The Case Against Work

John Danaher argues that work is a bad thing

I have spent most of my working life as an academic. One thing I have noticed in the course of my career is the dysfunctional relationship that academics have with their work. Many academics are notorious overworkers. They spend evenings and weekends researching their next papers and preparing for classes. Claims of sixty to eighty hour working weeks are not uncommon, particularly in the early phases of a career, as they try to escape precarious, short-term contracts and establish a name for themselves.

For much of my first decade as an academic, I found that this culture of overwork was celebrated. Much to my own regret, I occasionally participated in hushed conversations with colleagues in which we admonished a junior or senior member of our department for their perceived lack of work: we’re all putting in the extra time, why aren’t they? And I bore witness to the fact those who struggle to make tenure are often chastised, overtly or covertly, for not sacrificing more of their free time to their careers.

More recently, however, I find a reverse-snobbery sneaking in to academic work culture. Like many academics, I engage in shameless acts of self-promotion on social media outlets. There, I occasionally find people decrying the culture of overwork, and virtue-signalling to others that they don’t work weekends and evenings. Resisting the culture of over-work has thus become an act of political resistance: a rejection of the pathological standards to which we are all held.

I think both of these attitudes are symptoms of an underlying malaise: a culture that is far too obsessed with work. I argue that we should reject this obsession. Work, suitably-defined, is a bad thing and we should try to create a society in which it is no longer necessary. In saying this, I build upon a long tradition of “antiwork” thought – one that stretches back to the writings of Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul LaFargue, through to more recent writings by Bob Black, André Gorz, Kathi Weeks and David Frayne. All of these thinkers agree that work reduces well-being and contributes to social injustice. I want to present three reasons for agreeing with their thesis.

Before I do so, I need to clarify that thesis. I start by clarifying what is meant by the word “work”. When I say that “work” is a bad thing, you probably have a sense of what I am talking about, but the concept undoubtedly has fuzzy edges that need to be sharpened. This is no easy task. Definitions of “work” are often value-laden and over/under-inclusive. To use an oft-cited example, Bertrand Russell once said that:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.

Russell’s first definition is over-inclusive because it includes any physical activity within its scope, including those we would commonly class as “leisure” pursuits (e.g. fishing or tiddlywinks), and his second definition is under-inclusive because it limits itself to managerial work. Moreover, both definitions are value-laden: the former negatively so; the latter positively so. A more neutral and carefully circumscribed definition is required if we are to argue that work is bad.

My suggestion is that work be defined as “the performance of an activity for economic reward or in the hope of receiving some such reward”. This definition includes all paid forms of employment, as well as some unpaid forms (e.g. internships and entrepreneurial work). It also excludes certain forms of labour that people might like to class as “work”, e.g. slavery, subsistence farming, unpaid domestic work. I argue that such exclusions are justified because the focus of the antiwork critique is on the contemporary economic structure of work, and not on all possible forms of human labour, be they good or ill.

Another thing that needs to be clarified is the nature of the argument that work (so-defined) is “bad”. Bad in what sense? It could be that work is contingently bad. In other words, that there are particular properties or features of work as currently practiced (or specific forms of work) that are bad. The problem with this is that it would limit the significance of the argument. A critic could respond that the properties or forms of work that have been identified could be reformed or changed, or people could find other jobs that are less bad. Alternatively, it could be that work is necessarily bad. In other words, that work by its very nature is something that contributes to the immiseration of life. But this would seem to go too far, particularly given that work, as I have defined it, is a construct of our current economic reality. It is at least conceivable that this reality could be reformed.

So I settle on an intermediate version of the antiwork thesis one that claims that work structurally bad:

Structural Badness Thesis: The labour market in most developed countries has settled into an equilibrium pattern that makes work very bad for many people, and it is getting worse as a result of technical and institutional changes.

Another way of putting it is that the badness of work is the result of a collective action problem, whereby the individually rational behaviour of workers and employers is resulting in a social arrangement that is bad for most workers, most of the time. This allows for the possibility that some workers have it good, but argues that they should nevertheless reject the current structure of work because either (a) they should be generally concerned for the welfare of others and (b) they could be the next victims of the structure of work.

Let me now present three reasons for favouring the structural badness thesis. The first is that work is a source of freedom-undermining domination in our lives. Freedom is a central good in liberal societies. If a government fails to protect our freedom, we often deem it unjust or illegitimate. Of course, it is impossible to completely eliminate unfreedom – so many things threaten and impinge upon it – but a better or worse job can be done. A government that arbitrarily takes away our rights and privileges, that subjects us to random searches and seizures, and is run by unelected and unaccountable officials would be much worse than a democratically elected government that abided by the rule of law. It’s ironic then that we tolerate governments of the former type it in one environment that we spend most of our (non-sleeping) adult lives: work.

As Elizabeth Anderson points out in her 2017 book Private Government, employment contracts frequently grant employers the power to significantly undermine their workers freedom. Many low paid workers are subject to random bag searches and drug-testing; their work schedules are managed in arbitrary and often debilitating ways through a combination split shifts and “just in time” scheduling; they are also subjected to more and more totalising forms of surveillance and monitoring. Not only are they frequently asked to use tracking devices during the working day; they also now rewarded – through so-called “corporate wellness” programs – for using them outside of working hours too. One of my favourite examples is the sleep monitoring program introduced by the insurance company Aetna that paid workers a bonus if they could prove they slept at least eight hours a night. Employers use their powers to discipline and control workers, ultimately by stripping them of their livelihoods. But as philosophers like Philip Pettit have argued, the use of a freedom-undermining power is not necessary for freedom to be undermined. The mere possibility of use is enough. It allows the employer to act as a “dominus” or master in the employee’s life: someone that the employee must ingratiate themselves to in order to maintain their well-being.

The freedom-undermining power of the employment relationship is tolerated on two main grounds: (i) that it is something that the employee can freely enter and exit if they don’t like it and (ii) various employee protection laws reduce the freedom-undermining powers of employers. But as Anderson argues in her work, neither of these justifications is persuasive. In most countries, people have to work or, at least, prove that they are seeking work or unfit for work, in order to survive. Many employees, especially those at the lower-end of the income distribution, have limited options when it comes to work: if they exit one unjust arrangement they will have to enter another. Furthermore, there is significant variation in employee protection around the world. The US, with its tolerance of “at-will” employment, doesn’t provide much protection for employees. And even in countries with more adequate protections, there is a significant gap between what is provided for in legislation and what happens on the ground. Many employees don’t know their rights or are afraid to exercise them for fear of aggravating their employers – a classic illustration of the dominating influence of employers. Furthermore, many employers don’t abide by the letter of the law. The result is a structure of work that significantly undermines freedom.

A second reason for accepting the structural badness thesis is that workplaces have become increasingly fissured and work itself increasingly precarious. “Fissuring” is a phenomenon that has affected large corporations in the past half century. It arises when work-related activities that were once housed under the same corporate umbrella – e.g. IT, security, human resources, payroll and accounting – are outsourced to firms that specialise in those services. This makes sense from an economic perspective. If you are a company that specialises in designing and selling sleek automobiles, activities that are peripheral to that goal, such as payroll and accounting, appear as “cost” centres on your balance sheet. If you can outsource them, and pay less in the process, you can increase your profits and reward your shareholders. You would be a fool not to fissure your workplace and focus solely on your “core competency”. The problem is that fissuring often results in precarity: outsourced workers are no longer employed on stable, permanent contracts with well-defined benefits. They are instead employed on short-term contracts with minimal benefits. Worse still, they may be forced to become self-employed “gig workers”, responsible for their own insurance and extraneous costs.

Fissuring and precarity are facilitated by technological change. Companies would not outsource to others if they could not control and monitor what these others do. The growth of tracking and surveillance technologies allows them to do so. As Andrew Weil puts it, in his book The Fissured Workplace, technology is the “glue” that knits together our increasingly fragmented working environments. The ultimate manifestation of this can be seen with the rise of digital “platforms” that link purchasers and sellers of human labour. In these environments, the platform owners provide the glue, taking a cut from every transaction, and often insisting that the workers abide by their corporate standards, all the while resisting any claim that the workers are their employees and entitled to employee protection rights (such as holiday pay and sick pay). Uber, Taskrabbit, AirBnB, and Deliveroo are the obvious exemplars of this platform capitalism, and according to a 2016 report from McKinsey consultants, as many 200 million people could make their living as platform workers by the year 2025.

The problem with both fissuring and precarity is that they change how the benefits and burdens of economic activity are shared among the key players on the marketplace. The workers suffer from increased burdens: they must compete more for employment contracts and be responsible for more of their own costs. Their work is also more unpleasant and less secure than it used to be. Employers and investors benefit: they cut costs and increase profits. This has resulted in a world with increasingly stratified income inequality (at least within developed countries), as documented in the work of Thomas Piketty. Corporate managers, CEOs and investors take an increasing share of the pie, with little of this being justified by their individual merits or efforts. It is rentierism, pure and simple: a structurally unjust system of work, if ever there was one.

The final reason for accepting the structural badness thesis has to do with the “colonising” power of work, in particular the way in which it occupies our mental space. We spend a significant amount of time working, of course, but we also spend a significant amount of time thinking about, preparing for and recovering from work. For knowledge workers like myself, the problem is particularly acute. Our productivity is not obviously linked to the number of hours we “clock in” on a given day. Indeed, the very notion of “clocking in” is alien. There is no meaningful upper limit on the number of hours I can spend reading the latest research and writing my own papers. The latest, career-changing insight could be right around the corner. This realisation results in a significant amount of guilt when I am away from my desk. When I’m not working, my mind is still troubled by work. This is despite the fact that my contract stipulates that I am only being paid for a 37.5 hour working week.

The colonising powers of work express themselves most keenly in the “employability” agenda. We are now disciplined from an early age to learn the language of employability, to constantly build and manage our CVs so that we are attractive prospects for employers. The intrinsic merits of activities are commonly overlooked or ignored in favour of their instrumental benefits for employability. People run marathons and raise money for charity not simply because they enjoy doing those things, but also because it provides evidence of their seriousness and diligence to potential employers. Anyone who works in education will know how common and soul-destroying this logic is. Students are trained to organise their extra-curricular activities into “employability portfolios” and resist learning anything that does not contribute to their employability.

These three reasons lead me to favour the structural badness thesis. I think we have got caught up in game that deadens our spirits and limits our horizons. We need to escape. The obvious objection is that escape is impossible: we need to work in order to survive. If everyone just did as they pleased, without the disciplining power of the market, our economies would stagnate and we’d become idle and feckless. But this objection no longer as persuasive as it seems. We have been hearing for some time that innovations in robotics and AI promise increased economic abundance, while at the same time threatening to displace large numbers of human workers. Far from this being something to fear, it could – if managed correctly and if moderated by redistributive policies – be exactly what we need escape from the badness of work.

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John Danaher is a lecturer in law at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is the co-editor, along with Neil McArthur of Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications.