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The Refusal of Work – A Brief Review


Nietzsche, one of the earliest proponents of an anti-work ethic, critiqued primarily the morality of the work ethic. For him the morality of the duty of work was operated as a means of control, which subjugated the development of the individual in favour of the impersonal needs of society. While his specific critique of work may appear as an unremarkable call for unrestrained individualism, his critique of work must be viewed in the context of his wider critique of morality and the values that govern a society. Modern society’s values and moral judgements he deemed insufficient and reactive, he hoped for a society which went beyond the slave morality of fear and resentment, and instead sought its own overcoming. It is this critique of society’s values that we must consider Nietzsche’s anti-work sentiment. Although Nietzsche was not explicitly political, the distinction between atomised individualism, as it is promoted in contemporary consumer culture, and autonomism worthy of a mention here. Both Nietzsche and autonomism rejected the platonic idea that there was a defined place for everyone in society, suited to their work or profession. This notion stunted personal self-discovery and led to an impoverished society, centred on control and slave morality. In autonomism, and many Marxian accounts of worker struggle, the shared problems faced by the workers, which they all felt individually, led to a sense of collectivity in struggle.



Paul Lafargue is one of the first to argue for the intelligence of laziness, how aristocratic societies in the classical era despised work and relegated it to slaves. It is interesting to draw parallels to past aristocratic societies and their attitude towards work with the rise of what Piketty terms the super-managers, those who are essentially the modern-day aristocrats, but now do not claim hereditary status for their positions but rather their value as senior leadership. Nietzsche would be cracking a wry smile at this turn of events, today even aristocrats no longer claim the right be above work, but instead pretend to be valuable workers.



Bertrand Russell’s 1935 essay ‘In praise of idleness’, remains very relevant today. In it, Russell examines the incongruence of the view of the moral goodness of productive activity coupled with the moral unsoundness of consumption, or unrestrained enjoyment, noting that consumption and production were closely linked. He questions why if someone were to make an investment in a business activity which proved unsuccessful, this person would be seen differently to one who spent all their money on pleasure and enjoyment. The desirability of work Russell argues comes from pre-industrial society, when there was a class of idle landowners who most certainly did not want their peasants following in their example. Only in industrial society do we have enough wealth and technology to allow greater leisure time. Importantly, Russell raises the feminist issue of unpaid reproductive and household labour, as well as noting that it was finance that allowed us to create this present state of industrial innovation by borrowing against the future.

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Combating Stultification in Critical Thought: Ranciere, Deleuze, Nietzsche

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

– Marx, Theses on Feuerbach

I decided to look into the history of the workers’ movement, to find out the reasons for the continual mismatching of workers and the intellectuals who came and visited them, either to instruct them or to be instructed by them. It was my good fortune to discover that this relationship wasn’t a matter of knowledge on one side and ignorance on the other, nor was it a matter of knowing versus acting or of individuality versus community.


…Emancipation starts from the principle of equality. It begins when we dismiss the opposition between looking and acting and understand that the distribution of the visible itself is part of the configuration of domination and subjection.

It starts when we realise that looking is also an action that confirms or modifies that distribution, and that “interpreting the world” is already a means of transforming it.

…this is what emancipation means: the blurring of the opposition between those who look and those who act, between those who are individuals and those who are members of a collective body.

⁃ Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator

The philosopher of the future is the explorer of ancient worlds, of peaks and caves, who creates only inasmuch as he recalls something that has been essentially forgotten. That something, according to Nietzsche, is the unity of life and thought. It is a complex unity: one step for life, one step for thought. Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life.

– Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy

This post is a continuation of my previous one on the usefulness of capitalism as a concept. From the quotes above there are several key themes to be explored. The first being the relationship of theory and practice, thought and action, and the tightly-linked second theme is the role of the intellectual. I want to make it clear from the start that when I will be discussing intellectuals or non-intellectuals I have Rancière’s axiom of the equality of intelligences firmly in mind (more on that later), so I’m not talking about certain classes of people (intellectuals) contra some other class (working class). I’m not implying that there are people more adept at the work of thought, and others more oriented towards practical endeavours, what I am concerned with rather is the relationship of the labour of theory to the labour of practice, which Rancière and Nietzsche assert everyone performs to varying degrees.

When I argue that capitalism is not a useful concept, this begs the question of what are theoretical concepts useful for, and to whom? This question is another angle on the question of the relationship of thought and action, theory and practical life. Deleuze has answered both these questions, the former in his last major book ‘What is Philosophy?‘ (WP) and the latter in one of his earliest books, ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy‘ (NP). 

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