Review: David Frayne’s “The Refusal of Work”

by Miles Raymer

Refusal of Work

In 2013, I embarked on a personal experiment in which I intentionally unplugged myself from traditional employment. I really wish David Frayne’s The Refusal of Work had existed during those first years, as it would have lent intellectual energy and a useful lexicon to a project that was difficult at first to articulate. I also think this book would have appealed more fully to my 2013-self than it does to my 2019-self.

The Refusal of Work explicates a “Theory and Practice of Resistance to Work,” but only within a limited scope. Inside that scope, it is an incisive and well-researched piece of cultural criticism dominated by late-20th century and early-21st century Marxist theorists. The most notable of these is André Gorz, from whom Frayne borrows many ideas as well as a definition of work: “An activity carried out for a wage” (19). At the outset, Frayne is rightly preoccupied with identifying critical questions––ones that reveal the heart of his dispute with the modern concept of work:

What is so great about work that sees society constantly trying to create more of it? Why, at the pinnacle of society’s productive development, is there still thought to be a need for everybody to work for most of the time? What is work for, and what else could we be doing in the future, were we no longer cornered into spending most of our time working? (13)

These inquiries reveal that Frayne has no interest in creeping around the edges of work, but rather prefers a head-on assault. He accomplishes this handily, crafting detailed chapters that demonstrate the harms of overwork (psychological and physical), the colonizing force work exerts on human lives, and how the capitalist culture of work has become deeply entrenched in society’s repositories of power. He is careful at several points not to discredit the positive aspects of work, but focuses on its negative effects on individuals and society as a whole. The clear message is that Frayne would like to live in a world in which everyone can work less, and where work would be firmly “subordinated to the need for human autonomy and the leading of richer, more varied lives” (17).

Frayne makes good on his promise to explore the praxis of work resistance, although again the scope is quite limited. Between 2009 and 2013, he conducted interviews “with a range of people who were taking significant measures to prevent work from colonising their lives” (118). These people all appear to have resided in the United Kingdom, and Frayne offers no quantitative data to complement his qualitative analyses. Still, there is much to be gained from his summaries of the interviews and quotes from his subjects. All of them experienced some version of “the breaking point,” which Frayne describes as:

The moment at which people began to reflect more clearly on the nature of cognitive power, and on their own powers of self-direction within the constraints of the society around them. The need to be employed was no longer accepted as a natural law or feature of human nature, but instead represented an object ripe for critical attention. With high spirits and a note of pride, people described a process of reflection on their stock notions and habits, a shedding of their roles, and a rediscovery of their lives as open to possibilities. They spoke out against the prescriptive world of timetables, duties, routines and rules which threatened their ability to maintain an image of themselves as unique, deliberative and responsible people. They achieved catharsis as their sense of repression culminated in a bona fide change. (128)

While details vary from subject to subject, Frayne does a good job of finding the common threads that bind them together. The strongest of these is an increased desire for relaxation and creative independence. He also describes a variety of ways that stepping back from work can be accomplished, examining both moderate and radical approaches (i.e. working one less hour per day vs. giving up work entirely). The result is a mixed bag, but one that indicates the possibility of working less as a pathway to increased self-actualization:

Whilst we can safely assume that their lives entailed significant financial hardships (hardships that some were happy to talk about, and others reluctant), a lower level of consumption was a key component in people’s attempts to discover a less materialistic version of the good life. People worked and consumed less in order to avoid the ‘troubled pleasures’ of affluence, hoping to discover new pleasures of the more sublime and enduring kind that can only be realised with an abundance of free time. Resisting capitalism’s constant invocations to feel ashamed and dissatisfied with their possessions, they took pride in their ability to develop their own ideas of pleasure, beauty, sufficiency and well-being. They were reflecting on the relationship between well-being and commodity consumption, and discovering a new sense of mastery and rootedness in the world, as they developed their hitherto undiscovered capacities for self-reliance. Whilst it would be absolutely blinkered to deny that the escape to a slower pace of life is a practical impossibility for many people, who would not be able to survive economically, it is equally reckless to accept the idea that high-consumption lifestyles are the fixed norm to which everybody should aspire. (187-8)

Now, a few quick words about The Refusal of Work’s weaker elements. Beyond the limitations of scope already mentioned, Frayne’s writing is dry and repetitive throughout––perfectly serviceable but rarely poignant or stirring. Frayne also presents an extremely lopsided interpretation of capitalism, refraining at any point from acknowledging its historical role in lifting billions out of abject poverty and improving the material well-being of millions beyond what even monarchs enjoyed just a few short centuries ago. These shortcomings render The Refusal of Work merely a good piece of nonfiction rather than a great one.

Frayne’s text shines most brightly in its nuanced explorations of the relationship between work and identity. Modern work’s domination of our identities can be profound, and many people never learn to achieve (or are barred from achieving) a critical distance from which to examine how much of their identities are wrapped up in their professional lives. Frayne’s analysis injects much-needed daylight into the gap between work and identity, providing concepts and terms that give people permission to exist and develop outside of work’s overbearing influence:

A person may find temporary solace in calling himself a teacher, a bar manager, or a policeman, but none of these identities says everything about who he actually is. No matter how hard a person tries to achieve self-actualisation through the adoption of a work role, he will always fail. (65)

I agree with the general assertion here, but I also think it’s important to note that some people do actually seem “to achieve self-actualisation through the adoption of a work role.” In my experience, these are a relatively small number of highly ambitious, competitive people whose identities hinge on becoming superior operators in business, politics, crime, or some other power-broking arena. With the exception of criminals, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these folks allowing work to occupy the center of their lives, but the problem is that, as they gain power and influence, they tend to expect the same all-consuming dedication from their colleagues and employees. Over time, standards that facilitate flourishing for a tiny minority end up being misapplied to entire workforces; I believe it is this pernicious dynamic that Frayne seeks to expose and subvert.

The most encouraging aspect of Frayne’s analysis of work and identity is his proposition that the refusal of work represents a universal struggle in which any and all citizens of the world can partake. He frames this argument using David Cannon’s idea of a “worthwhile ethic,” which could replace the more traditional “work ethic” by “questioning the sanctity of paid work and insisting that there are other, potentially more worthwhile, activities around which life might be organised” (233). Frayne explains further:

The notion of a movement based on the ‘worthwhile ethic’ avoids the pitfalls of trying to unite people on the basis of existing social categories such as class or gender. A range of people stand to benefit from the shift to a less work-centred society, and the desire for a more self-determined life does not belong to any single demographic. The desire to transcend a work-centred existence germinates wherever people sense a rift between their socially prescribed roles and their sense of self. This is true whether these people are old or young, male or female, with or without families, working or not working, rich or poor. As a banner under which people could potentially unite, an advantage of the ‘worthwhile ethic’ is that it is broad, and does not confine the struggle to any particular cultural group. What count as ‘worthwhile’ is up to each person to decide. (233-4)

This excellent passage allows a temporary and much-needed escape from the Marxist confines that restrain the rest of the text. By transcending the limitations of any ideology and appealing to each person’s desire to have more time to enjoy life in a self-directed and open-ended fashion, Frayne proves that his theories have the potential to undergird a legitimate, coalition-based sociopolitical movement. This could be even more powerful if combined with the rapidly-increasing global concern about climate change. Less work equals less consumption in most cases, so there is an overlapping interest for individuals and societies seeking to decrease their carbon footprint.

What would such a movement look like? Dipping again into Gorz’s work, Frayne advocates for a “politics of time”––an incremental means of scaling up and institutionalizing the isolated efforts of those already refusing work on an individual basis:

What is demanded is not an instant, top-down change in policy, but a more gradual process of collective exploration and open debate. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons democratic debate is currently in such a moribund state is that our busy lives leave us with so little time to study politics, collectively organise, or find out what is going on in our communities. The strength of democracy depends on people having the time to engage and participate in this process. The difference between the politics of time and the prescriptive utopias of the past is that the former does not seek to enrol people in some pre-planned utopian scheme, but to gradually free them from prescribed roles, furnishing them with the time to become politically active citizens…The hope is that an increasing amount of free-time will allow people to forge new relations of co-operation, communication and exchange, and thereby become participants in the construction of their own futures. (222)

These are pretty words, but I am skeptical that any such movement is close at hand. Frayne agrees that “there appears to exist no cultural movement that currently has the potential to develop a politics of time” (227). This is no reason to conclude that refusing work in one’s own way is a futile effort, but I don’t think we can expect a widespread shift in global work practices anytime soon.

Rating: 7/10