I wrote this in 1997 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. Perhaps it reads differently, now that I collect a monthly social security check.
In Defense of Fucking Off
The proletariat ... remains irreducibly present ... in the shape of the vast mass of workers who have lost all power over the use of their own lives and who, once they realize this, must necessarily redefine themselves as the proletariat - as negation at work in the bosom of today's society.
-- Guy Debord
I worked as a steelworker from the summer of 1973 until the summer of 1984. Our plant made the bodies and lids for cans; we did not make the actual cans, but instead made can parts that were sent to other factories in other companies to be filled and sealed. For most of those years, I worked swing shift, from 3:30 in the afternoon until midnight, with half-an-hour for lunch. As factory jobs go, it wasn't bad, I suppose. The physical work was rarely heavy. But there was nevertheless something heavy going on: each night when I would climb into my car for the long ride home, the first thing I would do is adjust the rear-view mirror downwards. Apparently some time during those eight-and-a-half hours I spent in that factory, I had gotten smaller.
For all I know, that factory is long since closed down. I am sure that the plant underwent what later became known as downsizing some time after I left. Most of the work was moved to another of the company's plants, where workers under a less-powerful union than our own United Steelworkers of America made less money than we did to perform the same work. I know that I was lucky enough to get out; others were not so lucky, and still others never wanted out and were thus perhaps the most unlucky of all, if they lost their jobs. In any event, I've spent most of the subsequent thirteen years fucking off.
We aren't supposed to admit such a thing. First of all, I'm lying. Writing this essay does not fall under most people's definition of fucking off, although a lot of my former work mates might disagree. Second, I have a lot of things on my To Do list, and I've had a lot of things on my To Do list for most of those thirteen years, so if I admit to fucking off, I'm also admitting that I'm not "getting anything done." Finally, I owe my ability to fuck off largely to the efforts of my wife, who is not fucking off as I type this, who is in fact "at work" and whose paychecks give me the luxury of fucking off without starving to death. It's bad enough that I'm a leech; it's even worse that I'm admitting it. Some things in our society are better left unsaid.
And so most people would never admit that they ever fuck off. It's an odd reversal of the usual interpretation of work in the capitalist era, where actual work being actually performed gets obscured, as if it never happened, the entire process of production being mystified so we won't notice those workers busting their asses on our behalf. Fucking off is almost as mystified as working, though. It happens, but the actual fucking off takes place off-stage. It gets mystified, so we won't notice all those workers fucking off on our behalf. If anyone catches you fucking off, they will tell you to "get to work," although once you get to work, your labor will hopefully disappear from view so we won't notice you busting your ass.
Nonetheless, sometimes you just have to fess up. So I'm confessing: I fuck off, I've been doing it for years, and the main reason I continue my sinful ways is simple: I hate work.
And so should you.
Personally, I have nothing against work, particularly when performed, quietly and unobtrusively, by someone else. I just don't happen to think it's an appropriate subject for an 'ethic.'
-- Barbara Ehrenreich
If you take a guided tour of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's self-designed home, you are told that most of the work that kept the house running was performed out of sight of the residents. For instance, Jefferson placed rooms like the kitchen in a separate building from the main home, so that when he had James and Dolly Madison over for dinner, they could enjoy their repast in the dining room without having to experience any of the sights and sounds of the meal being prepared. It would be a bit of a stretch to describe the life of Jefferson at Monticello as one of fucking off. Still, the amateur architect made certain that he would be able to attend to the important work of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without worrying himself over the less-important work of cooking and cleaning.
Jefferson was a great spokesman for agrarian virtue. "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God," he wrote, while the non-farmers amongst us mark the general degradation of society. In fact, Jefferson believed that the proportion of non-farmers to farmers in a State "is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good enough barometer whereby to measure its degree of corruption." A trip to Monticello helps us to understand how Jefferson might have come to his conclusions about the importance of farm life; the land on Monticello is vast and beautiful, breathtaking to even the most citified of visitors. One is left to ask, though, exactly who were "those who labor in the earth." One doubts it was Jefferson the slaveholder.
Jefferson had the luxury of letting other people do his shit work for him. This gave him the time to fuck off, which he seems to have used to write the Declaration of Independence, buy Louisiana, serve as President of the United States, and mess around with his slave mistress. OK, Thomas Jefferson was a very busy man, who probably never fucked off a day in his life. But if he did work, it was work that he chose to do. He could have fucked off if he'd wanted to. If there was work to be done and Thomas Jefferson didn't want to do it, well, that's what slaves were for, and by the way, could you take that hoe over yonder so I don't have to watch you use it?
Another American icon, Henry David Thoreau, came closer to admitting he was a fuck off. One could make a case that all Thoreau did during his time at Walden Pond was to fuck off. But there is a utilitarian sense to his fucking off. When he writes, "The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure," he is not promoting fucking off as an end in itself, he's describing efficient labor. And even Mr. Self-Sufficiency himself still needed help on occasion: as he informs us during one of the anal-retentive recitations of his accounts, payable and receivable, which he offers as proof of his frugality, "washing and mending ... for the most part were done out of the house." Still, we know that ultimately Thoreau wasn't fucking off, for he was too busy living life to spend any time playing it. (We also observe a devaluing of "domestic" work in this passage, for it would seem that Thoreau sees nothing contradictory in his willingness to farm out the laundry while professing to self-sufficiency.)
In the lives of both of these great Americans, we can see a near-obsessive desire for accomplishment (although Thoreau might define accomplishment differently from Jefferson), but also a desire to let others do the shit work (although again, the two men might define shit work differently from each other). And that's the problem with leisure, with living life, with liberty and the pursuit of happiness: as society is presently constructed, and perhaps in the entire history of humankind, one's opportunities for fucking off are dependent to a large extent on reducing the fucking-off opportunities of others. Those others likely have an appetite for fucking off at least the equal of the rest of us. But they don't have an opportunity to satisfy those appetites, because they're too busy busting their asses on our behalf.
Which helps to explain why both work and fucking off are mystified in our society. Those with the opportunity to fuck off don't want to piss off the workers busting their asses, so they never admit to fucking off, even if they're doing it. But they don't want to be bothered with the details of the work being done on their behalf, so they move it to another building on the plantation. They can't see the work, and they live under the illusion that the workers can't see them fucking off. Any connections between work, fucking off, and the relative level of opportunity to fuck off amongst the various classes in our society is obscured. But ultimately, fucking off is the thing that really disappears. The workers don't have the time and resources to indulge in fucking off, and the leisure class appears so susceptible to "accomplishment" that even though they have the opportunity to fuck off, they spend their time working anyway. Youth, they say, is wasted on the young; fucking off, it seems, is also wasted in our culture, wasted on those who have no idea how to do it.
You think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
-- John Lennon
Clearly, we need to take the role of fuckoff away from the leisured elite who don't know how to do it and give it to the rest of us, who would like nothing better than to fuck off the rest of our lives. We need to claim the right to be lazy, along with Marx's nephew Paul Lafargue, who wrote, "The objective of the revolution is ... to work as little as possible." The problem remains the same, though, no matter who gets to be the fuckoff. Someone has to work their ass off so the rest of us can fuck off. The idea, then, is generally presented as the need to revolutionize our approach to work, to recognize that a society that gives all of the fucking-off opportunities to a small elite is a bad society, to spread the wealth around so we all get to have equal opportunity for fucking off, which suggests that we would all then take part equally in doing all of the shit work that gets done to support the fuckoffs. This utopian vision has been espoused on many occasions, including an appearance in the Manifesto for Bad Subjects:
At Bad Subjects we believe that having dreams and fantasies of a utopian future is integral to conceiving of an alternative radical politics.... we want to put utopia back in the future, where it belongs.... we can only see glimpses of it, because it's impossible to imagine a world so completely unlike our own.... But this is what we know. In the future, we will always work in solidarity. No one will compete for jobs. And your work will not be painful, nor will it deprive you of family and friends.... Certainly, there will be death and there will be labor, but we will not see them as being in conflict with life and pleasure.... All work will be freely chosen. And to work at one thing will not be to sacrifice your life to it, for you will work at many different things.
This beautiful vision brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. But for me, it doesn't go far enough. It's still about labor, it's still about work. We're still fucking peasants. We're equal peasants with everyone else, to be sure, but peasantry ain't my idea of fun. And this is utopia we're talking about here, where you can dream big. It's time to take fucking off out of the closet and onto the streets. Doug Henwood, who has argued convincingly against the "End of Work" ideology currently making the rounds, is certainly not advocating a new era of fucking off when he writes in a recent edition of In These Times, "few people have any good idea of what to say yes to. We've said 'No!' to NAFTA, to the abolition of welfare, to budget cuts and so on without any positive vision of what the alternative is." But these words inspire me, in any event. And so I offer the following Manifesto for Fucking Off:
This is what we know. In the future, we will always fuck off. No one will work. You won't feel pain, you'll revel with family and friends. There will be no labor; what the heck, since this is utopia, neither will there be death. No work will be freely chosen, because no work will be done. You will fuck off forever, you will make no sacrifices to the work ethic, you will fuck off in as many different ways as there are molecules in the universe. Fuck work. Fuck off!
Who knows how many potential Jeffersons and Thoreaus are hiding out there, buried in their work? How many Debords, how many Ehrenreichs, how many Lennons?
Oh baby, it would mean so much to me,
to buy you all the things you need, for free ...
When you're dreaming, when you're dreaming, when you're dreaming
Free, free money, free money, free money, free money
-- Patti Smith
Copyright © 1997, 2019 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved.