Abolish Work: A Lazy Review of a Lazy Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia

Abolish Work: A Lazy Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia (LBC Books 2016), by Nick Ford

It’s “no class but the leisure class” in Nick Ford’s new book: Abolish Work: A Lazy Exposition of Philosophical Ergophobia. Before continuing, I must acknowledge that this book includes two essays written by yours truly, which are credited to “Mr. Wilson”. Both of these were published under this name when they originally appeared on Nick Ford’s website, abolishwork.com. Nick was gracious enough to host these pieces on his site and has also included them in this collection which he compiled, edited and contributed to himself.  While I am honored to be included, this review will focus on the content that was not written by me. This makes up the vast majority of the book and includes writers with far more name recognition than myself.

As the title suggests, this book is a compilation of essays on the disutility of and ultimate need to abolish work. The various contributors tend to view work as unwanted labor and drudgery pursued for economic benefit — in other words jobs and employment. The desire to abolish work has been a facet of both individualist and social anarchist thought since the early days of both. Similar ideas have also been embraced at various points by non-anarchists such as Bertrand Russell and even John Maynard Keynes.

This book focuses largely on critiques of work coming from the individualist anarchist corner of the political landscape. While the first three quarters of Abolish Work feature a more general treatment of the topic, the book’s final section places specific emphasis on individualist anarchism’s relationship with  anti-work. Ford makes the conscious choice of including material from the newest generation of anti-work advocates, rather than classics such as Bob Black’s “The Abolition of Work” and Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” (though both works are referenced by Ford’s contributors).

Abolish Work is a varied collection of essays from the last ten years, exploring the evils of conventional employment and bosses, as well as mass technological unemployment as an alternative to work and objections to treating hard work as a virtue. While there is some complaining about lousy bosses and bad jobs, the book concentrates more on the intellectual side of the issue. Ford’s contributors include anthropology professor and Occupy activist David Graeber, blogger and academic John Danaher, freelance programmer and activist May May, and anarchist author L. Susan Brown to name a few. Also included are pieces by regular C4SS writers Kevin Carson, Sheldon Richman, Grant Mincy and Ryan Calhoun.

Ford presents the essays in a manner which keeps them interesting and offers something for ergophobes of all stripes. For example, some of the more abstract pieces, will be grouped with much more down and dirty personal accounts, rants, and recollections (not to mention some truly tongue-in-cheek material). Some of the more personal entries include May May’s account of living life and supporting oneself without conventional employment, and one by Arlee Fox about the nuances of working in a research station in Antarctica, with its lack of privacy, ever-present bosses and extreme isolation from the outside world.

Serena Ragia contributes a letter to a prospective future employer, and admirably explains her dislike of jobs, capitalism and authority in a very upfront way, before stating “you won’t get a better employee because you’ll always know where I stand.” One of the strengths of this piece, and others like it, is its emphasis on the inherent conflict of interest between employees and employers. Bosses want to get as much work from their underlings for as little money possible while employees have the opposite incentive.

Kevin Carson’s entries lament that people today are are overworked, but emphasizes that this is not a product of a free society, but of the existing capitalist system in which state intervention, on behalf of economic elites, forces most of us into conventional employment with long hours rather than what a truly free market would produce. Carson argues that the state has imposed artificial inefficiencies on productive technologies to keep us from achieving a post-scarcity world, and thereby has needlessly increased the amount of labor needed to achieve the current standard of living.

This critique is echoed by David Graeber’s piece on “Bullshit Jobs” where he observes growing numbers of people having jobs that they themselves fail to see the point of. Graeber states that the actual productive jobs have largely been automated away, leaving the rest of society in a ballooning services sector, filled with people who think their jobs are bullshit. Graeber, like Carson, alludes to one of Ford’s unifying themes of optimism about large scale technological unemployment. In general the authors would like to see a world where robots and computers do all or most of the actual productive work, allowing the rest of us to share the resulting wealth and enjoy lives of leisure.

This vision is largely expounded upon and defended by John Danaher, who provides much of the theoretical abstract and philosophical content of this book. Danaher explores some objections to technological post-scarcity, and shares why he thinks they are invalid. He tends to make heavy use of syllogisms with numbered premises, making his arguments easy to follow. He argues that our ability to develop machines and computers, which will be able to teach themselves will expand, and that our ability to simplify the environments they work in will aid this process as well, opening possibilities for more parts of our lives to be automated.

Danaher also devotes time to arguing against the notion that work is needed for people to be happy. He notes that work undermines freedom, and says proponents of work-as-a-source-of-happiness make a mistake in assuming that it is the only source of challenge that motivates people.

The book’s publisher, Little Black Cart, more known for their social anarchist releases, notes this book will challenge its readers, due to its market-oriented approach. Ironically, their product description also describes the book as “staunchly non-green” which is hardly an accurate assessment of its content. For example, Serena Ragia laments that conventional employment reduces humanity to “merely the fuel that keeps your ever-running, earth-churning, sky-polluting, water-sucking, life-destroying engines running.”

Elsewhere, Grant Mincy finds inspiration in salmon habitat conservation and restoration ecology. Mincy goes on to argue that the current ecological crisis, with mass extinctions looming on the horizon, is in part due to the modern economy’s separation of humans from the natural world. Mincy’s love of wilderness and conservation is made obvious in both of his contributions to this volume. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find any staunch “non-green” sentiment in this volume at all.

Abolish Work also includes glowing praise for the slacker, and discussion of the slacker’s place in libertarian and anarchist history. Ryan Calhoun argues that mainstream libertarians give hard work too much praise and under-emphasize slack. He notes the that Austrian economists, in the tradition of Mises, consider labor, itself, a disutility. Furthermore he reminds us that Murray Rothbard had no problem with the idea that a libertarian society would be less productive in some areas than the current one.  He notes that slackers can also be great agorists, practicing counter economics, by forgoing conventional employment in favor of occasional under-the table gigs (which are untaxed and unregulated), as well as fighting the war on drugs through small time drug dealing.

Sheldon Richman and Nick Ford expand on the theme of an anti-work heritage within the libertarian tradition. Richman notes such themes in Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat and John Stuart Mill, while Ford dedicates an essay to anti-work themes in the works of anarchist thinker and poet Voltairine de Cleyre. De Cleyre is considered an important figure by both social and individualist anarchism, as well as a largely underrated writer.

Ford closes the book with thoughts which leave room for future discussion (perhaps in a second volume). Ford sees technological unemployment developing alongside transhumanism, which is a topic with unlimited possibilities. He also notes his personally objection to the idea of a universal basic income as incompatible with (and possibly counterproductive) to his vision of anti-work.

One could go into far more depth on the content of each of these essays, as they are all well worth reading. Abolish Work and its accompanying website are much needed steps in the development of a strong and distinct anti-work philosophy and community. As a compiler and contributor Nick Ford has ironically presented readers with a job well done. Workers of the world: relax.