Antiwork – Rethinking Work Ethic Or: Hard Work is Not Working

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In a highly interesting recent article Brian Dean calls for a
a radical shift in how we view “jobs”. He poses a seemingly radical question:

“Over a decade into the 21st century, we seem as work-obsessed as ever. Is it time for a progressive reframing of work and leisure?”

Drawing upon other recent articles such as the already famous one by anthropologist David Graeber on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs Dean argues that in the 21s century our work culture and work ethic is still largely based on a Protestant work ethos, which in the 19th century so nicely aligned with requirements brought about by industrialization.

This Puritan work ethic that largely consists of work as obedience, self-flagellation and punishment goes back all the way to Adam and Eve and the Book of Genesis, where God punishes humanity’s mythical ancestors for their disobedience with life-long work:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life”

This notion of work is so ingrained in our society that “full employment” is a goal for every major political party – right-wing or left-wing – alike.

However, the idea that we need to approach work from an entirely different angle has gained ground and more widespread mainstream publicity in the last year or so. Given the tremendous increase in productivity in the last few decades given rise to by technological progress the concept of hard work that favours being busy over being efficient increasingly appears like an inveterate anachronism that withholds people from making strides towards making better, more purposeful use of their time.

Bertrand Russell nicely put it this way: “The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work”.

Despite what politicians keep telling us, hard work doesn’t make you more successful or richer – meaningful work does. Hard work actually is what keeps poor people poor. Working for work’s sake, regarding work as punishment in this life that eventually will lead to a puny reward in the post-Puritan afterlife known as retirement not only is soul-crushing and pointless, it also doesn’t get you anywhere. At best it’ll mostly pander to somebody else’s purpose, while at worst – as is the case with the bullshit jobs mentioned before – it serves no real purpose at all and hence is utterly meaningless.

In this framework leisure is merely seen as the flip side of work, the purpose of which is “non-work for the sake of work” (Bob Black, The Abolition of Work) i.e. to recover enough from day-to-day toil and drudgery so we can continue working.

To remedy this and to overcome the false dichotomy of work / leisure Brian Dean introduces the notion of Antiwork:

“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.

[… ]

“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.”

I applaud this new concept and the general idea we need to think differently about work if we truly want to make progress gaining more widespread acceptance.

With some authors covering this subject however there’s this tendency to blame some vague capitalist ruling class whose members connive to keep us all working. This tendency probably is best expressed in this quote by David Graeber:

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

This kind of thinking is like an easy way out that falls short of getting down to the actual root cause of the problem. It might be satisfying to have someone evil with a sinister agenda to blame for your misery – and the ‘1 %’ ™ certainly nicely fit that job description – especially when you’re thinking in terms of class struggle. However, it’s hardly ever as simple as that. There’s no ‘them’ to blame, no ‘Man’ to stick it to because your job sucks. Rather, we mostly imposed this on ourselves.

Sure, there might be ulterior motives and somewhat sinister political agendas in place designed to keep people working. Why is 9-to-5, a 40-hour workweek and being an employee still considered the default case, while founding a company or working self-employed in most countries is notoriously complex and difficult? Why do even some industrialized, first-world countries seem to consider entrepreneurs to be more of a nuisance that’s just good enough to pay taxes and create jobs but otherwise has to shut up and swallow every ridiculous piece of additional bureaucracy that’s foisted on them?

While all that is true, in the end people only have themselves to blame. If you think your job is bullshit why do you do it in the first place? Is it out of necessity or is it rather because it’s just more convenient than say creating a job for yourself and finding out what you really want to be doing? Sure, founding a company, being on your own might seem intimidating, especially when compared to the cozy default of being a life-long employee who has everything taken care of by others. What, however is the responsible decision here? Idly spending your life doing a job you hate or taking a leap of faith, maybe making a difference in the process and doing something that’s actually meaningful to both yourself and others?

Consumerism is another impediment that adds to people’s inability to make sane, responsible choices about their lives. Having to pay off a mortgage or the credit that paid for the middle-class car you can’t afford or the fancy TV set you don’t need is a surefire way to chain yourself to a desk and a cubicle for the next few decades. Sure, there are participants in this game who push you down this path so you can buy more of their stuff but in the end it’s your own decision.

What it comes down to on both counts is becoming a producer instead of just being a mindless consumer. Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour workweek is a good starting point for embarking on the journey of becoming a producer and taking control over your life.

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