Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment here: do you really want to have to work?
Before you jump to a resounding “yes!” consider the question again. Because I’m not asking whether you like working in the job you have now, nor am I asking about whether you think work is necessary. No, the question is whether you like the idea of needing to work.
Despite the impression that the “I do not dream of labor” trend from early 2021 might have given you, the truth is that many of us do dream of labor. Even the long video essays and articles made around that time made that clear.
We love work itself. We love doing work that means something to us. Better yet, most of us love the idea of performing work that makes use of our potential and interests while letting us create products or provide services that bring impactful value to other people’s lives.
More than that, many of us yearn to be able to do what we truly love without starving to death.
So why do companies and regular people keep saying that no one wants to work anymore?
Along with the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 was, ahem, plagued with a different kind of outbreak, this time relating to work culture and labor relations.
Despite the fear of financial instability that the pandemic has instilled in many of us, the previous year still saw the birth of the Great Resignation which I’m sure you’re already sick of hearing about.
Some have even speculated that the Great Resignation isn’t real and is just getting undue media coverage or that the record high quit rates among mid-career employees are just manipulated stats.
Regardless of how many people have actually quit, it’s hard to deny that there’s been a distinct shift in the way we think, feel, and talk about work that began after we all went into months-long lockdowns. There’s nothing like a pandemic to get people to contemplate whether stressful work conditions are actually worth what precious little time we have on Earth.
Back in 2020, far before the Great Resignation or the “I do not dream of labor” trend started getting airtime, the cottagecore trend began to take over the internet. It’s a soft, rustic aesthetic whose apple pie recipes and Pinterest boards filled with sewing patterns hide an anti-establishment core.
At its heart, the philosophy behind cottagecore is the rejection of, and disillusionment toward, mainstream employment. The whole appeal of cottagecore is that you can live a simple life, away from the demands of a busy capitalist society, and not starve because your vegetable garden supplies you with enough food. Maybe also the fantasy of being able to afford large plots of farmland.
When it first gained some mainstream appeal, I thought it would be just another passing cutesy aesthetic. You know, like the Hogwarts house aesthetics that the Millenials were so obsessed with. Except it wasn’t.
When cottagecore shed its aesthetic skin, it grew into early 2021’s “I do not dream of labor” trend. I don’t fancy myself as an internet anthropologist but after that trend cooled, it seemed to die down again only to come back later, more serious, less escapist, and notably, more militant.
Now, I’m not saying that Tumblr cottagecore blogs started the whole thing, all I’m saying is that it was one of the early cultural signs of a growing, widespread unhappiness with needing to work.
Looking back at the popularity of trends centered around the idea of hating work in the past couple of years, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised when workers all over the U.S. began to strike, and later unionize, in droves. The wick was always there and the past two years only served to make it grow faster. Then, seemingly overnight, it was lit.
One of the first “big” strikes to get widespread media attention was the John Deere strike. Though many of us started to hear about it in the latter half of 2021, the events that lead to the strike actually started on January 8 when the company’s CEO received a 160% raise in anticipation of a year of record profits. Combine that with negotiations with labor representatives falling through and by September 13, John Deere had a strike on its hands.
Though union membership has been declining in the past two decades thanks to anti-union propaganda and union-busting efforts, this was just the start. In December 2021, the faceless internet strangers of Reddit swooped in to help Kellogg’s workers pressure the cereal giant into giving workers higher wages, better benefits, and a path to job security.
Members of the r/Antiwork subreddit, essentially the union of the internet, began organizing efforts to stop Kellog’s from hiring replacements for workers who were on strike. There were workers from every corner of the world manually filling in application forms for Kellogg’s online job posts to flood their system, a very tedious version of a DDoS attack.
Workers who actually knew a thing or two about programming and cybersecurity started contributing as well. Most of them didn’t actually try to “hack” Kellogg’s, instead leaving tips on how other members can stay safe from legal action, but the ones that did did enough to crash the website. Then, they started preparing to launch a similar attack on hiring agencies that Kellogg’s would hire.
The attention that the movement drew led to an actual statement by President Joe Biden and a slew of media coverage. By December 21, as an early Christmas gift, Kellogg’s workers struck a deal for across-the-board wage increases and opportunities for full-time employment.
But r/Antiwork’s popularity has been a double-edged sword.
Around the same time that r/Antiwork was helping Kellogg’s strikers, it was also grappling with an influx of what it labels an “alt-right” demographic.
Among the subreddit’s most popular posts for December comes from a now-deleted account that is titled “Mods need to address right-wing infiltration of r/Antiwork. Racism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia on the sub are becoming a huge problem.”
In it, the user talks about the increasing right-wing presence in r/Antiwork following the subreddit’s popularity. They claimed that conservatives on the subreddit were trying to shift r/Antiwork away from its inherently leftist roots by slowly introducing centrist ideologies through comments and posts that talk about how r/Antiwork “isn’t political” or “isn’t about social issues” and that they are “conservative yet antiwork, too.”
The user called on the subreddit’s moderators to actively remove posts and comments along those lines, clarifying that, “The billionaire class are your enemy, not other poor people who want the same dignity and respect you do. No one cares that you think SJWs are cringe or that you grew up being told you are superior to other people because of where you were born.”
“Black workers matter. Queer workers matter. Trans workers matter. Female workers matter. Disabled workers matter. And yes, non-American workers matter too,” the user claimed.
It’s a response to the growing number of users who suggest that foreign workers are to blame for wage stagnation. “Workers are workers. Humans are humans. What part of “Workers of the World Unite” is hard to understand?”
As you can probably guess by now, the majority of r/Antiwork’s members are left-leaning or, as in the early days of the subreddit, very far left.
I only found out about r/Antiwork just a few months before the Kellogg’s incident. But up until recently, r/Antiwork was exactly what its name suggested: anti-work. Not just anti exploitative work or badly paid work but anti work itself.
In his video essay on the mainstream-ification of r/Antiwork, Alki talks about how r/Antiwork was originally against work because we are forced to work by what he describes as the “artificially created threat of starvation, houselessness, and sickness by the powers that be.”
Say what you will about that, but it’s clear that r/Antiwork has gotten more moderate in the past several months, going from a subreddit for far-left ideology into a sub that only wants to negotiate for better wages and treatment of workers. So it probably isn’t that bad that r/Antiwork is growing more vanilla, right?
Well, as many other members pointed out to the moderators of the subreddit, tolerating views that aren’t inclusive of all workers can lead the subreddit to fall prey to what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper called the “paradox of tolerance.”
The concept describes the social phenomenon of how tolerating intolerant views eventually allows the intolerant group to gain enough influence to render the tolerant group powerless to stop them.
Having said that, Popper only meant for intolerant action to be suppressed, not intolerant ideas because have you seen Minority Report? That’s some thought crime stuff. Still, it remains true that ideas spread and ideas grow in strength. We’ve already seen before that r/Antiwork has been recontextualized to a more moderate, even if still left-leaning, group.
History tells us that r/Antiwork’s members have a good reason to be wary of right-wing ideology.
The Office of the Historian’s “Milestones in the History of U.S Foreign Relations” series is a warning sign of how pro-workers groups can be turned against other workers. Or, to be more specific, non-white, non-male workers.
An increase in Chinese immigrant workers in the 1850s was accompanied by growing anti-Chinese sentiment, largely driven by fears that Chinese workers would lower the negotiating power that American workers had against their employers.
Much like the brown foreign workers who do the jobs most Americans don’t want today, these Chinese workers took on hard, sometimes dangerous jobs for less pay than their American counterparts.
On September 2, 1885, this culminated in the infamous Rock Springs massacre where 28 Chinese workers were murdered and another 15 left wounded by white miners who felt that these immigrants were a threat to their job security.
Today, it’s workers from the global south that American workers are worried about.
As we’ve seen with the Kellogg’s incident late last year, and in the growing numbers of foreign teachers in the U.S., labor unions are threatened by the availability of cheaper labor. It’s true that unions have lately become a driving force in closing the gender pay gap.
But prior to the 60s, even white female workers were pushed out of labor organizations and the workplace by companies who undervalued their work and union leaders who kept jobs reserved for white male workers. Many of them even barred women from joining.
While the culture of labor organizations has, thankfully, become more inclusive over the years, non-inclusive attitudes towards labor and other workers are something that members of r/Antiwork will have to keep an eye out for as its mainstream presence grows and attracts less than leftist members if it wants to stick to its advocacy of improving working conditions for all workers everywhere.