On Antiwork

Dom Rottman

31 January 2022

It has been brought to my attention that a disastrous interview was conducted on Fox News. The interviewee was a moderator of the Reddit subreddit r/antiwork, a left community dedicated towards the criticism of current labor conditions. The interviewee was all but a living caricature of the phantom liberal Fox News so frequently castigates: a millennial living at home or regardless an unorganized life who walks dogs for 25 hours a week in order to get by. The interviewee also struggles with gender identity issues and obvious severe mental health issues (not like Fox News is likely to care). Interviewing is already a learned skill that never comes naturally, and often, learning it is very difficult. Simply put, this individual should not be in front of a mic.

The interview was a slugfest. A hard win for Fox News, and an unmitigated disaster for r/antiwork, and a blow to the left at large. Anyone who watches Fox News, and quite a few more who do not and would not, would see this as empirical evidence that labor reform really is just about slacking off. Lazy Millennials! A Selfish Generation! Our nation is doomed if it is left to these people!

But what is the answer to the question: Do you want to work? “Does anybody?” At the same time, “How could I not?”

There is massive fallout and fragmentation within Reddit’s left–as is usually the case within any united left front. I do not wish to bore the reader with the details, yet a brief background on r/antiwork’s history serves as a good springboard. r/antiwork was originally a more radical subreddit, an anti-capitalist one, friendly to the Marxist tradition, anarchists, communists, etc. The farthest right member might have been a Bernie supporter. Antiwork, then, meant exactly what it said on the tin: the activity of work or labor under a capitalist society is bad and should be abolished. This position is far from new. Philosopher Bob Black, and a century before him Paul Lafargue, both explicitly criticize the idea of work. Moreover, a critique of labor is essential to the Marxist tradition. Soon, though, many posts from r/antiwork caught on to people less familiar with radical ideas. This is not so surprising, as many posts expressed the real material conditions and struggle of the working class. Even a worker who had read not a page of Marx could find deep resonance with what more radical workers had to say. Ere long, more and more working people flooded into the community which in all likelihood moved the political mean more to the right–closer to the liberal, as liberals themselves joined the community.

Why would a radical community allow this? Why would people who spend half of their breath cursing democrats, liberals, and liberalism at large allow such people to join in camaraderie? The answer: this is how it’s supposed to work. Generating class consciousness is the most basic political activity for the radical. Class consciousness is required for further revolutionary activity to occur, and many Marxists and other radicals are (or at least damn well should be) happy to share experience and knowledge with their fellow workers. It is quite likely that many workers were radicalized by the subreddit and will continue to think and act politically in a new and productive way. This is a tremendous thing, and the achievement of r/antiwork is its contribution to a renewed sense of class consciousness in America, marked by growing actions of unionizations, strikes, and resignations. But reddit is not a site of education. It is not a site of politics, a site of neither speech nor action.

With a great influx of liberals and ordinary workers many of the “programs” espoused by r/antiwork (though the espousal of which was never and ought not to have been its purpose) were relatively modest. Fifteen dollar minimum wage, guaranteed benefits that most Europeans have, things like that. At its most, a shorter working week. These things, too, the radicals would support, if tacitly, if without enthusiasm. Certainly such reforms are not the end goal, but such measures are, first of all, practicable and achievable given the current material conditions and, secondly and most importantly, are a recognition of a basic reality: in order to work, one must first be alive.

This is a basic fact. Life is the necessary condition for the possibility of work. You cannot work if you are dead.1 This is why capitalism will do everything to workers but kill them, it will push them to the very precipice of life and death, and it is because this specific effervescent point is its aim that it often ends up killing workers anyway–the pandemic is the perfect illustration of this. But capitalism hardly cares about petty things like the bounds of physics, reality, and logic; it would rather have work be the necessary condition for the possibility of life, or at least have us imagine that this were so. It the rejection of this falsehood, that encompasses the idea of “Antiwork.” Labor under capitalism is not only grueling, boring, harmful, alienating, humiliating, dangerous, dehumanizing, unsustainable, painful, pointless, etc., etc., it is simply irrational. Therefore it must be abolished.

“Does anybody really want to work?” Does anybody want to breathe? “Why would I not want to work?” Why would I rather sit on my ass than do what I do? There lies a tension here, a tension that led Hannah Arendt to write that the most flagrant contradiction in Marx’s work was that labor was at once life’s chief want yet the very thing which the worker must be liberated from. One can see where she got that, but at the same time, calling it a contradiction is uncharitable.

Aside from the fact that in the decades which spanned Marx’s corpus, his mind and positions changed in sometimes significant ways (although that’s worth noting), the point of tension here, the problem of labor in capitalism, is specifically the problem of the alienation of labor. Capitalist labor, Marx writes, alienates the worker from nature, from herself, her “species-being” (human capacity, basically), and other human beings. The worker labors in isolation, from the natural world and other workers who yet remain physically near. The worker is compelled to work at the task at hand; her entire being becomes the activity of labor–which she cannot keep the dignity of, and only ultimately labors for wages. This is as true for the early industrial factory worker as it is today for the office desk job.

The alienation of labor, the phenomenon of estranged labor is the irrational engine of capitalism, where “Life itself appears only as a means to life.” A true humanity, according to Marx, is marked by “life-activity,” the idea that an individual can consciously and freely determine her activity and enter into it as she pleases. Labor, estranged, capitalist labor, is an irrational perversion of this reality. Labor is life-activity put into a box and shipped away; “it estranges man’s own body from him, as it does [sic] external nature and his spiritual essence, his human being.” Under God, we get to work, but under capitalism, we have to work.

Labor does not totally shake the freedom of the life activity, as one is free to sell their labor to whomever, free to select the means through which alienation can occur. While this freedom is essentially meaningless, the fact that labor is “freely chosen” on the face of it signifies that labor is still a form of life activity. If liberated, it can therefore still be life’s chief want. The issue is, under capitalism, nobody can really have it. This is why worker ownership of the means of production is such an important idea: it breaks down the barriers of alienation. Workers are compelled to associate with each other and decide what they’re doing and why. Camaraderie becomes essential to doing literally anything, and the fruits of labor are immediately realized for the workers as an object for their determination and not immediately stripped away and exchanged for wages. And that which is not worth doing can finally stop. No more orchestrating ventured interfaces! No need to maximize seamless intermediaries! 2

It is with the end of the alienation of labor that the “contradiction” of wanting labor and wanting to be free from labor begins to resolve itself. The basic truth is that people actually want their work to mean something, and that meaning needs to be realized in front of their faces. This would be labor realized as life-activity. At this point the goal to then also be free from labor becomes more conceivable. Yet it remains a tricky point.

Even Marx recognized that under socialism, where workers own the means of production, there is work that still has to be done. While socialism is certainly a capital thing since it allows workers to finally achieve genuine fulfilment as well as control over the economy, Marx believed that it would not yet be possible to live by the mantra “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” From a more Anarchist perspective, there is simply no time to wait for the “productive forces” to magically make this possible; it is the primary responsibility of a community to ensure that everyone’s needs are met through mutual aid. Yet even the most committed anarchist is weighed down by the prospect that someone will have to clean the toilets.

Jerry Seinfeld has a bit about labor, in which he says that the unemployed are not actually unable to find work, but are rather easily disgusted. The idea here is that the problem of “dirty jobs” isn’t as massive as it initially seems. For every one or two people that abhor cleaning, there is likely at least one other person who enjoys it. People will still enthusiastically say: “Yes, I will confine myself to one particularly objectionable part of the human body all day, every day!” And once again, when the worker is not alienated from her labor, she actually has the dignity of a job well done that she would not otherwise have under capitalism. Socialism, worker ownership of the means of production, unalienated labor, grants dignity to the jobs that we today unjustly make undignified.

To then finally cap off all at once the problem of dirty work, being free from labor, and freely chosen labor or life activity is automation. Automation is vilified under capitalism, used to threaten the worker and scare her out of technological process because she will have less and less avenues through which to sell her labor. But after the emancipation of labor automation becomes the gift humanity gives itself. There are certain things that need to be done that no one wants to do–why not make a machine to do it? The seemingly mystical “productive forces” involves the same rate of technological progress that capitalism brought about, that we can produce more and more with less and less–but unlike as it is now, less means less labor. This is hardly a radical thought either; famous economist John Maynard Keynes believed that by now we should have a 20 hour work week. But capitalist society is not restricted to the economic, and the subjugation of labor and laborers is required for the ruling class to dominate.

Antiwork, then, is still exactly what it sounds like. It demands that people’s needs be met, that people actually remain alive; It demands that we take seriously that principle which we already live by: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It demands that people do not need to work to be alive; it deems it immoral that people are suffered to die because they do not sell their labor. It demands that work should be better and meaningful, and claims that it is good that people work less. It demands that work be emancipated, that work and labor become the freely chosen life-activity for which one can enjoy all of its fruits and dignity. Work and labor are beyond a few tweaks and reforms, it must be transformed so radically that it is rendered unrecognizable, that we might see a day where one can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner, while at once being neither hunter nor fisherman nor cattle-rearer nor critic.

r/antiwork has reassembled into r/WorkReform. Come of it what may. The transformation of this community of workers poetically reflects the movement of workers after a failure, where they seem again unable “to rediscover revolutionary greatness in itself,” and instead settle for less–not revolution, but reform. Not just the revolutionary impulse but the rational impulse is betrayed. Labor is not unalienated by higher wages and increased life security. There remains alienated labor in Europe, and to that end American liberals ought to be reminded that lives less precarious are precarious still. The greatest blow to the left in the dissolution of r/antiwork was not the widely broadcasted circus show but that in that broadcasting a strong recapitulation of the delusion that one must work in order to live. The emancipation of labor once again becomes a passing and laughable thought, and radicals are once again made the punching bag for the conservative and the liberal.

“But the revolution is thorough-going.” Reform, of course, cannot be embraced by the radical. Rather, one can only hope that reforms shift the material conditions such that meaningful change becomes possible. But it is not enough to hope. Agency matters, what workers themselves do matters. There is not a single thing a man in Washington can do which can replace direct activity and organization by working people. The refusal or inability to recognize this is the great failure of the liberal worker, and that which prevents her from recognizing the irrationality of labor.

  1. Sometimes that’s literally the only requirement. ↩︎

  2. https://www.bullshitgenerator.com ↩︎