The refusal of work: Past, Present and Future

In September 1971 I was stood outside Fiat Miafori in Turin leafletting the workforce alongside a large number of Lotta Continua militants. It was at least a change of scene from similar exercises outside Liverpool car plants as a member of Big Flame ‘base groups’. Miafori was the epicentre of struggles of the mass worker and 1971, a mid-point between the hot autumn of 1969 and the factory occupations of 1973. The leaflet has long since disappeared, but the politics remain reasonably fresh in the mind. Refusal of work was a centrepiece of the politics of Italian operaismo or workerism, an umbrella term that linked various tendencies including Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio that shared some common theoretical origins in the works of a new wave of Marxist thinkers associated in different ways with the journal Quaderni Rossi. ‘Refusal’ is, on the face of it, an odd term. After all, few if any Fiat or other workers were asking their employers to terminate their contracts. The politics of working class autonomy and refusal were not timeless, but intimately linked to a crisis of mass production and profitability, with an Italian twist.

Yet, here we are in 2018 and refusal of work is still around and has in fact made something of a comeback. We may no longer see it in leaflets outside Fiat or Ford Halewood, but it is a prominent rallying cry for the now fashionable post-work crowd as evidenced by the accelerationist left, as well as in prominent books by authors such as David Frayne and Kathi Weeks. What we are or should be accelerating to, this suggests, is an embrace of automation to finally kill off work that everyone hates in order to embrace a universal basic income (UBI) that will abolish (most) wage labour and liberate individuals to do something fulfilling. Such political forces may be using the same words, but the refusal of work has little in common with its forerunner. Whilst there are some who do understand the historical trajectory of the concepts, for many the past is truly a foreign country.  This article aims to retrace the origins or the refusal of work and to make a different argument about its specificity, before returning to the current period and the promises of a post-work future.

The mass worker[1]

The late 1960s and 70s abounded in left attempts to identify and politically weaponise a ‘new working class’ based in changing capitalist relations of production. For example, French sociologists had previously highlighted skilled technicians or specialised workers.  Italian workerist theorists took a very different line.  The privileged class figure was the mass worker, part creator, part product of the organisation of production under Fordism. The term class composition is a favourite one in the operaismo and autonomist vocabulary.  In Marxist terms, class is located in the technical division of labour and the mass worker represents a qualitative break with the previous dominant figure of the skilled worker, with their perspectives of dignity and value of labour, as well as workers’ control of production.  Not only was this outlook outdated, higher skilled and white collared, employees were subject to de-qualification and proletarianization.   Notions of the technical composition of labour were not just intended as a description of a changed labour process, but as a ‘methodology’ designed to critically analyse work relations and  discover the ‘political laws of motion of labour power as a commodity’. The struggles of the working class to assert its independent needs based on its labour power is also a motor of and obstacle to capitalist development. In this case, the argument was that the struggle for a wage independent of productivity and rigidity in the labour process was at the centre of the crisis of Fordism in Italy. It was argued that successful struggles on this basis would block or break the cycle of capitalist development in Italy in which the wage-productivity connection, orchestrated through collective bargaining and state planning had underpinned growth in previous cycles. The struggle over profitability and power in large mass production factories was therefore the focal point of class politics, and the refusal of work was the refusal of wage labour on capital’s terms; that if successful would lead to the actual abolition of wage labour under communism.  This, in essence, was Italian operaismo.

To further connect context and content we need to understand that two things overlap in these understandings of autonomy and refusal. First, something immediate about the characteristics of the struggle in the factories, which was very different from that articulated by the mainstream trade unions dominated by the Italian Communist Party (PCI). This not only included the previously-mentioned break between wage rises and productivity but demands such as equal wage rises across grades as part of a general rejection of hierarchy in the factory. This was also a refusal of mediation in the struggle (‘we are all delegates’), of formal channels and conventional bargaining, in favour of direct action and self-organisation, often waged inside the factory. The second dimension was more strategic, representing a different conception of working class politics, At one level, this was a classic contrast between the gradualist reformism of the PCI and the workerist assertion of permanent class warfare leading to insurrection. But it also embodied a perspective that rejected the traditional distinction between political and economic struggle, between unionism in the workplace and politics directed towards the state. The refusal of work was class politics.  With the mass worker the vanguard of the struggle and the reduction of all forms of work to abstract labour, there was no need for the kind of class alliances promoted by the PCI. After all, “The assembly line and class consciousness today form one single totality”[2].

At its height and up to the Fiat occupation and other struggles of 1973, the workerist strategy in Italy had a degree of credibility. This is not the place to chart the fragmentation and failure of their political strategy and the wider collapse of the revolutionary organisations associated with the line of the mass worker and refusal of work. This can be found in the accounts of the ever-reliable Steve Wright in his Storming Heaven book and in shorter form in this article focused on Antonio Negri. Suffice to say that by 1977-8, industrial struggles were at best on the defensive and had to some extent been recuperated through new employer and state strategies. This is no surprise. The idea that the struggles of the most militant mass workers could be endlessly sustained at a high level, generalised across all sectors and somehow block capitalist development was fanciful. What was perhaps surprising is that by the end of the decade, the mass worker had almost entirely disappeared from view theoretically and politically, though not of course in the real world. The focus of the far-left organisations switched increasingly and in different ways to the struggles in the community (rent strikes, transport), to a new wave of university actions, to electoral interventions and to the emergent feminist movement, and disastrously in the case of a large block of the autonomists themselves, towards the militarisation of the movement and armed struggle.

With exception of the latter, there is nothing in itself wrong and much to celebrate in this widening and diversification of struggles, whose flavour can be seen in documents of the time. What I want to explore are the theoretical rationales for this shift from the key figures such as Antonio Negri and Sergio Bologna, as they help to illustrate some of the problematic conceptual underpinnings of the refusal of work. Rather than recognising the impossible political burden placed upon the ‘privileged’ class figure of the mass worker and the intrinsic merits of more diverse foci of action, the conceptual apparatus of what increasingly became known as  autonomism simply shifted terrain, with no lessons learned. The rest of society became the ‘social factory’ and the myriad of political actors the social(ised) worker. A new privileged class subject had been born from theoretical conjecture. Even the over-emphasis on the wage was transferred, as equal wages rises for all grades eventually became a ‘wage for all’ or ‘political wage’. This wholly unattainable demand was one attempt to provide a unifying focus for important, but disparate struggles held together only by theoretical string, that “synthesised but flattened a plurality of social behaviours”.

For the central workerist and later, autonomist theorists[3], the socialised worker and social factory was the outcome of an “objective re-composition of the class”, in part a result of the pressures exerted on capital by the wage struggles and power in the labour process of the mass worker. The argument was partly justified with reference to the expansion of the service sector and the supposed proletarianisation of large sections of the population (thus creating an ever larger ‘antagonist subject’). To maintain the dubious connection with orthodox Marxism, this conjecture was further wrapped up in an even more preposterous argument – that the law of value had collapsed and value extraction and capital accumulation now took place largely outside the immediate processes of production. The perspective of the socialised worker was not entirely divorced from waged labour. Drawing increasingly on Marx’s speculative analyses in the Grundrisse, a sub-plot focused on the rise of techno-scientific labour that supposedly could not be controlled by capital. As George Caffentzis  observed twenty years ago, these new figures of labour were “percolating in the world wide net rather than in the (old and new) haunts of the mass workers…”. Within a decade most autonomist theorists had moved from the economically reductive position that the factory contained the laws of motion for the whole society, to an equally mechanistic framing of ‘everything else’ as the social factory. Meanwhile, ironically, the global economy was experiencing one of the largest expansions of factory production in China, and other countries in any era since the industrial revolution.

The astute observer may have noticed similarities between these arguments and demands and contemporary post-operaismo[4]  and post-capitalism, inspired by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire related works, with their themes of collective exodus from capitalist life, horizontalism and peer production. These themes intersect with the reappearance of anti-work in the new clothes of accelerationism, automation and UBI. Most of the theory and politics of post-workerism was already present in the 1970s. Yet its supporters largely seem unconcerned by, or prepared to ignore, the terrible theoretical flip-flops and political failures that characterise its forerunners.

However, I want to offer a different reading that seeks to rescue something from the mass worker and work refusal wreckage, though not most of the politics that originally accompanied it.

Work refusal as a politics of production

Influenced by Burawoy’s original distinction between a politics of production and state politics, labour process analysis avoids the elision between class conflict in the workplace and transformative and strategic objectives at a societal level, without reproducing the old distinction between economic and political struggle. Burawoy’s concept of ‘factory regimes’ characteristic of whole periods of capitalism was drawn too widely across time and territory. In contrast, labour process researchers have tended to focus on distinctive and more proximate labour control regimes[5].  Contemporary examples might include the call centre, with its mix of low discretion, high surveillance regimes, and algorithmic control in parts of the gig economy.   It is on such terrains that capital and labour typically meet as workplace actors, though struggles may extend in scale and scope. The politics of production within such regimes have distinctive forms of labour agency that rest in part on the technical composition of labour. But again, it is wiser to focus on the actual dynamics of labour power and labour’s power, than to over-burden this concept with notions of privileged, leading class figures.

This brings us back to the mass worker and work refusal. If we regard the car factories and similar mass production plants during the crisis of Fordism as a labour control regime with particular forms of contestation, important insights can be retained, not least the challenge to the productivist conception of orthodox Marxism that science and technology were part of neutral productive forces’ leading to an unquestioning attitude to work relations. Potential, but more realistically grounded insights can be illustrated if we briefly return to the experience of the industrial interventions of Big Flame. A few accidents of history meant that a small left organisation with its roots in Liverpool and a presence in the car factories, notably Ford Halewood and later other Ford plants around the UK, tried to implement the refusal of work strategy (evidenced in this 1973 pamphlet) in about five months of struggle at Ford. It is precisely the very different and less politicised context concerning this struggle that allows for some less theoretically burdened, but still interesting observations to be made. The basic ingredients were replicated on a smaller scale. ‘Base groups’ combining external and internal militants attempted to mobilise around wages, conditions, discipline and other issues, independently of the unions and even steward structures. Regular mass leafletting provided direct contact and filled an information gap for workers. The campaigning also filled another kind of gap. In his well-known book from the same period, Working for Ford, Huw Beynon observed that, “trade unionism is about work and sometimes the lads just don’t want to work”. Whilst the refusal of work slogan was never explicitly used, issues were framed in the Italian manner of more money-less work. The actions influenced were about work – its pace, allocation, intensity, length, supervision and organisation. This could also mean focusing on guaranteed lay-off pay, shorter hours and challenging management’s untrammelled right to manage.

One of the most successful campaigns was against the Friday night shift at Halewood. The Big Flame campaign slogan was “Friday night is music night”, which had a direct appeal to many of the younger workers, some of which can be seen in this Halewood Worker Bulletin.  Other aspects of the autonomist package did not work at all, notably the foolish antipathy to union and steward structures. If this had any purchase in Italy, it had none in Britain. It is also telling that though other industrial activity was undertaken, it was difficult to replicate work refusal narratives outside of the assembly line context. Big Flame also had its own version of the turn towards community action, influenced by the rise of feminism and the need to open up further fronts in the struggle for working class autonomy. This activity was theoretically informed by the same ‘social factory’ perspective discussed earlier, with many of its strengths and weaknesses. But that is taking us away from the mass worker story.

We don’t even need an Italian link to see that the same kind of work refusal politics of production were also present in other contexts such as the motor plants in some of the large American cities. Read the pages of left wing journals such as Radical America in the early 1970s and you find similar accounts of auto-workers’ struggles, largely minus the autonomist framing. Sharp, direct, internal and sometimes violent struggles took place over regimented work conditions, safety, speed-up and work discipline. As Georgakas and Surkin’s account of conflicts at Chrysler and other plants makes clear, a key difference was the presence of a large number of militant black workers. The small left-wing groups agitating inside and outside the factory were much more likely to be affiliated to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The influx of new black and white workers from the South during and after the war that changed the social composition of the workforce has some interesting parallels with the destabilising effects on work discipline of young workers from Southern Italy to the car plants of the North. But if the struggles of the mass worker in the US assembly plants had any theoretical framing at all, it was within the longer historical tradition that emphasised a production politics from below based on the power of the informal work group and the wildcat strike and their tensions with formal union organisation (see, for instance, the debate in Radical America between Brecher and Glaberman).

Work refusal and the post-work agenda

In recent years we have seen the rise of self-defined post-work perspectives, with a distinct political and policy agenda. The intellectual resources for such perspectives come primarily from a mixture of post-workerism associated with the continuing influence of Negri, cognitive capitalism theory; accelerationism and the idea of fully automated luxury communism. Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism straddles many of these influences and has done much to popularise the message that work is no longer central to the left project. There are differences of emphasis, but there are considerable commonalities. Theoretically, the viability of the arguments derives from claims that a post-work, post-scarcity world is made possible by leading edge trends within contemporary capitalism. First, reworking an older theme of Negri and autonomists, capitalism is experiencing a collapse of the law of value and its connection to labour time, given an abundance of use-values and minimal cost of (re)production of commodities. Second, the speed and character of technological development, notably around robots, cybernetics and AI. Both draw on a mis-directed reading of Marx’s speculative comments on The Fragment on Machines in the Grundrisse, where science and technology become the sources of real wealth rather than labour expended and extracted in production

As propagandists such as Aaron Bastani argue, Wikipedia, Uber and Spotify are harbingers of a post-scarcity world where peoples’ social and economic needs can be met. Those same economic and technological developments also enable the full automation of everything, where only a minimal amount of work will still be necessary. Capitalism may be eating itself, but accelerationism brings in the explicitly political dimension. Srnicek and Williams argue, in what is perhaps accelerationism’s best-known text, that the left should welcome these market and technological tendencies, specifically with reference to the capacity to automate jobs, repurposing the process to radical goals and the end of capitalism. They suggest that the political focus should shift to the provision of UBI, high enough to enable (ex) workers to be independent of the need for waged labour. There is not the space in this article to further expand and critique the broader techno-utopian assumptions about the nature of contemporary capitalism. I have done so extensively here and here. What I want to focus on here is where and in what ways the claims intersect explicitly with the world of work. Refusal of work is an important referent across the post-work agenda, though not necessarily its driver. I will argue that the content has moved from a struggle about the character of work and how it can be resisted, to one against work as such in terms of its viability and significance for individuals and society (see for example The Refusal of Work, a book by David Frayne).

There are two sets of that underpin contemporary refusal arguments. Some post-work arguments, for example in favour of UBI, are long standing and matters of principle.  Srnicek and Williams and others argue that UBI decommodifies the relationship between labour and capital, breaking the latter’s power. However, such views are unlikely to have any popular appeal and post-work theories tend to be advanced through two sets of contingent, yet deeply flawed claims. The first focuses on automation and the availability of work – taken apart elsewhere in this edition of Futures of Work by Alex Wood.  The most gloomy forecasts of ‘futurist’ texts that predict that half of all (US) jobs are vulnerable, or that 35% of jobs in the UK are ‘at risk’ of being automated are endlessly recycled as if continual quotation is in itself proof of concept. They are accepted by Mason, Srnicek and Williams and others despite their technological determinism, hyperbolic excess and sometimes, as Andrew Sturdy and Glenn Morgan describe in another article in this issue, their consultancy-driven origin. As Judy Wajcman notes in an insightful review of such texts, most forecasts are based on crude projections of what might happen (vulnerability), in one case using an algorithm that predicts the susceptibility to automation of different occupations, rather than close attention to the actual task content of jobs. There are indeed jobs with immediate or future vulnerabilities, notably those associated with information handling, where algorithms can analyse big data more efficiently than for example, legal and accounting technicians, insurance or travel agents. Some routine factory jobs, particularly in China, have already been replaced by robots. However, if we look at the existing and projected patterns of polarised job growth and what we know about their labour processes – caring, interactive service roles, emotional labour, professional, creative and high tech, it is much harder to see extensive displacement through robotisation or AI.  As Dundon and Howcroft note, it is tasks, not whole occupations that will disappear or be reconfigured.

We are constantly being told that ‘the future is here’, but the chimera of immediacy is only achieved by a combination of unrepresentative examples and collapsed timescales. In 2018, we have a record number of people in employment in the UK (almost 75%) and the big challenge is the quality of that work and inequality of access to it – issues we shall return to later. As Wajcman, the Marxist economist Doug Henwood, and others have observed, it is not just job creation, but low levels of productivity and investment that indicate that there is little evidence of a trend towards large-scale technological unemployment. The vulnerability of existing jobs also says nothing about the creation of new ones given that there is not a fixed stock of jobs in a capitalist or any other kind of economy.  All these points and much more can be found in the large volume of sceptical and more nuanced studies produced by the majority of the scientific and policy community, including the Resolution Foundation, OECD, Economic Policy Institute, Roosevelt Institute, Willcocks and Lacity.

An equally key point is that we’ve been here before many times with exaggerated and often plain wrong claims about job destruction and new technology. In the last technology panic cycle in the early to mid-1990s, a slew of books were published by leftist commentators including Rifkin’s The End of Work and Aronowitz and De Fazio’s The Jobless Future. In the previous decade Andre Gorz had predicted that the micro-chip could lead to the abolition of work by the end of the century. The common theme was that a ‘third industrial revolution’, driven by powerful new (software) technologies was creating a ‘world without workers’. Failed prediction does not prevent repeat cycles. The embracing of gloomy forecasts about the ‘4th industrial revolution’ is a staple diet of post-work commentators, presumably because it strengthens the case for their preferred political choices such as UBI. But ultimately the facts are largely props to- rather than underpinnings of arguments. This is pretty much admitted by Srnicek and Williams, who say that, “Our claim is normative not descriptive…something that can and should be achieved, regardless of whether it is yet being carried out.”

Post-work ‘imaginaries’ have another source of argument, this time shifting from work access to attachment, or in this case, apparent lack of. Automation and UBI should be embraced because “for the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfilment or redemption”. Frayne in his Refusal of Work book, asserts that gratifying work is a fantasy that we have all been trained to invest in. The ‘work is drudgery and no-one likes it anyway’ narrative has received a major boost from the publication of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. Across many of these authors we hear that UBI will liberate humanity from drudgery of work, with the resultant free time spent on community building and engaging in politics and hobbies. This has echoes of Marx’s idyll of communism where the individual can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner – though he was writing before the advent of Netflix box sets.

Some work of course can be tedious, oppressive and unrewarding. Post-work commentators, however, are either unaware of or write off as false consciousness, the fact that the overwhelming message of survey and qualitative evidence is that most employees, even amongst the lower paid and skilled, do indeed find meaning or satisfactions in their jobs and/or their work (see Findlay and Thompson for an overview of some of the evidence) . This is a complex phenomenon that may refer to the actual work, its monetary or status rewards, or the opportunities for interaction with customers or workmates. It can and does coexist with discontent about the ways they are treated by employers. As pointed out elsewhere, David Graeber makes the claim that half of all jobs are ‘bullshit’, but the YouGov survey on which he bases this reported that 50% of respondents thought that their job was making ‘a meaningful contribution to the world’, with only 37% saying otherwise and 13% not sure. In a separate question, 63% said that their jobs were very or fairly personally fulfilling, while only 23% said ‘not at all’.

Corrections to claims about work and its discontents are not quibbles. Poor evidence underpins wrong political directions. If everyone ‘refuses’ work in the way outlined above, exit is seen as preferable to struggle against the defects and downsides of current work regimes. Frayne, for example, relies for evidence on interviews with ‘untraditional’ people, many of whom have already joined the exodus from conventional waged work.  The political danger can be seen in Guy Standing’s argument that many of the precariat do not aspire to secure labour, as legal and bargaining protections are no longer effective. The precariat’s consciousness is asserted to be linked to a search for security outside of the workplace, which of course conveniently leads back to the primacy of a struggle for UBI.

Contemporary politics of production

There is a crisis, or more accurately, crises, of work in many advanced and developing capitalist countries. Close to home, this includes dimensions of availability and attachment, but not as framed by post-work commentators. Elsewhere, I have summarised this as a growing divergence between what work demands from us and what we demand from work. Of course, there isn’t a simple ‘us’ or ‘we’. The most visible recent part of work contestation has been in the gig economy and the practices of on-demand platform firms such as Deliveroo and Uber. So exploitative has the use of bogus self-employment, insecurity and, payments below minimum wage been that they became the focus for the UK Government’s Taylor Report. Too much focus on this part of the gig economy can, however, obscure the fact that super-exploitative, casualized practices have become increasingly characteristic of business models at the lower end of the labour market. This can range from informalisation and long hours in hand car washes, to zero hours, under-employment and wage theft in retail and hospitality.  Analysis by the RSA identifies a 1 in 7 figure for such chronically precarious workers. Under-employment is particularly interesting, as surveys show that more than 8% of the workforce would like longer (and no doubt regular) hours. Casualisation and limited hour contracts are built into the cost and control basis of these employers’ business models.

It is important, not just for an accurate picture of the research, but for the politics of work, to not treat chronic or acute precariousness as the defining feature of work regimes in contemporary capitalism, even in the UK and US. A large majority of employees remain in regular, full-time employment. If they hear nothing from the left other than the gig economy and zero hours contracts, an opportunity will have been missed as research shows that there are a whole range of work practices that they would ideally like to ‘refuse’. We need to return to the theme of demanding work. Though practices vary considerably both across and within sectors, there has been a growth in (often) punitive performance management, work intensity and work elasticity/time squeeze. More for less is the most pervasive theme of employee feedback and it doesn’t stop there. Stagnant wages and a decline in employee voice mechanisms are important issues for workers. Relativity stable job tenure does not exclude concerns with job security. As revealed in a useful study from Gallie et al, a large minority of employees are concerned with job status insecurity, perceived as a threat to valued aspects of work including anxieties about say and pay. There is a complex politics of time. Among those who work longest, many would like to work less. The ability to balance work and non-work commitments is frequently the highest rated aspect of job satisfaction, particularly among women. Unsurprisingly, these trends are associated with falling levels of trust and engagement.

Given this complex interplay of labour market and labour process issues across different groups, it would be naïve to think that there is a single contemporary politics of production. Nor is it simply a juxtaposition of good and bad jobs. There can be good (as in valued) aspects of bad jobs and bad aspects of what are otherwise perceived as good jobs. Put slightly differently, as argued elsewhere, it’s about bullshit in jobs rather than bullshit jobs. A radical politics of work therefore recognises the specificity of particular contexts and class actors (such as the gig economy), whilst seeking common themes across all, notably insecurity, stagnant wages and enhanced voice.

To address contemporary crises of work, we also need to be clear about agency. One of the central problems with post-work technological determinism and catastrophism is that it obscures and elides responsibility. In his review of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s Second Machine Age, Spencer rightly observes that the authors neglect the nexus between the politics of production and digital technologies, which are rooted in the changing political economy of capitalism.  It is the business models in key sectors of an increasingly financialized economy and the austerity policies of governments that underpin the above trends, not automation or AI. Capitalism is not at the tipping point of becoming communism in waiting. In his incisive critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Negri’s pronouncements on the end of work and labour value in production at another apparent tipping point, this time in the nineties, George Caffentzis argues that the “end of work literature…is not only theoretically and empirically disconfirmed. It also creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended”. If we want less work, as in a shorter working week or work sharing, the labour movement and its allies are going to have to fight for it, rather than expect it to arrive on the back of an army of robots.

Yet here we hit a second agency problem. Post-work commentators such as Srnicek and Williams, and Mason dismiss organised labour as sclerotic and incapable of anything other than feeble resistance. Though ordinary workers apparently hate their pointless and odious jobs, they are too conditioned by the work or consumerist ethos to do anything about it. It is widely accepted that traditional struggles and forms of organisation have been in long-term decline, though that is by no means true in all sectors and countries. More importantly, pessimism about agency neglects the variety of labour (or labour-related) channels and campaigns that are challenging capital in the workplace. As capital restructures, so does labour, including in the gig economy. Not only do new forms of organisation such as the IWGB and UWW arise alongside existing unions, but their campaigns for legal protection and labour rights, in the UK at least, have had some successes.

In praise of the here and now

Paul Mason argues that all utopias based on work are finished. I agree. The era defined by the politics of the dignity of labour and workers’ control of production is long gone. But why do we have to have a politics of work based on utopias at all? There is plenty to engage us in the here and now. In her pro-UBI book, Kathi Weeks recognises some of the practical constraints, but says that we need utopian ideas so that we can imagine a world without the wage. For employees, if it comes to prioritising abolition of the wages system (or its surrogate, waiting for the UBI) versus raising wages and stopping wage theft, there is only one likely winner. The absurd, (il)logical end point is summed up in the argument made by Mason in PostCapitalism that the most important question facing us is not whether Uber drivers should have employment rights (though they should), but what to do in a world where automation begins to eradicate work. The left needs to focus on worker’s actual experiences of insecurity, excessive performance pressures and under-employment, as well as unequal access to and treatment in employment.

Kathi Weeks and others have a point when they bemoan the historic focus on waged work and the neglect of a wider variety of forms of labour. However, waged work and social reproduction need not be a zero-sum game unless one is on a fruitless search for the transcendental political subject or ‘ultimate’ source of value. A contemporary, radical politics of work is not the only or even necessarily the main focus for progressives.  But unlike post-work imaginaries it is immediate, and it does matter. And, contra Weeks, this does mean taking productivity seriously. There will be no return to the forms of work refusal characteristic of our starting point – the mass worker at Fiat. UK car workers have to make productivity bargains that share the gains and provide some level of security. At a wider level, low productivity in the UK and elsewhere – itself mostly an outcome of low wage, low skill business models – constitute a serious obstacle to forms of inclusive, greener growth that can meet the ambitious redistributive and regeneration plans of left-of-centre governments. In this context, refusal becomes less a window into the workers’ experience of the changing world of work, and more a means of looking away from it.


[1] It might be worth saying something about sources at this point. I have tried to provide hyperlinks wherever possible and it is remarkable how many historical documents are now available online. However, these events were a long time ago and a number of my sources are faded documents circulated within Big Flame and its networks. Many were roughly translated from Italian and came from both wings of operaismo (Lotta Continua and Pptere Operao) that shared similar theoretical origins, though not political strategies and tactics. Some of the more polished translations have always come from Red Notes and can be found at .

[2] This is a quote from page 5 of ‘What is the Working Class?’ which was a document circulated inside Big Flame and was translated from ‘Workers Against the State: Refusal of Work’, from the French organisation Matériel D’Intervention (who were associated with Potere Operaio). They go on to argue on the same page that, “we must say clearly, quality of work does not exist”. In the understandable desire to critique the standardising, deskilling tendencies under Taylorism and Fordism, operaismo wrongly treats all labour as undifferentiated and uniform. Scepticism about employer quality of work initiatives is confused and conflated with an equally understandable desire by workers to improve the actual quality of their working lives.

[3] As operaismo transitions into theoretically and politically into post-operaismo, the umbrella term for this tradition has often become autonomist Marxism. This has some of its roots in the way that autonomy was used in the original debates around the mass worker and then later in the 1970s as autonomist becomes associated with specific political tendencies after the dissolution of parties such as Potere Operaio and Lotta Continue. Negri, a founder of the former, is the key thread through these transitions. The hyperlinks in the text to Steve Wright and Maria Turchetto are a good guide.

[4] The hyperlink is to a whole book, but the reference is intended to highlight the excellent chapter 16 from Maria Turchetto. Just scroll down.

[5] There is another perspective, also influenced by labour process analysis, that treats labour control regimes in the wider framing favoured by Burawoy and produces important, though different insights. See the article by Pattenden.


Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling

Image credit: Jonas Bengtsson, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)