Amidst populist electoral uprisings, the growing threat of fascism, the resurgence of social democracy, and the ongoing Great Recession, a potentially more fundamental concern lurks in the background: what is the future of work?
These worries have a clear and present urgency, as the conventional capitalist 9 to 5 employment model has faded into a brave new economic reality of precarious labour and seemingly permanent economic insecurity. The once touted ‘empowerment era’ of work-life balance and flexibility is a less than ideal reality of stagnant wages, high living costs, and crippling personal debt.
Looking further ahead, even more radical change appears to be on the horizon. The coming ‘industry 4.0’ promises to completely revolutionise how we work, live, and organise ourselves. It portends a tomorrow’s world transformed by the internet of things, robot-human relations, automation, big data, and virtual reality. While many dream of a ‘smarter’ more connected society, others fret at being made economically redundant and socially irrelevant.
For the radically minded, this change reflects the need to ask a completely different question: does work as we know it have a future at all?
Those posing this question reject, either tacitly or explicitly, the conflation between what Marx refers to as work and labour, the universal human ability to transform our world and the historically specific exploitative mode of production of wage labour. In a not so futuristic era where toil can be computerised and our basic life needs met through the creation of automated smart systems and digital manufacturing, why is there a need for us to continue to depend on a capitalist wage for our material survival let alone personal development?
Of course, these are not new sentiments. The desires for universal basic income or ‘fully automated luxury communism’ echo the hopes for the creation of a leisure society by yesterday’s progressives and socialists.
These fresh desires to do away with work also share a potentially more troubling aspect with their ideological ancestors. It is that the end of work is always coming soon and not today, orienting politics and struggles to keep looking to the future for radical change rather than the present.
All in good capitalist time
The regulation of time and temporality has always been fundamental to capitalist reproduction. From the strict disciplining of workers under Taylorism to the creation and struggle over the ‘working day’, time has been and remains a central feature of wage labour. In the contemporary period, work time has dramatically expanded. We are now subjected to 24/7 capitalism where we are expected to fulfill our job task ‘anytime, anywhere.’ Others face the threat of a ‘zero hour contract’ in which their material security is far from guaranteed either in the short or long term.
Theoretically, it is no surprise then that thinkers have begun focusing on whether in fact capitalism is running out of time. The terrifying prospect of climate change and the frenetic degradation caused by neoliberalism globally, has led many to wonder just how long capitalism can and will last. Accelerationists, in particular, have proposed that capitalist processes and technologies must be rapidly intensified for the purposes of ending capitalism as we know it. From the left, this means repurposing technological advancements for more emancipatory ends, thus liberating humanity to move beyond the narrow horizons of a market society.
These are appealing revolutionary goals, to be sure. It challenges the idea first put forward by the groundbreaking black feminist Audre Lorde that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” by suggesting that capitalist tools can in fact quicken the destruction of an exploitative capitalist society for something radically freer and more just. Nevertheless, it risks falling into another capitalist trap: entering into an escapist culture of market time.
Indeed, an often-underexplored element of capitalist time is how much it is structured around people escaping its clutches. People long for the end of the workday and over the course of their life the ability to finally retire. They mark the days on their calendars until they can go on holiday. These possibilities of leaving work behind, whether for an evening, week, or the rest of your natural life allow us to commit to our job while there. We know it is coming to an end and we can therefore cope with its daily annoyances, pressures, and miseries.
It is worth asking whether even the most committed radicals are unintentionally doing the same. Are we constantly looking ahead to a revolution that may not come until it is too late? By focusing on the future end of capitalism, are we missing real possibilities for eradicating it more quickly and creatively today?
Creating the future of work today
There is an old Soviet joke that is perhaps particularly appropriate to our present moment. It goes as follows:
This is Radio Russia, voice of the motherland, with a question from Ukraine. Piotr asks, “The government says that better times and changes are just over the horizon. What means ‘horizon?'” We have answer. Horizon is imaginary line very far away that moves farther as you approach.
Is the future of work always meant to be on the imaginary horizon at our historical fingertips, just beyond collective reach?
There are encouraging signs that this need not be the case. Recent ideas like those proposed by Helen Hester in her pioneering book Xenofeminism reveal how we can combine envisioning radical historical change with an active radical culture of contemporary technological repurposing. There is also a growing awareness that there are real alternatives out there including co-operatives, sharing economies, and even radicalised crypto-currencies.
If we can view the shift in work away from exploitation as a radical project that must be continually experimented with and perfected, it is perhaps more possible to bridge today’s struggle with tomorrow’s utopia. What is clear though is that if we resign ourselves to a future – however revolutionary – we will potentially consign ourselves to suffering the injustices of the present. Is the future of work the new opiate of the precarious hi-tech masses? And if it is, how can we break our addiction for something stronger and more real?
Image credit: Steven Roe on Unsplash