Life unbridled, a venture into the absolute other, requires the total destruction not only of ‘my’ work, but of the very concept of work and economy as the basis of human relationships.
If the anarchist project can seem incomprehensible to those who have learned to accept the necessity of being ruled, who have learned to prefer security to freedom, that project understood in its totality, as the complete overturning of all social relations based on obligation and compulsion, can even be incomprehensible to many anarchists. The idea of the destruction of work is frequently met with incomprehension. And this comes in more than one form.
The most frequent form of incomprehension I have encountered when I have spoken of the destruction of work is that which simply exclaims: “But we have to eat!” In certain ways this reaction is quite similar to the response to the call for the destruction of prisons, cops and states which cries: “But then rape, robbery and murder would run rampant!” It is a response that stems from habit – we have always lived a certain way. Within this way specific institutions are said to fulfill specific needs – thus, work and the economy are the institutional framework through which food is provided within the present system of social relationships, and we know of no others (except by rumor). So the thought of a world without work evokes visions of starvation precisely at the point where the capacity to dream stops.
Another form of incomprehension involves confusion over what work is. This stems in part from the fact that the word can be used in ambiguous ways. I may, indeed, say that I am “working” on an article for WD or on a translation. But when I am doing these things, it is, in fact, not work, because there is nothing compelling me to do them, I have no obligation to do them; I do them solely for my own pleasure. And here is where the basic meaning of work and its destruction becomes clear.
Work is an economic social relationship based upon compulsion. The institutions of property and commodity exchange place a price tag upon survival. This forces each of us to find ways to buy our survival or to accept the utter precariousness of a life of constant theft. In the former case, we can only buy our survival precisely by selling large portions of our lives away – this is why we refer to work as wage slavery – a slave is one whose life is owned by another, and when we work, capital owns our lives. And with the world domination of capital, increasingly the totality of existence is permeated by the world of work – there is no moment that is our own unless we ferociously rip it from the grip of this world. Though it is true that wage slavery cannot be equated with chattel slavery, it is also true that the masters of this world, in referring to us as “human resources”, make it very clear how they view us. So survival with a price tag is always opposed to life and work is the form this opposition takes.
But theft (and its poor cousin, dumpster diving) does not in itself free us from work. “Even robbing banks or reappropriating goods remains within the logic of capital if the individual perpetrator of the deed does not already have their own project in motion” (Jean Weir). And here is one of the most common misunderstandings of an anti-work perspective: confusing the avoidance of having a job with the attack on the world of work. This confusion manifests in a practical emphasis on methods for surviving without a job. Thus, survival continues to take precedence over life. One encounters so many people now within certain anarchist-influenced subcultures, who know where all the dumpsters, all the free feeds, all the easy shoplifting stores, etc. are, but who have no concept of what to do with their lives beyond surviving on the streets. The individual with a clear idea of her project who, for example, chooses to take a job temporarily at a printers in order to learn the skills and steal as much material as she needs to start her own anarchist publishing projecting – quitting the job as soon as his projectual tasks are accomplished – is acting far more pointedly against the world of work than the individual who spends his days wandering from dumpster to dumpster, thinking only of how he’s avoided a job.
Work is a social relationship or, more precisely, part of a network of social relationships based upon domination and exploitation. The destruction of work (as opposed to its mere avoidance), therefore, cannot be accomplished by a single individual. One who tried would still find herself trapped within the world of work, forced to deal with its realities and the choices it imposes. Nor can work be destroyed separately from the complete destruction of the system of social relationships of which it is a part. Thus, the attack against work starts from our struggle to reapproriate our lives. But this struggle encounters the walls of the prison that surrounds us everywhere, and so must become the struggle to destroy an entire social world, because only in a world that is absolutely other, what some have called a “world turned upside-down”, will our lives ever truly be our own. Now we can snatch moments and spaces – and indeed this is necessary in order to give us the time to reflect upon what we, as individuals, really want to do with our lives. But the task remains before us of breaking down the prison walls.
In fact, the anarchist insurrectionary project, whether thought of in terms of work, the state, the family, the economy, property, technology, religion, law or any other institutions of domination, remains the same. The world of domination is one. The institutions form a network, and one cannot escape through the cracks. We must destroy the net and adventure into the unknown, having made the decision to find ways to relate and create our exist that are absolutely other, ways that we can experiment now, but only in our struggle to destroy this world, because only in this struggle can we snatch the time and space we need for such experiments. And in speaking of a world that is absolutely other, there is little one can say. When asked, “But if we destroy work, how will we eat?”, all one can say is, “We will figure that out as we go along.” And, of course, that is not satisfying for those who want easy answers. But if our desire is to make our lives our own, and if this requires a world that is absolutely other than the social world in which we live, we cannot expect to have the words for that world. Where would we find them here, where even the primitivists must resort to economic comparisons and an accounting of hours of work to valorize their utopia? As we destroy the old world and experiment with new ways to live, the words will come, if they are desired. Their shadows are sometimes visible in poetry, but if we realize our lives poetically, will we even still desire the words?