What is ‘Work Abolition’?

Is it crazily idealistic? Kinda. Is it cool to ponder? You tell me.

In one of his most well-known works, The Abolition of Work, American author Bob Black outlines why he believes strongly in the eventual abolition of all work. In this article, I hope to provide a brief summary of his essential points and hopefully encourage some discourse in the comments.

Black defines work as any sort of forced or coerced labor, and jobs as simply the brutal mode of coercing that labor (which becomes work) out of their possessors. It is crucial to preliminarily understand that Black does not use “work” and “labor” interchangeably because Black isn’t advocating for getting rid of labor, that wouldn’t be possible as we, as humans, survive on the basis of labor to create the means by which we survive. If work were to be abolished like Black hopes for in this essay, we would still do things, as we would be obligated to by necessity. The difference is that much of what we currently refer to as work would be replaced with ‘play’.

Here is how Black defines ‘play’:

“…Such is work. Play is just the opposite. Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it is forced. This is axiomatic. Bernie de Koven has defined play as “suspension of consequences”. This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is).”

Black doesn’t just say that we should only ever complete tasks that we can turn into or deem as ‘play’, however. Mountains of things would never get done in Black’s ideal society if that were the case. He proposes a number of replacements and changes that would allow us to not have to worry about completing tasks that are work, plain and simple, and cannot be converted into more enjoyable labor or ‘play’, and they are as follows:

  1. Tailor someone’s designated tasks and responsibilities to their interests and passions. Do not allow needing to survive to be something that obligates someone to do a “job” they do not find ‘playful’ or meaningful. A dumbed-down example of this comes in the form of a quote: “small children who notoriously relish wallowing in filth could be organized in ‘Little Hordes’ to clean toilets and empty the garbage with medals awarded to the outstanding”. Seems like a somewhat unattainable standard to reach in reality, but perhaps it could work in some aspects?
  2. This theme of having a choice of accommodations surrounding your responsibilities is a common one. Black also states that in a world without work, if people prefer to do their “jobs” in shorter spurts, as opposed to 8-hour shifts that drain and exhaust people of all passion for their task, then allow them to design their own schedule for their labor, as long as some quota is acknowledged.
  3. Replace many jobs with automation and cybernization to minimize the number of responsibilities needed to be fulfilled by humans and maximize the amount of time people can spend NOT engaging in required labor.

With these changes, according to Black, ‘work’ would wither away with ‘play’ (his definition of it) to replace all laboring in society. This is because as play is necessarily voluntary, it is the very antithesis of work, and these changes would make people willing to labor voluntarily.

Black wants to create a “new way of life based on play; in other words, a lucid conviviality, and maybe even art. … interdependent exuberance.”

He even criticized Karl Marx on more than one occasion, for he disagreed with even communists, who, in his belief, still believed in the necessity of a cultural institution of work.

“Work is the source of nearly all misery in the world”, he says, listing sexual harassment, discrimination, and dissociation from humanity as chief evils. He also makes the point that any leisure we are afforded in a working, capitalist, world is spent recovering from work, getting ready for work, commuting to work — enslaved to work.

However, per the aforementioned, he isn’t advocating for complete idleness and believes we need to do activities and fulfill responsibilities. Just, those things should only be what is necessary, and what is designed to maximize joy, fulfillment, and ‘play’.

SOMETHING I WANT TO MAKE CLEAR: I did not write this article because I am espousing Black’s point of view nor am I trying to heavily critique it… truth be told, I am not a subscriber to this anti-work ideology in full. So please do not assume that because I wrote about an interesting philosophical essay I read I am trying to claim that every bit of it is the truth or even any of it.

Thank you and hope you enjoyed this article! If you want to read the original piece by Bob Black here’s a link to a PDF:

The Abolition of Work by Bob Black