I believe this to be one of the most important essays ever written. I submit it for all of your consideration and request that you take the fifteen minutes to read the entire thing. Print it out and read it at work, read it when you are stuck in traffic on the way to work, or even better, read it while you are on the clock.
Why Work? by Bob Black
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 revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, 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.
Curiously — or maybe not — all the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. 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.
You may be wondering if I’m joking or serious. I’m joking and serious.
My minimum definition of work is forced labor. Work is production enforced by economic or political 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.
Usually — and this is even more true in “communist” than capitalist countries, — work is wage-labor, which means selling yourself on the installment plan. Thus 95 percent of Americans who work, work for somebody (or something) else. Only the embattled Third World — Mexico, India, Brazil, Turkey — temporarily shelters significant concentrations of agriculturists who perpetuate the traditional arrangement of most laborers in the last several millennia, the payment of taxes (i.e., 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.
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. 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 40 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.
Work makes a mockery of freedom. The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. But there is more freedom in any moderately de-Stalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary American workplace. 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.
You find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline in an office or factory as you do in a prison or a 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.
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 most of their lifespans.
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 to work from school and bracketed by the family in the beginning and the nursing home in the end, are habituated to hierarchy 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 hierarchy and expertise in everything. They’re used to it.
Play is just the opposite. Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced.
Playing and giving are closely related; 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). There are many good games (chess, baseball, Monopoly, bridge) that 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.
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. No wonder Edward G. Robinson in one of his gangster movies exclaimed, “Work is for saps!”
The Kapauku of West Irian 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 18th century, 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 ancien regime wrested substantial time back from their landlords’ 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. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins surveyed the data on contemporary hunter-gatherers in an article entitled “The Original Affluent Society.” 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 that exercised their physical and intellectual capacities; unskilled labor on any large scale, as Sahlins says, is impossible except under industrialism.
If these objections to work, informed by the love of liberty, fail to persuade, there are others that we cannot disregard. Work is hazardous to our health. In fact, work is mass murder. More than 6,000 workers are killed annually in this country on the job; over two million are injured on the job every year.
How to abolish work
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 wouldn’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.
Twenty years ago, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that just 5 percent of the work then being done 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: every time you idle some bigshot, you liberate his flunkies 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.
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. 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. I refer to housewives doing housework and child-rearing. By abolishing wage-labor and achieving full unemployment ,we undermine the sexual division of labor. Bound up with this no-nukes strategy is the abolition of childhood and the closing of the schools. 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 should have a good time devising means to eliminate fatigue and tedium and danger from activities like mining.
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 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. The enthusiastic technophiles — Saint-Simon, Comte, Lenin, B. F. Skinner — have always been unabashed authoritarians also. We should be more than skeptical 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 that 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. 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 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 that 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 babysitting 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, but they 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 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.
To some extent we may want to return to handicrafts. 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 oil. Art should be abolished as a specialized department catering to an elite audience, and its qualities of beauty and creation restored to the integral life from which they were stolen by work.
The reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps, so the abolitionists will be largely on their own. No one can say what would result from unleashing the creative power stultified by work. Anything can happen.
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.
Workers of the world… RELAX!
Excerpted from an essay written by Bob Black in 1985. It may be distributed, translated, or excerpted freely.