(Eng)THE ABOLITION OF WORK

neil birrell (neil@lds.co.uk)
Sun, 12 Nov 1995 17:48:15 +0100


THE ABOLITION OF WORK
AND OTHER MYTHS
Neala Schleuning

KICK IT OVER summer 1995
scanned article

PO Box 5811, Stn A,
Toronto ON
Canada
M5W 1P2

Paul LaFargue's 19th century call for the right to be
lazy and Bob Black's recent exhortations notwithstanding, it
seems that work is with us, and shall be with us, even if we
remain committed to a high level of technological develop-
ment. By its very nature, work requires a long term com-
mitment. Much of the work to be done in any society is not
a matter of choice. And much work will certainly not be
exciting, or necessarily creative. The soiled diapers of the
child must be changed; seeds must be planted and tended
the food gathered, stored in a variety of ways, prepared, and
cooked (in northern climates moreso); fuel and shelter must
be arranged for cooking and warmth; children must be
tended; people must be healed, clothed. In much of the
world, most of this work is done by women. For peoples
who live outside the wage system especially, work-hand
work-is the norm for survival. In fact, the price of free-
dom from industrial wage slavery is most likely l@lore work
rather than less. Moreover, if we remain committed to our
modern, centralized, urban/industrial societies, at minimum
a vast infrastructure must be maintained and work must re-
main highly co-ordinated and specialized. Streets and side-
walks 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 motors
that lift the elevators have to work, the heat, water, elec-
tricity and telephone must be maintained. "Someone" must
do all this work-co-operatively, individually, by lot, by
coercion-the work must be done.

There are certain options, certain choices that we
can make to organize our work in a more mean-
ingful way, however. Some of the solutions are
economic, some personal, but all political, of
course. Many are also deeper questions, ethical
questions. To change the nature of work in the 21st century
we need to address change in all the areas of our society that
support the current work environment: whether we ought to
continue the centralization of capital and the private control
of capital and the profits produced by this financial system;
whether the division of labour we have established is hu-
mane and productive for the individual doing the work; the
level of technological advancement we wish to achieve; the
environmental costs we will pay for our standard of living;
and whether we will continue to artificially stimulate our-
selves to further obsessive consumption. We need to address
questions about how much we want to work and how we ac-
complish that work; the lifestyle, the level of consumption
we desire; the impact we want to make on our environ-
ments, the 1evel of pollution we will accept.
One of our first tasks is to identify basic human needs
and how much is '@enough." The next step is to adopt an
economic structure that guarantees those basic needs and
sets limits on consumption. Paul Goodman and others have
proposed a two-layered economy: one level designed to
meet basic collective social needs, and the other devoted to
gratifying individual wants and desires. In this economy
everyone who is able would be required to work to ensure
for then1selves a minimum guaranteed income that would
cover basic individual needs and costs of building and
maintaining collective infrastructure. People would be re-
quired to work 5 out of every 7 years (with two years of
sabbatical). Each individual would also have an opportunity
to work one of those years to earn additional money to con-
sume at higher levels. One sabbatical year would be re-
quired. The amount of income earned in the second level
economy could be limited to control overall consumption.
The second level economy would allow for a certain degree
of individual choice. Total income earned by any individual
ideally would be limited to no more than five times the
guaranteed income level. The "work" that truly is dull
boring, dangerous, or repulsive can be allotted to those who
ld elect to do it, in exchange for fewer hours of work required
lSt of them (say miners, who work in dangerous situations).
The difficult tasks themselves could be rotated. Part of our
resistance to work is the treadmill nature of it. If we could
structure especially the most onerous tasks so that one indi-
vidual does not bear that burden alone, and doesn't have to
do that work for long periods of time, it will make that work
easier in the long run, and subject individuals to less risk
and danger to their health overall.
This two-layered economy, however, would clearly
have to be a "controlled" economy, but it would require a
minimum of work for the majority of people. Many anar-
chists will balk at such a suggestion, but its merits are obvi-
ous: it would control consumption, or at least slow it, since
most people would probably prefer not to work too much
and would rather have two years of rest; it would relieve a
lot of anxiety about meeting basic needs; it would distribute
the wealth more equitably; it would allow for individual
freedom in consumption, and it would share the work.
We need to once again call for a reassessment of the di-
rection of technological development. Despite the strong at-
traction of returning to nature, it is highly unlikely, and
probably extremely unrealistic that most people will aban-
don the comforts of a technological society for the grueling
labour of the 19th century rural farm. What teclmologies,
and whether they ought to be pursued, however, must come
under the control and direction of society as a whole. We
must consciously place limits on our technological develop-
ment. Just because we can conceive that the most efficient
way to gut chickens is to have someone repeat the same
motion all day long, doesn't mean we ought to do the work
this way and permanently damage the worker's carpal pas-
sages. We must also demand environmentally safe tech-
nologies.
One of our values should be to step as lightly on the
earth as we can. We could begin by making things that last.
This will be a complete turnaround and a contradiction to
our consumer society. We have become addicted to new-
ness, and to throwing away that which no longer entertains
us. But just what is the real nature of the "new," and why
do we desire it so intensely? Perhaps it is the failure of
creative challenges on our part, that causes us to desire it
from a changing array of things. We could decide, for ex-
ample, to wear sturdy uniforms and drive the same well-
built car, but would this give us the apparent pride in self-
representation that we desire? Do we need to consume
things, or would face painting allow us individual self-
expression. We lnust find a way to make statements about
ourselves without waste, find a way to represent the self in
ways that do not necessitate obsessive consumption. I was
struck recently by the fact that in Russia there is a dearth of
wastebaskets-a sure sign that the society does not appear
to have much to throw away in a systematic manner. (But
they're getting there, unfortunately.)
We must also consider ways of overcoming the perva-
siveness of personal alienation from work. Some of the
abolition of work arguments are rants against wage labour,
meaningless labour, repetitive and mind-deadening labour,
unnecessary labour, fragmented labour-labour over which
the worker has no control. Good work is/should be a means
of centering for the self. Good work calls on creative ener-
gies and resources, it requires integration of intellectual and
physical efforts. The postmodern philosophy of work is to
break every task apart, to reduce it to the smallest inconse-
quential act, and then to put an engineer in charge of
mechanizing the tasks in the n1ost efficient manner. This
robs the task of its essence, and the worker of satisfaction.
Even our philosophy has fallen under the spell of this
mechanistic, technological world view. Postmodernism as a
"philosophy" (which it is not, it is merely a rebellion
against, as near as I can tell, nearly everything in its path)
began as a tool for critiquing the dominant hegemony of cor-
porate consumer capitalism, but has foundered on its own
destructive reductionist techniques. No centre now holds,
and we are cast adrift on our own meager individual resour-
ces. Postmodernism has become, ironically, the perfect mir-
ror of a consumer society: there is no history, no continuity,
no responsibility-only the childlike fascination with the
random minutiae, the "now," and instant gratification. Our
work, too, is fragmented. The methodology of the division
of labour refined by industrial capitalism has created the
mind-numbing assemblyline, repetitive motion disease and
"scientific" management. The division of labour has re-
sulted in a mechanical worker and a mechanical citizen who
is also fragmented, channeled into one-issue politics and nar-
row-mindedness, has a short attention span, and lives in total
isolation from others-both politically by not taking part in
the collective life, and by being socially irresponsible and
self-serving.
We could probably reduce the number of hours of work
required in our societies by several options: if we choose a
highly developed technological approach to work, and
eliminated profit, we could reduce the number of hours re-
quired to work. We could also eliminate many technological
processes. The lower we go on the technology scale, there
are, of course, either corresponding increases in labour, or
reductions in production/consumption. Anarchists tra-
ditionally have opted for a lower level of technology be-
cause of its potential to be more compatible with decen-
tralization of control and its need for lesser amounts of

There are many aspects of good work that are im-
portant to nourishing the individual human spirit
and the collective well-being: meaningful work
gives us a sense of completion and contributes to
self-satisfaction; it also serves to stir the imagina-
tion and create intellectual well-being. Labour, on the other
hand, is subhuman, it creates an environment of intellectual
irresponsibility and unresponsiveness. Its meaningless
repetition dulls the spirit, and erodes the mental habits of
attentiveness and curiosity.
Good work is ultimately about community, and democ-
racy. Work is most satisfying and fulfilling when it is done
for others and in co-operation with others. It is in this set-
ting that the self can most fully realize its potential. For ex-
ample, art is created to be consumed by the community.
Handiwork is designed with an appreciative audience to
complete its beauty. The work of making culture/creating
social/political community is perhaps the most important
work that human beings undertake. Our alienation from all
work has consequently contributed, I believe, to our aliena-
tion from one another and the "work" of making meaningful
and satisfying collective lives. The modern "job" has con-
tributed to the destruction of the community in which human
potential is best realized. As people turn off and drop out of
the drudgery of what one writer calls "the proletarianization
of work," they also drop out of involvement in many things
including political and social community. @he alienation
from work carries over into alienation from one another. If
there is good work to do, to refuse to work is to alienate one-
self, to say, I will not participate. As humall beings, we
have the obligation to contribute, at minimum, to collective
survival work. No one should have the luxury of refusing to
work. To share in this collective survival work is not neces-
sarily oppressive. Doing this for others, for their use, their
satisfaction, and knowing and trusting that others will do
the same for you is the essence of work. What is oppressive
is forced labour, exploited labour, labour which creates
goods and services not to enhance social comlections, but to
be commodified, to exclL@nge. We need a radical restructur-
ing of work, not its abolition. And we need to begin with the
question, "what do we do for each other?" "what is our
work?", not just ask each other what we "do," what our in-
dividual labour is, how we fit into the system that isolates
us. When we are truly invested in our work, we will solve
the problems of who will care for the children, feed and
cloth us, build our shelters, plant our gardens.
The following concepts are critical for personal em-
powerment and for political/social involvement in com-
munity:
1) Do your work with others. Non-aliellated work takes
place in a context of interaction with other people. One of
the important managerial controls over workers in industrial
capitalism, for example, is denying them the right to talk to
each other on the job. Participation is critical to the devel-
opment of meaningful economics and to effective political
action. Work should be with and for others. Production has
to emerge from the community and return to the commu-
nity. This is the basis of a new work ethic.
2) Recognize the need for skill in work. Mechanization of
work kills cu@iosity and the attendant human impulse to be-
come engaged, involved, to strive to be creative. Mechani-
zation also resists interruption, the worker becomes an ob-
server, an attendant to the machine. Demand meaningful
work.
3) Be in charge of your own actions, in control of your work.
4) Reclaim through your work a sense of the whole, of the ways
in which the parts relate to one another. The division of labour
deadens an important political skill-the ability to make con-
nections between means and ends. A different but related prob-
lem centers on how a mechanistic world view simplifies our un-
derstanding of cause and effect. We almost unconsciously de-
velop a preference for logical, mechanistic explanations, and we
become impatient with ambiguity. Our level of frustration is in-
creased markedly in a rigid mechallistic world and we lose our
capacity to appreciate and handle subtlety.
5) Simplify technological processes. According to T Fulano
in a Fifth Estate series some years back on anti-technology,
technology itself is a system of political control: "The
enormous size, complex interconnection and stratification of
tasks which make up modern technological systems make
authoritarian command necessary and independent, individ-
ual decision-making impossible." (1981). Simpli@lcation of
technological infrastructure would also serve, according to
EF Schumacher in Small is Beautiful, to decentralize politi-
cal power and control of the worker. Organizational factors
of technological infrastructures that centralize power and
control include: large size, hierarchy, specialization, stan-
dardi@ation of product and simplification of task. The ele-
ments of a free, democratic economy include the structural
alternatives of small size, non-hierarchical organization, co-
operative work, diversity in tasks and products, and com-
plexity of tasks.
6) Abolish private ownership of the means of production. A
new social economics demands a re-examination of the con-
cept of private ownership of the means of production. De-
spite the fact that some forms of socialism have failed, we
are still left with problems of capitalism that Karl Marx
identified over a hundred years ago.
A new approach to global economics must also be de-
veloped. The global economy is "here" and we have strate-
gized very little about how to respond to it. To begin with,
perhaps, we should demand that survival level wages be
granted in every economy. A global guaranteed minimum
income would slow the restless movement of capital until
means can be put in place to regain control over profit and
investment. Value added to labour in any particular labour
market should remain in the market in which it was created
except to reimburse the creators of economic development
for their investment and their labour in creating the facto-
ries/jobs. Prices also need to be stabilized worldwide on a
scale relative to the comparative value of currencies. Blue-
jeans in the United States must cost $20; in Russia, only $5,
reflecting the relative value of the dollar and the ruble. The
cost of all infrastructure required by a particular industry
shall be borne entirely by that industry: roads; sewage; power
needs; public transportation for workers, etc. Co@porate re-
sponsibility to communities must be affirmed and institutional-
ized in law. Capital may be moveable, but people generally are
not, so special care must be taken when companies attempt to
relocate. All resources contributed to that industry/company by
the workers in that community shall remain the property of that
community. Companies must find ways to continue jobs in
communities. A more compelling reason than profit, a cheaper
labour supply or lax environmental regulations must be given
before a company is allowed to remove its investment to a new
site. Abolish tax increment financing. Require corporations to
pay at least 50 percent of profit in taxes. Mally of these sugges-
@ions are more reform-minded than radical restructuring, but in
@e absence of any coherent altematives, they could be a place
to start.

Neala Schleuning is the author of three books: America
-Song We Sang Without Knowing: the Life and Ideas
of Meridel Le Sueur; Idle Hands and Empty Hearts:
Work and Freedom in the United States; and Women,
Community, and the Hormel Strike of 1985-86. She is
currently doing research on the meaning of property and
the impact of a market economy Otl family economics in
Russia.

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