Friday, July 27, 2007


Why Work? // Index

Welcome to CLAWS at We're a pro-leisure and anti-wage-slavery group of people dedicated to exploring the question: why work? This site provides information, support, and resources for those looking for alternatives to traditional employment.

I've started reading Tom Lutz' Doing Nothing: A history of loafers, loungers, slackers, and bums in America and hit this site to which he refers.

I'm thinking of joining CLAW, and the Leisure Party promoted at the site, but I'm not sure whether I really qualify. I don't like work--at least what I think of as "real work." But the main reason I don't like it is because it's not sufficiently strenuous, intellectually or physically, and because it's not individually productive. Before I got my first real job, I was a great Ayn Rand fan: the idea of exertion and energy, fighting, competing and striving appeals to me. What turned me off was the discovery that most real work isn't strenuous and doesn't produce results: you simply fill time and there's no way to exert yourself or achieve.

The book though is making me wonder whether I'm the authentic slacker I always assumed I was. But I don't do much slacking in the traditional sense. Apart from Washington Week and the weekly ritual of Keeping Up Appearances to which my husband and I are addicted, I don't watch TV. I don't play video games. I don't do any of the things most people regard as recreation. I write papers, prepare courses, read stuff for work and, being at the computer, on my breaks I blog. On mini-breaks--going to the kitchen to get a coke, I do little chores--wash the dishes, mop the floor, take out the trash, etc. I spend virtually all my waking hours either doing housework or my job, both of which I like. What bothered me most about the "real work" I did was that it wasn't sufficiently intense, physically or intellectually, and that there was no result.

The book poses a conceptual question: what counts as "work." It's the ambiguity that defenders of the work ethic which I so detest exploit. Work in one sense, strenuous intellectual or physical exertion that produces a result is fulfilling, satisfying and conducive to human flourishing. But most jobs are nothing like that: they're just drudgery and enforced idleness, doing dull, boring repetitious tasks and filling time in a confined space until the day is over. Moralists castigate the loafers, loungers, slackers and bums who don't, won't or can't do this drudge work, assuming that the alternative is, as one commentor or this blog suggested, playing Nintendo or simply vegging out. Work, they claim, is fulfilling, satisfying and conducive to human flourishing. But this is coming from the perspective of the tiny minority of individuals, at most 20% of the population, whose jobs are interesting, strenuous and productive, and who exploit the ambiguity to suggest that the rotten, mind-numbing drudgery that most people do is fulfilling, satisfying and conducive to human flourishing. Most people are scanning groceries, answering phones, inputting data, waiting tables, flipping burgers, sorting paper clips and shuffling papers to look busy, or just staring into space until they can get out. That's real work. It has to be done, but it doesn't benefit the people who are forced to do it in any way.

At least let's be honest about it. There are lousy jobs that have to be done--and most jobs are lousy. We have a life-lottery to see who will be sacrificed, as in the old Shirley Jackson story. The losers, the majority of the population, will have lives that are barely worth living. We underestimate the number of people who are sacrificed because we won the lottery and hang out with winners, and underestimate the sheer lousiness of the work others do because we've never done it for any extended period of time or imagined that we could be stuck doing it for all of our adult lives. We cover our tracks by moralizing and lying to ourselves: we pretend to believe, and maybe convince ourselves, that people who do lousy jobs don't suffer as much as we would if we did these jobs and that they could, if they chose, do better for themselves.

In Franz Werfel's strange futuristic fantasy, The Star of the Unborn, given advances in technology, most don't do any work. Imagine looking back historically from that future to the 21st Century where, even in affluent countries, even people who were relatively well off, most people were in effect imprisoned all day, 5 days a week for most of their adult lives working the rock pile.

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