7 Key Concepts for Understanding Anti-Work Theory

By Nick Ford
From abolishwork.com
Image by Outcide Catt

  • Work – The constrained performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for substituting your own ends with an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward.

Constraint -Specifically I mean economic, cultural and social constraints and not necessarily physical restraint. The state-capitalist society we live under has artificially limited our abilities to engage with the means of production through arbitrary licensing laws, zoning laws, capital requirements, centralized banks, cultural biases towards capitalist patterns of ownership and so on. These barriers to entry combine to make it harder than it might be otherwise to be self-employed and work in cooperatives. These ways of associating with work while not abolishing work immediately may at least give us a chance of bettering our conditions in the short run.

Substituting your own ends – This is where my individualism comes into play. I take particular umbrage with work as a concept because it precludes our abilities to decide what desires or needs matter and what ones don’t. The boss decides this and if we don’t like it we don’t have much of a say in anything that should count or not. This is, again, why things like worker cooperatives and self-employment may be attractive alternatives.

Background context for definition: The philosopher John Danaher on his Philosophical Disquisitions blog was a big inspiration for this definition. He defined work in a more value-neutral sense which excluded my individualist critique as well as my commentary on how state-capitalism interacts with work. I also got some inspiration from Bob Black and his infamous essay The Abolition of Work where Black describes work more in terms of constraint on our abilities.

  • Play / Games

Play and games aren’t quite the same thing but they’re closely related enough that they could share the same category. At any rate, play could be simply seen in a sort of reductionist way as “the opposite of work” as Bob Black does but I like to see it slightly more complex than that. Although that definition isn’t totally wrong, I think play can sometimes be incorporated into work and vice versa. Sometimes what people would regard as play gets turned into work when it’s an involuntary interaction and then the complication between the two becomes a bit more complicated.

I would define play as the voluntary attempt to engage in recreation for the primary purpose of pleasure. Some dictionaries might tell you that play can’t be a serious matter because “only children” engage in play or because play is often seen as associated with adolescence and not something “serious” adults would do.  None of this is remotely true given that fact that parents play with their children all of the time and tend to see it as an opportunity to learn and grow alongside their children, even if the games might not take the sort of cognitive skills they personally need to develop.

Past that there are plenty of opportunities for play that can engage people’s minds. There are many different sports leagues for adults, board game nights and recreational activities that adults engage in that can help stimulate their brains. Video games are a great example of this and while video games and the like might not always be used for “serious and practical purposes” they can still incidentally help serious and practical things like social bonding, community building, etc.

There’s also the concept of “productive play” which Bob Black uses in his essay Smokestack Lightening that I’ve found useful:

My proposal is to combine the best part (in fact, the only good part) of work — the production of use-values — with the best of play, which I take to be every aspect of play, its freedom and its fun, its voluntariness and its intrinsic gratification, shorn of the Calvinist connotations of frivolity and “self-indulgence…

I believe that this sort of play is a great replacement for the work that we engage in today and with an adequate increase in our abilities to relate to technology it seems likely we can turn what jobs we can’t automate (we’ll get to this later) into much more playful and enjoyable experiences. Or at least we can share the drudgery a bit more equitably so it’s a much less distressing situation for everyone involved, for example with things like trash pickup or mining for resources, etc.

My definition of games comes from the philosopher Bernard Suit’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia which brilliantly sums up games as, “The voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Suit expands on this definition by including three important components for a game:

Prelusory Goals: These are outcomes or changes in the world that are intelligible apart from the game itself.

Constitutive Rules: These are the rules that determine how the prelusory goal is to be attained. According to Suits, these rules set up artificial obstacles that prevent the players from achieving the prelusory goal in the most straightforward and efficient manner.

Lusory Attitude: This is the psychological orientation of the game players to the game itself. In order for a game to work, the players have to accept the constraints imposed by the constitutive rules.

I think this is enough to consider for now in terms of games and play but hopefully I’ve at least slightly teased at how and why these concepts are so important to the anti-work philosophy.

  • Alienation

Although I’m not a Marxist myself a good friend of mine pointed out that my individualist critique of it could easily be understood in such terms. Specifically the phrase “alienation” (which of course you don’t need to be a Marxist to believe, it’s just the common association) relates the fact that people feel disinterested or otherwise disempowered from controlling the workplace they are in. This has individualist issues for if the individual has no control over a mainstay in their life then how much can they be said to truly control their lives?

  • Anarchism

Anarchism is an oft misunderstood philosophy but in its simplest form anarchism is best understood as a political philosophy that eschews the need for rulers in a just society. “Rulers” in my own terminology can be seen as “coercively imposed leaders”, in other words people who take the helm not for any particular merit but because they may have more guns or some cultural support in society that makes their acceptance come about in an imposed way. Rulers may not even need physical violence to be objectionable to anarchists either.

For example, in Charles Johnson’s Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin he imagines a society whereby we all defer to a central leader and scrape by while paying tributes. The society r isn’t based on violence and is rather based on cultural forces. While perhaps not technically unjust in some sense because there is no violence in this system or violation of folks possessions or rights, we might still think of this chieftain as a ruler of some sort due to their cultural context and how they manage to stay in power (i.e. largely through group-think).

There are several strands of anarchism and they mostly revolve around discussions of what exactly a “ruler” constitutes (i.e. is the marketplace a sort of economic ruler?) how best to get away from a society based on rulership (worker syndicates? ecological actions? non-violent protests? rioting?) and so on. Some notable strands of thought include anarchist communism, anarchist syndicalism, individualist anarchism, mutualism and green anarchism.

There’s much to say about the history of anarchism itself, its thinkers, its successes and failures but for the sake of this talk I want to focus on its relation to the anti-work philosophy.

By and large anti-work philosophy has related to anarchism and vice versa through the post-left anarchist thinkers such as Bob Black but there are also other strands you can look at. Examples range from proto-individualist anarchist thinkers like Henry David Thoreau and contemporary anarchists like David Graeber and Apio Ludd.

Even when the thinker isn’t necessarily an anarchist themselves (i.e. Bertrand Russell, William Morris and Paul LaFargue) a lot of what they say has either much in common or much to add to an anarchist discussion of work. Too often anarchist communists in particular seem to focus more of their time criticizing wages and wage labor than the labor itself. Though it should be noted even in those situations the critiques of work are still there and powerful, but tend to be more incidental to the larger point that work itself is specifically the problem.

As an individualist anarchist I don’t see anything per se wrong with individuals being paid for their labor as long as the larger economic context isn’t one in which folks feel forced into what they’re doing. I think this is a possible outcome even without abolishing wages on the whole.

Moreover, the sort of anarchism I personally prefer, while it may be a sort of individualist anarchism that doesn’t seek to end property, money or markets also tends to be a “meta-anarchism” whereby I am happy to entertain the notion that any system being centralized is likely to lead to that system failing. This is going to be the case whether we’re talking about all of society abolishing money or all of society accepting anti-capitalist markets as individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker or mutualists like Dyer D. Lum did.

Generally, anarchism is how I think needs would be met and goods would be allocated in a post-work world. I don’t think we can historically speaking trust the state to meaningfully rebel against a puritan work ethic or keep people from not having to live lives of drudgery.

  • Technological Unemployment / Automation

Technological unemployment and automation have become big focuses of the anti-work philosophy discussion within recent years and for good reason. As time has gone on it seems obvious that machines are part of the driving force that are going to replace humans so that they have to do less and less work. Well, this is the ideal situation for the anti-work thinker at any rate, but given our larger economic context of state-capitalism, this may be harder than we’d like.

For one thing, when capitalists and the state control the means of production (or at least compared to how much everyone else does) then technology tends to be geared towards top-down methods of change. Management will enact the best possible policies for themselves and have workers out the door if it means they’ll better be able to compete within this society. I don’t think that necessarily says so much about technology or competition but rather says a lot about the incentive structures that the state and capitalism tend to give people.

In a society where workers are able to build technology from the bottom up (i.e. in their garages and neighborhoods as well as community spaces) and have better access to the means of production, it seems likely that people would be able to make their own jobs obsolete in much more mutually advantageous.

Currently we have a larger economic context in which folks are left to fend on their own or depend heavily on state welfare to get by. Speaking as someone who has used state welfare programs many times, they aren’t exactly the most empowering thing in the world (except now that we have slight breathing room) but in the moment they seem necessary because otherwise people don’t have the necessary institutions and communities built on solidarity and mutual aid.

  • Universal Basic Income

This is part of where the discussion of a UBI or “Universal Basic Income” (sometimes a “Citizens Dividend” or “Guaranteed Basic Income”, etc.) comes into play.

Now, if I wasn’t an anarchist I’d feel a little more cheery about the idea but nevertheless the general concept is to have the state distribute a monthly income to its citizens in order to lessen their financial burdens. Ideally this is to create a more flexible economy and environment for citizens so they can more easily pursue their own dreams instead of the ones they have to pursue because, for example, they really need money for the rent, etc.

As I said though, I tend to be pessimistic about this and most efforts of reforming the state. I think there are very particular class interests involved in why the state works like it does and I don’t see that being changed (at least not very easily) from within. That doesn’t mean working outside the system is easy, it’s certainly not. But I think we have a much better chance of affecting change working outside of accepted conventions than working within them.

I certainly think that the UBI, et. al. are likely marked improvements over the current welfare system in many attractive ways. Under many of the proposed workings a UBI system would be designed to be far less bureaucratic than the current welfare system. And I’m definitely all in favor of giving people more control over their own lives and less control to work.

But the mechanisms from which UBI supporters want to accomplish this seem (at least in the US) fairly unlikely. At least in my experiences and readings I haven’t seen many practical proposals of how this would actually happen via the state. It seems highly unlikely that the state would consciously and intentionally undermine its own state bureaucracy. And even if they did, it would have to because there’s some sort of very large demand for it from the lower rungs of society and if we have the power to do all of that than I don’t see why we don’t just go for much more radical demands.

  • Domestic labor

Finally, the issue of domestic labor has gained more traction in recent years thanks to Kathi Weeks and her book The Problem of Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries.

From what little I’ve read of Weeks she definitely seems to be one of the main driving forces behind bringing a more feminist perspective into the anti-work philosophy, which I think should be welcomed. Especially since women still handle more of the weight in terms of domestic labor (i.e. house care and child-rearing). And while this disparity between women and men has lessened over time, it’s still a notable double standard that women are generally presumed to do all of this and their job and still keep smiling.

Andre Gorz, a post-Marxist and anti-work theorist also discusses domestic labor in his Critique of Economic Reason, chapter 3: The Crisis of Work where he elaborates that the issue with domestic labor in particular isn’t so much its existence. It isn’t, for example, some sort of inherent evil that the trash must be taken out or that children must be taken care of. Instead, to Gorz (and I agree with this assessment) it’s more an issue of sharing these duties out more equitably. The anarchist movement already tries to handle this currently through housing cooperatives that cycle daily chores through different cooperative members, so that’s one possible solution.

I’d love to see anti-work philosophy engage a bit more with feminist philosophies as well, but sadly there’s a bit of a dearth from what research I’ve done over the years in terms of anti-work philosophers taking feminism seriously. Much of the post-left anarchist movement is critical of feminism and there hasn’t been a historical socialist feminist account of trying to criticize the state and capitalist aspects of society that drive these gendered disparities.
Here’s hoping this collection I helped edit will change that and other problematic areas of the current anti-work discourse.


  1. Well done on bringing attention to Andre Gorz, but he himself admitted that the late Robert Kurz surpassed his thinking on the subject of abolishing value/labour/commodity society.

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