Sabotage, Slowdowns, and Theft

An interview with Robin D.G. Kelley on Black anti-work politics

By Marian Jones

Two young protesters in Birmingham try to avoid the blast of a fire hose during a civil rights protest, 1963.

Anti-work politics is in the midst of a renaissance. Masses of people are quitting their jobs, and paeans to the 20 hour work week and universal basic income are common. If devotion to our jobs hasn’t gotten us much more than low wages and poor health care, a certain slacker politics makes sense in 2022. 

But anti-work politics present a unique challenge for Black workers. Our society has a long racist history of portraying Black Americans as anti-work in the worst way: lazy, unreliable, and deserving of the lowest rung of employment. 

Nonetheless, there is a hidden history of radical Black anti-work politics, which includes sabotage, slowdowns, and theft. I turned to historian Robin D. G. Kelley, whose “‘We Are Not What We Seem’: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South” argues that labor historians have avoided writing these tactics due to

“southern labor historians’ noble quest to redeem the Black working class from racist stereotypes… The safety and ideological security of the south required that pilfering, slowdowns, absenteeism, tool breaking, and other acts of Black working-class resistance be turned into ineptitude, laziness, shiftlessness, and immorality… But rather than reinterpret these descriptions of Black working-class behavior, sympathetic labor historians are often too quick to invert the images, remaking the Black proletariat into the hardest working, thriftiest, most efficient labor force around… But if we regard most work as alienating, especially work done amid racist and sexist oppression, then a crucial aspect of Black working-class struggle is to minimize labor with as little economic loss as possible…” 

I talked with Kelley about the wide spectrum of anti-work politics, from the aforementioned sabotage, to the Zerowork Collective of the 1970s, to the “new work, new culture” movement in today’s Detroit. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marian Jones How would you define anti-work politics?

Robin D.G. Kelley I think of anti-work politics in the plural, with many different tendencies. Of course the ruling class has its version: “We’re not going to work, we’re going to have others do that for us.”

But when I talk about anti-work on the left, I don’t mean resistance to work or labor per se. I mean resistance to wage labor alienation, proletarianization, and misery. Fighting the routinization of work means fighting a division of labor that isn’t our own. 

Anti-work politics can also be about recognizing and compensating unpaid labor — reproductive labor. The labor that often falls on the shoulders of women and femmes. 

There’s a version of anti-work politics that supports automation and argues that we shouldn’t have to do any physical labor. Abolition of all forms of labor in exchange for robots is not anti-work politics to me. 

MJ Can you offer some examples of what you do consider to be anti-work politics?

RDGK In the 1970s there’s the group Zerowork, which argued that the refusal to work lies at the heart of so many different struggles — peasant struggles, feminist struggles, student struggles — and that the struggle is against capitalist-imposed work, as opposed to just labor itself. 

A more recent example, which no one is talking about, is outside of Detroit. That is the new work culture, which has its origins with the theorist Frithjof Bergmann, who had been in contact with [legendary Detroit organizer] Grace Lee Boggs. Grace had been distinguishing between jobs and work for a long time. People don’t want jobs, but they do want to work, not for wages, but for developing new values that are inclusive.

New Work Culture is about incorporating people with disabilities, the young, formerly incarcerated people, and all their neighbors, and it’s a culture that is post-capitalist, post-oil, post-industrial, post-jobs, and it’s about doing work that’s creating a caring culture. For example, getting neighbors to figure out how to build their own energy grid, to build windmills, to train people to create new sources of energy, to fabricate things using 3D printers, to repurpose tools and equipment, and of course, Detroit is a perfect place to do that, because you have a dying industry, with all this junk left behind, and it’s been transformed into tools to make life better. Again, some may not see this as anti-work politics, but it is anti-commodified work politics.

MJ I’ve recently noticed a surge in anti-work literature over the past few years:​​ Laziness Does Not Exist, by Devon Price, Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work by John Danaher, Kassandra Vee’s “Work Sucks”, Kim Kelly’s “Everything You Need to Know About General Strikes,” Amelia Horgan’s Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism, Sarah Jaffe’s Work Won’t Love You Back, to name a few. 

Why is there such a demand to hear it?

RDGK This litany of essays, blog posts, and whatnot dates back to the post-2008 financial crisis.

David Graeber wrote a provocative essay called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” It tells us a lot about the multi-pronged shift that occurred in the aftermath of 2008. One thing we must also acknowledge is that Marxists have never been anti-work; if anything, Marxists have elevated, celebrated, and dignified work. As a result, it’s no surprise that someone like David Graeber was an anarchist. 

Graeber and others demonstrate that economists are always wrong! They imagined that an increase in worker productivity and technological advancements would result in a shorter workday. But we’ve gotten more worker productivity, lower wages, more precarious jobs, and longer work hours. And it has to do with the shift to lean production, which dates back to the 1970s. After 2008, you see the continuation of outsourcing, the dismantling of institutions like labor unions. You have workplace flexibility, which means that employers can simply relocate or lay off workers in response to changing economic conditions. As a result, there is more precarious, insecure employment, more temp jobs, and unpredictable hours, concentrated in hospitality and food services, retail, and cleaning for building services and other areas like construction work, which is often done by very precarious migrant labor. We call these workers the precariat. 

No occupational identity can survive on involuntary part-time work, short-term contracts, zero-hour contracts, telemarketing. Wage labor under these conditions is simply intolerable and leads a lot of working people to say, you know what, I’d rather withdraw.

MJ Where do the sort of strikes and sabotage you describe fit into anti-work politics? What is the difference between anti-work politics and strategic work refusal? Would you classify the strategic resistance you describe in your essays “‘We are Not What We Seem’”, and “Shiftless of the World Unite!” as anti-work or work refusal or both?

RDGK In my opinion, we should consider these issues in the context of capitalism’s cannibalism of human beings, and then in the refusal to accept that cannibalization. We’re seeing strategies that, in some ways, are attempting to reach the same place but from different perspectives. 

Strikes, stay-at-homes, and sit-ins are distinct from anti-work [politics], but the lines, in my opinion, are not clear. These are workers fighting for better working conditions; that is the whole point of the strike. What if, for example, the strike’s goal is to protest give-backs? That is one specific thing. If the fight is over, as it has historically been for an eight hour day, one could argue that this is not an anti-work movement, but it is certainly a reduction in labor exploitation. This is workers saying, “Look, you know, I’m not trying to get more hours. I’m trying to reduce the number of hours to make life more humane, and this is my way of saying that I will not allow alienating exploitative wage labor to destroy me.” 

Anti-work politics is about making the leap to say, “We don’t want to be exploited in this way.” This is similar to some anti-worker activists leading strikes because they feel compelled to fight for workplace control. So, much of the [recent] fight in the coal miners’ strike outside of Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was about the pace of work, about people not wanting to work these exceptionally long shifts. And that is a battle I would rank on par with or in relation to anti-work politics. Because, you know, someone could easily say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I want 16 hours, I just want to make more money.” It’s not about that.

So, all I’m saying is that we need to look at these movements in relation to one another, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in alliance.

MJ What would you point to as an example of explicit Black anti-work politics?

RDGK A kind of Black anti-work politics could be roughly divided into three categories. Entrepreneurship isn’t particularly radical, but is a way to avoid low-wage labor.

A much tinier, tinier, tinier tendency is what I write about, in (my book) Race Rebels — those doing everything they can to mitigate the impact of work. And, as [Black Panther] Kathleen Cleaver mentioned, part of that mitigation includes deciding to work in what is known as the informal economy, referring to both criminal and non-criminal activity. The informal economy also refers to things like house parties, you know, buying and selling things. All those African sellers of fake Gucci in Times Square. 

Finally, you know, there’s a new work culture that, while not entirely Black, is predominately Black because it’s based in Detroit. Finding forms of self or collective employment that are geared toward collective needs is one of them.

MJ So I was wondering what your thoughts were on full employment. That was, and possibly still is, a popular demand among African Americans. A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. both advocated for a full-employment plan, with the federal government serving as the “employer of last resort.” It was included in the Black Panthers’ 10-point plan. Black Marxist sociologist Oliver C. Cox theorized that “assimilation and integration… into the mainstream… can only be achieved through full employment through the dissolution of capitalism and the transition to socialism.”

RDGK The legislative struggle for full employment really takes off in the 1970s. Coretta Scott King and others were at the forefront. And the ideal situation is not for the government to be the employer. It is the government that ensures employment, and having a job is fundamentally a right.  

Of course, there is the counter-argument that simply providing people with jobs isn’t going to solve the problem of precarity, poverty, and inequality. The question becomes: What is work? And this is where organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), and later, Wages for Housework and others, come in to claim that we, as welfare recipients, do work. We do reproductive labor, we raise children, and we care for others. We look after households, and that is labor that should be not only recognized but also compensated. So you’ve progressed from full-time employment to government compensation for unpaid labor. 

Then there’s the leap to the other kind of solution to poverty and inequality, which is universal basic income. Universal basic income is the idea that every family gets a floor, that everyone gets X amount of money per child, but not just tax credits — actual money. If you care for your family and others, you get a paycheck from the government. It’s an intriguing concept; even neoliberals like Milton Friedman advocated for universal basic income. 

But why is this significant? In a capitalist system, where consumption drives production and the economy, consuming commodities with cash is an essential element of capital reproduction. And so universal basic income or full employment are not anti-capitalist even though there are elements of the ruling class who think they’re bad ideas. 

MJ One socialist argument for full employment is that it would increase worker power and perhaps create a larger safety net, therefore allowing Black workers to feel more free to refuse oppressive work. There would no longer be a work-or-die situation.

RDGK It’s interesting because, in the United States, full-employment is generally referred to as a gift, a handout, or welfare — a gift to be always working. 

You can only refuse [work] if you have a strong labor movement. Strong labor laws, robust minimum wage laws, worker cooperatives, or worker ownership were not on the table alongside full employment. You can imagine [today] that financing for the jobs might ultimately come through the state and the state would do it through private capital. For example, say Merrill Lynch receives a subsidy from the state to be able to hire people to clean; capital benefits from that structure of full employment.

That is not to say that an alternative structure could not exist; an alternative structure could be trade union-run worker ownership, or, in other words, the eventual abolition of capitalism and private enterprise.

MJ I set out to write about this trend I’m seeing in anti-work, but with a focus on race, Black history, and what it means to resist wage labor as a Black person in America. One helpful term you used was “racialized class consciousness,” as relates to and comes up against racist stereotypes. Could you talk about your work on African-American resistance?

RDGK When I use terms like racialized class consciousness, I’m referring to how there is a clear sense of class identity, but it’s a class identity shaped by race; in this case, we’re talking about Black workers, but the same could be said about white workers. That the racial division of labor within the class imposed by capital affects how labor is perceived to be valued or not valued. 

In many ways, a lot of Black workers’ desire for upward mobility translated into being extremely hard workers. That is the polar opposite of anti-work; that is, working as many extra hours as possible to demonstrate that they are deserving employees, which is number one. 

Number two, they resisted and slowed down at the same time, as do all workers. They didn’t want to do the dirty, physically demanding work. Who would want to do that? They found ways to fight back both collectively and individually. 

So you have Africans as slaves because it was thought that they were the only ones capable of doing the hard work of cutting sugarcane. But, you say, Africans are extremely lazy, which is why you need to use violence to force them to work. So, what happens when that is the general perception of your work? It means that if Black workers slow down, it is regarded as shiftless. It’s considered, you know, a characteristic of their race, which can be used to advantage in some ways, like “You’re going to call me shiftless? Yeah, I’m a slacker, which is why you can’t expect me to work so hard.” 

On the other hand, some people wanted to return to the politics of respectability, so you have people saying things like “We’re not shiftless, I could prove it. I can work. Call me John Henry.” The story of John Henry is one of Black work and respectability versus the machine. What happens next? He passes away. Only in children’s books does Henry survive, have a family, and go on. 

And so there’s a lesson there, which leads to a history of Black working class struggle that says we want to reduce the exertion of our physical labor in the creation of surplus for the man as much as possible. And especially for Black women. It’s interesting because of the type of labor that was pushed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was domestic work, but domestic household workers don’t have the same type of management. It’s a kind of management that’s hyper-surveilled, and they use new strategies and tactics to be able to reproduce your own labor power, which is theft. For example, as my friend Terrell Hunter puts it, “I’m making the case that because I’m hyper-exploited, super-exploited, that the product of my labor partly belongs to me, so I’m taking some of that home,” and these are the kinds of strategies that I would not argue are anti-work. They are survival strategies. 

But, ultimately, one of the things that Black workers have in common across the board is the experience of being “last hired, first fired.” That’s where the price of an anti-work strategy for Black workers is much higher because unless they’re going to be independent entrepreneurs, unless you’re able to get access to the commons, you’re far more precarious.

MJ What distinguishes a survival strategy from a refusal or anti-work strategy? And why isn’t a survival strategy necessarily political?

RDGK The difference is between collective and individual strategies, collective strategies in the case of, say, the Atlanta washer-woman’s strike or others, is that sometimes if you’re part of a collective you can get other domestic workers to quit with you, you’re exercising power. In other cases, quitting is a personal, individual decision. The situation is so intolerable that people quit their jobs. The distinction between this and, say, an anti-work strategy is that they find a new job. They are looking for better working conditions. I’m not saying people enjoy working; however, capitalism makes it impossible to survive without wage labor. That is, this is the most important thing. 

No one really wants to do the kind of alienating, low-wage, precarious labor that has come to define Black people’s work.

MJ The Black Panther Party wanted to organize and incorporate the lumpenproletariat, to make “forgotten” Black lumpens into historical players. Instead of celebrating workers, Panther Eldridge Cleaver lauded those who chose crime over waged labor. The Party admired the lumpen for their lack of capitalist work discipline. They contended that the Black proletariat and the Black lumpenproletariat are only separated by a thin line. Kathleen Cleaver once said, “Work is irregular and usually low-paid — except for criminal activities.”​​

And Wilson Sherwin’s work on the welfare rights movement — she found a long-forgotten history of anti-work politics. Women on welfare created the NWRO in 1966 to demand improved benefits and a say in welfare policy. Their pamphlets rejected the idea that paid work would provide them “a sense of dignity, self-worth, and confidence,” but that it “institutionalized poverty.” 

In both cases, people sought to debunk the myth that paid work could solve the problems of women and people of color.

RDGK Sherwin is correct in her assessment of the NWRO’s members’ perception of wage labor as coercive. There were leaders in the organization who pushed and criticized the concept of workfare because they weren’t so much fighting against work as they were fighting against alienating wage labor and fighting for recognition that what they do is work. So their line was, “We’re already working. We don’t want to not do our work. We want to do our jobs, but we should be paid for it.” That’s part of what she’s dealing with in the text. The work she’s doing is brilliant, and I completely agree with her.

That is very different from the Panthers’ ideology of the lumpenproletariat, which is a cultural category rather than a structural one. Because those who used the category of the so-called lumpenproletariat, as Cleaver did, were not referring to Marx’s reserve army of labor.

The lumpenproletariat has been glorified, and in some ways romanticized, as a specific group of people who work but do so outside of the formal market. So, who exactly is that? Hustlers, thieves, pimps, sex workers, independent vendors, drug dealers. The argument was that these are the people refusing [traditional] work and who may represent the revolutionary class, but the lumpen were historical actors who played a critical role in the demise of the Black Panther Party. Because a hustler is a hustler, is a hustler, is a hustler.  Elridge Cleaver was brilliant in many ways, but this wasn’t one of them. I believe the quote we have from Katherine Cleaver, which states that work is irregular and usually low-paying, makes a lot more sense. And the truth is that criminal activities are irregular and, depending on the activity, can be low-paying. But the point is that there is a lesson for the working class that basically says, “You know what, it makes more sense for me to sell crack than it does to work in a glass factory making vials for low wages.”

MJ I’d like to hear your thoughts on the status of Black workers in the Covid era. Covid-19 has disproportionately harmed Black workers who are more susceptible to infection because they work in public-facing industries like health care and retail. Poverty, structural racism, and occupational exposure all contribute to the fact that Black people are dying of Covid at twice the rate of whites. And on top of that, Black unemployment remains high, even during this so-called “labor shortage.” 

RDGK I’d go back to where I started, which is the concept of a new work culture. For a long time, Detroit has been financially and economically devastated but it’s a place that’s actually thriving. And the reason is that, before the pandemic, people began to convert abandoned lots into farms, growing organic food and making it available to residents as well as the school district. People fought against the introduction of Whole Foods, but they did not win that battle. They’ve been fighting to maintain a kind of Black-owned, organic, health food store culture alive in the face of Whole Foods, gentrification, dispossession, and displacement. They’ve been fighting for community benefit agreements from companies like Fiat, saying, “Look, if you’re going to build a factory here, employ us, we want money to subsidize housing, to basically not force people out of these communities.” So you have people who call themselves “solutionaries” in Detroit’s east side, multiracial, mostly Black, a lot of young people on their own, not investing, not attempting to build cars but, as I previously stated, windmills, solar energy, putting people to work, fighting for rights, organizing around getting free water as people’s waters are being shut off. Fighting for the fact that the Great Lakes surrounding Michigan have 20 percent of the world’s freshwater. 

As a result, this organizing work is work. It’s a new work culture that emphasizes organization as well as helping one another. When a person’s home requires insulation they are not going to the government for help with that. They’re like, “Okay, we’re going to look for ways to do business where we’ll insulate people’s houses in exchange for food.” That’s not the [whole] solution. But what I’m saying is that when you start to build new forms of social relations and forms of production that are more oriented toward subsistence and life, you actually start to build power. That’s not the end of it. That’s only the start. 

So, ironically, as bad as things are now, this is an opportunity that we can seize and create new forms of work rather than withdrawing. We’ve seen the downside of withdrawal is people saying, “Look, I’m just going to live on my social security benefits, I’m going to live on my unemployment insurance for as long as I can. I’m going to be depressed at home, playing video games.” 

That is not anti-work culture. I’m talking about struggle.                                         

Marian Jones is an editor at Lux.