4. 6. 2022

Workplace Struggle and the Struggle Against Work

Misha Falk

It’s no wonder that there’s been a rise in anti-work sentiments since the beginning of the pandemic. Socialists have long pointed out that the workplace is a site of exploitation: workers produce whatever profit a company makes, but we have no control over how that profit is used, and we can secure better wages and working conditions only through collective struggle, including militant actions such as strikes. Yet the pandemic has heightened this contradiction, as employers have reopened businesses to keep profits flowing while a deadly virus spreads through the population.

News stories last year reported on the historic number of people quitting their jobs and businesses struggling to hire new workers, a phenomenon that (especially in the United States) has been referred to as the Great Resignation. All the while, images of workers collectively walking off the job circulated on social media, and people congregated in online spaces such as Reddit’s r/antiwork message board to share stories and create memes about meaningless work.

Though it started as a small breakoff from more established anarchist subreddits, r/antiwork has gained a huge following during the pandemic. With more than 1.8 million subscribers as of March 2022, the r/antiwork page is more popular than the r/communism, r/Marxism, and r/socialism subreddits combined. Posts on the antiwork board feature individual stories of bad experiences in the workplace, mockery of billionaires and megacorporations, and people’s triumphant recountings of quitting their jobs. Some have even used the subreddit to organize direct action, like when users flooded Kellogg’s with fake job applications after the company tried to hire scabs to permanently replace striking workers. The board has drawn people who identify with a wide range of political tendencies; as a result, some of its members have expressed frustration that r/antiwork hasn’t done more to promote political education around the left-wing origins of anti-work politics – or even clearly define the term. But this tension has arisen only because anti-work politics have become so widespread during the pandemic, a lens through which many workers have been encountering radical left-wing political ideas for the first time.

While there was a moment of moral panic in the media about how “nobody wants to work anymore,” recent instances of people walking off the job do not seem to have cohered into an ongoing threat to capitalism. In Canada, the Great Resignation didn’t take off in the same way that it appeared to do in the U.S. Canada’s unemployment rate sat at 5.9% in December 2021, only slightly above pre-pandemic levels; labour shortages occurred largely in low-waged sectors such as food service and hospitality as workers sought out higher-paying jobs. Yet, while the possibility of a spontaneous mass refusal of work seems to have subsided, capitalists’ open and cavalier indifference to workers’ lives during the pandemic has kept a resurgent interest in anti-work politics alive.


Abandon the workplace or struggle there?

Anti-work politics, with their origins in 19th-century anarchist and socialist thought, pose a philosophical question about how different aspects of life are unevenly valued in a society built around commodity production. While a person might want to spend their free time designing open-access software for their own and others’ benefit, capitalism creates enormous pressure to commodify creative pursuits so one can pay rent and buy food. Many people are forced to work jobs that don’t meaningfully contribute to the overall betterment of society, leaving workers feeling they are simply “putting in time,” making money so they can pursue their own interests outside of work. Sometimes accompanied by slogans such as “Communism is free time and nothing else!”, the anti-work position asks what would happen if nobody were coerced into working by the threat of poverty. People might then choose to pursue their passions, thereby contributing far more to society than when they’re stuck carrying out menial labour that contributes only to a CEO’s hoard of wealth. Some anti-work perspectives are explicitly utopian, imagining that all work will eventually be eliminated by automation. But most argue that productive activity is a natural, inevitable expression of human will, and that it’s the coercive subjugation of one’s activity by a boss, the state, or even sometimes a collective of one’s peers that must be opposed.   

The anti-work position is a bit of a paradox for socialist organizing. While any socialist would agree that government and business owners put profits before workers’ safety, many of us resist aiming the critique at work itself rather than at the capitalist class that creates those unsafe conditions. Famously, The Communist Manifesto called workers to seize the means of production – to take control of their workplaces. While the ultimate goal of that activity is to supersede alienated labour, the immediate task is to achieve social ownership, workers’ control, and democratic planning of production, not to directly abolish work. Yet left-communist writers such as Gilles Dauvé and Karl Nesic argue that the focus on taking control of work has been a hindrance to genuine social revolution:

Up to now the labouring classes have only tried to assert themselves as the class of labour and to socialise work, not to do away with it, because up to now capitalist development prevented communist prospects from emerging. Whatever the proletarians (or radical minorities) may have thought, they were fighting for a capitalism without capitalists, for a worker led capitalism. 

While they don’t repudiate individual labour struggles, Dauvé and Nesic doubt the ability of large labour unions and political parties to bring about genuinely radical social transformation. Instead they advocate a politics of communization: an approach to communism (a classless, stateless, and moneyless society) by way of “the direct self-abolition of the working class,” without an intermediate stage in which a democratically planned workers’ state would develop.

While Dauvé and Nesic make compelling critiques of the institutions the left has historically relied on, their perspective can too easily turn into a kind of cynicism that distrusts any organizing centred around work. While few unions are animated by radical left-wing politics, they remain important vehicles for building solidarity with and among working people. An estrangement of the radical left from organized labour, a refusal to struggle in solidarity with workers’ movements, helps no one but the capitalist class. And after all, many labour battles demand the reduction of labour time (shorter work weeks, for example), meaning anti-work politics and workers’ struggles may at times share immediate goals.

A different line of anti-work critique claims that most forms of labour have ceased to be (or never were) socially necessary – think call centres, the advertising industry, office temp work – so that now labour exists only as a tool to discipline workers into conformity. According to this critique, workers are left unmotivated to take control of their workplaces because the work itself is not felt to be contributing to society. The late anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber advanced this argument in his well-known 2013 article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” pointing out that the mass automation of whole sectors of industry has not led to a reduction in the amount of time people spend working:

The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ’60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

The upshot of this argument usually goes one of two ways: a demand either for a general reduction of working hours and an increase in the minimum wage, or for some kind of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Even if we bracket the debates around UBI, we are still left with a question about how people on the left are to fight for a better world. There is no good reason to think that a UBI, significant wage increases, or the reduction of the work week will simply be given to us by the ruling class, conceded without a significant amount of struggle. Graeber’s well-aimed critique of work underplays how the workplace remains an important site of that struggle.


From alienation to organization

The pandemic has intensified many workers’ feeling that their workplace is actively hostile towards them. Human well-being and safety on the job, if management thinks of them at all, are treated as afterthoughts, subordinated to the incessant demand that profits be made. The resulting feelings of alienation arise in workers who are also alienated from the product of their labour. Individual workers walking off the job can’t alter that basic character of capitalist wage labour, and most of those workers will eventually have to return to the labour force, finding that the conditions of wage-earning have not fundamentally changed. 

Right now, in the province of Manitoba where I live, workers are allotted only five sick days per year. The distribution of N95-equivalent respirator masks during the initial surge of the Omicron variant took place through liquor marts and provincial politicians’ offices, leaving it up to individuals to exercise their “personal responsibility” and choose whether to partake of public health measures; most workplaces weren’t directly supplied with masks and rapid tests. Like many provinces, Manitoba has now dropped mask mandates altogether. Since workplaces have been shown to be a key place where the virus spreads, a campaign demanding broad workplace protections against COVID could link up with other campaigns demanding increased wages, a shorter work week, and more paid sick days. Far from pointing to the obsolescence of the workplace as a terrain of struggle, workers’ feelings of alienation can be mobilized to transform workplace conditions.

An important aspect of some anti-work politics is the Marxist-feminist critique of how capitalism can treat wage labour as the only real or legitimate form of work. Marxist feminists point out that markedly gendered forms of unpaid labour, such as housework, are often overlooked and deprecated. The 1970s’ Wages for Housework campaign provocatively advocated that housework should be paid – not as a way to elevate its status in the abstract, but rather, according to Silvia Federici in her 1975 pamphlet “Wages Against Housework,” as “the first step towards refusing to do it.” Recognizing domestic work as work, in other words, helps create the possibility of a domestic workers’ strike

Whether the work in question is paid or unpaid, withdrawal of labour is a powerful tactic for anti-capitalist struggle. Strikes, slowdowns: when workers withhold their labour power until their demands are met, capitalists lose profits. The trouble with anti-work politics that take this refusal a step further, advocating that paid workers never return to the job at all, is that they forfeit these working-class weapons. In a world where most of us must work for a wage to survive, anti-work concepts can serve as useful provocations, advancing demands for a totally different way of being in society together. But capitalism is highly adaptive, and while some businesses may fold due to spontaneous work refusals and resignations, capitalist dynamics will always generate enough workers obliged by necessity to remain in the wage system for the system to continue – and so will always create a need for active, practical solidarity with those workers.

Anti-work sentiment is not something socialists should dismiss. Many people today are expressing a deep dissatisfaction with the limited options society has offered them, and some are in open rebellion against the bullshit jobs they are expected to work. Refusing that work can be a powerful tactic if it’s harnessed to coherent aims and organization. How can the deep vein of working-class anger at capitalists’ deadly profits-over-lives workplace policies be channelled into a winning set of demands? How can we struggle not just for the workers who are able to quit, but also for those who are forced by material need to stay?

Misha Falk is a writer and sometimes academic currently based out of Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory.