Editorial: From the Future of Work to Futures of Work

Today, assumptions of a postcapitalist horizon with automation at its centre dominate much radical critique. But what will be the real character of the changing world of work? Is the technological shift as profound as its prophets proclaim? And what will the social cost be if they are proven right? Is the intellectual dominance of a certain vision of the future blocking any attempt to create other ones? How do we get past the current preoccupation with a singular future of work focused on technology and production, to plural futures of work focused on politics and organisation? These are the questions Futures of Work sets out to debate.

The sense that an imminent ‘future of work’ awaits us seems to be widely felt once every decade. This plays out in both the popular and academic domain. Whether it’s via the sci-fi vistas of the post-war economic boom, the reshaping of Fordist labour by technological advances in the eighties, the dot-com bubble of the late nineties and early noughties or the renewed appeals to automation today, intellectual and political fashion has traced material and economic changes in much the same way we see today. The good ship ‘future of work’ last set sail at the cusp of the millennium, and it is once again ready to embark on another venture. Forever going ‘back to the future’, each return stakes a claim to a singular ‘future’ of work. But the repetition of such claims, each stressing certain specificities, already suggests a plurality of futures available.

Successive iterations of the future of work suggest a set of observations leading, inevitably, to fundamental shifts in the relationship between humans and employment. Whereas the hype for the New Economy of the nineties promised a world of better work, the configuration of technological forces today promises a world of no work. The latest iteration suggests that robots and automation, teamed with the provision of a universal basic income, will produce a revolutionary reduction in working hours, perhaps even to zero. But the turnover of such futures is suggestive of the success with which these theories unfold. The world of ‘better work’, celebrated in eulogies to the New Economy, never came and it is likely the world of automated worklessness will meet the same fate. As Alex Wood argues in this first issue of Futures of Work, the degree and extent of the effect of automation on the world of work is contested, with wildly differing evidence available that seldom points to the most utopian or dystopian outcomes around which various different political tendencies are today arranging their plans for the future. Indeed, on a more theoretical level, by emphasising novelty and change, the continuities and persistent contradictions of capitalism are conveniently ignored. For instance, today, for all the talk of automation, we live in an age of unprecedentedly low innovation and investment in productivity-raising measures. With workers deprived of the means to overthrow a low-wage economy, and shareholders insistent on dividends, employers have little incentive to place their employees in competition or collaboration with machines.

Indeed, the persuasiveness of the idea of a single, unfolding ‘future’ of work seems as sociological as it is empirical. There is work to be done in ascertaining the wider sociological factors that support this continued upsurge in the sense we are on the cusp of the future. In this inaugural issue of Futures of Work, Andrew Sturdy and Glenn Morgan dissect management consultancies’ promotion of certain narratives of the changing workplace, which then allow them to thrive by proposing the problems they profit from in solving. On a wider societal level, it may be that predictions of a future lying close at hand constitutes a coping strategy, outsourcing change to technology and absolving human subjects of the compulsion and responsibility to act. Conspiracy theories, for instance, are historically associated with upheaval and uncertainty. Perhaps, similarly, the feeling that the ‘Future of Work’ is finally here performs the same function. To deal with uncertainty, ‘future theories’ outsource visions of how and why things change to mysterious forces outside the capacity of individuals and states to act upon them – a convenient alibi for political paralysis.

There is also more work to be done understanding precisely who comprises the constituency in which these ‘future of work’ ideas are taken up. Conspiracy theories, for instance, find their constituency in the same precarious or downwardly mobile classes whose fearfulness fascism feeds from. For sure we can say that the future of work, in thought and practice, is experienced and felt more tangibly by different groups. It empowers some with its promise of a new hegemony based in real historical shifts and its proclamation appears to be most among those with least to lose in the transition to the post-work world. Academics, journalists, writers and creatives would all more or less keep on doing what they do whether work was automated out of existence or not. Intellectually, measures like a basic income and ‘full automation’ rally support from an unlikely coalition of interests spanning radical leftists, centrist think-tankers, enlightened free marketeers, neo-fascist accelerationists and Silicon Valley gurus in pursuit of a technological singularity between humans and machines. Via Corbynism’s blank canvass, the first group has mainlined into the contested terrain of the contemporary Labour Party – a radical vision of the future derived from various discarded elements of Marxist inheritance, including the operaist and postoperaist notions of work refusal that Paul Thompson charts in the lead article for this issue of Futures of Work. Elsewhere, we see the return of the orthodox Marxist presumption that the forces of production propel the relations of production into new shapes and forms, so that technological advances hatch a new kind of society. But this is at the expense of considering how continuingly relevant social relations constrain the technological forces on which utopian hopes hinge.

With these ideas gaining the ear of the UK Labour party, the political stakes are high for debate about the future or futures of work. The sense that we are within or at the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution propelled by new technology leads to a politics that seeks to follow and respond to these developments rather than shape them into multiple and open futures. The danger of building a politics around an apparently imminent and singular future of work is that this predicted future may well not happen. Indeed, many of the policy prescriptions offered to mitigate the negative effects of automation both presuppose such a future whilst simultaneously proposing policies that may prevent its unfolding. For instance, the basic income may unintentionally have a stifling effect on labour struggles by replacing the waged relationship of the buyers and sellers of labour with a direct monetary relationship between individuals and the state with no recourse to collective bargaining. And without organisation for better wages, there is less incentive upon employers for the implementation of the automation proposed to free us from labour to begin with. This way, the introduction of a basic income might well embalm relations as they are. Down this road, rather than offering an escape from drudgery, automation may merely create the worst drudgery of all, humans alternately either replaced or reduced to mere additions of machines.

It is therefore important to focus on how workers can organise and resist, and work can be regulated and governed. In this issue’s podcast, Jennifer Bair sets out at length the challenges and opportunities of labour governance and organisation in the contemporary global economy. What is dangerous about the purely reactive politics of understandings of a single ‘future of work’ is that it presupposes something that might not unfold whilst simultaneously disempowering people of the agency to shape and resist it through organization, regulation and governance. In this way, it exerts the same disabling consequence as conspiracy theory. On all sides of the political spectrum, the tenor of politics today centres on a search to ‘take back control’. The object of this control, whether a world of automated luxury or national sovereignty, is nearly always abstractly beyond reach and thus seldom attainable. The search for control, sold on false futures, is potentially uncontainable where no control can be found, as in the search for impossible sovereignty or an impossible automated luxury. Current visions for the future of work, in fact, threaten an even more distant and alienated relationship with how things are run and how we put food on the table, a world where we are even more ‘out of control’ than ever before. It is better, therefore, to build a politics of labour out of a radically pessimistic reckoning with what exists already. As Ana Dinerstein shows in her article, rather than forcing things as they are within the framework of an abstract utopia, what is instead needed is to work from and amplify what already concretely proceeds in practice, on the ground. In short, to work from how things are rather than how we’d like them to be.

Working from the real alternatives already in motion opens the space to consider multiple futures rather than a single destination. It allows us to imagine, control and regulate into existence not one future, but many. Much of what is already happening at the grassroots level provides a basis for a more effective search for control than contemporary politics can offer. Cooperatives, alternative organisations, mutuals, new forms of trade unionism – these experiments in alternatives in the small and the hyper-local are often dismissed as a kind of ‘folk politics’ by the prophets of accelerationism. But they reckon with the question of control in a way that works within and against the norm, keeping within the continuities of capitalism and its traditional modes of resistance and organisation whilst opening up the possibility to create islands of exception within it. It should be the aim of any politics of labour to regulate, organise and govern in order to expand, proliferate and, crucially, institutionalise these spaces. Therein, people are not waiting on a world that has been willed into being many times before, they are acting in advance of it. The imperative upon politicians, activists, academics, policymakers and others is to understand what they do and what needs to happen to support, reproduce and replicate their struggles and social innovations, rather than waiting for a future to unfold that, like other such futures before it, may never come. This is what Futures of Work creates a space to realise.


Katie Bales is Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol

Frederick Harry Pitts is Lecturer in Management at the University of Bristol

Huw Thomas is Lecturer in Management at the University of Bristol

Image credit: dylan nolte on Unsplash