Antiwork – a radical shift in how we view “jobs”

by Brian Dean

Antiwork is a moral alternative to the obsession with “jobs” that has plagued our society for too long. It’s a project to radically reframe work and leisure. It’s also a cognitive antidote to the pernicious culture of “hard work”, which has taken over our minds as well as our precious time.

Big shifts have occurred this year. While politicians preached about “hardworking families”, unconditional basic income went viral and was adopted as long-term policy by the Green Party. Social media campaigns, meanwhile, made it increasingly difficult for companies and charities to benefit from the forced labour schemes known to most as “workfare”.

The facts and figures generally don’t support the rose-tinted political view of work. Studies consistently show how jobs keep many of us poor while also making us ill, stressed, exhausted and demoralised. As Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, put it: “Hard work is not working.”

But facts and figures alone don’t bring about change. Our cognitive frames for work tend to be anachronistic. The existing structures of our language/concepts in this area aren’t neutral – they predispose us to think conservatively. The rightwing press constantly talk about the “workshy”, etc, because it activates morally loaded frames that are impossible to argue against with facts alone. Antiwork addresses this moral dimension and reframes the whole issue from a progressive standpoint.

Work as virtue – the existing moral frame

Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous – Bertrand Russell

“Work” is seen as a virtue, but it covers the moral spectrum from charity and art to forced labour and banking. Belief in the inherent moral good of work has been used historically in social engineering, notably during the shift from agriculture to industry, when the Protestant work ethic was used to motivate workers and to justify punishment, including whipping and imprisonment of “idlers”. (In The Making of the English Working Class, historian EP Thompson describes how the ethos of Protestant sects such as Methodism effectively provided the prototype of the disciplined, punctual worker required by the factory owners.)

Work’s assumed virtue has always been about more than its utility or market value. George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, provided a clue in the frame of “work as obedience”. The first virtue we learn as children isobeying our parents, particularly in performing tasks we don’t enjoy. Later, as adults, we’re paid to obey our employers – it’s called work. Work and virtue are thus connected in our neurology in terms of obedience to authority. That’s not the only cognitive frame we have for the virtue of work, but it’s the one that is constantly reinforced by what Lakoff calls the “strict father” conservative moral system.

This “strictness” moral framing is implicit, for example, in the current welfare system. An increasingly punitive approach is adopted towards those who don’t follow the prescribed “job-seeking” regimen – a trend that most political parties seem to approve of. Politicians boast of getting “tough on dependency culture”, and when they talk of “clamping down” on the “hardcore unemployed”, you’d think they were referring to criminals.

Emphasis on punishment is the sign of an obedience frame. Work itself has a long history as punishment for disobedience, as the Book of Genesis illustrates – Adam and Eve had no work until they disobeyed God, who imposed it as their punishment: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life”. Unpaid work, or “community service”, is still sometimes dictated as punishment by courts. Workfare programmes similarly involve mandatory work without wages – it looks very much like punishment for the “sin” of unemployment.

Workfare illustrates a difference between framing and spin. The cognitive frame is paternalistic, morally strict, punishment-based (much like “community service”), while the political spin is all about “helping” people “integrate” back into society. Genuine help, of course, shouldn’t require the threat of losing what little income one has.

Morally, it seems that politicians, most of the media and a large section of the public are still stuck in the Puritan codes and scripts that, following the Reformation and into the industrial revolution, dominated social attitudes to work and idleness in England, America and much of Europe. In fact, when reading early accounts of the treatment of what Calvin called “lazy good-for-nothings”, you get a strong sense of déjà vu. Christian charity – Calvinist style – didn’t extend to the “idle poor”, who were viewed as outside God’s chosen and thus unsaveable. Poverty is still widely viewed as a moral failure of the individual, unless the self-flagellation of uninterrupted hard work is on display.

Incidentally, if you think you’re free from this moral script, try an experiment; spend a whole day in bed doing absolutely nothing, then spend another two days being lazier than you’ve ever been before – deluxe, self-indulgent laziness, relaxo supremo. Do nothing that could remotely be considered work. Observe your reactions and moods during this period. (And if you do break through, and time stops, and you experience the unburdening liberation of simply being… congratulations – that’s antiwork.)

Leisure – the flip side of work

The concept of “leisure” tends to reinforce the work frame. “Leisure is non-work for the sake of work. Leisure is the time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but hopeless attempt to forget about work”, to quote Bob Black’s essay, The Abolition of Work.

Most of us would like far more leisure – we dream of it. But we believe it comes with a price. And so we resent the unemployed for (supposedly) “sitting around all day”, while we identify with our jobs and righteously grumble, or boast, about our hard work, like demented subjects in a behaviourist’s divide-and-rule experiment.

Leisure, like happiness, tends to be seen as something that’s earned through work. The underlying idea is that you’re endlessly undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent on the endurance of some unpleasant activity (eg “hard work”). Again, we could trace this notion to early moral ideas – eg original sin and redemption through suffering – but the important point is that we seem to have a nasty, and very persistent, cultural neurosis in the form of an archaic cognitive frame for work and leisure.

Laid on top of this work/leisure neurosis is consumerism – the idea that spending money will make you happy. This is like toffee coating on a bad Puritan apple. If you spend enough money to give you the (advertised) conditions for happiness, the neurosis emerges in the form of random worries or vague, guilty feelings about not working hard enough. This, along with the work as obedience frame, may explain why we’re contributing £29bn worth of free labour (in unpaid overtime) to British employers each year, according to TUC figures.

Antiwork and radical politics

Consumerism is, of course, opposed by many on moral grounds. Anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist politics focus on corporate greed and its effects, but not usually on the work ethic and the obsession with jobs. Maximising employment is often tacitly accepted as good, and sometimes even promoted. ZNet’s Michael Albert, for example, argued, in a Guardian article, that “full employment” should be one of the main demands of the Occupy movement.

I see plenty of irony in this. As Sharon Beder notes, in Selling the Work Ethic, what distinguished the rise of the capitalist edifice from traditional concentrations of wealth and power was precisely the moral ethos of work and Protestant-style discipline: “The asceticism of Protestantism ensured that the money made by capitalists was not wastefully spent but was reinvested to make more capital.”

Although the religious roots of this ethos later gave way to “utilitarian worldliness” (as Max Weber put it), the moral framing of work as a virtue in its own right continues to serve the interests of big business and conservative politics. But rather than morally reframe the issue along progressive lines, many on the left claim the existing ethic as their own, fully identifying with the narrative of “hard work”, “full employment”, “tough on the workshy”, etc.

So, while consumerism and capitalism are widely protested, a moral justification of the status quo remains in place, largely unquestioned. It takes many forms – shouted from tabloid headlines about “benefit cheats”, or quietly echoed across all media with daily “austerity” framing. The reaction, if any, from the left, leaves the strict moral framing of work unchallenged, and usually reinforced. This is where the progressive approach of antiwork is needed.

Antiwork – follow your bliss

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. – David Graeber

Antiwork is what we do out of love, fun, interest, talent, enthusiasm, inspiration, etc. Only a lucky few get paid enough from it to live on, yet it probably enriches our lives and benefits society more than most jobs do.

Our yearnings for antiwork remain largely unexpressed, as they don’t fit existing semantic frameworks. This is precisely why we need the concept. The existing work/leisure dichotomy divides our lives in a way that serves narrow market interests and distorts our evaluation of unpaid activity. This isn’t just a matter of surface language and word definitions – it concerns cognitive frames that shape how we think, ultimately determining social and economic policy.

Antiwork has both negative and positive aspects. The negative is a clear expression of what we choose not to do. Melville’s Bartleby put it best: “I would prefer not to” – the most radical response one can make in an all-pervasive jobs culture.

Antiwork is also a rejection of what we regard as pointless or immoral work. This might include any form of forced or subtly coerced labour, work that serves no positive purpose (in the opinion of those doing the work), work that has harmful consequences (physical, psychological, environmental), etc.

If the studies I’ve read over the years are anything to go by, more than half of existing jobs in the UK could be classed as immoral or pointless. I remember reading a Guardian report on the 1993 British Social Attitudessurvey, which found that around 60% of British workers were unhappy in their work and were inclined (more than workers in other countries surveyed) to “feel their work is not useful to society”.

Similar survey findings appear fairly regularly. Most recently, the Independent on Sunday cited a YouGov poll which found that “only a third of us report looking forward to going to work, the rest are either ambivalent or dread it”. A New York Times piece, meanwhile, summarised one of the biggest-ever surveys of the American workplace by stating: “For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.”

David Graeber’s essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, continues the theme of dehumanising work, and articulates the antiwork perspective on needless “job creation”. Graeber points to the ballooning of the administrative sector (more than the so-called “service” sector) and the disappearance, resulting from automation, of productive jobs. He says we have a morally and spiritually damaging system in which huge swathes of people “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed”.

On the positive side, antiwork could be defined as any activity, or non-activity, which you value in its own right, not as a means to an end. Which isn’t to say that antiwork must be inherently pleasant – it’s simply chosen action (or non-action), accepted as it is, not collected like Brownie points towards some deferred moment of “earned” happiness. It’s always done for its own sake, in contrast to “work”, which is never done for its own sake (by my definition).

Work will doubtless always be necessary, but hopefully reduced to a minimum. Bertrand Russell wrote that “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work”. But this seems unlikely to happen while work is framed as the virtuous side of a moral dichotomy. The point of antiwork is to think of “good” human activity outside the dominant cognitive frames of market value and obedience.

It’s also about letting go of some misplaced sentimental attachments to “honest work” (still common on the left, alas). As Robert Anton Wilson once put it, “most ‘work’ in this age is stupid, monotonous, brain-rotting, irritating, usually pointless and basically consists of the agonising process of being slowly bored to death over a period of about 40 to 45 years of drudgery.”

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