The late polish science-fiction writer Stanisław Lem who, alongside Ursula Le Guin, is one of my personal favorites in the genre, once wrote a short story in which the protagonist astronaut crashes on a planet inhabited by robots. To fit in, the astronaut disguises himself as a robot, but is eventually exposed. In an unexpected plot twist, it turns out that everyone on the planet was performing the same act – they were all humans pretending to be robots. This is a powerful statement concerning how ideology can be so strong that it is hard to penetrate, but when someone or something breaks the spell, it seems at once both empty and absurd. In many ways this resembles our relation to work today, or, even more profoundly, our very definition of what work is. And it doesn’t end there, as our concept of work necessarily spills over to our concept of free time.
“Free time is a euphemism for the peculiar way labor as a factor of production not only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance and repair. Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewriters don’t do that. But workers do.” – Bob Black, The Abolition of Work
But since the workplace is such an important aspect of our lives under capitalism, it is a natural arena for struggle and organization against the system – by no means the only one, but rather one of many. We spend much of our time working, and the places we work at will be what we inherit when the capitalist class finally steps into the halls of extinction. That does not, however, necessitate an endorsement of the conditions or form that work or more specifically wage labor currently takes on. We want the abolition of capitalism, the end of states and hierarchies, equality and well-being for all. In that vision, there is no room for work as we find it today, and therefore our relation to this type of work must always remain one of antagonism. Seeing and understanding it for what it is can be an important step in liberating ourselves spatially, physically and temporally, and allowing ourselves to push on with the things necessary for a complete liberation. In taking action in the present world, we must never let go of our objectives, and we must never be tricked into accepting as ours values of the very system we wish to overthrow. As such, a critique of wage labor is not just a critique of the formal relations in the workplace, but also of the resulting conditions those relations lead to – internalizing the boss, alienating work, long work hours and ultimately the many ways in which our ideas, thoughts and expectations about life and work have been shaped by the rise and development of capitalism. The systems at play are so sophisticated that they often turn us into the guardians and overseers of our own exploitation. The chains we wear today are as much mental as they are material, and breaking them must begin in our minds.
“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.” – Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness
All of this can be seen as a synthesis. We can be actively pro-worker and anti-work at the same time, and as our struggles bear fruit, the apparent contradiction dissolves as the new social relations reshape the society – no more workers, and no more work as we know it.
Some of us, like those working in the manufacturing industries, feel the full force of the system’s effects. As appendages to machines, we have ourselves become machines in a modern Cartesian nightmare, where the advances of science have, in uniting the body and the mind, expelled the latter. We are all increasingly playing the roles of robots. We are being monitored, analyzed and picked apart. Every second, every step is scrutinized in the quest for increased productivity and, in the end, profits. Utilizing modern technology, workers in factories are often recorded on video. The video is then analyzed, and broken down into small fragments. Each movement is documented, each sub-task measured and ultimately, like a puzzle, fit into a time frame between the monotonous motions of machines. Time study, they call it. No wonder that we feel, as Marx said, only as ourselves outside our work, and in our work as outside ourselves.
For those of us lucky enough to work with things that interest us, this alienation is often hidden under the appearance of partial work satisfaction. But it cannot hide the fact that we might be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It cannot hide the fact that behind the veil, the same system lurks, working us for the sake of perpetual growth and profits. We risk our health, we get burned out due to too many work assignments, while outside our windows others can’t even find a job to sustain themselves. We don’t make the decisions in our work places and communities and are, at best, blissfully unaware of the system that uses us and that our work perpetuates.
To add insult to injury, many of the tasks we perform today fill no real purpose other than the accumulation of capital, they are often in themselves a means to pacify the public, and cause externalities such as environmental degradation or immense suffering for non-human animals. Since most of us depend on jobs, on any job really, those offered need not be the least appealing, and the more desperate one’s situation, the more alienated and appalling the working conditions. All of this is sold to us as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the splendid process of progress. But what is that never-ending progress for, anyway, if those contributing to it work too hard to enjoy it and feel themselves out of place in the midst of it? How easy it is to forget that, at the time of its large scale introduction, wage labor was seen as a horrible fate.
“Such was the hatred that workers felt for waged labor that Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, declared that it did not make any difference whether one lived under the enemy or under one’s brother, if one worked for a wage. This explains the growth, in the wake of the enclosures […] of the number of ‘vagabonds’ and ‘masterless’ men, who preferred to take to the road and risk enslavement or death – as prescribed by the ‘bloody’ legislation passed against them – rather than work for a wage.” – Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
If there is one thing I want to highlight in this text, it is the following. The social construct that puts shackles on us, that binds us to workplaces we don’t want and jobs we feel alienated from – you owe it nothing. It, in fact, owes its entire existence to you, your work and your energy, which it slowly siphons out of you. Don’t blame yourself for not complying or for cheating it. Don’t stress yourself out satisfying a system that knows no human feelings or needs. Don’t feel bad for always looking after your interests as well as those of your fellow beings first. This is one of the reasons the status quo should fear us. Because if we can break that spell, we can empower ourselves and be examples for others. If enough people no longer find themselves within the constraints imposed upon us, the powers that be have no choice but to admit defeat or expose their true colors by resorting to increased coercion and violence. Should that mask of civilized appearance fall, the dance of revolution can begin in earnest.
In our jobs, as in any social environment, we should generally be respectful towards the people we meet, unless given good reason otherwise. As much is granted. But for all of us there are fragments or sometimes entire episodes of our jobs that are not concerned with human relations or human well-being. Fragments when, simply put, we’re up against the system, in a more or less pure form. In these circumstances, where no other beings can suffer from it, when our decisions don’t directly affect others negatively, we shouldn’t feel ashamed to cut every corner we can. There is no point in performing these jobs the way they are intended, because they are not intended for the world we want. We should take every opportunity to prioritize ourselves and our co-workers or other people we meet in our professional roles, to the degree we feel we can do that without harming others or jeopardizing our own sustenance. But in doing this, we should never feel bad, never feel like we owe anything, because we are merely reasserting our humanity.
What could this mean, practically? Don’t get dragged into internalizing capitalist value systems. You are not a part of your workplace. Don’t work harder than you have to, don’t worry about business as if it was personal, as if it was a person. Distance yourself – not from the people, but from the system. Encourage, subtly, your co-workers to do the same. Think of your well-being first, just do what you need to do to get by. Naturally, it is hard to be specific here, because every job has its own characteristics, and only those performing a specific one know the intricate details. But the bottom line is, whenever you can identify those moments when it is you against the system, always pick yourself and don’t feel bad about it, because it is the right thing to do. How far you want to take it is also something that must be determined on a personal basis, from quiet everyday protests like slowing down the pace of work, to outright sabotage. But always remember, the point is not the hasty demise of your particular workplace (or more likely, just your employment there), but to subvert the system so that it works as much as possible in our own favor, while we organize and struggle towards its eventual abolition. To leech back a bit of what it takes from us in the first place.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lose ourselves in activities or ambitiously pursue tasks for long hours. But if we do, those should be tasks we set aside for ourselves freely, tasks in which we feel ourselves as our own masters, and in which we find our own purpose, alone or in free associations with others. Given the opportunity to shape our own world, we should shape it in a way that makes the tasks necessary for our well-being as convenient and as playful as possible. When we then do these things, we no longer really work, as much as we express ourselves and fulfill ourselves. We become the animal, the being, which is currently caged inside a robot’s body under the false pretense of reason and discipline. As a cog in the capitalist machine.
In freeing our minds and our bodies from some of the stress of our current jobs, in freeing ourselves from those internalized value systems that make us physically and mentally exhausted, we save energy, nurture our health and make space for other projects. We must never forget that our struggle is not meant to devour us, and that we must try to live as full and free lives already under the present condition. By doing this, we fill our lives with more joy and harmony, and our struggles with determination and energy. We shouldn’t feel bad for refusing to become machines, for breaking laws that break us, ignoring regulations we haven’t agreed to or deviating from norms we find objectionable. We shouldn’t be proud of our wage labor, or love our wage labor. We should be proud of ourselves and love ourselves and each other. Thus the title, and mantra of this text: Love your life, fuck your work.