Why Work Should Be Abolished

Few ideas have been perceived as more groundless and destructive than the concept of abolishing the labor market – or just working less. But what are we afraid of?

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Illustration.Credit: Asaf Ben Harush
Boaz Izraeli
Boaz Izraeli

“It was astonishing to hear the baron reciting this eulogy of manual labor – or rather not so astonishing, since the sacred character of manual labor is a specifically bourgeois invention.”

– Henri de Montherlant, “The Bachelors”

Progress, as everyone knows, is an excellent thing. And we, to our good fortune, live in a period of obvious progress. Rapid and dynamic, our progress extends its arms into diverse realms and gives them a good shaking up. The equipment surrounding us has greatly improved and become more efficient and convenient; impressive development has occurred in the realm of public mental life. Things are moving. The “MeToo” campaign can perhaps serve as a timely, agreed-upon example of that.

One area, perhaps the most important, however, remains untouched by progress, undeveloped, forgotten back in the feudal era. The core agreement between people and society hasn’t changed for hundreds of years: Give the best of your time and energy, receive in return basic means of existence. That was and remains the arrangement.

Nevertheless, the abolition of work is apparently the hardest sell among the various agendas making the rounds internationally. Whether the listener is a conservative or a liberal, an insurance man, a poet, a burglar or a physiotherapist – talk of eliminating work will immediately awaken the economist in him and prompt him to say in a dry, businesslike, ostensibly rational tone of voice, that there’s no way, the idea is “unfeasible.” Simply because there will be nothing here if people stop working. Even the less drastic version of the idea – a workday that lasts a maximum of four hours – will elicit a guffaw, accompanied by an economics-based explanation of why that too is not possible.

Office workers sit inside an illuminated office building in the City of London, U.K., on Nov. 22, 2018.Credit: Bloomberg

The idea of annulling work, a topic of discussion in fairly small circles of social thinkers, has won little exposure among the general public and is at the bottom of the list of social concerns, lower than religious, left-wing/right-wing or artistic ideas, notions of free sex, the coming of the Messiah, relationships with robots, trans-humanism. Even racial doctrines can be said to have been accepted with more understanding than the notion of abolishing paid work. It may be lacking in morality – the racial doctrine – but it’s not entirely lacking in logic, and might not generate such strong resistance if it were to remain an unrealized theoretical scientific idea unconnected to real life.

On the other hand, the idea of doing away with work remains pristine and ever-young (and ever-neglected), mainly because, in contrast to other ideas, it has never been applied, certainly not on a widespread scale. Almost every significant social idea possesses a certain beauty as long as it remains the preserve of only a few. The problem with many ideas lies in the uglification and crushing they undergo when they enter the realm of the collective – when they fall into the grubby hands of the masses and are put into practice.

Communism, religion, one God, democracy, the free market, America, freedom of expression, liberation from hierarchies – these are all ideas whose gestational core bears a certain conceptual-creative beauty. How elegant “God” would be if it had only remained a mental concept, a subject for contemplation and dialogue and flights of imagination among poets, philosophers, metaphysicians; or if religion had been born in discussions between visionary anthropologists who deal with “social organization,” and had remained there; or if freedom of expression were the preserve of only a few. Even the idea of the settlements in the territories – a biblical-romantic notion – possesses a certain poetic-violent primeval beauty, capable perhaps of evoking scenes from Pasolini films. But in practice, it looks the way it looks. Which is to say, pretty much as bad as the realization of any of the other aforementioned concepts.

As far back as the second half of the 19th century, Paul Lafargue, a French-Cuban thinker, wrote his monumental essay “The Right to Be Lazy” – a work that should be part of the high-school curriculum here, if only as a counterpoint to the education minister’s high-tech obsession. This is how the book begins: “A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work” (translation by Charles Kerr).

Lafargue believed that in the near future, in the wake of accelerated development of mechanization and industrialization, machines would do most of the work necessary for everyday existence, and human beings would sit back and be free. Given the fact that the text was written long ago, we can forgive him his naivete. But when the same idea pops up again – in our time – it looks strange. It comes off like some sort of inappropriate stubbornness.

Yuval Noah Harari, in his most recent book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” also envisions a future in which the working class will become superfluous thanks to the computerization and roboticization that are encroaching on ever-increasing realms of manufacturing and services. According to this vision, people will enjoy an abundance of leisure time, in which they will travel, sit with friends, paint and play musical instruments, hang out with family members and so forth. That forecast has already been proven to be outdated. Unrealistic. Technology wasn’t intended to increase available leisure time and in fact has not done so in the least. If anything, the opposite has happened. In any event, the prediction that technology will supplant the majority of workers has encountered a dual response. Some see it as positive (because it will generate new areas of employment and develop the leisure-time business); others as a recipe for disaster (people won’t work, won’t earn a living, will slide into poverty, and all of society’s systems will collapse).

Herzl’s dystopia

A message similar to Lafargue’s, albeit far less stylized and charismatic, can be found in a 1985 article, “The Abolition of Work,” by Bob Black, an American anarchist. “In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working,” Black wrote, and elaborated, “all 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. Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists – except that I’m not kidding – I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry.

Paul Lafargue, the French-Cuban thinker who authored “The Right to Be Lazy.”

“[All the ideologues] will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us… Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of our lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers… want to keep us working.”

One of Black’s arguments – aimed at those who reject the idea of resisting work and view it as puerile, anarchist nonsense – is that fewer than half the jobs in the modern world have genuinely productive, day-to-day value. All other types of work, meaning most of it, boils down to what’s termed, in typical American roughhouse style, “Bullshit Jobs,” which is the title of a book published this year by anthropologist David Graeber. He maintains that the vast majority of existing service and office jobs are unnecessary, and continue to exist by power of inertia and to preserve the structure of oppression. Furthermore, in the long term, they give rise to a strong feeling of uselessness, mental depletion and depression among the workers.

Graeber refers to a broad spectrum of jobs. It would be difficult to specify what they have in common, it’s easier to say what they are not: They are not productive, certainly not in the old sense of the word, but also not in its modern sense.

It might be argued that Graeber’s approach contradicts the rigid values of efficiency that seemingly characterize modern societies and are meant to screen out lazy and unmotivated or simply superfluous workers. But there’s no contradiction. We’re not talking here about “hidden unemployment” or a situation that anyone even sees as problematic. This is exactly how things ought to be. A review of the book in The New Yorker observed that Graeber sees the logic of increasing jobs in the services fields, ostensibly in order to make them more efficient, as “something nearer to feudalism.”

What would a workless world look like – or at least a world in which work has a narrow, limited place? Who should or can prepare for such a development, and how? It’s possible that differences in the answers to these questions will depend more on the chance personal circumstances of the respondent than on his opinions on socioeconomic matters. It’s likely that those who have a theme running through their lives (art, a significant hobby, spiritual-religious practice or something else) will be optimistic and believe that people will thrive if freed from the burden of work, each according to his inclinations and skills: Lovers of wisdom will immerse themselves in Greek philosophy and conduct fascinating discussions, idiots will occupy themselves with computer games and with sports, lovers of horticulture and of dogs will hike through the fields. And vice versa: Those who have no interest either in their work, leisure activities or themselves will gaze at an empty, boring world in which people go insane for lack of activity.

Theodor Herzl, who was also a writer, dealt with this scenario in one of his short stories, “Solon in Lydien.” Set in Greece in the sixth century B.C.E., the story describes an invention that makes it possible to produce an unlimited amount of food without the need for human labor, eliminating any worries about shortages. However, the marvelous invention makes people lazy, hedonistic and quarrelsome, and ultimately becomes a threat to the continued development of the human race.

Unemployment as treason

More than likely, those who will discover that life without work is a pleasure, will also seek liberation from other types of burdens as well, such as family life. As we know, the socioeconomic structure of most Western societies rests primarily on these two foundations: work and family. It can be said that the one obliges the other, and clear reciprocal relations obviously exist between the two. Undercut one foundation and it’s possible that the whole structure, in its familiar form, will collapse. Whatever is the case – a paradise of productivity, active and harmonious community life, entertainment and traveling; or, alternately, a hell of withering and degenerative boredom – it’s hard to believe that civilization, after having embodied and developed different forms of subjugation and social oversight throughout most of history, will suddenly be able to cast off all restraint and grant people freedom in the full sense of the word.

In certain academic circles there’s much interest, even enthusiasm, for this vision – but not among the general public. Interestingly, it’s workers themselves who are the first to defend the structure and deride the idea of abolishing or reducing work; to be exact, it’s precisely the low- and mid-level workers who feel this way. No one understands better than they that even partial implementation of the idea would cause immediate global and personal destruction. And from a certain point of view – narrow and immediate – they’re right. Nearly every salaried worker at those levels knows that not getting paid for even one month is liable to hurl him into an abyss from which he might not be able to climb out.

Employees wearing face masks operate sewing machines at a Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills Ltd. garment factory in Kolkata, West Bengal, India, on Dec. 25, 2017.Credit: Bloomberg

At the same time, it’s difficult not to see the uniformity of responses to the idea as the result of successful training. Workers’ vigorous justification of work is a variation on the Stockholm syndrome. It’s only from that angle that we can understand the declarations of people who have won the lottery and announce that they are not quit their jobs. “Tomorrow morning, I’m at work. Obviously. What else?” That’s tantamount to declaring proudly, “Yes, I’m a donkey! Please pile a load on me, and make sure it’s not light.”

In Israel the fear of non-work is related mainly to the ultra-Orthodox communities. The most serious charge leveled against them is that they don’t work, and that’s apparently even worse than the fact that they don’t do army service. The average secular person feels something between wishy-washy tolerance and forgiving indifference (“accommodation,” in the local parlance) with regard to the peculiar and sometimes primitive customs of the Haredim, and even somehow swallows the burning of the flag and of soldiers in effigy. But the absence of this community from the army of workers – that’s unforgivable.

This anti-Haredi fury is nourished by the solid (and baseless) assumption that if they don’t work, it means others have to take their places, and thus need to work more. Because we all have to lend a shoulder, each according to his skills, to fuel the sophisticated economic system that sustains us and – more particularly – that we sustain. Adamant refusal by one group to lend a hand in this effort is perceived as treason, as is refusal by an individual, too. By Yair Netanyahu, for example. It’s pathetic that the public’s problem with the prime minister’s son isn’t that he’s being thrust into politics by the back door, or even the unbridled verbal attacks on everyone who’s critical of his parents, but precisely the fact that he doesn’t work (he claims he does). A young man of 26 without a job is too much for the bourgeoisie to take in, a genuine disease.

The United States, its crass mental deficiencies notwithstanding, has given rise to some interesting concepts. One of them is the early retirement movement. In Israel that banner is hoisted by the woman who writes a blog called “Hasolidit,” in which she sends workers the message that they can be liberated from the shackles of labor by means of a simple, economical way of life and investments in the capital market, if they will only implement an extreme and merciless form of capitalism in the style of Ayn Rand. To call this a movement would be farfetched, but the basic idea she is promoting is to quit work at the age of 40. That’s feasible only if a number of conditions are met: that during his working years, the worker earns enough to save a substantial portion of his salary each month; that he lives modestly before and after his retirement; and that he understands the working of the capital market, where he will invest intelligently and augment the savings he accumulated as a salaried worker. It’s a more refined idea than the abolition of work, and it contains possible mathematical logic, but it’s not applicable for the majority of salaried workers, much less for those with low salaries and families.

Mass graves

The obligation to work – work as a supreme value, as the foundation for everything – has taken such powerful hold that the concept of “work” has become established even in other realms, unconnected with earning a living. Raising children is work. Awareness of this appears to have increased recently to the point where some people are questioning whether that work is sufficiently rewarding and worthwhile; indeed, it’s no longer rare for people to quit that job and not have children at all.

What has officially and implacably become work is the connection between a couple, the relationship. It’s become almost natural to hear people say/quote/declaim that a relationship is work. Hard work. Of course it’s hard; easy work is no big deal. Psychologists and other types of therapists even maintain that it’s not only onerous but a daily endeavor. A couple who report an easygoing relationship over time – that sounds suspicious. Not credible. There’s no doubt that those couples are afraid of the obligatory hard work and are in denial.

The religiously observant public in Israel is also often heard to say that faith is hard work, also an everyday endeavor. If you don’t work continuously at your faith, it’s definitely liable – like one’s partner – to vanish and abandon you, or at the very least lose the bright freshness it must have possessed at one time. (It would appear that, as distinct from the monotheistic religions, in multi-theistic ones such as Hinduism, the work of faith is easier and generates fewer burning and debilitating misgivings.)

Illustration.Credit: Asaf Ben Harush

In short, heaps of work. A pessimistic eye, should it happen to visit here, might see all those housing projects and neighborhoods of lower- and middle-class families led by people in their 30s and 40s as mass graves. Or at least as multi-storied labor camps. The worker finishes a morning-to-dusk day on the job, returns to the children at home – more work – and when they finally go to bed, there’s the partner to deal with and still more work.

In conclusion, what’s being offered here for free is a social ideology that’s in good condition, fresh, with no signs of attrition or erosion, logical, defiant but optimistic, and it even smells pretty good – yet there are no takers. Only large-scale civil revolt, it would seem, can bring about a change in the perception of work, and that’s not currently on the horizon. Still, it’s possible that in the future this ideology will develop into a full-blown agenda: that is, it will accumulate enough concrete baggage of injury and insult for it to be able to seize control of the mental domain and influence it. It’s possible that the inflexible basic deal between the individual and society will undergo a substantive transformation and make things freer and more relaxed.

A Finnish experiment

One of the most talked-about experiments in connection with work is being conducted in Finland. A sample group of 2,000 citizens have been receiving 560 euros a month for the past two years, a period that ends this month. Members of the group were chosen randomly from among unemployed people aged 25 to 58. They received the allowance whether they looked for work or not. Even those who found a job continued to receive the money. The main purpose of the experiment was to see whether the unconditional grant would spur people to work even in undesirable jobs. Another goal, in light of the fact that the modern labor market is perceived as being unstable, was to examine whether the individual’s sense of economic – hence also of mental-civic – security would improve.

The experiment has generated a good deal of interest and has been commented on outside the academic world as well. Left-wing circles have been delighted with the idea that the ordinary citizen was at last getting something from the state, instead of just being squeezed by it, as usual. Right-wing thinkers have also been favorably inclined, because a permanent and non-conditional allowance of this kind could reduce the load on the state’s welfare system and allow it to be significantly downsized.

However, some of the experiment’s critics have maintained that it’s worthless in research terms, both because the sample was too small (it was originally to have consisted of as many as 100,000 subjects), and also because, according to researchers, including some who were involved in the experiment, a two-year period is just too short (the Finnish government has refused to extend it). Furthermore, the amount of money is too low; it’s impossible to get by without working for any length of time on 560 euros a month.

Stronger critics of the project claim that its goal had nothing to do with liberating people from any sort of chains. On the contrary: Its aim is to “help” people become accustomed to a situation of boring work and a meager salary. In other words, under such conditions, those who work in low-paying jobs will become somewhat less bitter – the allowance will facilitate moving from the low standard of living permitted by their usual salary to a slightly higher standard. That seems to be a more realistic appraisal than others.


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