Work and non-work - Owen Hatherley

Chungking Express

A short history of the refusal of work as a revolutionary strategy.

A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilisation holds sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny.'
Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy (1883)

The industrial equation will bring about a condition where, within a century, the word ‘worker’ will have no current meaning. It will be something you will have to look up in an early 20th century dictionary.'
Buckminster Fuller, Ideas and Integrities (1963)

One of the greatest tragedies of socialism, a movement which has had its fair share, is the in the way that, for one reason or another, it has become inextricably associated with work. Hard, manly work, the kind of work that makes you virtuous, with the early death, asbestos poisoning or desultory retirement that might entail. This is the case pretty much everywhere, although is particularly grim and acute in Britain, where the very name of the (one-time) socialist party speaks of its commitment to toil, no matter how grim or pointless – Labour. Unsurprisingly, an enthusiasm for the ennobling qualities of toil, and a concomitant contempt for the intellect, for the non-utilitarian, and for any human activity which doesn't end in profit, is the only thing retained by New Labour. Only today, it's the neo-Taylorist 'total control' of call centre software and the servile indignities of the service industry that form the definition of a hard day's slog for the managerial class of a stagnant neoliberalism, as opposed to the old model of time spent actually producing stuff.

There are, of course, some good reasons for this fetishism of labour: a statement that society will be run in future by those who actually work to produce the objects and goods society runs upon, a statement that wealth is not created by the wealthy – and as most attempts at socialism made in the 20th century were made in parlous material circumstances, the millennium of non-work was always somewhat difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, it always rested on a huge misunderstanding of what the bourgeoisie actually is. By the time socialism existed as a serious and workable idea in the mid-19th century, the ruling class was no longer the profligate, aesthetically inclined, amoral, inbred and licentious aristocracy, but the middle class, whose own commitment to a (less physically exacting) ethic of hard work was strikingly similar to that of the incipient proletariat. Thus did socialism get suckered into playing the bourgeoisie's own game of glorifying an increasingly undignified and rote practice.

Before socialism became synonymous with work, workerism and the sentimentality that came with it, there was much debate about what exactly work would become in a socialist society. One variant of the Workerist position could be found in the writings of William Morris. Although his socialism was remarkably unsentimental, work was perhaps his blind spot. In Useful Work and Useless Toil, he unsurprisingly condemns the machinic trudge imposed upon the worker by the factory system, and shocks his Victorian audience by the very suggestion that some labour was entirely pointless: 'It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable...most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only 'industrious' enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour.' Morris' contribution was – importantly – to insist that most work was mind-numbing, body-distorting and in no way noble. And with some prescience, he recognises that what we have here is a system in which work will be created regardless of any actual material need, a very recent dilemma.

'If we were to wake up some morning now, under our present system, and find it 'easy to live', that system would force us to set to work at once and make it hard for us to live: we should call that 'developing our resources' or some such fine name.'
William Morris, Useful Work and Useless Toil (1885)

This, in a nutshell, is the ideology of work under the hypertechnologised capital that would exist 120 years after these words were written. Morris recognises that every 'labour saving device', every innovation which could seemingly limit toil, is used by capital to expand the domain of toil. However, at the heart of Morris' socialism is the conception of a future in which work could be a 'pleasure', and it is incumbent upon the socialist to imagine ways of making work 'attractive'. Some of these measures include making sure that all physically unpleasant work is extremely short, and so forth. But, as can be seen in News from Nowhere – for all its wit, one of the drearier socialist utopias - Morris wants a revival of forms of work made obsolete by the machine: craftsmanship, ornament. Work as play. Work as part of a guild socialism in which, after the production of essentials, 'manly' labourers set to the production of beauty. The idea of a new kind of man being produced by technology would have horrified Morris, and his utopia is not too far from the Ludd island of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, after man's pre-emptive strike against the machine: steel bridges replaced with stone, women content, largely, with child-bearing and rearing.

At least on the rare occasions when the elimination of work has been considered, it has been Morris' version that has been accepted: a socialism of stick-whittling, stonemasons and wallpaper designers. Much less attention has been given to a near-immediate riposte to Morris' workerism, by Oscar Wilde in the criminally under-read The Soul of Man under Socialism. Although Wilde makes no particular bones about supporting class struggle, it is not the heroic toiling classes that he exults. Wilde's essay is the first in defence of the undeserving poor, making rational, calm and unhysterical arguments for avoiding work, for disdaining charity and philanthropy, for theft, for agitation, revolt, anger and resentment. In particular, Wilde fears a certain bourgeois arts-and-crafts exultation of hairy labour linking up with the workerism of the labour movement into something which sounds remarkably like a prophecy of Stalinism – the prospect of someone knocking on the door every morning to compel citizens to fulfil their quotas of manual labour.

'I cannot help saying that a good deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour'
Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891)

Wilde wants to let the machines do it. While for Morris the industrial revolution is a worry, something which stands in the way of the conversion of useless toil into useful work, for Wilde (as for Marx) it is the very condition of socialism itself. The very fact that machines had achieved such incredible, inhuman feats under a repressive system ('there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man developed a machine to do his work he began to starve') meant that under socialism, they could be developed against labour itself. 'Man is made for something better than distributing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.' This is not some contrarian fantasy. Machines, pace a century of reactionary dystopias, will be our new race of slaves, and be especially developed to take on the most grim and laborious tasks: 'machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing'. The differences in Wilde's approach and Morris' are essentially cosmetic: both of them essentially want to abolish the litany of tasks listed above, and have no truck with hand-wringing Protestant justifications of them. Neither would regard any society as truly civilised that let them continue. However the difference in emphasis is very important indeed. Morris wants the human being of socialism to resemble the old one, only pacified, less brutal and exploitative, happier and more creative. Wilde, meanwhile, considers that such a loosening of the bounds of work and exploitation would fundamentally create a new kind of human being altogether. While Morris imagines everyone becoming village craftsmen, Wilde imagines them all becoming leisured polymaths.

There is a counter-tradition within Marxism of the refusal of work, something which begins with Paul Lafargue's tract The Right to be Lazy, a pamphlet which catalogues, horrified, the proletariat's (understandable) self-delusion that its work is in any way useful or dignified – and makes this critique from within the workers' movement, rather than as a sympathetic observer. Although Wilde is, foolishly, not taken as seriously as a socialist thinker, Lafargue's essay makes more or less the same points as The Soul of Man, only with one particular difference: he is one of the first theorists of the joys of sloth, of the pleasure of not doing, of drinking, eating, lazing, reclining, not producing. While the French revolution's Hellenism made it impervious to the cult of toil, their successors are caught in a trap: 'they proclaim as a revolutionary principle the Right to Work. Shame to the French proletariat! Only slaves would have been capable of such baseness. A Greek of the heroic times would have required twenty years of capitalist civilization before he could have conceived such vileness.' Wilde and Lafargue both remind us that, for the Ancient Greeks, the civilised man is the man who does not work. A society able to create truly great works of art, to devote itself to aesthetics, philosophy, creation of new selves and new objects, has to give its tasks to someone else, preferably some subordinate group. The new subordinate group is to be created, automated. This reaches delirious heights of rhetorical imagination: ‘Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labour. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudices of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from the sordidae artes and from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty’

'We are talking about a surplus of refusal to directly valourise capital that today can be identified within the forms of class behaviour. We are talking about the fact that once workers have reached this level of productivity and 'refinement of their talents' (that, after all, is what productivity actually consists in) they 'want to enjoy it'. That is, they no longer imagine work as a discipline but rather as a satisfaction. Workers imagine their lives not as work but as the absence of it, their activity as free and creative exercise. We are talking about the massive flight of labour from factory work towards the tertiary and service sectors. We are talking about the spontaneous refusal to accept the rules of training for abstract labour and apprenticeship to unmediated labour.'
Antonio Negri, The Workers Party Against Work (1973)

What happens to the Right to Non-Work 70, 80 years later, when capitalism has reached a temporary truce with the labour movement and absorbed the Marxist critique? At this point, we will have to conflate two seemingly diametrically opposed thinkers – Buckminster Fuller with Antonio Negri. The latter was the theorist of the 'crisis of the planner state', anatomising in the early 70s the collapse of the Keynesian compromise between Labour and capital, seemingly unaware that a far more brutal form of capitalism would succeed it; the former, meanwhile, a polymath and super-technocrat who took Keynesianism to the extent of envisaging 'total world planning'. Fuller wouldn't necessarily have appreciated being read alongside a revolutionary Marxist. He frequently reiterated that ‘the concepts of Karl Marx are typical of the erroneous and inadequate way in which men at first pondered the industrial equation. They thought of men chained to the machines and grievously exploited by the machine owners. With automation an increasing economic reality, we see now that they industrial equation was heading towards the complete elimination of man as a worker. The industrial equation will bring about a condition where, within a century, the word ‘worker’ will have no current meaning. It will be something you will have to look up in an early 20th century dictionary’. Today this is a poignant passage: we are nearly as far from Fuller as he was from Wilde, yet the situation he describes only makes sense as a description of Blairite sleight-of-hand.

In fact, Fuller already anatomised the situation that would characterise labour after the partial annihilation of the industrial proletariat: the production of jobs entirely for their own sake, with no useful imperative: something finessed by the service industry in 'Anglo-Saxon' economies, where work is imposed to prevent the vertiginous shock of realising that technology has made labour obsolete. 'Instead of paying boilermakers not to work and to go to research school in Florida, for fear that this is socialism, we are giving them 5.50 an hour dole to sit up there and pretend to be capitalistic workers while putting nuts on bolts.' This 'self-kidding' safeguards the work ethic, it reassures capital that it is secure. Fuller makes quite clear two facts which contemporary capitalism rests on denying: that the growth in both wealth and productive technologies that characterised the post-war golden age proved Malthusianism to a fiction, via 'the industrial equation' of producing more with less; and that, accordingly, most work is entirely superfluous. Instead, he envisages a consumer economy without a service industry, where super-engineers would replace Wilde and Lafargue's industrial Athenian or Morris' new craftsman.

What he doesn't envisage is that a useless manual labour will merely be replaced with a useless service industry. Capital would never allow the abolition of labour. The rise of services was seen by Negri in early 1970s pamphlets like The Workers Party Against Work, written as interventions in working class struggle, as a sign of the progressive obsolescence of a certain model of work, where falling rates of profit and working class militancy were making traditional factory labour not just unnecessary but dangerous for capital – something that may have been forgiveable in the flux of the moment, but now seems an illusion: as if servility were an adequate substitute for production. Nonetheless, the solution proposed by Potere Operaio and Autonomia - the refusal of work as a sign of workers' power itself – marked perhaps the first adoption of the Right to be Lazy as a serious political programme. While most of the other thinkers mentioned here based their opposition to work on theoretical and personal disdain, Operaismo based it on actual observation of and involvement in working class practice, and the hatred, refusal, sabotage of and theft from work that characterised workers in areas like the Porto Marghera chemical works. Curiously enough, this was the working class behaving precisely as The Soul of Man Under Socialism insisted it should. The aggression and lack of humility in actions like 'proletarian shopping', where supermarkets were compelled by direct action to sell at reduced prices, would no doubt have pleased Wilde. This recognised that a great many workers, contra Lafargue, hated work, avoided it whenever possible, and had no belief in the inherent nobility of their plight. They would not wait for the 'industrial equation' to make this work obsolete – instead they would refuse it from within, and transform it into a workers' power that abolishes work.

The capitalist response, of course, was not to follow either Fuller or Negri's ideas of what might replace the old capitalism based on factories, factory discipline and an urbanised industrial proletariat. In fact, solidarity could be destroyed all the better in a society based on the inanities of the service industry and its communications appendages. Meanwhile, alienation from the product of labour would be replaced with not even knowing what that product is, or if it even exists. Yet still, work goes on, as controlled, brutal and idiotic as it ever was. Thatcherism with a human face claims to have abolished the working class, but it perpetuates work to an ever more ludicrous extent, particularly when it wants to remind the 'core voters' of its roots in the movement of the toiling classes. British jobs for British workers. War on the workshy. Work more to earn more. Work trials for the disabled, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for those who don't want to work. He who does not work, neither shall he eat. Today, the only response to this has to be – the party of the workers, whatever or wherever it is, must stand against work.

From The Measures Taken