The final labor right is the right to not labor
You have the right to not work. Sounds crazy, but what are you doing right now? Not working, are you? That’s fine. This is your right.
You are not your job. You are not defined by your value to the capitalist system. Yes you have rights as a worker, but the most important right — the one we are denied — is the right to not work at all.
What is not work?
Not work is the most important work of all. Not work is raising children. Not work is caring for elders. Not work is making art. Not work is not destroying the Earth.
What is ‘unskilled’ work?
‘Unskilled’ work is growing food, cleaning bedpans. Building homes. This is in fact highly skilled work, you try doing it. During the pandemic we call this essential work, but we certainly don’t treat the workers that way. Are you beginning to see that we have our priorities wrong?
What are labor rights?
Well, what is labor? We value the literal labor of our own mothers as nothing. All the mother’s milk in the world counts for not a cent of GDP, while formula companies are worth billions. We’re obviously missing something.
We’re missing not work.
The Right To Not Work
The right to not work is not a new right. For the vast majority of human existence, hunter-gatherers had plenty of leisure time (and much healthier skeletons). Rich people have this right today. What do you think the division between capital and labor is? Capitalists by definition do not labor.
Let me give you my example. I work — work I love — but I do not have to work to eat. My wife has investments and that money ‘works’ for us. Rich people already have Universal Basic Income. It’s called compound interest. We get paid to not work, just because we already have money.
For the poor, however, we withhold this right. There is the idea that the poor need to be motivated by fear of starvation or disease or homelessness or the economy will fall apart. But this is A) a cruel psychological experiment and B) not how human motivation works.
As a teenager and young adult I had every basic need taken care of but I still cleaned toilets at McDonald’s, a supermarket, and restaurant and basically every job besides telemarketing (which was a mental toilet). Why did I do this? It wasn’t out of fear of destitution. I wanted to buy CDs, and clothes, and weed. People are almost entirely motivated by the ‘extras’ and only demotivated by poverty.
We motivate the wealthy with more wealth, but insist that the poor must be motivated by poverty. Why? How is this different from motivation by the whip? When you put someone’s food or their children’s medicine on the line, what’s the difference? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Just treat poor people with the same dignity as the rich.
Hence I am not calling for the creation of a right. I am calling for an extension of rights across class, and a return to our roots as human beings. We used to just gather food for a few hours and chill the rest of the day. This is possible, and it is possible without destroying the economy. Indeed, such thinking makes the economy bigger.
We Need To Make Our Economy Bigger
The very idea of work and not work is based on a very narrow and frankly insipid definition of the economy. We live in a world where Amazon, a glorified shopkeeper, is worth a trillion dollars and the Amazon rainforest is worth zero. We live in a world where childcare is part of the economy, but caring for your own children is worthless.
We talk about the economy, the economy, the economy, but for classist, sexist, dumbassist reasons we exclude most human activity from the economy. Raising children, caring for elders, being a friend, being a lover, helping a neighbor, volunteering — all worth exactly zero to the economy. Meanwhile cutting down trees, robbing the poor with payday loans, marketing opiates — all highly valuable economic activity.
We’re doing it wrong. Not just ethically wrong, economically wrong. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources, but we’re not even measuring the resources we have. We are certainly not measuring what matters.
Hence what I’m calling for is not uneconomic. I am in fact calling for a massive expansion of the economy to include all human activity, and value it. As a way of measuring this I call for a goal of ZDP (Zero Domestic Poverty) instead of GDP. Defining national wealth logically, as not being poor.
We cannot keep expanding a sliver of human activity and calling it growth. This is in fact cancer, leading inexorably to climate change. We have to make our conception of our economy bigger if we want to even have one in 30 years. And that starts now. If you assign zero value to a mother’s labor to 3D-print a whole-ass human being, your definition is wrong. Think bigger.
Workers Of The World, Stop Working So Much
Last century, people fought and sacrificed to give us so many labor rights we take for granted. The weekend, for example. That’s a labor right. Children not working in factories. Pensions, unions, sick days, maternity/paternity leave. These rights didn’t come out of nowhere. People fought for them. We need to keep fighting. Our ancestors got us the weekend. We need to take the whole damn week.
The late David Graeber puts all these ideas better, and I’m very sad he died. As he said:
When I’m talking about a basic income, I don’t mean a supplement, but an income which is enough to live on. I am for divorcing livelihood and work entirely. If you’re alive, you deserve a livelihood. And it’s up to you to decide what you have to attribute to society. With this form of basic income, you might have the problem of how to get people to clean sewers: you’ll have to pay them a lot. But nobody will take a bullshit job anymore. Because people want to feel useful!
What I am talking about is Universal Basic Services (ie, food, water, health, shelter and the things that are economic to provide collectively) and Universal Basic Income for things that are better through the market. This sounds crazy, but it is just the experience of having a rich parent. Millions of people are having this experience now. Where do you think most of your writers and academics and economists come from? They come from privilege, but I am telling you, this is a right.
When people ask how we’ll pay for this, look at the horrific cost of the US healthcare system compared to public healthcare in, say, Sri Lanka. Many of these things are much cheaper to provide publically than privately. Many Scandinavian countries have also done welfare systems like this piecemeal, I am simply saying order the whole value meal. You’ll save money. Universal Basic Income is also vastly simpler (and thus cheaper) to administrate than the complicated systems we have now to decide who is worthy (old, young, citizen, sick, etc). People will also say that poor countries can’t do this, but maybe break the apartheid in the World Bank and IMF and we’d have a chance.
Having people not living hand to mouth also allocates economic resources better, ie the point of an economy. People can do what they’re good at and — along with open borders, another necessary change — where it’s most needed. You know, a free market.
To put it frankly, you cannot have a free market with bonded wage slaves. We have to set people free in terms of having their basic human needs met, and set them free to move wherever they want. This is a free market. Again, what we have now is not a free market. Someone working to avoid starvation is not free. Someone that cannot cross a border is not free. What we have now is capitalism, colonialism, feudalism, and all the -isms and schisms of the past. Hence what I am calling for is not just ethical, it’s economic.
Last century they fought for the right of a worker to not be treated as chattel. We must keep going, to be treated like human beings. We have to fight, this century, for the final labor right. The right to not work at all.
David Graeber has thought and written about this much deeper. Here’s an interview with him.