Advocating work abolition, I encounter one specific objection very often. “Work,” they say, does not refer to, nor imply, coerced labour. An authoritarian Marxist I recently encountered made the claim that to speak of work abolition is the language of “empty” radicalism. They went on to claim that such “empty” radical language is confined to Twitter discourse and detached from the lives of working people, their material conditions, and all endeavours to meet their needs for liberation.
I am inclined to agree that abolitionist radicalism, and its language, is negative where it non-prescriptively negates the given. Consequently then, it may be empty (empty to leave space open); but is it also detached from the very context in question here? I don’t believe this is true, and in fact, want to show that the opposite is the case.
It often goes like this: The daring radical advocates the abolition of work, the still-unsuspecting liberal or Marxist hears it and shudders. Can this really be? But what would society look like if people didn’t work anymore? Meanwhile, what is usually meant by those advocating the abolition of work is in fact the abolition of coerced labour. “Not all productive activity is work,” they say. So, is the objection then correct? Do work abolitionists really employ some kind of sensationalist language in order to enhance their radical calling superficially? However, not only is there often nothing wrong with sensationalist language — it obviously resonates strongly both with those sympathetic and those opposed to it — but this is not the entire truth here.
What meaning we ascribe to the word “work” will depend on how we interpret the connected experience. Or in other words: Hermeneutics (as making sense of experience) and semantics (as determining a word’s meaning) are dependent here, and there seems to be a gap between those understandings and meanings given to “work,” and the reality of those experiencing work. In my critique, I rely in my understanding on feminist and social epistemologist Miranda Fricker’s work on epistemic injustice and argue in light of a concept they title “hermeneutical injustice:”
Our knowledge of the social world is basically interpretive, and it is put at risk if the hermeneutical tools that we have to make sense of things are unevenly informed by the experiences of different social groups.
Fricker argues that “[…] groups can suffer an unfair disadvantage in making sense of their own social experience.” Hermeneutical injustice, according to Fricker, is when a group’s lack of access to collectively shared hermeneutical tools to make sense of their experience upholds a harmful but also wrongful disadvantage (an example Fricker gives is when there was no term to name sexual harassment). I personally prefer to extend that concept to include cases in which we find understandings that are alien to a group’s actual experience, since different groups with opposing interests unevenly participate in constructing them, and thereby also uphold a wrongful and harmful disadvantage, their oppression. I think these alien understandings are the result of hermeneutical hegemonies that are in place precisely to uphold oppression, and that common understandings of work, and — as a result — common meanings ascribed to “work,” seem to be of this kind. Every meaning of a word seems to be grounded in an understanding, in this case of an experience. I distinguish between the meaning of the word “work,” as a result partially of interpreting the experience, and understanding as interpretation (in this case of the experience of work).
Under capitalism, productive labour is unthinkable apart from a certain context. This context is concretely attached to productive labour, and if we look at the writings of 19th century radicals, we will already find the package deal that working people nowadays are also inevitably inclined to think of when they hear “work”: There is a defined workplace, it is carried out to make a living, there usually is a boss and there usually are wages and so on. To give an example, this very package deal had found its poetic expression as the furnaces written of by the 18th and 19th century poet William Blake. And when people nowadays say they hate their work, they rarely mean they experience disgust in regard to their own productive labour. They refer to this broader context in which it is situated; this context that historically has grown to be so concretely attached to productive labour, that we cannot just forget about it when we talk about the history of work. In the rare case where someone is self-employed, this context may only partially obtain; still, those features remain to be found in almost any other place where we find work. If at all, pointing to self-employment only does its job because it so strongly contrasts the arguably less fortunate and privileged position most people have been and are still being coerced into labouring under. Why are these circumstances, why is this context, not commonly accounted for in too many usages of the word “work?” I’ll attempt to answer this question later.
Sometimes, the meaning of “work” is explicitly questioned. This seems to be the case when one dares to account for this coercive context in their usage. Suddenly, “work” is reduced to being synonymous with “productive labour” per se, or work is understood, glorified, as the very foundation of the togetherness of all people and condition for meeting their needs. These understandings and meanings are invoked and ritually repeated by the liberal capitalist and the Marxist. For one of them work manifests as the source of wealth, the wealth of nations even. For the other it manifests as the pillar of a greater good, intimately tied to a notion as being constitutive of humanity. But neither the reductive meaning nor the glorifying understanding comprehensively corresponds to the daily realities of those forced to labour inside of this inseparable context that labour has been historically and is continually always given under capitalism. The predominant usage of the word “work” by people actually experiencing most closely what we distinguish as “work,” seems to commonly take notice of its coercive context. So whose understanding of work, whose meaning of “work” and what it implies more closely approaches the reality of those practising it: The Marxist’s, the liberal’s or perhaps the worker’s and the abolitionist’s? Or asking in a different way: Should we be inclined to agree with the alien hermeneutics of the oppressor or the intimate one of the oppressed?
It does not seem to be a coincidence that such meanings and understandings, reductive or glorifying, are invoked wherever one dares to criticise work — this very pillar of capitalist, or authoritarian Marxist, society. For these understandings and meanings to remain this way ultimately robs workers of a way to find their condition intrinsically unacceptable and so upholds the worker’s oppression. It neatly separates their labour from its coercive context. Only in understanding is this possible, in reality both always form a concrete unity. This is why I’m inclined to propose that groups with opposing interests to the worker’s unevenly participate in interpreting the experience and giving the word “work” its meaning. Under those hermeneutic hegemonies, be they under liberal capitalist or Bolshevik rule, reductive meanings of “work” or glorifying understandings of work, seem to be favoured and then wielded as a weapon. However, it strikes me as highly cynical to approach most workers with any of those. The lack of access to participate in constructing the meaning of the word seems to originate in a lack of access to participate in interpretation of what the experience demands. The worker’s experience hasn’t yet fully penetrated all of intellectual understanding, for if it had it would be accounted for. This gap seems to be purposefully upheld and we can very well see why. We know, however, what the experience actually demands. It is this very context I speak of, the coercive context every work-abolitionist likes to point out.
I conclude, up to this point, productive labour has continually been known and experienced as restrained within a broader context; a broader context attached to it by forces external to the worker and their own choices. This context wherein workers engage in productive activity is formed by the formal, indirect, and legislative boundaries set by the state, capitalist businesses, and those generally upholding and furthering their exploitation. Something the Marxist wouldn’t deny. This context isn’t sufficiently accounted for in Marxist or liberal capitalist understandings of work and meanings given to “work,” but we must develop understandings that account for the unpleasant, coercive context of work and employ the word “work” differently, otherwise we are not doing the experience justice, nor workers a favour. This context also seems to be well accounted for in many instances of usage of the word “work” already, and it should be accounted for, because if it is not, we wield a meaning that originated in the alien and weaponised understanding of the oppressor. But if we have to understand “work” to include a broader context around productive labour that is a coerced setup, we must indeed say work is involuntary.