In the United States, we’re told unemployment is slowly declining from its high mark in 2010. In the meantime, however, a structural shift has taken place, moving the American worker towards more precarious, less stable, and less remunerative employment. Must we accept these changes as the cost of survival? After all, we have debts to pay. Moreover, we wonder deep down, what are we if we don’t work?

These doubts lay at the heart of the new book, The Refusal of Work, by David Frayne. The book combines Frayne’s own interview research with a deep engagement of social theory to produce a considered, timely intervention into the growing literature on “work.” Where other writers elaborate the scourge of neoliberalism—surely an important and pressing topic—they are less clear about how we, as individuals and political movements, might begin to build alternatives. Addressing this lacuna, Frayne’s approach is a refreshing addition to the conversation.

The Refusal of Work explores the deeply existential identification we have with work. Frayne is influenced by French existentialist André Gorz and the Heideggerian Marxist Herbert Marcuse. These influences lead Frayne towards a different, more pragmatic version of subjectification than we find in Deleuzean-Foucaultian critiques of neoliberalism. Rather than becoming ourselves “behind the scenes,” unknowingly formed by an opaque social system, our identity and values are products of the practical and discursive resources available to us. Work, after two centuries trapped in the iron cage, is the primary resource for our self-identity and sense of self-worth. Is it surprising that our first question upon meeting someone new is: “What do you do?”

The Refusal of Work, and the following interview, are an invitation to begin to think about how work frames and encloses our lives. What would it mean to “refuse work,” to refuse the double bind of today’s economic relationships? Frayne argues for both the concrete possibilities present to individuals embedded in everyday life and the need for further collective efforts.


LM: In the last few years, we’ve seen several serious books and articles questioning “work” in the context of modern capitalism. Some of these are the latest hand-wringing about life/work balance or the specter of automation or outsourcing… It seems like we complain about work quite a lot. But we’ve also seen several book length meditations on work from theorists and historians, who are very agitated about something presumably. If work is part of the pattern of our lives, and has been for quite some time, what has occasioned this intellectual crisis about the way society organizes its own reproduction?

DF: There are so many things fuelling this desire to critique work. One of the main things that prompted me to write is what some critics have termed the “crisis of work.” In our work-centered society, we have delegated so many important functions to work—how income is distributed, how people gain social recognition and a sense of identity—but we have reached a point at which work is failing to fulfil these functions. We see the endurance of mass unemployment and widespread underemployment, caused in part by the drive for automation. The orthodox response would be to continue expanding the rate of production and consumption in order to create jobs, but many have recognised that this is an ecologically disastrous route. I think a lot of contemporary social woes—poverty, social isolation, stress, prejudice against immigrants—can also be traced back to the fact that people depend for their livelihoods on scarce work. Hannah Arendt worried that we were becoming a society of “workers without work”—people who are primed to depend practically and emotionally on work, but for whom there are not enough decent jobs to go around. I think this is true, and it is a very inhumane situation.

There is a lot to worry about, but one of the things that I think makes the critique of work such an interesting project is that the concerns of writers are always differently accented. In The Refusal of Work, I focus quite a lot on the Frankfurt School’s suggestion that modern society is forcing people to become more pragmatic and practical-minded, and that we are losing something in the process. Adorno’s short essay on “free-time” is a good introduction to this problem.1 He argues that in modern society, most of what happens in so-called free-time is still shaped in certain senses by the activity of work. The standard working week fractures our free-time into shards—shards in which we often feel worn out by work—meaning we are often disinclined to do much other than escape and recuperate out of hours. For people with demanding jobs, it becomes impossible to do anything outside of work that would require an investment of time and attention, or community ties.

The precarious nature of the labour market is also forcing people to think in more practical ways about how to spend their time. Under neoliberalism, we have each become personally responsible for mitigating precarity, which we do by working relentlessly at our “employability”—gaining the skills, qualifications and sensibilities that will be the most attractive to prospective employers. This shapes everything, from what subjects we choose to study, to what aspects of our personalities we deem as “problematic” and in need of reform. I think that work—whether we are employed or unemployed, at the workplace or at home—shapes our lives from every angle, and that we are losing a sense of spontaneity and reverie in the process. There’s this great quote from Bertrand Russell which I can paraphrase, about “the modern man always doing one thing for the sake of something else, and never doing anything for its own sake.”2 He could almost be talking about ‘employability’ there.

LM: As you suggest in your new book, The Refusal of Work, “work” is ubiquitous—woven into the pattern of our everyday lives—and therefore difficult to see clearly. One way of rephrasing this is that “work” is a family-resemblant term, to borrow from Wittgenstein, with overlapping meanings and valences depending on the context. Another way might be to ask whether work is entirely goal-oriented, to borrow from Max Weber, and driven by financial gain. How should we be thinking about work so that we can gain leverage over it as a problem?

DF: I agree that “work” is a context-sensitive term, and very difficult to define. For some people ‘work’ might conjure very desirable ideas around craft, self-expression and creativity. For Marx, the fact that humans are able to envisage and then affect changes to the world through their work is what distinguishes us from animals. In artistic circles, the word “work” has a comparably attractive ring to it: it might be used in its noun form, “my work,” meaning the material embodiment of my efforts and my sensibilities. My work is the thing that people will remember me by when I am gone. It is a very auspicious thing.

However, the difficulty with defining work comes when we recognise that, for most people, “work” is likely to have a much more mundane set of associations. If your job is to make sales calls, input data into a computer all day, or teach a prescribed curriculum to bored children, “work” is more likely to be associated with words like “chore” or “burden.” It is something we endure for eight hours a day when we would really rather be doing something else, something more aligned with our talents and sensibilities.

In The Refusal of Work, I tried to recognise the overlapping meanings and valences of the term “work,” but also to resist becoming too preoccupied with this problem. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole. There is one definitional distinction that I do spend a bit of time on, however, because it is important for the book’s argument. This is Andre Gorz’s distinction between work as an economic activity and other forms of work, which are performed according to principles of reciprocity and mutuality, or perhaps as creative endeavours. Work in the economic sense is synonymous with what most people call “jobs” or “employment”—a contractual exchange of a certain amount of productive time for a wage—and it is this definition that is represented in what we know as the “critique of work.”

I think it is essential to make this distinction in order to see clearly that the critique of work does not amount to a rejection of productive activity in any general sense. For the majority of work’s critics, quite the opposite is true, and the critique of work expresses a desire to realise human capacities more fully—to reclaim time to work for each other and perform activities according to our own autonomous sense of what is good and worthwhile. One thing I therefore wanted to make very clear in the book is that the critique of work is specifically a critique of paid employment. Critiquing employment is not about suggesting that work has no value, but is rather an attempt to suggest alternative ways of organising and distributing work, and to explore the possibility of alternative ways to experience the pleasure and solidarity that people have conventionally sought (often unsuccessfully) in work. At a time when work is very clearly in a state of crisis, I believe that this is an important project.

LM: “Work / life balance” is shorthand for the problem of balancing the increasing demands of the workplace against home or family life. It might be the most common idiom for our society to discuss the problems around work. Two recent books, by Peter Fleming and Kathi Weeks, also ask pointedly: “Why do we work so long and so hard?” Fleming’s somewhat tortured term for the phenomenon is “I, job,” which encapsulates how tightly our identity is tied to profession. In your book, you refer to a “moral blackmail.” Can you describe how this blackmail operates and what it means for workers? Why do we work so much?

DF: This is a complex issue, but my answer to the question of why we work so much really boils down to two sets of pressures. The first is material: we work hard because society is set up so that work is the main source of income. That is obvious enough, but there are also features of society that heighten this dependency on income, such as capitalism’s relentless commercialisation of needs, and the dismantling of the welfare state under neoliberalism. The choice that people increasingly face is to work or perish.

The other pressure is the moral blackmail you describe. Here in the UK, the Prime Minister David Cameron is fond of championing “hardworking families” in his speeches, and there are countless examples news stories and so-called reality TV shows that caricature and stigmatise unemployed people. There is this sort of moral dichotomy being forced on the public, where you are either a worker or a shirker. It is not generally imagined that there are ways to make a social contribution or ethically orientate yourself in the world without doing paid work.

Sometimes this moralisation of work is harder to spot because it is cloaked in the apparently more benign language of “health and well-being”—the idea that you should work because “work is good for you.” It does not matter if a job is badly paid and unpleasant; it is said that work in general is civilising and improves health. This idea has underpinned welfare reform for a while now, but here in the UK, the government intends to take things a step further with a controversial new proposal to place job coaches in doctor’s surgeries. As I explore in the book, the dynamics of this debate on the relationship between work and well-being are complicated because work really is in some senses important for health in a society organised to promote a dependency on work. It is only a moral attachment to work, however, that stops researchers from remaining open to the idea that the future could be different.

The moral blackmail is also happening on an organisational scale. I am not familiar with Fleming’s “I, job” concept, but I have read some interesting studies on the way organisations increasingly mobilise the personality—including studies by Fleming on the phenomenon of enforced “fun at work.” These studies investigate workplaces where it is no longer considered enough to be amenable and competent at your job; if you want to be hired and retained, you also have to produce a display of genuine enthusiasm and commitment—to “be yourself,” in a manner of speaking. The Kathi Weeks book you mentioned argues that this requirement to completely align yourself with your job role was perhaps once associated only with the professions, but that we are now seeing these demands placed upon workers in low-status and badly paid jobs as well. In many jobs, it has become taboo not to completely throw yourself into it and give it everything. There is also a destructive enjoyment that people sometimes find in working around the clock, which I believe psychoanalytic Marxist theory accounts for. That’s a dimension that is perhaps missing from my account, and that I would like to understand more.

But essentially, I think this moral pressure to work, and also to identify with and like work, offers another strong explanation of why we work so hard. One of the interesting things about the interviews I conducted as part of this project was that several non-workers were certain they were being negatively judged for not working, even though they were unable to specifically recall any negative comments made against them. My interpretation was that the judgements were coming from within. I think this shows the enduring power of the work ethic, even in today’s apparently more hedonistic, consumption-focused culture. The work ethic has been deeply internalised, and when we don’t work we feel ashamed. I was unemployed when I wrote The Refusal of Work, and often experienced this sense of shame. That is quite remarkable, when you think about it.

LM: The core of the book, as the title suggests, is an investigation into how individuals successfully and unsuccessfully “refuse” to conform to social norms about employment. From your interviews, this refusal is sometimes voluntary, sometimes not. It may come with an economic cost that may or may not be balanced by a cultural or lifestyle benefit. What I like about the discussion is that it is not “all or nothing” revolutionary social change, but focused on carving out individual and small-scale lifestyle strategies. Is resisting work possible and what institutional or cultural changes might facilitate it? Is it sufficient for us to resist work as individuals, or does there need to be more political organization to create change?

DF: The short answer is that there has to be more political organisation to create change. The book is deliberately very explicit about this because I felt a strong need to distinguish it from popular books promoting lifestyle changes like “slowness” or “life simplification” as solutions to the problems with work. We are seeing a lot of these books where the author is positioned as a sort of lifestyle guru, who is going to tell us the secret key to living well, and it is usually by working less, being less materialistic, and so on. I don’t think that people really benefit from being told this, and these books actually anger me to a degree, because they suggest that change is a matter of changing individual habits. If people ask me whether they should read my book, I sometimes feel a need to warn them that it does not contain any answers about how to live. Writing it has not helped me figure out a good relationship with work.

Is resisting work possible? I believe that whether and to what extent a person can resist work will depend largely on her capacity to mitigate the two sets of pressures I mentioned earlier: the material and moral pressures to work. Without going into the specifics, I would say that some of the people I spoke to were more successful than others at doing this. Financial resources such as savings or the income of a partner are obviously going to help a great deal for people who want to work less. That is no great insight, but what is maybe more surprising is the extent to which people believed that working less allowed them to save significant amounts of money. Having more free-time had allowed people to be more careful with their spending and meet an increasing proportion of their needs without, or with less, consumption. For many, this sense of increasing self-reliance seemed to be a strong source of satisfaction.

Steering around the moral pressures to work can be just as difficult. Often people would begin their interviews with a sense of pride and enthusiasm, only to admit feelings of doubt and shame about resisting work later on. Some said they were able to mitigate this feeling by reading critical literature and staying connected with people who had similar views. Others had found novel ways of evading and responding to that classic dinner party question: “So, what do you do?”

At the start of the book I quote from Herbert Marcuse, who writes in One-Dimensional Man that change is both impossible and possible – capitalism has a remarkable potential to contain and co-opt attempts to change, but forces and tendencies always exist that could theoretically break this containment. Marcuse cannot seem to make up his mind in this book, and The Refusal of Work is similar in this sense. There are passages of optimism and passages of pessimism. The book is a celebration of the power of self-direction: the tendency for people experience moments of clarity in their lives and then use their powers of agency to assert a need for autonomy. But the book also documents failure: the way that social forces militate against change and prevent us from resisting work.

Thinking back over the book, I am tempted to say that failure is the more prominent theme, which is why I believe strongly that where to go next is a collective and not an individual question. This brings me to the next part of your question, regarding what institutional and political changes might facilitate a less work-centred future. The growing discussion around the Universal Basic Income is an interesting lead, because it promises to eliminate our dependency on work for financial survival. To see real change, I would also hope to see a society-wide policy of shorter working hours, coupled with a more equal distribution of necessary work, and a cultural shift to valorise the social and intrinsic value of activities outside the economic sphere. That is the dream. That is what I believe it would take to turn the productivity gains from years of capitalist development to humane ends.

Perhaps one thing I should add is that the book is mostly concerned with convincing readers that questioning work is possible and worthwhile. The book is admittedly more reserved when it comes to talking about collective strategies for change—the question of where we go from here is left open, and the book’s interviewees represent less political subjects, than the embodiment of a latent dissatisfaction with work that has yet to find political purchase. I guess the dilemma is how to mobilise that latent dissatisfaction, how to give it form and articulate it in terms of a set of demands. I am still thinking through these problems, and there are a lot of issues to confront. To what extent, for example, does the call for less work conflict with or complement struggles for workers’ rights and the living wage? Can we rely on the conventional democratic channels to bring about a less work-centred society? A recent book by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, called Inventing the Future, looks like it might be able to answer some of these questions. I am looking forward to sitting down with that one

LM: What distinguishes your approach on this question is that it is sociological. I mean this in two senses: first, it is sociological in the way it situates itself against a problem and within a particular literature—Gorz especially, but also Weber, Terkel, Hochschild, C. Wright Mills; second, it represents an empirical contribution to the problem. The second half of the book is comprised of several chapters based on a series of interviews. Can you describe your research: how many participated, how were they contacted, how diverse? What are the challenges involved in this approach and how does it illuminate the problem of work in a way that past research has not? Is there any evidence that the strategies employed to “refuse work” by middle-class, educated people are generalizable to poorer, less educated demographics? What about non-OECD countries?

DF: Great question. Perhaps the first thing to say is that I wear the label “researcher” lightly in this project. The book is politically rather than scientifically motivated, and my intention is for the interview data to act as a rhetorical device, to persuade people that it is worth questioning taken-for-granted norms about working. There are several such rhetorical devices in the book. One is the turn to history, which is an attempt to denaturalise the modern attachment to work by looking at the historical contingency of work values. Another device is the use of critical theory to articulate problems regarding our relationship with work in the present.

What the interviews perhaps bring to the table is a sense of what factors are involved in the success or failure at attempts to resist norms about employment. How far can the individual go, acting alone? I guess the hope is also that putting a human face on resistance to work counteracts some of the caricaturing and stigmatising of non-workers that I described earlier. Whilst it is not necessary to like all of the interviewees or agree with everything that they say (I personally did not), I hope that the investigation will convince readers that people who resist work are less shirkers and deviants, than decent people with alternative ethical priorities—priorities which may be worth taking seriously and thinking about. I mentioned earlier that the purpose of the book is not to offer life tips, but I suppose I do also hope that if a reader has unarticulated doubts about the ethical status of work, they might experience a sense of recognition when they read the interview accounts.

You asked for some information about the sample and research method. What is perhaps important to stress is that, for the most part, the people I spoke to did not see themselves as part of a cultural movement against work—they were regular folks, for lack of a better term. I spoke to approximately thirty people overall, over a period of about four years, interviewing them in their homes if it was possible, and in some cases accompanying them on a typical day. Interviews were usually long, often upwards of a couple of hours, and sometimes spread across more than one visit. The approach was semi-structured: there were things I went in wanting to know, but I also wanted people to talk freely about their worldviews, pleasures and problems.

Since resisting work is taboo, I had to do some investigating to contact people. I found some via internet message-boards. An online group called The Idler’s Alliance provided a lot of leads, and I was also connected with people by friends and colleagues who knew about the research. I was quite satisfied that I got a good spread of people in the final sample—older and younger people, women and men, and people with different degrees of political consciousness. There were also people with different degrees of resistance—from small reductions in working hours to long-term refusals of work. And there were people with different levels of financial resources—from a wealthy early retiree, to a couple who had so little money that they were subsisting mostly on bowls of rice around the time of one interview.

To what extent are the strategies employed by interviewees generalizable? I would like to dismiss the suggestion that these are all middle-class, educated people, because this was not the case. However, they were also by no means the poorest in society, and I doubt their situations are comparable to workers in non-OECD countries. I guess I would again stress that the capacity to resist work depends on having the resources to mitigate the material and moral pressures to work, described above. It is not an easy thing to do.

LM: Alienation is a key normative concept throughout the book. The book often contrasts personal meaning, value, and need with socio-economic priorities.

We can define true, meaningful work as work in which people are allowed to carry out tasks in accordance with their own technical, aesthetic and social criteria, i.e., to work in accordance with their own ideas of efficiency, beauty, and usefulness.3

There is an important distinction to be drawn between arguments that accuse modern society of “exploitation” rather than “alienation.” In the former, labor is exploited even if the worker doesn’t agree. To be alienated, however, is primarily a self-description. For historical reasons, I think exploitation has been a far more popular vector of critique, which makes your emphasis on alienation both refreshing and instructive. What does an interpretivist approach teach us about work? Why is psychological harm, for want of a better synonym, so important to the story? If we consider avoiding psychological harm to be as important as avoiding physical harm—which is at the core of the Millsian liberal contract—should we as a society be committed to the elimination of all alienation, even non-economic sorts?

DF: I am very influenced by Andre Gorz, who I think has been unduly neglected by sociology – at least outside of France. Gorz opens one of his earlier critiques of work, Farewell to the Working Class, by re-evaluating historical materialism and Marx’s faith in “the objective tendencies of history.” One of his criticisms is that Marx had an undue confidence in the capacity of the proletariat to see their latent potential as sovereign producers. I am simplifying, but Gorz essentially seemed to be arguing that there is more thinking to be done on where this supposed radical rupture—this felt need to oppose work and demand autonomy—really comes from. How does it end up asserting itself in the context of everyday experience?

I am fascinated by this question, and think it necessarily involves moving beyond the concept of exploitation to think more about the experience of alienation which, as you say, is primarily a self-description and more about a kind of psychological harm. What precisely is it about modern forms of work that people are finding so intolerable, and what combination of factors has to come together for people to feel a need to act upon their dissatisfaction? In the book I try to approach this question with a brief history of alienation. There is a broad narrative here about how alienation has in some senses shifted since the heyday of industrial work—where it was more about a feeling of detachment—to experiences of the service economy and modern organisations, where alienation might be more about feeling overwhelmed by work. There is this sense that work is commandeering all aspects of the self.

Something that Gorz also hints at in Farewell is that alienation by itself might not be enough to cause a rupture in people’s lives. What is also perhaps needed is some ideal model of autonomous activity to act as a personal reference point. It is only through experiencing some kind of ideal model of engaging and meaningful activity that a person really starts to feel the pinch of their alienation, which has deprived them of this model. Gorz’s argument is that labour has become so degraded for most people, that this experience of non-alienated activity is more likely to come from somewhere outside of paid work. When the interviewees try and make sense of their resistance in The Refusal of Work, they often attribute a lot of significance to things like the experience of being a student, volunteering, or undertaking a self-initiated work project. The sense of satisfaction and autonomy they experienced in these non-alienated activities had made their actual jobs harder to bear.

LM: The Refusal of Work avoids one of the stock narratives of the last few years: neoliberalism. One version of this narrative draws heavily on the French theorist Gilles Deleuze to describe a society that is controlled by an economic calculus. To put it another way: the problem with work is neoliberal ideology. While you may agree with some of the diagnoses offered by anti-neoliberal theorists, you avoid explicitly reducing the problem to another symptom of neoliberalism. Was this a deliberate choice? Do you see advantages to avoiding neoliberalism as a framing narrative?

​​ DF: This is an interesting question, partly because it was not a conscious choice to avoid neoliberalism as a framing narrative. It might be worth my time thinking about why the book turned out this way, because perhaps there really are weaknesses to neoliberalism as a framing narrative. Many of the problems of work that form the backbone of the book—alienation, the problem of workers without work and so on—do after all predate neoliberalism.

I think neoliberalism does still represent an important backdrop for my discussion, however, both in terms of the policies enacted in its name (such as the reform of the welfare state around the activity of work) and in terms of what Renata Salecl and others refer to as the ideal “choosing subject” of neoliberalism: the subject who mitigates against precarity and the stresses of modern life by taking personal responsibility. If you are struggling, neoliberal ideology says that you have made bad choices, and you must therefore begin the work of personal rehabilitation that will allow you to make the correct choices. The model neoliberal subject accepts this worldview and approaches the challenge zealously.

It is this neoliberal subject that is invoked in the idea of “employability,” which the book discusses a lot, and which comes to the fore when the state is no longer deemed responsible for ensuring people’s future economic security. We have to do this ourselves by adopting a long-term project to remain flexible and attractive to employers.

For me, the prominent discussion on work / life balance also coincides to some extent with this neoliberal ideology of individual responsibility, which is why I reject this framing of the problems with work at the end of the book. Although the research and discussion on work / life balance has been advanced by people who probably have the best intentions, as soon as we start talking in terms of “balance,” I worry that we are framing the problem as something that can be tackled on an individual basis. There is this pervasive idea that the problems with work can be mitigated if people just manage their time a little better, prioritise more effectively, or learn to cope with stress through relaxation techniques. As a conceptualisation, my view is that work / life balance is far too soft to get at the structural problems we are experiencing today. The universe of discussion that it opens up does not really have space to radically question what work is for and whether it can fulfil its societal functions; ‘work/life balance’ only allows us to ask whether we can work a bit less, usually to have time for other responsibilities such as childcare. It incorporates our dissatisfaction with the present system within that system. It is ultimately a neoliberal-friendly discourse, which is perhaps why it has endured the way it has. It poses no real threat to orthodoxy. In sum, I would say that neoliberalism is very much there in the background of the book, even if I do not use the word that much.

Thank you Luke and Contrivers’ Review for some very interesting questions. This conversation was an enjoyable chance to reflect on the intentions behind the book.

  1. Theodor Adorno, “Free Time” in The Culture Industry: Collected Essays on Mass Culture (Routledge, 2001). 

  2. The full quote is:

    Man differs from other animals in one very important respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infinite, which can never be fully gratified, and which would keep him restless even in Paradise. The boa constrictor, when he has had an adequate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs another meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this.
    Bertrand Russell, “What Desires are Politically Important?” (Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1950). 

  3. The Refusal of Work, 63.