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Archive for the ‘Antiwork’ Category

Attn: Wage Slaves! (book review)

Most ‘work’ in this age is stupid, monotonous, brain-rotting, irritating,
usually pointless … Marx was quite right in calling it ‘wage slavery.’

Robert Anton Wilson, 1986 intro to ‘Undoing Yourself’, 3rd ed.

The Good Life for Wage Slaves

If I could go back in time to deliver a handful of ‘near future’ books to my 1987 self, Robert Wringham’s brilliantly entertaining new book, The Good Life for Wage Slaves, would probably be one of them. My younger persona wouldn’t understand his references to COVID-19 or to office workers distracting themselves with the internet – or even to the idea of “Quiet Rooms” (it would take years before such New Age type notions made it into British workplaces without a sneer) – but the deeper messages about contemporary Wage Slavery, and the information on how to cope, would have transformed my outlook.

Back then, I was starting in office work hell with no end in sight. Apart from a few Bertrand Russell and Robert Anton Wilson quotes and an anarchist essay by Bob Black, there seemed little in the way of intellectual self-defence against the onslaught of modern work culture. Politics of ‘right’ and ‘left’ seemed dogmatically agreed on the heroic virtue of jobs to deliver us from social and economic evil; insidious forms of corporate behaviourism and institutional emotional blackmail were rife. The Idler magazine (founded in 1993) was still a few years away; David Graeber’s essay and book on Bullshit Jobs (2013/2018) were still a few decades in the future.

Around 1990, a few dissidents, here and there, scraped together primitive desktop publishing resources to create various anti-work zines, stickers and graphic propaganda. I recall creating and printing ‘Crap Job Watch UK’ stickers, etc, making ironic use of business clip-art – and, by 1995, DIY-published my first issue of Anxiety Culture. Basically pre-internet, zine culture back then seemed a desperate (but fun) attempt to create and find others of similar creative mind.

To me, Robert Wringham’s book is like a flowering of that subversive spirit against the soul-crushing forces of modern bureaucratic Wage Slavery! I also found it an entertaining read. After once making the great escape (and sharing his insights in his New Escapologist project), circumstances had then conspired to force Wringham back into Wage Slavery (via a visa-related requirement under Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy).

In a funny, wisdom-laced narrative, the book describes his adventures returning to a daily reality of office Wage Slavery for two and a half years. Throughout, Rob refers to his Scottish workplace as “Concrete Island” (after the J.G. Ballard novel), and assigns his work colleagues cartoonish cat names (eg ‘Prince Chunk’ and ‘Tibs the Great’).

In this and other ways the book acquires a strangely surreal vibe, with Rob as some modern-day Bartleby (albeit with a better sense of humour). So even though it’s anchored in a persistent and deeply unpleasant economic reality, there seems – to me at least – a dreamlike novelistic flavour pervading. It also remains effortlessly engaging while providing useful tips and strategies, for not only surviving the situation, but living “the good life” (a notion which goes back – not to the suburban BBC sitcom – but to philosophers of ancient Greece).

Here, to give you a flavour (and with the author’s permission) is a brief excerpt, on ‘the art of the shrug’. I like the idea of gently subverting the ‘friendly’ psychology ‘They’ try to coerce you with.

[The art of the shrug]

There was a rather annoying little motivational poster pinned up behind the reception desk on Concrete Island, which said “Smile! lt’ll make you Happy [sic].” It made us all extremely unhappy. Motivational posters are, as every Wage Slave knows, only put there to make our lives more closely resemble Hell.

One day, after seeing the poster for the one-hundred-and-eighth time, I thought to myself: That bears some scrutiny, surely. Someone with too much time on their hands ought to look into that. Smiling makes you happy indeed. They’re confusing cause with effect. Motivational poster-writing bastards.

And then I realised that I had a lot of time on my hands. I was petty enough to look into a clearly apocryphal claim. Once I found out it was bollocks, I could tell Mademoiselle Fifi, the receptionist, about it (“That poster? It’s bollocks, you know.”) and then she’d say “I knew it!” and we could tear it off the wall together and feed it into the shredder in the name of truth.

Unfortunately, Google put an end to my reverie, by pointing out that smiling in fact does make people feel happier. Apparently it goes back to Darwin who observed that facial expressions don’t merely represent emotions but can in fact cause them, an observation which has been confirmed by numerous scientific studies in the meantime. How annoying.

But if smiling can make you happy, it stands to reason that shrugging might make you feel more nonchalant and consequently less negatively affected by your sterile and irritating surroundings. I asked a scientist using a research service online and once she stopped laughing at me and consulted the literature, she said that yes, a shrug may well make us feel more indifferent about something.

When we’re feeling irritated by the working environment, humiliated and depressed by the fact we have to go there at all, it’s apparently possible to shrug it off. If this seems unhelpful, we might want to look more closely at the ancient art of Stoicism, which is essentially a way of becoming a human shrug.

[Excerpt from Robert Wringham’s book, The Good Life for Wage Slaves]

 

Incidentally, Rob’s depiction of “Concrete Island”, as an office on wasteland surrounded by motorway and dual carriageway, reminded me of the fictional setting for a film made in 2001 and inspired by Melville’s Bartleby (and also called ‘Bartleby’), from which the following still is taken:

 

Written by NewsFrames

September 14, 2020 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Antiwork, Jobs, Wage slaves

Antiwork – reframing work & leisure

antiwork-newsframesThis is the original version of the article I wrote for
Contributoria (with a section for comments below).

antiwork-sidebar-longAntiwork is a moral alternative to the obsession with “jobs” which has plagued our society for too long. It’s a project to radically reframe work and leisure. It’s also a cognitive antidote to the pernicious culture of “hard work” which has taken over our minds as well as our precious time.

Big shifts have occurred this year. While politicians preached about “hardworking families”, Unconditional Basic Income went viral and was adopted as long-term policy by the Green Party. Social media campaigns, meanwhile, made it increasingly difficult for companies and charities to benefit from the forced labour schemes known to most as “workfare”.

The facts and figures generally don’t support the rose-tinted political view of work. Studies consistently show how jobs keep many of us poor while also making us ill, stressed, exhausted and demoralised. As Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, put it, “Hard work is not working.”

But facts and figures alone don’t bring about change. Our cognitive frames for work tend to be anachronistic. The existing structures of our language/concepts in this area aren’t “neutral” – they predispose us to think conservatively. The rightwing press constantly talk about the “workshy”, etc, because it activates morally-loaded frames which are impossible to argue against with facts alone. Antiwork addresses this moral dimension and reframes the whole issue from a progressive standpoint.

Work as virtue – the existing moral frame

immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous” – Bertrand Russell

“Work” is seen as a virtue, but it covers the moral spectrum from charity and art to forced labour and banking. Belief in the inherent moral good of work has been used historically in social engineering – notably during the shift from agriculture to industry, when the Protestant work ethic was used to motivate workers and to justify punishment, including whipping and imprisonment, of “idlers”. (In The Making of the English Working Class, historian E.P. Thompson describes how the ethos of Protestant sects such as Methodism effectively provided the prototype of the disciplined, punctual worker required by the factory owners.)

Work’s assumed virtue has always been about more than its utility or market value. George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist, provided a clue in the frame of work as obedience. The first virtue we learn as children isobeying our parents, particularly in performing tasks we don’t enjoy. Later, as adults, we’re paid to obey our employers – it’s called work. Work and virtue are thus connected in our neurology in terms of obedience to authority. That’s not the only cognitive frame we have for the virtue of work, but it’s the one which is constantly reinforced by what Lakoff calls the “Strict Father” conservative moral system.

This “strictness” moral framing is implicit, for example, in the current welfare system. An increasingly punitive approach is adopted towards those who don’t follow the prescribed “jobseeking” regimen – a trend which most political parties seem to approve of. Politicians boast of getting “tough” on “dependency culture”, and when they talk of “clamping down” on the “hardcore unemployed”, you’d think they were referring to criminals.

Emphasis on punishment is the sign of an obedience frame. Work itself has a long history as punishment for disobedience, as the Book of Genesis illustrates (Adam and Eve had no work until they disobeyed God, who imposed it as their punishment: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life”). Unpaid work, or “community service”, is still sometimes dictated as punishment by courts. Workfare programmes similarly involve mandatory work without wages – they look very much like punishment for the “sin” of unemployment.

Workfare illustrates a difference between framing and spin. The cognitive frame is paternalistic, morally-strict, punishment-based (much like “community service”), while the political spin is all about “helping” people “integrate” back into society. Genuine “help”, of course, shouldn’t require the threat of losing what little income one has.

Morally, it seems that politicians, most of the media, and a large section of the public, are still stuck in the Puritan codes and scripts which, following the Reformation and into the industrial revolution, dominated social attitudes to work and idleness in England, America and much of Europe. In fact, when reading early accounts of the treatment of what Calvin called “lazy good-for-nothings”, you get a strong sense of déjà vu. Christian charity – Calvinist style – didn’t extend to the “idle poor”, who were viewed as outside God’s chosen and thus unsaveable. Poverty is still widely viewed as moral failure of the individual, unless the self-flagellation of uninterrupted hard work is on display.

Incidentally, if you think you’re free from this moral script, try an experiment: Spend a whole day in bed doing absolutely nothing, then spend another two days being lazier than you’ve ever been before – deluxe, self-indulgent laziness, relaxo supremo. Do nothing that could remotely be considered work. Observe your reactions and moods during this period. (And if you do break through, and time stops, and you experience the unburdening liberation of simply being… congratulations – that’s Antiwork.)

Leisure – the flip side of work

The concept of “leisure” tends to reinforce the work frame. “Leisure is non-work for the sake of work. Leisure is the time spent recovering from work and in the frenzied but hopeless attempt to forget about work,” to quote Bob Black’s essay, The Abolition of Work.

Most of us would like far more leisure – we dream of it. But we believe it comes with a price. And so we resent the unemployed for (supposedly) “sitting around all day”, while we identify with our jobs and righteously grumble, or boast, about our hard work, like demented subjects in a behaviourist’s divide-and-rule experiment.

Leisure, like happiness, tends to be seen as something that’s earned through work. The underlying idea is that you’re endlessly undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent on the endurance of some unpleasant activity (eg “hard work”). Again, we could trace this notion to early moral ideas – eg Original Sin and redemption through suffering – but the important point is that we seem to have a nasty, and very persistent, cultural neurosis in the form of an archaic cognitive frame for work and leisure.

antiwork-sidebar-longLaid on top of this work/leisure neurosis is consumerism – the idea that spending money will make you happy. This is like toffee coating on a bad Puritan apple. If you spend enough money to give you the (advertised) conditions for happiness, the neurosis emerges in the form of random worries or vague, guilty feelings about not working hard enough. This, along with the work as obedience frame, may explain why we’re contributing £29bn worth of free labour (in unpaid overtime) to British employers each year (according to TUC figures).

Antiwork & radical politics

Consumerism is, of course, opposed by many on moral grounds. Anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist politics focus on corporate greed and its effects, but not usually on the work ethic and the obsession with jobs. Maximising employment is often tacitly accepted as a good, and sometimes even promoted. ZNet’s Michael Albert, for example, argued, in a Guardian article, that “full employment” should be one of the main demands of the Occupy movement.

I see plenty of irony in this. As Sharon Beder notes, in Selling the Work Ethic, what distinguished the rise of the capitalist edifice from traditional concentrations of wealth and power was precisely the moral ethos of work and Protestant-style discipline: “The asceticism of Protestantism ensured that the money made by capitalists was not wastefully spent but was reinvested to make more capital.”

Although the religious roots of this ethos later gave way to “utilitarian worldliness” (as Max Weber put it), the moral framing of work as a virtue in its own right continues to serve the interests of big business and conservative politics. But rather than morally reframe the issue along progressive lines, many on the left claim the existing ethic as their own, fully identifying with the narrative of “hard work”, “full employment”, “tough on the workshy”, etc.

So, while consumerism and capitalism are widely protested, a moral justification of the status quo remains in place, largely unquestioned. It takes many forms – shouted from tabloid headlines about “benefit cheats”, or quietly echoed across all media with daily “austerity” framing. The reaction, if any, from the left, leaves the strict moral framing of work unchallenged, and usually reinforced. This is where the progressive approach of Antiwork is needed.

Antiwork – follow your bliss

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.” – David Graeber

Antiwork is what we do out of love, fun, interest, talent, enthusiasm, inspiration, etc. Only a lucky few get paid enough from it to live on, yet it probably enriches our lives and benefits society more than most jobs do.

Our yearnings for Antiwork remain largely unexpressed, as they don’t fit existing semantic frameworks. This is precisely why we need the concept. The existing work/leisure dichotomy divides our lives in a way which serves narrow market interests and distorts our evaluation of unpaid activity. This isn’t just a matter of surface language and word-definitions – it concerns cognitive frames that shape how we think, ultimately determining social and economic policy.

Antiwork has both ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ aspects. The negative is a clear expression of what we choose notto do. Melville’s Bartleby put it best: “I would prefer not to” – the most radical response one can make in an all-pervasive jobs culture.

Antiwork is also a rejection of what we regard as pointless or immoral work. This might include any form of forced or subtly-coerced labour, work that serves no positive purpose (in the opinion of those doing the work), work that has harmful consequences (physical, psychological, environmental), etc.

If the studies I’ve read over the years are anything to go by, over half of existing jobs in the UK could be classed as immoral or pointless. I remember reading a Guardian report of the 1993 British Social Attitudessurvey, which found that around 60% of British workers were unhappy in their work and were inclined (more than workers in other countries surveyed) to “feel their work is not useful to society”. Similar survey findings appear fairly regularly. Most recently, The Independent on Sunday cited a YouGov poll which found that“Only a third of us report looking forward to going to work, the rest are either ambivalent or dread it.” A New York Times piece, meanwhile, summarised one of the biggest ever surveys of the American workplace by stating that “For most of us, in short, work is a depleting, dispiriting experience, and in some obvious ways, it’s getting worse.”

David Graeber’s essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, continues the theme of dehumanising work, and articulates the Antiwork perspective on needless “job creation”. Graeber points to the ballooning of the administrative sector (more than the so-called “service” sector) and the disappearance, resulting from automation, of productive jobs. He says we have a morally and spiritually damaging system in which huge swathes of people “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”

On the positive side, Antiwork could be defined as any activity, or non-activity, which you value in its own right, not as a means to an end. Which isn’t to say that Antiwork must be inherently pleasant – it’s simply chosen action (or non-action), accepted as it is, not collected like Brownie points towards some deferred moment of “earned” happiness. It’s always done for its own sake, in contrast to “work”, which is never done for its own sake (by my definition).

Work will doubtless always be necessary, but hopefully reduced to a minimum. Bertrand Russell wrote that“the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” But this seems unlikely to happen while work is framed as the virtuous side of a moral dichotomy. The point of Antiwork is to think of “good” human activity outside the dominant cognitive frames of market value and obedience.

It’s also about letting go of some misplaced sentimental attachments to “honest work” (still common on the left, alas). As Robert Anton Wilson once put it, “most ‘work’ in this age is stupid, monotonous, brain-rotting, irritating, usually pointless and basically consists of the agonizing process of being slowly bored to death over a period of about 40 to 45 years of drudgery.”

Written by NewsFrames

December 2, 2014 at 9:03 am

Antiwork – a modest proposal

antiwork-logo-halftoneOct 15, 2014Antiwork is a new project I’m working on. The aim is to radically reframe “work” and “leisure” – to provide a moral alternative to the obsession with toil.

Currently, the rightwing message-machine is winning the battle on work. We’re all supposed to work harder, longer, further into old age, for smaller reward – and be grateful. Some of us are even supposed to work without any pay (workfare), because it’s supposedly good for our “character” and “helps” us to “integrate”. And, of course, we’re to feel deeply ashamed if we’re not working.

The parts of the political left that don’t simply echo this conservative line (Labour Party leaders seem to be the worst offenders) counter with facts and figures. For example, the fact that most people living in poverty already have jobs. And although revealing the facts is necessary, it’s not sufficient. That’s the lesson we learn from framing: frames generally trump facts, especially when they’re deeply entrenched after decades of repetition.

Contributoria

To gauge wider interest in a project like Antiwork, I’ve set out a proposal on Contributoria. The idea is that people back ideas they like with blocks of points (which you get a load of, free, when you join – or at least I did; I think the idea is to eventually make it partly, and optionally, paid-subscription based. The backed ideas get modesty paid).

So, please have a look at my Antiwork proposal, and if you like it, please back it. If there’s enough interest, I’ll not only write the proposed Contributoria article, I’ll also start “work” on the antiwork.org website I’ve created. – Many thanks. [Update – it’s now been backed, and will apear in the December 2014 issue of Contibutoria].

Written by NewsFrames

October 15, 2014 at 8:32 am

Posted in Antiwork, Jobs, welfare