General introduction to Zerowork

A short introduction to the Zerowork journal by Harry Cleaver.

“Zerowork” has been an idea, a collective and a journal. The idea of “zerowork” has had a long historical existence — mainly in the dreams of people imagining liberation from lives of toil, but sometimes in those of intellectuals trying to imagine a better world. In his Politics (350 BCE) Aristotle dreamed of replacing human work with robots.(1) Sir Thomas More’s communist Utopia (1516) portrayed a world of drastically reduced working hours.(2) Robert Lewis Stevenson sang praises of the value of life freed from work in his lyrical "Apology for Idlers" in 1877.(3) From a French prison, Paul Lafargue hurled The Right to be Lazy (1883) against the capitalist subordination of people’s lives to work.(4) Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” (1932) highlighted how much of what we value most has been created away from work.(5) The collective was formed in North America in 1974, endured in one form or another for several years, published two issues of a journal with the title Zerowork: Political Materials and dissolved before publishing a third issue.

We organized ourselves as a collective in a period of profound crisis for the capitalist system.(6) In the early 1970s the Keynesian strategies that had been at the heart of capitalist social management in the post-WWII era were thrown into crisis by an international cycle of working class struggle. Those of us who came together were all political militants urgently trying both to understand that crisis and to find appropriate political responses to it. We were all dissatisfied with dominant explanations by capitalist apologists but also by their Leftist critics — and the ideas we drew upon to work out an alternative explanation had sources on both sides of the Atlantic and had emerged from a long history of trans-oceanic exchange.

Each of us had long been involved in various political struggles in the United States, in Canada, in England, and in Italy. Those struggles, as usual, always included debates over theoretical issues and those debates continued within our collective during the preparation of the first issue of the journal — which was published in December 1975. During the preparation of the second issue our debating continued and eventually led to a split. The second issue, therefore, was published by a modified editorial board in 1977. During the preparation of the third issue further conflicts among us, combined with the growing involvement of various individuals with other activities, led to the dissolution of the collective and the failure to complete the work of publication.

At least two dimensions of the story of the collective and journal Zerowork are sketched here. One dimension is that of the personal life trajectories of those of us involved. Although our individual trajectories have been unique, there have been many important intersections that both preceded our coming together and followed the ultimate dissolution of the collective. Most of us have continued to share similar political perspectives and to work within what the Italians like to call the same "area" of political activity. The second dimension is that of the evolving array of ideas — theoretical, historical and political — we brought with us and debated, before, during and since the life of the collective. Some common sources and earlier personal interactions and discussions contributed to those ideas being complementary enough for us to work together in a common project — at least for a while.

This general introduction and the separate introductions to the various periods of the Zerowork collective sketch both dimensions of that history. Although these sketches draw upon the memories of several members of the collective, and of those closely associated with them, they are being written by one member and thus present only a partial view and one particular understanding of this history. Because the history is complex, the written record incomplete and memory notoriously unreliable, documented corrections will always be welcomed and acknowledged. Moreover, space will always be open for other members to add their own recollections and interpretations.

Harry Cleaver
Austin, Texas

PS that thinks to add a warning: both these historical sketches and everything else written for this webpage may be modified as I continue to work on this project.

PPS that concerns motivations: while soliciting help from one-time participants in the Zerowork collective — in the form of memories and documents — I have been led to explain why I have undertaken this reconstruction some thirty-odd years after we all moved on to other projects. The reasons have been two-fold. First, there has been, in recent years, a desire among many young militants to access the contents of Zerowork and to understand its genesis and evolution. Partly, this can be seen in the efforts made at to upload, reformat and make this material available. There have also been some meetings recently where a surprising number of young activists have come together to discuss the actual content of the journal. Second, pulling all this history together reflects my own sense of obligation to future generations to prevent, in this one case, that fading into total obscurity that has so often characterized moments of struggle — obscurity that not only made my efforts to understand the history out of which Zerowork grew difficult, but more generally has made the work of bottom-up and subtaltern historians so complicated.


    1 "For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, 'of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods'; if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves." Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part IV, included in Richard McKeon, Introduction to Aristotle, New York: Modern Library, (Benjamin Jowett translation), p. 558-559. Online: Part IV.

    2 "For they dividing the day and the night into twenty-four just hours, appoint and assign only six of those hours to work; three before noon, upon the which they go straight to dinner: and after dinner, when they have rested two hours, then they work three and upon that they go to supper. About eight of the clock in the evening (counting one of the clock at the first hour after noon) they go to bed: eight hours they give to sleep. All the void time, that is between the hours of work, sleep, and meat, that they be suffered to bestow, every man as he liketh best himself." Thomas Moore, Utopia, (Paul Turner translation) London: Penguin Classics, 2003, Second Book, Part I, p. 56. Online: Moore, Thomas. "Utopia." Great Literature Online. 1997-2013, Part I.

    3 "Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognized in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself." Robert Lewis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers", Cornhill Magazine,July 1877, later published in Stevenson's Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers, Vol. Two, New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1881, pp. 74-88.

    4 "Aristotle’s dream is our reality. Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness, wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labor." Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy, (Translated by Charles Kerr), Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Pub. Co., 1989, Appendix, p. 74. Online: Appendix.

    5 "I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work." Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness," in Why Work? Arguments for the Leisure Society, London: Freedom Press, pp. 25-34. Online: "In Praise of Idleness".

    6 Note of clarification: although I often use "we" in speaking of those of us in the Zerowork collective, I was not a member during the period of genesis - leading up to the publication of the first issue of the journal. I joined the collective after the first issue was published. (See my brief biography in the section "Background: From Zerowork #1 to Zerowork #2".)