What Is Anti-Work?

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2022-01-29


Wanting work reform is not anti-work. Not wanting to do anything challenging or productive is not anti-work. These are the two primary misconceptions about what it means to be anti-work that I hope to correct. The latter comes from our overt enemies, and the former from those cultists of the status quo who wish to co-opt our terms and our spaces and destroy the revolutionary character of our ideas, all the while claiming to ally with us — i.e., our covert enemies. In this essay, instead of arguing head-on against these misconceptions, I want to lay out what I believe it actually means to be "anti-work," and the best arguments for that position. In so doing, I hope to at least contribute, in my own small way, to excavating the true meaning of "anti-work" from beneath the many layers of confusion under which it has been buried in current socio-economic discourse.

There are many foundational texts which the anti-work movement commonly directs people to, Bertrand Russell's In Praise of Idleness and Bob Black's "The Abolition of Work chief among them; however not only are those texts fairly difficult and somewhat old, I believe their driving force is somewhat blunted by the particular idiosyncrasies of their authors and the times and places in which they were written. In particular, Russell's scientific socialism and love for planned economies shines through in a seriously unfortunate manner in his essay, and Bob Black's proposed solutions to the problem of work are... utopian, to be charitable. Therefore, while I cannot claim to be the clearest writer, nor can I claim to have no idiosyncrasies whatsoever, I believe I can nevertheless offer some value by elucidating a pragmatic, market anarchist oriented, and solution-agnostic take on what the core tenets of the anti-work ideology are.


What is work?

When I say the word, I do not merely mean any productive or useful activity. For instance, if I have a hobby of writing tutorials to help people learn things, or contributing to open source projects to produce tools that are useful for people, or helping out at the local homeless shelter, those things are not work. They may involve labor — strenuous mental or physical activity — but they are not work. This is intuitively obvious, but it leads to an interesting question: what, exactly, differentiates work from non-work? It's not a simple question of what the activity I am engaging in is, after all, since you can work at the local homeless shelter, work as a software developer contributing to open source projects, or work writing teaching material. Neither is it a question of how you're doing an activity: you can be energetic and ""pull your weight" at work, and be slothful in hobbies, or vice versa, and the relative character of each kind of activity doesn't change meaningfully. So what makes work work? Well, if it's not a question of what you're doing, or how you're doing it, then it must be a question of why you're doing it. If we can understand what motivates work versus what motivates leisure, hobbies, play, and other kinds of activities, we will understand what work is, and, I propose, it will become clear in the process of elaborating that conceptual analysis why we must be anti-work.


What is different about why we work, in comparison to why we do things that aren't work? Let's think about activities that we typically don't consider work for a moment. If an activity is chosen by an individual because it is inherently rewarding or pleasurable, than that isn't work. That does not mean that the activity must always be pleasurable in the moment, or that one must always want to do that activity over and above other activities, but it means that the reason one is doing the activity is primarily related to the inherent reward one gets for doing that activity: self-improvement, exercise of one's capacities, expression of one's unique personality, etc. For instance, for me the process of writing or programming is its own reward, independent of whether I produce anything in the long run. For others, drawing, or swimming, or running is its own reward. Therefore, when I am writing or programming mostly for my own edification, because I enjoy the challenge, I am not working.

Activities that we typically enjoy, and don't consider work, can be transformed into work, however. Even if I enjoy programming for its own sake, and do it as a hobby, if I get a job as a software developer, suddenly the activity of programming, at least when I am programming for that job, is transformed from what it was into work. What happened here? What was the crucial difference? Well, why am I programming for my job? Is it simply because I enjoy the challenge, the fulfillment, the development of my capacities? No. That might be why I picked software development as a career, but it's not why I have a job, or why I am programming for that job. That reason has been dethroned as the dominant reason and been replaced with necessity. I no longer program because the activity of programming is inherently choiceworthy — instead I program because I need sustenance. Crucially, I am no longer performing an activity primarily because it is a fulfilling activity, one that improves me or my life; I am performing that activity because I need someone else to reward me. In fact, I am not even performing the activity because I want the product of that activity, because the end goal that the activity will produce is valuable to me. After all, I will be rewarded by my job for programming in a way that is pretty much completely unrelated to what I am actually producing: I will receive monetary compensation, not the actual product of my own labors — a program which I likely care nothing about whatsoever.

This alienation of the reason for doing an activity from the inherent worth of the activity or its product to the person who is actually performing that activity, through the need for sustenance, is what, of necessity, generates the other negative characteristics of work. After all, if one is compelled to find work in order to survive, and that work does not need to be related to something one finds meaningful, or the product of which one finds valuable, than it is an inevitable outcome that much of the work that people will do will be things that they would never be interested in doing apart from the context of a job. For instance, no, or at least very few people would find the activity of being a cashier at McDonald's inherently choice-worthy. The only time when such an activity would be performed would be within the context of work. Likewise, no, or at least very few, people would naturally choose to produce useless enterprise adware apart from the context of work.

This alienation of the individual human side of the laborer from the work that they do also inherently creates a tendency to make people replaceable cogs in a machine. If the reason the worker has the job is primarily to have someone to do the work, not because they actually want to be there or because the activity in question is relevant to who they are or their values in any way, then the actual person is not really relevant to the job, and therefore they can be replaced with any roughly equivalent person. People become workers, and workers are human resources, to be shuffled around at need and replaced when they are broken.

Work separates people from the good things in life, the things that make life worth living, because the good things in life, the things that make life choice-worthy for its own sake, are the things that are choiceworthy in themselves, that people would choose without the threat of deprivation looming over them. Work separates people from the parts of the human experience that are the most valuable. It separates parts of people's lives from their individuality, making them spend time alienated from themselves by alienating them from their values. This is not a binary thing, of course, and some work will do this more harshly than other work, but this is an inherent property of work. This is why work must be viewed not as the defining feature of a person or their worth, not as a virtuous activity which demonstrates strength of character and worth to society, but as a necessary evil, something to be minimized.


These properties of work, although they are inherent to it and cannot be separated from it, are exacerbated by present capitalist society. For one thing, the defining feature of capitalism is that workers are beholden to bosses and capitalists that dictate what they must do with their labor time. This means that not only is the labor they do not an activity they would choose to do of their own accord absent the necessity that survival presents, even the choice of how to do it is robbed from them. Bosses tell them when to work and how much, what to work on, who to work with, how to organize that work, set quotas and deadlines, rate productivity and dictate compensation. Bosses and capitalists are the feudal lords of their corporate fiefdoms, subjecting their employees to the sort of surveillance and control that would be unimaginable were it perpetrated by the State. A worker's autonomy is already diminished by the need to work to live, as autonomy diminishes in proportion with which choices are restricted and the severity of consequences increase; but capitalism takes advantage of this loss of autonomy, and the existence of property, to leverage it into fresh new insults. Workers spend their lives under the direction of others, and more of their personality is sliced away from their time to live thereby. The less autonomy one has, the less one's actions and activities reflect one's personality and individuality, and the less one is able to actually live as oneself: the less you actually exist as anything but a wraith trapped in the back of your own mind. Your life is stolen from you, in those hours, to the proportion that one's autonomy is limited! And the less that one's actions, the changes one expresses in the world, are a product of one's autonomy and self-expression, the less one exists to the world. Capitalism takes people and kills them, a little at a time, within their own heads and lives, and to the world outside. They fade away, their self-expression gone, their individuality gone. Work is death.

What about when we are not working? Even in leisure, work's rotting zombie hands, the hands of the living dead, who walk and make but do not live, grasp you. What we call leisure is mostly spent recovering from work done previously, so that we can be ready to work again soon: work takes up roughly half of our adult waking lives on average, not even counting the other things we have to do, such as chores and commuting, and so when we have time off from work, most of that remaining time must be spent simply recovering enough from work to do it all again on Monday. There is rarely enough energy left over for us, let alone enough time, to actually engage in things that are an expression of our individuality, things that are not just choiceworthy for their own sake but fulfilling and productive instead of simply restful. In essence, even when we are not working, work steals from us who we are, kills us while we still breathe. To quote Bob Black in The Abolition of Work:

Leisure is nonwork for the sake of work. Leisure is the time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but hopeless attempt to forget about work. Many people return from vacation so beat that they look forward to returning to work so they can rest up. The main difference between work and leisure is that work at least you get paid for your alienation and enervation.

Even when we finally do retire, we are typically far past our prime, decaying already, too old and slow to do any of the things we really wanted to do, if we even remember what they were. Work kills dreams.

The consequences of this are dire. If we spend most of our lives taking the orders of others, doing things we don't care about instead of developing talents, with no time to do anything vigorous and difficult outside of work (even things that we would otherwise find fulfilling), if we spend our whole lives being replaceable, homogeneous cogs in a machine not of our own making or direction, focusing on a narrow activity and a narrow subject matter, what do we become? We become used to subjugation and authority, used to following orders, narrow people with narrow minds and narrow skills that we don't care about. And we reproduce the patterns that we have been subjected to, of authority and alienation, on those around us. There is no time to develop intellect, no chance to develop independence and rebelliousness. We become good citizens, good subjects, good workers — and bad humans, bad individuals, bad people. Work kills our souls. This has been understood and recognized by the elite class since time immemorial. Given little or no work, people learn, develop skills and concerns for the wider picture, their minds are given a chance to stretch and grow, and so are their bodies and their capacities. People who are free from work are people who are free. People who are indomitable, intelligent, creative, productive, beautiful. To quote Nietzsche from Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality:

In the glorification of 'work', in the unwearied talk of the 'blessing of work', I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work — one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late — that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions. Thus a society in which there is continual hard work will have more security: and security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity.

Likewise, people who are free from work are good citizens in a sense just the opposite of the typical sense, the sense that means people who fall in line with the expectations of civil society. They become, instead, good citizens in the sense of people who are concerned with politics, and authority, are engaged in it actively and directly, who understand it and learn about it. To quote Aristotle from Politics:

But at present we are studying the best constitution, and this is the constitution under which the state would be most happy, and it has been stated before that happiness cannot be forthcoming without virtue; it is therefore clear from these considerations that in the most nobly constituted state, and the one that possesses men that are absolutely just, not merely just relatively to the principle that is the basis of the constitution, the citizens must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life(for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue, nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil(for leisure is needed both for the development of virtue and for active participation in politics).

Of course, for Aristotle this was reason to grant only idle nobility true citizenship, but there are independent reasons to think that even those who are less free from work than others should still be as in control of their own lives as possible, so instead I propose to turn Aristotle's ideas on their head: the need for only the most educated and free from work to be those with political say is driven by the fact that, in a governmental system, everyone's choices as citizen effect everyone else coercively through the apparatus of law. In an anarchist society, only those directly involved and effected by some matter have a say in it, so the choices and actions of those who have nothing to do with you cannot effect you. Each is free to make choices for themselves but no one else. Therefore, it hurts no one if those who are less free from work are granted as full autonomy as possible to live their lives how they wish; so instead of limiting autonomy, we should liberate everyone from work so they each can be better masters of themselves!

All of this is why we should seek to minimize the amount of work we must do, even if that means giving up some material comforts, since an hour of life itself is more valuable than almost any product except those that directly and greatly enhance the rest of the hours of life left over. It is also why the worth of a person should not be judged in terms of what work they do. Work is, typically at least, not representative of who they are. It is done merely so that they can survive, nothing more. People's worth as human beings should not be questioned or parametirized at all, as that is a route that leads directly to a hellish society; nevertheless, someone's praiseworthiness should be judged in terms of what they do outside of work. Their hobbies, their art, their relationships, their actions. Even outside of work,we should not judge others or ourselves too harshly, for we must keep in mind the vampiric effect work has on all of life's other activities. Fight to build a meaningful life outside of work. Join communities, write, draw, paint, find some means of self-expression, some means of challenging yourself and developing your capacities, outside of work, something that embodies you. Fight for it! Battle for it with all your heart and soul, use your teeth if you have to. Remember always that we work to live, we do not live to work. Cast off the chains of the Protestant Work Ethic! Tell the world to fuck off! 'Idle hands do the devil's work'? Become a Satanist!


So far I've painted a grim and desperate pictur of an individual battling against the grinding mechanistic forces of a society bent on zombifying them. Is there an alternative? Until we achieve a post-scarcity society I do not think we can fully eliminate work, but nevertheless I think it is entirely possible to alleviate the properties of work that make it so inimical to human existence by changing the structures and incentives of our society.

To begin with, there is the distribution of work itself. If we allow the productivity increases that automation brings to be harnessed to decrease the workload of the average worker, while keeping their pay the same, instead letting what should be a good thing for everyone turn into unemployment and starvation for some and continued overwork for others, that in itself will bring massive changes in the future, potentially solving many of the problems that people fear automation will bring. After all, one of the major fears of automation will be that since the total number of hours that need to be worked in a particular industry to maintain a certain level of production will fall, fewer workers will be employed. If we, instead, went with a solution that distributed work more equitably, this wouldn't be an issue, killing two birds with one stone. To quote Bertrand Russel from In Praise of Idleness:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

How, without a planned economy, do we achieve such an equalization in the distribution of labor? Well, if workers are placed in control of themselves and their production, it is clear that they will have an incentive to preserve their employment that is much higher than that of the capitalist. This is borne out in studies which show that worker cooperatives are much less likely to fire workers. So, if there is less work to be done, instead of firing workers, the incentive will be to simply decrease the amount of work that each worker does equally, as necessary. And since production is the same, everyone can continue being paid the same amount even while they work fewer hours, while maintaining the same cost/income ratio for the business as a whole. Paying workers in terms of overall production, instead of blindly tallying up hours, would again be more incentivized in a situation where workplace democracy grants workers control over their own compensation, as compared to a traditional capitalist structure.

Indeed, Proudhon makes a similar point in What is Property? in the context of differences between the productivity of workers and economic downturns, which applies in this case too:

In printing-offices, where the laborers usually work by the job, the compositor receives so much per thousand letters set; the pressman so much per thousand sheets printed. There, as elsewhere, inequalities of talent and skill are to be found. When there is no prospect of dull times (for printing and typesetting, like all other trades, sometimes come to a stand-still), every one is free to work his hardest, and exert his faculties to the utmost: he who does more gets more; he who does less gets less. When business slackens, compositors and pressmen divide up their labor; all monopolists are detested as no better than robbers or traitors.

There is a philosophy in the action of these printers, to which neither economists nor legists have ever risen. If our legislators had introduced into their codes the principle of distributive justice which governs printing-offices; if they had observed the popular instincts, — not for the sake of servile imitation, but in order to reform and generalize them, — long ere this liberty and equality would have been established on an immovable basis, and we should not now be disputing about the right of property and the necessity of social distinctions.

It has been calculated that if labor were equally shared by the whole number of able-bodied individuals, the average working-day of each individual, in France, would not exceed five hours. This being so, how can we presume to talk of the inequality of laborers? It is the labor of Robert Macaire that causes inequality.

Insofar as workers are associated, and each have an equal claim on the means of production they share, no worker would be able to claim more of the shared task than another, throw the other off the tools and stop them from producing merely because there is limited work or because they are more productive, since to have the leverage to do so would imply power over the other workers and a greater say in the use of the means of production, which would mean the workers aren't associated but put into a hierarchy. Therefore, in conditions of equality and shared means of production, i.e. in worker cooperatives, the distribution of work would be better.

In general, returning possession of the means of production, and along with it authority over the workplace, to the hands of the workers who use and maintain the means of production and have the hands-on knowledge necessary to better determine how to guide their enterprise would have further benefits in alleviating the problems that capitalism exacerbates in work. Most importantly, it would give workers greater autonomy to decide when, how, and on what they work, giving them back some of the self-determination that capitalism alienates. Additionally, it would mean the elimination of profit in the traditional sense, since workers would get 100% of the income not spent on costs, investment, and maintenance, in turn meaning that the number of hours they need to work to get by would decrease. Not only that, but worker cooperatives tend to have much more egalitarian pay structures, "respond better and more sustainably to economic downturns, and are more productive in general (and more productivity, as I mentioned above, leads to less work but the same pay in conditions of equality). There are many more benefits of worker cooperatives, covered in the previous two sources, and many misconceptions about them that are untrue. Quoting from another great resource:

  • Worker co-operatives are larger than conventional businesses and not necessarily less capital intensive
  • Worker co-operatives survive at least as long as other businesses and have more stable employment
  • Worker cooperatives are more productive than conventional businesses, with staff working “better and smarter” and production organized more efficiently
  • Worker co-operatives retain a larger share of their profits than other business models
  • Executive and non-executive pay differentials are much narrower in worker co-operatives than other firms

There are also theoretical "reasons to think workplace democracy is a superior method of organizing things economically, meaning that in organizing in a way that makes work less onerous, we are also gaining something as a whole, economically speaking!

For productive pursuits that don't require large scale cooperation between many workers and heavy industry equipment (a category that is only growing as the means of production get smaller, more self-contained, and easier to use, as we've seen with Maker communities), independent contracting and artisanship can fill in the gaps as well, providing greater autonomy and control over one's working conditions and compensation; and with the elimination of absentee property in the means of production, so that capital can only be sold but not rented, it would be significantly easier for people to obtain the means of production they need to start their businesses without indenturing themselves to a capitalist. Combined with "crowdfunding, credit unions, and mutual banking run by their members and therefore run for the benefit of the working class and worker cooperatives (harnessing debt and market-limited inflation for the benefit of the working class instead of economic elites), these solutions, while far from perfect, would, I believe, help significantly.

There are other things we can do too that are less direct and economic, and more socio-cultural, but no less effective and important. For one thing, a widespread cultural recognition of the fact that work is not only detrimental to the lives of those who do it, and not meaningfully related to their worth as a person (neither by how much work they do, or what work they do), could completely change the character of the workplace. No longer would working eighty hour weeks or staying up all night to work on something be a badge of honor, thereby creating the expectation that good employees give their lives over completely to the corporation (or cooperative). No longer would people who want to have a life outside of work have to compete for jobs with a millions-strong army of those who are have been brainwashed into not wanting such a thing. No longer would bosses expect long hours, complete commitment, and an identity built around work, and so no longer would workers be shamed into letting the rest of their lives wither and die in order to become the workaholic that everyone expects. No longer would settling for a job that is easy and undemanding, but fulfilling, or just enough to get by (such as being a dog walker), in order to focus on other things in your life that you value, be considered a mark of Cain. We also shouldn't begrudge those who are idle, free to pursue their interests (unless they are so at the coercive expense of others), we should want that for everyone. We should develop a culture that gives people the tools to use their true leisure (not work-leisure) productively, fulfillingly, and effectively, instead of just judging people for not knowing how to use idle time and ending up wasting it. Shifting the cultural perception of work could have massive implications for what work is like even without the major socialist upheaval of the structure of our economy that I propose above.

We can aspire to more, too. It is not impossible to imagine a society which, although primarily organized around the incredible freedom and distributed calculation abilities of a freed, anti-capitalist market, is erected on the foundational bedrock not of "indifferent and narrow self-interest (perhaps better termed greed), or on authority (whether democratic or otherwise) and forced redistribution, but on the equally human and equally natural instinct for reciprocity: the free gift of surplus produce to those who need it, in the expectation that they will reciprocate toward you or the whole community in whatever way they can, even if it is not a way that can be economically evaluated. This is supremely rational, in that fostering good will with other members of your community when they are in need instead of you, and a community of goodwill and sharing in general, while it might cost you in the moment, provides insurance against a future situation in which you are in need. Importantly, this logic relies on the fact that the reciprocal gifts that everyone gets and gives are not too targeted, or calculated too exactly; otherwise the benefit of the "insurance" that such reciprocality gives evaporates into a cold calculation of equal value and you don't gain that much. Importantly, although anarcho-communists talk about the gift economy often, a true gift economy assumes possession "rights" in the things one buys, sells, and produces in other areas of society; after all, something can't be a gift, and can't be from you and to someone else unless some notion of possession is in play. In a society like this, the semi-coerced, autonomy-destroying nature of work would evaporate almost completely: the means to survive could be provided largely freely to those who cannot pay, and the only expectation would be some contribution to society, or some show of productivity or working on something interesting, in return. Think of it kind of like a more distributed, loose version of a Patreon: as long as you're doing something interesting to some people, at least your basic needs can be provided for. Something like this can be seen in things like the "Really Really Free Market".

These are just a few of the solutions I could think of, and I know people far more creative, well-read, and wiser than me can think of more. The important point is that there are things we can do to make work better, both in the here and now and the long term, so we shouldn't give up, shouldn't despair and give up our radical politics and radical philosophy for the centrist siren call of "work reform.


In conclusion, being anti-work is about recognizing that work is a necessary evil, nothing more. As such, the amount of work to be done, and the alienating nature of that work, must be minimized as much as possible. This is the inherent radicalism of the anti-work movement. We do not want work reform. We want work revolution, and work minimization. We recognize that the inherent loss of autonomy for the worker, both in not having control over the means of production and in not owning the product of their work, that comes with capitalism is inimical to these goals. Therefore we do not want the subjugation of the worker to a feudal lord, a capitalist, a worker's communist party, or a collective. Do not join this movement unless you are a socialist, an anarchist, and unless you understand why work is death.