Before coming across The Abolition of Work, and other essays I’d never even heard of Bob Black, but by the time I’d finished (in fact by the time I was even half way through my first reading of the title essay), I could definitely count myself a fan.
The Abolition of Work started life as a speech, and even though it was changed and expanded before appearing in print, it still has s strongly oratorical feel about it. That means it’s designed first and foremost to impress and convince the first-time listener or reader, sometimes sacrificing points of detail, scientific evidence and background information to “the majestic breadth and sweep of [the] argument”. This can give the impression that Black perhaps isn’t aware of, or isn’t interested in, the obvious objections to his ideas, and that he’s just sketching a vague and superficial picture of some sort of utopia without bothering too much about whether his ideas could ever be put into practice. It’s obvious from the start that Black is an intelligent guy and a good writer (or speaker), with a good sense of humour – even if he’s slightly too addicted to word-plays and to phrases such as ” If you’re not revolting against work, you’re working against revolt” and “In place of ‘majority rule’ we see an increasingly unruly majority”! It’s also clear that what he writes can be interesting, entertaining and even inspiring, but is there more to him than that? In other words, does he really know what he’s talking about? And does he deserve to be taken seriously ? Reading more of his essays, many of them more or less directly related to his ideas on work, was enough to convince me that he’s done his homework: he’s read widely, studied deeply and thought long and hard about everything he writes in this essay, and yes, he definitely does deserve to be taken seriously!
The title The Abolition of Work was very well chosen, not only to grab the attention, but to provoke disbelief, anger and ridicule (probably in roughly equal proportions) in a large part of the population. The ‘common sense’ view of things says that work is necessary for our survival, and that to abolish it would amount to a sort of collective suicide – in the economic if not the literal sense. As soon as Black starts defining his terms, however, it becomes obvious that to a great extent, what he’s criticising here is not so much work or creative activity in itself, but employment as it exists in modern society: the product of specialisation and the division of labour, with the alienation, boredom, stress and general misery to which this inevitably leads, plus the fact that most work is enforced, and is motivated by something exterior to itself:
We can see that what he’s mainly objecting to is the way in which the specialisation and division of labour inherent in most modern production (including that between the owner who takes the profit and the people actually doing the work), have almost entirely destroyed the interest, the challenge, the joy of exercising a skill, the feeling of achievement at a job well done, and all the other things which can make work, in the pure sense of the word, an enjoyable part of life. Even activities which could be enjoyable in themselves become monotonous chores when placed in the context of a ‘job’. In a more ‘primitive’, i.e. less organised and industrialised world, things are/were different:
Black quotes people as unlikely as Karl Marx and Adam Smith in support of his negative view of work:
Having demonstrated how bad things are at the moment, Black says how he wants to improve them. Basically he suggests two lines of approach. First of all he wants to drastically reduce the amount of work people do; after all, most of it isn’t very useful anyway:
The remaining useful activity can then be redistributed and reorganised on a much more voluntary basis, one which puts at least as much emphasis on how enjoyable something is to do, and on the happiness and quality of life of the person doing it, as on the product of the activity:
Black tries to look at what’s really happening when people work, beyond any explanations and justifications found at the virtual capitalist/economic surface layer. If what he wants to do is out of the question, impossible even, in the existing capitalist economic system, then that only shows how bad that system is. Responding (in the essay ‘Smokestack Lightning’) to criticism of this essay by David Ramsey Steele he says:
While it can’t be the denied that Black is more of an idealist than a realist, the general impression of utopianism and vague impracticality with which many readers of this essay will undoubtedly be left, is amply counteracted by some of his other writing on the subject.
In his essay The Abolition of Breathing, published in Liberty, March 1989 (page 51), David Ramsey Steele, a Marxist turned Libertarian, offers a lengthy and harsh criticism of The Abolition of Work from the standpoint of someone who believes strongly in the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism, and in Smokestack Lightning Bob Black provides a fitting reply. David Ramsey Steele not only expresses the average person’s ‘common sense’ view that work is necessary for our survival, but seems to be deliberately misunderstanding Black by implying (as the title of his essay suggests) that he wants to abolish all useful human activity. He describes Black’s project as “stamping out social co-operation and technology”, which “would mean the elimination of more than 95% of the world’s population, and the reduction of the remnant to a condition lower than the Stone Age.”. While reading The Abolition of Breathing I often found myself wondering whether it was a case of deliberate misunderstanding or genuine stupidity, but in the end I came to the conclusion that it was neither: Steele simply has a vision of life and society which is diametrically opposed to that of Black. In other words he lives in a totally different world and probably wouldn’t be capable of understanding what Black is trying to say, even if he wanted to and tried his hardest. Steele seems to live in a world where workers are totally free to choose what work they do and under what conditions, regarding the money they earn as a sort of free bonus, an unimportant detail which can easily be ignored:
I can’t imagine the author of these words being anything other than someone who’s had a very easy life indeed, probably with rich parents and a good education, who’s always been free to wander from one well-paid ‘position’ to another, and who not only has never been poor himself but has never even known anyone who was poor. Such a person can’t even imagine that millions, if not billions of people do work they find unpleasant, dirty, dangerous, degrading and badly paid, and that they do it for far too many hours per week, for the simple reason that their only alternative choices would be to beg, to rob or to starve on the streets. Anyone who believes in the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism basically believes not only in the survival of the fittest, but in the promotion of an environment in which the richer and more powerful you become, the easier it gets for you to become even richer and even more powerful (and vice versa). Hardly surprising, then, that it’s mainly the rich and powerful who are the most enthusiastic supporters of such a philosophy! Also hardly surprising that those people see nothing in Black’s ideas – in fact they see something much worse than nothing, they see dangerous ideas which might upset the status quo if enough people were to take them seriously. Black’s reply in Smokestack Lightning is well worth reading. He deals head-on with Steele’s criticism, leaving no doubt, in my mind at least, about which of the two writers is the more intelligent, the better informed and educated and the more honest about his motives, nor about whose ideas most deserve to be taken seriously.
Several other essays in the collection offer excellent supportive evidence for Black’s ideas on work, and show how well he’s done his homework. Primitive Affluence, for instance, looks in some depth at Marshall Sahlins’ essay “The Original Affluent Society”, which argues that ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers had (and still have) relatively more leisure time and in many ways easier and more satisfying lives than those living in agricultural and industrialised societies, while Book Filled with Lies shows how deeply he’s gone into the anthropology behind these ideas. Also directly related to the subject is What Is Wrong With This Picture?, Black’s criticism of Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 book The End of Work.
So, is there nothing negative to be said about Black’s ideas on work? And how do his ideas compare to my own? Being first and foremost a piece of inspired speech-making, ‘The Abolition of Work’ isn’t meant to be a practical blueprint of how the world should be (re)organised and shouldn’t be taken as such, but rather as a good prod in the right direction. Such a document cannot offer a complete analysis of the capitalist, or rather the industrialist, ‘organisationalist’, work-orientated system and what’s wrong with it, and it’s no criticism to say that it doesn’t. However, I’d still like to have seen more emphasis put on certain aspects of the problem which I, personally, regard as essential. Motivation, for instance, i.e. the reason anyone does anything, is an important aspect of the creative process which is completely corrupted and distorted by ‘the system’. In a ‘primitive’ situation someone makes a table because it’s useful for eating off, grows wheat because people need to eat, or builds a house because it offers protection from the environment, whereas in a modern capitalist system they do all these things for an entirely different reason, i.e. to make money. But it’s not just about capitalism: in a communist system they wouldn’t be doing these things to make money, but probably because someone, somewhere, higher up in the system had decided that this month’s quota for tables, wheat or houses has to be so much, or perhaps to avoid being seen as an unproductive parasite on society, with whatever practical disadvantages that might entail. The relevant point is that the work is being done for an ulterior motive, and that the natural, logical motivation for the work becomes a sort of accidental by-product. Rather than doing A because of the natural, logical reason B, you do it for the totally unrelated reason C. You make a table not because you need a table, or even because anyone else needs a table, but because you need to eat or put petrol in your car, or because you want to buy a new computer, and it’s up to the system to provide the connection between motivation C and action A. And this question of motivation is very relevant to the outcome of the whole exercise. After all, if you can make more money – or fill this month’s quota more easily – by making flimsy tables rather than solid ones, or by building houses which will need to be demolished in fifty years rather than ones which will house many generations, then that’s what will happen. When Black says that “work is never done for its own sake, it’s done on account of some product or output that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it”, he seems just to be talking about what counts as ‘work’ and what as ‘play’, and comparing ‘play’, which is done simply because the activity is in itself enjoyable, with ‘work’, which is done only because of its end product. I would prefer to use these same words to refer to doing something out of a ‘pure’ motivation, e.g. making a table because it’s useful for eating off, rather than because someone is paying you to do it or because that’s your job. I’ve always found it interesting that when people talk about certain activities – art, music, sex, even teaching – they all agree that they should be done for their own sake, i.e. from a ‘pure’ motivation, and anyone who’s ‘only in it for the money’ is very much looked down upon. It’s a great pity that people don’t apply the same philosophy to sweeping the street or programming computers!
I would also like to have read more about the very much related question of how specialisation and division of labour negatively influence creative activity. Before someone decides that it’s a good idea to make a table, build a house or grow some wheat and sets about doing so, he will have taken all kinds of factors into consideration, and have balanced the necessity or advantage of the end product with the quantity and quality of the work needed to produce it, i.e., the effort and discomfort involved in some parts of the process, and the fun and satisfaction to be gained from others. All this will be related to external factors such as the weather: if it’s raining then you don’t go out and plant wheat, but continue with that table you started last week. In other words, when one and the same person decides that a job ought to be done, plans the work, carries it out and enjoys the end results, then he will arrange things in such a way as to make his life as enjoyable as possible in the long term, but once the process has been divided into separate tasks, the connection between work and an enjoyable life is broken. The person who decides that a certain job ought to be done may well be the person who, directly or indirectly, enjoys the end product, but he probably won’t plan the process (that’s a job for an expert) and he certainly won’t carry out the work, and as a result the question of whether the work is enjoyable or unpleasant becomes almost entirely irrelevant. The planner will try to arrange for the greatest possible production, at the highest possible quality, in the shortest possible time and at the least possible cost, and will only take the quality of life of the workers into consideration, if at all, to the extent that if the work becomes too exhausting or dangerous it may become difficult to find workers willing to do it – but then there are politicians and economists to arrange for an ample supply of willing hands. It can’t be denied that such an arrangement makes for greater efficiency, and that in the case of competition between different groups, a group which moulds itself into a single efficient machine through such division of labour will triumph over a happier but more primitively and less efficiently organised rival. If the peasants can be persuaded to work harder and produce more than they need, the surplus can be used to support a class of leaders and warriors…
I like very much like Black’s ideas and feel they deserve to be better known, but I still think he may be exaggerating just a little when he says that all human activity could become play. Most tasks have their less pleasant aspects, but they can be arranged to minimise these as much as possible, to share, as fairly as possible, the more satisfying and the less pleasant parts of a project among individuals, and to balance the work to be done against the benefits to be gained from it. In my opinion this will only become possible when specialisation and division of labour are regarded as a necessary evil and avoided as much as possible – and that includes the specialisation into owners and decision-makers on the one hand and workers on the other – which in turn will only happen in a world which is no longer driven primarily by competition. I would have to be a much bigger optimist than I am to expect or even to hope that such changes will come about in my lifetime, but the human race is in desperate need of people like Black to give it a kick up the backside and point it in the right direction – which happens to be just about the opposite direction to the one in which it’s been going for at least the last few centuries.
One final point of criticism is that, for my taste, Black has perhaps slightly too negative an attitude to education. He’s quite right when he says that schools are like factories, prisons and mental hospitals:
On the other hand education is necessary, not just to teach people how to work (its main function at the moment), but to teach them how to enjoy life, which for me comes down to just about the same thing as teaching them wisdom. Just as in most fields, the only people who can really teach well are those who enjoy teaching, and in my experience they’re few and far between, but those are the people the human race most desperately needs, perhaps more than anything else. I suspect that Black would agree wholeheartedly with all this, but what comes across in his essays is often a simple anti-authoritarian attitude of ‘burn down the schools’ – and that wouldn’t be such a good idea in the long term.
Black is certainly an idealist, but in The Libertarian as Conservative (1984, from Other Vices), he demonstrates political incisiveness, a realistic view of life and a profound understanding of how the world works. Here he has no time for libertarians and right-wing anarchists:
While I found The Abolition of Work and the directly related essays the most interesting, Black’s articles from Appeal To Treason are often well worthwhile. In Let us Prey!, for instance, we see that he has a very healthy attitude to religion, while The Political Theory of Ferlinghetti shows him to have been way ahead of his time: in 1984 he was already writing about “the left, long paralyzed with perplexity by a modern world beyond its old ideologies”. He has as little time for the ‘authoritarian left’, including the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, as he does for the capitalist right.
It’s amazing how little has changed since the 1980s. In Lying in State—and Elsewhere (1982, from Appeal To Treason), we see how the word ‘terrorism’ was misused as much then, and in exactly the same way, as it is now:
It is precisely these distinctions which the politicians and their academic and journalistic camp followers use the word to obscure. To them, all political violence, vandalism or even mere tumult is “terrorism” unless the terrorists wear uniforms. Governments therefore cannot engage in terrorism, no matter what they do, whereas anti-state violence is always terrorism even if it consists of attacks by one military force against another. […] When Shi’ites take American hostages they are terrorists. When Israelis take Shi’ite hostages it is — a violation of international law, perhaps, or cause for restrained criticism, but not by any means terrorism. […]
The corruption of language promotes the corruption of life. It is even its prerequisite. A first step toward peace and freedom — impossible now under class society and its business end, the state — is to call things by their true names. Thus the difference between the operatives of the military-industrial-political-journalistic complex and the small fry maligned by the media as “terrorists” is only the difference between wholesale and retail.
Wise words indeed!
Black is intelligent, incisive, rarely diplomatic, often sarcastic, and harder-hitting than Gian Paolo Borghetti at his best. His pen is sharp, and I certainly wouldn’t want to find myself on the wrong end of it! Particularly good (and often amusing) examples of his polemical style are to be found in:
– If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Stay in the Kitchen
– A Study in Floccinaucinihilipilification
– Technophilia, An Infantile Disorder
– Withered Anarchism (which includes an interesting section on ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedom; Black knows his philosophy).
A few words on some of his other essays:
– The War On Drugs As The Health Of The State : An intelligent essay on war in general and The War On Drugs in particular. Black has some very interesting things to say about the mechanisms involved in state institutions. War is good for ‘the economy’, i.e. for the capitalist system, but it’s also good for the state, making it richer and more powerful.
– Why Not Take a Holiday? : An interesting text on William Benbow and his ‘Grand National Holiday of the Working Classes’.
– FIJA: Monkeywrenching The Legal System : Some interesting comments on the jury system and how it could be improved. Black is a trained lawyer, and seems to know what he’s talking about.
– The Realization And Suppression Of Situationism : An intelligent essay on Situationism.
– In Apes of Wrath he talks about animal rights, and makes the connection to anarchy.
– Feminism As Fascism : An intelligent and hard-hitting essay on radical feminism.
– Beautiful Losers: A Historiography of the Industrial Workers of the World is a long scholarly article about the IWW (aka the Wobblies), and was a bit too much for me. One of the few essays I didn’t finish.
This collection of essays as a whole gives an interesting picture of the strange world of American anarchism. Strange, because what might be regarded as one ideology or philosophy includes schools of thought which are diametrically opposed to one another. People who define themselves as ‘anarchists’ are all vaguely opposed to ‘the state’, but in terms of politics and economics they range from the extreme left to the extreme right. If there’s a deep and long-running conflict between leftist Anarcho-Syndicalists who accept ‘work’, and more individualist, anti-work anarchists who don’t, then these groups at least have enough common ground to make some sort of a dialogue possible. I don’t think the same can really be said of the divide between these people on the one hand and libertarians and right-wing anarchists on the other (as Black makes pretty clear in The Libertarian as Conservative and Smokestack Lightning). The essay My Anarchism Problem offers an intelligent analysis of the phenomenon of anarchism and of its problems:
I think these extreme differences in viewpoint within the anarchist movement, in combination with his hard-hitting, undiplomatic and often sarcastic style, go a long way to explaining the fact that Black has got into some bitter, long-running and sometimes physically violent disputes with others who define themselves as anarchists, and has made some serious enemies in the course of his career. Unfortunately he’s found it necessary to expound on these disputes at great length, and the essays dealing with his conflicts with the magazine Processed World (who seemingly accused him of arson, had him beaten up and hounded him out of town), with the Church of the SubGenius (who sent him a letter bomb) and with Jim Hogshire (apparently a drug-addicted anarchist turned Islam fundamentalist who threw him out of his house at gunpoint), are among the least interesting in the collection.
But even these can still be entertaining at times, and they occasionally contain words of wisdom and statements which make you stop and think, for instance this one from the otherwise not so interesting My Date With Jim Hogshire (Version 2.1) :
And to finish, a few more examples of Bob Black’s words of wisdom:
|title||The Abolition of Work, and other essays|
|publisher / version read||HTML version downloaded from inspiracy.com|
|read||16/04/2014 – 07/06/2014|
|download / read online||inspiracy.com|