‘To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.’
—Karl Marx, 1867
—Guy Debord, 1953
There is a sense in which work is necessary for life. This is the physics sense: w = f d. Work is force exerted over distance, work measured in joules, force in newtons and distance in meters. We are all Maxwell’s Demon, pushing and pulling things so that the world does not just drift into states where we are hungry, cold, hot, unable to get around, without love. But this physics sense of work is not the same as how we experience work today. Work as ‘alienated’ is only a subset of the possible ways we can exert force over distance. It is the target in what follows, one reason being that our current pushings and pullings are also unravelling our world. So, I will not be losing sight of possibly dis-alienated work. The Andromeda galaxy performs unimaginable quantities of physical work as it turns, but it is not alienated. It just rolls “without knowledge, lustre or name” (H.P.Lovecraft).
Perhaps at this point you think I need a reality check. Indeed, everyone needs one; it’s just that the reality must be uncovered. A young person entering the workforce, or more likely been given a hearty shove by those around her, will be subject to some confusing intuitions. On the one hand, it seems you need to work so you and any dependants can eat, and so you can pay for other services. On the other hand, many of those who work do not eat well and more have trouble paying bills. And yet, for a variety of reasons, some who do not work do not have much trouble. And then there are the endless promises and enticements about the possibility of a job you would enjoy, perhaps being an artist or a professional passionate about some speciality. But hang on, isn’t work to be thought of as unpleasant?
We need to know what we mean by the current sense of work, which is also relevant to the ecological crisis since it is today’s particular, and peculiar, pushing and pulling. To do this, it is helpful to return to the origins of what is currently described by this four letter word. Paid work as we have it today is a comparatively recent phenomenon. It was the first and most successful export of modern Europe. Medieval Europeans did not confront work in the same sense as our school leaver. Rather than have a résumé, they were born into a role. Rather than draw a wage, they were assured certain lands, privileges, chattels and/or subsistence, all with less emphasis on money. Most importantly there was no social category of “work” uniting disparate activities such as shoeing a horse and brewing mead. Work, then, begins not just at 9 am – but with the breakdown of feudal order.
From the early 16th century, gold and goods pillaged from South America sped up the sluggish rate of the circulation of money and goods in late Medieval/Early Modern Europe. Merchants were able to invest in comparatively stationary and stable methods of production. Advancing mechanical and logistic knowledge along with other resources made it possible to produce goods with less labour time per good in factories.  Early English mills for cloth manufacture date from the beginning of the 17th century. Mechanical production was already well-known in Italy and, built in 1717 in Derby, England, Lombe’s Mill was a good example of both early international industrial espionage and of an early mechanised factory. As the number of factories multiplied, existing local trade routes and markets were inundated by ‘commodities’ such as clothing, utensils, crockery, and flour, soon bursting these asunder and opening up modern forms of production, distribution and exchange. The earliest workers, in today’s sense, were slaves or wage workers who worked across the world to entrench these changes. Today we know this as the beginning of capitalism.
The changes have a hidden side. In the 16th century the Copernican revolution, itself made possible as the old order began to erode, had dethroned humans from the centre of the cosmos. As well, they were about to be dethroned in an altogether more insidious manner. Burgeoning new forms of production, distribution and exchange not just reduced required labour times, but also began to subsume the entirety of social life into these times.
According to Marx
Marx is best known for advocating class struggle, but in fact such struggle is just one side of his more complete view of capitalism. The view has been neglected by historical Marxism and is termed by Anselm Jappe “the esoteric Marx” (Jappe, forthcoming). According to the esoteric Marx, with capitalist societies the implicit idea of ‘socially necessary labour time’ comes into being. A social average is established by way of market competition alongside technical innovation. Already we can see this is profit-driven as opposed to the rational development of technology for human need. When the latter does appear, it is a side effect rather than the intended aim of competition and profit seeking.
Imagine an artisan tailor averages 70 minutes to make a shirt. This shirt will be ‘worth’ 70 minutes of socially necessary labour time. If a machine newly introduced by one of the artisan’s competitors then allows a worker to produce a shirt in 30 minutes, the artisan, using the old method might still take 70 mins to make a shirt. But under the new social conditions of capitalist competition, production and exchange, that shirt will only be worth 30 mins of averaged socially necessary labour time. Unfortunately for the artisan, this ‘value’ now must sell at the newly established social average of 30 minutes expressed in money. This is despite his need for subsistence goods. The remaining 40 minutes costs him time, effort and resources. Soon he too will be working at the factory!
Work in this sense is the reduction of effort to an average imposed by market competition, without any care for either the worker or the work done, other than the drive to reduce to minimums times as expressed in profit. The ‘living’ labour of workers is reduced to the ‘dead’ labour of things made and services to be provided—congealed and congealing as so many repositories of ‘value,’ with only differences in temporal quantity recognised. So we end up with ‘alienated’ work: labour as value-producing—and a category quite able to include both brewing mead or shoeing a horse.
The esoteric Marx stresses the need for capitalists to expand upon their accumulation of dead labour, and to do this living labour must be constantly employed. The reason is not just to force market competitors like our unfortunate tailor to play catch up. It is also because value is detached not just from the diversity of input, but from usefulness. Commodities have at least to be perceived to have a use to be sold, but that use is the buyer’s look out. Once the means are set up to produce x number of tables or ergonomic chairs, the tables or ergonomic chairs have to be produced. A lesser number puts the capitalist back in the position of the tailor and his wasted 40 minutes. Usability limits, and so is inimical to, value. Use threatens to leave the capitalist with unsold commodities. Value must expand in advance of this contingency by convincing or coercing people to work more. Confronted with the variability inherent in use, there can be no equilibrium agreed upon by market competitors. Value recursively and endlessly self-expands. To describe accumulation unbounded by use, Aristotle left us the term ‘chrematistic.’
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We meet head on the first of our contradictions around work. Value expansion has no interest in natural or human well-being, let alone in whether workers eat, and etc. Rather it is a sealed tautology where only further value is of any value. For anyone adopting or caught in this tautological perspective, all that matters is that value-producing work is performed, no matter who or what falls by the way, with self-sacrifice not precluded. The capitalist, is self-expanding value endowed with a will and a personality, and must always eat, whether or not they work—though it is revealing of the secret of their will and personalities that many are nevertheless workaholics.
There are more chucked tables and discarded ergonomic chairs on the street than there are people chatting.
Needs are manufactured, hitherto unknown levels of waste inevitable. With each commodity itself containing a smaller and smaller amount of value, value expansion demands increasing mass energy throughput, and at an accelerating rate to stay ahead. There are more chucked tables and discarded ergonomic chairs on the street than there are people chatting. Durability is the enemy and sometimes even deliberately lessened, as was for instance exposed and combated in computer printers by 2010s consumer groups (more on ‘planned obsolescence’ below). Just as ad campaigns once sold superfluous electric can openers, today’s virtual products such as bloatware and crapware are fostered on users of ephemeral devices. Corruption assists in the sale of worse than useless poisons, silencing bird calls and kicking off the current epidemic of cancer (Carlson, 1962). Market research: it’s not about altering production on the basis of feedback, but rather about how to sell more of what is already over-produced.
In his short story ‘Autofac’ (1955), Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) imagined an automated factory—the autofac in question—in a post-apocalyptic setting that dumps its products on reluctant humans, using and choking up the planet. Just as, also relevantly, it had once churned out weapons of destruction, the autofac now turns out endless goods, whether people want them or not. In this allegory, PKD gets to the heart of the absurdity of mass production, presenting the unthinking expansion of value as just an automatically enacted algorithm—which today, more than 60 years after PKD wrote his story, production has increasingly become .
Insofar as even the most savvy manager serves the whim of the unconscious market, we have the “automatic subject,” the current global human subjectivity, into which all our subjectivities are integrated. Value abstraction is a category that has assumed independence from the minds that have created it, and now directs these minds, much as Immanuel Kant ( 2007) thought the categories of time and space pre-existed and ordered other impressions and ideas as a “synthetic a priori” . Via the current sense of work, people work to expand value at the expense of nature, at the same time as nature is used to expand value at the expense of people.
Rare is the person who does not understand how terrible it is that humans destroy their natural environment. Far more people have been touched, for instance, by the crystal tragedy of John Keats (1795-1821) and his poetry, as he clung hard to an idealised sylvan world in the face of early industrial spoliation. Yet for all that, today there is nary a bower laden with eglantine to be found outside a tourist trap. As in the William Blake (1757-1827) painting, where a princess is accused of being free in love and her guards look at her with sympathy, so too no doubt most of those carrying on the destruction have sympathy for what they destroy.
The solution is of course a revolution to rid ourselves of self-expanding value. But we must be careful of falling back into failed politics. The revolutions of old Marxism left the expansion of value—the root problem—untouched. Orthodox Marxists instead concentrated on “fairer” distribution. They praised work and idolised workers (Postone, 1993). As a result, the really existing socialism that mainly collapsed in the late 1980s (e.g., the USSR), was not so different from Western really existing capitalism. Indeed, the same workerist mentality lingers on, even in mainstream circulation. Think only of how contemporary advertising and government propaganda is not so far from the old socialist realism that evoked gender and class ideals with a productivist function in larger-than-life images on posters, magazine, films and TV. Instead of such failed politics, East or West, we need to get rid of the abstractions involved in work as value production. To do this we would need to reconsider quality and think more honestly and transparently about usability. From each according to their inclination, to each according to their life projects.
So how could this anti-work?
So how could this anti-work? To firstly answer this question in broad terms, consider the surrealist movement, which began in France but soon had a global reach including the Caribbean and Australia. From the 1920s, surrealists proposed a society-wide liberation of the imagination that is the complete opposite of the quantitative abstraction of value as accumulated labour. In his painting Imaginary Numbers Yves Tanguy tries to overcome abstract quantity with quality. This is emblematic of the entirety of surrealist anti-work, that rejected the ongoing reduction of human dreams and imagination to the cold hard calculation of abstraction and blank quantity.
The surrealists recognized the need to get rid of capitalism, and variously aligned themselves with some of the old Marxists, and, even less happily, with anarchism. They came into conflict with these political formations to the extent that they rejected work (Hemmens, ch.4, 2019). Certainly, the surrealist movement had its limits, and got lost in endless mirrored corridors of dream and irrationality. But where they were most prescient was in their desire to imaginatively reconstruct the world on lines directly at odds with the destructive nature of capitalist value. Unfortunately, to the extent that the surrealists are best remembered as painters and artists, their various painterly and sculptural works, for example, have just become more grist for the mill of commodity circulation. This was recognised by the Situationist International who instead advocated liberating the imagination from work by constructing and reconstructing entire situations of life instead of just artworks (Debord, 1957).
The desire to build social space itself rather than only the commodity things that circulate within it came with an idea that we abolish work throughout that space. The Situationists mainly thought of their eponymous situations in terms of free play in an urban setting, using art history as a conditioning technique for pleasure and self-exploration rather than just for contemplation and passive consumption. While I will continue to refer to ‘constructed situations’ as a model of dis-alienation, I also want to pay attention to the ecological context of this alternative to work. So, for instance, the Situationists often thought of free play beyond work as enabled by automation. However, particularly with the current dangers of climate change, and for other reasons I will go into, today we need to rethink the role that any industrial production will have in the future, automated (Routley, 1981) or otherwise. Sustainability and repair must be a centrepiece of anti-work.
In order to address the upkeep of persons and infrastructure, certainly an alternative to capitalism would still require work in the physics sense. The gist of value critique is then that the automatic subject does this in a deeply irrational fashion, both non-sustainable and non-enjoyable. We are trashing the planet and not even having a good time doing it (Leonard, 2007). Without self-expanding value we might assume it is more or less natural to do what we enjoy and what engages us. Rather than large-scale automation, or, indeed, planet-trashing consumerism, the practical imagination beckons even more expansively as a alternative to capitalism than did expressive imagination that primarily concerned the surrealists.
More detail and some examples: hemp, planned obsolescence, soft engineering, merde
To be a bit more specific we can begin with a concept applied by Bill Gates, a billionaire many times over, to proposals for how humans could live in the future. This concept is that of “Death Valley” through which all such proposals must trek, no matter how seemingly ingenious and practical . The proposals must withstand the thirst and heat of the market; they must be profitable. Before the proposals make the trek demanded by Gates, let us here briefly inspect them. The posse setting out for Death Valley is large, as we might find from the pages of a magazine like Sustainability Matters (SM) where we find many ideas for hydrology, power generation and more besides.
The posse is attractive, though not because it is composed of the ruggedly handsome stars from old Westerns like Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. The proposals have the attraction of being, in a maximal sense, creative. This is in part for the basic Situationist reason that the kind of proposals under consideration deal with environments, not just individual objects within those environments. Also the most attractive proposals tend to aim for the rarest most difficult to attain states of affairs, a win win for humans and broader nature, and permitting wins between humans i.e. situations no party finds odious or hierarchical. Such a good life is where the playful constructed situation would come in. As envisaged by Debord (1957) these playful alternatives to work are governed by ludic rules, much as games are governed. These rules could allow non-automatic subjects to respond to, and even interact with, proposals, necessarily both local and global, for human/nature win wins.
Notice that since the proposals are seeking a creative win win between humanity and nature we can not simply outsource upkeep to large scale automation. Sustainability instead remains a very natural idea in this context. Debord wanted new values to replace that of work as dead and dying labour. A prime candidate for such a new value is an independent valuation of nature irrelevant of its uses to humans, though not necessarily excluding those uses, such as has been lucidly forwarded by eco(-)logical philosophers, the Routleys . The challenge of reaching these win win win states in any case offers rewards in terms of both practical and poetic achievement. If adventurers were once prepared to climb Mount Everest simply because it was there, then here are our new peaks.
What the forced march through Death Valley means is that rather than being assessed in terms of poetic and practical achievement, any proposal is assessed automatically in terms of how that proposal can expand value. But we have found value expansion is detached, and indeed inimical, to useful outcome (see also endnote ). It is likely that a proposal could be metabolically feasible, and provide desirable outcomes, and yet fall by the way. Hemp initiatives, for instance, have often failed to cross Death Valley due to law and order and divisive mandates needed for work as value expansion. This despite being popularised for providing an advantageous recreational substance, and via reggae, a superior genre of popular music. It is then revealing when Gates is silent about hemp, particularly since he himself singles out areas of production in which hemp could contribute significantly to the realistic carbon emission targets he effectively admits are outside the reach of real existing capitalism, e.g. cloth, paper, insulation (hempcrete) and plastics.
Systematic alternatives to planned obsolescence, such as universally interchangeable kinetic modules, is another example of more sustainable and enjoyable, and less frustrating, proposals that will fail to cross Death Valley. As a way to increase both the rate and amount of the mass energy throughput required for value expansion, planned obsolescence makes for an interesting study in automatic subjectivity , and increases the amount of waste at all stages of production and disposal. Systematic planning to increase durability would conclusively fail to cross Death Valley as offering business nothing, even as infrastructural/government-funded. Sustainable projects on these lines could include universally regulating sizes, sockets, grommets etc. These would be enjoyable as creative about not just individual objects, but about the environments in which individual objects have a use. By contrast, via alienated labour capitalists might begin to market hemp (e.g. medical marijuana or hemp tee shirts) or durability (e.g. some higher priced commodities, advertising claims and dodges around warranties ). But they would be not just governed in this by the need to expand value; they would be actively counteracted by that need.
Wages are often considered necessary since there are unpleasant jobs that must be done. The objection is that paying a wage is then necessary, buying us back into the capitalist system of wages and work, and ruling out dis-alienated manual labour. In fact an associated idea is that any attempt at dis-alienation will lead to a more brutal reversion back to alienation when people need to be forced to do what is necessary for upkeep. Rephrasing this objection as a reason why a proposal should face Death Valley: a hydrologist might love her pet hydrological proposal, but not relish wading through sewerage when she finds there are no paid workers to do it for her.
However, things are more complicated than the objection suggests. Certainly jobs more dependant on mental faculties are today usually better paid and more sought after. What is going on here is that administrative, office, managerial etc work is on the whole separated from the danger and strenuous activity of manual employ. How to divide the two types of jobs has been a cause of bickering in the Marxist camp, in an attempt to distinguish the progressive worker of the exoteric Marx, type cast as manual, from managerial classes. What is more worthy of attention is that while manual work is often avoided as mentally unfulfilling, the mental fulfilment offered by office etc work is also limited in its possibilities for satisfying engagement. It is limited and directed by quantitative-only abstraction of value expansion, suggesting that higher office etc pay sweetens the deal. In so far as we have a recompense for unpleasantness, we have a mirror image of the manual work case. The limitations on fulfilment are in fact increasingly evident as we climb the career-ladder, the climb being an attraction of managerial jobs. In upper management, roles are subsumed into reductions of socially necessary labour times. If we keep climbing, CEOs are the public face of these reductions, and further up capitalists are personifications of self-expanding value.
We have found that in a dis-alienated society, outsourcing to the hired manual worker and industrial-scale automation are both unavailable. Instead what we have is dis-alienated mental skill breaking free of quantitative-only value expansion. In these circumstances, manual labour would be attractive as a way of putting genuinely creative proposals into action, especially to the person or persons making the proposal. Rather than being simply unpleasant, dis-alienated manual labour could more readily provide an avenue of hands-on learning. This is already an attraction of being an artist and professional specialist, and we already find such heuristic feedback in technical jobs such as aironautics design. But in existing cases the integration of the head and the hand is limited and directed by value expansion and hence is itself integrated into automatic subjectivity. So these cases often do not provide much of a clue as to either sustainability or as to how manual labour might be dis-alienated. Two recent on the-ground examples afford a more acute glimpse on both counts.
Due to the Bushfire Recovery for Wildlife and their Habitats fund, and the participation of volunteers, the first avoided the worst of Death Valley. It is the preservation of peat bogs in New South Wales (NSW). While peatlands cover only 3% of the Earth’s surface, they store more carbon than all other vegetation, and also harbour biodiversity. Sphagnumbogs in NSW are threatened by the record bush fires associated with climate change. To help damaged peatlands to recover following the 2020 Fires in the Australian Alps, work was undertaken at Happy Jack’s Bog and Delaney Creek Bog by the late Professor Geoff Hope and others specialising in natural systems theory. Assisted by volunteers, they themselves placed and dug in coir logs and straw bales as channel blocks and in drainage lines to increase the water held in the peatlands. Though ailing, Hope had a strong presence at the remote sites . The second example concerns a protest camp in 2005, implicitly opposing value expansion. Starhawk and other activists constructed sawdust toilets in plastic bins. Sealed for two years, the contents are safe to use as fertiliser (Trapeze Collective, 2007, p.21). Those studying and advancing the theory of permaculture etc, were also manually putting ideas into action.
Resplendent in divergence
We can now rethink the second contradiction around work. Work today is indeed alienating, inhuman and destructive. But as a subset of the ways in which we could do physics-work, even today’s toil permits glimpses of something better. In the same way that today’s games permit a glimpse of constructed situations, i.e., of what a more playful city could be like. What is and must be excluded from any viable future is the destruction of nature. Broader nature is, after all, the domain par excellence of qualitative difference, even as human society stumblingly subsumes its own qualitative differences into abstract value-expansion. The future can only be, to re-purpose some David Byrne lyrics, resplendent in divergence.
In the meantime, and keeping reality checked, perhaps the school leaver could bear in mind what careers advisors never seem to tell her, i.e. that the less she consumes beyond obvious needs, the less she has to work. If she doesn’t want overseas holidays; can get by without a car perhaps using a bicycle; is fine, even enjoys, renting older places; has a foraging garden, and a decent solar panel and battery; has some tools and is prepared to repair and scavenge; then the reduction in the hours she has to work starts adding up , and her ecological footprint is all the fainter. There are fitness and health benefits to be had as well, and again we get an idea of a creative approach to the good life as win win wins. Such persons of the future, Arthur Rimbaud’s “horrible workers,” could use time saved from work to build community, theorise, be expressive, do science and train as anti-fa, not just to push back our horizons as Rimbaud so presciently decreed, but save the horizon itself .
Thanks to Anthony Paul Hayes for assistance
1. See Marx, Capital vol 2 for more details, including the coercion of unwilling victims into this process.
2. PKD’s novella The Variable Man (1953) can similarly be read such that the Variable Man character is thought of as usefulness endowed with a will and a personality. If so then PKD, if indirectly, also gets at the inherent variability that usefulness poses in relation to value, and providing an impetus for value to self-expand.
3. Also compare Arthur (2022) on ideality and reality in value expansion. Value critics sometimes talk about value as ‘quasi-autonomous.’
4. Gates’ actual term is the “valley of death” (pp.117-127, 2021). But in the light of desertification as one of the outcomes of climate change, I thought the slight rephrasing apt.
5. Debord gestures at new values in ‘The Role of Minority Tendencies in the Ebbing Period,’ (1957). Having some awareness of the esoteric Marx (Hemmens, ch.5, 2019), this gesture is then on the basis of recognition of the need to replace self-expanding value. For a good overview of the background and ‘Last Man’ argument important to the Routleys’ idea of the independent valuation of nature see Hyde, 2014. Debord himself would come to recognise ecological concerns as suggesting such value (Marcolini, 288, 2020).
6. Slade (2006) thinks ongoing reductions of durability result from cheaper materials only. With no conscious aims in respect of faster repeat sales Slade thereby denies the coherence of the idea of planned obsolescence. As a reduction of socially necessary labour time, such a denial of planned obsolescence does show an understanding of automatic subjectivity. But Slade misses that value expansion integrates all the capacities of the subject into automatic subjectivity, including the capacity to plan. Not everything can be reduced to value expansion, but value expansion is in the process of tautologically reducing everything to itself. Marxists similarly think that reference to class struggle is all that is needed to explain society. Since they do not understand this as the integration of human subjects into automatic subjectivity, besides business as usual planning (e.g. back room deals, financial plans or insider trading) they too can be awkward around capitalist planning. The resulting blind spot could help explain Plumwood’s accusation that Marxists never properly addressed planned obsolescence (1981, p.243), as well as the dogmatic denial of “operational level” conspiracies in some socialist groups (Hellinger, p. 65, 2020).
7. See Lai (2022) sections headed “Background” and “Implementation” respectively. My knowledge of Hope’s physical involvement comes from his one time student, a naturalist who was himself physically as well as mentally active on the project, and my brother, Dr. Ben Keaney. Thanks to Ben for assistance with this paragraph.
8. Such a person is avoiding reducing socially necessary labour time. This is clearest where she opposes value expansion along the lines suggested. It is worth noting that micro-power generation is currently more than ever amenable to being hi-jacked against the imperative to work and pay escalating power bills. Recent developments include MPPT charge controllers and usb charging to take us a step away from the need for inverters. Of course this tactic is for the moment dependant upon the prices and availability of commodities. But it also shows us the practical imagination at anti-work.
9. Rimbaud concluded his 1871 Lettre du Voyant to Paul Demeny, which was much admired by the surrealists and situationists, by exhorting other horrible workers to come and begin from the horizons where the previous generation has succumbed.
– to be continued in six minutes –
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Guy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationists Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action, 1957. http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/report.htm
Philip K. Dick, ‘Autofac,’ Galaxy Science Fiction. November 1955. https://archive.org/details/galaxymagazine-1955-11/page/n71/mode/2up?view=theater
Philip K. Dick, ‘The Variable Man,’ Space Science Fiction, July 1953.
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Gerald Keaney studied philosophy at the Australian National University, later completing his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Queensland. Gerry co-founded the terrorist art group Aktion Surreal in Canberra, and later, in Sydney, co-founded Sub Rosa, in the mid-2000s he was heavily involved in the Audiopollen Social Club in Meanjin/Brisbane. He is committed to placing the means of production at the service of everyone’s creative and intellectual life projects.