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.
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
libcom.org 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,
"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,
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.
"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:
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:
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".)