The Abolition of Work



The Abolition of Work‘ is an essay written by American anarchist, Bob Black in 1985. The essay was part of an anthology of essays entitled ‘The Abolition of Work and Other Essays’ published by Loompanics (a publisher specializing in nonfiction on generally unconventional or controversial topics).

It is an exposition of Black’s ‘type 3 anarchism’ – a blend of post-Situationist theory and individualist anarchism – focusing on a critique of the work ethic. He adopted Situationist tropes that had recently been re-popularized (or recuperated) by pop bands of the time (Bow Wow Wow in particular having earlier featured ‘demolition of the work ethic’ and ‘there’s no need to work ever’ among similar lines in their lyrics).

In attempting to round out the concept from his discovering it in popular culture, Black draws upon certain ideas of prominent anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins and Richard Borshay Lee, philosopher Charles Fourier, socialist artist, William Morris, and sociologist, Paul Goodman. Black argues for the abolition of the producer- and consumer-based society, where, Black contends, all of life is devoted to the production and consumption of commodities. Attacking Marxist state socialism as much as Liberal capitalism, Black argues that the only way for humans to be free is to reclaim their time from jobs and employment, instead turning necessary subsistence tasks into free play done voluntarily – an approach referred to as ‘ludic.’

The essay argues that ‘no-one should ever work,’ because work – defined as compulsory productive activity enforced by economic or political means – is the source of most of the misery in the world. Black denounces work for its compulsion, and for the forms it takes – as subordination to a boss, as a ‘job’ which turns a potentially enjoyable task into a meaningless chore, for the degradation imposed by systems of work-discipline, and for the large number of work-related deaths and injuries – which Black typifies as ‘homicide.’

Play, in contrast, is not necessarily rule-governed, and is performed voluntarily, in complete freedom, as a gift economy (a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards). He points out that hunter-gatherer societies are typified by play, a view he backs up with the work of Marshall Sahlins; he recounts the rise of hierarchal societies, through which work is cumulatively imposed, so that the compulsive work of today would seem incomprehensibly oppressive even to ancients and medieval peasants.

He responds to the view that ‘work,’ if not simply effort or energy, is necessary to get important but unpleasant tasks done, by claiming that first of all, most important tasks can be rendered ludic, or ‘salvaged’ by being turned into game-like and craft-like activities, and secondly that the vast majority of work does not need doing at all. The latter tasks are unnecessary because they only serve functions of commerce and social control that exist only to maintain the work-system as a whole. As for what is left, he advocates Charles Fourier’s approach of arranging activities so that people will want to do them.

Black is also skeptical but open-minded about the possibility of eliminating work through labor-saving technologies. He feels the left cannot go far enough in its critiques because of its attachment to building its power on the category of workers, which requires a valorization of work. Black, an anti-Marxist, takes a swipe at Karl Marx in the final line: ‘Workers of the world … relax!’


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.