Joseph Ratliff Writer, Researcher, Thinker

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Should We Abolish Work?

The following article is reprinted here with permission of the editor of a collection of essays titled Abolish Work – An Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia

(Nick Ford is the Editor … John Danaher is the author of the post)

I seem to work a lot. At least, I think I work a lot. Like many in the modern world, I find it pretty hard to tell the difference between work and the rest of my life. Apart from when I’m sleeping, I’m usually reading, writing or thinking (or doing some combination of the three). And since that is essentially what I get paid to do, it is difficult to distinguish between work and leisure. Of course, reading, writing and thinking are features of many jobs. The difference is that, as an academic, I have the luxury of deciding what I should be reading, writing and thinking about. This luxury has, perhaps, given me an overly positive view of work. But I confess, there are times when I find parts of my job frustrating and overbearing. The thing is: maybe that’s the attitude we should all have towards work? Maybe work is something we should be trying to abolish?

That, at any rate, is the issue I want to consider in this post. In doing so, I’m driven by one of my current research projects. For the past few months, I’ve been looking into the issue of technological unemployment and the possible implications it might have for human society. If you’ve been reading the blog on a regular basis, you will have seen this crop up a number of times. As I noted in one of my earlier posts, there are basically two general questions one can ask about technological unemployment:

The Factual Question: Will advances in technology actually lead to technological unemployment?

The Value Question: Would long-term technological unemployment be a bad thing (for us as individuals, for society etc.)?

It’s the value question that I’m interested in here. Suppose we could replace the vast majority of the human workforce with robots or their equivalents? Would this be a good thing? If we ignore possible effects on income distribution — admittedly a big omission but let’s do it for the sake of this post — then maybe it would be. That would seem to be the implication of the abolish work arguments I outline below.

Those arguments are inspired by a range of sources, mainly left-wing anti-capitalist writers (e.g. David Graeber, Bob Black, Kathi Weeks and, classically, Bertrand Russell), but do not purport to accurately reflect or represent the views of any. They are just my attempt to simplify a diverse set of arguments. I do so by dividing them into two main types: (i) “Work is bad”-arguments; and (ii) opportunity cost arguments. I’ll discuss both below, along with various criticisms.

1. What is work anyway?
If we are going to be abolishing work, it would be helpful if we had some idea of what it is we are abolishing. After all, as I just noted, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between work and other parts of your life. In crafting a definition we need to guard against the sins of over and under-inclusiveness, and against the risk of a value-laden definition. An under-inclusive definition will exclude things that really should count as work; an over-inclusive definition will risk turning “work” into a meaningless category; and a value-laden definition will simply beg the question. For example, if we define work as everything we do that is unpleasant, then we are being under-inclusive (since many people don’t find all aspects of their work unpleasant) and begging the question (since if we assume work is unpleasant we naturally imply that is the kind of thing we ought to abolish).

Consider Bertrand Russell’s famous, and oft-quoted, definition of work:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.
(Russell, In Praise of Idleness)

This is pithy, clever and no doubt captures something of the truth. It certainly corresponds to the definition I first learned in my school physics textbook, and it also conjures up the arresting image of the hard-working labourer and the pampered, over-paid manager. Nevertheless, it is over-inclusive and value-laden. If we were take Russell seriously, then every time I lifted my teacup to my lips, I would be “working” and I would be doing something “unpleasant”. But, of course, neither of these things seems right.

How might we go about avoiding the sins to which I just alluded? I suggest we adopt the following definition:

Work: The performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward.

This definition is quite broad. It covers a range of potential activities: from the hard labour of the farm worker, to the pencil-pushing of the accountant and everything in between. It also covers a wide range of potential rewards: from traditional wages and salaries to any other benefit which can be commodified and exchanged on a market. It also, explicitly, includes what is sometimes referred to as “unpaid employment”. Thus, for example, unpaid internships or apprenticeships are included within my definition because, although they are not done in return for economic reward, they are done in the hope of ultimately receiving some such reward.

Despite this broadness, I think the definition avoids being overly-inclusive because it links the performance of the skill to the receipt of some sort of economic reward. Thus, it avoids classifying everything we do as work. In this respect, it does seem to capture the core phenomenon of interest in the anti-work literature. Furthermore, the definition doesn’t beg the question by simply assuming that work is, by definition, “bad”. The definition is completely silent on this issue.

That said, definitions are undoubtedly tricky, and philosophers love to pull them apart. I have no doubt my proposed definition has some flaws that I can’t see myself right now (we are often blind to the flaws in our own position). I’ll be happy to hear about them from commenters.

2. “Work is bad”- Arguments
If we can accept my proposed definition of work, we can proceed to the arguments themselves. The first class of arguments proposes that we ought to abolish work because work is “bad”. In other words, the arguments in this class fit the following template:

(1) If something is bad, we ought to abolish it.
(2) Work is bad.
(3) Therefore, we ought to abolish work.

Premise (1) is dubious in its current form. Just because something is bad does not mean we should abolish it. If it we can reform or ameliorate its badness, then we might be able to avoid complete abolition. This might even make sense if the thing in question has good qualities in addition to the bad ones. We wouldn’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It is only really if something is intrinsically and overwhelmingly bad that it ought to be abolished.

For in that case, its good qualities will be minimal and its bad qualities will be ineradicable without complete abolition. This suggests the following revision to premise (1) and the remainder of the argument:

(1*) If something is intrinsically and overwhelmingly bad, we ought to abolish it.
(2*) Work is intrinsically and overwhelmingly bad.
(3) Therefore, we ought to abolish work.

This raises the bar considerably for proponents of abolition, but it seems to chime pretty well with many of the traditional critiques. For instance, Bob Black issues the following indictment of work:

Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.
(Black, The Abolition of Work)

And Bertrand Russell chimes in:

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.
(Russell, In Praise of Idleness)

More recently, Kathi Weeks argued that there is something mysterious about our willingness to do something so unpleasant:

Why do we work so long and so hard? The mystery here is not that we are expected to work or that we devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs. The problems with work today…have to do with both its quantity and its quality and are not limited to the travails of any one group. Those problems include the low wages in so many sectors of the economy; the unemployment, underemployment, and precarious employment suffered by many workers; and the overwork that often characterizes even the most privileged forms of employment; after all, even the best job is a problem when it monopolizes so much of life.
(Weeks, The Problem with Work, p. 1)

To be sure, not all of these authors claim that work ought to be abolished. Some merely call for a reduction or diminution. Nevertheless, they seem agreed that there is something pretty bad about work. What could that be?

There are many candidate accounts of work’s badness. Some focus on how work compromises autonomy and freedom. The classic Marxist critique would hold that work is bad because it involves a form of alienation and subordination: workers are alienated from the true value of their labour and subordinated to the will of another. There is also the complaint that work is a form of coercion or duress: because we need access to economic rewards to survive and thrive, we are effectively forced into work. We are, to put it bluntly, “wage slaves”. Finally, there is Levine’s worry that the necessity of work compromises a particular conception of the good life: the life of leisure and gratuitous pursuit.

Moving beyond the effects of work on autonomy and freedom, there are other accounts of work’s badness. There are those that argue that work is stultifying and boring: it forces people into routines and limits their creativity and personal development. It is often humiliating, degrading and tiring: think of cleaning shift workers, forced to work long hours cleaning up other people’s dirt. This cannot be a consistently rewarding experience. In addition to this, some people cite the effect that work has on health and well-being, as well as its colonising potential. As Weeks points out, one of the remarkable features of modern work is how its seems to completely dominate our lives. This certainly seems to be true of my working life, as I suggested in the intro.

This is far from an exhaustive list of reasons why work is bad, but already we can see some problems with the argument. I’ll mention two here. The first, and most obvious, is that these accounts of work’s badness seem to be insufficiently general. At best, they might apply to specific workers and specific forms of work. Thus, for example, it is not true that all workers are coerced into work. Some people are independently wealthy and have no need for the economic rewards that work brings, and some countries have sufficiently generous welfare provisions to take work out of the “coercion” bracket (as noted previously, the basic income guarantee could be game-changer in this regard). Similarly, while it is true that some forms of work are humiliating, stultifying, degrading, tiring, and deleterious to one’s health and well being, this isn’t true of all forms of work. That’s not to say we should do nothing about the forms of work that share these negative qualities; but it is to say that the complete abolition or diminution of work goes too far. We should just focus on the bad forms of work (which, of course, requires a revised argument).

A second problem with the argument is that it seems to fly in the face of what many people think about their work. Many people actually seem to enjoy work, and actively seek it out. They attach a huge amount of self-worth and self-belief to success in their working lives. From their perspective, work doesn’t seem all that bad. How does the argument account for them? There is a pretty standard reply. People who derive such pleasure and self-worth from work are victims of a kind of false-consciousness. The virtuousness of the work ethic is an ideology that has been foisted upon them from youth. Consequently, they’ve been trained to associate hard work with all manner of positive traits, and unemployment with negative ones. But there is nothing essential to these associations. Work is only contingently associated with positive traits. For example, it is only because society places such value in the work ethic that our sense of self-worth and confidence gets wrapped up in it. We could easily break down these learned associations.

Is this response persuasive? It’s a tricky philosophical issue. I think there is some truth to the false-consciousness line. There are at least some strictly contingent relationships between work and positive outcomes. A restructuring or reordering of societal values could dissolve those relationships. For example, during the wave of unemployment that followed the 2008 financial crisis, it certainly seemed to me like unemployment carried less of a social stigma. Many of my friends lost their jobs or found it difficult to get work, but no one thought less of them as a result. Nevertheless, I can’t completely discount the pleasure or enjoyment that people claim to get from work. The question is whether this could be disassociated from the pursuit of economic reward, and whether greater pleasures could be found elsewhere. That’s what the next argument contends.

3. Opportunity Cost Arguments
Opportunity cost arguments are simple. They argue that work ought to be abolished because there are better uses of our time. In other words, they do not claim that work is overwhelmingly and necessarily bad, but simply claim it is a worse alternative. The arguments fit the following template:

(4) If engaging engaging in activity X prevents us from engaging in a more valuable activity, then X ought to be abolished.
(5) Working prevents us from engaging in more valuable activities.
(6) Therefore, work ought to be abolished.

Let’s go through the premises of this one. Premise (4) may, once again, go too far in arguing that an activity that denies us access to another must be abolished. It may be possible to reform or revise the activity so that it doesn’t prevent us from engaging in the other activity. So, for example, shortening the working week dramatically might reduce the obstacle work poses to engaging in other activities. This may be why the likes of Bertrand Russell and Kathi Weeks argue for such reductions (to four hours in Russell’s case and thirty in Weeks’s). Another problem with premise (1) is that it ignores the possible need for the less desirable activity. Cleaning my kitchen certainly prevents me from engaging in other more desirable activities, but it is probably necessary if I wish to avoid creating a health hazard. This is something many people argue in relation to work: it may be unpleasant but it is necessary. Without it we wouldn’t generate the wealth needed to bring us longer lives, better education, improved healthcare and so on.

That suggests the following revision is in order:

(4*) If engaging in activity X prevents us from engaging in a more valuable activity, and if X is not necessary for some greater good, then X ought to be abolished.
(5*) Working prevents us from engaging in more valuable activities, and it is not necessary for some greater good.
(6) Therefore, work ought to be abolished.

This revision makes it harder to defend premise (5*), but let’s see what can be said on its behalf. In his effort to praise idleness, Russell makes the point that leisure and idleness is a better use of our time. To back this up he points out that the leisure classes have historically been responsible for the creation of civilization. They did so at the expense of others, to be sure, but that doesn’t defeat the point:

In the past, there was a small leisure class and a larger working class. The leisure class enjoyed advantages for which there was no basis in social justice; this necessarily made it oppressive…but in spite of this drawback it contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilization. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies and refined social relations.
(Russell, In Praise of Idleness)

Bob Black, likewise, points out that work denies us access to a more valuable activity, play:

[Abolishing work] does mean creating a new way of life based on play; in other words, a ludic revolution. By “play” I mean also festivity, creativity, conviviality, commensality, and maybe even art. There is more to play than child’s play, as worthy as that is. I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and freely interdependent exuberance…The ludic life is totally incompatible with existing reality.
(Black, The Abolition of Work)

The suggestion from both authors is that non-work is better, all things considered, than work. Russell bases this on an instrumentalist argument: we get more things of value from non-work (arts, sciences, political organisation etc.). Black bases it on an intrinsic argument: the playful life is, in and of itself, better than the working life. I think there is something to be said for both arguments. Although work undoubtedly has benefits and can be intrinsically rewarding to some, there is reason to think a life of non-work would be better than a life of work. Why? Well, one obvious problem with work is that one’s skills and talents are directed at providing things that are of value on an economic market. And there is reason think that markets won’t always value things that are best for society or best for the individuals who work to satisfy the market demands. David Graeber puts it rather bluntly:

[I]f 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.
(Graeber, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs)

Indeed, freedom from market pressures is one of the great luxuries of my own line of work. I am able — for now anyway — to pursue the research that I find interesting and rewarding. It may not always be this way. Many of my academic colleagues are forced to produce research that has economic benefits or impacts. But I think that is genuinely inferior to being able to captain one’s own ship. In addition to this, I like the opportunity cost argument because it doesn’t force one to make unrealistic claims about the badness of all forms of work. It just says that whatever the benefits of work, non-work is slightly better.

Still, there are criticisms to be made of the argument. I’ll discuss three here. The first one is the “necessity” objection. This links into the revised form of the argument. A critic might concede that non-work is better, all things considered, than work, but argue that work is, unfortunately, necessary for some greater good. After all, we need those tax dollars to support education, healthcare and the self-directed research interests of academics. People wouldn’t produce food or houses or other basic necessities without financial reward, would they? This is a fair point, but it is worth noting that far fewer people are employed meeting basic human needs now than there were a hundred years ago. Why? Technology has allowed us to automate most agricultural and manufacturing jobs. Machines can now be used to meet our basic needs. Maybe machines could take over all the other socially valuable aspects of economic activity, and free us up to live the ludic life? One can always dream.

The second objection might be termed the “idleness” objection. Proponents of this will say that the opportunity cost argument presumes a far too rosy picture of human motivation. It presumes that if left to their own devices, people will pursue projects of great worth to both themselves and others. But this is mere fantasy. If freed from the discipling (invisible) hand of the market, people will simply fall idle and succumb to vice. We know this to be true because people suffer from weakness of the will: it is only the necessity of meeting their economic needs that allows them to overcome this weakness. I find this objection unpersuasive. One reason for this is that it is difficult to determine what is so bad about so-called “vice” and “idleness”. But suppose we could determine this. In that case, I have no doubt that in the absence of work many will succumb to “vice”, but I’m pretty sure they do that in presence of work anyway. It’s not clear to me that things will be any worse in a world without work. People have basic psychological needs — e.g. for autonomy, competence and relatedness — that will drive them to do things in the absence of economic reward. Ironically, the major driver of vice and idleness might be advances in automation and artificial intelligence. If AIs don’t just takeover the world of work, but also the world of moral projects (e.g. the alleviation of suffering), scientific discovery and artistic creation, then there might be nothing left for us humans to do. I suspect we are a long way from that reality, but it is something to consider nonetheless.

The final objection is the “efficiency” objection. The idea here is that even though the market does force us to cater to specific kinds of demands, it does have the virtue of forcing us to do things in an efficient manner. We all know the historical mistakes of communism and socialism: central planning and state-directed projects bred (and continued to breed) bloated and inefficient bureaucracies. Wouldn’t a world without work lead us to commit the same mistakes? I’m not sure about this. I agree that markets can be efficient (though sometimes they aren’t) but, as pointed out above, it’s not clear that humans need to be the ones working to meet market demands. Also, in calling for an abolition or diminution of work, it does not follow that one is calling for the re-installation of centrally planned governments.

4. Conclusion
So what’s the takeaway? Should work be abolished or, at the very least, diminished? It’s too difficult to answer that question in a blog post — or maybe in any venue — but we can reach some general conclusions. First, it’s probably wrong to say that all forms of work are sufficiently bad to warrant its abolition. At best, we can say that certain types of work are bad, and their badness is of sufficient magnitude to warrant abolition. That argument needs to be developed at a much more job-specific level. Second, if we are going to make the case for the abolition of work, it’s probably best to do so on the basis of the opportunity cost argument. The advantage of that argument is that it doesn’t commit us to proving that work is irredeemably awful; it just commits us to proving that the alternatives are better. And I think there is some reason to think that freedom from the demands of economic markets would be better for many people. To make the case fully persuasive, however, we would need to show that work is not necessary for greater goods. This is something that technological unemployment may actually help to prove: it we can use technology to meet our basic needs, the necessity of work may slowly erode.

None of this addresses the white elephant in the room: the effects of technological unemployment on wealth and income inequality. A life without work is no good if the economic rewards it brings are necessary to our survival and flourishing. It is only by reorganising the system of wealth distribution that this can be overcome.

Whether that is desirable or feasible is a topic for another day.

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