Stress, Labor & Play
There’s a lot of talk in anarchist circles about abolishing work. Some of it in line with the dream of a high-technology path to post-scarcity. But a lot of it takes an alternative route and settles for simply building a ludic society — that is to say a culture that adapts its tasks into “play”. Like a lot of romantic, boundary-pushing, post-leftish notions it’s purposefully detached from precise conceptual formulations, but the general notion is that the exertion fundamentally necessary to, you know, keeping us alive should be fun rather than drudgerous. Appealing to the dichotomy of association we distinguish between “work” and “play.”
But while this is an intuitive bundling, I think there’s an analytical weakness worth noting, or at least a reality getting glossed over. Ignoring all the vectors of drudgery that plague the modern world there’s still a fundamental conceptual distinction between projects that we undertake that have serious consequences and projects that do not. Drudgery and alienation — in short *disinterest* — can be eliminated, but stress is a different beast. A game of calvinball for instance is an undertaking of pure (random) process divorced from results. There’s nothing to invest in and/or nothing we might invest. Roughhousing, shenanigans, fiddling, aimless exploration. These allow us to engage in action without belaboring ourselves with concern. Naturally they carry with them an immense sense of freedom and relief. But while the process of undertaking projects with real-world consequences can be fun, enjoyable and a chance to scratch personal itches. Their very synchronicity with our driving desires can instigate a radically different experience. While it’s perfectly rational to talk of a world in which we are no longer forced to take actions we’d rather not, eliminating all perception of weightiness to those actions is a different and much stronger type of impossible. There are plenty of actions we ultimately want to take that at the same time inspire trepidation and tension.
Duh, right? But in the succulent rhetoricism of dismissing work I think there’s been an insipid conflation between these negative associations. Stress has somewhat paradoxically gotten bundled with disinterest. And liberation implicitly set in opposition to both.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s value to consequence-less play — it helps us practice process and overwrites the klaxons ringing in our brains. Play frees up mental space, allowing us to reboot while at the same time charging up our minds or at least to keep rolling rather than go dead. But its value is in balancing and augmenting our stressful pursuits. The danger is that in certain circumstances the easy, investment-minimal repetitive action found in such play can invoke empty illusions of productivity. Because this gratifying sensation of pseudo-accomplishment comes without the stress of substantive commitment and concern it can fast become a sinkhole ultimately just as alienating as wage-slavery.
It’s not hard to see examples throughout the milieu of people intuitively appealing to this bundled notion of liberation choosing incredibly unproductive patterns of action. This isn’t the time or place to call out specific embarrassments, but in illustration we’re obviously all familiar with occasions of rhapsodic “we did such and such lame thing and it felt so liberating” where strategic vigilance is intentionally thrown out the window. (I’m just grabbing a common touchpoint. Insurrectionary approaches can have very good arguments — even for not being particularly rational on some levels — but y’all can’t argue that sometimes shit claimed as such ends up just stupid.)
Relieving stress is great, but when it’s set in artificial either/or conflict with caring enough to get wrapped up in an undertaking — vigilantly struggling to affect some consequence — what results isn’t a liberation of our desires, but a broadening flatness to our lives. Pursuing desires is part and parcel of being human, and it’s ridiculous to presume that that won’t occasionally require investments, risk and the attentive concern that comes with that. Don’t get me wrong, meetings suck. There are a great many components to the psychologically taxing projects we undertake in this movement that could seriously stand some massive revision/abolition. But the mere fact that such projects can be a stressful, taxing commitment is not proof that they’re dismissible reproductions of the forms of labor we seek to abolish.