A Compositional Anti-Work: A look at “Learning Not to Labor”

It was recently brought to my attention by James Tuttle that Stevphen Shukaitis published the paper, “Learning Not to Labor“. I figured I would drop my two cents on what we should be aiming for, if we want a “zero work training” or a pedagogy for anti-work people like me. Should we be compositional or not?

This is the center of an autonomist refusal of work: a perspective that focuses specifically on the compositional elements of that refusal. The twin concepts of political and technical composition, which are of great importance for understanding what makes operaismo different from other forms of Marxism (see Wright 2003), are likewise important in understanding work refusal as a compositional practice rather than as an individualistically oriented gesture. Jason Read (2011), in his analysis of the affective composition of labor, has argued that the autonomist hypothesis or refocusing on working-class revolts rather than on capital as the motor of transformation is only possible through an understanding of class composition. Otherwise, such a reversal of perspective callsfortheradicalpossibilityofthepresentdivorcedfromanunderstanding of material and political conditions risks falling into a form of idealist invocation, a millenarian call or prophetic gesture. The same could be argued for the refusal of work, that it is only possible when approached through a compositional framework: to work from material conditions and practices and the kinds of political and social formations they enable and support.

I want to first give praise to Shukaitis for tackling this topic and doing so in a way that is fairly new to me. He comes at this from a post-autonomist sort of thinking, which favors a structural or compositional analysis of the phenomenon of work. This means not only examining how work affects us individually, but also as classes and as people in a given economy or political environment. How it sets the tone for other institutions in societies and how it affects groups of people within certain institutions.

This emphasis and overall analysis seems favorable to me, if we don’t just want to relegate ourselves to individual actions of simply “dropping out” or actions that only do well for us and no one else in particular. In that sense, it is important when engaging in a “refusal of work” to think more broadly than yourself.

When working in retail I constantly ran into this conflict. I wanted to refuse work, but also wanted to refuse putting that work on others. Or in other words I didn’t want other people to have to pick up “my slack,” as it were. This was a difficult area for me as it involved having some sort of delicate balance between trying to take care of myself, but also making sure that self-caring did not result in my co-workers having to do more.

Generally speaking I would default to more individualistic self-care, so that I could refuse work, then thinking more systematically. The system around me was always on my mind and as were the affects my actions had on other people. Honestly, most of the time, when I didn’t work or slacked-off it never really seemed to affect anyone else, because I was usually placed in my own “autonomous” bubble.

But the end result was still largely focused on my individual needs rather than any particular class. I loosely encouraged other workers to follow suit by casually striking up conversations during work or even interrupting conversations – cracking jokes about how awful the place was – a form of emotional solidarity. Being mostly by myself in terms of my views and unsure how to express them or organize others, without getting fired from the wage I needed and so on, limited my ability to engage in anything more than small actions.

I am not strictly in favor of the compositional framework – at least in contexts where self-care is needed more than helping out your co-workers.

Class interests can only take us so far and I feel as though saying, “I should sacrifice my happiness or my ability to refuse work and yield this ability to the working class,” relies on far too stringent a working class ethic. It also demands a bit more self-sacrifice then I can generally recommend.

Sometimes after a long day’s work the last thing that is going to be on my mind is how other people are doing. I feel exploited, under-appreciated, burnt out, underpaid, overworked and more generally awful. In such a case I don’t think we can expect compositional ethics to really matter to the given worker. And can we blame them?

It is important to realize, though, that work refusal, as Shukaitis points out, is not just one form. It is many things and contains many different goals and possibilities. It can inspire and create many different interactions. Work refusal has the ability to deeply affect our collective imaginations of what we want from a future world. It does this by striking at some of the deepest parts of the modern political economy which is the work-ethic, Puritanism, exploitation of workers with time-discipline and more.

The refusal of work, then, is a valuable tactic for a free society because it undermines those qualities, attitudes, cultural expressions, stigmas and institutions that keep us subdued. Within this topic of discussion I feel like Shukaitis has made a valuable, if slightly different than my own approach, attempt at helping people understand what refusal of work can mean.

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