Does Work Really Work? by L. Susan Brown

One of the first questions people often ask when they

are introduced to one another in our society is "what

do you do?" This is more than just polite small talk --

it is an indication of the immense importance work has

for us. Work gives us a place in the world, it is our

identity, it defines us, and, ultimately, it confines

us. Witness the psychic dislocation when we lose our

jobs, when we are fired, laid off, forced to retire or

when we fail to get the job we applied for in the first

place. An unemployed person is defined not in positive

but in negative terms: to be unemployed is to lack work.

To lack work is to be socialIy and economically marginalized,

To answer "nothing" to the question "what do you do?"

is emotionally difficult and socially unacceptable. Most

unemployed people would rather answer such a question with

vague replies like "I'm between contracts" or "I have a

few resumes out and the prospects look promising than

admit outright that they do not work. For to not work in

our society is to lack social significance -- it is to

be a nothing, because nothing is what you do.


Those who do work (and they are becoming less numerous as

our economies slowly disintegrate) are something - they

are teachers, nurses, doctors, factory workers, machinists,

dental assistants, coaches, librarians, secretaries, bus

drivers and so on. They have identities defined by what

they do. They are considered normal productive members of

our society. Legally their work is considered to be subject

to an employment contract, which if not explicitly laid out

at the beginning of employment is implicitly understood to

be part of the relationship between employee and employer.

The employment contract is based on the idea that it is

possible for a fair exchange to occur between an employee

who trades her/his skills and labour for wages supplied by

the employer. Such an idea presupposes that a person's skills

and labour are not inseparable from them, but are rather

separate attributes that can be treated like property to be

bought and sold. The employment contract assumes that a

machinist or an exotic dancer, for instance, have the

capacity to separate out from themselves the particular

elements that are required by the employer and are then

able to enter into an agreement with the employer to

exchange only those attributes for money. The machinist

is able to sell technical skills while the exotic dancer

is able to sell sexual appeal, and, according to the

employment contract, they both do so without selling

themselves as people. Political scientists and economists

refer to such attributes as "property in the person," and

speak about a person's ability to contract out labour

power in the form of property in the person.


In our society, then, work is defined as the act by which

an employee contracts out her or his labour power as

property in the person to an employer for fair monetary

compensation. This way of describing work, of understanding

it as a fair exchange between two equals, hides the real

relationship between employer and employee: that of

domination and subordination. For if the truth behind

the employment contract were widely known, workers in our

society would refuse to work, because they would see

that it is impossible for human individuals to truly

separate out labour power from themselves. "property in

the person" doesn't really exist as something that an

individual can simply sell as a separate thing. Machinists

cannot just detach from themselves the specific skills

needed by an employer; those skills are part of an organic

whole that cannot be disengaged from the entire person,

similarly, sex appeal is an intrinsic part of exotic dancers,

and it is incomprehensible how such a constitutive, intangible

characteristic could be severed from the dancers themselves.

A dancer has to be totally pre sent in order to dance, just

like a machinist must be totally present in order to work;

neither can just send their discrete skills to do the work

for them. Whether machinist, dancer, teacher, secretary, or

pharmacist, it is not only one's skills that are being sold

to an employer, it is also one's very being. When employees

contract out their labour power as property in the person to

employers, what is really happening is that employees are

selling their own self determination, their own wills, their

own freedom. In short, they are, during their hours of

employment, slaves.


What is a slave? A slave is commonly regarded as a person who

is the legal property of another and is bound to absolute

obedience. The legal lie that is created when we speak of

a worker's capacity to sell property in the person without

alienating her or his will allows us to maintain the false

distinction between a worker and a slave. A worker must work

according to the will of andther. A worker must obey the boss,

or ultimately lose the job. The control the employer has over

the employee at work is absolute, There is in the end no

negotiation -- you do it the boss' way or you hit the highway.

It is ludicrous to believe that it is possible to separate out

and sell "property in the person" while maintaining human

integrity. To sell one's labour power on the market is to enter

into a relationship of subordination with one's employer -- it

is to become a slave to the employer/master. The only major

differences between a slave and a worker is that a worker is

only a slave at work while a slave is a slave twenty-four hours

a day, and slaves know that they are slaves, while most workers

do not think of themselves in such terms.


Carole Pateman points out the implications of the employment

contract in her book The Sexual Contract:


'Capacities or labour power cannot be used without the worker

using his will, his understanding and experience, to put them

into effect. The use of labour power requires the presence of

its "owner," and it remains as mere potential until he acts in

the manner necessary to put it into use, or agrees or is

compelled so to act; that is, the worker must labour. To

contract for the use of labour power is a waste of resources

unless it can be used in the way in which the new owner

requires. The fiction "labour power" cannot be used; what is

required is that the worker labours as demanded. The

employment contract must, therefore, create a relationship

of command and obedience between employer and worker....

In short, the contract in which the worker allegedly sells

his labour power is a contract in which, since he cannot

be separated from his capacities, he sells command over

the use of his body and himself. To obtain the right to

the use of another is to be a (civil) master.'(1)


Terms like "master" and "slave" are not often used when

describing the employment contract within capitalist

market relations; however, this does not mean that such

terms don't apply. By avoiding such terms and instead

insisting that the employment contract is fair, equitable

and based on the worker's freedom to sell his or her

labour power, the system itself appears fair, equitable

and free. One problem with misidentifying the true nature

of the employee/employer relationship is that workers

experience work as slavery at the same time that they

buy into it ideologicaIly.


No matter what kind of job a worker does, whether manual

or mental, well paid or poorly paid, the nature of the

employment contract is that the worker must, in the end,

obey the employer. The employer is always right. The

worker is told how to work, where to work, when to work,

and what to work on. This applies to university professors

and machinists, to lawyers and carpet cleaners: when you

are an employee, you lose your right to self-determination.

This loss of freedom is felt keenly, which is why many workers

dream of starting their own businesses, being their own bosses,

being self-employed. Most will never realize their dreams,

however, and instead are condemned to sell their souls for

money. The dream doesn't disappear, however, and the

uneasiness, unhappiness, and meaninglessness of their jobs

gnaws away at them even as they defend the system under which

they exploitedly toil.


It doesn't have to be this way. There is nothing sacred

about the employment contract that protects it from being

challenged, that entrenches it eternally as a form of

economic organization. We can understand our own unhappiness

as workers not as a psychological problem that demands Prozac,

but rather as a human response to domination. We can envision

a better way of working, and we can do so now, today, in our

own lives. By doing so we can chisel away at the wage slavery

system; we can undermine it and replace it with freer ways

of working.


What would a better way of work look like? It would more

resemble what we call play than work. That is not to say

that it would be easy, as play can be difficult and challenging,

like we often see in the spores we do for fun. It would be

self-directed, self-desired, and freely chosen. This means

that it would have to be disentangled from the wage system,

for as soon as one is paid one becomes subservient to whoever

is doing the paying. As Alexander Berkman noted: "labour and

its products must be exchanged without price, without profit,

freely according to necessity,"(2) Work would be done because

it was desired, not because it was forced. Sound impossible? Not

at all. This kind of work is done now, already, by most of us

on a daily basis. It is the sort of activity we choose to do

after our eight or ten hours of slaving for someone else

in the paid workplace.It is experienced every time we do

something worthwhile for no pay, every time we change a diaper,

umpire a kid'sbaseball game, run a race, give blood, volunteer

to sit on a committee, counsel a friend, write a newsletter,

bake a meal, or do a favour. We take part in this underground

free economy when we coach, tutor, teach, build, dance, baby-sit,

write a poem, or program a computer without getting paid. We

must endeavor to enlarge these areas of free work to encompass

more and more of our time, while simultaneously trying tochange

the structures of domination in the paid work-place as much as

we possibly can.


Barter, while superficially appearing as a challenge to the

wage system, is still bound by the same relationships of

domination. To say that I will paint your whole house if

you will cook my meals for a month places each of us into

a situation of relinquishing our own self-determination for

the duration of the exchange. For I must paint your house

to your satisfaction and you must make my meals to my

satisfaction, thereby destroying for each of us the

self-directed, creative spontaneity necessary for the free

expression of will: Barter also conjures up the problem

of figuring out how much of my time is worth how much of

your time, that is, what the value of our work is, in order

that the exchange is Fair and equal. Alexander Berkman posed

this problem as the question, "why not give each according

to the value of his work?", to which he answers,


'Because there is no way by which value can be measured...

Value is what a thing is worth... What a thing is worth no

one can really tell. Political economists generally claim

that the value of a commodity is the amount of labour required

to produce it, of "socially necessary labour," as Marx says.

But evidently it is not a just standard of measurement.

Suppose the carpenter worked three hours to make a kitchen chair,

while the surgeon took only half an hour to perform an operation

that saved your life. If the amount of labour used determines

value, then the chair is worth more than your life. Obvious

nonsense, of course. Even if you should count in the years

of study and practice the surgeon needed to make him capable

of performing the operation, how are you going to decide what

"an hour of operating" is worth? The carpenter and mason also

had to be trained before they could do their work properly,

but you don't figure in those years of apprenticeship when you

contract for some work with them. Besides, there is also to be

considered the particular ability and aptitude that every worker,

writer, artist or physician must exercise in his labours. That

is a purely individual personal factor. How are you going to

estimate its value?


That is why value cannot be determined. The same thing may be

worth a lot to one person while it is worth nothing or very

little to another. It may be worth much or little even to

the same person, at different times. A diamond, a painting,

a book may be worth a great deal to one man and very little

to another. A loaf of bread will be worth a great deal to you

when you are hungry, and much less when you are not. Therefore

the real value of a thing cannot be ascertained if it is

an unknown quantity.'(3)


In a barter system, for an exchange to be fair, the value

of the exchanged goods and services must be equal. However,

value is unknowable, therefore barter falls apart on

practical grounds.


Increasing the amount of free work in our lives requires

that we be conscious of the corrupting effects of money

and barter. Thus, baby-sit your friend's children not for

money, but because you want to do so. Teach someone how

to speak a second language, or edit someone's essay, or

coach a running team for the simple pleasure of taking

part in the activity itself. Celebrate giving and helping

as play, without expecting anything in return. Do these

things because you want to, not because you have to.


This is not to say that we should do away with obligations,

but only that such obligations should be self-assumed.

We must take on free work in a responsible matter, or

else our dream of a better world will degenerate into

chaos. Robert Graham outlines the characteristics of

self-assumed obligations:


'Self-assumed obligations are not 'binding' in the

same sense that laws or commands are. A law or

command is binding in the sense that failure to

comply with it will normally attract the application

of some sort of coercive sanction by authority

promulgating the law or making the command. The

binding character of law is not internal to the

concept of law itself but dependent on external

factors, such as the legitimacy of the authority

implementing and enforcing it. A promise, unlike

a law, is not enforced by the person making it. The

content of the obligation is defined by the person

assuming it, not by an external authority.'(4)


To promise, then, is to oblige oneself to see through

an activity, but the fulfillment of the obligation

is up to the person who made the promise in the first

place, and nonfulfillment carries no external sanction

besides, perhaps, disappointment (and the risk that

others will avoid interacting with someone who habitually

breaks her or his promises). Free work, therefore, is

a combination of voluntary play and self-assumed

obligations, of doing what you desire to do and

co-operating with others. It is forsaking the almighty

dollar for the sheer enjoyment of creation and

recreation. Bob Black lyrically calls for the abolition

of work, which "doesn't mean that we have to stop doing

things. It does mean creating a new way of life based

on play... By 'play' I mean also festivity, creativity,

conviviality, commensuality, and maybe even art. There

is more to play than child's play, as worthy as that as.

I call for a collective adventure in generalized joy and

freely interdependent exuberance."(5)


We must increase the amount of free work in our lives

by doing what we want, alone and with others, whether

high art or mundane maintenance. We need to tear ourselves

away from drinking in strict exchange terms: I will do

this for you if you will do that for me. Even outside

our formal work hours, the philosophy of contract

and exchange permeates our ways of interacting with

others. This is evident when we do a favour for

someone -- more often than not, people feel uncomfortable

unless they can return the favour in some way, give tit

for tat. We must resist this sense of having to exchange

favours. Instead, we need to be and act in ways that

affirm our own desires and inclinations. This does not

mean being lazy or slothful (although at times we may need

to be so), but rather calls for self-discipline.

Free work actually demands a great deal of self-discipline,

as there is no external force making us work, but only

our own internal desire to partake in an activity

that motivates our participation.


While we move towards a freer world by consciously

affirming free work outside the marketplace, we can

also make a difference during those hours when we are

paid to work. Being conscious of the fact that when

we are selling our labour we are actually selling

ourselves gives us self-awareness. Such self-awareness

is empowering, as the first step to changing one's

condition is understanding the true nature of that

condition. Through this understanding, we can develop

strategies for challenging the slave wage system. For

instance, every time we ignore the boss and do what

we want we create a mini-revolution in the workplace.

Every time we sneak a moment of pleasure at work

we damage the system of wage slavery. Every time we

undermine the hierarchical structure of decision-making

in the workplace we gain a taste of our own self-worth.

These challenges can come from below or from above:

those of us who achieve a measure of power in the

workplace can institute structural changes that empower

those below, drawing from principles like consensus

decision-making and decentralization. For instance,

as teachers we can introduce students to the idea of

consensus by using such a method to make major class

room decisions. Those of us who head up committees

or task forces can advocate institutional structures,

policies and constitutions that decentralize power.

Of course, the wage system is inherently corrupt and

unreformable; however, we can make it more bearable

while at the same time trying to destroy it.


And destroy it we must. If one's identity is based

on work, and work is based on the employment contract,

and the employment contract is a falsehood, then our very

identities have at their foundation a lie. In addition,

the labour market is moving towards an ever-increasing

exploitative form of work: it is predicted that by the year

2000, fifty percent of the labour force will be engaged

in temp work -- work which is even less selfdirected

than permanent full-time jobs. Bob Black has it right

when he proclaims that "no one should ever work."(6)

Who knows what kinds of creative activity would be

unleashed if only we were free to do what we desired?

What sorts of social organizations would we fashion

if we were not stifled day in and day out by drudgery?

For example, what would a woman's day look like if we

abolished the wage system and replaced it with free

and voluntary activity? Bob Black argues that

"by abolishing wage-labor and achieving full unemployment

we undermine the sexual division of labor,"(7) which

is the linchpin of modern sexism. What would a world

look like that encouraged people to be creative and

self-directed, that celebrated enjoyment and fulfillment?

What would be the consequences of living in a world

where, if you met someone new and were asked what you

did, you could joyfully reply "this, that and the

other thing" instead of "nothing?" Such is the world

we deserve.


L. Susan Brown holds a Ph.D. from the University of

Toronto. She is author of The Politics of Individualism:

Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism (Black

Rose Books, 1993). She is currently doing "this, that

and the other thing."




1 Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 150-151.

2 Alexander Berkman, ABC of Anarchism (London:

Freedom Press, 1977), p. 20.

3 Berkman, p. 19.

4 Robert Graham, The Role of Contract in Anarchist

Ideology, in For Anarchism: History, Theory, and

Practice, edited by David Goodway (London: Routledge,

1989), p. 168.

5 Bob Black, The Abolition of Work and Other Essays

(Port Townsend: Loompanics), p. 17.

6 Black, p. 33.

7 Black, p. 29-30.