster
movies exclaimed, “Work is for saps!”

Both Plato and Xenophon attribute to Socrates and obviously share with
him an awareness of the destructive effects of work on the worker as a
citizen and a human being. Herodotus identified contempt for work as an
attribute of the classical Greeks at the zenith of their culture. To
take only one Roman example, Cicero said that “whoever gives his labor
for money sells himself and puts himself in the rank of slaves.” His
candor is now rare, but contemporary primitive societies which we are
wont to look down upon have provided spokesmen who have enlightened
Western anthropologists. The Kapauku of West Irian, according to
Posposil, have a conception of balance in life and accordingly work only
every other day, the day of rest designed “to regain the lost power and
health.” Our ancestors, even as late as the eighteenth century when
they were far along the path to our present predicament, at least were
aware of what we have forgotten, the underside of industrialization.
Their religious devotion to “St. Monday” — thus establishing a de
facto
five-day week 150-200 years before its legal consecration — was
the despair of the earliest factory owners. They took a long time in
submitting to the tyranny of the bell, predecessor of the time clock.
In fact it was necessary for a generation or two to replace adult males
with women accustomed to obedience and children who could be molded to
fit industrial needs. Even the exploited peasants of the ancient
regime
wrested substantial time back from their landlord’s work.
According to Lafargue, a fourth of the French peasants’ calendar was
devoted to Sundays and holidays, and Chayanov’s figures from villages in
Czarist Russia — hardly a progressive society — likewise show a fourth
or fifth of peasants’ days devoted to repose. Controlling for
productivity, we are obviously far behind these backward societies. The
exploited muzhiks would wonder why any of us are working at all. So
should we.

To grasp the full enormity of our deterioration, however, consider the
earliest condition of humanity, without government or property, when
we wandered as hunter-gatherers. Hobbes surmised that life was then
nasty, brutish and short. Others assume that life was a desperate
unremitting struggle for subsistence, a war waged against a harsh Nature
with death and disaster awaiting the unlucky or anyone who was unequal
to the challenge of the struggle for existence. Actually, that was all
a projection of fears for the collapse of government authority over
communities unaccustomed to doing without it, like the England of Hobbes
during the Civil War. Hobbes’ compatriots had already encountered
alternative forms of society which illustrated other ways of life — in
North America, particularly — but already these were too remote from
their experience to be understandable. (The lower orders, closer to the
condition of the Indians, understood it better and often found it
attractive. Throughout the seventeenth century, English settlers
defected to Indian tribes or, captured in war, refused to return. But
the Indians no more defected to white settlements than Germans climb the
Berlin Wall from the west.) The “survival of the fittest” version —
the Thomas Huxley version — of Darwinism was a better account of
economic conditions in Victorian England than it was of natural
selection, as the anarchist Kropotkin showed in his book Mutual Aid,
A Factor of Evolution
. (Kropotkin was a scientist — a
geographer — who’d had ample involuntary opportunity for fieldwork
whilst exiled in Siberia: he knew what he was talking about.) Like most
social and political theory, the story Hobbes and his successors told
was really unacknowledged autobiography.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, surveying the data on contemporary
hunter-gatherers, exploded the Hobbesian myth in an article entitled
“The Original Affluent Society.” They work a lot less than we do, and
their work is hard to distinguish from what we regard as play. Sahlins
concluded that “hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and rather
than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure
abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per
capita per year than in any other condition of society.” They worked an
average of four hours a day, assuming they were “working” at all. Their
“labor,” as it appears to us, was skilled labor which exercised their
physical and intellectual capacities; unskilled labor on any large
scale, as Sahlins says, is impossible except under industrialism. Thus
it satisfied Friedrich Schiller’s definition of play, the only occasion
on which man realizes his complete humanity by giving full “play” to
both sides of his twofold nature, thinking and feeling. As he put it:
“The animal works when deprivation is the mainspring of its activity,
and it plays when the fullness of its strength is this mainspring,
when superabundant life is its own stimulus to activity.” (A modern
version — dubiously developmental — is Abraham Maslow’s counterposition
of “deficiency” and “growth” motivation.) Play and freedom are, as
regards production, coextensive. Even Marx, who belongs (for all his
good intentions) in the productivist pantheon, observed that “the realm
of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under
the compulsion of necessity and external utility is required.” He never
could quite bring himself to identify this happy circumstance as what
it is, the abolition of work — it’s rather anomalous, after all, to be
pro-worker and anti-work — but we can.

The aspiration to go backwards or forwards to a life without work is
evident in every serious social or cultural history of pre-industrial
Europe, among them M. Dorothy George’s England In Transition and
Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Also
pertinent is Daniel Bell’s essay, “Work and its Discontents,” the first
text, I believe, to refer to the “revolt against work” in so many words
and, had it been understood, an important correction to the complacency
ordinarily associated with the volume in which it was collected, The
End of Ideology
. Neither critics nor celebrants have noticed
that Bell’s end-of-ideology thesis signaled not the end of social
unrest but the beginning of a new, uncharted phase unconstrained and
uninformed by ideology. It was Seymour Lipset (in Political Man),
not Bell, who announced at the same time that “the fundamental problems
of the Industrial Revolution have been solved,” only a few years before
the post- or meta-industrial discontents of college students drove
Lipset from UC Berkeley to the relative (and temporary) tranquility of
Harvard.

As Bell notes, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, for all his
enthusiasm for the market and the division of labor, was more alert to
(and more honest about) the seamy side of work than Ayn Rand or the
Chicago economists or any of Smith’s modern epigones. As Smith
observed: “The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily
formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose life is spent in
performing a few simple operations… has no occasion to exert his
understanding… He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is
possible for a human creature to become.” Here, in a few blunt words,
is my critique of work. Bell, writing in 1956, the Golden Age of
Eisenhower imbecility and American self-satisfaction, identified the
unorganized, unorganizable malaise of the 1970’s and since, the one no
political tendency is able to harness, the one identified in HEW’s
report Work in America, the one which cannot be exploited and so
is ignored. That problem is the revolt against work. It does not
figure in any text by any laissez-faire economist — Milton Friedman,
Murray Rothbard, Richard Posner — because, in their terms, as they
used to say on Star Trek, “it does not compute.”

If these objections, informed by the love of liberty, fail to persuade
humanists of a utilitarian or even paternalist turn, there are others
which they cannot disregard. Work is hazardous to your health, to
borrow a book title. In fact, work is mass murder or genocide.
Directly or indirectly, work will kill most of the people who read these
words. Between 14,000 and 25,000 workers are killed annually in this
country on the job. Over two million are disabled. Twenty to
twenty-five million are injured every year. And these figures are based
on a very conservative estimation of what constitutes a work-related
injury. Thus they don’t count the half million cases of occupational
disease every year. I looked at one medical textbook on occupational
diseases which was 1,200 pages long. Even this barely scratches the
surface. The available statistics count the obvious cases like the
100,000 miners who have black lung disease, of whom 4,000 die every
year, a much higher fatality rate than for AIDS, for instance, which
gets so much media attention. This reflects the unvoiced assumption
that AIDS afflicts perverts who could control their depravity whereas
coal-mining is a sacrosanct activity beyond question. What the
statistics don’t show is that tens of millions of people have heir
lifespans shortened by work — which is all that homicide means, after
all. Consider the doctors who work themselves to death in their 50’s.
Consider all the other workaholics.

Even if you aren’t killed or crippled while actually working, you very
well might be while going to work, coming from work, looking for work,
or trying to forget about work. The vast majority of victims of the
automobile are either doing one of these work-obligatory activities or
else fall afoul of those who do them. To this augmented body-count
must be added the victims of auto-industrial pollution and work-induced
alcoholism and drug addiction. Both cancer and heart disease are modern
afflictions normally traceable, directly, or indirectly, to work.

Work, then, institutionalizes homicide as a way of life. People think
the Cambodians were crazy for exterminating themselves, but are we any
different? The Pol Pot regime at least had a vision, however blurred,
of an egalitarian society. We kill people in the six-figure range (at
least) in order to sell Big Macs and Cadillacs to the survivors. Our
forty or fifty thousand annual highway fatalities are victims, not
martyrs. They died for nothing — or rather, they died for work. But
work is nothing to die for.

Bad news for liberals: regulatory tinkering is useless in this
life-and-death context. The federal Occupational Safety and Health
Administration was designed to police the core part of the problem,
workplace safety. Even before Reagan and the Supreme Court stifled it,
OSHA was a farce. At previous and (by current standards) generous
Carter-era funding levels, a workplace could expect a random visit from
an OSHA inspector once every 46 years.

State control of the economy is no solution. Work is, if anything, more
dangerous in the state-socialist countries than it is here. Thousands
of Russian workers were killed or injured building the Moscow subway.
Stories reverberate about covered-up Soviet nuclear disasters which
make Times Beach and Three-Mile Island look like elementary-school
air-raid drills. On the other hand, deregulation, currently
fashionable, won’t help and will probably hurt. From a health and
safety standpoint, among others, work was at its worst in the days when
the economy most closely approximated laissez-faire.

Historians like Eugene Genovese have argued persuasively that — as
antebellum slavery apologists insisted — factory wage-workers in the
Northern American states and in Europe were worse off than Southern
plantation slaves. No rearrangement of relations among bureaucrats and
businessmen seems to make much difference at the point of production.
Serious enforcement of even the rather vague standards enforceable in
theory by OSHA would probably bring the economy to a standstill. The
enforcers apparently appreciate this, since they don’t even try to crack
down on most malefactors.

What I’ve said so far ought not to be controversial. Many workers are
fed up with work. There are high and rising rates of absenteeism,
turnover, employee theft and sabotage, wildcat strikes, and overall
goldbricking on the job. There may be some movement toward a conscious
and not just visceral rejection of work. And yet the prevalent feeling,
universal among bosses and their agents and also widespread among
workers themselves is that work itself is inevitable and necessary.

I disagree. It is now possible to abolish work and replace it, insofar
as it serves useful purposes, with a multitude of new kinds of free
activities. To abolish work requires going at it from two directions,
quantitative and qualitative. On the one hand, on the quantitative side,
we have to cut down massively on the amount of work being done. At present
most work is useless or worse and we should simply get rid of it. On
the other hand — and I think this is the crux of the matter and the
revolutionary new departure — we have to take what useful work remains
and transform it into a pleasing variety of game-like and craft-like
pastimes, indistinguishable from other pleasurable pastimes, except
that they happen to yield useful end-products. Surely that shouldn’t
make them less enticing to do. Then all the artificial barriers
of power and property could come down. Creation could become recreation.
And we could all stop being afraid of each other.

I don’t suggest that most work is salvageable in this way. But then
most work isn’t worth trying to save. Only a small and diminishing
fraction of work serves any useful purpose independent of the defense
and reproduction of the work-system and its political and legal
appendages. Twenty years ago, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that
just five percent of the work then being done — presumably the figure,
if accurate, is lower now — would satisfy our minimal needs for food,
clothing, and shelter. Theirs was only an educated guess but the main
point is quite clear: directly or indirectly, most work serves the
unproductive purposes of commerce or social control. Right off the bat
we can liberate tens of millions of salesmen, soldiers, managers, cops,
stockbrokers, clergymen, bankers, lawyers, teachers, landlords, security
guards, ad-men and everyone who works for them. There is a snowball
effect since every time you idle some bigshot you liberate his flunkeys
and underlings also. Thus the economy implodes.

Forty percent of the workforce are white-collar workers, most of whom
have some of the most tedious and idiotic jobs ever concocted. Entire
industries, insurance and banking and real estate for instance, consist
of nothing but useless paper-shuffling. It is no accident that the
“tertiary sector,” the service sector, is growing while the “secondary
sector” (industry) stagnates and the “primary sector” (agriculture)
nearly disappears. Because work is unnecessary except to those whose
power it secures, workers are shifted from relatively useful to
relatively useless occupations as a measure to assure public order.
Anything is better than nothing. That’s why you can’t go home just
because you finish early. They want your time, enough of it to make
you theirs, even if they have no use for most of it. Otherwise why
hasn’t the average work week gone down by more than a few minutes in the
past fifty years?

Next we can take a meat-cleaver to production work itself. No more war
production, nuclear power, junk food, feminine hygiene deodorant — and
above all, no more auto industry to speak of. An occasional Stanley
Steamer or Model-T might be all right, but the auto-eroticism on which
such pestholes as Detroit and Los Angeles depend on is out of the
question. Already, without even trying, we’ve virtually solved the
energy crisis, the environmental crisis and assorted other insoluble
social problems.

Finally, we must do away with far and away the largest occupation, the
one with the longest hours, the lowest pay and some of the most tedious
tasks around. I refer to housewives doing housework and
child-rearing. By abolishing wage-labor and achieving full unemployment
we undermine the sexual division of labor. The nuclear family as we
know it is an inevitable adaptation to the division of labor imposed by
modern wage-work. Like it or not, as things have been for the last
century or two it is economically rational for the man to bring home the
bacon, for the woman to do the shitwork to provide him with a haven in a
heartless world, and for the children to be marched off to youth
concentration camps called “schools,” primarily to keep them out of
Mom’s hair but still under control, but incidentally to acquire the
habits of obedience and punctuality so necessary for workers. If you
would be rid of patriarchy, get rid of the nuclear family whose unpaid
“shadow work,” as Ivan Illich says, makes possible the work-system that
makes it necessary. Bound up with this no-nukes strategy is the
abolition of childhood and the closing of the schools. There are more
full-time students than full-time workers in this country. We need
children as teachers, not students. They have a lot to contribute to
the ludic revolution because they’re better at playing than grown-ups
are. Adults and children are not identical but they will become equal
through interdependence. Only play can bridge the generation gap.

I haven’t as yet even mentioned the possibility of cutting way down
on the little work that remains by automating and cybernizing it. All
the scientists and engineers and technicians freed from bothering with
war research and planned obsolescence would have a good time devising
means to eliminate fatigue and tedium and danger from activities like
mining. Undoubtedly they’ll find other projects to amuse themselves
with. Perhaps they’ll set up world-wide all-inclusive multi-media communications
systems or found space colonies. Perhaps. I myself am no gadget freak.
I wouldn’t care to live in a pushbutton paradise. I don’t want robot
slaves to do everything; I want to do things myself. There is, I think,
a place for labor-saving technology, but a modest place. The historical
and pre-historical record is not encouraging. When productive technology
went from hunting-gathering to agriculture and on to industry, work
increased while skills and self-determination diminished. The further
evolution of industrialism has accentuated what Harry Braverman called
the degradation of work. Intelligent observers have always been aware
of this. John Stuart Mill wrote that all the labor-saving inventions
ever devised haven’t saved a moment’s labor. Karl Marx wrote that “it
would be possible to write a history of the inventions, made since 1830,
for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts
of the working class.” The enthusiastic technophiles — Saint-Simon,
Comte, Lenin, B. F. Skinner — have always been unabashed authoritarians
also; which is to say, technocrats. We should be more than sceptical
about the promises of the computer mystics. They work like dogs;
chances are, if they have their way, so will the rest of us. But if
they have any particularized contributions more readily subordinated
to human purposes than the run of high tech, let’s give them a hearing.

What I really want to see is work turned into play. A first step is to
discard the notions of a “job” and an “occupation.” Even activities that
already have some ludic content lose most of it by being reduced to
jobs which certain people, and only those people are forced to do to the
exclusion of all else. Is it not odd that farm workers toil painfully
in the fields while their air-conditioned masters go home every weekend
and putter about in their gardens? Under a system of permanent revelry,
we will witness the Golden Age of the dilettante which will put the
Renaissance to shame. There won’t be any more jobs, just things to do
and people to do them.

The secret of turning work into play, as Charles Fourier demonstrated,
is to arrange useful activities to take advantage of whatever it is that
various people at various times in fact enjoy doing. To make it
possible for some people to do the things they could enjoy it will be
enough just to eradicate the irrationalities and distortions which
afflict these activities when they are reduced to work. I, for
instance, would enjoy doing some (not too much) teaching, but I don’t
want coerced students and I don’t care to suck up to pathetic pedants
for tenure.

Second, there are some things that people like to do from time to time,
but not for too long, and certainly not all the time. You might enjoy
baby-sitting for a few hours in order to share the company of kids, but
not as much as their parents do. The parents meanwhile, profoundly
appreciate the time to themselves that you free up for them, although
they’d get fretful if parted from their progeny for too long. These
differences among individuals are what make a life of free play
possible. The same principle applies to many other areas of activity,
especially the primal ones. Thus many people enjoy cooking when they
can practice it seriously at their leisure, but not when they’re just
fueling up human bodies for work.

Third — other things being equal — some things that are unsatisfying
if done by yourself or in unpleasant surroundings or at the orders of an
overlord are enjoyable, at least for a while, if these circumstances are
changed. This is probably true, to some extent, of all work. People
deploy their otherwise wasted ingenuity to make a game of the least
inviting drudge-jobs as best they can. Activities that appeal to some
people don’t always appeal to all others, but everyone at least
potentially has a variety of interests and an interest in variety. As
the saying goes, “anything once.” Fourier was the master at speculating
how aberrant and perverse penchants could be put to use in
post-civilized society, what he called Harmony. He thought the Emperor
Nero would have turned out all right if as a child he could have
indulged his taste for bloodshed by working in a slaughterhouse. Small
children who notoriously relish wallowing in filth could be organized
in “Little Hordes” to clean toilets and empty the garbage, with medals
awarded to the outstanding. I am not arguing for these precise examples
but for the underlying principle, which I think makes perfect sense as
one dimension of an overall revolutionary transformation. Bear in mind
that we don’t have to take today’s work just as we find it and match it
up with the proper people, some of whom would have to be perverse
indeed. If technology has a role in all this it is less to automate
work out of existence than to open up new realms for re/creation. To
some extent we may want to return to handicrafts, which William Morris
considered a probable and desirable upshot of communist revolution. Art
would be taken back from the snobs and collectors, abolished as a
specialized department catering to an elite audience, and its qualities
of beauty and creation restored to integral life from which they were
stolen by work. It’s a sobering thought that the grecian urns we write
odes about and showcase in museums were used in their own time to store
olive oil. I doubt our everyday artifacts will fare as well in the
future, if there is one. The point is that there’s no such thing as
progress in the world of work; if anything it’s just the opposite. We
shouldn’t hesitate to pilfer the past for what it has to offer, the
ancients lose nothing yet we are enriched.

The reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps.
There is, it is true, more suggestive speculation than most people
suspect. Besides Fourier and Morris — and even a hint, here and there,
in Marx — there are the writings of Kropotkin, the syndicalists Pataud
and Pouget, anarcho-communists old (Berkman) and new (Bookchin). The
Goodman brothers’ Communitas is exemplary for illustrating what forms
follow from given functions (purposes), and there is something to be
gleaned from the often hazy heralds of
alternative/appropriate/intermediate/convivial technology, like
Schumacher and especially Illich, once you disconnect their fog
machines. The situationists — as represented by Vaneigem’s
Revolution of Daily Life and in the Situationist
International Anthology
— are so ruthlessly lucid as to be
exhilarating, even if they never did quite square the endorsement of the
rule of the worker’s councils with the abolition of work. Better their
incongruity, though than any extant version of leftism, whose devotees
look to be the last champions of work, for if there were no work there
would be no workers, and without workers, who would the left have to
organize?

So the abolitionists would be largely on their own. No one can say what
would result from unleashing the creative power stultified by work.
Anything can happen. The tiresome debater’s problem of freedom vs.
necessity, with its theological overtones, resolves itself practically
once the production of use-values is coextensive with the consumption of
delightful play-activity.

Life will become a game, or rather many games, but not — as it is now
– — a zero/sum game. An optimal sexual encounter is the paradigm of
productive play, The participants potentiate each other’s pleasures,
nobody keeps score, and everybody wins. The more you give, the more you
get. In the ludic life, the best of sex will diffuse into the better
part of daily life. Generalized play leads to the libidinization of
life. Sex, in turn, can become less urgent and desperate, more playful.
If we play our cards right, we can all get more out of life than we put
into it; but only if we play for keeps.

No one should ever work. Workers of the world… relax

[ This is a typed-in version of Bob Black’s 1985 essay, “The Abolition
of Work”, which appeared in his anthology of essays, “The Abolition of Work
and Other Essays”, published by Loompanics
Unlimited
, Port Townsend WA 98368 [ISBN 0-915179-41-5]. The following disclaimer
is reproduced from the verso of the title page: “Not Copyrighted. Any of the
material in this book may be freely reproduced, translated or adapted, even
without mentioning the source.” ]

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