Utopia: The Abolition of Work (as a Four Letter Word)

In my last ‘Utopia’ article, I tried to explain exactly what ‘communism’ means. I sketched it as being:

“a form of society where production of resources is organised collectively; where everyone has free access to goods and services, and political decisions are taken democratically – i.e. there are no politicians, because everyone has an equal say.”

That’s all very well, you might argue, but what about all the work? Who is going to clean the floors after the revolution, if anyone can get whatever they need for free? It’s said that Karl Marx jokingly replied “You will!” when a heckler posed this question at a meeting. But in reality, communists envisage our relationship to work being transformed by working class revolution. Many communists speculate that the worst jobs could be shared out equally, or even abolished altogether.

One hundred and twenty years ago, when technological innovation was in its infancy compared with today, Oscar Wilde proposed that:

“All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.”

If we consider it for a moment, we can see that many of the jobs in modern society do not contribute towards the satisfaction of human needs. Instead, they are needed to keep capitalism running. The distinctly utopian Socialist Party of Great Britain list the following “redundant” jobs, and many more could be added to the list:

“legal workers, chartered accountants, cost accountants, estimators, valuers, claims assessors, underwriters, brokers, taxation workers, marketing and sales personnel, advertisers, social security workers, cashiers and check-out assistants, police, prison workers, security guards, charities, armies, navies, air forces, armament workers, defence establishments etc.”

Of these, the ‘loss’ of the ‘defence industry’ would perhaps be the most significant. If all the hours that scientists currently spend researching newer and better weapons were put instead towards healthcare, or exploring space, the beneficial advances would be far greater than we could possibly imagine in 2011.

The textile designer, artist and writer William Morris wrote extensively on this subject, and crystalised his ideas in Useful Work versus Useless Toil. Morris believed that even if all of the above had been put into practice, variety of work must become commonplace, because “To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison-torment.” In Morris’ utopia, people “might easily learn and practise at least three crafts, varying sedentary occupation with outdoor – occupation calling for the exercise of strong bodily energy for work in which the mind had more to do.” This would all be possible once property was held in common, because:

“…young people would be taught such handicrafts as they had a turn for as a part of their education, the discipline of their minds and bodies; and adults would also have opportunities of learning in the same schools, for the development of individual capacities would be of all things chiefly aimed at by education, instead, as now, the subordination of all capacities to the great end of “money-making” for oneself – or one’s master.”

To conclude, I can do no better than to quote the American anarchist Bob Black:

“Liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists – except that I’m not kidding – I favor full unemployment. Trotskyists agitate for permanent revolution. I agitate for permanent revelry.”