What if we abolished the institution of work?
If we weren’t forced to work to pay for basic rights, such as food, housing, and water, could we adopt radical solutions to change the current state of our society?
As the post-pandemic struggle over work and working conditions rages on, workers leave jobs that make them miserable, while unions seek recognition and avenues for negotiation, all within our current capitalist system that declares that the value of each individual is intrinsically linked to his productivity. What if society was not organized around wage labor, but something else? And what would it be something else?
Millions of workers left their jobs in 2021 on such a scale that it was considered the “great quit”. Recent attempts to understand their discontent have explored what the “future of work” looks like and how work as a whole could become more bearable. How about a four day work week? Or a higher salary? Better working conditions? Flexible hours? But 32-hour weeks (or any other good policy on offer) are adaptations to a dehumanizing system – they don’t attack that system as a whole, nor do they address the heart of workers’ discontent with to the inhuman machinations of capitalism. .
Online, rejection of the very idea of work is a growing trend on social media platforms. On TikTok, confessional-style videos about how the poster doesn’t like to work, whatever the job, often go viral. A TikToker’s message – “Damn I don’t want to work for the rest of my life :(” – has received thousands of likes and comments in agreement. On Twitter, where the constant barrage of negative news is constantly dissected and commented, posters show how capitalism continues to march despite the unconscionable tragedies that we have all had to digest over the past two and a half years.The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the shootings in schools where children are massacred , the ongoing police killings of black people…none of this is enough to shut down our operating system; workers are supposed to pull through and make the world go round with our labor. On Reddit, the “antiwork” community ” (the r/antiwork subreddit) has 2 million subscribers who can easily access an online library on the abolition of work and exchange experiences with each other on the jobs they do not want not to do. ric h!”
Despite the hype online, the idea of rejecting the tyranny of labor rather than reforming it is not new. In 1985, post-left anarchist Bob Black wrote and published the essay “The Abolition of Work,” in which he argues that work “is the source of almost all the misery in the world. … To stop suffering, we have to stop working.
For Black, working for a living is central to the coercive forces of capitalism, and he argues that society should be organized around gambling rather than wage labor. “I think what I wrote is still true and only slightly exaggerated,” Black says. “According to my definition of the word, ‘labour’ is forced labor – obligatory production. It is inherently coercive, like the state.
Black says having to pay for housing, food, water, health care and whatever else is necessary for survival is what keeps workers under the control of wage labor, regardless of the elected ideology in the government. “The most important function of work – as I have always argued – is social control,” says Black. And yet, as Black writes in his essay as well as in his book, also titled The abolition of work, a disproportionate amount of what constitutes “work” has little to do with human survival. Compiling work reports, filing meaningless corporate documents, and inventing cryptocurrency are just a few examples of “work” that does not help the practical survival of humans. Abolishing work would free us to do what we truly love and redirect human efforts towards care and the simple act of living.
“Society would be simpler [and] radically decentralized, but people would be more diverse, more individualized, and therefore their social relationships would be richer, more complex,” Black says. “Life would be safer, although perhaps less orderly. But where order is needed, it would be the order of custom, not the rule of law. There would be opportunities, from childhood, for people to try different things and find out what they can do and what they prefer. Maybe there will be people who like to do the same thing all the time, in other words, do a “work”. These unfortunates too should be free to do what they want. It is a society that has no centre.
The anti-work response to the Girlboss
An example often used to support anti-online work arguments is the alleged death of the “girlboss”. The girlboss can be exemplified by Kim Kardashian, who models ambitious femininity and independent entrepreneurship that supposedly liberates women from gender oppression, even though she ends up reinforcing and repeating the same abuses she supposedly sought. saying to eliminate. A combination of pandemic exhaustion, growing social awareness and the emptiness of women “having it all” in a slumped economy has revealed the impact of the girlboss to be less than revolutionary. As Amanda Mull wrote in Atlantic“The push to go beyond girlboss is a recognition that a slight expansion of college-educated women’s access to venture capital or mentorship opportunities has never been a meaningful change to begin with, or a pathway through which meaningful change could be achieved Being belittled, harassed, or denied fair pay by a woman does not make the experience enlightening rather than traumatic.
In short, some overworked women find that a seat at the table is not a path to liberation, but rather a path to becoming an overworked cog in the machine.
Anti-girlboss sentiment is often articulated through memes that challenge the message that women should do it all. Instead, these memes argue for “the girl resting, the girl sleeping, the girl lying down, etc.” For Angie Barbosa, an anarcho-feminist transvestite (a transwoman, non-binary identity specific to Latin America) scholar who studies feminist, queer, and anarchist literature and activism, these memes run counter to the violence of feminized “hustle” culture.
“Not only do women and women have to deal with violence, exploitation, overwork and constant impairments against our autonomy, but we are also supposed to struggle in a value system that asks us to be healthy , happy, confident, self-sufficient, empowered, boundary-conscious and independent consumers,” Barbosa says. “We work tirelessly, tirelessly to produce a performance of successful femininity that negates the soul-destroying gendered reality of violence. We are overworked, exhausted, angry, frustrated, abused, deprived of many of our basic rights, and somehow still expected to feel like a boss.
Adding to the burden of women and women is the unpaid labor of domestic work, which is still largely invisible and unaddressed by policies that attempt to make wage labor more comfortable. Even with flexible working hours, domestic work is still low paid and gendered.
“The reality of care and work can be terribly exhausting for women, but the good news is that the more people, groups and communities care for each other in balanced structures, based on consent and autonomy , the less everyone has to work. , and it just becomes easier to live with,” Barbosa says.
The small feminist structures of care and radical solidarity are the counterpoint to the solitary and Herculean work of the girlboss – and as such, the abolition of work must also take into account the racialized and gendered distribution of domestic and care work. “I believe that whether or not this future of women’s freedom includes work depends on our reading of what ‘work’ means,” Barbosa says.
A great metamorphosis
Underlying the taboo around the abolition of work is the fear that the world will not sustain itself if people are not forced to perform tasks to ensure the survival of humanity. How would we eat if workers weren’t forced to grow their own food and sell it to others for their own subsistence? How would we keep public spaces clean and usable without street sweepers and janitors who need a paycheck to support themselves? How would we survive without the care work and domestic work that the racialized working classes are forced to provide below cost? Black believes that if the structure of work is abolished, people will be able to support themselves and care for each other, but without coercion.
For practical thinkers, this reorganization seems easier said than done. We’ve been manipulated into maintaining capitalism – and correlating that maintenance with our own survival – for so long that the idea of people working to help each other survive seems unlikely and impossible. What would we get in exchange for our selfless efforts to maintain the existence of the other? What would be the compromise, if not money? Self-sufficient societies, like the Zapatistas in Mexico, who organized their own cooperative economy; developed autonomous justice, education and health care systems; and created bottom-up political decision-making – are proof that we can link the abolition of work to the possibilities of reality.
“We have to transform everything,” says Black. “In my utopia, there would be little coercion, and no institutionalized coercion like government and labor. Some activities, including some of what used to be ‘work’, are likely to be done in relatively permanent organizations, and there is some risk in that. Such work, when it is not individual craft work, can be organized by workers’ self-management.
For Barbosa, the abolition of work and the redistribution of domestic work is an invitation to rethink what we value in our lives. “If the meaning of our lives were no longer to work, it could be an authentic and deep connection with each other, our bodies and our environment,” she says. “Interestingly, removing work from the equation renders many of our current definitions of success and happiness utterly meaningless. It could be very powerful to imagine what happiness could be if it’s not just survival, success, capital. If we didn’t have to fight for the basics, I really have no idea what we should or could do instead, but I’d like to know.
is a journalist, researcher and translator based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.