Archives for category: unwaged work

This show presents an audiobook-ish experience, based on a talk by Silvia Federici about her book ‘Caliban and the Witch’. This book talks about how the development of capitalism is deeply entwined with processes of accumulation which needs to mold and domesticate the bodies of women in specific ways. The politics of reproduction at stake in this historical study is still very much at work today, and this book provides an invaluable background to developing struggles around reproduction and care today.

A must for anyone interested in the connections between capitalism, gender and colonialism.

Full book here:

Meaningful work: an appeal to the young

An article by Scott Nappalos about meaning in choosing employment, from

From the time I was a child, I was told to follow my dreams and do something I truly loved. Granted I rarely met an adult who was passionate about their work, but they seemed sincere in their desire for others to take that path. The advice of course usually had a piece of bitterness attached to it. As I came of age, the terrain didn’t look pretty. Most of my personal passions were deserts for employment. Nor did I really know anyone who was living the dream, so to speak, at work. My path began from leaving that advice behind.

Society is littered with talk of meaningful work. The creative class, jobs that means something, doing something with one’s life, work that matters, helping people; we’re inundated with phrases, words, and images that describe our poverty and the future that we are supposed to aspire to.

It’s actually worse for people who commit themselves to making radical change in society. A confluence of pressures pushes down on them year after year through family wondering when they will grow up, friends perpetually moving on to something better, and a gnawing sense of wasted potential. Why bother with the endless meetings, the mindless work, and for what?

Unless you’re born into a situation where work is unnecessary, nearly everyone experiences the modern workplace. Service work in particular serves as a stark reminder of reality and alternatives. The unending drudgery of task after task slinging fatty coffee that literally poisons people’s health, selling useless items created on the backs of abused workers elsewhere, cardboard boxes rolling down the line that just keep coming and coming, forcing a smile when we are cursed at or harassed; Nearly everyone has been forced to participate in the bitterness of having our time stolen. It’s perhaps harder to bare for those who know the widest extent of the misery of humanity and understand how preventable it all is.

The sense of meaninglessness in jobs is a strong current in society. Tv shows, films, music, and other forms of pop culture repeat the comedy, frustration, and depression of spending one’s time on tasks that seem pointless. This isn’t to say that people’s jobs don’t make a difference. Many things we do keep society running and contributes to the social good. The meaninglessness of work in today’s society arises out of the reflection of workers that their time is not really benefiting the people they serve or advancing them as people. As a healthcare worker I can see both sides of this. Obviously healthcare is crucial for societies. At the same time any hospital worker can recognize how it is that the healthcare system not only harms people, but also in general contributes to people staying sick. Meaning is something deeper than just keeping the gears moving and helping our fellow human beings. Meaning is about where we are headed and who we are. This is where youth get squeezed and falter.

Modern capitalism with its base of debt makes everything seem possible. The compulsion to put food on the table is softened by easy credit. We can go back to school, live on credit cards, travel to cheap places, and find means to delay work enough to get by. Young people accumulate useless degrees and insane debts while deferring the future and often slipping into the delusions of jobs that simply do not exist. Choosing what to do with our lives takes on the characteristic of other more banal decisions. We are shopping for an ethical product. Validation stands at the core of this, and plays off the fear of a wasted life, idle efforts, and ending up trapped chasing false ideals. What to tell worried parents who watched their child squander what chances they had for material success? It is better to say that one is employed fighting poverty, educating the youth, or some other remix of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, or perhaps Bono.

The problem is that there is no escape. Professors spend decades moving town to town as itinerant adjuncts teaching the most bland classes, writing mechanical essays in desperation to stay published, and constantly struggling for something more stable. Even at it’s best, University life leaves less time for liberatory thought and action than the part time service worker. Union organizers spend seventy or eighty hour weeks at the service of hostile bureaucracies, and too often find themselves in the position of pimping the Democratic party and selling backroom deals with management to disillusioned workers. NGO staff share the same fate, bending to the will of the funders and forced to represent the interests of the powerful under false flags of social change. Self-employment and cooperatives turn activist efforts into business efforts, and consume more time than any capitalist could ever demand from a job. Good people find themselves lost there, tired of all the worn appearances that hide a rotten structure, yearning to escape too their work and get back to something more authentic.

We need to question and even condemn the pressure on youth to find meaningful work. As long as we live in capitalism, its deep wells will poison all the streams flowing into our cities. With capitalist work, even the most holy pursuit will end up in mindlessness, subservience to stupid management, and in fighting the current trying to make some good out of a hostile situation that constantly tries to undo our efforts. This isn’t to say that some don’t enjoy their jobs. Some do. Yet on the balance, the vast majority can’t find employment that will engage them, and those who do generally must sacrifice the rest of their lives for the privilege. The real question to be raised isn’t whether you should enjoy your job or not, but whether you should dedicate your life to work. Or better, what is the relation of living to working?

This logic should be turned on its head. It’s not what we’re employed doing that should define, validate, or give meaning to our lives; it’s our life itself that does. How much brighter does the future look to liberate oneself from the oppressive concept of boundless sacrifice to meaningful jobs? Why shouldn’t youth seek to maximize their lives against this work? There are other roads open to us. We can work, as we must, but can struggle to find the most time for ourselves and our causes. Better we write, protest, organize, and gather in our workplaces on time off, than to cement that relationship into employment or worse into our identities.

Our lives are defined by what we do, not who writes our paychecks. A political life is an attempt to regain a meaningful life. It is a task for all of society, and not monopolized by a special class employed as professional politicians, bureaucrats, and humanitarians. Meaning is not at work, but in the beauty of daily living, in struggling for a better world, and whatever path your desires take you towards. Our joy is not found in simply imposing our will onto the world, but in the happiness that can only be found in fighting for a more just and beautiful world around us. Dedicating oneself to the struggles of others changes you. Within, we must fight to constantly overcome ourselves against the current, a process that can be deeply enriching. The commitment and work of liberation makes all of society our classroom, our workplaces gymnasiums, and our neighborhoods galleries.

Sacco and Vanzetti remind us of the infinite potential and beauty of life even from within the walls of prison. The two Italian anarchist immigrants dedicated their lives to the causes of their class working as a cobbler and a fish peddler respectively. Their sacrifices were more than just in their professions, as they were framed for murder and executed by the state of Massachusetts. The writings of the pair from prison are inspiring not only for their perseverance and insights, but for their joy. Sacco wrote to his son Dante his final letter before his execution, sitting down as we do, to find words for the path life carries us down. Facing his own death and the life of his son in front of him, he wrote

“Don’t cry Dante, because many tears have been wasted, as your mother’s have been wasted for seven years, and never did any good. So, Son, instead of crying, be strong, so as to be able to comfort your mother, and when you want to distract your mother from the discouraging soulness, I will tell you what I used to do. To take her for a long walk in the quiet country, gathering wild flowers her and there, resting under the shade of trees, between the harmony of the vivid stream and the gentle tranquility of the mothernature, and I am sure that she will enjoy this very much, as you surely would be happy for it. But remember always, Dante, in the play of happiness, don’t you use all for yourself only, but down yourself just one step, at your side and help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because that are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all and the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.”[1]

In spite of all the sadness that surrounds us and plagues this world. Our daily lives can be the work of love. We do not need titles, positions, or to be taken into service to achieve this work. We only need the commitment to set ourselves to the betterment of all and to dive head in to the struggle against power. Against the monotony and pervasive depression we see, Vanzetti offers this:

“I am convinced that human history has not yet begun; that we find ourselves in the last period of the prehistoric. I see with the eyes of my soul how the sky is suffused with the rays of the new millennium.”[2]

Beyond the horizon of today lie potentials for humanity freed from the artificial constraints of society twisted by the contours of power and wealth. We do not need to imagine paradises, utopias, or that any political movement can solve all of humanity’s problems to see how much more is possible. This is the task of youth today, to constantly push further in practice and expose the expanding vista of human potential.

[1] Sacco, Nicola. 8/18/1927. Letter to Dante Sacco.

[2] Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The Story of a Proletarian Life.

IWW four hour day

It has been a while since I’ve done any kind of ‘political’ writing—but a change in city and circumstances has meant a re-think of what anarchist class struggle means to me right now. My last attempts focused on political organisation, and the shift from activist, moral/ideological-based struggles to struggles based around shared material needs. While this still holds true in terms of my thinking, I would like to explore what the actual content of such a struggle involves, and draw on ideas from the current of thinking known as ‘communisation’—ideas that are really quite simple once stripped of their ultra-left prose.

All form and no play

There is a real tendency within the anarchist circles I’ve been apart of to fetishize the form of our struggle, as opposed to its content. In other words, we get so preoccupied with how we organise, and neglect thinking about what we are doing (or want to do) in any depth. Of course this is a big generalisation, but I know it to be typical because my own actions have been no different. My past thoughts and energy have often been around how struggle might be organised—from semi-closed, direct-democracy based collectives, to community assemblies, solidarity networks and anarcho-syndicalist initiatives. It’s a mindset that seems to hold to the idea: “if we just try a different form, or a variation on how we are currently doing things, then we will have more success.” Instead of a solnet, let’s try a community assembly. Instead of a community assembly, let’s try working within existing organisations.

This is understandable, especially in the context of low periods of mass struggle. When there’s not many anarchists around—let alone class ruptures on the scale needed to actually challenge capital relations—it’s probably inevitable that we focus on how we organise ourselves and our activities.

But I think this approach is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly (and for practical reasons), we don’t have the numbers to be worried about the form these small groups or networks will take. Secondly, it harbors an inward-and-outside position, in that it focuses on the activities of a small number of people while neglecting the shared material interests of our class as a whole—a sort of inverted Leninism. Finally, it relegates the content our struggles—what we do and why—to the background (or if not the background, it’s definitely not at the forefront of our thinking).

Beyond Resistance has been one space in which a change of focus has been possible. I don’t say this to focus on the form of our collective (here we go again); rather, an exploration of class struggle, material interests and capitalist patriarchy has meant what we are actually doing with our (limited) time has been important. As yet, this has not amounted to much outward action. But that’s not the point. I’m certainly not interested in building the movement—at least not in the framework I would have used in the past.

“Communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations”

This quote comes from Troploin’s carefully posed text, Communisation. In it, they explain what communism means to them, and in particular, how the content of struggle (or communisation, the revolution as being a communising process) should be at the forefront of any move towards revolutionary change. Here’s the quote in full:

We will focus on one point: because the vast majority of revolutionaries (Marxists and anarchists) regard communism above all as a new way of organising society, they are first of all concerned by how to find the best possible organisational forms, institutions in other words, be they fixed or adaptable, complex or extremely simple… We start from another standpoint: communism concerns as much the activity of human beings as their inter-relations. The way they relate to each other depends on what they do together. Communism organises production and has no fear of institutions, yet it is first of all neither institution nor production : it is activity

The passage relates to one of the main issues ultra-left and libertarian communists have noted with past revolutionary movements: “that a revolution is only communist if it changes all social relationships into communist relationships.” In other words, simply replacing the bosses with workers, and managing life and production as usual (albeit in more free and egalitarian ways) does not change the fundamental social relations between people. If we liberate our labour, as opposed to abolishing it, then “money, wage-labour, the enterprise as a separate unit and a value-accumulating pole, work-time as cut off from the rest of our life, production for value, private property, State agencies as mediators of social life and conflicts, the separation between learning and doing, the quest for maximum and fastest circulation of everything” remains intact. Instead, to be completely rid of capital, writes Troploin, “all of these have to be done away with and not just be run by collectives or turned over to public ownership: they have to be replaced by communal, moneyless, profitless, Stateless, forms of life.”

Endnotes elaborates on this concept further:

Those who developed the theory of communisation rejected this posing of revolution in terms of forms of organisation, and instead aimed to grasp the revolution in terms of its content. Communisation implied a rejection of the view of revolution as an event where workers take power followed by a period of transition: instead it was to be seen as a movement characterised by immediate communist measures (such as the free distribution of goods) both for their own merit, and as a way of destroying the material basis of the counter-revolution. If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organised by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself. By contrast, the revolution as a communising movement would destroy – by ceasing to constitute and reproduce them – all capitalist categories: exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the State and – most fundamentally – wage labour and the working class itself.” (Endnotes, # 2, 2010)

While these quotes might seem off topic, they actually help to frame the questions to come: if the content, or the nature of class struggle, is to take priority over its form, what should our activity in the here-and-now look like? Taking communisation and the importance of material interests into account, the question might be better re-framed as: what material interests can we struggle around that will create the space to rupture capital relations?

I want to make the point here that I do not believe the actions of myself, or my comrades, will result in social revolution. Call it cynical, but this activist mentality was jettisoned a long time ago. However this is not the same as defeatism, or to advocate idly waiting for the spontaneous ruptures of the working class to erupt. Instead, it is the realisation that the content and scale of struggle needed to challenge the capital-labour wage relation will involve activity much larger than our actions alone.

To work or not to work

So, what material interests can we struggle around that will create the space to rupture capital relations? If wage-labour (waged or unwaged), work as a separate activity of life, and the existence of a working class are central to capital’s reproduction, then it makes sense to place these at the heart of our struggles. Or more specifically, the refusal of work and anti-work struggles.

Kathi Weeks in The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, anti-work politics and postwork imaginaries notes how work can unite a range of material interests: “the category of work seems to me at once more capacious and more finely tuned than the category of class. After all, work, including its absence, is both important to and differently experienced within and across lines of class, gender, race, and nation.” She argues that as a result, “the politics of and against work has the potential to expand the terrain of class struggle to include actors well beyond that classic figure of traditional class politics, the industrial proletariat.”

As a way of struggling around these shared material interests, and to bridge the gap between a refusal of work and current work ethics, Weeks suggests two ways forward—the struggle for a guaranteed basic income, and the demand for shorter working hours without the loss of pay. Although it raises questions around how such a demand would affect those who are in reproductive or unwaged work, the second option is one I really like.

While organisng around wage increases or a minimum wage re-enforces the wage system and does nothing to question the nature of work, struggles for a shorter working day (without the loss of pay) opens up a potentially radical discussion about the nature of work itself. Not only would “a thirty-hour full-time work week without a decrease in pay would help to address some of the problems of both the underemployed and the overworked,” it also questions life as endless toil. The benefit of “focusing on these demands which I think distinguishes them from many other demands for economic reform, including the demand for a living wage is their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance. These demands do not affirm our right to work so much as help us to secure some measure of freedom from it.” Struggling around a shorter day with no decrease in pay is “at once a demand for change and a perspective and provocation [and]  a useful reform and a conceptual frame that could generate critical thinking and public debate about the structures and ethics of work.”

The demand for a shorter working day is not a new one. We are all familiar with the struggle for the 8 hour day and the radicalisation this struggle caused. More recently, the IWW has demanded a 4 hour day for 8 hours pay.

Some will argue that slogans such as these will not feed a family on the minimum wage. When there is a vacuum in struggles around such basic (and much needed) reforms, it is indeed tempting to fill the void left by the unions and other ‘socialist’ organisations, and make reform the content of our activity. But we are not social reformers. If we are radicals in the true meaning of the word, then our activity should strike at the root of capital relations. Not only does the struggle for the minimum wage keep the wage system intact, it closes the door to the questioning of wage-labour itself—the very reason poverty wages exist in the first place. Yes, its no comfort to a hungry family, but neither is the continuation of capital relations—in the short-, medium-, or long-term.

It is also possible that the questioning of work, or more specifically, the demand for a shorter day without the loss of pay, places our organisng back on moral or ideological terrain—the very terrain BR has questioned in the past. The key would be to match the demand, which many will consider utopian, with the concrete, lived experiences of work—our shared material interests.

Anti-work struggles via the demand for a shorter working day. Utopian babble or the way forward? At the very least, it is a discussion worth having. And one not based on form.

The problem with work: feminism, marxism, antiwork politics and postwork imaginaries - Kathi Weeks

From In The Problem with Work, Kathi Weeks boldly challenges the presupposition that work, or waged labor, is inherently a social and political good. While progressive political movements, including the Marxist and feminist movements, have fought for equal pay, better work conditions, and the recognition of unpaid work as a valued form of labor, even they have tended to accept work as a naturalized or inevitable activity. Weeks argues that in taking work as a given, we have “depoliticized” it, or removed it from the realm of political critique.

Employment is now largely privatized, and work-based activism in the United States has atrophied. We have accepted waged work as the primary mechanism for income distribution, as an ethical obligation, and as a means of defining ourselves and others as social and political subjects. Taking up Marxist and feminist critiques, Weeks proposes a postwork society that would allow people to be productive and creative rather than relentlessly bound to the employment relation. Work, she contends, is a legitimate, even crucial, subject for political theory.

An HTML version of the Introduction is available here.

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