Work Hard, Play Hard

Christmas is almost upon us, which means many of us will soon be forced into what should be the ultimate oxymoron: the work party. We thought it an apt time to share Federico Campagna‘s Revolver Issue article – is your inner daimon really happy in that reindeer jumper?

Work Hard, Play Hard by Federico Campagna

Work hard, play hard
Work hard, play hard
We work hard, play hard
Keep partyin’ like it’s your job

– David Guetta, Play Hard, 2013

The position of refusal of work is undergoing a renaissance. As well as anarchists, autonomists, and de-growth hippies, economic experts are also beginning to denounce the unproductiveness of structuring our society around hyperwork. Yet, if we want to create a sharp and effective critique of work, we must combine the economic analysis with a perspective that sees humans not simply as economic agents, but as existentially complex individuals.

Beyond our understanding of work as labour – which seemingly turns noble or ignoble (i.e. exploitative) only according to the ownership of its outcome and of the means of production – we have to place the activity of work within an individual, existential frame.

As we begin penetrating our individualities, we first encounter the temptation of defining as ‘work’ anything that we deem boring or that we don’t want to do. However, a critique of work that is built around its supposed unpleasantness, easily falls pray either to childish short-sightedness, or, more dangerously, to late-capitalist ‘play’ rhetoric. Any skills that we might want to acquire demand unpleasant exercise, as any bored 8-year old engaging in piano practice knows. At the same time, ‘hip’ Google-esque corporations have long exploited such an instinctive reaction to unpleasant activities, by replacing the old, grey, boring work with happy, colourful and ultimately hyperexploitative play-work.

Moving beyond the shallows of immediate dis/satisfactions, I will now attempt a more solid understanding of the place of work within our existential trajectories.

Living in an age which has embraced nihilism both as a nightmare and as an emancipatory possibility, we can finally imagine the fundamental ethical challenge – living a ‘good life’ – as potentially disentangled from any external dogma. Instead of unfolding as a forced march towards socially endorsed goals, ethics can thus take place as a movement towards a self-constructed, aspirational image of ourselves, which functions for us as a motivational existential figure. Such a figure remains fixed in its position within us, directing our existential development and the course of our actions, although its specific characteristics continuously change through time, just as we do.

Our ethical challenge can thus be fundamentally reduced to a process of increasing the resemblance of our self-perception – as mediated by our understanding of our actions – with such an ever-changing figure, fixed in its immobile position. This aspirational trajectory can be defined as an individual and autonomous progression towards our existential goals. Drawing from the Greek ethical tradition, which defined happiness as a state of eudaimonia (literally, of the ‘good demon’), we could define our ethical strivings as a form of inner mysticism, aimed at the progressive unity between us and our daimon, or inner motivational figure(s). While such a unity can only take place as a limit-concept, and is bound to remain constrained by the boundaries of our biology and mortality, it is for us an extremely useful tool to overcome both nihilism and societal ideologies.

We can now attempt to offer a different definition of what is work, and why and how we can oppose its regime. Work can be defined as any activity which is detrimental to – or not effectively instrumental to – the achievement of our eudaimonia, that is, of our own, personal and autonomous, existential progress.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the most recent discipline of the work regime exerts itself in the realm of existential motivation, more than in that of economic gain. Now that work has revealed itself in its simultaneous economic irrelevance, political failure and environmental catastrophe, it is deep inside of us, at the very end of our existential trajectory, that its new justification seemingly lies. As perfectly represented by those countless talent shows that have work as their topic and employment as their prize, contemporary work propaganda aims at filling the position of the inner motivational figure with the totemic figurine of the ‘employee’.

If we attempt to frame the idea of work within an existential perspective, many unpleasant activities suddenly escape the realm of work, while many pleasant ones unexpectedly enter it.

In order to achieve our personal existential goals, we might have to undergo periods of repetitive and unpleasant activity, from taking care of our biological needs, to improving our skills and abilities, etc. Undergoing such tedious processes requires both the long-sightedness of placing them within an effective existential trajectory, and the self-discipline of resisting immediate though existentially detrimental satisfactions. Perhaps surprisingly, after decades in which the discourse over emancipation has stressed the evils of discipline and the beauty of a ‘free flowing’ existence, self-discipline reveals itself as crucial for any strategy of existential emancipation. At the same time, much of what is glorified as ‘fun’ – including the imperative to enjoy, shared both by late-capitalist rhetoric and by the pseudo-emancipatory mantra of ‘lad/ladette’ culture – suddenly takes on a very different colouring.

Far from the dream of partying for our right to fight (or of its pathetic Beastie Boys reversal), contemporary culture proposes partying and fun as an integral part of the work process. Like office work, contemporary fun culture unfolds in stereotyped environments of forced socialisation (festivals, clubs and pubs, eerily similar in their atmosphere to late night offices), as mediated by standardised technologies (such as alcohol and drugs), and ultimately leading to the perfect conformity of the mass of ‘fun-ed’ subjects. More importantly, contemporary fun, just like work, requires a level of commitment that barely leaves any energy available for the individual pursuit of our own existential trajectories. Post-party hangover, like post-office annihilation, transforms us into hopeless wrecks, clinging onto the most basic levels of survival. In-party drunkenness, like in-work subjugation, humiliates us, turning us into nonsensical fools covered with our own alcoholic vomit – just like we covered our lap, a few hours earlier in the office, with the crumbs of our sad desk lunch.

Once again, the reason behind such a debacle of ‘fun’ (theoretically, the immediate opposite and alternative to work) lies in the existential territory more than in that of economics. As the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca once remarked, ‘If one doesn’t know to which port one is sailing, no wind is ever favourable.’ Without the individual’s investigation of one’s own inner motivational figure(s), and of the trajectories leading there, neither a critique of work nor a disentanglement of fun from work can ever take place. Despite being often relegated to the quack medicine of self-help books or to the expensive scams of private psychologists, the recognition of our existential trajectory is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of any political and intellectual emancipatory project.

Reviving the injunction carved on the stone of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, ‘Know thyself!’, doesn’t only amount to an exercise in archaeological nostalgia, but can shed new light on the demands of the work regime and on our opposition to them. Instead of falling for the false dichotomy of labour and entertainment, as epitomised by the work-fun loop, such existential investigation can dramatically help us to ground our claim for an autonomously focused life.

As the understanding of our own inner motivational figures develops into us actively sculpting ourselves in their ever-developing image, we become increasingly wary of any activity that is detrimental to our eudaimonia, regardless of whether it is camouflaged as work or as fun. Complementing the negative dimension of pure refusal with a positive project of existential development allows our struggle against work and alienation to acquire better focus and a sharper edge. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the golden age of ethical and existential investigation, as it took place on the ancient shores of the Mediterranean Sea, remains to date a beacon of reference for any attempt at emancipation from sorry theologies such as those of God, of the State or of Work. Penetrating the soft tissue of our individuality, and learning how to inhabit it powerfully, is the most basic architectural task for the construction of an autonomous future. If we neglect to engage in it, we risk seeing our life sclerotising into the dead stone of somebody else’s project. All that would be left for us to do would be to keep working as hard as we can – and partying just as hard, of course.

Federico Campagna is the author of ‘The Last Night – anti-work, atheism, adventure’, published by Zero Books.

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