On the r/antiwork subreddit, people post memes and experiences about work-related depression and anxiety, tyrannical bosses, the interminable grind of living paycheck-to-paycheck, and strategies for reclaiming time from a job, unionizing, or quitting.
During the pandemic, the r/antiwork subreddit exploded in popularity. It grew from 76,000 to 1,019,000 subscribers between January 2020 to November 2021 and has quadrupled in size since September, coinciding with a period of heightened labor militancy in the United States. It ranks 10th among all subreddits worldwide in terms of comments per day.
But the subreddit isn't just a place for people to vent. Posters there are currently organizing "BLACKOUT BLACK FRIDAY," a general strike for retail and hospitality workers that has already gone viral. This raises the question of whether a subreddit can become a broader ideology, and whether the ideology can then become a legitimate political force aligned with an already resurgent labor movement that often valorizes work.
“They can’t fire all of us. General strike on Black Friday, November 26th! NO WORK! NO PRODUCTIVITY! NO SHOPPING!,” a flyer for Blackout Black Friday reads.
r/antiwork’s rapid expansion and popularity has prompted some of its moderators, including Kevin McKenzie and Daisy, who wished to be identified by her first name only, to think about where the subreddit goes from here, and to crowdsource ideas for how to organize an anti-work movement off Reddit. The group has launched a Discord and a Telegram group.
“I quit my job mentally but I am still at work doing nothing and collecting pay. Anyone else quit their jobs while still showing up to grab as much cash before being shown the door?”
Its first major real-world coordinated action will be calling on subscribers to abstain from all wage labor and shopping on Black Friday, an action described in depth in a thread called “ANTIWORK MEGATHREAD: BLACKOUT BLACK FRIDAY,” where subscribers have been prompted to brainstorm ideas for mutual aid and “ways in which this event could be impactful.” The mega-thread has received 12,000 upvotes.
“This Black Friday, let’s hurt their bottom line,” u/FOWM_Sterling, wrote in a recent related post with 68,000 upvotes. “This Black Friday turn your phone off and spend time with your family. You only have one of them and you are doing this for them. Get organized, boycott places that do black Friday stuff, be it online or in the store, and stay safe!”
At the same time, many moderators, who identify as anarchists, feel it isn’t their place to determine the direction the group goes in.
“This wasn’t just something that moderators came up with,” said McKenzie, the moderator. “We had a call out that said ‘What do you want?’ and this was the top idea. I don’t know if it will work. We’re moderators but we don’t have a sense of authority to guide the ship of antiwork. That is the job of the community itself.”
In recent weeks, the blackout Black Friday thread has expanded into a website, with graphs and charts depicting the growing gap between worker productivity and wages in the United States since 1948, and prompting viewers to “call in sick if you are forced to work on Black Friday—spend time with family instead.”
“Blackout Black Friday originated as an idea of how we could turn the momentum we're having right now into real world praxis,” Victor, a chemist near Leipzig, Germany who identifies as an anarcho-communist and is a moderator for r/antiwork, told Motherboard. “We as a mod team are somewhat hesitant to push forward with directing such praxis since we (as mostly anarchists) don't subscribe to ideas like a vanguard (like Marxist-Leninists do), but also because we think Reddit isn't a place to organize workers or mass action. If it grows in our community organically, then great.”
McKenzie is a 33-year-old living in Columbia, South Carolina. He has been a bartender for most of his adult life. In early 20s, he read Marx and Durkheim, and started to develop ideas that working-class people like himself “weren’t getting the full value of their labor.”
In 2017, McKenzie joined r/antiwork which had 2,000 subscribers at the time and defined itself as “a subreddit for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggle.”
McKenzie appreciated the online community for providing a space where people could talk openly and anonymously about work problems—but also for problematizing the very idea of work itself. After his daughter was born, he racked up thousands of dollars in debt in hospital and doctor’s bills because his employer provided no healthcare or parental leave benefits. “It helps to know you’re not alone in feeling like this. It’s normal to be at your wit’s end with your life as it revolves around work,” he told Motherboard.
On r/antiwork, many of the posts simply chronicle wage theft, burdensome debt, ruthless bosses, or other exploitative situations at work.
In a recent post titled, “Stiffed out of $6700,” u/OzTheOkay wrote about getting wages stolen from a Halloween store. “We've been working so hard all season because they promised us a pretty nice bonus this year. $100 for every 1% that we're over our sales goal,” they wrote. “Well we went over by 67% and then at the last minute they said ‘Oh hey that bonus doesn't actually apply to any of you.’ I am so pissed off along with everyone else that has been pushing sales.” The post received 12,000 upvotes.
“The Average American Worker Takes Less Vacation Than a Medieval Peasant,” the screenshot of the headline from a 2016 Reuters article recently posted on the subreddit, reads.
In some cases, posts are about subverting the boss. “You can slack off, cheat, sabotage, and steal from work,” moderators of r/antiwork write in a section of the subreddit devoted to potential solutions to the problem of work.
“I quit my job mentally but I am still at work doing nothing and collecting pay,” another user, u/BerlinBorough posted. “I just mentally checked out six months ago but no one seems to have noticed….Anyone else quit their jobs while still showing up to grab as much cash before being shown the door?”
Last week, a Reddit user named u/Comfortable-Speed-47 posted about getting $200 shorted off his paycheck at a metal sheet factory in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where he made $7.25 an hour. When he complained about his stolen wages, he wrote, “the boss told me ‘I pay you minimum wage but if I could, I would pay you less,’” he wrote. His post got 6,000 upvotes.
On the phone, u/Comfortable-Speed-47, who preferred to be identified by his username on Reddit and now works as an electrical technician at a mall, a job he’s much happier with, told Motherboard that he joined the subreddit a few weeks ago “because it struck a chord.”
“People have so many horrible stories about working during the pandemic,” he said. “I had a terrible experience [getting wages stolen] and I had to share it. I didn’t know so many people had the same experience. Anti work is a movement of people who are sick and tired of evil bosses and management that tries to control their lives.”
This backlash toward work shouldn’t be surprising amid the ongoing pandemic. Millions of workers risked their lives at grocery stores, fast food chains, and Amazon warehouses for low wages often without sick days or healthcare benefits—while the biggest corporations funneled in billions in profits. Their awakening and outrage has taken many forms: strikes, walkouts, and a newfound understanding of their own exploitation on social media.
Coming out of lockdown, as employers have struggled to hire especially in hospitality and retail, workers have utilized their leverage in the labor market to express their dissatisfaction at work by quitting their jobs en masse. In August, a record 4.3 million workers in the United States quit their jobs, according to the Department of Labor. At the same time, a strike wave has swept the country, as workers at giant employers such as John Deere and Kellogg’s have withheld their labor to protest excessive hours, stagnant wages, and cuts to their healthcare and retirement benefits. Workers who’ve risked their lives are being pickier about their wages and working conditions, and in turn vocal about injustices and trauma endured at work.
“Anti-work is the theme of an ongoing and much-needed conversation, but also an impulse that is present in a variety of radical oppositions to the status quo.”
The explosion of r/antiwork takes place within this context. While for years, the community was populated by self-identified anarchists, communists, and radicals, it has in recent months shifted toward a larger and more mainstream audience that has come to similar realizations about the fundamental nature of work under capitalism.
The practice of refusing work dates back as far as ancient Greece, when a school of philosophers, known as Cynics, who believed living in harmony with nature, gave up all of their worldly possessions, to beg and preach in the streets of Athens, in some cases sleeping in wash tubs. For centuries, the refusal of work has been practiced by various subcultures (including enslaved African Americans in the United States), with and without political or philosophical objectives, throughout history.
In response to capitalism specifically, ideas about refusing work developed out of Marxism in the late 1880s. In 1883, Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul LaFargue, a French-Cuban revolutionary, wrote The Right to Be Lazy, a critique of socialist ideas about work. "Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy,” the book opens. Lafargue argues against the socialist push to expand or redeem wage labor through public ownership, and says we should abolish work altogether.
A similar ideology resurfaced again in the 1980s, with the anarchist Bob Black’s popular essay “The Abolition of Work,” which argues that the abolition of work is just as critical as the abolition of the state. Critical of the Marxist tendency to valorize work, Black argues that in order for humans to be free, they must reclaim time from their jobs and employment, and return to necessary tasks of subsistence, which can be done voluntarily in the form of play and games, in an approach referred to as “ludic.” Black’s essay has inspired cyberpunk science fiction.
Today, academics and activists have continued to theorize and organize for a work-free society, namely by pushing for universal basic income and shorter work weeks. Kathi Weeks, a professor of gender and feminist studies at Duke University, is one of several academics currently pushing for radical reassessment of the status of work receives in the wealthy countries. In her book The Problem With Work, Weeks questions why there has been so little resistance and scrutiny to our “willingness to live for work” and “fundamentally capitalist purposes.
“The pandemic gave us a kind of forced separation from work and a rare critical distance from the daily grind,” Weeks recently told the New York Times. “I think what you’re seeing with people refusing to go back is a kind of yearning for freedom.”
Still, until now, anti-work politics have remained fringe beliefs in the United States, where a strong work-ethic is widely considered virtuous no matter how low-paid or degrading the work, and people’s lives are shaped and defined by their careers.
While members of r/anti-work have varying beliefs on what type of post-work society we should aim for, whether that be a society without work or simply one where workers get to keep the fruits of their labor, and whether r/antiwork should become a movement off the internet, they broadly disagree with charges that society cannot function without work as we know it.
“Anti-work is the theme of an ongoing and much-needed conversation, but also an impulse that is present in a variety of radical oppositions to the status quo,” Daisy, a 29-year-old store clerk in northern Austria who is also a moderator for r/antiwork, told Motherboard.
“With negation at its core, it doesn’t narrow down our options to any political program or blueprint for a future society,” she said. “Instead, it invites us to be critical of a whole network of norms and institutions that stand in the way of a more joyful society and true self-determination.”