Just over ten years ago I published a book called Critical Social Theory and the End of Work . The book is based on my PhD which was originally going to focus on Critical Theory and suburbia. Thanks to the intervention of my then supervisor at the University of Salford, Graeme Gilloch, it became apparent that looking at work through the lens of Critical Theory, would be a more fruitful sociological topic. Graeme was familiar with the critique of work in Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and Eros and Civilization, and in the writings of French social theorist André Gorz.
Critical Theory, confusingly, is not in fact one unified theory; rather the term is shorthand for the work of Frankfurt School like Marcuse, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. These scholars adapted Marxism for the twentieth century, bringing to bear a highly developed sense of the significance of everyday life, technology, language and politics. They were Jewish Marxists and so had little option but to leave Nazi Germany in the early 1930s and continue their research and intellectual activism in the USA, where they continued to write about the media, public opinion, authoritarianism and the possibilities for achieving a fairer and more peaceful society. Although they are seen by some as focusing on the world of culture (Hollywood, pop music, horoscopes etc.) at the expense of more traditional Marxist concerns such as political economy and social inequality, a more thorough engagement with their work reveals this to be demonstrably false.
Beyond the Frankfurt School, there is of course a vast array of social theory that is also critical and relevant to the analysis of work under late capitalism, and so the term ‘critical social theory’ is used to broaden out the discussion.
Theories of the End of Work
Critical Social Theory and the End of Work traces theories of the end of work from antiquity to the first decade of the twenty first century. Utopian thought is of major relevance to the concept. One can see it in the work of Thomas More, Charles Fourier and others. Fourier’s utopian society or ‘Harmony’ as he calls it, is one in which people’s proclivities or ‘passions’ are systematised vis-a-vis work, through the ‘laws of attraction’. If this sounds rather imaginative, many of his other ideas skirt the fringes of the bizarre: ‘Maiden strawberry growers’, ‘Lady Florists’ and for the dirtiest of jobs, the ‘Little Hordes’ (based on the theory that “Two thirds of all boys have a penchant for filth”). We can see that some of Fourier’s perspectives on gender dynamics – including the notion of using ‘Vestals’ aged between fifteen and a half and twenty years old as some sort of sexual ‘bait’ for cadres of workers -would today, quite rightly, be a cause for concern.
Whatever the flaws in his utopian vision, Fourier’s sense that work should be pleasurable and aesthetically pleasing was something of an influence on Karl Marx. Marx is the most important theorist of the end of work and his analysis, in essence, is as follows. First, Marx proposes that work should, ideally, be creative, fulfilling and self-directed . Second, he provides commentary and analysis of the fact that this is not the case under capitalism . Third, he notes that capitalist technology has the potential to reduce labour time to a minimum, and yet under capitalism, people seem to work ever longer hours, ever more intensely: “Capital is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth”.
This brings us to the work of Marcuse. In One Dimensional Man he examines the potentialities of automation (using technology instead of people to do work) for the freeing of people from needless, alienated labour. In Eros and Civilization he brings Freud into the equation and, rather like Fourier, considers instinctual drives as part of a route towards a social transformation synonymous with the effective end of work.
If Marx is the most important theorist of the end of work and Marcuse its most visionary analyst, Andre Gorz is its most persistent advocate; his book Farewell to the Working Class was often criticised by those who read little further than the title. In fact, it is a keystone in a series of books which argue that the time is right for a re-envisioning of work and employment. The technology exists, employment under capitalism is becoming ever more precarious and meaningless, and consumerism serves as both a distraction from, and an inescapable motive for more pointless work.
Importantly, the contradiction remained the same as that which Marx had observed; capitalism provides the organization, technology and production systems to abolish alienated work, to abolish poverty, to massively expand free time and the realm of the truly social. And yet it clings to work as a drowning person clings to a life raft – without work, how would society be organized? Would people have too much time to think? How would profits be maintained? Ultimately, the end of work could only be achieved through the overcoming of capitalist social relations – clearly not something that the prevailing economic and ideological powers are keen to pursue.
The Adventure of the Concept
As I finished writing Critical Social Theory and the End of Work in 2007/2008, it had become clear that Critical Theory and the sociology of work were possibly the two least fashionable topics within UK sociology and offered zero value in terms of getting a job in any sociology department.
Things had begun to change by 2009. Firstly, it became known that while the sociology of work and organization has disappeared almost entirely from sociology departments, it had relocated to business schools where it remains a vibrant, if ideologically suspect, discipline. Critical Theory, oddly, does not carry the same stigma within business schools as it does in sociology departments.
Meanwhile, the global financial crisis had begun its inevitable transformation into a global economic crisis and unemployment rates had begun to rise. Bombarded by images of brokers with hands on their faces or clearing their desks the popular consciousness began to turn to the pressing matter of getting and keeping a job. This meant two things – sociologists of work could still have a career, and participate in a discourse which, by 2013, had once again begun to gain momentum.
Today, in 2020, the heady days of rising wages, easy credit and consumer driven boom are a distant memory and the end of work is a hot topic across the social sciences and the media. Books such as David Frayne’s The Refusal of Work, Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (the list goes on) have put the end of work well and truly back on the map; books such as these are featured in leading newspapers, and have found traction in the popular imagination in a way in which Critical Social Theory and the End of Work never did. This time around, commentary on the fact that predictions of the end of work are ‘nothing new’ has become a distinct trope within the debate.
The ‘adventure of the concept’ of the end of work is indeed episodic. It seems to bubble to the surface in times of economic crisis, high unemployment, cultural change or technological disjuncture. In the current wave, the issue of automation is once again at the forefront. The good news is that today’s writers calling for the end of work have, generally, maintained the utopian impulse of critical social theorists such as Marx, Marcuse, and Gorz. They view work, correctly, as the lynchpin of capitalist domination of society and within that, people’s lived experience.
Whether or not the end of work is seen as actually likely is to some extent beside the point. Analysing the potential for, and envisioning the social outcomes involved in the end of work, remains an intellectual current with remarkable critical potential.
Ed Granter is a Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behaviour at the University of Birmingham