Our Plan To Abolish Work and Exit Capitalism Part 2: Work and The Three CrisesJun 14, 2022
by Aaron Goggans
In the first essay of this series, I invited readers to consider the truism that work sucks. I then tried to explain as succinctly, but thoroughly as possible how work sucks in part, because it has been reorganized under capitalism. This required an explanation of capitalism that hopefully made it more clear than simply “a word for how we do things now.”
To recap, when we say capitalism, we mean a series of historic modes of social production based on the logic of capital and the market society. That means capitalism is a way that societies organize the making and distribution of resources characterized by dominance of capital (where people who own the means of making things get to tell workers what to do) and the market society (where social relationships are embedded in economic markets instead of the other way around.).
In this essay, I want to explain how the problem of work is not only symbolic of the larger problems with our society, but a key mechanism in how the contradiction that fuels these crises perpetuates itself.
As Sandra Kim and I stated in our article on the three crises, we agree with James and Grace Lee Boggs that fundamental contradiction within the United States is between its material over-development and its social, cultural and spiritual underdevelopment. In other words, we have spent our genius mastering how to control workers to make things that no one really needs and not spent much time thinking about how we might relate to each other differently and create a work where everyone can get their needs met with dignity.
In fact, every conversation we try to have about building such a world is interrupted with claims that even thinking about doing so would make us less productive and that without growth, civilization itself would crumble. This rhetoric has gotten so bad that conservatives can sell anti-union legislation to exploited communities as a “right to work” - rather than a right to income or better yet a right to get our needs met with dignity and joy.
In order to understand why this is and why it’s a problem, we need to better understand the relationships between work and three crises.
Work and the Crisis of Belonging
If you work in a typical job, it is likely that your work is not a place where you find a whole lot of belonging. Even if you love your co-workers, your manager's talk of “we are all one big family” probably falls a bit flat when constantly cheated out of overtime or stiffed on paid time off. In most jobs human resources is less about helping workers and more about stewarding the bottom line for shareholders.
Our workplaces tend to contain all of the poisonous social hierarchies present in our society at large. Managers are more likely to be white and male. BIPOC workers generally have to put up with tons of microaggressions, so many that many of us dread the idea of going back to office.
[For those who are unaware, a micro aggression is an act of disrespect, an instance of interpersonal violence, a moment of ignorance that becomes weaponized or any other action that perpetuates oppression on the interpersonal level. Micro here does not mean minor, but rather interpersonal as opposed to systemic. Lynching is a micro aggression, red-lining is a macro aggression.]
These microaggressions are the day to day sustainers of systemic oppression. They are the maintenance work of the overall structural violence of a society. They remind oppressed people of their place and deep the rituals of dominance and deference as second nature to us all. They also feed into the dominant groups' invisible sense of the naturalization of their dominance.
Black workers, for instance, are often tied in a double bind while working with otherwise well meaning coworkers who talk about the strategies that poor Black people use to survive as “ghetto” or refer to their neighborhoods as “the bad part of town.”
In such situations we can:
a.) push back and risk being seen as the angry Black person,
b.) ignore it and allow their dignity to be slowly chipped away or
c.) learn to explain why it's a problem in ways that don’t offend our white co-workers thereby reifying that our dignity is less important than our co-workers comfort.
Every choice comes with a social cost to our energy, dignity or vital resources. While the cost may be relatively small in any one instance, it adds up day after day. Each cost drains our ability to face let alone overcome the macro-aggressions that often shape our life outcomes. You don’t have energy to protest if you’ve spent the week doing emotional labor for your white co-workers.
For many female workers, especially in the service industry, workplaces are also sites of tremendous physical and sexual violence. When canvassing women in the restaurant industry for instance, its common for female workers to add sexual assault and persistent sexual harassment to their list of problems on the job. Added on to this are all the “essential workers'' who were assaulted verbally and physically by customers over the past two years of the pandemic.
Yet when we think of workplace violence, we rarely think of the sexual assault of workers, the economic violence of workers who are underpaid, or the structural violence of workers forced to work doubles in order to make the rent. Rather when we hear phrases like workplace violence, we think of disgruntled workers. The spectacle of the rampage killer obscures the day to day violence that we all experience or witness everyday and gaslights us into think we or our co-workers are the threat and the owners of capital.
Despite this–or perhaps because of this–we are sold a bill of lies that as long as we are “professional” and work hard, we will be able to advance in our careers. Yet even turning aside the fact that “professionalism” is often just code work for white, male and status quo affirming, we know that economic mobility is at an all-time low. No amount of toeing the line will advance the economic conditions of most workers. There aren’t nearly enough promotions to even begin to offset the rampant corporate price gouging that is driving inflation.
Yet whenever we think about bucking the control of our managers and bosses, we are reminded just how close we are to being out on the street and housing insecure. We have enough houses to give everyone a place to live, but homelessness is too effective a mechanism for labor discipline to ever be solved.
It's important to note that while work is often worse for marginalized people it's not really good for any group, even our white male middle class middle managers. Contemporary white male conservatives often complain about being under appreciated and disrespected. They are not wrong about that reality, but they often misunderstand its cause. The privilege to not have to worry about respecting the dignity of others or having a system that covers up for many of your mistakes is a poor substitute for care, mutual recognition and unconditional love. Privilege is an even poorer substitute for purpose.
How The Regime of Work Perpetuates The Crisis of Belonging
As Rev. angel kyodo williams, Jasmine Sydedullah, PHD and Lama Rod Owens’ book Introduction to Radical Dharma reminds us, housing insecurity and employment is one of the major ways that white people and middle class people of all races are policed.
“The mandate is to control Black bodies.
The need is to have the constant specter of the other.
When the other exists, it strengthens your need to belong.
Your belonging is necessary for compliance.
Your compliance maintains the system.
You are policed too.
You are policed by your need to for belonging,
Your need for belonging requires control of the other.
….Or at least the illusion of it.
You are policed through the control of my body.
You are policed too.” Radical Dharma
We all want to stay between the lines because we all know the violence that we might face if we stand outside social sanction. Some of us even want to believe that people are poor because they are lazy–despite all evidence to the contrary–because it strengthens our sense of control over our own destiny. We have what we have because we worked hard, not because we are lucky or benefit from compounded privilege, as if a single mother working three jobs and still in poverty is not working hard.
The fact is, almost everyone is working hard, especially those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. Hard work is necessary in this economy but it is not sufficient. If we are too loud in questioning this, like if we go to protest, we are immediately considered “unproductive” and told to “get a job.”
When the police attack workers or protestors it is often justified in public discourse as they wanted a handout or were lazy despite the fact that they had to get off their couch in order to protest. It's no wonder then that so many of us believe that we have to prove our worth as human beings by being productive.
Many of us feel guilty about taking a vacation or spending the money we earned on something nice for ourselves. There is always more that we could do, we tell ourselves, one more task to be worthy. We must be productive in order to belong to the society that capital built.
The structure of compulsory work puts us under the thumb of another person for at least 8 hours a day with the threat of the violence of shame, homelessness and destitution compelling us to stomach micro-aggression after micro-aggression. In this view, ideas of “professionalism” often mean little more than acting as if you're not being forced to smile and work against your will.
To be professional under such structural violence often practically boils down to participating in a farce than the world is not on fire and that you are not only doing this to avoid becoming destitute.
So we are all encouraged to wear a professional mask in which our personal feelings, desires, needs and wants are not about the conversation. They must be hidden from view. With work we spend so much of our day pretending not to be human beings that we don’t have the emotional energy or spiritual resources to be human with each other after work. The mask stays on because we don’t have the energy to take it on and off at will.
Work and the Crisis of Social Reproduction
In some ways, that little voice in your head telling you to do more is the final victory of capital’s owners. While we are coercing ourselves to do more and more, we are never compensated for all the labor we do at work. The logic of capital ensures that those who own the means of production can extract extra work from people who have no choice.
The logic of capital says that in order for so-called-civilization to exist—for us to be more than mere subsistence farmers or hunter gatherers--someone must coordinate people working after they have made enough for themselves and then to decide what to do with the extra.
As an example, let us say you work at McDonald's and make 15 meals an hour at $2 of profit each meal. Profit here means the difference between the amount of money it costs for all the ingredients of the goods used in a meal, the labor and equipment to cook it and the upkeep the building and business itself (including the salary of managers and other staff) [cost] and the amount paid by the customer for the meal [price].
Imagine that you need to make $150 a day to live well. You would make a living wage worth of profit after 5 hours. If you are forced to work an 8 hour work day, those extra three hours are your surplus labor that are controlled by your manager and not you. This is assuming you are getting paid a living wage which most workers are not. That forced, uncompensated extra three hours is theft. It robs you of your time and your energy.
It also gives owning and managing classes (the group of people who profit from that theft) more resources to control the other institutions of society (like media and the state). That allows them to further rig the system. For instance, most people are unaware that the most common and financially impactful form of theft is actually wage theft.
More money is stolen by employers refusing to pay workers what they are owed than all robberies and burglaries combined. Yet, if an employee steals a hundred dollars worth of merchandise from their workplace they might get jail time but if an employer steals thousands of dollars from an employee the worst they will get is a fine and a strongly worded letter.
This doesn’t even touch the crisis of social reproduction hidden in our conception of work as part of a triad–“8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours for what you will”--as the old union saying goes. Traditionally, leisure time (that 8 hours for what you will) was only available to well-off men because women, children and enslaved people did all the care work necessary for society to function.
The capital economy needs mothers to raise the children for free. No business, no matter how “profitable” it is under capitalism could turn a profit if it had to pay back mothers for all their work giving birth or parents for raising children. I mean, how much would Apple have to pay you to train your daughter in humaning for 18 years to eventually be its VP of marketing?
In this way, we can see how our work paradigm is inherently patriarchal. “Productive work” is only possible because of the invisible care work of cooking, cleaning, emotional support and child rearing that is overwhelmingly done by women and femmes around the world. This care work is uncompensated and considered “unproductive” or not “real work.”
This mirrors the land stolen under colonization and labor and life stolen in slavery that is the real basis for much of “America’s” wealth. Our system of work, in which we all work hard to produce society and get compensated by a fair wage, can only seem true and fair if you squint and forget about all this erased, invisible or naturalized labor.
Similarly, capitalism could not exist if it had to take into account all the things that our non-human friends do to make human life possible. No multi-national company could turn a profit if it had to account for the negative effects it has on the gifts of nature. Thus the logic of exchange only works if you keep these sort of inconvenient truths outside the math.
How the Regime of Work Perpetuates the Crisis of Social [Re]Production
In our modern, so called rational market society women are forced to do double and triple labor while still being paid less on average than men. This patriarchal split between “productive labor” and reproductive work is at the heart of the crisis of social reproduction. We work so hard making profit for shareholders that we hardly have time for individual care let alone community care.
It should not be a surprise that hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S have left the workforce under these conditions. Some to raise children, some to retire early and some to enter an informal economy to survive. It should likewise not be a surprise that workers are walking off the job, ghosting employers after interviews or simply not applying for jobs at all. It is a measure of how much our “experts” have believed their propaganda that this seems mysterious at all.
The reality is that all workers are thrice exploited. First, we are forced to work at all instead of being allowed to volunteer our labor towards projects that we design and that benefit us. On top of that, we are forced to work longer than an equal and fair exchange of goods for labor would require. Third, the excess labor stolen from us is used to solidify the social control of those who compel our labor through laws, the police and constant propaganda that we ourselves come to believe.
On top of this, genrecraft means that women, people of color, immigrants and people living with disabilities are forced into more and more precarious labor, with fewer benefits and protections. They often work in the most profitable sectors of the economy like textiles, resource extraction or essential care work like nursing or teaching while educated, socially connected, able-bodied men are over-represented as managers or in what David Graeber usefully calls “bullshit jobs” that pay well but contribute little to society.
In reality, most workers who quit their jobs during the pandemic did so in order to get a better one. It's less that they don’t want to work and more that they want better work. Yet, I believe very strongly that the promise of “better work” will eventually be seen to be an empty one. Work will always be exploitation, no matter how well we are paid for it.
We know that no amount of leaning in can overcome the fact that workers are merely cogs in the wheel designed to churn out shareholder profit. Our entire culture around work screams of unacknowledged history. Capitalism propaganda makes it seem like a rising tide has lifted all boats when in reality rising oceans from capitalist production threaten global civilization.
Work and the Crisis of Unacknowledged History
We are told that all of history was marching towards capitalism, waiting for the ingenuity of the human spirit to be unleashed by the market. We are told that we are lucky to have jobs where machines do all the work because our ancestors only did back-breaking labor in order to have goods to barter for poorly made goods.
This of course ignores the fact that our economy still relies on back-breaking labor in cobalt mines, or hand breaking labor in text-tile sweatshops. Most of us in fact have occupational pains like carpal tunnel syndrome from our jobs. Modern work life is damaging our bodies in ways that we are told to ignore because agricultural manual labor (a type of job that still exists BTW) was somehow so much worse.
It also overlooks the actual history of violence that birthed capitalism. The change from feudal society to capitalism was incredibly violent. Feudalism didn’t break down because people discovered capitalism but because the Black plague had so devastated the population that medieval workers found themselves with more leverage than ever before. There was simply more land and jobs than there were people to fill them. Why work for someone else when you could live fat on the land?
Seeing this situation as untenable, nobles began to build fences around the land to keep the peasants out. These enclosures led to peasant rebellions which were often led by women. One of the major reasons that rebellions would be led by women is because women did most housework in common. The mothers and elder daughters would cook and clean together and gossip while they worked.
This gossip wasn’t idle chatter however, it was a relational information network that surfaced problems within the community. It also allowed communities to collect what was collectively happening, a crucial component to any organizing. These women were well placed to galvanize communities as they would have been to first to turn a series of family misfortunes into a narrative of a social injustice and been in the best position to communicate to every household a plan to respond.
Yet all of this history has been erased. We are taught that witch hunts and inquisitions show how bad things were before capitalism and modernity rescued us from ourselves. Unfortunately, capitalism and modernity were fueled and funded by this violent disenfranchisement. Yet by presenting itself as a genuine progressive solution, capitalism justifies itself while positioning itself as the only reasonable way to do things.
Work can only be seen as reasonable if there is no alternative to it.
Yet we saw with our own eyes how given money to people with no strings attached supported millions of people getting out of poverty. It is certainly possible to continue with a basic income like program that perhaps wasn’t enough money for people to do nothing, but enough money for them to do anything. Without the threat of destitution hanging over their heads, people could no longer be forced to toil in bullshit jobs.
This would hardly require the state socialism that conservatives are so worried about. Instead it would institute a truly free market for labor. Workers would actually be able to experience the mythic market that fundamentalist pretend already exists, that of people voluntarily entering into agreements with each other out of their own interests. The right’s opposition to basic income shows that they are more invested in ideas of punishment and control than they are ideas of freedom and personal responsibility.
How Work Perpetuates The Crisis of Unacknowledged History.
As we talked about in the section on the crisis of social production, all workers are thrice exploited and each exploitation takes its toll on our emotional, physical and mental capacity. We have been drained of the energy needed to think of alternatives as more and more our lives are governed by corporate bureaucracies of one kind or another. Some of us are distracted from this reality by the allure of constant consumption that is constantly messaged at us.
Either way, whether through distraction or overwhelm we have little energy to push back. Nowhere is this more evident than in the plight of working parents.
We have gotten to the point that working parents are so overwhelmed that they don’t have the ability to protest the lack of planning by local school systems across the country. Throughout this pandemic, local school districts had no plans to keep kids safe, let alone make remote learning feasible. There likely isn’t a single parent with children in public school who thinks their school district is handling the pandemic well.
Instead of a national movement to reinvest in public education or to make public schools safe places for kids to be, unscrupulous venture capitalists are funding movements against “CRT” and “unfairness in girls sports.” The hope is that parent frustration can be used to make public schools so bad that parents scream for vouchers allowing for “market solutions” to childhood education.
Once corporations control education we can bet that more and more history will be removed from the textbooks. The textbooks in Texas that pretend enslaved people were happy presage a corporatist future in which corporations feed children propaganda that makes them docile, overworked and consummate unconscious consumers of drivel.
There is already a lot of evidence that our refusal to let kids play and replacing recess with more STEM time not only affects their physical development and emotional health but weakens their executive functioning. Children are being conditioned to follow arbitrary authority unquestionably and to funnel their frustration and anxiety into jumping through standardized bureaucratic hoops.
The same people who steal from workers at work raise prices to profit from uncertainty and fund movements to privatize education knowing that the vast majority of working parents will be too overwhelmed to mobilize to stop them.
Despite all these intentional investments in social dysfunction and despite all evidence to the contrary so many Americans believe not only that the U.S is the greatest country in the world but the greatest, most free civilization in the history of humanity. Despite rolling black outs, almost unimaginable inequality and the largest carceral state in history Americans think of their country as the culmination of western history. This is in no small part due to the fact that most of us are too busy working to learn anything different.
Work Is the Chain That Binds Us To Crisis
So let’s review the argument so far:
Work is labor we are forced to do by society institutions so that we can be seen as worthy and have a chance at getting our needs met in society.
Our current regime of work was reorganized under capitalism which is an historic mode of social production based on the combination of the logic of capital and the emergence of a market society.
This means that all workers are thrice exploited:
- Forced to work instead of being allowed to volunteer their time as they choose
- Forced to work more hours than would be needed under a system of fair exchange
- Forced to live in a world in which the profits that have been extracted from them are re-invested in systems that control them.
Capitalism and the systems of work that perpetuates it are based on the history of genocides, enslavement, theft and enclosures that allowed Europe to turn itself from a backwards part of the world into a the head a several global empires.
Genres of human (race, class, gender etc) which predated capitalism yet also became more concrete during this process of capitalist development are used to add additional layers of exploitation and domination upon colonized people and their descendants.
These genres of human support and are reproduced by our work regime as many occupations and some whole industries are raced, classed and gendered.
Our fixation on work and desire to be seen as productive leaves us too tired and scared to do anything about the overall state of our lives.
So again, fuck work and the capital it rode in.
The only logical strategy moving forward is to create an alternative to work that will allow us to divest from it all together. Yet to really begin to do that, we have to take a closer look at the discipline and control logic that underlies the world of work. If we abolish work without first replacing the centuries of cultural assumptions and institutions that cultivate a need for control in us then we open ourselves up to a fascist backlash riding a wave of anxiety and fear that people understandably have when they feel they are losing control.
So our next article is going to be on Infinite vs Finite Games. Hopefully those of you who followed along our community discernment process have a bit of an idea about what an infinite game is and why WildSeed Scoiety is so into the concept. We hope to break down the idea in our next article.
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