In 1930, when thinking about the future, liberal economist J.M.Keynes believed that;
“man [sic] will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
Despite continually improving production rates the problem of work has not vanished.
Whenever the crisis is discussed in the media we hear the same demands for work or jobs, and the same tired promises spouted out by politicians, think tanks and trade unions. Whilst some critics focus on the activities of politicians or “banksters” as being the cause of the crisis, we think that the root cause is, actually, a crisis of work.
Soaring production hasn’t liberated us from work but has made our lives more precarious. Automation and globalisation have altered the global economy and fundamentally changed the way that work looks. Here in the Global North we have witnessed rising unemployment figures and stagnating wages. The government’s “Plan A” has been to “make work pay” by attacking state welfare programmes and trying to make workers more “flexible”. Whilst those of us without work struggle, under fear of punishment, to find any kind of work, those “lucky” enough to be employed struggle to make ends meet. We only need to look at how many payday loan companies exist on our high streets or to how many of us are claiming in-work benefits for proof that having a job is no guarantee of being able to ‘get by’. It’s clear that work isn’t working. Five years into the crisis, and with few signs of even the potential for recovery it is time for us to revisit the politics and critique of work. Things need to change, and to change fundamentally.
So what are the alternatives? Despite the increasingly desperate cries of some commentators we can’t go backwards to a nostalgic “Plan B” of full employment and a strong state. We cannot work our way out of this crisis, because even if we wanted to, changes in production and geo-politics have made this impossible. We need to make plans that move us beyond the dominance of work and the false dreams of ‘full employment’.
The failure of Plan A and Plan B demand that we begin to construct Plan C; or, much better, several Plan Cs. We want to be part of processes that move from an ethics against work (which is at times very problematic – think ‘drop out’ culture) and towards an actual politics against, and beyond, work. We’ll happily admit we don’t have a blueprint, but we do see struggles around shortening the working week, implementing a universal wage regardless of employment, and fighting to defend and improve our social wage (the payments and services we receive from the state) as, whilst potentially problematic, also able to provide ways to move beyond the current domination of the so-called ‘world of work’. We want to develop and amplify politics which are not simply reactive to capitalism but also challenge the logic that dictates its own solutions in the form of economic growth, or the creation of unnecessary, underpaid and more recently unpaid work. For us, the position of anti-work challenges the dead rhetoric of both the right and a part of the left that calls for a return to full employment, along with the idea of any ‘recovery’ of this system.
An anti-work position is not necessarily a rejection of productive activity. Rather, we view it as a position from which we can begin to rethink our lives and imagine how they might function when not subordinate to capitalism or the wage-labour relation. It is the possibility to both refuse and transform the system of work as it is presently understood, rather than to simply win a few concessions, it is both a means of resistance and also a struggle for a different relation between life and work.
We live in an increasingly post-employment society which is stratified with other forms of oppresion; ours is a society split not just along class line but also upon gender, race and nationality. A viable anti-work politics needs to engage with struggles over the existing wage, whilst also seeking to connect with broader society and argue for a transformation of our relationship to work entirely. We see many fellow travellers already working on these ideas; some are familiar and within the radical Left whilst others are in more unusual places. We want to be pushing our ideas through a variety of media (expect us to produce texts, readers and short films) as well as engaging with other groups working around this issue. If you’d like to get involved with our project, have skills to offer or are involved in something similar and think we should talk then please get in touch.
Workers against Work Working Group