What do we mean by work?: A response to Bob Black's "The Abolition of Work"

What do we mean by work?: A response to Bob Black's "The Abolition of Work"

A discussion on the semantic misuse of the word "work" in Bob Black's "The Abolition of Work".

In the beginning of Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work,” he calls work an ideology. This use of the word ideology in relation to work is one that has never been previously used. This semantic misuse by traditional standards is a reflection of what is to come in the rest of the pamphlet. For Marxists, ideologies are the dominate belief systems in a culture. Work however in the myriad of ways the term is used is in many of its usages independent of the way Black defines it. Black says work is “forced labor, which is compulsory production.” We do use the word for compulsory production but we also use it to represent the fulfilling acts in our lives we put energy into and we also use it for an act that is simply a thing you do that you can do without having any belief tied to it whatsoever.

Black denies he is playing a semantic game saying “I am not playing a definitional game with anybody.” Black may not think he is making a semantic argument and what this reveals is not that Black is being manipulative it shows there is an ambiguity within our language when we use the word work. When we say work we may mean what Black means, forced labor that is compulsory or we might mean painting our greatest masterpiece, writing our best song, writing a dissertation on a subject we love. Black makes a similar point later on but confuses the reader with the language he chooses. He calls for a society where we only “play” but then his definition of play looks a lot like fulfilling work. He goes on to list some of these activities such as babysitting for a few hours or “even cleaning.” He says some people even enjoy cleaning, all this just looks like the old socialist, and by extension, anarchist attempt to have human beings only do the work they find fulfilling.

Curiously, it isn't evident that Black has read Marx enough to know that Marx already has a term for this. Marx’s term is alienation which is his word for when we are abstracted from the products we create, or even more generally it means how we are disconnected from the work we do through the wage system. Marx’s analysis connects this to the actual products made demarcating the difference between use value and a commodity. Use values are things we make because we need to use them but as Marx points out commodities have a specific value independent of their use value which is there exchange value. Marx believes people’s separation from the work they do makes them less human and he is out to do away with this. Marx shows us the difference between work that we do find fulfilling and work that is forced compulsory production. Perhaps this is why some say Black lets capitalism 'off the hook’ because he ignores the specific exploitative nature of capitalism. By saying just work and not distinguishing between work that is capitalist wage work, which is the majority of the work done in a capitalist society and less “forced” activists that we also call work.

It should be said Black shares a virtue with anarchist theorists that socialist's Marx included are less concerned about his acknowledgment that coercion and domination are not unique to capitalism, Black points specifically to work in the Soviet Union saying that the dynamic of domination becomes more elaborate over time “all industrial societies whether capitalist or 'communist' work inevitably acquires other attributes which accentuate its obnoxiousness usually and this is even more true in 'communist' than in capitalist countries where the state is the sole employer.” One reaction could be to extenuate what Black has nicely pointed out with his scare quotes that the Soviet Union wasn't “really Communist.” I think a more important reaction would be to realize what Marx’s analysis of Alienation doesn’t cover. How work itself can be “obnoxious” outside of a system where you sell your labor power, that work that is non-capitalist or not linked to capitalism still has the potential to be a burden.

I am brought back to the semantics that are central to Black’s argument. The problem with Black’s argument is that we tend to call many different acts “work” but these acts are really quite different. The most important distinction being fulfilling work we enjoy doing and exploitative “obnoxious” work we do to survive usually for a wage, we just don’t use two different words for these two different kinds of work. Since we are lacking in terminology I propose a supra term to go beyond Marx's terms: we could use a little w for the fulfilling type of work and big W for the kinds of work anarchists and socialists strive to get rid of. We can also use the word drudgery. Our fulfilling work is the same thing as Black's “Play.” We can also however make a three point distinction between the two we just mentioned work that is fulfilling and work that is forced but finally work that isn't forced but is needed for survival and not necessarily fulfilling, this work is pre- capitalist or non-capitalist. Before I started working at a new job, I had asked a friend of mine who lives on a farm in upstate New York If I could come visit before I had to be working to get some rest and she said yes but everyone who does gets up at 6am to farm. This 3rd kind goes back to Marx's distinction between a use value and a commodity; farm work is use value work.

Black poses two separate challenges that much of the left might find superfluous but I want to address. Black says that many leftist and anarchists are so obsessed with work they “talk about little else.” He also makes the separate and more damning claim that in a work place run by the workers the “people become the new tyrant and what the fuck is the point.” We will first focus on why the left and a good portion of anarchists do talk about work so much, me included. It’s for multiple reasons but for purposes of brevity let me break it down into two categories; the first I would call the “classic union reason,” which is to make peoples’ lives immediately better in a capitalist system. The relation of a wage earner who sells their labor power is a miserable one because they are in a totalitarian relation to their boss. This is the same goal Black is striving towards to at the ground level -make the world less toilsome.

The other category I would call the “Socialist Reason.” This one has to do with power in the meta-societal sense, the left sees work as important because it is a place where the totalitarian nature of capitalism is vulnerable to the democratic mass, to put it simply the 1% needs the people, the people don't need the 1%. So work quite rightly is seen as a place of battle against the 1% and a piece of the struggle against Capitalism. So Black is quite right when he says, “Without work who would the left organize?” But for the wrong reasons, work is a point of weakness within the unfair system of capitalism. These two tendencies, the “socialist” and the “union” weren’t always the same as well chronicled in Rudolph Rocker’s Anarcho- Syndicalism.

As far as Black’s critique that in a collectively owned factory “the people become the new tyrant.” Its hard to know what Black means by this does he mean that some people will eventually rule over others no matter what or does he mean that every one ruling together is somehow tyrannical? If either is true, then democracy as well as anarchist models of representation or any form of egalitarianism is impossible. Fortunately most radicals of all stripes believe that when people get together and decide to make decisions its better than being told or controlled by one or a few. What if perhaps Black’s critique is a critique of democratic decision making in the work place specifically? Black does not say this however and past his one sentence his point is unclear. If we wanted to start this conversation we would have to discuss the difference between democratically controlled workplaces under capitalism and ones after capitalism.

I think if anarchists and socialists write Black off as being “privileged” and don't take his call for a society without work seriously that something will be missed. There is something poetic and refreshing about this pamphlet, reading it at work I specifically recommend. Anarchists and Socialists need to remember what differentiates their beliefs from the Protestant work ethic which is that we are for a life that is more fulfilling and more democratic and not for fetishizing the act of work. Black is right; we on the left do tend to talk about work a lot and worse without saying why, worse still possible without thinking why? Anyone who has been a Salt, which is someone who gets a job in order to organize it, knows how much even work for a noble cause can suck; it can be like having two jobs -one for the company and one in opposition to the companies practices. The second part the one going against the grain of the company can be just as grueling. The IWW has an old phrase that shares the same sentiment as Black’s pamphlet name but is more useful -“Free the Wage Slaves.” It tells us more than Black’s title and therefore has more utility. Likewise I think the best thing written on work and how we all relate to it is “Hallelujah, I'm a Bum” the old Wobblie tune. Some of the lyrics are, “O why do you work till you’re ready to fall? If you slowed down a bit there be work for us all.”

So there is importance in taking what Black is saying seriously. The problem is because of Black’s awkward terminology we can't take him on his own terms. What we can get from Black is like the IWW's slogan we can turn away from a toilsome world, one where we “Free the Wage Slaves.” With the later Wittgenstein, to understand what a word means we look at how it is used. With Heidegger we understand some work is dasein and so we know that no thought or ideology goes into it at all. We also know we have fulfilling work and we have drudgery, we just happen to use the same word. I like Black’s essay as a mint that flushes out in order to gain a new perspective. To strive towards a Left and Anarchist movement that doesn’t forget what we’re after is more joy, more play and more fulfillment. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!

Posted By

May 9 2013 01:15


Attached files


May 10 2013 16:17


Aug 21 2013 18:02

Nice one, Dave. There is something refreshing about "The Abolition of Work" but I agree it is the beginning of a conversation, one which must be stated in much more precise terms... Thanks for this clarifying piece!

Black Badger
Aug 21 2013 18:18

Rest assured that Mr Black will be responding to Dave's mischaracterizations.

Oct 16 2013 21:51

Hi, Black Badger, has he responded ? would love to see a link posted or a title I can search

Mark Drifter
Dec 10 2013 13:52

Greetings Comrades,
Here's the response available online:
Feedback or Letters to the editor: | or simply send him an email directly.
Love & Liberation!

Oct 18 2013 10:51
DaveH wrote:
As far as Black’s critique that in a collectively owned factory “the people become the new tyrant.” Its hard to know what Black means by this .... What if perhaps Black’s critique is a critique of democratic decision making in the work place specifically? Black does not say this however and past his one sentence his point is unclear. If we wanted to start this conversation we would have to discuss the difference between democratically controlled workplaces under capitalism and ones after capitalism.

It is quite correct that in a collectively owned factory under capitalism "the people become the new tyrant". This is because you can't have an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism. The capitalist market imposes pressures that mean the worker-owners are forced to make pretty much the same decisions as a capitalist owner would. If they don't, they go under.