The Theft of Life
"What is the bombing of a judge, the kidnapping of an industrialist, the hanging of a politician, the shooting of a cop, the looting of a supermarket, the burning of a commissioner's office, the stoning of a journalist, the heckling of an intellectual, the thrashing of an artist, in the face of the deadly alienation of our existence, the much too early sound of the alarm clock, the traffic jam on the expressway, the goods for sale lined up on the shelves?"
The alarm clock disrupts your sleep again-as always, much too early. You drag yourself from the warmth of your bed to the bathroom for a shower, a shave and a shit, then run down to the kitchen where you wash down a pastry or, if you have the time, some toast and eggs with a cup of coffee. Then you rush out the door to battle traffic jams or crowds in the subway until you arrive... at work, where your day is spent in tasks not of your choosing, in compulsory association with others involved in related tasks, the primary aim of which is the continued reproduction of the social relationships that constrain you to survive in this manner.
But this is not all. In compensation, you receive a wage, a sum of money that (after paying rent and bills) you must take out to shopping centers to buy food, clothes, various necessities and entertainment. Though this is considered your "free time" as opposed to "work time", it too is compulsory activity that only secondarily guarantees your survival, its primary purpose again being to reproduce the current social order. And for most people, moments free of these constraints are fewer and fewer.
According to the ruling ideology of this society, this existence is the result of a social contract between equals-equals before the law that is. The worker, it is said, contracts to sell her labor to the boss for a mutually agreed upon wage. But can a contract be considered free and equal when one side holds all the power?
If we look at this contract more closely, it becomes clear that it is no contract at all, but the most extreme and violent extortion. This is currently exposed most blatantly at the margins of capitalist society where people who have lived for centuries (or, in some cases, millennia) on their own terms find their capacity to determine the conditions of their existence ripped away by the bulldozers, chainsaws, mining equipment and so on of the world's rulers. But it is a process that has been going on for centuries, a process involving blatant, large-scale theft of land and life sanctioned and carried out by the ruling class. Bereft of the means for determining the conditions of their own existence, the exploited cannot be said, in honesty, to be contracting freely and equally with their exploiters. It is clearly a case of blackmail.
And what are the terms of this blackmail? The exploited are forced to sell the time of their life to their exploiters in exchange for survival. And this is the real tragedy of work. The social order of work is based on the imposed opposition between life and survival. The question of how one will get by suppresses that of how one wants to live, and in time this all seems natural and one narrows one's dreams and desires to the things that money can buy.
However, the conditions of the world of work do not just apply to those with jobs. One can easily see how the unemployed searching for a job from fear of homelessness and hunger is caught up in the world of work. But the same holds for the recipient of state aid whose survival depends on the existence of the assistance bureaucracy... and even for those for whom the avoidance of getting a job has become such a priority that one's decisions come to center around scams, shoplifting, dumpster diving-all the various ways to get by without a job. In other words, activities that could be fine means for supporting a life project become ends in themselves, making mere survival one's life project. How, really, does his differ from a job?
But what is the real basis of the power behind this extortion that is the world of work? Of course, there are laws and courts, police and military forces, fines and prisons, the fear of hunger and homelessness-all very real and significant aspects of domination. But even the state's force of arms can only succeed in carrying out its task because people submit. And here is the real basis of all domination-the submission of the slaves, their decision to accept the security of known misery and servitude rather than risk the unknown of freedom, their willingness to accept a guaranteed but colorless survival in exchange for the possibility of truly living that offers no guarantees.
So in order to put an end to one's slavery, to move beyond the limits of merely getting by, it is necessary to make a decision to refuse to submit; it is necessary to begin to reappropriate one's life here and now. Such a project inevitably places one in conflict with the entire social order of work; so the project of reappropriating one's existence must also be the project of destroying work. To clarify, when I say "work", I do not mean the activity by which one creates the means of one's existence (which ideally would never be separate from simply living) but rather a social relationship that transforms this activity into a sphere separate from one's life and places it in the service of the ruling order so that the activity, in fact, ceases to have any direct relationship to the creation of one's existence, but rather only maintains it in the realm of mere survival (at whatever level of consumption) through a series of mediations of which property, money and commodity exchange are among the most significant. This is the world in we must destroy in the process of taking back our lives, and the necessity of this destruction makes the project of the reappropriation of our lives one with the projects of insurrection and social revolution.Back to the Venomous Butterfly page