Working for Abolition Means Abolishing Work

June 1, 2022

In 1974, famed journalist and radio host Studs Terkel published his now classic seven-hundred-page book, Working. Interviewing hundreds of workers—waitresses, receptionists, farmers, cabdrivers, garbage men, teachers, and plenty of middle class bureaucrats—Terkel summarized his findings with a haunting opening sentence: “This book, being about work is, by its very nature about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.”1Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (New York: The New Press, 1997).

It is particularly poignant that Terkel would utter such a scathing indictment from the tail end of industrial capitalism’s golden era, the glory days to which many on the Left insist we should aspire to return—when workers could boast of more than double the unionization rates and significantly higher real wages than most could dream of today. It is also a reminder of a long tradition of anticapitalist thinking which asserted unequivocally that wage work under capitalism, even at its best, is a result and perpetuation of violence.

In the period just before the pandemic, US workers incurred nearly three million work-related injuries or illnesses a year. In 2019, 5,333 workers died from a work-related injury in the US, up 2 percent from the previous year.2“IFF News Releases,” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/iif/. These numbers, disturbing as they are, vastly underestimate the broader contribution work makes to premature deaths and medical needs in the US alone. A 2016 study attempted to model the health effects of “unemployment, lack of health insurance, exposure to shift work, long working hours, job insecurity, work–family conflict” and found that “more than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5%–8% of annual healthcare costs” are attributable to jobs.3Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios, “The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States,” Management Science 62, no. 2 (February 2016): 608–28

The violence of work doesn’t just take the form of deaths and injuries either. While we know that official statistics are vastly underreported, more than a quarter of women report having been sexually harassed at work.4Elyse Shaw, Ariane Hegewisch, and Cynthia Hess, “Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, October 15, 2018. People suffer enormous mental health strain due to their jobs: “One-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.”5Steven Sauter et al., “Stress…At Work,” National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Publication No. 99–101 (1999), https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/default.html. Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor—more so than even financial or family problems, though they of course contribute to both.

Princeton philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that despite the United States being a society obsessed with putative notions of  “democracy” and “freedom,” the place we spend the bulk of our waking hours, the workplace, functions remarkably like a despotic government.6Elizabeth Anderson and Stephen Macedo, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), University Center for Human Values Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). Bosses retain nearly unrestricted liberty to curtail workers’ freedom of speech (not just during working hours), dictate whether or not they can use the bathroom when they need, harass and fire people as they please, limit their movement (via noncompete clauses which impact not only high-wage tech workers but as much as 20 percent of the workforce, including low-wage fast food workers), and they can conduct unjustified searches and steal workers’ wages with near impunity.

The extreme power imbalance people experience at jobs where bosses pursue profits at the expense of workers’ wellbeing results, in the best of times, in hazardous workplace conditions, especially for elderly, undocumented, low-wage, and women workers. More than two years of life and work during a global pandemic have rendered visible the particularly callous ways capital treats workers’ lives as disposable grist, important only so long as they keep the economy churning. But this problem is not unique to the pandemic, nor will it end with the era of Covid. Given how horrible it is for so many of us, what then ought to be done about work? For much of the history of the anticapitalist left, the goal was not the improvement of wage work but its abolition. The moment is ripe to revisit these abolitionist commitments.

What then ought to be done about work? For much of the history of the anticapitalist left, the goal was not the improvement of wage work but its abolition. The moment is ripe to revisit these abolitionist commitments.

Contemporary Abolition Politics

Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, historic protests against police brutality erupted across the nation. The political framework animating and inspiring much of this recent upsurge is “abolition.” Most commonly referring to the abolition of police and prisons, or the carceral state, abolitionists have been especially successful in demonstrating that carceral institutions, which supposedly exist for protection and security, do not in fact provide those benefits. Rather, they generate immense amounts of harm and violence.7Some key abolitionist texts to which I refer, if not explicitly, include Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Astra Publishing House, 2021); Mariame Kaba, We Do This ’til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021); Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003); and Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing, reprint (London: Verso, 2018). Rejecting calls for reform, abolitionists seek a wholesale reconfiguration of society, undoing the power of violent institutions, and instead developing institutions that promote justice, care, and genuine security.

While abolitionists hope to eradicate the powers of police and prisons to inflict physical, emotional, economic, and environmental devastation on individuals and communities, their aspiration is not so much, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore underscores, “absence” but instead “presence.” In other words, despite abolitionist demands to “defund” the police, abolition seeks not to implement further austerity or wholesale lawlessness but to foster a generous, healthy, vibrant society that provides people with the means of flourishing. This point is crucial to abolitionist politics. Abolition does not mean simple negation; it is a movement beyond the existing order. Activist intellectuals in the abolitionist tradition have produced an impressive and inspiring wealth of resources that aid us in thinking through a world not just without but beyond police and prisons.

Because of its remarkable contributions, and the unique place abolitionist rhetoric holds in fruitfully inspiring new generations of radical activists and intellectuals, it is crucial to note a substantive lacuna in the abolitionist imaginary. Despite abolitionists’ profound interventions, many continue to affirm the promise and potential of wage work, insisting that the provision of good, rewarding jobs is an abolitionist aspiration, one which will become more feasible in the absence of police and prisons. One notable example of this came in 2020 from Angela Davis who underscored the generative ideological openings provided by abolitionism, stating:

Abolitionist strategies are especially critical because they teach us that our visions of the future can radically depart from what exists in the present . . . this current conjuncture demands that we believe in new possibilities. Such new possibilities would include rewarding jobs, critical education, decent housing, accessible health care, recreation, and art for all.8Angela Y. Davis, “Why Arguments against Abolition Inevitably Fail,” Medium, October 6, 2020.

Mariame Kaba made a similar claim in a 2020 New York Times op-ed, writing: “We should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education, and good jobs. If we did this, there would be less need for the police in the first place.”9Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” New York Times, June 12, 2020. Davis, Kaba, and many other key voices in abolitionist politics have not extended abolitionism into the realm of wage work.10One notable exception to this seeming consensus appears in Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013) in which they articulate their aspirations as “The abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage.”

Yet taking inspiration from earlier generations of struggle—especially sophisticated activist intellectuals of the welfare rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s—can help focus abolition’s gaze on how wage work under capitalism operates similarly to, and is intertwined with, the carceral state. Like prisons and police, not only does such work fail to fulfill its alleged role of procuring material security for working class people, but it also generates harm. Rather than resolving hardship, work disproportionately harms people of color, immigrants, disabled people, and other- wise vulnerable populations, while drawing people away from pursuits that would be more beneficial for communities and individuals.

Just as carceral state abolitionists have long insisted that reforms are inadequate to address the fundamental flaws of such unjust institutions, the same holds true of work. Given these intersections and parallels, it is impossible to challenge the key punitive institutions that generate and perpetuate harm in society without also rethinking jobs. Of course, what that amounts to is a daunting task, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore underscores: To change everything, everything must change.11Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022).

Just as carceral state abolitionists recognize the dangers of reforms as potential mechanisms through which institutions of oppression gain more legitimacy and power, Marx suggests anticapitalists can adopt a parallel mode of analysis regarding work.

What Is Work, Anyway? The Violent Origins of Wage Work

In order to examine the pitfalls of seeking solutions to society’s problems through wage work, it is crucial to emphasize that I am not referring to the deeply human, if highly abstract, transhistorical capacity to take nature and transform it to meet a variety of needs. Rather, I am addressing a particular social arrangement: wage work under capitalism. Or, in other words, a job: the highly undemocratic, coercive, and authoritarian institution through which people dispossessed of other means of survival sell the majority of their waking time on this planet for the ability (ideally, but certainly not always) to purchase shelter, food, and maybe a few other comforts.

Humans have been engaged in need satisfaction and recreation for as long as we can trace human history, but only for the last few hundred years, at most, have jobs dominated how we organize that activity. And that development was anything but natural or inevitable. In each place and era where capitalism developed, the imposition of jobs was predicated on enormous violence and coercion through which lands that previously allowed people to sustain themselves were stolen and enclosed. Put simply, having a job is an economic arrangement which relies on the worker having no ability to survive except by selling her labor power.

Although central to the insights of the first generations of anticapitalist thinkers, opposition to wage labor in general has been largely absent from leftist analyses for the past half century. In part, this is due to the successes of anticommunism in the US labor movement and the expulsion of organizers to the left of social democrats. What remained, sadly, was a conciliatory labor movement that fought hard to convince the American working class that collaboration with, rather than confronting and overthrowing, capital was the sole means toward progress. Many on the broader left have imbibed more of this logic than they care to admit, even forgetting another objective once existed.12Polish Economist Adam Przeworski reminds us: “Socialism was to be a society in which people individually would acquire control over their lives because their existence would no longer be an instrument of survival and people would collectively acquire control over shared resources and efforts because their allocation would be a subject of joined deliberation and rational choice. Socialism was not a movement for full employment but for the abolition of wage slavery: it was not a movement for efficiency but for collective rationality; it was not a movement for equality but for freedom.” Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy, reprint, Studies in Marxism and Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993), 243. But radicals of the past were clear that the core of an anticapitalist project is the understanding that capitalism must be transcended because of the violence it inflicts on people through work, and that this violence is central to the institution, rather than a reformable feature.

Marx, for example, described wage work under capitalism as a highly coercive and violent institution that brought about enormous harm for those forced to undertake it:

It is true that labor produces marvels for the rich, but it produces privation for the worker. It produces palaces, but hovels for the worker. It produces beauty, but deformity for the worker. It replaces labor by machines, but it casts some of the workers back into barbarous forms of labor and turns others into machines… [The worker] does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.13Karl Marx and Lucio Colletti, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, reprint (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), 325–26.

Whether tied to machines or narrowly exercising their minds, work is experienced as a deprivation. In such a view, even the remarkable riches created by workers’ efforts are, at least in part, disturbing indictments of a mortifying system. For Marx, a key element of labor under capitalism is that, despite its famously putative “double freedom,” wage labor is not a relationship a worker comes to with true volition but rather through the cruel compulsion of need. This is why the appearance of equality and freedom between workers and capitalists is such a socially dangerous illusion. Throughout his work, Marx underscores the falsehood of free participation in wage labor under capitalism: “His labor is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need but a mere means to satisfy needs outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.”14Ibid.

Despite his ire at what work did to workers under capitalism—privation, physical, and mental harms alike—Marx’s vision of freedom was not the improvement of wage work. Better, more fulfilling jobs with higher pay appear in Marx’s oeuvre only to emphasize the futility of reforms for the working class, as they failed to challenge, and indeed only strengthened, the unequal system that created work’s many violences. For example, Marx writes, “We have thus seen that even the most favorable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist.”15Karl Marx, Wage-Labor and Capital and Value, Price, and Profit (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 39. Elsewhere, Marx underscores the fraught logic of reforming or improving capitalism, stating bluntly, “The labor power of the wage laborer can exchange itself for capital only by increasing capital, by strengthening that very power whose slave it is.”16Ibid., 32 Improving work under capitalism, for Marx, meant increasing the capacity of capital to dominate, not reducing it. Just as carceral state abolitionists recognize the dangers of reforms as potential mechanisms through which institutions of oppression gain more legitimacy and power, Marx suggests anticapitalists can adopt a parallel mode of analysis regarding work.

 

Wage Slavery and the Possibility of Reforms

As the current abolitionist movement rightfully makes clear, the rhetorical gesture of equating things that are not slavery with its most severe chattel form is often analytically fraught and politically unhelpful. But for anticapitalists of Marx’s era and generations beyond, the use of the term “wage slavery” was not a hyperbolic metaphor but a way of underscoring the depth of the wage worker’s inherent unfreedom. It was also, crucially, a way to signal their objective: not reform, but abolition.

Lucy Parsons, a Black anarchist, was unequivocal that a revolutionary’s objective must be to “take the chances for everything in attempting to abolish the wage system.”17Lucy E. Parsons, Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity: Writings & Speeches, 1878–1937, Gale Aherns, ed. (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2004), 8. Parsons, born enslaved in Texas and long partnered with a former slave, was one of many thinkers of her era who referred to wage work as “wage slavery.” In an evocative May Day speech, forty years after the Haymarket affair, she continued to underscore this powerful analysis: “Today we march, we send our greeting upon ocean’s waves, we send them continent to continent, we send our friends across the ocean and all climes and countries: we are with you. Our hearts throb. The working class throughout the world, proclaim the doom of capitalism and wage slavery.”18Ibid., 159

The murkiness which renders wage work under capitalism largely indistinguishable from the capacity for humans to care and create is one of many ideological obfuscations that make it difficult to criticize and challenge, lest we be accused of simply wanting to do nothing and contribute nothing to the collective project of human flourishing. But for a long lineage of anticapitalists, many of whom understood work under capitalism to be wage slavery, it was obvious that calling for the abolition of a coercive institution, one through which not just productivity but social needs are mediated, is not the same as refusing to do anything.

A basic principle of abolitionist approaches to the violence of the criminal justice system is to challenge the allure of reforms.19Mariame Kaba, “Police Reforms You Should Always Oppose,” Truthout, December 7, 2014, and Naomi Murakawa, “Police Reform Works—For the Police,” Department of African American Studies, Princeton University, October 26, 2020, https://aas.princeton.edu/news/police-reform-works-police. Abolitionists reject calls for reform for two main but intertwined reasons. First, they assert that reforms have been tried for centuries and have historically failed to remedy the key problems present in carceral institutions. New technologies, oversight efforts, staffing rearrangements, training programs, and wonkish policy fixes have all been tried extensively without ameliorating the key injustices of police and prisons.

Secondly, abolitionist critics of reform insist that reforms serve to legitimize the system writ large, implying that violence only exists at the fringes or as an outlier, rather than as a feature intrinsic to the institution itself. For example, focusing efforts on making chokeholds or other forms of “excessive force” illegal is understood by abolitionists as a mistaken focus of resistant energies, as these reforms subtly render both the police as such, and other types of force central to their violence, “legitimate.” Additionally, even when certain extremes like chokeholds are putatively illegal, they often persist without much consequence.

Much of what has been said of police and prison reforms can also be said of labor reforms: for hundreds of years following the advent of capitalism, reformers have attempted to improve the institution of wage work, rendering it safer and less onerous, by regulating hours, wages, the age of laborers, the physical environment in which work is performed, and other variables, all without undoing the actual violence, inequality, domination, theft, alienation, and exploitation at the heart of the institution.

 

Listening to the Grassroots: Welfare Rights Beyond Work

Academics traffic in ideas, and many of them have far too little direct experience with the institutions about which they write.20Academics’ unique position as workers with what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job” is a key reason why academics have failed to grapple with criticisms of wage work writ large, despite many of them identifying as anticapitalists. Thankfully, as historian and abolitionist Robin D. G. Kelley reminds us, “Abolishing the police is not the brainchild of some extreme left-wing think tank but a product of grassroots social movements fighting police violence and racially biased laws, while simultaneously trying to make their own communities safer.”21Robin D. G. Kelley, “What Abolition Looks Like, from the Panthers to the People,” Medium, October 26, 2020. Like carceral state abolition, many of the most insightful and mordant analyses of wage work, and insights into the constraints of reforming it to serve the needs of working class people, derive from the lived experience of working class people themselves. One of the strongest criticisms of wage work developed in the past century was articulated in the bold freedom dreams of the welfare rights movement.22See my forthcoming article, “‘Nothing But Joy’: The Welfare Rights Movement’s Antiwork Freedom Dream” in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society.

Begun in the early 1960s as disparate, nationwide grassroots efforts by disaffected welfare recipients, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) amalgamated a nascent movement. By the late 1960s, and early ’70s, militant organizing efforts increased both the amount of benefits and the number of recipients, and made significant inroads into challenging the racist policies which rendered them vulnerable to the whims of local welfare departments.23Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1978); Guida West, The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women (New York: Praeger, 1981); Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2004). Buoyed by these successes, welfare recipients organized collectively and developed sophisticated analyses not just of workfare jobs but of the enveloping work regime at a time when welfare policies were increasingly shifting towards forcing recipients to work as a condition of benefits. In pamphlets, songs, policy proposals, and more, participants in the welfare rights movement developed a rigorous analysis of the problems with a society that coerces people, in their words, to either “work or starve.” In contrast to many other social movements at the time and since, welfare rights activists confronted the idealization of work and rejected its potential to be adequately reformed, decrying what they understood as the false reverence and unsubstantiated promises of wage work under capitalism.

Welfare rights activists confronted the idealization of work and rejected its potential to be adequately reformed, decrying what they understood as the false reverence and unsubstantiated promises of wage work under capitalism.

As an antipoverty organization, the welfare rights movement was first and foremost concerned with ending poverty. In its participants’ view, jobs were an insufficient means of doing so. In their uncompromising analysis, they repeatedly asserted this with startling clarity: “[The] NWRO recognizes that people are poor because they don’t have enough money. Poor people have never been able to secure enough income from the wages they earn to enable their families to live decently. Yet every man, woman, and child has the right to live.”24Guida West Papers, Smith College, box 25, folder 13; see also Wilson Sherwin and Frances Fox Piven, “The Radical Feminist Legacy of the National Welfare Rights Organization,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 47, no. 3–4 (2019): 135–53. The point that work never provided the working class with enough money to survive was central to the interventions welfare activists sought to make: poverty isn’t an exceptional but rather a constitutive feature of wage work for the working class. This reasoning resonates closely with an argument frequently made by many abolitionists, including Mariame Kaba who asserts, “The system isn’t broken but highly functioning just as the powers that be intended.”25Marquita K. Harris, “#WarriorWednesdays: Why Mariame Kaba Is Our Very Own Modern Day Abolitionist,” Essence, October 24, 2020.

Similarly, welfare rights activists asserted that poverty and unemployment were not remediable glitches of a broken system but rather intrinsic and necessary features of our economic system. In one of many NWRO pamphlets, organizers insightfully insisted on the function of poverty and unemployment in ways that mirror Marx’s analysis of surplus populations:

Our economic system is structured so there is always a large number of poor people. The poor are needed to fill millions of low paying jobs that sustain many industries in our country. When industry needs them, the poor are called to work. When industry doesn’t need them, many people must go on welfare or survive as best they can. By always having more people than available jobs, industry is guaranteed all the cheap labor it needs.26National Welfare Rights Organization, “The NWRO Adequate Income Program $7500 NOW!” Papers, Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC.

Welfare activists drew on then-contemporary debates over automation and the racialized injustices of American labor history, plus their own experiences in the workforce and on welfare alike to argue that improving or guaranteeing work would not address poverty. Instead, they sought to provide all in need with a guaranteed income, decoupled from work, parental status, or any other common conditions for aid. In other words, the movement mobilized for the abolition of the cruel capitalist compulsion to work or starve.

Rather than a world organized around violence and punitive, coercive logics which animate the carceral state no less than the work regime, abolitionists insist we must move towards a world in which people’s needs are actually met, in which care is valued above all. Self-directed community-based efforts were undeniably central to the transformative vision of the welfare rights movement, and it was only possible, in the movement’s conception, not by insisting on more or better jobs but rather on their absence. At a 1968 Senate hearing over welfare benefits, Beulah Sanders, a long time welfare recipient and movement organizer, argued against forcing women into the workforce as a means of insuring they would be able to participate in society. Refusing the false binary of productive workers or indolent housewives, she stated:

This is one of those things these people are worrying about, that they are going to be pushed into doing [low-wage jobs] when they can be much more valuable doing something else.…What they have that is going for them is the nitty-gritty stuff and that is out into the community, mixing with the people, finding out what their problems are, and trying to help solve those problems.27US Congress, 1968, Income Maintenance Programs: Proceedings. Joint Economic Committee, Subcommittee on Fiscal Policy, Income Maintenance Programs: Hearings, 90th Congress, second session, US Government Printing Office, 78–79.

Thus, by thinking in an abolitionist way, Sanders highlighted the advantages of freeing people to be helpful, productive, problem-solving agents in their communities.

The radical insights into wage labor under capitalism that welfare activists developed have often been overlooked by scholars in intervening years, but their radical contemporaries recognized and celebrated these bold activist-theorists as the visionary vanguard of a new working class.28See, for example, James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader, Stephen M. Ward, ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011). See also, Paolo Carpignano, “US Class Composition in the Sixties: Capital’s ‘New: Dimensions’: The Kennedy Initiative,” Zerowork, no. 1 (January 1974): 7–21. These contemporaries of the welfare rights movement situated the working class’s most revolutionary demands emerging not from within the factories but rather from those shut out of production who sought the “right to live” flourishing lives regardless of their job status and the value capitalism placed on their efforts.

Intersections

A crucial part of the abolitionist project has been challenging the alleged functions of carceral institutions—demonstrating that they fail at their putative purposes of preventing, adjudicating, or repairing harms. Abolitionist analyses have been enormously thorough in illuminating the failures of the carceral state to achieve these (necessary and valid) objectives as well as providing road maps for how these desired outcomes might be better pursued under different institutional arrangements. But it remains insufficient to point out what the carceral state doesn’t achieve.

We must also understand what it is actually achieving and what structural compulsions operate to make it appear as a rational set of responses to the problems capitalism generates. Rigorous leftists understand it is both politically and intellectually ineffective (although admittedly sometimes emotionally satisfying) to attribute the cause of capital’s violences to moral bankruptcy on the part of capitalists. Under capitalism, people do not, for example, pay their employees miserable wages and deny them benefits because they are cruel sadists (although some of them undoubtedly are). Rather, a critical leftist analysis requires us to understand the structural compulsions at play in a capitalist system, like the pressures that force capitalists to compete with each other, cutting costs wherever possible. These kinds of insights are necessary to understand what kinds of changes are possible within capitalism, where it can be stretched and altered, and where an abolitionist approach is necessary.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s now classic Golden Gulag argues against the simplistic “new slavery” analysis promoted by some reformers, which imagines that the carceral state functions to generate profits by expropriating the surplus labor of unfree people forced to work at subminimum wages.29Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). Instead, Gilmore underscores that the carceral state mediates capitalist profits in more subtle ways, one of which is that it functions as a way of dealing with surplus populations, people who are deemed redundant to the needs of capital and who, for that reason, need to find other ways of getting by.

Gilmore recounts an insight from California’s chair of the State Task Force on Youth Gang Violence, who in Gilmore’s words, “expressed the overlap between presumptions of violence and the exigencies of everyday reproduction” when he wrote: “We are talking about well-organized, drug-dealing, dangerously armed and profit motivated young hoodlums who are engaged in the vicious crimes of murder, rape, robbery, extortion and kidnapping as a means of making a living.”30Ibid., 113 Although dispossession of any other means of survival is adequate to force many, perhaps most, who can to sell their labor time in the formal capitalist labor market, it remains an insufficient compulsion for all.

One major function of policing, and the carceral state writ large—historically and today—is surveilling, punishing, and making a negative example out of those who dare resist performing the dramaturgy of wage labor, or who for various reasons cannot. As Stuart Hall and co-authors remind us, “Marx observes how the criminal law and the penal system are related to this disciplining of even the most recalcitrant sectors of the potential labor force to the habits of wage labor.”31Stuart Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978), 210. “Criminality” has long functioned as a way of delineating between the deserving and undeserving poor, serving not just as punishment for those who flout the compulsion of wage work but also as a brutal dissuasion for those who dare consider it.

We may understand criminalized “profit-motivated” people as refusing—with a different possible exit from the labor market than the welfare rights activists of the 1960s and ’70s—the compulsion to “work or starve.”  In a society in which innumerable people feel there is no point to their jobs, where wages are so low that most American workers could not afford a $1,000 emergency,32Shirin Ali, “Survey Finds Over Half of Americans Can’t Afford a $1,000 Emergency,” The Hill, January 19, 2022. where bosses can inflict interpersonal violence, both psychological and physical, in addition to stealing wages, it is only rational that some people will forsake employment and seek other means of meeting their needs.

Arguing for the reapportionment of funds to create more good jobs appears much like the liberal, dead end hope that better trained cops or cleverly designed prisons might make these institutions tolerable.

Within the context of the widespread misery so many people experience because of work, abolitionists must revisit their attachment to this institution more critically. If employment is also an institution born of violence and coercion, one which perpetuates myriad forms of harm throughout society, why should anyone insist on it as the path towards liberation? Through this critical lens, arguing for the reapportionment of funds to create more good jobs appears much like the liberal, dead-end hope that better trained cops or cleverly designed prisons might make these institutions tolerable. But wage work and the carceral state share too many parallels and intersections for that suggestion to make sense for avowed anticapitalists and abolitionists.

 

The All Too Predictable Rejoinder and the Resurgence of Antiwork Politics

Adversaries of these analyses of wage work are quick to protest, “But how will anything get done in society if people aren’t forced to work?!” In much the same way carceral-state abolitionists are faced with the frequent and tiring rejoinder “What about the murderers and rapists?” The answer to both questions is similar: the compulsion of labor under the threat of starvation is a poor mechanism for ensuring that people’s needs are met, just as policing is a poor mechanism for addressing violence. Neither institution achieves the aims they claim to: for most people, work is not a fulfilling use of one’s day but rather a source of alienation and stress, while the goods and services working people most need are often inaccessible or unaffordable because they are not deemed profitable investments for capitalists. Likewise, preventing and repairing harms caused by violence is certainly much needed, but that is far from the work undertaken by the police and prisons.

In both cases, rather than actually meeting individual and social needs, abdicating these crucial tasks to institutions of wage work and the carceral state generates ecological devastation, rampant alienation, and a dearth of access to what is genuinely needed. Neither paying people $15 an hour, as advocates of the Green New Deal suggest, nor providing more sensitivity training to police could come close to addressing the structural inequities these institutions perpetuate. Poignantly, as the welfare rights movement argued, and more recently as the George Floyd protests forcefully demonstrated, when people are free from work, they are more likely to mobilize collectively and fight for solutions to the problems facing their communities.33This argument is further developed in my article, “Time for Rabble Rousing,” in Craig J. Calhoun and Benjamin Y. Fong, eds., The Green New Deal and the Future of Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022).

Prompted perhaps by two years of working under a pandemic, during which innumerable people died as the result of being forced to go into work,34“Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2021,” AFL–CIO, May 4, 2021, https://aflcio.org/reports/death-job-toll-neglect-2021. and those lucky enough to work from home, contrary to any humane logic, wound up working longer hours than before, a remarkable sea change in the way people envision their relationship to wage work has occurred in recent months. Month after month in 2021 and 2022 saw the highest rates on record of workers quitting their jobs, a social movement of sorts dubbed by journalists “The Great Resignation.” The subreddit thread “antiwork,” which had as its motto “unemployment for all, not just the rich!” became the fastest growing page on the popular website with millions of members. The shift was visible internationally as well: China, for example, saw the emergence of “laying flat,” a movement of young people rejecting the valorization of work and career devotion.

These various articulations of disdain for wage work, and people’s collective encouragements for finding ways of eschewing the compulsion to perform it, remain far from the cohesive, collective politics of carceral state abolition. The current movement for carceral abolition is undeniably the boldest contemporary inheritance of the long genealogy of freedom struggles under capitalism, and it is certainly past time that anticapitalists and abolitionists include more critical analyses about the place of wage labor in a free society. Like the abolitionist movement’s remarkable rise to mainstream recognition, the rapid emergence of antiwork politics during the pandemic demonstrates that these ideas are sparks, ever present in the working class and waiting to combust given the right conditions.

  1. Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (New York: The New Press, 1997).
  2. “IFF News Releases,” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/iif/.
  3. Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios, “The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States,” Management Science 62, no. 2 (February 2016): 608–28.
  4. Elyse Shaw, Ariane Hegewisch, and Cynthia Hess, “Sexual Harassment and Assault at Work: Understanding the Costs,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, October 15, 2018.
  5. Steven Sauter et al., “Stress…At Work,” National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Publication No. 99–101 (1999), https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/default.html.
  6. Elizabeth Anderson and Stephen Macedo, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), University Center for Human Values Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
  7. Some key abolitionist texts to which I refer, if not explicitly, include Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Astra Publishing House, 2021); Mariame Kaba, We Do This ’til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2021); Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003); and Alex S. Vitale, The End of Policing, reprint (London: Verso, 2018). 
  8. Angela Y. Davis, “Why Arguments against Abolition Inevitably Fail,” Medium, October 6, 2020.
  9. Mariame Kaba, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” New York Times, June 12, 2020.
  10. One notable exception to this seeming consensus appears in Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013) in which they articulate their aspirations as “The abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage.”
  11. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2022).
  12. Polish Economist Adam Przeworski reminds us: “Socialism was to be a society in which people individually would acquire control over their lives because their existence would no longer be an instrument of survival and people would collectively acquire control over shared resources and efforts because their allocation would be a subject of joined deliberation and rational choice. Socialism was not a movement for full employment but for the abolition of wage slavery: it was not a movement for efficiency but for collective rationality; it was not a movement for equality but for freedom.” Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy, reprint, Studies in Marxism and Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993), 243.
  13. Karl Marx and Lucio Colletti, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, reprint (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), 325–26.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Karl Marx, Wage-Labor and Capital and Value, Price, and Profit (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 39.
  16. Ibid., 32.
  17. Lucy E. Parsons, Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity: Writings & Speeches, 1878–1937, Gale Aherns, ed. (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2004), 8.
  18. Ibid., 159.
  19. Mariame Kaba, “Police Reforms You Should Always Oppose,” Truthout, December 7, 2014, and Naomi Murakawa, “Police Reform Works—For the Police,” Department of African American Studies, Princeton University, October 26, 2020, https://aas.princeton.edu/news/police-reform-works-police
  20. Academics’ unique position as workers with what Stanley Aronowitz once called “the last good job” is a key reason why academics have failed to grapple with criticisms of wage work writ large, despite many of them identifying as anticapitalists.
  21. Robin D. G. Kelley, “What Abolition Looks Like, from the Panthers to the People,” Medium, October 26, 2020.
  22. See my forthcoming article, “‘Nothing But Joy’: The Welfare Rights Movement’s Antiwork Freedom Dream” in Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society.
  23. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1978); Guida West, The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women (New York: Praeger, 1981); Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  24. Guida West Papers, Smith College, box 25, folder 13; see also Wilson Sherwin and Frances Fox Piven, “The Radical Feminist Legacy of the National Welfare Rights Organization,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 47, no. 3–4 (2019): 135–53.
  25. Marquita K. Harris, “#WarriorWednesdays: Why Mariame Kaba Is Our Very Own Modern Day Abolitionist,” Essence, October 24, 2020.
  26. National Welfare Rights Organization, “The NWRO Adequate Income Program $7500 NOW!” Papers, Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC.
  27. US Congress, 1968, Income Maintenance Programs: Proceedings. Joint Economic Committee, Subcommittee on Fiscal Policy, Income Maintenance Programs: Hearings, 90th Congress, second session, US Government Printing Office, 78–79.
  28. See, for example, James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader, Stephen M. Ward, ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011). See also, Paolo Carpignano, “US Class Composition in the Sixties: Capital’s ‘New: Dimensions’: The Kennedy Initiative,” Zerowork, no. 1 (January 1974): 7–21.
  29. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  30. Ibid., 113.
  31. Stuart Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (London: Macmillan, 1978), 210. 
  32. Shirin Ali, “Survey Finds Over Half of Americans Can’t Afford a $1,000 Emergency,” The Hill, January 19, 2022. 
  33. This argument is further developed in my article, “Time for Rabble Rousing,” in Craig J. Calhoun and Benjamin Y. Fong, eds., The Green New Deal and the Future of Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022).
  34. “Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, 2021,” AFL–CIO, May 4, 2021, https://aflcio.org/reports/death-job-toll-neglect-2021.
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