the abolition of work

The Abolition of Work is an essay by Bob Black. It’s pretty stunning, and should be read by anyone who has ever been employed or unemployed, and especially by anyone who is frustrated with their work.

The incredibly quotable Black puts forth a hefty and persuasive paradigm shift, defining work as;

… forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick.

and goes so far as to suggest its outright abolition, claiming it as the basis of all ills in society – categorizing work as the cause of increasing stupidity, early death, and social alienation, and adopting a quasi Foucaultian analysis of “Discipline” as a form of slavery unique to the modern world. It’s a really fascinating case, and absolutely worth your time to read for yourself.

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.

Makes you think, yeah?

…directly or indirectly, most work serves the unproductive purposes of commerce or social control. […] Because work is unnecessary except to those whose power it secures, workers are shifted from relatively useful to relatively useless occupations as a measure to assure public order.

His argument is to turn the remaining necessary work into play, and the rest of human time to play, leisure, and freedom. (Reminds me of Buckminster Fuller’s prediction that there would come a point in the future to pay people to stay at home and do nothing rather than suffer the environmental damage of millions of people commuting to non productive jobs and the necessary infrastructure and resulting waste to support them when they got there.)

Anyway. Fascinating. Best essay I’ve read in ages. Go! 🙂

No Responses to “the abolition of work”

  1.   Pearce
    October 24th, 2006 | 2:18 pm

    Mmm. That was a pretty fascinating read, reasonably well thought-out, full of good points, but ultimately leading to what I think is an unworkable solution.

    I’d like to know Black’s theories on how society will be administered. If there is no “forced labour” then presumably everyone is free to labour as they please. How will things like environmental problems be administered? How will we ensure enough people do the things required to keep us safe and healthy, and that too many people do not do things that endanger us or that are short-sighted?

    Who is going to provide medical care, especially for the infirm; who is going to provide education; who is going to look after those who are a danger to themselves and others because of mental illness; etc. Like anarchism in general, it seems to me that Black’s proposal largely relies on people being better than we are.

    It didn’t help that weirdnesses like claiming that cancer is a “modern affliction” that is “normally traceable, directly or indirectly, to work” are provided without a shred of back-up.

    I could go on, but I quote way too much on this blog as it is.

    My book jacket quote: Interesting, entertaining, and hopelessly Utopian. Most likely to be quoted by someone with a useless job or with no job.

  2.   d3vo
    October 24th, 2006 | 7:24 pm

    I do not believe his arguments because I am an agent of economies of scale.

    I think the slow march of industry towards robotisation is what will get us towards the hump of nirvarna. At the moment the money for the now investment in the future technologies that lead toward it is supported by massive economies of scale.

    I think nirvana needs things like
    – vacumming robots that actually work
    – self cleaning showers
    – micro-rail for email ease of deliver of goods from point to point globally
    – mobile fabs
    – mesh voip phone networks

    These things will all eventually fall out of capitalism in the same way that affordable cell phones and ipods have.

  3.   Pearce
    October 25th, 2006 | 10:32 am


    “My minimun definition of work is forced labor, that is, compulsory production. Both elements are essential. Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means.) But not all creation is work. Work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it. This is what work necessarily is. To define it is to despise it.”

    (All formatting retained from the original.)

    It seems that by Bob Black’s definition, I do not work. I am not involved in production. The company I am employed by is not involved in production. The entireity of our business is support and care.

    And yet, we do not work for its own sake. We work to help others. According to Black’s definition, this seems to be something to despise. How can this be? Simple: he hasn’t thought about us at all.

    What we do is provide support for people with intellectual disabilities, in order to allow them to lead independent lives. We help them learn how to cook, how to clean, how to take care of themselves. We support them in making their own decisions, and – this is still controversial but we do it – we support them in having love lives and yes, in being sexually active if that’s what they want to do. A huge side-product of this is that we take a lot of pressure off families of people with intellectual disabilities, who would otherwise be taking care of them by themselves and most likely without the training and knowledge to do best by them.

    If we “produce” anything, our “product” is people who are happier, safer, and better able to get by on their own.

    The organization I am employed by is one of the largest in the country on numbers alone. Going from our current staff numbers compared to last year’s census, approximately one in every one thousand people in New Zealand are currently employed for our company. And we are far from the only organization in New Zealand involved in this kind of work – some others are governmental departments but others are NGOs like us. So we’re hardly an insignificant minority.

    Where do the many thousands of people (even in our tiny country – imagine how many would be required to do the same job in America or China, presuming they even bother to) in this kind of employment fit into Black’s ideas? Has he even thought about it? The people we work with are exactly the kinds of people who fall through the cracks in almost every society, yet here we are supporting them en masse.

    This kind of work, on this kind of scale, and with the kind of continuity that is necessary to continually improve the lot of these sorts of people who through no fault of their own are at the bottom of the heap, just isn’t going to get done in the kind of society Black talks about. Especially as he’s basically defined us out of existence – we don’t “work” by his definition, and we certainly aren’t playing (not even “playing for keeps”). There is a hell of a lot of heavy lifting going on in our society that a lot of people never even think about.

  4.   Administrator
    October 25th, 2006 | 11:53 am

    Pearce1: “Like anarchism in general, it seems to me that Black’s proposal largely relies on people being better than we are.”

    Perhaps. However, he is also arguing that the removal of work and its negative consequences will give us the chance to be better people.

  5.   Administrator
    October 25th, 2006 | 12:04 pm

    Pearce2: re read the section around the last quote in the original post. pretty sure he is in favour of doing things that are necessary, just changing its nature to remove the coercive element. i’m pretty sure while you you think your work is worthwhile, the overall condition of work and Discipline which he describes is why you got the job in its current form at all. the work system runs pretty deep. stepping outside Discipline ain’t easy. your labour is forced due to the system it exists in. he wants to change that at its roots. my overwhelming understanding of anarchy has a huge dose of humanism at its core. arguably, people who need care will have more in a society freed from unncessary labour.

    oh, also, the essay is 20 years old, and he has developed his thought elsewhere. not that i’ve read anything beyond this essay, but if you are interested you can go further. that in itself is the point of this blog.

    and if you had finished reading Eidolon, you would already know my views on questions of social reorganisation, in a developed form 😛

  6.   cal
    October 25th, 2006 | 12:09 pm

    “How will we ensure enough people do the things required to keep us safe and healthy, and that too many people do not do things that endanger us or that are short-sighted?”

    People who want to do things will do them. And when not enough people do what society wants them to do, we’ll develop a system of incentives to encourage more people to choose to do the things we want them to do. Wont we just end up with exactly what we’ve got now?

  7.   Administrator
    October 25th, 2006 | 12:16 pm

    Cal: The nature and constitution of a “system of incentives” will be drastically affected by the nature of the society in which it is constituted. Starting conditions matter hugely in the evolution of systems. Who controls the incentive system? Who has the right to use power, and why? Black’s contention is about work as a means of social control – again cf the last bit quoted in the original post – whose order is being maintained?

  8.   Pearce
    October 25th, 2006 | 1:45 pm

    Admin: I was going to ask: What’s wrong with discipline? Then I thought I’d look it up in the dictionary.

    Out of 20+ definitions, the only one I liked was “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training: A daily stint at the typewriter is excellent discipline for a writer.” The rest are variants on “training and/or punishment to act in accordance with rules” – the very carrot & stick Black refers to.

    This is a good example of what I think is wrong with work as we know it: rules for the sake of exercising control.

    My problem is probably that I don’t trust people as a whole enough to fall in with Black’s theory. I believe that all our problems are traced back to us – we created the systems we live within; the flaws are therefore our own. I consider people who claim that compassion is a weakness as a reason to doubt the potential for good in my own species.

    It’s good food for thought, and I’ve definitely given my mind a work-out arguing with myself over it (in the middle of my working day, no less). Most of what I’ve written never made it into comments. I’ve had a blog post of my own about work and usefulness fermenting for quite a while. Maybe the time is coming for me to write it down, so people can tell me what they don’t like about it. 😉