Work and the Politics of Refusal

A World Beyond Work

At the heart of recent discussions on work lies an enduring tension. We can sense that modern work isn’t working anymore, but we don’t know how to let go of it. The disintegration and degradation of wage labor through technological “progress,” increasing commodification and devaluation of reproductive work, steadily rising unemployment and precarious employment, and sustained attacks on the last bastion of permanent employment (the public sector) together with our desperate attempts to resurrect a corporatist corpse that won’t return, all point to the fact that modern employment “exists less and less to provide a living, let alone a life.” Marxist outliers (Andre Gorz, Ivan Illich, Antonio Negri, Zerowork) have been announcing a crisis of work for some time now, remarking how automation both reduces necessary labor time and degrades work without, however, releasing us from the obligation to earn money for a living. Today work persists in a zombie state despite the disintegration of working class culture and organizations and a continuous process of proletarianization. These conversations have returned in full force in recent years with the publication of Kathi Weeks’ groundbreaking The Problem with Work: Marxism, Feminism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries and a sustained interest in these matters in the Jacobin and even mainstream media.

In these debates, however, there remains an unreconciled tension between the obligation (of any self-respecting socialist) to celebrate work as a source of collective power and personal pride and the more futuristic desire to overcome work and even our self-understanding as workers for a more multivalent understanding of life. This is effectively the tension between Marx and his son-in-law Lafargue, between laborists and anarchists, between a politics of equality and one of autonomy. Of course, there can never be a satisfying answer to this problem because the dichotomy itself is a sectarian caricature. Much more interesting would be to stick with this tension as a provocation for a politics whose form and direction has yet to be decided.

How do we, at once, celebrate the types of cooperation, organization, and identities born out of wage labor and recognize that these are inadequate and insufficient modern inventions that have run their course? How can we advance the cause of wage laborers and fight for people to one day stop functioning as workers? An impossible (and scandalous) proposition such as this is the “refusal of work,” the Italian autonomist theory/practice, which claims that workers are able to produce and sustain value independent of capitalist relations of production and centralized power.

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