Saturday, July 16, 2016

Utopias to Utopia: David Frayne's "The Refusal of Work: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work"

This is an interesting text since I haven’t thought much myself about the systemic disalienation of your labor as a point of protest. The first chapters of Frayne’s book introduces me to several thinkers I have never heard of, and takes ideas from those who are more familiar, back to old grandfather Karl. But for me the Marxian framework is more about refiguring the ownership of the labor output than direct nonwork. Frayne goes back to Keynes to show that there was a leisure trade-off that was once thought inevitable that was instead traded for more consumption.

The theoretical beginning is interesting, but the book really gained steam when the author talks to people who have removed themselves from the labor force for some kind of idleness or aggressive loafing. I’m being too facile here, since each person he talks to has their own unique perspective on what they wanted to gain through work and what they want and are enjoying through not work. The idea of these individual utopias is nice, but when I was reading I couldn’t help but think that this removal will always be a niche thing since capitalism is touching even those who try to remove themselves from the economic system.

This concern is taken up in the last chapters, where Frayne takes the call from the individual and tries to make it part of a larger program where we can still meet our material needs but also think of our leisure time as ours and not the time we have when we (like I am right now) just plugging away because it is when you are not at work - this definition of free time is dependent on what you are free from. It’s not just time. I’m skeptical, since work is so definitional of who we are. Kids are defined by their parents work, students are defined by what they’re studying towards, and then you become something by having a title and a business card and you can finally define who you are by how you make your money. I had a bit of this myself. I was unemployed for two years and uncertain of what the next thing that was going to happen to me. I then worked myself so that I was chosen to be on the show Jeopardy!. How do they introduce you there? Your name, what you do, and then where you’re from. I was called an “Educator” though I haven’t been in front of a classroom in the five years since.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and made me want to read more in the subject. It did have its deficiencies though. First was that the citations to the texts were done in-text, like a student’s paper. This was distracting since it didn’t usually offer the text in introduction, so if I wanted to track down the text, I’d have to go to the index anyways. But it also had the year of the cited work, not the year of the original publication. This meant that the citation was something like “(Marx, 1959)”. And I know my buddy Karl wasn’t active in that year so it was distracting. This was a lesser issue in the middle chapters. The other concern is that the interviews were just a handful of anecdotes, and not hard comparable data, so the conclusions from a dozen interviews may not be applicable on a broader, more international basis.