3 Quotes on the Refusal of Labor

Autonomia 001

Behind the glorification of “work” and the tireless talk of the “blessings of work” I find the same thought as behind the praise of impersonal activity for the public benefit: the fear of everything individual. At bottom, one feels now when confronted with work – and what is invariably meant is relentless industry from early till late – that such work is the best police, that it keeps everybody in harness and powerfully obstructs the development of reason, of covetousness, of the desire for independence. For it uses up a tremendous amount of nervous industry and takes it away from reflection, brooding, dreaming, worry, love, and hatred; it always sets a small goal before one’s eyes and permits easy and regular satisfaction. In that way a society in which the members continually work hard will have more security: and security is now adorned as the supreme goddess. And now – horrors! – it is precisely the “worker” who has become dangerous. Dangerous individuals are swarming all around. And behind them, the danger of dangers: the individual.1

-Friedrich Nietzsche

After centuries of domestication, the modern human being can not even imagine a life without labour. As a social imperative, labour not only dominates the sphere of the economy in the narrow sense, but also pervades social existence as a whole, creeping into everyday life and deep under the skin of everybody. “Free time”, a prison term in its literal meaning, is spent to consume commodities in order to increase (future) sales.

Beyond the internalised duty of commodity consumption as an end-in-itself and even outside offices and factories, labour casts its shadow on the modern individual. As soon as our contemporary rises from the TV chair and becomes active, every action is transformed into an act similar to labour. The joggers replace the time clock by the stopwatch, the treadmill celebrates its post-modern rebirth in chrome-plated gyms, and holidaymakers burn up the kilometres as if they had to emulate the year’s work of a long-distance lorry driver. Even sexual intercourse is orientated towards the standards of sexology and talk show boasting.

King Midas was quite aware of meeting his doom when anything he touched turned into gold; his modern fellow sufferers, however, are far beyond this stage. The demons for work (labour) even don’t realise any longer that the particular sensual quality of any activity fades away and becomes insignificant when adjusted to the patterns of labour. On the contrary, our contemporaries quite generally only ascribe meaning, validity and social significance to an activity if they can square it with the indifference of the world of commodities. His labour’s subjects don’t know what to make of a feeling like grief; the transformation of grief into grieving-work, however, makes the emotional alien element a known quantity one is able to gossip about with people of one’s own kind. This way dreaming turns into dreaming-work, to concern oneself with a beloved one turns into relationship-work, and care for children into child raising work past caring. Whenever the modern human being insists on the seriousness of his activities, he pays homage to the idol by using the word “work” (labour).2

-Krisis, “Manifesto Against Labour”

The key is within each of us. No instructions come with it. When you decide to treat yourself as your only point of reference you will cease to be trapped by name-dropping — yours or mine — or by deferring to other people’s opinions, or by the particular way they see things. And you will cease to link yourself to the people whose everpresent memories of having taken part in a movement in history still prevent them from deriving any personal benefit from the experience.

It is entirely up to us to invent our own lives. We waste so much energy in living vicariously, it is really hard work, when it would be enough, if you love yourself, to apply this energy to the achievement and development of the incomplete being, the child within. I wish to reach the anonymity of desire and be carried away on the flood.

In endlessly denaturing what still seemed natural, the history of trade has reached a point where either we perish with it or recreate nature and humanity completely afresh. Beyond the inversion in which death battens on life, life leaps up, and swiftly sketches society where pleasure comes of its own accord.

At any one moment, my ‘me’ is to be found tightly tangled in the detritus of what oppresses me; heated debate erupts in the attempt to disentangle the twisted filaments and liberate utterly the sexual impulse as the breath that gives life perpetually. It ought never to be stifled. That’s why enjoying yourself also presages the end of work and holding back, exchange, intellectuality, guilt, and the will to power. I see no justification — except economic — for suffering, separation, orders, payments, reproaches or power. My struggle for autonomy is that of the proletarian against his growing proletarianisation, of the individual against the omnipresent dictatorship of goods for sale, the commodity. Life erupting has kicked a breach in your death-oriented civilisation.3

-Raoul Vaneigem

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(See also the earlier post The Refusal of Work)

1Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Kaufman (ed) The Portable Nietzsche Penguin, 1976 (reprint ed.), pg. 82

2Krisis “Manifesto Against Labour” December 31st, 1999 http://www.krisis.org/1999/manifesto-against-labour

3Raoul Vaneigem The Book of Pleasures January 8th, 1979 http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/raoul-vaneigem-the-book-of-pleasures

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3 Responses to 3 Quotes on the Refusal of Labor

  1. dmfant says:

    twitter trend on “bullshit” jobs

    • edmundberger says:

      Awesome, thanks! For anyone interested, the #bullshit jobs originates from an article written by Graeber, found on the twitter feed. It’s worth reading:

      “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens…. The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.”


      Someone else on the feed offered up that simple but great Bob Black line: “No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world.” Heretical notions for sure, but to question the universal hegemony of labor itself is something undoubtedly to be considered.

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