John Danaher asks “Should We Abolish Work?”

by Jehu

I have been reading an essay by John Danaher, “Should We Abolish Work?” It is part of a collection of essays on the theme of antiwork in a volume titled, “Abolish Work”.

I don’t make it a habit of critiquing anarchist essays for the simple reason that it is a little like nailing jello to the wall. Anarchist writings are so diverse in their approaches that very little said about one writer applies to the next. However, I think Danaher asks an interesting question that pretty much touches on one of the most important themes of this blog.

And I want to discuss why I think Danaher’s approach is unsatisfactory in this essay because it reflects what I think is a general weakness with the essays in this volume. While I agree that technological unemployment is a good thing (at least in the long run), I don’t believe this volume makes a very good case for abolishing wage labor.

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For John Danaher, the question comes down to two loosely related issues: the first is what he calls the factual question: Will advances in technology actually lead to technological unemployment? The second is a values question: Would long-term technological unemployment be a bad thing for us?

The factual question is, of course, the more important of the two; if constantly improving technology continues to displace human labor in production, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing may be irrelevant. Eventually, machines must replace all human labor in production and wage employment will collapse. We can debate it, but it is inevitable.

However, Danaher avoids this first question for good reasons I think. Instead, he focuses on what he calls the moral values issue: namely, whether the prospect of complete technological unemployment is worse than work itself.

1. Work is bad for us

Danaher bases his answer to the question “Should we abolish work?” on two propositions:

Proposition 1: Work is bad.

To paraphrase one writer Danaher quotes, work is the source of all the misery in the world:

“There are those that argue that work is stultifying and boring: it forces people into routines and limits their creativity and personal development. It is often humiliating, degrading and tiring: think of cleaning shift workers, forced to work long hours cleaning up other people’s dirt. This cannot be a consistently rewarding experience. In addition to this, some people cite the effect that work has on health and well-being, as well as its colonising potential. As Weeks points out, one of the remarkable features of modern work is how its seems to completely dominate our lives.”

As with any generalization, Danaher admits there are exceptions to this view of work. Not all workers feel coerced into work and many people actually enjoy their jobs. Few workers may actually believe their job is stultifying, boring, humiliating or degrading. Of course, the generally favorable view of work held by most workers may be a form of what some call ‘false consciousness’, but consciousness is a stubborn thing; it is the filter through which we process reality. As Auschwitz proved, human beings have the annoying habit of justifying or ignoring evidence contrary to their deeply held prejudices.

Still, for those who may not be convinced that work is an unalloyed bad, Danaher offers a second reason why we should get rid of work:

Proposition 2: Work dominates our life; squeezing out better uses of our time.

This argument proposes that while work may not be irremediably awful in itself, there may be more productive uses of our time. Bertrand Russell points out that historically the non-laboring classes have been responsible for the creation of civilization. They used their time free of labor to invent many of the things — science, art, invention — we prize highly. Free disposable time away from labor has proved to be a great source of material wealth and innovation.

Yet, as attractive as it is to imagine free disposable time as the source of material wealth, this argument may have significant holes in it: for one thing, historically it took a hell of a lot of people slaving away every day to make it possible for a few select individuals to have the non-labor time necessary to ‘create civilization’. It also may take a lot of labor time to turn a good idea into an actual advance for society: just consider how much labor it took to turn the Wright Brother’s ideas about flight into the present aerospace industry.

Second, even if we assume that technological improvement makes non-labor time available to everyone, the possibility exists that absent the compulsion to labor people will just fall into indolence. To be honest, almost no one spends their time outside of labor doing research, composing music or innovating. As nice as it is to imagine we might all become renaissance persons after technology abolishes our jobs, it is possible we might just spend more time sleeping — like most well-fed mammals.

2. The problem with “work”

A big part of Danaher’s problem in this essay begins at the outset when he tries to define what he means by the term “work.” Danaher never quite gets a handle on this definition and his essay limps as a result. Here is his introduction to the term:

I suggest we adopt the following definition of work: the performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward.

This definition is quite broad. It covers a range of potential activities: from the hard labour of the farm worker, to the pencil-pushing of the accountant and everything in between. It also covers a wide range of potential rewards: from traditional wages and salaries to any other benefit which can be commodified and exchanged on a market. It also, explicitly, includes what is sometimes referred to as “unpaid employment.”

Of course, Danaher is almost exclusively referring to wage labor in this passage, yet he is reticent to employ the term. Perhaps, this is because of the term’s historical association with Marxist theory. (The term is actually mentioned only four times in the entire book.)

Although the term, “wage labor”, is in common enough usage among the wider anarchist community, the writers in this volume seem to have no comparable concept. Thus, they are forced to substitute the above clumsy definition in its place. As, L. Susan Brown explains in another essay in this volume, “Does Work Really Work?”, the definition supplied by Danaher fails to capture one of the most important aspects of the buying and selling of labor power:

“When employees contract out their labour power as property in the person to employers, what is really happening is that employees are selling their own self determination, their own wills, their own freedom. In short, they are, during their hours of employment, slaves.”

The term “work” as employed by Danaher is a poor substitute for the term “wage labor”, however even this important addendum by Brown to Danaher’s definition may not capture the full scope of the problem posed by wage labor.

3. “Work” versus “Wage Labor” reconsidered

As difficult as it may be to imagine, for a society where perhaps 95% of people live solely off the income they earn from work, the successful sale of a worker’s labor power is not a certain or necessary market outcome.

Capitalism is not a charity operated for the benefit of those without property. No matter how much a worker might need a wage income to eat, a capitalist will only offer her a job if certain conditions are met. The relationship implicit in the purchase and sale of labor power is irretrievably unequal.

Labor power is purchased by the capitalist only on condition that he makes a profit from employing it in production. He can sit on his capital until this condition is satisfied. Yet the worker must have a wage to live, no matter how deplorable the work offered, and the conditions on which it is offered, may be. For the worker, a job — any job — is almost always preferable to unemployment.

Unfortunately, this one-sided dependence of wage labor employment on the profits of capital is completely ignored in Danaher’s discussion (and also Brown’s, who at least acknowledges that some writers treat the purchase of wage labor as if it is the same as the purchase of a loaf of bread). The result is this: as detestable as wage labor may appear to anti-work activists (and as detestable as it actually is), for the average worker, it is not wage labor but the lack of it that threatens her survival.

Thus, even if we assume the worse case scenario offered by Danaher — that wage labor is (i) an unambiguous ‘bad’ that (ii) chokes off far more materially productive uses of our time — we would still have to deal with the problem that for the working class none of this is so threatening to their sheer physical survival as the briefest loss of wage labor itself for even two or three months.

It is, therefore, not surprising to see a long history of workers literally lynching their co-workers in order to drive them from the labor market or voting for Trump to “build that wall” to keep out competitors from Central America.

The definition of work employed by Danaher in this essay miserably fails to capture the real horror of wage slavery.

4. Answering the factual question

Given the devastating social implications of the wages system, it is likely that few workers will ever actually desire to get rid of work. For most workers, far from dreaming of a future where technological unemployment will free them from labor, even a modest reduction in hours of labor appears to pose a real financial hardship.

To a society of proletarians, who are constantly teetering on the brink of financial ruin, less work and more leisure has to appear as irrelevant to their lives as the possibility of water on Mars does to someone lost in the middle of the Sahara.

Since almost no one likely wants to abolish work, we are left with the factual question initially posed by Danaher at the beginning of his essay: “Will advances in technology actually lead to technological unemployment?” This question asks if wage labor will be abolished by technological advance despite the fact no one wants it to happen.

Unfortunately, the answer to this question so far also has been an unambiguous, “No.”

Advances in technology have indeed wiped out agricultural labor and greatly reduced the employment of labor in manufacturing, but this process has been marked by tremendous social upheaval.

In the 1930s, when industrialization hit agriculture, government was forced to step in and subsidize farmers. Once technological unemployment took hold in agriculture, government simply stopped counting farm workers. In the 1960s and 1970s, when automation threatened employment in industries like automobiles, the United States saw a huge wave of strikes and wildcat actions. Government again stepped in to bailout the big three, especially Chrysler.

Meanwhile, and over time, employment of the labor forces of most capitalist countries have simply shifted away from industry and agriculture to the so-called services and public sector. Despite the predictions of Keynes and host of thinkers, with the exception of a brief period at the start of the Great Depression, technological unemployment has seldom threatened the system of wage slavery as a whole.

5. Why is wage labor so persistent?

The fact is that a volume devoted to antiwork by and for anarchists might have been better served asking why wage labor has been so persistent despite technological advances that always seem on the verge of putting an end to the wages system. Had Danaher devoted time to investigating this question he could not have missed what is for anarchists an important insight:

Technological unemployment has not put an end to wage labor because the state keeps intervening to prop wage labor up.

Unfortunately, few people today even notice that the state sector has swollen to monstrous proportions during the 20th century to engulf fully 40-60 percent of most capitalist national economies. For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the only sector of national economies that has grown significantly is the state sector and those portions of the services economy that are closely dependent on it. This means that most of what we call wage labor (colloquially, “work”, or “paid work”) is in fact directly or indirectly state employment.

Now, why should this matter to the readers of this volume?

Simple. Anarchists used to care about getting rid of the state. Even before the state metastasized to its present size, when it accounted for less than five percent of a national economy, anarchists set themselves the task to put an end to the state and to replace it with a society founded on on voluntary, cooperative association.

One hundred and fifty years later, anarchists have produced this volume about abolishing another institution that, in the words of L. Susan Brown, amounts to slavery and we find that, today, this second institution could not survive in the face of technological unemployment if wage labor were not directly or indirectly dependent on the state expenditures. The same state the anarchists say they want to abolish.

Yet — and this is the most astonishing thing about this volume — the absolute dependence of wage labor today on state expenditures is never mentioned even once!