In 2013, a subreddit called r/antiwork coalesced in the leftist Reddit ecosphere. Its purpose was to question and attack the notion of ‘work’, both through the sharing of personal experiences in the workplace, and through the discussion of theoretical critiques of work as labour has evolved in capitalist societies, especially the United States. At first, its contributors were primarily US communists and eco-anarchists working from a rich tradition of questioning labour practices, deeply frustrated and alienated by the exploitative working culture of their nation.
From the very beginning, however, the subreddit attracted a broad church of leftist viewpoints and drew upon diverse sources for inspiration. Threads featuring discussions of Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’ jockeyed for space with others taking on Marx and Kropotkin. There were examinations of the tiny house movement, libertarian polemics, economic analysis of various kinds, and discourses on the future of work in the face of advanced technologies such as robotics and AI.
Ultimately, it was a place to express dissatisfaction with the hierarchical and abusive relationships work imposes upon individuals, so any perspective that effectively problematised work and offered an alternative analysis was welcomed and explored.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, the subreddit exploded.
Here was the sharpest and most radical change to work as many knew it in living memory—a social, economic and public health crisis that caused disruption on a global scale. Millions were affected by lockdowns, suddenly working from home or finding themselves unemployed. An online forum that aimed to criticise ‘the concept and validity of work’ spoke to these circumstances directly, offering an opportunity for a conversation that many were very interested in having.
The anarchists in the forum had come to some conclusions that were eagerly received by pandemic-affected workers. Their worldview was straightforward: screw petit-bourgeois virtue and its oppressive work ethic. If your boss is an idiot, you don’t owe him anything. Fifty years of work for twenty years of retirement is a sick joke. Pay scales in the twenty-first century have become wildly unfair and arbitrary and are almost entirely decoupled from the effort required. Thousands of people, hurting from circumstance and looking for answers, asked ‘Am I still worth something without my job?’ and the anarchists answered ‘Yes.’
Today, r/antiwork is 1.6 million subscribers strong, and the bulk of its threads have evolved from theoretical argument to pragmatic concerns. The subreddit is now a dumping ground for workers’ discontent with the conditions of their employment, an explicitly pro-union forum which maintains partnerships with other large subreddits discussing labour relations, and a strong advocate for small-scale organizing. Most conversations revolve around interrogating and problematising working norms. The tone tends towards class antagonism mixed with stoicism. Commenters will mock your boss and his reasoning, but they know that the rent needs to be paid and the health insurance maintained. You are encouraged to judge, but also to endure.
The quality of advice is remarkably high, contributing to the subreddit’s popularity. American states all have slightly different labour laws, and the differences are often subtle and confusing. Contributors to r/antiwork are often extremely well versed in these differences, and their international knowledge is usually fairly accurate.
Of course, labour organising on Reddit leads to some eccentricities. The original anarchists are still around—a few still hold moderator positions. Not all of them are happy that their theoretical playground was inundated with pandemic refugees.
The topic of how to talk to the media is also a controversial one on the subreddit—are they a discussion hub or a movement? The question remains unresolved and hotly debated, but a recent disastrous interview with Fox News may halt experimentation on that front.
There’s also the more abstract nature of content aggregation websites working against the community here. The Reddit owners have an incentive to maximise engagement at the expense of other goals. They keep cranking up the virality dial until the potential blast radius for a post is the entire website.
A resultant idiosyncrasy is the tendency towards language that is intentionally provocative. This is nothing new, among leftist organisations or internet culture, but as Van Badham points out in her recent book about internet conspiracies, QAnon and On, strange and terrible things can happen when an algorithm geared to promoting the most extreme or outlandish views controls what rises to the top.
To give two examples of the flavour of the subreddit, its banner reads ‘Unemployment for All’, and the community is known for its defence of the term ‘lazy’ as a liberatory personal identifier.
These choices have fascinated observers in the American media, so starkly do they stand in opposition to mainstream culture. And while media engagement has raised the subreddit’s profile, the possibility of suddenly going massively viral for the wrong reasons makes controlling the narrative, or indeed effective grassroots organising, quite a challenge.
The top question, for both the observer and participant, seems to be ‘is this subreddit helping?’
How much useful organising can be done anonymously, on a website with an intemperate and highly distracting culture war in full swing? (Reddit is notorious for a whole host of explicitly right-wing subs, and though the most infamous have been purged from the site, it can hardly be said to be friendly to leftism—let alone far leftism.)
On the other hand, there have been obvious positive results. The profile of communism and anarchism has been boosted, even among the notoriously anti-communist populace. Many marginalised workers have found the confidence to stand up for their rights and attack the systems that curtail those rights. The value of leisure and of rest has been defended eloquently. These are all laudable and necessary accomplishments.
This style and method of labour organisation was inevitable: r/antiwork has developed a decentralised network of intelligent operatives united solely by opposition to the status quo because such a network was made necessary by present conditions. If not on Reddit, it would have arisen elsewhere. So many years of economic demands, of lockdowns, of uncertain shifts and customer abuse and institutional disrespect—all of this demands resistance. The ‘workplace’ is not natural. It’s a terrible, abhorrent imposition.
It remains to be seen how effective r/antiwork will ultimately be in resisting this imposition. All the standard and familiar obstacles to leftist organising in the modern world apply—the community will have to manage their branding, their messaging, and the hostility of the electorate. Beyond those challenges, they’ve set themselves against some of the most entrenched and powerful forces in our societies—the architects of our economy, the billionaire class, and upper management. Changing the world is not an easy task or a simple one.
Regardless of the obstacles, the mere existence of such a large subreddit should be seen as a victory for leftism. Over a million people thinking about their unions and their contracts is a massive step in the right direction for class consciousness, and even those who would attack the subreddit’s goals have so far only managed to boost engagement. Theory and practice have merged together into a remarkably useful tool for examining labour relations.
Will it go further? Perhaps it doesn’t need to, as it has encouraged people to navigate complicated interpersonal situations with dignity and contributed to a major shift in the employment landscape. A genuine revolution probably isn’t going to manifest on Reddit, but r/antiwork has accomplished plenty.