Rethinking Usefulness (Amid the Collapsing Fantasies of Capitalist Realism)
by Tedd Siegel
Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible realism turns out to be nothing of the sort.
— Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
The struggle for an equitable distribution of time and power to be useful to self and others outside employment…has been effectively paralyzed.
— Ivan Illich, The Right to Useful Unemployment
The Useless Philosopher-President of Ireland
In a speech to a group of students gathered for a reception at Áras an Uachtaráin earlier this year, the diminutive, soft-spoken, and hugely popular president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, made some startling remarks that generated some headlines around the world. The speech, which opened the ceremony for the Irish “Young Philosopher Awards,” had the hallmarks of a traditional convocation address. But its departures from this format were what made it notable. If the press reports are accurate, President Higgins flatly told the gathered young people that they were “not born just to be useful.”
Various articles reporting on the remarks differ as to the precise language used, and there appears to be no available video of the address. Luckily, Higgins gave a similar speech at the same event in 2017, and that version is available on YouTube in its entirety (almost 30 minutes long, which seems like rather a lot to ask of high schoolers). It is thus possible to piece together what President Higgins was intending.
President Higgins’ 2017 remarks are framed in the context of a critique of what he calls “the narrow utilitarian approach to education” understood primarily as preparing young people for the labor markets. Instead, access to education, he believes, should first and foremost be understood as training for citizenship, for being able to ask and answer difficult questions, to exercise historical judgment, and to address perennial questions like “what is justice?” for one’s own time.
Decrying a culture of inevitability regarding exclusive focus on individual performance, career advancement and the like, Higgins reminds those assembled that “freedom is not just freedom of the market” and that we need to raise citizens who “place humanity and solidarity at the heart of what they do” rather than settling for them to be “citizens seeking mere survival in a society-economy relationship that is poorly understood.”
When I try to absorb the significance of a contemporary leader, a head of state, actually saying these sorts of things, I must admit that I just seem to come up short. My first reaction was to imagine the faces of concerned parents near the back of the room, some perhaps choking on their pints of Guinness. But as Steve Heikkila very thoughtfully reminds me, this unbidden image relies upon a stereotype, and anyway, Ireland is not a Protestant country.
I have invoked Irish President Higgins just now because his intentional devaluing of usefulness, presumably in an effort to help us to awaken from the fantasies of capitalist realism, is at the heart of this present installment in our series on refusing work-as-we-know-it.
It’s important to note here that President Higgins appears to be in complete agreement with Jenny Odell (How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy) discussed at length in the previous article. In her introductory chapter entitled “Surviving Usefulness” Odell rejects the notion that we should simply accept living in a world where “our value is determined primarily by our productivity,” since life itself, she insists, is not a mere instrument, and so stands higher than any optimization imperative.
And like Higgins, Odell decries the narrowing horizon for “things deemed unproductive,” not just because they give meaning to people qua individual, but because capitalist productivity’s intolerance for these “nothings” robs us of the time and space necessary to carry on some version of a collective life. We are completely immersed in work, and when not at work, in the busy activity of consuming the goods and services we need in order to live. Sucked dry of our biopower, we have consented to a pattern of life that seriously endangers our species-level persistence as homo politicus.
In the sections below, which describe aspects of The Right to Useful Unemployment by Ivan Illich, in light of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, I again consider Jenny Odell’s basic strategy of valorizing “nothings” that cannot be used or appropriated, and to do so as a form of resistance, in order to make ourselves “into a shape that cannot be easily appropriated by a capitalist value system.” This time around, however, I try to draw out what was only implicit in the prior two articles, i.e., how it is that “refusing work-as-we-know-it” is intimately connected to overcoming the fantasies of capitalist realism.
Perhaps you are asking, but why Ivan Illich? I confess that previously I had scanned his work only briefly many years ago, and saw in him something rather typical of the 70s — a popularizing left humanist polemicist who railed against the excesses of consumer society, someone in the mold of Erich Fromm or Paul Goodman. Revisiting his work in light of the issues explored in this series, however, I have come to the conclusion that Ivan Illich is very much the progenitor and avatar of the current trend toward the refusal of “work-as-we-know-it.” His concerns encompass both the critique of capitalist ideology regarding work from my first part, as well as the aspect of cultural refusal found within the writers showcased in my second article.
Personal austerity. Seeking an escape back into some form of autonomous life. The politics of conviviality. Re-thinking usefulness. It’s all in there, folks.
How Our Pervasive Capitalist Realism Begins to Crack
Lately I’ve been exploring the possibility that it might actually make sense for all of us (collectively) to begin to refuse the conditions of “work-as-we-know-it.”
It’s a rather outrageous idea, I do realize. Especially since I’m not talking about petitions for better pay and improved working conditions on the part of the organized industrial labor force. I have in mind something much more expansive and fundamental, something that necessarily concerns all “wage laborers” including not just service industry and FIRE sector white-collar and pink-collar contributors, but also tech workers, middle managers, and even members of the professions.
What then are the conditions of work-as-we-know-it, which so extravagantly call forth such a non-traditional form of solidarity on the part of a heretofore non-existent collective subject?
They aren’t hard to come by. Think post-Fordist precarity; think financialization of everything; think the bullshitification of jobs; think neo-rentier debt peonage; think increasingly authoritarian employment contracts; think the erasure of the barrier between work and private life, and the enlistment of everyone’s life energy on behalf of the company; think exhaustion, stress and anxiety, depression and despair.
In the previous two articles, I have consistently made reference to the role of “capitalist realism” in promoting and sustaining this very unhappy trajectory. I contend that the pervasive ideology of capitalist realism stands between ourselves and the possibility of a truly different experience of work, one less totalizing, less intrusive, less precarious, less soul-sucking.
The reason for this has everything to do with the particular kind of society in which we now live. As both Mark Fisher and Peter Fleming have pointed out, following Gilles Deleuze, today we are increasingly living in what are called “control societies.”
Where the prior “disciplinary society,” (as described by Foucault) is generally characterized by enclosure (the family, the school, the factory, the prison) control societies exhibit a new and different type of domination. This kind of disciplinary regulation, Fisher writes, “does not seek to contain the subject of power. Instead, it utilizes its self-productive qualities.” How does this utilization manifest itself? To begin with, where the corporation (with its various incentives and inducements) replaces the factory, Fleming writes, “the disciplinary tropes of spatial confinement and docile bodies” become less important.
The factory, Deleuze said, constitutes individuals as discontinuous producers of energy within what, from the viewpoint of capital, is essentially an aggregate body; but corporations, by contrast, constantly motivate individuals to think of themselves as human capitals, motivating rivalries and internal competition via modulations of salary, etc., and especially by inviting a set of indefinite postponements — in the control society setting, it turns out, one is never finished with anything. As Fisher writes, “education is a lifelong process…training persists as long as your working life continues…and work, you take home with you.”
In this way, the spatially limited surveillance of the disciplinary society is replaced, in large part, by internal policing that is prompted by the operation of markets.
There is of course quite a lot more to say about the nature of surveillance today (Deleuze was writing about this thirty years ago, before widespread deployment of data mining and predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, etc.). But with all of this in mind, one can see how this basic mode of domination turns out to be highly dependent upon capitalist realism, or as Mark Fisher writes, the naturalizing of a set of social and political structures that are reliant on the fantasy that “resources are infinite, the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can, at a certain point, slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market.”
Between ourselves and effective resistance to work-as-we-know-it lies what the poet William Blake referred to as our “mind forg’d manacles.” To refuse the conditions of work requires us to first recognize that our collective experience of work is historically and socially conditioned, and that the form of domination under which we live everywhere attempts to pre-figure our needs, our wishes, and our hopes according to its market logic.
It is capitalist realism that tell us that we have arrived at the end of history, and that the future is as bereft of utopian energies as the present, and that there is no alternative (TINA).
If the increasingly immiserating experience of work-as-we-know-it actually begins to undermine the effectiveness of the various “inducements and postponements” upon which the control society relies, the pervasive capitalist realism that undergirds work-as-we-know-it, begins to crack. If the cracks become wide enough, and the ideology that equates human freedom exclusively with market freedom becomes too improbable, then large numbers of people may actually start to breakout of the “non-enclosure” that replaced the disciplinary panopticon of prior social institutions; especially since advanced capitalist society, asserting the end of history, is functioning in a manner largely bereft of any and all utopian energies.
If nothing else, once work is exposed as something socially constructed and thus historically determined there is an opportunity to decide that work-as-we-know-it is not destined, and thus need not necessarily be on an unwavering course to achieving its most dystopian potentials.
The Strange Case of Ivan Illich
Ivan Illich is a rather difficult figure to describe. I tend to regard the half-Croatian, stateless Illich as sort of a spiritual casualty of WWII, a wandering leftist/anarchist who never got on board with the post-war liberal project, and whose skepticism about the human costs of economic development programs and so called-modernization peaked in the 70s right when its confidence seriously began to falter.
A one-time Catholic priest, Illich took up a post ministering to the immigrant communities of Washington Heights upon his ordination in 1951. After that, he became Vice Rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 1956, where he was very vocal in his criticism of the Church’s role in economic development in Latin America. In 1960, he was expelled from the university, and he then traveled around Latin America by bus and on foot. It wouldn’t be completely off base, in my view, to regard him in his travels as an “Anthony Bourdain” figure, sort of an amateur cultural anthropologist intensely interested in realness wherever he could find it. It seems pretty clear that one of the things Illich witnessed was the progressive debasement of previously self-reliant agrarian communities as they became dependent upon the liberal welfare state in the interest of economic development. Illich eventually settled in Cuernavaca, where he opened a social research institute that came to be known as CIDOC (Centro Intercultural de Documentación). He continued to provide radical critiques of the role of missionaries in Latin America, until he got so cross-wise to Opus Dei types at the Vatican, that he was forced to shut down. Illich then renounced the priesthood, and began the period of his most productive literary oeuvre, during the 1970s.
The Right to Useful Unemployment came out in 1978, and is not among Illich’s most read works. Illich’s first book, Deschooling Society (1971), was what made him something of a literary star, and he was seen as a friend and fellow-traveler with Paolo Freire, who was making a simultaneous splash with his own ideas about educational reform. In the end, the radicalism of Illich’s critique of professionalism turned out to be too much for Freire, and they became estranged (although Illich and Paul Goodman were friends until the end of Goodman’s life).
Ivan Illich & the Politics of Conviviality
The basic meaning of Illich’s title, The Right to Useful Unemployment, is given to us succinctly in a set of statements rather late in the book, where Illich writes, “people have been dispossessed of their usefulness unless they are gainfully employed,” and “the struggle for an equitable distribution of time and power to be useful to self and others outside employment…has been effectively paralyzed.” Ivan Illich is on the same page with Jenny Odell and the President of Ireland (and for that matter, most women who do all manner of unpaid work in the interest of society). He wants to re-think the meaning of usefulness in a way that decenters market productivity.
But Illich’s general narrative under this umbrella is quite a bit more ambitious than this would suggest. His opening strategy is similar to that of a number of more recent writers considered in this series. He draws our attention to some universal experiences in market-intensive societies in order to re-frame otherwise traditional labor narratives focused upon the industrial working class.
Because we measure material progress by growth in GDP, “and we measure social progress by the distribution and access to commodities,” Illich writes, “socialism has been debased to a struggle against handicapped distribution, and welfare economics has identified the public good with opulence.” Instead of buying into these underlying assumptions, Illich proposes to describe what he calls another “distinct and under-theorized kind of poverty.”
Since market dependence has led to a widespread loss of “autonomous and creative life” he thinks it necessary to focus on a kind of “industrialized impotence” that affects both rich and poor, an experience not captured where the focus is exclusively upon the economic markers of industrial poverty. Economists, he says, “have no effective means of including in their calculations the society-wide loss of a kind of satisfaction that has no market equivalent.”
This is not to say that Illich is not also concerned with inequality per se: “I am of course so clearly committed to a radically equitable distribution of goods, rights, and jobs that I find it almost unnecessary to insist on our struggle from this side of justice,” he writes. Illich’s primary concern here is with what he calls the “negative internalities of modernity” which he identifies with examples like “time-consuming acceleration, sick-making healthcare, and stupefying education.”
Per Illich, total dependence upon commodities creates a crisis condition, which then brings in “the needs creators and managers, the doctors, diplomats, bankers, and assorted social engineers.” We end up with things like “educators who live on society’s alienation, and doctors who prosper on the work and leisure that have destroyed health.” Where this kind of poverty reigns, he adds, attempting to live “without access to addictive commodities” he says, “is rendered impossible or criminal — or both.” Illich names this concern with the equality of modern poverty rather than upon inequality the “politics of conviviality.”
Illich’s Call for a Copernican Revolution in Values
Illich’s critique of modern, “market-intensive” society is nothing if not radical. One can see why this approach, which is implicitly focused upon the moment of “emergence from subsistence” at the beginning of the modern age would not get a lot of popular purchase, even in the face of the social, political, and economic pathologies of the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century that have led us to yearn for more organic communities. Even during the tumult of the 60s, only a minority of us seriously dreamed of living in pre-modern communities as if there was some utopian content made available by doing so. Also, given the scope of mass society, it seems hard to imagine on the face of it that such a pattern of life could really be scalable for billions of people.
This being said, one can also see why there would be a resurgence of interest in all of this just now, given the almost total eclipse of community life. Putting aside his implicit criticism of socialist strategy, Illich is in some sense more orthodox in his Marxism than most of the orthodox Marxist critics, since Illich’s core ideas devolve upon the eclipse of use values in all aspects of social life in favor of exchange values.
Where Illich talks about “impoverishing wealth” or “paralyzing affluence” or “modernized poverty” he is zeroing in on how capitalist market logic has fundamentally changed human needs satisfaction in the bourgeois age. The professionalization of everything, the need for experts to help you negotiate all aspects of even everyday life (with the associated load of administrative actions and bureaucratic challenges) substitutes industrial goods and services for an intangible set of “non-market values” that Illich deems to be essential — He writes, “the generation of non-marketable use values must inevitably occupy the center of any culture that provides a program of satisfactory life to the majority of its members.”
All of this leads Illich to pose a stark choice, a kind of a Kierkegaardian “either/or:” He writes, “produce another new bill of goods, or take a new approach to needs and their satisfactions.” The first choice, he says, “leads to acceptance of market edicts, the second means drawing down the curtain on absolute market dominance and fostering an ethic of austerity.”
Carrying out this sort of “social inversion,” Illich writes, is to refuse to continue see consumer goods and professional services at the center of our economic system. Instead, we should insist upon moving use values created and valued by people (what he calls convivial austerity) to the center of our experience. In this sense, what he is describing is thoroughly consistent with the notion of a politics of refusal that this series has been exploring. Illich says that to choose convivial austerity in this way, so as “to produce use values against disabling enrichment,” depends on nothing less than a Copernican Revolution in our perception of values.
Mark Fisher on Realism & the Real
The first sections of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism follow a trajectory remarkably similar to that of Illich just described, even though Fraser starts where this opening salvo from Illich ends — with the need for some sort of Copernican revolution in our thinking.
Invoking a phrase attributed to Fred Jameson or Slavoj Žižek — “it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” –Fraser says that this observation gives the sense of what he means by the term capitalist realism. The term denotes more than just the ideological assertion of the superiority of capitalism, or even the assertion that unfettered capitalism is the only viable political and economic system; it captures the sense in which capitalism itself has rendered it literally impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it.
Like Illich, Fisher locates this effect in the manner in which capitalism has restructured human needs satisfaction. To begin with, Fisher tells us, there is the way that capitalism, through its system of equivalence, subsumes and consumes all previous history by assigning a monetary exchange value to all cultural objects. This “massive desacralization of culture” also heralds a turn from engagement to spectatorship. The result, however, is an ad hoc re-installation of all cultural codes, even those previously derived from a putative transcendent law — the limits of capitalism are defined pragmatically and improvisationally, on a playing field to the horizon line at history’s end.
The term capitalist realism is thus needed in order to describe the pervasive sense of cultural exhaustion and sterility that is widely experienced “after postmodernism.” Where cultural postmodernism, per Fisher, was all about “hijacking and recuperation, and with subversion and incorporation,” under the neoliberal capitalist condition, we are dealing instead with pervasive “pre-corporation” — the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of needs, desires, aspirations, and hopes by capitalist culture.
To capture what all this really means on the ground, Fisher gives us some examples: he points out that today we live in a reality in which neoliberal capitalism has installed a business ontology, one where it is simply obvious that everything in society should be run like a business; he reminds us that we live in a reality where poverty, famine, and war can all be presented as inevitable, because a set of social, political, and economic structures have been afforded the force of natural law. Finally, he points to the persistent fantasy that holds that Western consumerism, far from being implicated in the system of global inequalities, can itself solve them, since all we have to do is to buy the right products.
The notion of capitalist realism is thus offered as a means to express the way in which capitalist ideology is seen to function today. The role of ideology is “not to make a case for something, the way that propaganda does.” This is because “the fundamental level of ideology is not that of illusion masking the real state of things, but that of an unconscious fantasy structuring our social reality itself.”
Beyond any specific assertion of reality, and its associated realist supporting claims, there is also the unknowable thing-in-itself, the Real, that for which it is offered as a sufficient representation, but in relation to which, Fisher says, it must inevitably fall short.
For many of us in the anglophone world, to be told that the Real is something we assert or posit, and that the concomitant realism is the stabilization of a regime of truth and power, is rather hard to take. But it gets even worse! Following Žižek and Lacan, Fisher also wants us to recognize that in all accounts of the Real (as something which resists all symbolization) there is more than a dash of longing and frustrated wish fulfillment, and that these assertions of wholeness are often traumatized by horrifying ruptures and incursions of Realness into the reality principle’s everyday symbolic order. The sublimity of large-scale natural disasters is offered as a case in point, as are unnatural monsters and aliens and the like from horror genres.
Given this account of the dynamics of capitalist ideology, not so much as propaganda, but as a set of persistent fantasies constitutive of a fundamental pattern of social life, where is an effective challenge supposed to come from?
One strategy, Fisher asserts, could involve invoking the Real underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us. To awake from capitalist realism is to glimpse the Real behind the naturalized reality, and to thereby witness the failure of capitalist incorporation or pre-corporation of human needs, aspirations, and hopes. The most obvious example, Fisher says, is the climate crisis, which invokes the Real due to its increasingly undeniable and irrecuperable exigency (capitalism is the only viable political economic system/capitalism is primed to destroy the entire natural and human environment).
But Fisher thinks there are also good examples of various “social paradoxes” of capitalist ideology that also seriously threaten capitalist realism: there is the growing army of people suffering from mental health disability, which neoliberal capitalism continues to treat as a natural phenomenon, like the weather, with no connection to politics and social causation; and there is the strong ideological assertion that capitalism is somehow anti-bureaucratic, as opposed to socialism, despite the obvious proliferation of what Fisher calls “market Stalinism” and of course the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs.”
Ivan Illich on Paradoxical Counter-Productivity
Similar to Fraser, Ivan Illich also wants to direct our attention to a set of “social paradoxes” of capitalism as a way to help bring about his Copernican revolution in values and a new politics of conviviality. To do this, he takes aim at the professional classes along with commodification in market-intensive society. A critique of what he terms the “disabling professions” is introduced in order to complete the picture of the generalized, radical alienation of people in society from organic needs generation and the exercise of use values in the conduct of their affairs, individually and collectively.
Illich’s rather startling “unmasking” of the professional ethos as both a form of class domination and an assault on autochthonous cultural life is initially somewhat disorienting, and this is something that is not lost on him. Illich writes, “is it not irresponsible to undermine the trust of the man in the street in his scientifically-trained teacher, physician, or economist? Is it not perverse to denigrate the very people who have the knowledge to recognize and service our needs?” In reply, he writes, “the age of professions will be remembered as the time when politics withered, when voters entrusted to technocrats the power to legislate needs, the authority to decide who needs what, and a monopoly over the means by which needs shall be met.”
The problem with the array of professional services that we all rely upon (and for which we pay handsomely) in our market-intensive society is that they create and/or shape the needs that they then serve, and that they are complicit with elites and/or the State that has have afforded them monopolies, so that in their functioning, they most closely resemble cartels.
This is of serious concern because of what he calls “the perversity of generated needs” (recall the previously cited remarks about “time-consuming acceleration, stupefying education, and sick-making medicine.”) The professions must be indicted along with the capitalist financiers, Illich insists, because doing so is necessary to expose “the disparate antipathy between the ideal for the sake of which the service is rendered, and the reality that the service creates.”
Our major institutions, Illich writes, “have acquired the uncanny power to subvert the very purposes for which they were originally engineered and financed…their principle product is paradoxical counter-productivity.”
If we need more examples, Illich says things like this: “Healthy homes are transformed into hygienic apartments where one cannot be born, cannot be sick, and cannot die decently. Not only are helpful neighbors a vanishing species, but also liberal doctors who make house calls. Workplaces fit for apprenticeships turn into mazes of corridors that permit access only to functionaries with identities pinned to their lapels.”
Illich says it would be a mistake to attribute counter-productivity per se to “negative externalities” mere side effects of economic growth, things like pollution and congestion and the like. Rather, he wants us to see, that it’s something more fundamental, that it “arises from the paralysis of the person wo can no more exercise his autonomy in an environment designed for things.”
Illich also says that there is no “rebellion against the huge disabling service delivery system” because of the “illusion-generating power that these same systems possess.” One can see in all of this, consistent with Mark Fraser, the specter of the Real, glinting behind the capitalist realism.
While it is likely true that most individual professionals care about their clients, it is also true that they are complicit with a larger societal pattern of dis-empowerment. Despite the “mask of care,” in the end, Illich asserts, “the waning of the current professional ethos is a necessary condition for the emergence of a new relationship between needs, contemporary tools, and personal satisfaction.”
On the Right to Plant Veggies
In July of 2019, National Public Radio reported a story on the web entitled, “After a 6-Year Battle, Florida Couple Wins the Right to Plant Veggies in Front Yard.” According to the article, the Florida couple had been growing vegetables in the front yard for nearly two decades because their house is south facing, and the backyard is mostly in the shade. Then a local ordinance was tightened to forbid veggies in the front of the house, and the couple were forced to dig up their garden or face steep daily fines for every day out of compliance. Then they went to court, and after a six-year legal battle, won “the freedom to grow healthy food on their own property.”
Surely, one doesn’t have to be a radical libertarian in order to conclude that it’s socially counter-productive (and paradoxical) to tell people they can’t grow food on their property’s only reliable sun patch, because everyone knows you’re supposed to engage in wage labor so that you can buy food and services, rendering the growing of some nice veggies a form of anti-social behavior. I mention this dismaying municipal legal fight over kale and squash because this story captures a lot of what is at stake where Ivan Illich talks about the right to be useful to ourselves and others in ways not tied to our market productivity. It is thus also connected to what is happening when Jenny Odell writes about “surviving usefulness,” and the President of Ireland tells a group of students that they were “not born just to be useful.”
Activity, effort, achievement or service, Illich writes, when conducted outside of hierarchical relationships, and unmeasured by professional standards, represents a threat to a commodity-intensive society. Autonomous activity comes to be seen as a form of deviance because of the manner in which it detracts from employment and thus GNP.
Illich ends by calling for what he calls a “politically-generated convivial austerity.” This is the style of life he envisions in a post-industrial economy where “people have succeeded in reducing their market dependence and done so by protecting, by political means, a social infrastructure…used primarily to generate use values…”
In more or less complete agreement, Mark Fisher says that what is needed today is a new struggle over work and who controls it, and thus an assertion of much greater worker autonomy, together with the rejection of certain kinds of labor (e.g., excessive auditing and other aspects of bullshitification). What is needed, Fisher concludes, are new forms of resistance to managerialism, including the rejection of a universal business ontology to all types of human endeavor; a refusal of the facile naturalization of mental health epidemics; and the case for a new style of personal austerity that refuses excessive consumerism (if we are less reliant on endless goods and services, we needn’t work ourselves to death to pay for them).
Asserting the Radical Autonomy of the Commons
This article has revolved around the emerging political importance of reasserting the notion that it is work that is parasitic upon life, rather than the other way around. Hence the theme of re-thinking usefulness, so that it means something other than “contributes to the GNP” and holds a job that pays well enough to afford all manner of consumer goods and a thicket of now essential services.
Since along with Ivan Illich, Peter Fleming (Resisting Work: The Corporatization of Life and Its Discontents) is the other great champion of “refusing work today” a final few thoughts from Fleming are useful in closing. In the final part of his book, Fleming points out that “when our jobs become the index for living as such,” our various job-related fears become existential and seemingly without object, because “widespread anxiety and hopelessness are built into the very logic of work today.” This is why it is vital to remember that what he calls “the commons” or living social labor, is always something in excess of the reductions that our jobs seek to place upon it.
It has most often been the tendency to see the corporation (capital) as a kind of first mover, and then labor as the resisting subject. But “to appreciate now neoliberal control is counteracted and subverted by workers today,” he writes, “we must be sure to avoid surveying the scene from the viewpoint of capital.” Today, where workers everywhere seek an “escape back into life,” it is the corporation that must be seen as the resisting party.
The prior way of looking at things cedes way too much constitutive energy to an otherwise ossified system, Fleming says. Instead, we need to recognize that work today is “a rather extreme ritual linked to a dying capitalist project.” To refuse work today, therefore, is to assert the radical autonomy of the commons.