The Refusal of Work


I’ve been reading a lot of Bifo and Marazzi lately. I came to Autonomism the way I imagine a lot of people have: drifting through Hardt and Negri’s more contemporary writings and the French post-structuralist works of the 1970s, then working backwards and forwards that strange convergence point where these lines retrospectively came together for far too brief a period of time. Its amazed me that the Situationists and the events of May ’68 get so much intellectual street cred – and don’t get me wrong, they are certainly deserving of it – while the Autonomia movement has been relegated primarily to academic discussions concerning the transition to post-Fordism and the complex nature of ‘immaterial labor.’ These various groups, who were by no sense of the word unified in the proper sense of the word, and often espoused diverging viewpoints or held utterly contradictory stances, really need to find their rightful place in the genealogies of counterculture; it seems so obvious that Autonomia was part of the same zeitgeist, albeit a far more politically-inclined facet, that drove things like the punk subculture in New York and London and, oddly enough, the emerging neoliberal turn. Two sides of the same coin, I would argue – the coin being the fusion of technological development and grassroots demand.

By the same token, some of the theoretical contributions of the Autonomists need desperately to be reactivated in current activism, for they can eek out a truly revolution passageway from the quagmire that we all collectively find ourselves lodged in. Bifo’s recent writings, especially in his latest The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance address the dangerous waters of living in the midst of a neoliberal crisis marked by the consistently rising rates of job precarious. In a lot of of ways, The Uprising contains elements that are distinctly different from his works and those of his colleagues in the 1970s: for him, precarious labor means an increase in both competition and overall struggles for survival, which in turns triggers a loss of worker consciousness among the subaltern classes. Combined with the literal removal of the body proper from the social (the body disappears, he argues, into the glow of computer screens, floating off into a cybernetic abyss devoid of physical interaction), this collapse of consciousness is making the ability to construct bonds of solidarity an impossibility. Without going into too much detail today, Bifo sees a revolution that is first and foremost ‘poetic’ in nature; only the intimacies of poetic language, as well as a reinterpretation of what poetry is and can do, can give us the ability to make solidarity between bodies a feasible concept again.

Bifo has pointed out a change in the conception of job precariousness among Italian theorists, as in the heyday of the 1970s they viewed it as a positive notion. “I remember that one of the strong ideas of autonomy proletarians during the 70s was the ideas ‘precariousness is good.’ Job precariousness is a form of autonomy from steady, regular work, lasting an entire life.”1 In other words, the central Autonomist concept of the “refusal of work” – an idea that, even amongst a great deal of the radical left, is either heresy or absolute impossibility. Guy Debord’s famous equation that “capital accumulates until it becomes image” has certain changed; the Spectacle, the capitalist image, has accumulated under it has become a Baudrillardian nightmare of utter realism. This is certainly felt through the attitudes towards labor, as the outright refusal of commanded labor has been replaced with mass mobilization towards perpetual labor. We stand transfixed before television screens, biting our fingernails over each month’s job rates; proletarian consciousness harnessed by the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and other major union combines into demands for the stabilization of the ‘middle class’ mentality. Market fundamentalism’s left-wing counterpart is, without a doubt, a fundamentalism that makes labor itself as its object of desire. Its been argued that we live in a stage where a post-capitalist future is impossible to imagine – Bifo draws on punk imagery to illustrate that the resounding sentiment of the European youth under the austerity-driven neoliberal regime is one of “No Future!” But why is there ‘no future?’ Not because of some dialectic trap – there is no future because there are no jobs.

I’m going to switch gears and talk about one of America’s most controversial – and usually reviled – anarchist theorists, Bob Black. You may have heard of his devastating rebuttal of Murray Bookchin,2 which drips with the arrogance that has become his defining characteristic. And no make no doubt about it – he is arrogant and at times off-putting, but his work in the field of post-Left anarchism and his bridging of the gap between the so-called ‘lifestyle anarchist’ and the class-inclined ‘traditional’ anarchism deserves, in my opinion, to be taken seriously, especially considering that much of what he writes in a rather colloquial style dovetails neatly into what the post-structuralists and Autonomists were discussing in the 1970s. In 1985 he published “The Abolition of Work” in an attempt to situate the refusal of labor as an important aspect of insurrectionary struggle that would provide spaces for exodus. In lieu of further discussion of this refusal of work at today (a little cramped for time), I would like to offer a few key quotes from this essay:

[The page numbers I use refer to a wonderful and bizarre collections of writings from the American underground press in the 1980s titled Semiotext(e) USA3, which uses “The Abolition of Work” as one of its opening essays.]

images (7)

Material reality behind immaterial labor

Pg. 16 – Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Like the surrealists – except that I’m not kidding – I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry. But if all the ideologues (as they do) advociate work – and not only because they plan to make other people do theirs – they are strangely reluctant to say so. They will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself. These experts who offer to do our thinking for us rarely share their conclusions about work, for all its saliency in the lives of all of us. Among themselves they quibble over the details. Unions and management agree that we ought to sell the time of lives in exchange for survival, although they haggle over the price. Marxists think we should be bossed by bureaucrats. Libertarians think we should be bossed by businessmen. Feminists don’t care which form bossing takes so long as the bosses are women. Clearly these ideology-mongers have serious differences over how to divvy up the spoils of power. Just as clearly, none of them have any objection to power as such and all of them want to keep us working.

Pg. 17 – The degradation which most workers experience on the job is the sum of assorted dignities which can be denominated as “discipline.” Foucault has complexified this phenomenon but it is simple enough. Discipline consists of the totality of totalitarian controls at the workplace – surveillance, rotework, imposed work tempos, production quotas, punching-in and -out, etc. Discipline is what the factory and the office and the store share with the prison and the school and the mental hospital. It is something historically original and horrible… Discipline is the distinctively diabolical modern mode of control, it is an innovative intrusion which must be interdicted at the earliest opportunity.

Pg. 18 – Work makes a mockery of freedom. The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren’t free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or-else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smaller details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to the higher-ups, public or private. Either way dissent and disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing. And so it is, although it nothing but a description of the modern workplace. The liberals and conservatives and libertarians who lament totalitarianism are phonies and hypocrites. There is more freedom in any moderately de-Stalinized dictatorship than there is in the ordinary American workplace. You find the same sort of hierarchy and discipline in an office or factory as you do in a prison or monastery. In fact, as Foucault and others have shown, prisons and factories came in about the same time, and their operators consciously borrowed from each other’s control techniques. A worker is a part-time slave. The boss says when to show up, when to leave, and what to do in the meantime. He tells you how much work to do and how fast. He is free to carry out his control to humiliating extremes, regulating if he feels like it, the clothes you wear or how often you go to the bathroom.

Pgs.18-19 – We are so close to the world of work that we can’t see what it does to us. We have to rely on outside observers from other times or other cultures to appreciate the extremity and the pathology of our present proposition. There was a time in our own past when the “work ethic” would have been incomprehensible, and perhaps Weber was onto something when he tied its appearance to a religion, Calvinism, which if it emerged today instead of four centuries ago would immediately and appropriately be labeled a cult. Be that as it ma, we only have to draw upon the wisdom of antiquity to put work in perspective.

Pg. 19 – Socrates said that manual laborers make bad friends and bad citizens because they have no time to fulfill the responsibilities of friendship and citizenship. He was right. Because of work, no matter what we do we keep looking at our watches. The only thing “free” about so-called free time is that it doesn’t cost the bosses anything. Free time is mostly devoted to getting ready for work, going to work, returning to work, and recovering from work. Free time is a euphemism for the peculiar way labor as a factor of production not only transports itself at its own expense to and from the workplace but assumes primary responsibility for its own maintenance. Coal and steel don’t do that. Lathes and typewrites don’t do that. But workers do.

Pg. 26 – [speaking of a post-work world] The reinvention of daily life means marching off the edge of our maps. There is, it is true, more suggestive speculation than most people suspect. Besides Fourier and Morris – and even a hint, here and there, in Marx – there are the writings of Kropotkin, the syndicalists Pataud and Pouget, anarcho-communists old (Berkman) and new (Bookchin). The Goodman brother’s Communitas is exemplary for illustrating what forms follow from given functions (purposes), and there is something to be gleamed from the often hazy heralds of alternative/appropriate/convivial technology, like Schumacher and especially Illich, once you disconnect their fog machines. The situationists – as represented by Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life and in the Situationist International Anthology – are so ruthlessly lucid as to be exhilarating, even if they never did quite square the endorsement of the rule of the worker’s councils with the abolition of work. Better their incongruity, though, than any extant version of leftism, whose devotees look to be the last champions of work, for it there were no worker there would be no workers, and without workers, who would the left organize?

1Franco “Bifo” Berardi “What is the meaning of autonomy today?” September, 2003

2Bob Black “Withered Anarchism: A Surrebuttal to Murray Bookchin”

3Jim Fleming and Peter Lamborn Wilson (ed.) Semiotext(e) USA Semiotext(e), 1987

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2 Responses to The Refusal of Work

  1. Pingback: 3 Quotes on the Refusal of Labor | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

  2. S.C. Hickman says:

    What’s funny is that Jehu over at The Real Movement has been arguing much the same as Black from a Marxist perspective for a long while now…

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