Well, I Quit
Anti-Work Discourse Against the Neoliberal Utopia
by Jess Lipka
“I worked as a museum guard for a global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused. My job was to guard that empty room, ensuring no museum guests touched the, well, nothing in the room... That was it.”1
The demands of economic life present themselves as a mass of confusing trivialities. One can feel nothing but dread at the prospect of working and consuming until the end. We are told to go to work and do what we would rather not, desire what we don’t understand, and achieve what leaves us empty. Unsurprisingly, the anti-work specter has risen once again. In September 2021, over 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs, the highest number on record.2 The Reddit page r/antiwork has reached 1.2 million members, doubling in the past few months alone. The phenomenon has produced handwringing from economists3, politicians4, investment banks5, and business owners6.
Much of this analysis speculates about the motives of angry workers without consulting the freshly resigned. The grumblings, cathartic bursts of anger, and desperate musings on r/antiwork are a window into the anti-work worldview. How is it that the surge in dropping out represents a failure of the American neoliberal utopia on a subjective level? It seems to me that workers decreasingly see themselves as bearers of human capital attracting an income stream, and are returning to a notion of homo economicus based on exchange and labor time. With this shift in the identity of the worker, what are potential directions for capital’s reaction to the Great Resignation?
The Neoliberal Utopia
Who is the worker according to the neoliberal project? In the first place, the neoliberal worker is a critique of the worker of classical political economy. Describing labor in the Ricardian conception, Foucault writes: “There is a neutralization of the nature itself of labor to… this single quantitative variable of hours of work and time.”7 The type of work done is infinitely exchangeable, possessing nothing but an abstract universal measure of time spent laboring.
The neoliberals enter into their analysis of work on a different basis, asking, “How [do] the qualitative differences of work… have an economic type of effect[?]”8 They answer with a definition of labor, saying, “Labor comprises capital… it is an ability, a skill; as they say: it is a ‘machine’. And on the other side it is an income, a wage, or rather, a set of wages; as they say: an earnings stream.”9 Put more succinctly, every worker is an “entrepreneur of himself.”10 According to the neoliberal project of the last half century, work is not alienated and sold.11 Their concrete labor consists of developing specific skills and abilities over a lifetime of training and education. The money a worker earns as a wage is determined by the level of development of his concrete ability.
The influential American economist Gary Becker describes “human capital,” arguing, “for the present an increased amount of human capital… is assumed to affect only wage rates. Each person produces his own human capital by using some of his time and goods to attend ‘school,’ receive on-the-job training, etc.”12 Each worker emerges as their own product, a product that if developed assiduously will faithfully attract a higher income. It is precisely this connection between training and wage rates that is most strongly disputed on r/antiwork.
Mainstream economic analysis clings to the notion of human capital to explain the current slower-than-expected job growth, despite the unintelligibility of such a worldview to workers. Unemployment is currently at 4.6%, a number much lower than at the beginning of pandemic lockdowns, but still higher than the 3.5% figure of February 2020.13 Searching for answers, some institutions invoke the “skills gap,” presenting the familiar human capital-centered understanding of unemployment. At Davos in January 2020, the World Economic forum launched the “Reskilling Revolution,” an initiative to provide workers with training and education.14 Describing the economic problems resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the WEF implores: “The COVID-19 economic shock has made the skills gap broader and the need to close it more urgent.” They suggest that “employers double down on retraining workers and that governments proactively build provisions around upskilling and reskilling into the massive fiscal stimulus they are injecting into economies to best prepare workers for the post-pandemic economy.” They would have us believe that unemployment is the result of impoverished human capital, with workers too unskilled to warrant compensation.
The self-understanding of resigning and unemployed workers runs fiercely counter to the notion of the skills gap. If anything, members of r/antiwork feel themselves to be overqualified and underpaid. Workers and ex-workers express an understanding of their labor and pay as abstract and exchangeable. For them, what determines pay and employability is not skill level, but the power relation between bosses and workers.
Instead of their abilities being hard-won parts of their identity, workers are confronted with skill as something alien to themselves. Skill is demanded of workers, so they oblige, undergoing years of training. All sorts of promises are made to entice them into being molded for a job yet to be filled. They work hard and sacrifice their autonomy in order to be what is expected. Hiding behind specific benchmarks and milestones is the general injunction to strive and to find meaning in personal growth.
Do not stop developing yourself as human capital. This is the ultimate demand placed upon the neoliberal subject. “Find your passion!”, “Love what you do!”, Apply yourself!'' A properly subjectivized neoliberal subject derives meaning from their constant self-production. This search for meaning is the metaphysics of human capital. A blow to the notion of human capital is a blow to the metaphysics giving the spectacle purpose. But the meaning found by growing one’s human capital depends on the fulfillment of material and spiritual promises. The person with a decade of education who cannot find work paying more than minimum wage will naturally long for a different way to live. What sets of meanings and values can be drawn from the discourse on r/antiwork? What kind of world do its members feel that they currently live in and how would they like it to be different? How do they want to live their lives?
Over and over again on r/antiwork we find a lamentation of the fact that human capital development does not result in higher income streams for individuals. One post complains that getting a master’s degree is only adding extra steps to living paycheck to paycheck.15 A commenter replies that they just got a law degree and are still making less than a factory salary.16 Another member writes that the woman who delivers their pizza has a master’s degree.17 Rather than filling workers with pride at their accomplishments, advanced degrees stare back mockingly at their possessors, a reminder of the pointlessness of the neoliberal existence.
The American Dream is dead. No matter how hard one works, it is only an ugly facade. “Do you even care if you’re ‘successful’ anymore?”: “I mean the white picket fence, stable job, and spouse and kids, dream. Like there’s no way I can get that unless I magically land a high paying job and the housing market crashes. I’ve just accepted I might never be successful from working in this system.”18 This poster views finding success as arbitrary or magical. You can’t prepare to be successful, you either are or you aren’t. They are an unsuccessful entrepreneur, robbed of a purpose and a future. This is the response of a person who has developed their human capital and received nothing in return.
What replaces the shattered worldview of the failed entrepreneur? We see a reactionary return to a previous notion of work. In the first place, the anti-work worker clings to the notion of fair exchange: work reemerges as an exchange of labor power over an amount of time for the means of subsistence. Then, despairing over the time lost to work even in a fair exchange, the worker retreats to the realm of necessity in order to limit their loss of time. The ideal life of a member of r/anti-work is one where the hours during the day spent working are limited to the greatest degree.
Establishing a just labor market is discussed in terms of pressuring bosses. On r/antiwork, there are dozens and dozens of posts calling the large number of resignations a “strike.”19 The embrace of not working as a strike tactic suggests that wage rates are connected to the power relations between workers and owners. My own human capital isn’t producing the wage I want, these newly unemployed say, but maybe a work stoppage can. What is at issue in this perspective is whether workers can force employers to pay more. The desire for a re-balanced labor market finds its ultimate expression in a post salivating over the notion of “flipping burgers” for $350,000/year.20 This would certainly be a better deal for the worker, and according to r/antiwork the fulfillment of higher wages comes down to who has control, workers or owners.
Is There Life After Work?
What looms beneath the surface of the general r/antiwork discourse is the utter meaninglessness of a world organized by work. The condemnation of pay and conditions does not push past the world structured by work, leaving out the task of building a world worth living in. We’ve seen what members think about the neoliberal utopia and how they plan to get what they want (i.e. by reasserting a more powerful position in the exchange of labor power for money), but we have not yet seen how they want to live. This is because this is the least formulated part of the contemporary anti-work worldview. One commenter asks sarcastically: “Who could have thought that demanding nearly every waking hour for ceaseless toil despite workers not being able to afford houses or families or anything that makes it worth it, would turn workers off of work entirely?”21 Two things are significant about this post. First, the commenter feels forced into an unfair bargain: work for your whole life and still you will be poor. Second, work is not rejected as such, rather “ceaseless toil” is. Presumably, if there were a better work-life balance, then the commenter would be unbothered.
Unable to conceive of a world without work, commenters on r/antiwork pine for reducing the amount of necessary labor, even to the point of embracing isolation. Crudely sketched primitive fantasies abound. In response to a post regretting spending all of one’s youth working, someone replies with the exhortation: “Be a minimalist.”22 One commenter says: “I've been fighting my whole life for the hopes of even a bare undeveloped plot of land.”23 Another adds: “All I want is a small bit of land and to be left alone with my family.”24 Confronted with a working time separate from their own desire and autonomy, workers are rejecting the notion of surplus labor.25 They would rather receive just enough to get by and escape civilization, meeting their material and social needs through the family. Work is compulsory drudgery, so why do more than necessary? And if being a part of this world means “ceaseless toil,” then workers may well decide to abandon the world. These posters would prefer to move to the woods and spend only a few hours a day working to secure their own subsistence, passing the rest of their time in leisure.
Time is still what oppresses the anti-workers. Defining success, someone writes: “Success would be having the time to appreciate all of that. Doesn't matter if I can get a house if I have to spend 80 hours a week out of it to even pay for it.”26 Life has been split in two: there is work and then there is enjoyment. In this world, we work because we have to, and once we’re done we rest. Work is thought of as an inevitable part of human existence, albeit one meant to be limited as much as possible.
In order to truly liberate ourselves from work, we must attack this very notion of life. The opposition between necessity and freedom is the foundation upon which work rests. A movement that is truly anti-work, that is a movement which wants to get rid of work rather than limit it, sets itself the task of living a collective life where productive and playful activity overlap.27 This means living together beyond economic rationality’s reductive and divisive logic. It doesn’t mean simply fighting for better wages, although it would be nice to be paid more. First and foremost, we must experiment in time unaccounted for. How can one be afraid of “losing time” when activity and play, experience and meaning are reunited? With all in common, there’s no separate realm to waste away in, simply a resutured experience. For those looking to live in a world without work: meet each other, leave the internet, and together, discover a different way to live.
The other obstacle to the anti-work movement is the adaptability of capital. The paths for capitalist development are many, but here I will only focus on the changes occurring in retail, in order to demonstrate some ways that capital may handle a rising and falling surplus population.
It’s obvious that the unemployed on r/antiwork are not beyond the circuits of capital. The stated goal of increasing wages makes this plain enough. The high demand for labor may draw workers back into employment as wages increase, returning large numbers to the misery of the workplace.28 The transitory situation of the anti-work community is highlighted by this story of a person who quit their corporate job. The author indicates that they “have a PT gig lined up which should cover the bills.”29 Another commenter relays a similar story, concluding, “For probably the next 6 years he was switching jobs every 18 months to 2 years.”30 It seems clear that many of the workers who have quit over the past months only did so once a replacement paycheck was already in place, no matter how temporary. Many resigning workers will only be temporarily out of work, or possibly interminably precariously employed. In both these cases, their specific relation to the surplus pool of labor has changed, but not their status as a worker. It is analogous to the difference between a physical and chemical transformation—there has been a change in properties but not a change in substance.
As the Great Resignation adds to the population of surplus workers, industry is likely to adapt. We’ve seen significant changes take place in the organization of retail businesses over the past year or so. The remedies that retail businesses have identified as potentially solving their labor shortage are as follows: increases in wages, decreases in hours, decreases in part-time employment, store closings, and automation. In order to attract more workers, stores have begun to adopt company-wide $15/hr minimums—mimicking the cause championed by labor advocates, unions, organized workers, etc. in recent years. Amazon, Best Buy, Target, Costco, Sam’s Club, and Wayfair have each implemented starting rates of $15/hr. CVS and Walgreens have announced that they will follow.31 Recently resigned workers hoping for wage increases may indeed get what they want. Whether imposed by law or enacted by individual companies, pay may even continue to increase. If the unemployed bite on this proposal, then the deal will have improved while work remains.
Other companies propose shortening the work week. If what drives workers to quit is the feeling that they are wasting their time working, then why not make workers work less? Businesses such as Shake Shack and the clothing store Primary have each implemented four day work weeks and they’ve since experienced falling attrition rates.32 The argument is that workers with shorter weeks will feel less burnt out. In this way, especially coupled with pay increases, capital may find it easier to attract and retain workers. The result is that our dependence is kept intact, even if in an adapted form. It is likely that fewer available hours will increase the amount of workers relegated to the surplus population, with the heightened precarity of workers standing as a monument to the value of “work-life balance.” If the issue with work is simply how to reduce it, we remain trapped in a life split in two between time that is our own and time that is not.
Running counter to a decrease in hours is the attempt to limit the amount of precariously employed workers in retail. Target is leading in this effort. Target has pledged to reduce its seasonal hires and to give more hours to its current staff. Workers may be attracted to the consistency of the job, as well as the insurance benefits of full-time work.33 But there are also contradictory trends in retail. While Target is limiting hires from the surplus population, Macy’s and Kohl’s have announced a return to pre-COVID levels of holiday employment.34 The specific relationship of retail businesses to the surplus population is at issue here. To what extent should a business incorporate part-time and seasonal employees into its labor plan? Which path is the most profitable will largely depend on what workers do in response to the pressures of the moment.
The stock market is soaring and mergers and acquisitions are at an all time high.35 Tech and finance’s overflowing surplus of capital and rapid growth over the past year is the obverse of the sluggish performance of retail. Retail mergers lag far behind these other sectors.36 It's no wonder then that we’re beginning to see store closures. CVS recently announced that it will close 900 (10%) of its stores in the next three years.37 When times are hard, capital destroys what it built and moves on. These workers are being offered jobs at other locations, but it is without a doubt that some will simply join the unemployed. As stores close, workers are relieved of employment and thrown back into the surplus population. From here they can be reabsorbed by the more successful and adaptive businesses and sectors of the economy. There is a unity of creation and destruction, with one supporting the other.
Struggling retail may simply be an opportunity for tech, as is the case with CVS closing stores to focus on their “digital presence.” Other stores are launching online marketplaces as well. Some examples include thrift stores38, champagne makers39, and department stores40. This will both destroy old jobs and create new ones designed to operate the new digital infrastructure underpinning e-commerce. Companies have also used the crisis of the pandemic to test out self-checkout machines to replace cashiers. DSW, for instance, is hoping to use automated checkouts to reduce their labor needs and to remain profitable.41 The tech and finance sectors may grow as a result of such developments, but these industries likely demand far less labor than retail. The result will be that more workers are thrown out of retail than are absorbed by growing industries, increasing the surplus population and decreasing the bargaining power of those still employed.42
Capital is flexible. Businesses are already experimenting with solutions that would either allow them to withstand higher unemployment or to persuade the unemployed to give up their breakout attempts. While we can’t predict the specifics of the future, so long as we stay within the paradigm of work, capital will find a solution to the Great Resignation. The task is for the unemployed to avoid becoming “a class of workers who are ‘free’ not only of means of reproduction, but also of work itself.”43 That is possible only by ceasing to be a worker in any respect, and instead engaging in non-economic experiments rooted in struggles against capital’s world. Work is that which is separated out and accounted for as productive activity. The unit of accounting is time. My proposal to the anti-work movement is to start asking how we want to live in the present, and to abandon a world structured by work on the one hand and leisure on the other.
In the face of a broken world desperate to piece itself back together, we must hasten the collapse. The only way to end our dependence on capital is to end work. To end work is to take back our time, to reassert the unity of human experience. There is a need for an anti-work movement that experiments with alternatives to the economy. Only through projects in sharing and playful production can we provide a positive image of what a workless world might be. There is an opportunity for a radically different future in the millions of disaffected workers who have quit their jobs this fall, but being truly anti-work means pushing beyond the current discourse that fills the messageboards. Being anti-work means being for a different way of life. A way of life that is boundless in its imagination, joyous in its activity, and meaningful in its relationships. For work’s end and life’s beginning!
Worker quoted by David Graeber, “‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job,” The Guardian, May 4, 2018.
Ben Casselman, “The Number of U.S. Workers Quitting Their Jobs in September Was the Highest on Record,” New York Times, November 12, 2021.
Paul Krugman, “Wonking Out: Is the Great Resignation a Great Rethink,” New York Times, November 5, 2021.
Juliana Kaplan, “Biden on the worker shortage: Pay $15 an hour or ‘be in a bind for a little while,’” Business Insider, July 22, 2021.
David M. Solomon and Kenneth Adams, “Goldman Sachs CEO: One way to help solve the nation’s labor shortage,” CNN, October 1, 2021.
Kaenorr, “pay chasers,” Reddit, November 18, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qwvt1o/pay_chasers/
Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège De France (New York: Picador, 2004), 220.
The turn away from Marxism I have in mind is described by Foucault in Lecture Nine of Birth of Biopolitics on pages 220-221: “The neo-liberals practically never argue with Marx for reasons that we may think are to do with economic snobbery, it’s not important. But if they took the trouble to argue with Marx I think it is quite easy to see what they could say [about] his analysis. They would say: It is quite true that Marx makes labor the linchpin… of his analysis. But what does he do when he analyzes labor? What is it that he shows the worker sells? Not his labor, but his labor power. He sells his labor power for a certain time against a wage established on the basis of a given situation of the market corresponding to the balance between the supply and demand of labor power. And the work performed by the worker is work that creates value, part of which is extorted from him. Marx clearly sees in this process the very mechanics or logic of capitalism. And in what does this logic consist? Well, it consists in the fact that the labor in all this is ‘abstract,’ that is to say, the concrete labor transformed into labor power, measured by time, put on the market and and paid by wages, is not concrete labor’ it is labor that has been cut off from its human reality, from all its qualitative variables, and precisely-this is indeed in fact, what Marx shows-the logic of capital reduces labor to labor power and time. It makes it a commodity and reduces it to the effects of value produced.”
Gary Becker, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 122.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “The Employment Situation,” October, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf
World Economic Forum, “Closing the Skills Gap Accelerators.” https://www.weforum.org/projects/closing-the-skills-gap-accelerators
ElectroSaturator, “Quick reminder why we’re all here…,” Reddit, November 20, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qyop3j/quick_reminder_why_were_all_here/
JudgementKoky1007, “Quick reminder why we’re all here…,” Reddit, November 21, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qyop3j/quick_reminder_why_were_all_here/
Sayl0, “The American Dream is to move out,” Reddit, November 1, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qhlxsn/the_american_dream_is_to_move_out/
SkepticDrinker, “Do you even care if you’re ‘successful’ anymore?,” Reddit, November 18, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qyfs46/do_you_even_care_if_youre_successful_anymore/
FlakySnowflake, “PSA:If you see a ‘short staffed’...,” Reddit, November 1, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qjgk2e/psa_if_you_see_a_short_staffed_or_no_one_will/
Daisy_chain_rule, “The McDonalds strike must not end until we get $25!,” Reddit, November 14, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qu2bvs/the_mcdonalds_strike_must_not_end_until_we_get_25/
_Xyreo_, “I mean… I would,” Reddit, November 20, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qywsrd/i_meani_would/
Bloorajah, “‘Antiwork’ movement may be long-run risk…,” Reddit, November 15, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qulffi/antiwork_movement_may_be_longrun_risk_to_labor/
Javyev, “is there more to life than work,” Reddit, December 1, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qf3nba/is_there_more_to_life_than_work/
IncindiaryImmersion, “Do you even care if you’re ‘successful’ anymore?,” Reddit, November 20, 2021. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qyfs46/do_you_even_care_if_youre_successful_anymore/
GrimStuntz, “Do you even care…,” Reddit, November 20, 2021.
On the concept of surplus labor, see Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I, (Penguin: 1976), p. 647: "It is only after men have raised themselves above the rank of animals, when therefore their labour has been to some extent socialised, that a state of things arises in which the surplus-labour of the one becomes a condition of existence for the other. At the dawn of civilisation the productiveness acquired by labour is small, but so too are the wants which develop with and by the means of satisfying them. Further, at that early period, the portion of society that lives on the labour of others is infinitely small compared with the mass of direct producers. Along with the progress in the productiveness of labour, that small portion of society increases both absolutely and relatively. Besides, capital with its accompanying relations springs up from an economic soil that is the product of a long process of development. The productiveness of labour that serves as its foundation and starting-point, is a gift, not of nature, but of a history embracing thousands of centuries."
AbhorrentRelic, “Do you even care…,” Reddit, November 20, 2021.
As I wrote I was inspired by Gilles Dauvé, “Getting Rid of Work,” in From Crisis to Communization, trans. Ediciones Inéditos (Paris: Éditions Entremonde, 2017).
For more on the regulation of wages by the surplus population see Aaron Benanav and Endnotes, “Misery and Debt,” in Endnotes 2 (London: Endnotes, 2010), 29.
DullPersonality1753, “Well, I Quit…,” Reddit, November 16. https://www.reddit.com/r/antiwork/comments/qvy8f6/well_i_quit/
Stargazer263, “Well, I Quit…,” Reddit, November 16.
Anderson, George. “Target Is Giving Associates Even More Reasons to Stay.” Retail Wire, October 6, 2021.
Delaney, Kevin. “Is the Four-Day Workweek Finally Within Our Grasp?” New York Times, November 23, 2021.
Tom Ryan. “Will Reducing Seasonal Hires Pose a Big Risk for Target?” Retail Wire, September 27, 2021.
Murugaboopathy, Patturaja, and Gaurav Dogra. “Global M&A Volumes Hit New Record in 2021, Overtaking Last Year’s Haul.” Reuters, August 12, 2021.
Valinsky, Jordan. “CVS Is Closing 900 Stores.” CNN, November 18, 2021.
Tom Ryan, “Does peer-to-peer resale make sense for Urban Outfitters?,” Retail Wire, August 31, 2021.
Rachel King, “Moȅt Hennessy is launching a new online store for its luxury champagnes and wines,” Fortune, November 17, 2021. https://fortune.com/2021/11/17/moet-hennessy-wines-spirits-our-cellar/
George Anderson, “Will Macy’s curated marketplace distinguish it from online rivals,” Retail Wire, November 19, 2021.
George Anderson, “Is self-checkout tech the answer for DSW and other retailers facing associate shortages,” Retail Wire, July 1, 2021.
For more on the general law of capital accumulation see Aaron Benanav and Endnotes, “Misery and Debt,” in Endnotes 2 (London: Endnotes, 2010), 28-33.