Capitalism, Illegality and Subversion: The Prefigurative Politics of the 2-hour Work Day
By: Michael Loadenthal March 15, 2012
“To protect my position, my corner, my lair, while we out here, say the hustler’s prayer. If the game shakes me or break me I hope it makes me a better man, take a better stand. Put money in my mom’s hand, get my daughter this college plan so she don’t need no man. Stay far from timid. Only make movies when ya heart’s in it, and live the phrase ‘sky’s the limit.’” - Christopher George Latore Wallace (1997) 
In our constantly reinterpreted and adapted anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist and anti-Statist critique of the modern world, we the so-called “radical Left,” scorn bankers, romanticize poverty, and vandalize the machines that convert our hourly labors into paper bills. We have a de facto antagonism toward those who earn above the average, and with good cause, as much of this is due directly to the hierarchy of the boss-worker relationship. We hate “the rich” and the “one percent.”
Though this essay does not seek to apologize for the management and owning class, it does attempt to pose a more challenging question about our relationship to work and survival: What about those of us who make our way through capitalism by exploiting not our neighbors or coworkers, but the outside margins of ‘less than fully regulated’ economies? What about those who seek to work less, yet earn more because they choose to operate in a sphere of employment that exists in between legal and illegal, regulated and unregulated, socially accepted and stigmatized?
To put names to vague imagery, I am speaking of our anarcho-sex workers, commie-bootleggers, lefty-drug traders , and the always popular, Robin Hood styled shoplifters and corporate scammers who rob from the largess and give to the work-less. While some within our diverse ranks are quick to demonize those who deal in drugs, sex and second hand goods, others see this as a way to skirt the 40-80 hour work week, provide for our families, and allow ourselves the time and means to build collective institutions, attend meetings, write thoughtful manifestos and engage in time consuming and financially taxing social change projects.
The basic argument is this: The less we work for the bosses and their profits, the more we can work for ourselves and our desires. We are the folks that hustle to resist, and we see our methods as an act of resistance. The following discussion is the product of a series of ongoing conversations I’ve been a part of between intersecting communities of revolutionary organizers and those that fancy themselves neo-urban, clandestine entrepreneurs. All examples have been anonymized to protect the guilty and reflect experiences, observations and unsubstantiated rumors told in code through jailhouse letters.
How do we relate our “jobs” to our “job”
The goal is to get by and provide for ourselves (and our families, communities, etc) and our material needs without living in an office, or at a cash register, in a kitchen, behind a bar… Most of the activists I run into make ends meet through a few basic routes. Many of them struggle to make it through employment with a reformist NGO they only half-heatedly support, or they work a job unrelated to their politics which provides them the financial resources to spend their weekends and nights State smashing. Many of these folks are commonly employed in the service industry. We are your waiters, your cooks, your bartenders, your couriers, your strippers. This set-up goes unchallenged in the East Coast urban communities where I reside. It is not seen as a conflict for anarchist organizers to work 9-5 for some chain pizza shop or a neighborhood bar, and why would it? It is unrealistic to expect all anti-authoritarians to have jobs which match their politics. It is simply a standard we cannot seem to meet.
With this acknowledgment in mind I ask, what divides the anarcho-cook slaving 50 hours a week for some restaurateur from the anarcho-prostitute who works 15 hours a week primarily for himself? It is difficult to see the similarities and incongruencies? Why can’t we understand those who find themselves capitalizing on the profit-skewing laws and practices we oppose? For example, those who financially benefit from the anti-drug laws that make running an indoor grow room so profitable, or the sexual hierarchies that set the standards for men and women to routinely fork over stacks of money to those willing and able to show some skin and play counselor to clients looking for solace within conversation and fantasy. Is it wrong to steal from our employers and to resell their products at below cost, providing cheaper good to our communities with 100% profit for ourselves? As the Steal Something From Work Day tagline reads, “If you’re not stealing from your work, you’re stealing from your family!”
So what is so different?
When we work for ourselves in these under-regulated/non-regulated economies, we are able to meet our material needs while circumventing numerous State traps that keep working class folks living paycheck to paycheck. As waiters, bartenders, baristas, strippers, drivers and so on we are able to earn incomes based on the “generosity” of our customer base, and because we earn basically nothing in an hourly wage, our main source of income, tips, remain in our pocket as untaxed income. This allows folks to keep more of the money that they earn, thus working less often to earn the same amount. At this juncture, some will point out that paying income taxes is part of being a good community member as our taxes go to build schools, roads and libraries. While this is true in a civics class sense, we have to acknowledge two glaring facts. 1.) Nearly two thirds of your taxes in the US go directly to fund militarism and war and not to the firehouses, community centers and poverty-stricken as we may like,  and 2.) What a waiter fails to contribute in a decade of taxes is minuscule when compared to the taxes avoided by billion dollar multinational corporations and tax exemption laws benefiting the “1%.” So while one can agree that not paying taxes can harm our communities, take this anger to those who are really stealing from your schools, namely the Department of Defense and the mega rich.
If we work for ourselves in such entrepreneurial manners we can (to a degree) set our own hours, determine vacation times and the like, and decide for ourselves how aggressively we want to work. For example, as a waiter one can often (but not always) choose to work extra shifts, trade unwanted shifts, and undersell or up-sell their products depending on their level of personal investment on that given day. Now if you are a cashier at some chain clothing store, a bank teller, or an assembly line worker, this is likely not the case as your poor performance could be grounds for job termination. The beauty of the service industry is that while your boss may provide some meager hourly wage, the vast majority of your earnings are yours to either reach out and grab or leave in your customers’ pockets. A cab driver can race stop to stop, or they can take it easy. A waiter can offer every customer that expensive cocktail or they can show the customer where to find the cheap buys. Thus, our hustlers are to some degree able to determine their own level of involvement with the business on a constantly renegotiated basis, a luxury not available to a 9-5er.
So what are we gaining since we are not advancing our anti-authoritarian agendas via our production of cappuccinos, lap dances and dime bags? For some of us, we are gaining the ability to take long vacations and return to these industries when we need to refill our wallets, something not often available in traditional “careers.” We can budget our income and work seasonally, or simply not as often. We are gaining to ability to increase or decrease our workload largely through negotiations among our ranks, trading and deal making with our co-workers and not the management. We are gaining the significant extra earnings by not paying proportionally into the tax base. We are, in some cases, gaining the ability to do less “work” for more money, supplementing risk or stigmatization for long hours.
In the end, even for anti-capitalists, isn’t the goal to provide for you and yours while working the least amount possible?
If I can provide for myself by working 40 hours a week as a cashier under the eye of CCTVs, or 20 hours a week as a self-employed cannabis delivery boy, then I’ll take the latter every time. I oppose the laws that make the drug trade so profitable just as I oppose the prosecution and jailing of those caught up in the game of cat and mouse with the cops, bus alas, while these laws remain someone is going to make that extra bit because they are willing to break the law. Now of course I acknowledge that the drug trade, the sex trade and the (often obnoxiously hipster) food service industries are not the ideal institutions our of prefigurative future society. People are quick to say that we should be encouraging each other to find jobs as permacultureists, midwives, school teachers and counselors, but sadly in a capitalist world and for those of us supporting ourselves and others in North American cities and towns, such jobs often do not pay the bills.
So what does this look like?
Putting aside for a time debates as to the ideal ways to earn money, developing jobs that meld our ethical proclivities and our need for material comforts, let us focus on the ways in which we can we earn fair incomes, reduce the control held by managers and bosses, and reduce the amount of time spent on-the-clock as “employees.” Throughout the essay, I have limited the examples to those I am knowledgeable of, but the possibilities for profitable, low workload schemes are likely endless.
There was the anti-authoritarian in DC who “reclaimed” abandoned bikes with the help of some bolt cutters, refurbished them and resold them (tax free) through self-managed entities such as Craigslist and Ebay. There is the “stay at home mom” from the suburbs of Trenton who does phone sex routed to her cell phone from the comfort of her pajamas and living room through self-managed service facilitators such as NiteFlirt. There is the inseparable Denver couple that spends a few months in Humboldt country, CA each season trimming commercial marijuana and living off their earnings the rest of the year. There is the New Jersey beat junkie that trolls the Internet for the latest releases, makes fancy mixtapes and sells them at flea markets and independent record stores. The examples abound once you look a bit past the cash registers, cubicles and business lunches.
You may find the avid dumpster diver who uses her finds (and what her partner steals from the kitchen where he works) to make decadent deserts resold to expensive cafes. You also might run into the post-graduate art student who makes jewelry and prints and sells them through Etsy or lefty art collectives such as Justseeds. There’s the guy who acts as an escort, advertising his services through websites such as Rentboy.com. There is the group house that functions as a low-cost (uninsured) childcare facility, and there are those folks who happen to own a car and choose to use it as an illegal taxicab, supplementing the high cost of car ownership and providing increased access to public transport in ‘less cab friendly’ neighborhoods . The examples are infinite.
In a slightly different realm, there are industries that while legal for some, require laborious certifications and regulation and can therefore be subverted through a more directly established relationship between the employed and the employer. There are ‘undocumented citizens’ who worked as nurses in their home country and now earn as direct care providers—developing relationships with those that require physical and medical assistance in the home due to age, disease or physicality. Maybe these folks can’t be licensed to be hospice or hospital employees, but that doesn’t stop them from using the in-home healthcare model and directly seeking out clients and negotiating their own wages directly. This is of course also true for those that provide ‘under the table’ childcare, cleaning services, dog walkers and so on. While these direct service jobs may not have the quick financial turn around of sex work and drug cultivation, one is able to avoid taxes, set hours outside of a corporate hierarchy, and negotiate wages and working conditions directly with an employer, without the mediated struggle of bureaucracy. As babysitters, home healthcare providers, masseurs and so on, we can set our own hours, develop our own clientele and have greater autonomy in our ‘work lives.’ Yes, this means that you are denied the legalistic protections of workers rights legislation, sick leave, overtime pay and so on, but this is less of an issue as often times employers find their own ways of subtly denying these rights within the law anyway.
This world of peripherally legal and illegal forms of self-employment is where the copy editor who marks pages while she hops trains meets the street musician strumming in the subway tunnels. It is where the fashion enthusiast operates the hip barbershop in his apartment—you know, the one where you get a free glass of home distilled whiskey with each cut. This is the world where the vegan baker teams up with the hydroponic enthusiast and sells those amazing hash cookies, delivered by bicycle messengers and pedicab drivers with down time. These “underground economies” are becoming so common place that Washington DC’s monthly magazine, the Washingtonian, focused on the sale of marijuana as its February 2012 cover story!
These fields of black/grey markets are far from small. According to one study, such “shadow economies” account for 8-10% of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the United States when the study was conducted in the early 1990s . If that figure stands true today, that’s over $1.4 billion a year in under-taxed and non-taxed exchanges occurring just in the US! So how can we funnel this our way?
Hey wait, but what about…
An important caveat throughout this argument is the cautionary note about intentionality. This essay is not meant to suggest that all the world’s prostitutes, dealers and street performers entered these fields through a measured, cost-benefit analysis. No. Many people find themselves coerced into sex work, drugs and street living through violence, both direct and systemic. Certainly the world of prostitution is not commonly what is portrayed on shows like Hung and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, just as the drug trade is not what one see’s on TV shows like Weeds or movies like Half Baked. Not all sex workers love their jobs like the ones featured in these television shows. Like all employment, sex workers must sell their time, their labor, and their autonomy for the profit of another. Work sucks. Work is demeaning and in many cases, requires employees to embody a great deal of abuse at the hands of customers and bosses. This essay is not aimed at convincing you that street prostitutes have it easy, or that marijuana growers don’t work, but rather to begin to explore strategies to allow us all of save some of our dignity and redirect our energies into more leisurely and less alienating directions.
One issue that is important to note is that these fields: sex, drugs and assorted deviance, are diverse and far from monolithic. Within these fields is a minefield of relativities and moral judgments. Is selling cocaine the same as growing marijuana? Is acting in “mainstream” heterosexual pornography the same as masturbating for your own pay-as-you-go webcam channel? While these maybe be heavy handed examples, the important distinction is that these industries are quite diverse and contain within their larger categories a plethora of smaller avenues. The ‘moral flexibility’ that some may claim is required to sell sex and drugs is precisely why such fields are extraordinarily profitable; they are inherently self-filtering, as a certain portion of the population will always exclude themselves from participating, thus creating a higher demand on those of us who are willing. Why does a university art class pay $8/hour for someone to pose clothed for photography and $15/hour for the same person to pose naked? As if it was not obvious, they offer more money because it is assumed that the pool of available and willing participants is smaller. This is the angle that can be exploited.
Yes, I can acknowledge that some leftists believe that sex work is inherently immoral, or extra-exploitative, and for those interested in having this debate, the literature is out there. Some argue that the sale of our sexuality is the final culmination of self-alienation, but I ask those critics, have you ever worked as an office temp doing data entry? Is that not the cast study in Marxist alienation? Within our movements, some of us would likely not engage in the drug trade for a multitude of reasons. These tendencies within our movement need not halt a participatory debate on the merits of the lefty-hustler model under examination. Ideological purity is the realm of priests and armchair intellectuals. For most of us, when we work for money we are already compromising in numerous ways. We are vegans who serve meat to customers. We are DIY craft enthusiasts selling needless consumer nonsense goods. We are youth liberationists working in the public school system. We are anti-capitalists filling temp positions for multinational banks. We are Queer liberationists collecting signatures for the HRC (Human Rights Campaign). We compromise.
This essay is simply suggesting a new direction for such a compromise.
A caveat that many are likely quick to point out is that the scheme described herein cannot work for everyone. With few exceptions, the jobs discussed fail to provide health care, maternity/paternity leave, paid vacation, retirement plans and other “job securities,” and for some these benefits are extremely necessary, constituting greater worth than one’s actual earned wage. So yes, I acknowledge that being a self-promoting sex worker or pot farmer is largely the venue of the young (or young at heart), and those of us, who through our privilege, can risk breaking the law on a daily basis. Those of us with racial privilege, national/citizenship privilege, gender and sex privilege, physical ability privilege, and a whole host of other factors will find it safer to earn in the underground economies. To say that everyone can quit their job and make it playing flute in the subway is not only naive, it is a loaded assumption that brings with it a lot of inherently assumed privilege. This is precisely why many leftists found the book Evasion’s (2001) tagline so offensive—“Homelessness. Unemployment. Poverty. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” So without falling into that trap, the presumption that illegal and semi-regular employment is for everyone, I assert that there are still large margins where an aspiring hustler with some ‘street smarts’ can find ways to make money with less time and energy invested than your average wage-based job.
The decision to begin or accelerate participation in these industries brings with it a social marking effect that some folks may have pragmatic issues with. If one begins a life of illegally procuring a fair wage, chances are that somewhere along the way that individual may have a run in with cops, the IRS, institutions such as immigration or child/family services and so on. To be linked to a “drug offence” or a “sex crime,” despite the nature of the offence, brings with it a mark of criminality that can have far reaching reverberations within someone’s life. It may prevent them from getting other jobs in the future where working with children or “at risk” populations are involved as many of these jobs require through criminal records checks. It may prevent you from receiving financial assistance, for example, people convicted of a “drug offense” can often not receive student loans for post-secondary schooling.
Conclusion: Why We Need Not All Be Trimmers, Buskers and Rentboys
Stepping back, there are added bonuses to placing radical folks in the industries describes above. With our new found self-direction and absent bosses, we have an increased ability to infuse our politics into areas where they may be absent from. For example, reducing misogynist imagery in pornography , reducing the cost and violence associated with the drug trade, and creating radically-infused art and crafts for sale. Already, radicals have made inspiring inroads in the sex industry creating a unionized, worked-owned, cooperative strip club (The Lusty Lady: San Francisco) and a worked-owned sex toy shop (Come As You Are Co-operative). In the last few years we have also seen a rise in worker owned, worker run restaurants like Bartertown Diner in Grand Rapids, MI. By placing radical anti-authoritarians within industries where the buffer between themselves and their customer is thin at best, we can build connections, teach others how to make the system work for them, and lay our revolutionary agenda out for all to see. Now how many CVS pharmacists can say that?
Of course we still need radical leftists to grow into teachers, doctors and (dare I say it) lawyers, as well as, other “real” professions, but for many of us the prospect of a 40 year career track is akin to slow death by asphyxiation. So if we are not destined to be a generation of Marxist-surgeons, judges and architects, let’s at least help usher in a new era of radical underemployment! It would not be hard to find ways to be fulfilled in our newly found spare time; creating actions and initiatives that would push our communities and movements towards our revolutionary goals of collective liberation. We could help create a four day work week or a five hour work day! We could build affordable childcare facilities, eco-friendly shared methods of public transport, or simply read, write and spend time with our children and friends.
In conclusion, this is my best articulation of a half baked treatise on irregular-capitalism and making ends meet. It is not the product of years of ideological development, just an attempt to outline some ideas that have been the basis of a developing praxis put into place since I found it necessary to provide for myself a decade ago. This essay is not advocating that anti-authoritarians and radical leftists stop organizing and start cashing in as fast as they can, but if we are to make a revolution happen, we need to eat and keep ourselves clothed and entertained in the meantime, and that (sadly) requires money. This essay is not seeking to change the direction of our movement, but provide options as to how we support ourselves financially while participating in these movements. If one were to summarize the central argument here, it is this: If capitalism is how we are going to feed and house ourselves, why not work the angles and exploit the cracks in the system? If CEOs can make more with a single act of creative accounting then we can earn in a decade, why can’t we earn a year’s worth of income in a few months by simply breaking a few laws we fundamentally oppose anyway? Would it change the fundamental nature of anyone’s reality? Would it increase the rate of drug production, sex work provision or corporate theft? I would argue no. Such actions would proceed as the demand would remain the same. The only difference would be who is benefiting.
Putting this into practice, one could sustainably work a small portion of the year and organize in our communities 24/7 the rest of the time, living off of our squirreled-away earnings. If we live collectively through things such as group houses and squats, reduce our consumption of needless consumer goods and use free and low-cost forms of transportation, we can begin to exist without breaking our backs and giving all of our time to bosses and managers. Why not grow a few pot plants a season and live off those earnings, allowing you the freedom to engage in volunteerism and projects based around free association? If we can make these things function effectively, isn’t ‘getting by’ on our own terms not something to be proud of? Is stealing from the State to support ourselves not in itself a revolutionary act?
Most of our anarchist heroes were workers by day and intellectuals by night. They were educators, trades people, labor organizers and so on…but in the recession economies of the 2000s, why can’t a new generation of insurgents emerge; a veritable brigade of anarchist DIY pornographers, at home distillers and late-night, off the grid delivery bikers?
We all want to provide for ourselves and our loved ones because in the end, for most us, just surviving has never been enough.
 Lyrics taken from the Notorious B.I.G. track Sky’s the Limit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9YKI2IzLrc
 For the purposes of this essay, “drugs” as a general term deals with illegal substances one can produce domestically (in the US) without foreign-grown ingredients. These would include marijuana, hashish, hallucinogenic mushrooms, tobacco, alcohol and less common herbal/plant-derived drugs such as salvia, peyote, mescaline, etc. It does not include foreign manufactured and imported substances such as cocaine or heroin, or substances that can be produced domestically but are dangerous to manufacture such as methamphetamine, or chemically derived substances such as crack, ecstasy/MDMA, GHB, ketamine, nor does it include reproducing commercial pharmaceuticals taken recreational purposes such as Oxycotin, Valium and Ritalin.
 See War Resisters League, “The Federal Pie Chart.” http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm
 See for example, City Paper, “Hacks: A Baltimore Way of Life.” http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=6264
 See Washingtonian, “High Society: Washington’s Love Affair with Marijuana,” by Alexandra Robbins. http://www.washingtonian.com/print/articles/6/0/22552.html
 This figure is from the article titled, “The Shadow Economy,” by Matthew Fleming, John Roman and Graham Farrell. http://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/pdf/farrell_capstone_final.pdf
 I’m no expert but a quick search found a few examples: vegporn.com, nofauxxx.com, crashpadseries.com