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Book Q&A

Signs of the Great Refusal

Q&A with author Tedd Siegel

1. What do you mean by the terms ‘The Great Refusal,’ and/or the politics of refusal?

Well, the term The Great Refusal actually has quite the fascinating history. Apparently, it originates in Dante, who calls out a particular ‘shade’ that he sees in hell as the one “who through cowardice, made the great refusal” (che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto). Some scholars think he is referring to Pope Celestine who stepped down from the papacy; others think it refers to Pilate, who, through his order to crucify, came to represent the paradigmatic refusal of the gospel of Christ. Regardless, the sense behind it is the medieval sin of 'recusiato tensionis,' the unworthy refusal to perform a task that is within one’s power.


The Great Refusal only receives its first positive spin in Alfred North Whitehead, who saw a kind of heroism in certain acts of refusal, a stubborn insistence on the ideal over the real. The famed medieval historical Jacques Le Goff then gives it an additional twist, referring to it as a permanent possibility of social character that can emerge in “precise historical junctures” (presumably times of crisis). Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas on spontaneity of struggle are also implicated here.

Its this sense of The Great Refusal, as an ideal-type that manifests in various forms, and then gets made real through various collective actions, that  then became part of the parlance of the American New Left, by way of Herbert Marcuse. In Marcuse, The Great Refusal, so understood, becomes a way to refer to aggregated social movements of resistance against capitalist forms of domination that operate in the absence of any discernable revolutionary working-class consciousness.

In Signs of the Great Refusal, my point of departure is Marcuse’s remark that “The Great Refusal takes a variety of forms,” because I want to make the case for a politics of refusal oriented around the refusal of work-as-we-know-it, in the post-Fordist and neoliberal digital age. An effective resistance to domination has to take the fight directly to the process of capitalist accumulation. This is why the politics of refusal of work-as-we-know-it is a necessary complement to the intersectional politics of identity, which has often proved to be too easily appropriated and co-opted by the dominant corporate culture, turning it into simply a gradualist search for equity under existing conditions.

2. What kind of a book is this exactly, and who is it for?

Signs of the Great Refusal is intended, first and foremost, to be a work of Left-activist political theory. It’s semi-scholarly, in that it engages in explicit advocacy, and also because it weaves together current events, philosophy, political theory and social science, and personal narrative. The purpose of Signs of the Great Refusal is to challenge the privatization/depoliticization of work today, to promote the development of a post-work political imaginary, and to encourage a cross-class politics of refusal of work-as-we-know-it.


The central premise of the first part of the book is this: if there is a chance that something like ‘the Great Resignation’ could turn out to be a form of The Great Refusal, it is necessary to overcome various capitalist realist dogmas about work. The second part seeks to recognize and to understand the dismaying trajectory of wage-based society in the post-Fordist and neoliberal digital age.

Beyond that, in both the second and third part, the book aims to introduce a series of notions derived from autonomist Marxism to the younger generations of the professional-managerial class, among others. The goal is to help to stimulate an understanding of class composition in advanced, technological society, and to thereby also begin the work of ‘class recomposition.’


This book is therefore intended to be of interest to leftist activists, those interested in continental social and political philosophy, and younger members of the increasingly dissatisfied professional-managerial class.  It is oriented to US and UK readers, and to the extent that it deals with a globalized experience of work, and leverages the writing of a number of European critics, it is also intended to be of interest in Europe, Japan, and India.

3. How did you come to write this book, and why did you write it?

I began writing the book while I was on a leave of absence from a career management position, some months before taking early retirement due to extreme burnout, stress, and PTSD/anxiety. Initially, I was just writing for myself, trying to understand how I had ended up feeling this way. Beyond the specifics of my own experience, however, I wanted to understand what it was about work itself that had become so untenable.

I knew that I was far from alone in feeling forced to ‘tap out’ early, despite a whole raft of potential implications and consequences. Thinking about all of this also made me want to situate this experience of work, as well as myself, in a much more precise way. I wanted to achieve a clearer understanding of despair over work as a sort of a generational happening, as something unique to this moment in American history and technological enterprise, and I especially wanted to try to understand it properly as a specific sort of a class position, one replete with both blinders and action potentials in relation to the future of work.

4. Your background is in philosophy. Is there a philosophical backbone to the book?

Yes, I’d like to think so. In terms of various types of post-Marxism, the book traverses a course backward, regressing from Capital to Grundrisse, in a way that I think is demanded practically by our present circumstances. Some might say that these two theoretical moments ultimately represent disparate understandings of value and class. But in my view, a critique of capital adequate to a politics of refusal today requires accounts of both horizontal and vertical domination, of commodity fetishism as both something constitutive of social existence, and commodity fetishism as a ruling class ideology.


A broad-based politics of refusal across traditional markers of class and identity requires that masses of working people begin to free themselves from their post-political, ‘capitalist realism,’ and come to recognize it, in its various elements, as the hegemonic ideology of neoliberal capitalism. To this end, the first and second part of the book leverages various ideas derived from Marx’s understanding of "horizontal" forms of domination in capitalism society (as found in Mark Fisher, and Moishe Postone’s reading of Capital respectively).


In the third part, after a stage-setting traverse through Jürgen Habermas on the collapsing occupational public sphere, and Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s notion of establishing counter-publics as a form of counter-hegemonic practice, the focus shifts to confronting vertical forms of domination and ruling class ideology as found in Operaismo and Autonomia theorists such as Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, and Paolo Virno.

5. 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 final 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Does the structure and organization of the book reflect a specific rhetorical strategy?

Yes, it does. One has to first keep in mind that the intentions behind the book are practical or political in nature.  I want to encourage certain target groups, by providing resources to help people to become active subjects of a politics of the refusal of work-as-we-know-it. 

Part I

After the front matter, the first two chapters offer what I consider to be an initial or provisional answer to the question, “what is work today?” and “what is the meaning of refusal in relation to it?” To do get there quickly, I deploy the noun phrase “work-as-we-know-it” without further ado, somewhat phenomenologically, in much the same spirit in which justice Potter Stewart said, with respect to obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” With respect to refusal, I start by describing what I consider to be an emerging cultural space, or generationally-specific cultural mood of refusal.

This preparatory activity continues across the next four chapters, where notions about work are radically historicized, and exposed as dogmas, or various species of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism.”  At this stage, capitalist realism is a handy stand-in for more complex discussions about the value form, fetishism, reification, etc.  There is also a deepening of ideas surrounding a new type of generational politics.

Part II

The second part begins with a grouping of chapters designed to offer a specification of the meaning and significance of work as wage labor in the modern age.  I do this through staging a running argument between Arendt and Marx, and by deploying Moishe Postone’s arguments contra transhistorical accounts of labor, using it against Arendt. 

After doing this, I turn to the question of the problem of work in the digital age, which is the overall destination.  The last two chapters of this part considers three different accounts of how we might “reweave the social” in a manner incompatible with capitalism in the post-Fordist digital age. Some key notions taken from Post-Operaismo theories of refusal and exodus are introduced here, to be taken up again and deepened in the last chapter of the book.

Part III

The final part of the book starts by considering the ways that we are generally invited to problematize work in the dominant culture.  After criticizing how the problem with work gets privatized in and through capitalist spirituality's personal projects of self-optimization and wellness/recovery, I seek to re-frame things in more communitarian terms, asking, “where can we find the conditions for genuine self-renewal today?” I then I point out that the unmasking of contemporary projects of happiness management  has the effect of calling forth our experience of the collapsing public sphere. It is precisely the absence any alternatives today that describes a certain boundary condition, and thus traces the contour of our public sphere dissolution.


The next group of chapters explore prominent accounts of what is meant by the “dissolution or collapse of the public sphere,” out of an urgent sense that today, the weakening of our “bridging social capital” has severely limited our overall choices for social belonging. I stage a confrontation between Arendt and Habermas on the public realm/public sphere as a way to explore the problem of our collapsing occupational, pseudo-public sphere, and to address the possibility of an exodus by means of the establishment of so-called counter-publics. 

Final Chapter 

The last chapter explores a concrete historical example, in the Operaismo movement's politics of refusal, and the Autonomia theorists account of immaterial labor in the era of advanced technological capitalism. The purpose here is to once again take up the task of theorizing the future of work in the digital age, but this time by way of an example that shows real people actively engaged in the concrete struggle for class recomposition that it represents. The chapter culminates in a staging of one final encounter with Arendt’s theories regarding work, intellect, and action, this time by way of Paolo Virno’s theory of an exodus in and through an “alliance between general intellect and political action.”

The overall scene of Operaismo is thus employed to help to validate the basic conceptual elements of the postwork political imaginary, and the real-world political struggle of Operaismo is offered as a prism through which these concepts are then leavened by real-world considerations.


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