The Abolition of Work - A Short How-To

I just finished reading Bob Black’s essay The abolition of work. It’s a wonderful essay, and having read it I felt compelled to write this:

There is no doubt that work, as it is carried out today, is a terrible thing. It fills one’s day with mostly useless tasks and leaves one too tired to do anything useful with the time one has left. It invades and envelopes every aspect of one’s existence. And many times, the more time one spends working, the more deeply one gets enmeshed in this pointless to-and-froing that we call a “job”.

Bob Black’s agenda is a little over the top in my opinion, and I think deliberately so. I’m not of the opinion that work should be “abolished”. Neither do I want to look back with nostalgia at our idyllic hunter-gatherer existence because I’m not so sure that it was as nice as all that. However, with all the advances that the human race has made, it is about time that we abolish work, once and for all. For those that don’t want it.

While we would all like to believe that everyone is smart enough to hate work, I’m almost certain that there are people for whom it is a good thing, or at least the lesser of two evils. Even if one were to assume a world in which everyone can survive without working for money, work would still have a place in the lives of some people. Some people like the illusory “security” of a job, like prisoners who feel safe on the inside. It’s called institutionalisation. Some need a nice title on an embossed visiting-card to boost their self-esteem. Like prisoners obsessing over their shiny handcuffs, they proudly show off the trappings of their position in life - their ties, their leather shoes, their briefcases. Some people are too stupid to be left to their own devices.

There is no doubt in my mind the people are unequal. Where one draws the line between intelligence and stupidity is a personal matter but if nothing else, it would be overly autocratic to assume that abolishing work completely (“No one should ever work”) is the correct thing to do. Instead of abolishing work for all, it might be worthwhile to consider how to abolish work for those who don’t want it, and if my experience is anything to go by, there are far fewer of us than you might imagine. In the rest of the essay I will try and present the best way for abolishing work from your life. I have managed to do this myself and hope the experience might be helpful to others. Believe me, it is well worth it.

If one takes a look around, one would quite easily surmise that we have all the useful things we need. The vast majority of places on the face of the earth are accessible today, either physically or via a telecommunications medium. Enough things have been invented for us to lead comfortable lives. A lifetime is not enough to read all those great books and listen to all that wonderful music. Yes there are areas where we fall behind, but like the ancient Greeks did, I too believe that all useful things have been made and that it is now time to work on the more important issues - for them it was philosophy. If I were smarter, I would like to make that same claim, but at any rate I can still say that the marginal improvement in our lives from further obsession with baubles like cars and IKEA furniture is diminishing at an alarming rate.
On a similar note, let me also say that there are many many things that we have too much off. Take cola for example. What is cola? Sugar, water, gas and a “secret ingredient”. What does cola do? It neither quenches one’s thirst, nor is the taste particularly appealing. It’s value as a mixer for rum is also suspect. Why then, is my question, are the Cola companies so big? Why is it that when the Berlin wall comes down, there is a cola truck waiting to liberate those behind the wall? How is it that a company that makes cola’s can pollute groundwater with the impunity that comes with great power? How can a company that makes sugared water pay Aishwarya Rai millions to be on its billboards? I say, enough cola. And in this simple manifesto, we can find the secret to abolishing work.

Just like the reason for buying cola is not the cola itself, most people spend too much time buying things for the wrong reasons. A flashy cell phone to show off. New threads to wear on Saturday night. The new Rabbi CD. These are the people who deserve to work. Let them. They help to maintain a system of mediocrity and unimaginativeness without which it would be much more difficult for us to lead lives of quiet contemplation. For the rest of us then, abolishing work becomes more or less a matter purely of choice. Or is it?

It is true that to not have to work is a privilege, and privileges have to be earned. In this instance, there are two necessary but individually insufficient ways to achieve freedom. The first is the internal (enough cola!) and the second is the external. First, the internal.

Given the clear relationship between a job and its remuneration, one needs to accept the abolition of one if one is to achieve the abolition of the other. Therefore, it comes down to whether you value cola more than freedom. If you’re worried that you might never have enough money to own a house in Bombay, then you have to keep working. If you couldn’t care less if the entire city gets swallowed up by garbage, then you’re on your way. Wanting less is always a good way of needing less money, and therefore a good way of starting to rid yourself of employment. Of course there are those for whom it would be very difficult to want less, but they’re not going to be reading this are they? If you can speak English and use the Internet, you will never have to worry about starvation, atleast in India. That much is sure. Whether you’re willing to settle for the alternative is a different discussion, but to think that there is no alternative is to blind oneself. People will malign this as a neo-Gandhian, pseudo-Buddhist, adjective-adjective philosophy. You are free to do so. Once you’re done with “things”, you can start with habits. Alcohol habits, smoking tobacco or dope, ideally all of this should go. (A short note on quitting alcohol - quit your job first. Once you drop the misery, you can quite easily drop the booze as well).

Besides, owning too many things is such a problem. If you own a house, you’re stuck in the city where the house is. If you have a lot of things, you get weighed down. Rooted. Not a good way to abolish work from your life because the trick of being able to work when one wants is to be flexible. Things tie you down, so not only does one have to work to acquire them but each acquisition is like one more brick in the prison wall. Sell everything. Enough Cola! Why live and struggle like rats in Bombay when you can have a perfectly decent life in more pleasant places like Pune, or Belgaum or Nainital? Or all those three places. But you can only do that if you own nothing but the bare minimum.

The second thing to do is to acquire a relevant skill. A skill is the moral opposite of a posession. It frees you. Perhaps this is easier said than done, but even so it is certainly easier to do this today than it was even a few years ago. If you have a relevant skill today, like being able to program a computer, and you are still stuck behind a monitor at a cube-farm like Infosys, then you probably deserve to work. I am all for paying one’s dues when one is young, but to continue paying them because you have a mortgage on a pigeon-hole in an urban hell is, quite frankly, stupid. If you do not have a relevant skill, the best way to acquire it is by pursuing a hobby seriously.

I do not count “reading” and “watching TV” amongst hobbies. Infact, the single best way to get a hobby going is by getting rid of the TV set. All they do all day is try to get you to buy stuff by showing you stuff that they think you want to see. So just don’t bother. I’ve checked time and again and there is never anything good on TV. Apart from these things though, there are many, many things you can do. A friend of mine used to be Bobo the Clown and organiser of children’s parties in his spare time. You can do anything, it doesn’t matter, as long as you do it well and with love. You might claim that the amount of time one spends at work and the way the work seeps into every waking and sleeping hour makes it hard to maintain a hobby. This however, is again a personal decision.

And besides, the finest skill one can have in an age where all knowledge is a google away, is curiosity, and surely that can be practiced anywhere. Asking questions leads to answers, and answers are valuable. Socrates said that the truly wise one is the one who is aware that he knows nothing, for it is only from acknowledging this that the quest for knowledge can start. We live in a “knowledge economy”. It is time for everyone to upgrade.

Having skills allows us to get to step three of the process in abolishing work. Step three is - cooperate. Competition is for saps who want more cola. Once you decide that you have all the cola you could possibly want, then you’re not going to feel bad if someone else gets more cola than you do. You won’t worry about giving away cola to someone who needs it more than you do. There is no better way to abolish work for those who want it than to get all of them to cooperate. Bob Black’s essay was written in the days before the Internet. With Orkut and Ryze and God-knows-what-else, the tools for cooperation are already there. If they are being used in a different spirit, I blame cola.

Step three, if it’s ever achieved on a mass scale should then lead to step four - How to help the maximum number of people to escape? The answer lies in our schools, for it is nowhere else that children are set inexorably in motion to a life of quiet servitude. According to me, a school should have two basic functions - the imparting of basic skills and the arousal of curiosity. Let the clerks and accountants have their way, but shouldn’t there also be a place for those who don’t measure everything in numbers? It is for this that it is shameful (but by no means surprising) that our schools have become academies of indoctrination providing plenty of fodder for the machine. Where in the old days it was loyalty to a country or patriotism (an equally flawed concept), we now have loyalty to a whole new system of “world trade” or “global financial markets” and “conspicuous consumption” with the added advantage that most people believe they’ve chosen this life themselves. And even though I know that you and I can do nothing about this, it is still important to say it because even if we can’t do anything it is still better to have the right attitude than the wrong one.

Anyways, this wasn’t meant to be a rant on the economic system, just a short how-to on how to escape it. Best of luck.