in defense of fucking off

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.


six (2006-2019)

Earlier this month, we put our kitty Six to sleep. She had tummy problems pretty much since the day we got her, and while we tried a few times to take her to the vet, she was so hostile they couldn't even take her temperature. It was a very gradual process ... she lived almost 13 years ... but Robin started noticing that she was getting worse, having trouble jumping on the couch, things like that.

She was probably the most bizarre cat we ever had, so as Robin pointed out, we have lots of memories of things that she did. She didn't take much to others ... our grandson calls her "The Bad Cat" ... but she loved us, and that's good enough.

Her sister Boomer and her arch enemy Starbuck are still around to fill our cat-related lives, which is good.

Image9Image9IMG_1093
Image9   IMG_0493


earthquake

We had an earthquake about an hour ago, 4.5 and fairly near my house. I was in the attic, and after the shaking ended (it only went on for a few seconds), I thought 1) I should go downstairs and see how the cats were, and 2) I should put on some pants in case there was more to come and I would have to run outside.

It's the modern world, so everyone quickly goes to Twitter and posts something about how they felt it. Twitter is always good when something is happening ... you get a real-time sense of things. But when I went downstairs, for some reason I decided to turn on the local TV news to see what they were saying.

It was the darnedest thing. The anchors were sitting at their desk with their laptops open. The woman also had her phone and was checking it and telling us what she was learning. This is apparently what TV news has become: pictures of reporters looking at Twitter on their phones.

It got better. People were sending photos of the stuff that fell off shelves, things like that. The guy figures we should see these photos ... it's news! But it was really low tech. He would turn his laptop around so it was facing the camera, the camera would zoom in, and we would look at the picture.

Here is the coolest thing. Turns out there is a website, Quake Prediction. They posted this picture ... hard to tell for sure, I think it was yesterday:

Image

Not bad at all.


music friday: rent

My wife is retiring. She might already be retired ... it's not clear to me. Part of me thinks her last day is Sunday, but of course she doesn't work on Sundays. So then I think her last day is today, Friday. But yesterday she went into the office and returned all of the equipment she had used over the years in order to work mostly from home. When she got back, she said she was retired, because she can no longer work from home, and she's not going in tomorrow, so it's a de facto retirement. As if to emphasize this, she went into the bedroom and unplugged her alarm clock. Said she would never use it again.

She spent 15 years working for Kaiser. They had a party for her. Lots of people told her how highly they regarded her. One of her best qualities is that while she's not exactly modest, she doesn't think she is anything special. If you point out to her that she is a good person, she replies that she's just like everyone else. If you tell her that not everyone does the right thing as often as she does, she deflects the praise. Still, I was glad to know that her long-time workmates forced her to listen to their praise. When she came home, she tried on some of the stuff they'd given her:

Robin retires

I walked off my factory job in August of 1984, 35 years ago. Robin immediately went out and got a job, then went back to school and got an MBA while she kept working. She has supported the family for the last 35 years, and you could say that she'll be supporting it for the next 35 years, too, since she made sure to put money aside for retirement. Understand, she doesn't like work. She's not someone like my father, who worked all his life and died within a year of retiring. She doesn't like work, never has, but for 35 years she supported our family so that I could goof off. I still can't believe it.

So here comes our golden years.


smells like jobs

I wrote this in 1994 for the journal Bad Subjects. It was anthologized in a book in 1997. I am reprinting it here, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This is slightly edited ... I never liked the ending, so I've removed the final sentence, which isn't a very good fix, since now it just seems truncated.

Smells Like Jobs

Geography made me what I am today.

I was fourteen years old during the Summer of Love, and I lived about thirty-five miles from San Francisco. I listened to the emerging hippie counterculture on something called the FM dial, where 'underground radio' was being born before my ears. My geographical proximity to San Francisco allowed me to experience this new phenomenon without leaving my house. Which was just as well, since when I left my house and entered the world of my hometown, Antioch, I couldn't have been further from the Summer of Love, Antioch's geographical proximity to San Francisco notwithstanding.

Antioch was at that time a mostly blue-collar town of around 15,000. My father's parents had moved to Antioch from Spain in the late 1910s; my father was born and raised in Antioch; when my mother was pregnant with me, the family moved into a new tract home in Antioch, where I was born and raised along with two brothers and two sisters. There were many factories in Antioch and the surrounding towns: paper mills, power plants, canneries, chemical factories, steel mills, makers of glass containers and tin cans. The air often smelled awful, thanks usually to the paper mill (I never understood why paper smelled bad) and the cannery (everyone understood about the cannery, which stunk whenever they canned tomatoes). The general opinion of the stench was simple: it smelled like jobs, and no one really objected, despite the obligatory complaining when the town reeked of rotten ketchup.

My father was a white-collar worker. After trying his hand at various enterprises he had finally found some success as a real-estate agent, working hard in his own business, becoming probably the second-largest realtor in town. We were only thirty-five miles from San Francisco; my mother, who grew up in Berkeley, I suspect had occasional visions of a life beyond Antioch; both of my parents were excellent bridge players. And so they spent many a weekend in San Francisco, staying in nice hotels, playing and sometimes winning bridge tournaments. Over the years I've had many opportunities to talk with my parents' peers about those years, and a congenial envy always enters into the reminiscing. To someone living in Antioch, my parents' lives had a touch of glamour. Nothing exciting ever happened in Antioch; our most famous residents were football Hall-of-Famer Gino Marchetti and the Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn. At least my parents got to visit San Francisco.

I was raised a good suburban white boy, interesting in itself since Antioch was far from suburban in those days (it has since fallen victim to suburban sprawl, simultaneously losing many of its factories and gaining tens of thousands of white-collar suburban residents). It was all geographic, of course, with various elements of the landscape conspiring to isolate Antioch from the big city. San Francisco Bay separated The City itself from the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which had their own urban character, connected to San Francisco and yet unique. The Berkeley Hills separated these urban environments from the suburbs proper. To get to these suburbs, you drove through the Caldecott Tunnel; you could mark the relative affluence of a community on this side by simply noting how far it was from the tunnel. The richest places were the closest, and every resident of East Contra Costa County clearly understood this. People from Moraga and Orinda were richer than people from Lafayette, who were richer than the people in Walnut Creek, who were better-off than the residents of Concord. Concord was very low-rent compared to Moraga; it existed at the margins of suburbia. Then came more hills, geography once again intruding. If you were on the wrong side of those hills, you weren't suburban, no matter how close you were to San Francisco. You were blue-collar. Closer to the hills, in Pittsburg and Antioch, you lived in a mill town. Farther away from the hills, in Oakley and Brentwood and Knightsen, you lived in a rural town. Wherever you lived on the wrong side of the hills, you knew you were not suburban, which didn't stop many families from trying their best to be suburban anyway. If your father was a successful realtor and you had a newfangled FM radio, you could pretend that you had somehow risen above your station, but the smell of jobs always worked as a corrective.

More geography: attached to Pittsburg, between that town and the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, was a little place called West Pittsburg. Whatever bad might have been said about Pittsburg, you always assumed it wasn't as bad as West Pittsburg. West in this case meant Worst, Worst meaning lower-class. West Pittsburg was not immune to the spread of suburbia, though, and one morning its new residents woke up and realized when they told locals that they lived in West Pittsburg, those locals assumed the Worst. And so the town changed its name; next time you're in the area, don't forget to check out Bay Point, where the Worst hides behind the Point.

Still more geography: Pittsburg and Antioch were adjacent to each other, with a hazily-defined no man's land between. Teenagers marked this quasi-neutral zone by Hazel's Drive-In, where kids from Antioch could get a burger and maybe meet up with some of the enemies from Pittsburg. (Hazel's was on a long road called the Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, the dumpiest highway I've ever seen.) Pittsburg had a few more people than Antioch in those days, and since factory work ranked higher on the upward-mobility scale than farm labor, and since Pittsburg was almost entirely factory-oriented while Antioch was in the middle of the factories and the farms, Pittsburg was also a bit more prestigious than Antioch, although in reality those two ranges of hills separating us from San Francisco effectively eliminated any chance in those days of true prestige. (Thirty years later, the needs of suburban sprawl have finally broken down these barriers, of course.) In any event, there was little to distinguish the two small towns from each other in the 1960s, with the exception of one factor which again had a kind of geographical locus, in that it helped establish beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly where was the border between the two: there were no black people in Antioch.

Geography is everything and nothing. Antioch was less than an hour's drive from liberal, diverse cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, yet we were as segregated as Selma, Alabama. More segregated, in fact, or rather, we weren't segregated at all; there was no need for a separate but equal rule in Antioch, because there were no black people to keep separate. Black people lived in Pittsburg, but not a single one lived in Antioch. The radio again: Pittsburg had a radio station, and late at night I could listen to broadcasts emanating from only half a dozen miles away, presenting a culture I could never hope to participate in. Pittsburg was on the chitlin circuit, and I would hear advertisements for James Brown and His Famous Flames or Little Junior Parker. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business would perform a stone's throw from my own house, and I knew I couldn't, wouldn't go, and not just because I was only twelve years old. It was simply a different world.

Antioch had Mexicans; they were 'our' minority. But we had no black people. My parents were very concerned about this, and I owe them an unpayable debt for their efforts to raise a family that wasn't inflamed with prejudice. We had black housekeepers, which wasn't that odd. Most white families in Antioch would hire a black housekeeper if they had the money. (We did, presumably because my father was a successful realtor. Eventually he was arrested for real-estate fraud and we learned where the money had come from all those years. We also lost the housekeepers.) But we also had black babysitters, and that was odd. You didn't let those people care for your children, after all. And our church had a black family as members, and they became good friends with my family, and they came to our house, and this all seems pitifully inadequate now, but at the time, it was important and necessary, and for the most part my parents did not act out of simple guilt. They lived without grandstanding (the positive morals we learned from this were interestingly contrasted to the ethics we pondered when our father went to jail).

We had no blacks, but we had Mexicans. My own place in this world was problematic, however, because while I wasn't Mexican, and while I was being raised 'white,' I was in fact half-Spanish. The meaning of being Spanish mostly eluded me as I grew up. My mother was in many ways a typical middle-class housewife of her era, and my father was most certainly traditional-minded about how a home was managed, and so it was my mother who composed and cooked the meals, and my mother was far from Spanish. She was an adventurous cook, and we ate everything from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but we never ate Spanish food unless my grandmother sent some over. My father never spoke Spanish in the home, so there was no way to identify our heritage with the language. Outside of my grandmother's thick accent when she spoke English, and the occasional batch of Spanish rice she would cook for us, I lived the life of a whiteboy, albeit a whiteboy with 'yellow' skin (I hadn't learned the meaning of the phrase 'olive-skinned' and so spent years of my childhood comparing my color to that of the white and Mexican kids and concluding I had a life-long case of jaundice).

Except, again, there was a geographical angle. My grandmother lived in the same house her husband had built for her when they came to Antioch in the 1910s, the same house my father and all of his brothers and sisters were born in. This house was in the 'old' section of Antioch, and it was the oddest thing: while there were times when I thought the only Spanish people in the world were the Rubio family and perhaps a few flamenco artists who showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show, when I would visit my grandmother I couldn't help noticing that her next-door neighbor, and the old folks just around the corner, and maybe three-fourths of all the older people in a two-block radius around my grandmother's house, all of these people were Spanish. There was, in this lily-white town which used Chicanos for their local color, a tiny enclave of Spanish expatriates who watched the Spanish-language television station and hung velvet paintings of bullfighters on their walls. These people all looked like my grandmother, they all talked like my grandmother ... although it wasn't nearly as obvious as the invisible geographic marker separating white Antioch from the mixture that was Pittsburg, nonetheless the geographic lines were there. Antioch had a 'Little Spain!'

I never identified with that Little Spain. I wasn't embarrassed by my Spanish heritage, although I can't take much credit for this attitude. I don't think it occurred to me that other families didn't have grandmothers who spoke with accents. But I never really associated myself with the Spanish part of me. Not that I didn't absorb things subconsciously. In an introductory Spanish class I took at Berkeley when I was in my thirties, my teacher told me early in the semester that my family was from Andalusia, an accurate conclusion he came to because it turned out I spoke Spanish with an Andalusian accent, although my father never spoke the language in our home. Geography made me, indeed.

But I didn't identify myself as Spanish when I was growing up. I was from Antioch. This, more than my ethnic background, more than my father's occupation, more than anything else about me, was what identified me to the outside world. Geography made me who I was: someone from Antioch. And I was most definitely embarrassed by this. To be from Antioch was to be from nowhere. Even worse, to be from Antioch, in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, was to be from the wrong side of the hills. In the Summer of Love, you could go to San Francisco and smell incense in the air; 35 miles away in Antioch, all we could smell was jobs. (And later, after I married, when I went to work in a local factory, I, too, began smelling like jobs.)

A year after I married my sweetheart from Antioch High School, we moved to Berkeley, where we have lived happily for the past twenty years, with the exception of a two-year period around 1980 when a few bad breaks brought us back to Antioch, where we lived in a newish suburban enclave and smelled what was left of the jobs. It was the worst two years of our marriage, and I can't help but think it was once again a matter of geography messing with my self-esteem: for 18 of the last 20 years, I have been proud to say 'I am from Berkeley,' but for two years, I had to admit I was from Antioch, and I couldn't bear the thought, and I ended up one night standing in the middle of the street in our calm suburban enclave, screaming and crying at nothing until my wife came to take me to the hospital.

A few years later, I visited Spain for the first time. I stood on the balcony of the hostel where we spent our first night. It was dark; I couldn't see anything. But I could smell the Mediterranean Sea. And though we were in Catalonia, on the opposite end of the country from Andalusia where the Rubios once lived, I loved that smell, it didn't smell at all of jobs, it smelled of Spain, and I felt like I had come home.

A month or so after we returned from our vacation in Spain, I quit my job at the factory and returned to school. Once in awhile, my wife will get a whiff of some cleanser, and she'll say 'that's what you used to smell like. When you came home from working in the factory, you smelled like hand-cleaner.' I smelled like jobs. I haven't smelled like a job in years.

When I visit Antioch now, I feel like a tourist. I don't recall, as I type, if it still smells like jobs. I used to be from Antioch. Now I am from Berkeley. This feels too easy, somehow, as if I could wipe all traces of Antioch from my existence by merely moving away. We are, ultimately, more than our geography, which isn't to negate all I have said in this essay: geography makes me part of what I am today, all of my geographies, past, present and future.

Copyright © 1994, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.