Abolition of Work
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Persona non grata

The Abolition Of Work


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. 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 signalled not the end of social unrest but the beginning of a new, uncharted phase unconstrained and uninformed by ideology.

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. 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 [the late 60s television show] Lost In Space, "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 25 million are injured every year.

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Text ©Bob Black : PO Box 1342, Albany, NY 12203-0142 | Graphics by GSIS