Work refusal

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All individual and social woes are born of passion for work.
—Paul Lafargue

Principled work refusal (often phrased anti-work) is the purposeful abstinence from compulsory or socially expected work.

Those who advocate a complete cessation of compulsory work often present their philosophy as a utopian or radical one. For these anti-work advocates, compulsory work should be completely replaced with voluntary play. At least one prominent anti-work philosopher, Paul Lafargue, extols laziness as a virtue.[1]

Philosophy that contained snippets of work criticism can be traced back to ancient times. The idea of work refusal as a self-conscious movement is arguably visibly today on social media sites like Reddit, especially since media reports of a 'Great Resignation' began. The philosophy of refusing work, in its most literal non-internet sense, has connection to a broad array of demographics, including post-leftists, left-anarchists, sovereign citizens, 1960s counterculture, the Marxist-defined demographic of the 'lumpenproletariat', some self-described incels, and some self-described 'NEETs'Wikipedia (who proudly refuse work, often creating work refusal art and propaganda). The Church of the SubGenius includes "slack" as part of their parody religion.

Early recorded anti-work philosophies[edit]

Ancient philosophies[edit]

Origins of work criticism can be found in Ancient Greece. Plato once said, "Nature has made no shoemaker nor smith. Such occupations degrade the people who exercise them. Vile mercenaries, nameless wretches, who are by their very condition excluded from political rights. As for the merchants accustomed to lying and deceiving, they will be allowed in the city only as a necessary evil. The citizen who shall have degraded himself by the commerce of the shop shall be prosecuted for this offense. If he is convicted, he shall be condemned to a year in prison; the punishment shall be doubled for each repeated offense."[2]

Paul Lafargue and Bertrand Russell[edit]

Le Droit à la paresse, 1880

The idea of purposefully limiting work gained some traction when the Industrial Era hit and more people had to work with machinery. Paul Lafargue, a Cuban-French socialist known for being married to Karl Marx's daughter Laura, wrote an 1883 book called The Right To Be Lazy[2] (French: Le Droit à la paresse) that describes his opposition to work and proposition of having a right to be lazy. Bertrand Russell, a pacifist philosopher and mathematician, while not opposing work culture entirely, wrote his book in In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays agreed that if working times are distributed and reduced, there would be more employment and satisfaction.[3]

Historical 'principled idling' demographics[edit]

Principled idlers occupied popular attention in many other forms after the Industrial Era. Author Tom Lutz tracked the history of post-Industrial work refusal sentiment with his book, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America. In it, Lutz notes that work refusers often adopt a humorous, self-denigrating attitude, which acts as a coping mechanism for their often low social status or tenuous living situation.[4]

Lutz states that during World War I, slackers became heros in literature, and work refusal sentiment was common among the poor at the time (but not among the rich). In the history of work refusal, this is the era of sports, flappers, babbits, and bums.[4]:176-214

During the 1960s, work refusers took the form of Beats, non-conformists, playboys, and delinquints.[4]:215-246 During this time work refusers reinvented themselves. This is also the beginning of women arguably making up a fairly large percentage of work refusers.

Modern proponents[edit]

Bob Black's The Abolition of Work is arguably the most widely published, dedicated singular work refuser text, which also directly informed the modern work refusal movement. This text, unlike Lafargue's treatise, did not advocate abolishing work for the sake of laziness. Bob mainly had an issue with the compulsory nature of modern work and centered his anti-work stance around promoting freedom. He wanted people to build their lives around 'play'.

In his work, Black cites the historical utopian socialist Charles Fourier as a primary inspiration for his work refusal philosophy.[5] However, Fourier arguably holds a fundamentally different view of work than Black, arguing that dissatisfaction from work doesn't result from duty, but rather from a repression of (literal and figurative) libidinal desires.[6][7]

The modern work refusal anthropologist/anarchist David Graeber was also an inspiration for Black. Graeber's book called Bullshit Jobs, and shortened essay versions of this book also directly influenced the modern work refusal movement. Graeber makes the argument that US citizens live in post-scarcity, but take up pointless jobs despite this. He argues the pointlessness of a large percentage of modern work in the USA exceeds the pointlessness of make-work which took place in the former Soviet Union. For example, despite technology making work less necessary, Graeber argues that we are filling out more pointless forms than the Soviet Union forced their citizens to fill out, just to fill our day.[8]

Black and Graeber's anti-work utopias would look different. Bob Black is a post-left anarchist with disdain for both democracy and majority rule, believing that democracy leads to an anti-social, disharmonious, and irrational culture which has a tendency to dis-empower minorities.[9] Whereas Graeber was a left-anarchist with more positive ideas about democracy, and believed it is desirable to expand democracy as he argued this would reduce wealth inequality.[10]


I think laziness is a virtue in a society where people constantly want you to be productive 24/7. And it’s good to have rest.
—Doreen Ford[11]

A subreddit called 'r/antiwork' started as an anarchist subreddit criticizing work-as-we-know-it, with the ultimate view of abolishing employment. The subreddit used to say in its banner that it wanted "unemployment for all, not just the rich".

As it got popular, the subreddit slowly moved away from the idea of abolishing work altogether and shifted more to discussions about wage work reform. It eventually gained about 1,700,000 subscribers around 2021.[12] The subreddit loosened to include more liberal ideologies.[13] Despite the rapid growth during the 2020s, something happened on January 2022 that would put a halt on this movement for a while.

On January 25, one of the long-serving moderators, Doreen Ford, went on a Fox News interview with anchorman Jesse WattersWikipedia. In the interview, Ford described anti-work goals from the perspective of Paul Lafargue, describing laziness as a "virtue", and noting her occupation as a 10-hour-a-week dog-walker. During the interview, Ford also notably called anti-work and/or her subreddit a 'movement'. Instead of arguing vigorously, Watters listened to her claims and laughed at her anti-work ideas. This caused an embarrassment to later members of the community who mistakenly thought the subreddit name was ironic—when it is literal—and who also felt they should have had a vote on whether this interview should have happened.

Outside redditors and new subscribers to r/antiwork proceeded to raid and concern troll the subreddit, and stalk and harass Ford. After this, the subreddit went private for a while. After it opened up again, some of the moderators, including Ford, were removed.[14] Some original r/antiwork mods and members attempted to set up shop again on sites outside Reddit. Those who raided the subreddit weren't fully satisfied with the results of their raid either, and attempted to split the subreddit into a separate group called r/WorkReform.[15]

Self-described NEETs[edit]

NEET is an acronym for "Not in Education, Employment, or Training". While it originated in the United Kingdom, it is mostly well known in North America and East Asia with the younger generations raising doubts about the work culture in their country.[16]

Alternative terms can include nem-nem in Portuguese (short for nem estudam nem trabalham (neither working nor studying)),[17], ni-ni in Spanish (short for ni estudia ni trabaja), and ニート in Japanese (nīto).

Self-described NEETs and incels have come up with visual or print propaganda making fun of workers as 'wagies' or 'wagecucks'.


A freeter (フリーター, furītā) is another term for a Japanese person, in the younger generation again,[18] who refuses full-time employment.

The growth of work refusal in Japan could be attributed to the burst of the economic bubble that Japan faced in the 1990s, in which the term freeter had developed negative perception among regular Japanese people.[19] Nowadays, the job market in Japan is getting more fierce, where young people have a more difficult time finding a stable job and resort to the hikikomori,Wikipedia freeter and NEET realm, even if they finish university.[20]

UBI supporters[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Basic income

Proponents of Universal Basic Income have varied views on work culture, with some thinking that unattractive jobs would have to give more pay and benefits to look more appealing than the basic income.[21] David Graeber has suggested that a generous UBI would change the relationship of people to work by allowing them to quit unrewarding jobs (he uses the metaphor of a masochist able to use a safe-word to escape a scene they were no longer enjoying), while ensuring people only worked at fun, productive, or socially-beneficial jobs. This could potentially put whole industries out of business including in the field of health insurance and private medicine ("Medical Care Cost Management companies") that serve only to make both staff and sick people more miserable.[8]

Crimethinc: The ex-workers collective[edit]

Arguably the longest-lasting organized, modern political group in the United States advocating work refusal sentiment is the anarchist group Crimethinc: The ex-workers collective.

The group hasn't made that much anti-work literature lately, and nowadays mainly focuses on pro-feminism, pro-crime, anti-finance, and geopolitics.


Some parents, religious sects, and political ideologues are proudly alarmist about inactivity. For example, the Book of Proverbs,[22] and Benito Mussolini,[23] hold a negative opinion of slack, valorize work, and when they mention a lack of activity, they conflate it with death. Fascism goes further and states that life should be a constant struggle. In this struggle, it states that individuals who self-improve to 'dominate' nature through work are the most worthy of life.[23]

Other pro-work pundits frame their defense of work somewhat differently, and take a less 'winner-take-all' approach to life. For example, some object to framing inactivity as natural, stating that laziness does not actually exist, and that everyone would work if not for bigotry and/or 'improperly treated mental illness'.[24][25]

The "Great Resignation"[edit]

A protester of the bullshit jobs. The sign roughly says "Bullshit job example from nature: President of the Republic of Slovenia"

The COVID-19 pandemic gave an opportunity for people to rethink their careers and decide whether or not work culture has serious flaws.[26] Concerns about alleged systemic labor shortages have been raised by media outlets consistently since 2020.[27]

The media often exaggerates how many people are leaving their jobs, however, and it's questionable whether there is any medium-term 'Great Resignation' occurring in the U.S. separate from temporary COVID concerns. For example, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, the USA lost a total of less than 1.1% of its workforce since before the 2020 pandemic-associated stock-dip, and the workforce is net gaining workers month-by-month.[28]

It's not clear that the work refusal movement is actually causing any meaningful amount of people to leave their jobs, especially long term. Complaints about a repeated burnout cycle in low-wage jobs is likely a more possible motive.[29]


Over the 2000s, machines have been invented to automate jobs that a human could do, ranging from basic to professional jobs. With this innovation, people are questioning about what a future would look like with automation technology taking over the work force.[30] It's been argued that automation, like previous technological revolutions, will create new jobs[31], but when the labor process is mostly automated, what jobs will now be created, and perhaps more importantly, what kinds of jobs will now be created?

As mentioned above, economic anthropologist David Graeber has posited that most modern day work is "meaningless," as in, not very productive. He calls these sort of jobs "bullshit jobs." Perhaps with automation becoming more and more widespread more and more bullshit jobs will result. That is, "work" that is unfulfilling, unproductive, and ultimately psychologically (and societally) harmful. Graeber proposes universal basic income and a universally unionized labor force as solutions to the problem of bullshit jobs.[32] On a more generalized level, UBI (and by extension, stronger labor protections and a unionized work force) are also optimal solutions to the automation crisis.[33]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  2. 2.0 2.1 "Paul Lafargue: The Right To Be Lazy (Appendix)". "The ancient philosophers had their disputes upon the origin of ideas but they agreed when it came to the abhorrence of work." 
  3. Russell, Bertrand (2004). In Praise of Idleness and other essays. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-32506-6. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Lutz, Tom (2006). Doing nothing : a history of loafers, loungers, slackers and bums in America. Internet Archive. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-86547-650-9. 
  5. "The Abolition of Work" (in en). 
  6. Charles Fourier (1971). The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier Selected Texts on Work, Love and Passionate Attraction. 
  7. Rawlings, Jackson (2018-08-16). "Finding Meaning in a Post-Work World" (in en). 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Graeber, David (2019-05-07) (in en). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-5011-4333-5. 
  11. Seitz, Jacob (January 27, 2022). "Reddit's antiwork forum shuts down after disastrous Fox News interview" (in en-US). 
  12. Codrea-Rado, Anna (2021-12-22). "Inside the Online Movement to End Work" (in en). 
  13. Kiersz, Andy; Kaplan, Juliana (November 25, 2021). "Inside the rise of 'antiwork,' a worker's strike that wants to turn the labor shortage into a new American Dream" (in en-US). 
  14. O’Connell, Oliver; Flynn, Sheila (January 27, 2022). "Moderator fired from anti-work subreddit after disastrous Fox News interview" (in en). 
  15. Whang, Oliver (2022-02-15). "Hating Your Job Is Cool. But Is It a Labor Movement?" (in en-US). The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. 
  16. "Meet Japan’s NEET: Young People Choosing to Be Unemployed | Guidable". 2021-06-17. 
  17. "Dois em cada dez jovens brasileiros nem estudam e nem trabalham". 27 July 2014. 
  18. Cook, E. E. (2013-01-01). "Expectations of Failure: Maturity and Masculinity for Freeters in Contemporary Japan" (in en). Social Science Japan Journal 16 (1): 29–43. doiWikipedia:10.1093/ssjj/jys022. ISSN 1369-1465. 
  19. Super girls, gangstas, freeters, and xenomaniacs: gender and modernity in global youth cultures. Brison, Karen J., Dewey, Susan. (1st ed.). Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. 2012. ISBN 978-0-8156-5169-7. 
  20. Yoshimoto, K, and Japan Institute of Labor. 1996. "High School and Initial Career of Graduates." JIL Report No. 89.
  21. "Free money wouldn't make people lazy – but it could revolutionise work | Anna Dent" (in en). 2019-02-12. 
  22. Proverbs 21:25, etc.
  23. 23.0 23.1 The Doctrine of Fascism by Benito Mussolini (1932).
  26. "Is the great resignation a great rethink?" (in en-US). 2021-11-07. 
  27. Horsley, Scott; Hsu, Andrea (4 June 2021). "Hiring Picked Up Last Month, But The Economy Still Needs More Workers" (in en). 
  28. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (1948-01-01). "Labor Force Participation Rate". 
  29. Maslach, C.; Schaufeli, W. B.; Leiter, M. P. (2001). S. T. Fiske. ed. "Job burnout". Annual Review of Psychology 52: 397–422. doiWikipedia:10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397. PMID 11148311. 
  30. Jcobs, Emma. "Hybrid work weakens the bonds of corporate loyalty" (in en). 
  31. "Robots will actually increase human employment" - World Economic Forum
  32. "Bullshit Jobs" - David Graeber. Published by STRIKE! Magazine in August 2013.
  33. "UBI is the right response to automation" courtesy of the Financial Times