“One the problems,” Ben said, “is that while we’ve been quite good at celebrating the refusal of work, we never had anything like zerowork training.”
When I heard this statement it struck me as quite strange, and not because of the context, which was odd enough in itself. My friend and comrade Ben made this during a meeting of the editorial collective for Autonomedia, a long running Brooklyn-based autonomist publisher. He said this in a context of discussing what he learned and experience in the everyday operations of publishing. More particularly Ben, after being involved with the project for a decade, had decided that it was time for him to move on. In other words this was the autonomist equivalent of an ‘exit meeting,’ a moment to declare his exit from a collective whose state goal was to exit from work as well, to “substruct the planetary work machine” in the words of p.m.
When I heard this at first it seemed a bit amusing and absurd. What exactly would zerowork training be? Could you actually train someone for refusing work? And what would the key skills involved be? Could you tell they mastered the idea when the work of the training itself was refused?
As strange as it might sound, Ben’s suggestion ultimately struck me as quite true, and insightful. Simply declaring that one would like to abolish work does not magically equip you with the skills and organizational capacities to make that happen. The refusal of work is a concept and practice, an approach to and understanding of the political, not an incantation. Among the concepts associated with post-autonomia it is one of the most popular and widely circulated, but also one of the most misunderstood. A few years ago when Jack Bratich and I facilitated a popular education class on autonomist ideas and histories we constantly found ourselves arguing against assumptions that the refusal of work was primarily individualistic, along the lines of clichéd hippy drop out culture. But work refusal is many things, from mass exodus from the factory and wildcat strikes to attempted individual escape plans. The point is not to exclude one form from consideration, but to see the relation between them: how different modes of refusal work together to animate new forms of social composition. In that sense often times refusal serves more as a provocation or a utopian demand in Kathi Weeks sense (2011) then something that is elaborated in an expanded way.
2.The Pleasures (and Mostly Sorrows) of Work
Alain de Botton, midway through his book The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work, suggests that the most remarkable feature of modern work practices may be less a question of technology or organization, and more one of a mentality: namely the idea that work should make us happy. He is not suggesting that work in all its manifestations has not been a central element previously, with its changes it mutations often occupying a quite central role, rather that there is something unique in the development of the idea that work is something more than punishment, that “we should seek to work even in the absence of financial imperative” (2009: 106).
One can, and perhaps should, quibble about whether this is a totally unique and unprecedented development. Taking a longer-term historical view there have also been advocates of the glories of work for its own good, as well as harsh critics, and the ongoing attempts of the multitude to escape from the drudgery of the workday. But regardless of that De Botton does raise an interesting point about the way that work is celebrated in the present, as a kind of cultural good and value to be cherished above and beyond rewards or remuneration that it may produce. It is this kind of celebration that arguably ties together the continued celebration of artistic and cultural work with the continued attempts to impose unpaid or very poorly paid work to the recipients of social benefits. While they may differ greatly in level of cultural prestige and conditions, there is an underlying resonance in the notion of an intrinsic “good” of work that exceeds external rewards.
Even if this is not an unprecedented development, it does seem that it is a much more widespread conception then any previous point in history. And this development shows us something quite interesting about the processes and dynamics that operate in the fueling of cultures. Why would work become all the more celebrated and praised in an age of post-Fordist neoliberal outsourced crisis prone wonder? What I would suggest here is that work is all the more celebrated today as a good in itself, as a resource that can be employed without limit, precisely because of the greater realization of the very real limits on resources more broadly that has become hard to ignore.
Anson Rabinbach in his excellent book The Human Motor genealogically traces the shifting terrains of energy and fatigue through the origins of modernity, spanning across philosophy, physics, and science studies. These debates around energy and conversation underpinned the European science of work, and with it the eventual rise of management and industrial relations, or in other words the social technologies for the intensified and expanded extraction of labor. Rabinbach suggests that a focus on energy conservation became became the Continental answer to a Darwinian-Spencerian vision of society propelled by laws of conflict and struggle. While TH Huxley and others popularized thermodynamics as a metaphor for capitalist superiority these ideas, grounded in scientific materialism and Lamarckian biology, pointed toward “an equilibrium of economic expansion and social justice” (1992: 179). The ideal was that this was to stand above social classes and political imperatives, and rather would be the domain of expert state planners and scientists who could use the study of efficiency and the reduction of waste to turn society into a giant industrial enterprise that would maximize productivity and social justice at the same time. Needless to say this is a notion that would be embraced by few today, even if there is still something sympathetic in the suggestion that the study of efficiency can be used to reduce work and improve conditions rather then intensify exploitation.
3. The Limits to Immaterial Labor
When the Club of Rome published its report The Limits to Growth in 1972 it was something of a shock in many circles to suggest that there were very real limits to the usage of ecological and natural resources, ones that needed to be taken into account. In the forty-some years since then this has become a much more common notion. But as David Harvey has argued again and again, capital does not really solve its problems as much as it moves them around. The recognition of limits to growth and resources has been paired with continued attempts to reduce the cost of labor, the value of work, in varied and often quite vicious ways. These have ranged from attacks on unions, the dismantling of the welfare state, the globalized re-organized of production, the rise of financialization, and a whole host of broader social processes. In the realm of management the discontents of workers have been met with varying changes in approaches from the humanization and job enrichment, to teamwork and ‘fun at work.’ The past decade’s development of the digital economy and network culture likewise has been accompanied by massive expositions of free work, where tasks can be outsourced into bite sized parcel that break down the labor process along with the wages.
While forms of immaterial and cultural work have been hailed as the greater source of value production by management and business theorists, while at the same time likewise being celebrated as the forming the basis of new form of communism by various strands of contemporary post-autonomist thought, this conjuncture should give one pause to think. Perhaps the demand for meaningful work, for work of value and purpose, might mean one thing in the context of rejecting the factory line and the drudgeries of industrial labor? But what does it mean when this very desire for meaning in work become the ideological apparatus that renders us into an apparently infinite resource of workers willing to work not for money but because we believe in what we’re doing, or have some attachment to it? While this greater subjective attachment to work in and beyond its external rewards may have developed within certain sectors, such as the art world and among entrepreneurs, it has drastic consequences when it is generalized beyond those areas.
This has been explored recently in the work of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, who departs from the post-autonomist celebration of immaterial labor to focus on its limits and downfalls: namely exhaustion, depression, and the breakdown and blocking off of moments and possibilities for social recomposition that had been the main focus of autonomist class composition analysis. In essence what Bifo suggests is that we have reached a point where the transformation of working practices actively prevent the emergence of new forms of political movement, of forms of social antagonism capable to radical transforming the present. While this analysis might indeed seem overly pessimistic, especially given the outbreaks of new forms of social movements during the past few years. Rather Bifo argues for a kind of active withdrawal from labor, returning to the autonomist notion of the refusal of work but in expanded forms that create exodus from the economic sphere altogether: “Autonomy does not refer to a new totality to found, nor to a general subversion of the present, but to the possibility of escape, of self-reliance. Autonomy means reduction of contacts with the economic sphere” (2011: 176).
4. Work! Work! It’s the Sound of Police
For at the sight of work – that is to say, severe toil from morning till night – we have the feeling that it is the best police, that it holds every one in check and effectively hinders the development of reason, of greed, and of desire for independence. For work uses up an extraordinary proportion of nervous force, withdrawing it from reflection, meditation, dreams, cares, love, and hatred… And now, horror of horrors! it is the “workman” himself who has become dangerous; the whole world is swarming with “dangerous individuals – Friedrich Nietzsche (1997: 174)
To conclude, let us return to the beginning. It does seem today that work is indeed, as Nietzsche argued, the best policeman. It holds a function of governing social life even when its role in adding productive value seems to slip away, when we find ourselves in the position of what Peter Fleming and Carl Cederstrom refer to as “dead men working” (2012). It might seem at in times of biopolitical production, where the police function of work is thus the police functioning across all of life, that the refusal of work is the refusal of life itself. Not surprisingly this leads to some rather dismal sounding conclusions about the possibility of autonomy and social recomposition. While I can appreciate a certain degree of questioning of the assumptions around the potentials of immaterial labor and networking circulated in debates emerging from post-autonomia over the past decade, I’d nevertheless argue there’s no reason to follow such arguments through to rather dire conclusions. Stefano Harney suggests that this can be found most readily within the black radical tradition precisely in the way that it takes up the problem of how not to refuse work but one’s life when life is the work. For Harney this “is the dimension of original exodus; this is the practice of fugitivity found within the black radical tradition, the escape that does not need to go anywhere but remains escape” (2008).
The project to be undertaken, which I’ve tried to hint at here, is to instead take a more compositional approach to understanding and working with different forms of refusal. That it to say to ask question like what form of social surplus is produced by the refusal? What form of collectivity? And following from that, what circuits of value production and valorization are they enmeshed in? What is the notion of value, of social collectivity, that is embodied in the refusal and how it responds to circuits of capture and accumulation?
Bernard Marszalek in the new introduction to Paul Lafrague’s classic text The Right to be Lazy hints at another important direction, namely that the opposite of work, what is produced by its refusal, is neither leisure or idleness. Rather for Marszalek the opposite of work is “autonomous and collective activity – ludic activity – that develops our unique humanity and ground our perspective of reversing perspective” (Lafargue 2011: 19). A compositional approach to work refusal is then not a question of doing nothing, but developing the skills, capacities, organization, and collective becomings that make possible and sustain these ludic activities and social wealth. In short they are the very form of zerowork training that my friend Ben asked for. This would be a pedagogy of learning not to labor, but not as a form of individual refusal, but as a socialization of refusal. Learning not to labor sits at the junction of the refusal of work and the re-fusing of social energies of refusal back into supporting the continued affective existence and capacities of other forms of life, way of being together, as practice as a form of embodied critique.