Our Plan To Abolish Work and Exit Capitalims Part 1: Fuck Work and The Capital It Rode In OnMay 12, 2022
Part 1: Fuck Work, and the Capital It Rode In On
What Is Work?
First of all, Fuck. Work.
Everyone knows that work sucks, but we can’t seem to bring ourselves to really say that out loud and have a conversation about it. Sure, people talk a lot about how their particular job might suck. There are movies and t.v shows about people who really hate their jobs. Yet we don’t really consider the fundamental truth that all jobs are things we are forced to do by the threat of violence.
I know there are some of you that are like “I love what I do!” Truly, I am glad that’s the case. I mean…good for you.
But I have a question for you. Do you love that you would starve and be homeless if you didn’t have a job? No, of course not.
We often don’t think of homelessness as violence, but consider that there are more vacant homes than there are homeless people. There isn’t a lack of supply of homes in America, but there is a desire to profit off making the means of meeting basic human needs for sanitation, security and shelter an artificially scarce resource.
We saw many conservatives be honest about their opposition to just meeting people’s needs when our government was debating about COVID-19 -stimulus. Suddenly, Fox News analytics were worried that people might lose their incentive to work. Some went as far to say that homelessness and hunger pushed forward innovation. Unfortunately, while many of us wouldn’t phrase it like that, we agree with the underlying logic.
“Well,” some of you might be saying, “work sucks, but without it we wouldn’t live such comfortable lives.” To which I can only ask, how comfortable is your life really? More to the point though, those of us with comfortable lives generally have them at the cost of someone else’s exploitation. But before we hop down that exploitation-alienation rabbit whole, we need to define our terms.
Work is not just labor.
Labor is merely effort put into something to make it something else. Brushing your teeth is labor to turn plaque-covered teeth into less plaque-covered teeth. Taking a piece of meat and cooking it to turn it into food is labor.
Work is labor that our social system forces you to do in order to be considered productive and worthy of a chance (with no guarantee I might add) at getting your needs met.
Work is what we mean when we say we are being “productive members of society.” It's a pretty arbitrary category of labor that means being valued by the social institutions that regulate and shape it (which under capitalism, is often the market and government).
Parenting your own kids isn’t work but if you do it for someone with more money than you, it is (though honestly it's considered the lowest form of work.) Selling weed to people effectively treating anxiety isn’t real work, but somehow selling male enhancement to effectively treat insecurity is real work.
Work therefore isn't an objective category nor necessarily one that reflects even mainstream beliefs about what's most valuable. Rather, work is a reflection of the values of the capital system that a given society is enmeshed in.
Once you separate out these two concepts of work and labor, it's clear that no society can function without labor. We need food and shelter and medicine and… you know… the labor of giving birth, without which no one would be here.
It's very hard to imagine a world without labor, but the same is not true for a world without work. And that’s the type of world WildSeed seeks to cultivate.
Our social world is already full of complicated labor process, coordinated at a massive scale that most people are not forced to do or compensated for.
I mean, we don’t pay most mothers for child birth (though surrogacy is a thing) or most parents for raising children (though foster parents are compensated). You support and are supported by friends, family, lovers and even strangers without paying for it or being paid for it. This is true even though from a purely financial standpoint, care work like raising children is the most valuable thing a person can do because well, without that, there is no society.
Yet, being a mother isn’t enough in our society to show that you deserve a chance to meet your needs. We make mothers on TANF or WIC (programs often called Welfare) work!
Not to mention that no one pays the sun for shining or all the microbes in the soil that allow plants to grow. Fungi are out here doing the heavy labor of keeping our ecosystems intact, but we rarely even think about them. We don’t really think much about our non-human family, but they are out here doing all sorts of labor for us.
So when we say we want to abolish work, we don’t mean that we want to stop people from doing labor.
Rather, we want to reorganize the system within which we labor - so that labor isn’t a prerequisite for receiving care, dignity and joy. This is because, fundamentally, we want a world based on the voluntary association of its members, not our enforced collaboration by threats of deprivation and other forms of violence.
We are going to talk about how to abolish work later on in this series. For now, it will be useful to get a better understanding of how our system of work is organized now.
Work Under Capitalism
Our current work regime is based on capitalism. We know that is a word we love to throw around, but no one ever really wants to define. This is in part because it's really hard to define well and succinctly. It's also really hard to define it objectively, meaning what you consider part of capitalism or not is somewhat beholden to what you think about it. But we will give it a shot.
When we say capitalism, we mean a series of historic modes of social production based on the logic of capital and the market society. So let’s break that definition down term by term.
When we say that capitalism is historic, we mean that it is something that has a history and can be best understood in the context of that history. Capitalism isn’t some inevitable thing like gravity that humans would have inevitably discovered at some point. It is a thing that was created over time in specific places and times (i.e. Europe in the 17th and 18th century.)
We should say, despite all the elements of capitalism coming together in Europe for the first time, capitalism has always been a global phenomenon. It requires social technology from China and the Middle East (accounting, banking and state structures) as well as resources from Asia, Africa and the Americas (land, new plants, natural resources and labor) in order to begin.
As Cedric Robinson points out in his book Black Marxism, capitalism was in many ways developed as a strategy for small relatively backward countries in Europe to compete. Italian city states, England and the Netherlands utilized accounting and contracting practices learned from Arab traders to build a domestic market to compensate for their lack of access to the international market. Developing a domestic market required changing their mode of social production.
Mode of Social Production
When we say that capitalism is a mode of social production, we mean it is a way that things (like ideas, goods and services) are made, distributed, consumed and accounted for in a society. So it's the organization of what is called the means of production (factories, land, finances and technology) together with the productive forces (the environment, the workers and the machines) as well as the way the rules and customs that govern these things are made (government and culture).
The mode of production that these countries turned to was…
Based on the Logic of Capital
As you may remember from previous posts, the logic of capital is a social relationship between the people who own the land, factories and equipment (the means of production) and the people who own nothing but their own labor.
Fundamental to this social relationship is the idea that the person who owns the machine that makes the thing owns the thing made - rather than the person who actually does the making.
It might make intuitive sense that if I own something, you need my permission to use it. It might make sense that I’m more likely to let you use it if I get something out of it.
Yet, what is not intuitive or rational is that you would own the thing I make, because I made it with your equipment. I mean, if I borrow your hammer to make my house, why would you then own the house?
Well, practically, the capital relationship works, because one side of the equation owns nothing but their labor. They don’t own the wood to make the house or the land to put it on. They only have their labor. Thus they are forced to trade it in exchange for what the people with equipment and land value, which is things like labor, power and social status.
So the capital relationship means that the owners of means of production can coerce the workers labor in exchange for money, social sanction, goods, political capital or other things.
Workers have to work, because they have no other way of reproducing their life (i.e. no tools to build houses, no land to own, no ability to hunt and gather on their own and no other source of money but their labor).
Under capitalism, most work is done in exchange for money.
This fact creates a situation in which a market for labor is possible. That is to say, there is enough people with nothing to give but labor that the owners of capital can pick and choose who works for them and the worker can (theoretically) pick and choose who to work for.
Now, how this choice happens is important. That is to say it matters whether it is a social market or a market society.
…And the logic of Market Societies
Now when we say that we live in a market society, we mean that everyone is dependent on the market and social relationships are embedded in the marketplace. This might be the hardest part of capitalism to understand, because most of us haven’t experienced a society in which the market is embedded in social relationships. We can thank Karl Polanyi and his book The Great Transformation for pointing out this distinction for us.
For most of history in most societies, goods and services were distributed based on actual social relationships. In their book The Creation of Inequality, Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus illustrate how in hunter-gatherer societies, there were often ingrained customs about how food collected would be distributed. A hunter may have been expected to give specific parts of an animal to his hunting partners, his sworn brothers and his wife’s family.
Similarly, in feudal societies, peasants often gave a certain portion of the harvest to their local noble (where the term landlord comes from), a certain portion to the church and then a certain portion to some sort of poor house. Feudal obligation through taxes, tithing and communal giving practices were all cultural rules of distribution that depended on relationships. So the market of exchange was embedded in those social relationships.
Under capitalism, this changes. As Ellen Meiksins Wood outlines in her book The Origins of Capitalism, kings needed money for wars. So they started taxing lords in cash. In some rare cases, like in rural England, elites that did not have military rights on their land (the ability to enforce agreements by arms) still had economic rights (the right to demand payments). This meant they couldn’t raise an army to take grain from a farm by force. But they did have a right to profit from peasant work. This led to more and more lords charging their tenants rent instead of a portion of their harvest.
When taxes are assessed as a portion of a harvest, you could always lie by growing things like tubers, which could stay in the ground for years or simply eating it and giving a smaller portion up for tax. But with money rent–at least from the landlord’s perspective–you either have the rent or you don’t. The landlord doesn’t have to listen to a sob story about a bad harvest.
This meant farmers started to pay rent in cash. So farmers had to go to the market in order to get money to pay rent. Now taxes could be raised independently of harvests. If you had a bad harvest, your taxes didn’t go down like they did when you paid a portion of your harvest. So when people couldn’t pay taxes, their land was seized.
Thus a competitive market for land tenure was created where previously families had been given land based on the oaths they swore to their landlords or based on communal land stewarding practices where village council distributed the land equitably. There was a positive incentive to be more productive (you made more money) and negative incentive (if other farms were more productive, your landlord would evict you and lend the land out to more productive farmers).
In just this way, more and more relationships came into the market. With so many displaced peasants, they even began a labor market of people selling their labor. Now businesses rely on that labor market in order to do business. Governments also rely on the market for taxes.
We can see through things like online dating that over time, even non-economic things eventually get organized into markets. We don’t find people through our existing social market anymore, rather we rely on social media companies to meet people. Now there's a dating market. Social media influences compete for followers on a social market. At some point, we reached what some economists call universal market dependency where almost everything relies on some sort of market - as opposed to social relationships.
Putting It All Together
So now hopefully it should be clear what we mean by Capitalism being a historic mode of social production based on the logic of capital and the market society. It is worth noting that the system of capitalism, in theory, could have come together in a myriad of ways. It is possible that capitalism, in theory at least, could have been formed by the introduction of competitive markets where the best ideas and products simply outcompeted other ideas and products.
Capitalism is by definition a system of winners and losers (that’s what competition means). But it is theoretically possible that this could have been a fair competition. As Elizabeth Warren loves to say, capitalism is a system of rules, and if you change the rules to be less racist then the system will be less racist. Theoretically, this might be true.
Historically however, capitalism did not establish itself through a fair, just and competitive means. It has never organized itself or any role within it based on merit. I mean, there isn’t even a mechanism to determine merit within capitalism reliably. The market does not care whether you buy a pair of shoes because they are the cheapest, the ones you like the most, the kind your brother wears or the kind your job requires you to buy.
In reality, capitalism developed in societies that already had gender and racial hierarchies. Europe had a racial hierarchy long before Columbus got lost in the Caribbean. Jews, Slavs, Celts and the Roma were already racialized and marginalized groups within pre-Columbian Europe. Jews were routinely prevented from certain occupations and their land was routinely seized for political and financial profit. The word slave even comes from the Slavs, because they made up the overwhelming majority of slaves in antiquity (ancient Greece and Rome).
Similarly, after the Black Plague scoured Europe, the population shrank dramatically. Suddenly there were more jobs and land then there were people to work it. Medieval peasants started to demand more from local lords in exchange for their labor. Many scoffed at working all together, considering there was enough land for them to live off of pretty easily.
It was during this time, as Silvia Federici documents in her book Caliban and the Witch, that European states and the Catholic Church became obsessed with population control and the control of social reproduction. Social reproduction is how the means of social production reproduces themselves.
It's a more expansive term to include the fact that raising children (i.e. future workers) is an essential part of social production; as is the reproduction of livestock, forests and other renewable resources.
So when we say church and state become obsessed with social reproduction we mean they needed more workers and they needed women to stop leading peasant rebellions.
The witch hunts were actually lucrative ways to seize money from independent and often enterprising women. Denounce an independent wise woman and you might be able to seize her land and gold. Many kingdoms also decreed laws that prevented women from owning property in their own names. This had the effect of reinforcing a nuclear family model of social reproduction that would become essential to industrial society as we would come to know it.
In the same way, the Spanish Inquisitions allowed cash strapped leaders to seize money from the Muslim and Jewish financiers (who were encouraged to become bankers after they were racially excluded from most other industries). Many of those denounced as Muslim and Jews had converted to Christianity illustrating that it was much racial as religious discrimation. Meaning, it wasn’t what you believed or how you practiced, but your quasi-biological ancestry that mattered.
Lastly, kings and local nobles created the enclosures and forced peasants to sell their labor by fencing in land to prevent them from hunting or cutting down trees to build their homes. No longer having access to raw materials from which to build life, people were forced to enter the market to meet their needs. This eventually led to our current modern understanding that if something is private, it is essentially for profit.
In these witch hunts, enclosures and Inquisitions, we can see the role the state played in setting the rules of the market. They didn’t emerge organically based on supply and demand, but were arbitrarily based on political desire and a culture of scapegoating. The state worked with elites in the church and the nobility to shape society and implement the conditions for capital relationships and a market society to emerge.
As Federici and Robinson illustrate, by the time Columbus got lost, European societies were already developing raced and gendered modes of production that people indigenous to the Americas, Asia and Africa would later be incorporated into. The goods and labor that were stolen through imperial conquests provided the raw materials for domestic markets within European countries to develop.
Regardless of what could have theoretically have happened, capitalism used slavery, genocide and gendered violence to resource its growth. It also used class, white supremacy and patriarchal myths to naturalize and justify this theft. This legacy, which we call genrecraft, is still seen in our production and is organized in our modern society.
We still expect women to do much of the care work (nurses, teachers, domestic workers), particularly women of color. Most manual labor is done by men of color and Slavic or Celtic men who only recently became white. Most raw materials come from formerly colonized countries and goes to the countries that colonized them.
This is the terrain and the social needs that developed our system of work and in turn the conditions that our system of work perpetuates. We work, because our ability to reproduce our lives on our own terms has been systemically stolen from us and made illegal.
We work because we live in a system where not working means being considered “unproductive,” and therefore a burden or drain on society not worthy of food, shelter, safety or dignity.
This work regime is not the only way that work could be organized. More importantly, work regimes aren’t the only way that labor can be organized.
I hope its clear now what I mean when I say fuck work and the capital it rode in on. At the WildSeed Society, we don’t want our labor organized as a form of structural violence with a veneer of shame filled mythology to make us feel it is something we choose because we are responsible - rather than something we are forced into.
Unfortunately, I know this one article isn’t enough to get most of you on Team Abolish Work. So we are going to spend some time connecting the problems of work to all the other crises we are facing in society.
In our next essay, we are going to focus on how –under the system of capitalism as the unification of the logic of capital and a market society–work really typifies the three crises.
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