What might a world without work look like?

As ideas of employment become more obscure and desperate, 2013 is the perfect time to ask what it means to live without it.


A few months before the financial crash hit, the National Lottery issued a new kind of scratchcard. At £5 a go – the more expensive end of the range – it offered the chance to win £40,000 a year, every year, for the rest of your life. Howard Groves, the director of game development, described the idea in the following way: “It’s about not having to put up with life’s everyday irritants.”

The card proved successful, despite its cost, and a new version in 2009 is still selling well. Everything that is carried in the hope of the card – life (how long might I live for?), security (how might I care for myself and others?) and leisure (what might I do with my free time?) – is really code for a life without work. The “everyday irritants” identified by the card-makers pose an important question: is work one of these “irritants”? Perhaps even the largest irritant of all?

As with all major institutional entities – law, prison, education – to question work is to tamper with reality itself. As with law, prison and education, it is almost always “never a good time” to talk about reform, or the abolition of existing structures. The ideological mishmash represented by the word itself is worth examining. Paid employment is an economic necessity for all but a tiny percentage of the population, but “work” is tied up with miasmic qualities that touch on social and even quasi-religious elements: identity, status, community, habit, duty.

The Tories, as ever, seek to exploit these complex social, moral and economic factors in the crassest way possible. Just as the “big society” sought to cynically exploit genuine fellow feeling by turning social and cultural life into an unstable amalgam of philanthropy and volunteering – thus eliminating the role of state provision – the recent campaign opposing “strivers” to “scroungers” and pledging to support “workers not shirkers” is an opportunistic mobilisation of the residual idea that to work is to be a good person. This idea, reinforced by TV shows (The Fairy Jobmother, for example), implies that to be unemployed is a personal, moral failing, and that if you just tried harder, got a haircut or on your bike, or changed your attitude, employment would fall into your lap like a leaf dropped by a benevolent Job-God.

The reality of attempting to make work a moral, personal issue, rather than a global, structural, economic one has devastating consequences, not only on those who are unemployed or precariously employed, but on those deemed “fit to work” when manifestly they are not. The stripping of disability benefits by Atos and the Department for Work and Pensions did little to push those deemed fit to work into jobs, but left many impoverished and suicidal. When work is used as a moral stick to beat the population with, it is clear that the imperative is less to actually employ people than to cut government spending, with the bonus that the most vulnerable can be used as political scapegoats.

Campaigns against unpaid work as a condition of receiving benefits – workfare – and cuts affecting disabled people have drawn out the truth behind government schemes. Boycott Workfare and Disabled People Against Cuts, among others, have drawn repeated and serious attention to the punitive nature of deeming people fit for work, or attempting to place people in jobs when the jobs don’t exist or are unpaid. The value of labour as such – from internships across the creative industries and media to the pittance paid to factory workers across the world – is deliberately undermined by those who profit from it, as it always has been. But as wages bear less and less relation to the cost of living, it seems as good a time as any to ask if the underlying fantasy is that employers will one day be able to pay their workers nothing at all, because all those issues like housing, food, clothing, childcare will somehow be dealt with in another, mysterious, way.

In the current state of the UK economy, as identified by John Lanchester, the labour market looks very strange: The “truly weird and not at all understood fact is that this self-same economy has been energetically producing jobs. In the quarter to October, in the middle of this Stygian economic gloom, the British economy added 82,000 jobs. That’s an all-time quarterly record. From the normal economic perspective, this makes almost no sense.”

As Lanchester notes, these jobs are part-time and low-paid; jobs with some security – those in the public sector where women dominate – are being eliminated, for good if the Tories have their way. Employment, presented as an all-encompassing existential imperative, nevertheless exists less and less to provide a living, let alone a life.

But against this backdrop – rising inflation, increasing job insecurity, geographically asymmetrical unemployment, attacks on the working and non-working populations, and cuts to benefits – a debate about what work is and what it means has been taking place. Some discussions at Occupy focused on what an anti-work (or post-work) politics might mean, and campaigns not only for a living wage but for a guaranteed, non-means-tested “citizen’s income” are gathering pace.

The chances of a scratchcard winning you a life without work are of course miniscule, but as what it means to work becomes both more obscure and increasingly desperate, 2013 might be the perfect time to ask what work is, what it means, and what it might mean to live without it. As Marx put it in his 1880 proposal for a workers’ inquiry: “We hope to meet … with the support of all workers in town and country who understand that they alone can describe with full knowledge the misfortunes from which they suffer and that only they, and not saviours sent by providence, can energetically apply the healing remedies for the social ills that they are prey to.”

In other words, the best place to start would be with those who have a relation to work as such – which is to say nearly everyone, employed or otherwise.