Reflections on the Abolition of Work

The following was supposed to be delivered at Gilman Street in Berkeley in March 2005, but I was unable to get there

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first publication, in San Francisco, of The Abolition of Work. What a long wild ride it’s been! It’s been republished many times, usually without my knowledge, but always with my consent. It’s been translated into a dozen languages.

I suspect part of its success is that it was inadvertently well-timed. It appeared at a time when working hours were getting longer, work was being intensified, AND unemployment was high. If you needed proof that our society is fundamentally irrational, there it is.

This is not the occasion for a formal, systematic, well-organized lecture like I delivered last year at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Instead I’ll draw on for my informal, unsystematic, disorganized and much briefer remarks tonight.

Although the notion of “the abolition of work” cannot be reduced to a sound-bite, the basic idea is to distinguish two dichotomies that are often confused. Work is effort compelled for the purpose of producing a product. Play is free activity engaged in because it is enjoyable, regardless of the outputs or consequences, if any. Play doesn’t have to be productive and it usually isn’t. Work doesn’t have to be an activity satisfying in itself and it usually isn’t. But play can be productive. If some of our activities could be so arranged that the production of use-values was at the same time the “consumption” of gratifying (creative, artistic, sensuous, game-like, or whatever) activity that is what I mean by the abolition of work.

You have likely come across the comment by the English economist John Maynard Keynes that “in the long run, we will all be dead.” And he was as good as his word. But in 1931, amidst the Great Depression, he ventured to forecast the future of work in the long run. He believed that ever greater capital investment and techno-progress would all but abolish work within a hundred years. There will be an age of “leisure and abundance.” The only problem would be finding enough work to satisfy the inherent human craving for work from which you all suffer, no doubt.

Well, we are 74% of the way to almost work-free abundance. There has been, if anything, even more capital investment and technological innovation than Keynes expected. Keynes thought that in a century we would be working 3 hours a day, so if we are on schedule, we should now be working a 4 hour day. But the only people now (or until recently) working 4 hours a day are anarchist hunter-gatherers like the San who are entirely spared the laborsaving benefits of capital investment and high technology.

One lesson I take from this is that experts should always be viewed with suspicion, and experts on work should be presumed to be wrong unless proven to be right. As Ivan Illich put it, “Economists know about as much about work as alchemists do about gold.”

I have some more examples.

In The Abolition of Work, I wrote that every year 14,000 to 25,000 workers die while working. I can’t remember where I got that. But when I went to update the estimate last year, I found estimates ranging from 1,000 to 90,000. The US Department of Labor estimate for job-related deaths in the years 1993 to 1996 was over 10, 000 annually.

What these vastly disparate estimates do tell us is that nobody is bothering to compile these statistics accurately, because they don’t care. The government can tell us with fair accuracy how many tons of soybeans were produced last year. But it can’t tell us, apparently nobody can tell us, how many people died in order to produce and market soybeans, automobiles, cell phones or anything else.

Government and business have reasons to want to know production statistics. But government and business, I suggest, have reasons why they would rather not know, or at least that they would rather the public didn’t know, the death-toll from work. People might wonder if work is worth the cost in deaths, injuries and illnesses.

Another point, which I made 20 years ago, is that the death toll FROM work must be higher than the death toll AT work. I’ve read that many coroners don’t recognize homicides or car crash deaths as work-related, although we’ve all read news stories about workers who kill their bosses, their fellow workers and/or themselves. And surely any death while commuting is a death because of work.

Here’s a truly shameless fraud. Since about 1948, the hours of work have increased. But in the same period, productivity has more than doubled. Lord Keynes of course predicted exactly the opposite. From 1969 to 1989, the average annual working hours of fulltime workers rose by 158 hours, which is an astonishing one month a year of extra work. The 1999 annual report on the American workforce by the US Department of Labor is very smug about the coexistence of low unemployment and low inflation. But it was nervous about claims that Americans are overworked. For instance, the claims made in a book by Julia Schor, The Overworked American. I often cite this book myself. The Department of Labor blandly asserted that hours of work have been in general stable since 1960.

This conclusion is based on 3 glaring methodological flaws.

#1: The data on working hours are based on reports from employers, not workers. Employers have many reasons to understate working hours. For example, to conceal illegal overtime. I also suspect that many businesses, especially small businesses, don’t report in at all, and the ones that don’t are probably the ones with the longest working hours, the sweatshops.

Although it would involve more trouble and expense, there’s no reason why the government, which has the identity of workers through social security, can’t survey a sample of them and compare their self-reports to employers’ reports. That would probably show that the employer statistics are worthless.

#2: If a worker has more than one job – get this – only the hours worked on the main job are counted! The most overworked workers of all are the ones with two or more jobs, obviously. They are also the worst paid and the ones without benefits, because if two employers of part-time workers will usually extend no fringe benefits, whereas one employer of full-time workers, if desirous of a longterm labor force, may extend some benefits. And there’s been a vast increase in workers like this. It’s one of the major developments since I first wrote on this topic. But these overworkers aren’t counted properly.

#3: If you thought that those were crass deceptions, I’ve saved the worst for last. One of the major trends in work is longer hours for fulltime workers. Another is a spectacular increase in part-time work, mainly among people who can’t find fulltime work. These are completely different categories of workers, as diametrically opposite as “too much” and “not enough.” So what does the government do? It adds together the workers doing too much work with the workers not doing enough work, splits the difference, and announces that workers are working, on average, the usual hours, and in some cases even less! Statistical sociology does not get much better than this ñ for the bosses and the state.

In concluding, I’d like to draw your attention to an aspect of The Abolition of Work which nobody seems to have noticed. It is not an explicitly anarchist essay. In fact, I mentioned anarchism only once, and not favorably. I wrote that “all of the old ideologies are conservative because they believe in work. Some of them, like Marxism and most brands of anarchism, believe in work all the more fiercely because they believe in so little else.”

When I mentioned authors whom I considered relevant, I did include anarchists such as Kropotkin, Paul Goodman, and even Murray Bookchin. But I didn’t identify them as anarchists. I was pretty mad at anarchists in 1985. Chris Carlsson and h
is fellow Marxist thugs at Processed World had just run me out of town. Most local anarchists, except for Lawrence Jarach, played footsy with Processed World or else looked the other way. Some of them are still doing it. It was years before I would again identify myself as an anarchist.

And yet, The Abolition of Work is an anarchist essay. Most anarchists now understand that the state didn’t come out of nowhere. The state is connected to particular forms of society. So is anarchy. Most anarchists understand that you can’t abolish the state without abolishing capitalism. That’s true, but I took the argument further. I say that you can’t abolish the state without abolishing work.

I wasn’t the first anarchist to identify the abolition of work as an anarchist issue. John Zerzan’s writings in the 1970s about the revolt against work influenced me. And they at least imply the abolition of work, although John wasn’t calling himself an anarchist then. What I think I did do was define work as a basic anarchist issue. I forced even the workerist, pro-work anarchists like anarcho-syndicalists and Platformists to defend work instead of just taking it for granted. They ridicule the idea of zerowork instead of trying to refute it, so, the idea goes unrefuted. Naturally, that means more people will agree with it. The number of intellectually serious critiques I’ve received in the last 20 years is shockingly small. And I don’t think any of them came from an anarchist.

I like to think that, after my essay, anarchist thought is not quite the same and never will be quite the same. Anyway, my anti-copyrighted essay is my gift to all of you.

Slingshot Editorial notes

Cut paragraph beginning, “When I mentioned”

Main point, I think, is a little vague. A statement about the concept of work -what is work and what it is not may be relevant to prospective reader of the A of W, someone who has heard of the essay but not yet read it, or intrigued by this article, etc.

True! Unemployment rates continue to rise. There seems to be less paying jobs /paying hours. Service industry continues to grow but even so cannot keep up with demand for jobs as other industries cut workforce.

Employers are required to report work-related injuries, as are doctors. Injured workers must report injuries in order to receive benefits.

When I see non-specific statistical data, makes me doubt accuracy of other statistical statements in article

I’m not sure that work is mostly bad because of work-related deaths, which is the focus of half the article. I didn’t like the sectarian section — a bit scattered.

Remember that written as speech, possibly edit – OK to print

Reply to Comments

1. Cut “When I mentioned . . . “ this was a triumphal return to me (even if I had to have a bodyguard at the Bookfair). But I see that even 20 years after I was run out of Dodge City, some Bay Area anarchists are still afraid of Processed World. So go ahead and get it.

2. Main point a little vague: it was written for an audience I assumed already knew the main point. It wasn’t vague at all, because the main point wasn’t there at all. However, I’ve now written for you the shortest version yet of the zerowork thesis.

3. “Employers are required to report,” etc. So what? Of course, they all report in, right? As anarchists, we know that everyone obeys the law, right? Who decides in the first instance what injuries are work-related? The employer, whose interest it is to report as few such injuries as possible. There are no OSHA cops stationed even in large factories. And how many employers do, or even could, report that some of their employees have committed suicide or died in car crashes while commuting? “Injured workers must report . . . “ Injured workers are not required to report their problems to anybody. Dead workers, of course, are unable to do so. To receive “benefits”? Maybe this person refers to workers compensation. Most injured workers don’t even bother, the payoff is minimal (you might get $200 for the loss of a left ring finger, etc.) the paperwork is considerable, and the bureaucracy is hostile. Some workers aren’t covered, like farm laborers, who have very high rates of occupational injury (and do you think illegal aliens report ANYTHING to the government?). I suggest you lay off on this point which probably can’t be addressed adequately in the pages of a publication of your size. Or somebody can write a rebuttal.

4. I have no idea what “non-specific statistical data” means. My new figures are referenced. I admitted that my 20 year old figures aren’t. Who now cares? I used the most current stuff I could find. This is not an academic article, I can write those too, and I have, but my impression was that they’re not suitable to your publication. Footnotes have their place but not in speeches.

5. I never said that work is mostly bad because of work-related deaths (or injuries) ñ that would be to turn me into a leftist, which, as I believe is well known, I’m not. This is an UPDATE. If you want to publish the whole argument, reprint “The Abolition of Work.” I was reporting on some relevant things I’ve learned SINCE I wrote about work in 1985 and 1994. And there is no “sectarian section.”

Aside from the foregoing, I made a number of minor improvements in the text, which I now return to you.