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Book Q&A, cont.

Signs of the Great Refusal

Q&A with author Tedd Siegel, cont.

5. Can you tell us what you mean by the term “post-work society?”

Well, I certainly don’t mean a society where nobody expects (or is expected) to do any work, although, to be completely honest, I’d like to see a society where people work quite a bit less work than they do now. So post-work society refers to the sort of society in which people are encouraged to spend a lot more time being useful to themselves and to others in ways that are not mediated by money. 

You could think of it as the production of a social dividend.  We all create value that we share around, rather than focusing all our time on earning (and making profit for others) in order to buy everything that we need and want.


In the first instance, post-work society refers to the ostensible end of the “society of the wage” -- as a reality, as a kind of a social contract, and as an aspiration (i.e., the goal of full employment). It means a revolution in what is considered productive and unproductive.  It means a muscular recovery of use-values in relation to exchange values. 

Post-work society is the society we would like to see, now that capitalism is decisively abandoning the very form of society that it created, because the overhead has become too high, and it no longer wants to pay social benefits, and because it wants to monetize all common goods. 


It is the political project that begins with a revolutionary proposal: maybe we should meet the exodus of capital with an exodus from work-based society, and seek to establish autonomous, counter-publics that could serve as an alternative to our presently collapsing, occupational pseudo-public sphere.

6. What about the meaning of your phrase, “the post-work political imaginary?”

The post-work political imaginary comprises the minimal set of things that are the necessary condition for a politics of refusal of work-as-we-know-it. 

The use of the term “imaginary” here comes from Cornelius Castoriadis’ The Imaginary Institution of Society (1975), where the author describes how social realities get constructed at the level of culture. Castoriadis’ “social imaginaries” have been taken up by theorists of degrowth economics, who describe what they call “degrowth imaginaries.” 


An element of this has been the development of “post-work imaginaries,” which describe in utopian fashion, or else concretely, what the world of work could or would look like if we were actually to make radical changes.

My use of the phrase, “the post-work political imaginary” is meant to be a radicalization of the idea of “post-work imaginaries;” By adding the word “political” to post-work imaginary, my intention is to focalize attention on the kind of politics or struggle it would take to actually bring about this alternative reality.

In Signs of the Great Refusal, the elements of the post-work political imaginary that I describe include things like explicit resistance to conditions of precarity, arbitrary/purposeless jobs, authoritarian workplaces, and the harvesting of personal biopower.  It further includes the social decolonization of key capitalist-realist notions that are important to the functioning of wage-based society.


For example, challenges to capitalist dogmas concerning usefulness, idleness and leisure, productivity and cycles of rest, and debt forgiveness, among other things (e.g., the degree to which wage-based society continues to be structured by gendered notions of productivity and the division of labor).


The post-work political imaginary also must include an understanding of the transition from Fordism to post-Fordist patterns of work in the digital age, replete with new opportunities for both subjection and subjectification, and thus for the de-commodification of labor.


Finally, the post-work political imaginary and the politics of refusal also include the elaboration of approaches to an exodus -- to the establishment of an autonomous, counter-public that could serve as an alternative to our presently collapsing, occupational pseudo-public sphere.



7. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition figures very prominently throughout Signs of the Great Refusal.  What exactly is your relationship to Arendt here?


For sure, there is a sustained critique of Arendt that runs throughout the book.  One of the ways to look at Signs of the Great Refusal is as a rather unorthodox – and sometimes subterranean -- engagement with Arendt’s take on labor, work, and action (the vita activa) in the pre-modern public realm and in the modern world.  This should make sense, if you recognize that these things end up being deeply implicated in any attempt to reformulate political action today as a politics of refusal.

My reading of Arendt starts in the second part of the book, with a preliminary consideration of Arendt on labor and work in antiquity, the middle ages, and modern society, as a way to get to an answer to the question “what is the meaning of work in the modern age?”


Beginning with the age of industrial production, the answer to this question is provided for us by capitalism – at the level of society as such, work is univocally defined as waged labor.  Marx and Arendt agree upon this, but disagree about what it says about modern times, and what the prospects are for human emancipation under this set of general conditions.  So I explore the implications of that, drawing it into the problem of work in the digital age.

Next, in the third part of the book, I take up the problem of what Jurgen Habermas calls the public sphere (and what Arendt calls the public realm).  Here I juxtapose Habermas’s account of the bourgeois public sphere as something undergoing dialectic and dissolution, with Arendt’s assertion that there really isn’t, and never has been, a properly public realm in the modern age at all.  In this argument, I side with Habermas, and use his insights to develop a notion of establishing counter-publics as a form of anti-hegemonic practice.

Finally, in the concluding chapter, I focalize a disagreement about the nature of modern political action that is played out between Arendt and Paolo Virno, over how to think about the relationship between action, work, and intellect in the technological age.

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