The dust well and truly settled on the latest elections in the US and UK and still struggling through a pandemic that has been used to depoliticize a global population, this does not seem to be a moment in which political change for the Left is imminent. In the UK, Conservative MPs defect to a new centrist Labour Party in a political moment where the difference between our choices is negligible and real radical change seems off the menu. The meme wars of the last US and UK elections feel like relics from an older time, and it is hard to see the momentous online activism that characterized the Obama campaigns, the Corbyn movement and even the Trump elections returning any time soon, on either side of the Atlantic.
But if people are perhaps lacking a formal political movement to get behind, it by no means follows that the internet – and the passionate communities of activists that inhabit it – have gone to sleep. The fastest growing Reddit community over the last few months has been the ‘antiwork’ subreddit – as has been widely reported. Beginning as a place for employees to vent frustrations with their bosses and share stories of workplace woes, the subreddit has quickly developed into a range of solidarity activity including a campaign to boycott Black Friday and an international sharing of worker’s rights documents. Amid the jokes and memes, in an age of mass resignation, this forum is clearly significant.
Yet, it’s largely dismissed by the media class. James Meadway writes that the lauding of antiwork movements is often overblown given that acts of resistance are often individual rather than collective, but the Antiwork subreddit shows something else: the possibility for genuine international movements of opposition.
Somewhere close to the ‘antiwork’ subreddit is the ‘Manifesto against Labour,’ published in the German journal Krisis and mentioned by some users on the forum, though much of the community does not necessarily read or refer to the document. Quoting Bill Clinton’s 1998 comment that ‘any job is better than no job’, the manifesto makes a variety of arguments that we are moving toward a post-work society and that we must rebel against a culture that is primarily organized and structured around labour and collective productivity, which the manifesto sees as simply serving a particular form of neoliberal overlord, to borrow the language of the subreddit.
The manifesto, and the ideas of the community, are full of inconsistencies and contradictions. Of course, some contributions are ironic. Nevertheless, they are at their core a set of broadly Marxist ideas rendered relevant for the digital age. For the authors of the manifesto, the worship of work in society today means that we collectively become part of a ‘labour religion’ that coerces workers into a structure that is both capitalist and patriarchal, and from which we need to break out. For the users of the forum, this is a lived experience that becomes more and more visible the more users share their own personal experiences of it.
Neither the manifesto nor the subreddit attempt to tell us what a post-work world would look like. That is beyond the scope of their rallying call. Books on the topic of post-work have proposed various solutions, from universal basic income projects to a larger redistributions of wealth in a world of automation. One recent book, for instance, questions the culture of defining people by their work, arguing against the way jobseekers are required to do unpaid work in order to receive benefits, for example. The future of labour is obviously changing, and the solutions are still to be worked out. But the antiwork subreddit is not just an online manifestation of these theoretical debates. In fact, the first mistake is taking this manifesto, or any of these books on the subject, as the articulation of the politics of the movement.
What marks the antiwork subreddit out as special is that these are not the arguments of Silicon Valley technocapitalists like the UBI enthusiast Andrew Yang, nor are they the musings of PhD-holding leftists and academics. The only people banned from the inclusive antiwork subreddit are ‘politicians’ and ‘CEOs’. Among the knowledge exchange that goes on there are humorous anti-boss memes, but alongside stories of serious mal-employment and terms and conditions that significantly raise awareness of a systemic problem with labour conditions on a global scale.
At its root this is a grassroots movement without prescriptive top-down ideas of what antiwork should be. One worker shares a case about her employer seeking to know what she gets up to on weekends. Another asks for support with an employment tribunal. One asks how to combat a situation where minimum waged staff are required to buy their own uniforms. One gets a working group together to highlight the injustice in employers requiring doctor’s notes in nations with private healthcare systems. Another sends a meme about managers. From there, the community coalesces into something that its users can put to practical and useful effect.
Wrongfooting the managerial class
Members of the community share not only personal stories but also contract terms, legal documents and information about how and where to go for support, as well as strike tactics and organizing plans. In a sense we can see this community as the modern day online Bartlebys, the character of Herman Melville’s 1853 short story (in fact read out loud by a group in Zuccotti Park during Occupy in 2011) who famously declares ‘I would prefer not to!’ in a radical act of passivity designed to resist work and – importantly – wrongfoot his bosses. With a massive surplus of precarious workers that makes us disposable in a way that Bartleby was not, we need a new set of tactics to wrongfoot the managerial classes, corporations and employers, and the antiwork subreddit is an incubator for such tactics. In this sense, Sarah Jaffe might be wrong that there isn’t a serious international anti-work movement here, even if it is a purely digital one.
The ethos of wrongfooting may be the best way to characterise this movement. The antiwork manifesto itself is less a ‘genuine’ proposal for a world without work and more an attempt to wrongfoot and destabilise a set of assumptions about the inevitability of work in a system where that inevitability serves only a particular class. One argument made by some posters on the subreddit (and by those who dismiss it) is that if everyone stops working, society could collapse. This, however, is not so much an attempt to stop work as to wrongfoot those who determine it.
This year there have been strikes and walkouts at McDonalds, Walmart, Wendy’s, Harvard, Volvo, the University and Colleges Union and dozens of other huge institutions. On Reddit at least, these workers are now turning to an international community of workers sharing similar battles, from the ongoing Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport strikes to walkouts at Starbucks to reports of workplace inequalities around the globe. Among the memes and jokes, and often emboldened by them, at its best, this is a space for worker solidarity – from personal stories to formal organizing and knowledge exchange –indicating that a global population of workers can organise to change the conditions of employment in contemporary capitalism.
Doreen Ford, the most prominent moderator (now removed) of the subreddit and a transgender activist, appeared on Fox News at the end of last month. She made some points – to the empty ears of Jesse Watters – but was pushed to talk much more about herself than about the movement. The criticism of the movement from the political Right is predictable, but the episode was generally not well-received on the Left either. Even other moderators have suggested an anti-mod revolution, implying that Ford acted without support and that battles have broken out between mods and users.
Like the academics who have periodically appointed themselves as spokespeople for an antiwork movement over recent years, moderators cannot represent the diverse politics and strategies of the platform. The strength of r/antiwork lies in its collectivist and amorphous community of workers; conversely, when it becomes about single agendas or individual proponents, it loses its revolutionary potential. Mario Tronti wrote that ‘the whole of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination to the whole of society.’ It has never been more valid to say that we are all workers in a social factory than it is today, and the antiwork subreddit at least has the potential to help those workers organize.
The European war we are in now (as well as its coverage) attempts to force us back into nationalism. Even in the global space of the mainstream internet, acts of solidarity seem to fall into symbolic support for nation states represented by profile flags. In this context, the subreddit has also turned to the war in Ukraine, but it’s one of the only places that seems able to think beyond borders about the greatest victims of this war: the workers. This week on the subreddit, there are discussions of corporations marketing symbolic gestures of support for Ukraine, with workers from across the world debating the relationship between solidarity and symbolism. It’s those in Ukraine and in Russia who need solidarity, and it seems that the workers can think past divisions and provide support that goes beyond the symbolic more effectively than the media class.