Frayne, David. The refusal of work

Frayne, D. (2015) The refusal of work: The theory and practice of the refusal of work [versión para lector digital]. Zed Books

“These cultures of cynicism can undoubtedly act as important weapons in labour struggles, though they will only be effective if workers are also committed to the idea that an alternative is really possible. Fleming and Spicer argue that, by itself, cynicism can actually represent a very conservative force:

… cynical employees are given (and give themselves) the impression that they are autonomous agents, but they still practice the corporate rituals nevertheless. When we dis-identify with our prescribed social roles we often still perform them – sometimes better, ironically, than if we did identify with them.”


Cynicism is a form of rebellion that often leaves the foundations of power intact. Much like the ‘culture of fun’ management styles mentioned earlier in this book, cynicism can accommodate workers to their subordinate position by allowing them to enjoy a modicum of superficial freedom. Fleming and Spicer give the memorable example of a McDonald’s worker who dis-identifies with the company values (of teamwork, cleanliness, customer service and so on) by secretly wearing a ‘McShit’ T-shirt underneath her uniform. The authors argue that whilst her transgressive taste in fashion may allow her to preserve a sense of individuality, her dis-identification is ultimately superficial, so long as she continues to act as if she believes in the company values (pag 410)

Escape attempts in the form of role-distancing, cynicism and dis-identification provide a valuable breathing space in which we can feel less trammelled by work demands and more like ourselves, yet they also allow us to go on tolerating the confines of our roles: ‘The fact that we can regard with amusement the conventions of university or office life and our roles as teachers or managers, actually ensures that we remain within those conventions and these roles’ (Cohen and Taylor, 1992: 56). Like watching a profitable anti- capitalist film at the weekend, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, or ‘liking’ a political page on Facebook, cynicism often represents what Mark Fisher calls a ‘gestural’ type of rebellion – an act of resistance that provides an illusion of empowerment, whilst ultimately leaving the world unchanged (Fisher, 2009). (pag 410)

Like refrains, commodified pleasures tend to be fleeting and temporary, not to mention the fact that their enjoyment depends on a steady source of income. Whilst I do not want to submit to a kind of ‘no way out’ pessimism, I think it is important that we continue to ask ourselves whether the escape routes conventionally offered and sanctioned by capitalism represent an authentic form of liberation, or whether they only serve to reinforce our tolerance of the toxic situations from which we seek escape. If the desire for social alternatives is a fire that burns within us, I posit that the relatively harmless escape routes described above are like a fine mist of water over the flames – a mist that suppresses them, if never fully putting them out. While we are busy cynically mocking our bosses in our minds, convincing others that we are more than the job we do, or shelling out hard-earned money ondistractions from our alienation, time is passing us by and our bodies are getting older. The sanctioned escape routes from reality may often be enjoyable and therapeutic, but they are also self-negating and temporary, cultivating our tolerance and engraining us more deeply into the very situations from which we are seeking reprieve. (pag 413)

It is against the follies and contradictions of society’s most conventional escape routes that I want to position the anti-workers I met over the course of my research as representatives of a more redemptive alternative. These were people who believed that, through their own actions, it might be possible to change their lives for the better. I believe that what they were pushing for in their resistance to work – successfully or unsuccessfully – was a more permanent kind of escape than those described above. Perhaps ‘escape’ is not the right word at all: what they strove for was a more authentic sense of autonomy. For all the propaganda we hear about work as a source of good health and a way to ‘meet potential’, work so often seems to stand in the way of people realising what they are capable of in terms of their capacities for creation and co-operation. The people I met all felt themselves limited by their work roles, and were trying to carve out a space in which they were free to develop a range of interests and capabilities. (pag 413)

human felicity depends upon developing a sense of continuity between values and actions. It was, after all, in the painful gap between these two things – between ideals and reality – that unhappiness had bred and the breaking point had sprung. In the simplest possible terms, we can note that people are happier when they have more time to do the things they want to do. Depending on how seriously we are willing to take it, this realisation has the capacity to be incredibly banal or incredibly profound:

It may seem somewhat obvious to suggest that people are happier when they are doing things that satisfy them physically and mentally, but despite the ostensible banality of this statement, it is amazing how few people seem to achieve this in their daily lives, how little time people manage to have for themselves, how few sunrises we see, how minimal the proportion of time we spend with our loved ones is. (O’Mahoney, 2014: 242) (pag 416)

Over the previous few chapters of this book, I have tried to show the good moral sense in people’s reasons for resisting work. By paying attention to the self-understandings of anti-workers, I have tried to provide a revitalising break from prevailing social stereotypes of the non-worker as a social deviant, lacking a moral compass and leading an empty life. My hope is that the insights contained in these chapters contribute to a denaturalisation of work and its centrality in modern society. Over the course of the analysis, we have seen some of the ways in which resistance to work can be made tenable. We have seen the ways in which dependency on income can be happily reduced, and we have seen some of the strategies that people use to insulate themselves against the stigma and sense of isolation that come with resisting work in a work-centred society. Overall, it appeared that some of the people I met had been successful in pushing work out of their lives, and would continue to enjoy this success for at least the immediate future. Their stories are a testament to the power of individual agency. Whilst I recognise this, however, I ultimately maintain that attempts to resist work on an individual basis are very limited. (pag 416)

For thinkers such as André Gorz, introduced towards the beginning of this book, resistance to work was always conceived as a collective rather than an individual project. It follows that any serious attempt to engage in a critique of work must always go beyond questions of individual ethics and enjoyment to consider the prospects for a more widespread revaluation of work, as well as the establishment of structural changes that might provide the basis for everybody to enjoy a greater degree of freedom. (pag 416)

Ethical reflection and self-critique are an important part of any confrontation with the work dogma. But challenging this dogma must also be about social critique and collective political action. Where to go next is not an individual but a social choice. (pag 419)