Short Thoughts On Work and Freedom

When people talk about freedom, there seems to be an assumption that one speaks of a Freedom to Work. Man is entitled to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – it is known that original this was the pursuit of Property, but was changed to something vaguer. When contemporary libertarians and neoliberals speak of liberty, they often frame it as a freedom to work. They speak of the right to property, the free market, the ability to pull oneself up from one’s bootstraps and succeed, and what this means is a perception of one being free to work for oneself. The liberal argument posits that this individual freedom is inherently unfair because the desire of the individual to succeed in such a society inherently leads to taking freedoms from others: one takes the profits from another’s labor, charges for basic needs, and (at worst) takes life itself. Liberalism, therefore, fights for a form of “moral freedom,” not freedom-from-morals, but a freedom-within-bounds of morals. Liberalism seeks to redistribute freedom as property and necessities. However, liberalism still seeks to construct its rhetoric as freedom-to-work. Progressive politics are often criticized for coddling individuals, dis-incentivizing work: food stamps, health care, and public housing (it is said) remove any incentive for individuals to work for themselves. Whether this is true is an argument I cannot currently solve within our society.

What I would like to see examined is the paradox that occurs within this modern assumption of freedom as work for oneself. Namely I would ask: why is it assumed that freedom necessitates work? Shouldn’t a truly free society, even a morally free society, have a freedom to not work? What I am speaking of here is not an attempt at some kind of Kropotkinian Utopia, of commune-as-state. I am not looking to define or outline new systems, merely critiquing the apparent ideology of work that current defines our politics. Work is now discussed as a goal in-and-of-itself. One works to work. Ideally, within an automated society, the necessity of work should diminish. Certainly there has been a growth of free time, but there’s also a transformation of play-into-work. Our culture is simultaneously promoting a fantasy of luxury and a political necessity of work, work as commodity. The luxurious fantasy is never explained, it has no source but a generalized “work.” The luxury is something primordial – it just exists – and the lucky few who find the right work achieve that luxury. If there is a new fissure that must be made within the current socio-political climate, it is the gap that exists between automation and work: it is the need for diminishing of work. If automation is allowed to diminish the necessity of work, then by allowing for the space of unique, creative activities (here unique meaning that which is not mass-produced) then capitalism is, in a sense, ended: the activity of creation – artisan-ship – takes the place of capital. Mass-production as an end-in-itself, and thereby work as an end-in-itself, is gone.

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