From the End of Work to the Dignity of Labour

Before the pandemic took grip, the future world of work was attracting widespread attention. It was regularly discussed within popular culture, modern literature, journalism, and social, economic and political commentary; it had become part of the everyday conversation. Two poles emerged in the general debate. One signposts a post-work nightmare of escalating inequality amongst a threatened humanity subservient to technology, the other a future utopia of abundance, numerous routes to self-actualisation and even enhanced transhuman possibilities, with lots in between.

This renewed interest in work futures, existing before a global health crisis derailed the economy, reflects a widespread belief that ‘the robots are coming’. A few key texts have been highly significant in shaping this narrative of epic transformation, indeed revolution. MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have suggested automation and AI are powering a new ‘second machine age’, equivalent to the first Industrial Revolution, one that will further exacerbate inequality. Another popular contribution, by Martin Ford, has confirmed these technological shifts yet imagines a more optimistic future if humanity can leverage these changes to save a burning planet and resolve structural unemployment. Such books shape a narrative depicting a world on the edge of epochal technological change. It is also often described as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’; one which will redraw how we live, in ways we cannot even imagine. The first revolution refers to the way steam and water powered and mechanised production. The second the effects of electrification and third transformations driven by information technology. The fourth identifies the upheaval brought on by digital technologies – among them AI, augmented reality, 3-D printing – transforming all sections of society, politics, communities, our relations and who we are as humans.

The discussion triggers numerous tabloid headlines when this general change story translates into a concrete numbers game of displaced jobs through automation. Many of the most threatening estimates of technological unemployment can be traced to a single source, a 2013 article by Carl Frey and Mike Osborne, which suggested nearly half of the types of jobs used by the US Bureau of Labor remain vulnerable to automation. This has been regularly used to suggest the demise of many millions of traditional blue-collar jobs. Almost as a companion piece, in The Future of the Professions Richard and Daniel Susskind suggest technological forces will dramatically rework white-collar professional jobs such as lawyers, consultants, accountants and health professionals. The cumulative effect infers no one is safe from technological upheaval and the inevitable end of work. This also has major geo-political implications, a ‘great displacement’, with unemployment unevenly distributed within and between countries.

Against this backdrop of uncharted, technological disruption and the destruction of work, infinite space is created for all sorts of writers to insert themselves into the story and interpret our future. In some versions, people appear as victims in foreseen dystopias; in others, human values shape the forces of production to benefit humanity and the planet. Writers pick and mix from the available data to validate a personal or political worldview. Assorted novelists, commentators and politicians selectively mould the material into a speculative literature prone to over assertion. Yet it has established a noise of rupture, one that allows writers to dramatize the human dilemmas posed by AI and our liberation from routine, dehumanised work. In Ian McEwan’s recent book for instance technological breakthroughs allow the writer to contemplate love and humanity and the ethical challenges posed with cyborg augmentation.

The depiction of alternative worlds through epochal technological change is a site where fiction and politics has regularly met.  Critically however modern utopian thinking on the left tends to invert the political usage of science fiction in the hands of writers such as Wells and Orwell. Throughout the early twentieth century science fiction allowed parts of the left to re-assert the need for human solidarity and political agency to contest the malign consequences of our intellectual development. Sci Fi retained an ethical, humanist character. Left unchallenged technological change could usher in tyranny; the human imperative was to ensure this was not left unchallenged. Even those texts that appear dystopian – such as Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 – were political interventions; warning shots to choke off dystopian trends in modern society. Huxley’s target was the dominant left utilitarianism, Orwell the totalitarian, scientific left. Sadly, it is a different story today. In the last century writers used sci fi to warn humanity, now commentators such as Ash Sarkar use technological disruption to foresee ‘communist utopia’.

Tech-utopianism has become a defining characteristic on the modern left, possibly as a safe space to inoculate against the daily grind of electoral defeat; a political hail mary against loss and decay. In a tragic re-run it echoes the technological determinism of generations of Marxists. History repeats and is captured in influential articles and books discussing ‘accelerationism’ and ‘fully automated luxury communism’ and is best represented in Paul Mason’s optimistic embrace of automation through a precise reading of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value in his innovative, readable, hugely popular book PostCapitalism.

The political embrace of automation also corresponds with renewed interest in the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI), to rid us from what anthropologist David Graeber considered the modern indignity of degraded, meaningless work and ‘bullshit jobs’. UBI has become the signature policy for automated new times. The idea of a minimum income first appeared at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and of an unconditional one-off grant at the end of the eighteenth century. The two combined to form an unconditional basic income near the middle of the nineteenth century. Fashionable debate concerning technological change, structural unemployment and the rise of the robots has brought UBI to a bigger audience.

The idea has widespread political support. The traditional right-wing case stretches back centuries and predates our modern safety nets. More recent advocates, such as Milton Friedman, Hayek, Charles Murray and Richard Nixon have embraced it as a vehicle to roll back the welfare state and replace it with an individualised transaction between the state and the consumer. The traditional left-wing case has tended to focus on the basic human right to a level of subsistence, not just to survive but guarantee freedom. An unconditional, universal safety net against in work poverty or job loss, to build the power of labour and confront capital. A ‘proto-UBI’ was advocated by Tom Paine, more recent supporters include Bertrand Russell, JK Galbraith, and LBJ. It is a policy embraced by many Silicon Valley titans, possibly to offset their personal responsibilities for structural unemployment, as well as technology writers such as Martin Ford and Presidential nominee Andrew Yang.

Support for UBI in anticipation of rampant technological unemployment has led to an upsurge of interest in recent basic income initiatives. These include the late 1970s Manitoba Mincome annual income project and the Alaskan oil dividend as well as modern UBI pilots in Finland, Scotland, Canada, Oakland, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Debate about the merits of UBI compared to job generation programmes is underway. In the USA progressive democrats such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Corie Booker and Bernie Sanders are part of a growing movement to embrace the idea of a federal job guarantee. The government would guarantee a well-paying job, with benefits and salary to establish a new subsistence threshold to cover housing, food, childcare, health insurance, and pension arrangements similar to New Deal employment programmes. Yet both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton appear more attracted to the idea of UBI. Here in the UK John McDonnell has argued the case for UBI as has the centre left organisation Compass and the writer Guy Standing.

Pragmatic Confusion

Whilst the march of the machines has renewed interest in work, so too have more pragmatic political concerns about insecure jobs and our enduring economic weaknesses. Famously, outside 10 Downing Street on 13th July 2016 on becoming Prime Minister Theresa May talked of ‘fighting against the burning injustices……If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realize. You have a job but you don’t always have job security……….. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.’

This was widely recognized as a significant shift, at least rhetorically, toward ‘blue collar’ conservatism with a focus on ‘ordinary working people’ reflecting the influence of ‘Red Tory’ or ‘Post-Liberal’ elements at the top of the party. It suggested a reorientation away from labour market de-regulation of the Thatcher era and a renewed interest in work quality. In October 2016, May commissioned Matthew Taylor to report on how employment practices could change to keep pace with modern business models.

The 2017 Conservative Election Manifesto announced: ‘we do not believe in untrammelled free markets’ and ‘we reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality’ and suggested an overhaul of labour market policy and embrace of industrial democracy by putting workers on the boards. On the 11th July 2017, Taylor’s review was unveiled and drew a scathing response from across the trade union movement. Since publication there is very little evidence of actual policy follow through.

This shift wasn’t really about policy. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum the Conservative party were seeking to focus on workplace issues given the shifting class alignments amongst the electorate. Driven by the European question the party was on walkabout in search of a policy agenda to consolidate working-class support; a move that foreshadowed their 2019 election victory in ‘Red Wall’ seats and appeals to the ‘Workington man’.

Renewed political interest for workplace issues also aligned with expert policy concerns with the UK productivity ‘puzzle’ – the appallingly domestic productivity performance since the 2008 financial crash. What is striking is the contrast between the noise of rupture, the language of epochal technological change and end of work with record jobs levels and ‘puzzling’ productivity numbers. Sometime soon we might expect the structural unemployment to show up or the productive lift derived by automation to arrive.

Without doubt UK productivity continues to underperform in terms of long-term domestic trends and compared to other major economies. It also underperforms compared to what followed the two previous major recessions of 1979-80 and 1990-91. There are no agreed answers as to why. Is it the product of an enduring economic shock or changing patterns of labour or simply a lack of demand? In February 2018, the ONS suggested that flat lining productivity since 2008 was due to more and more people working in unproductive industries such as food and drink services rather than more productive ones and static labour mobility

The Bank of England cannot account for this ‘puzzle’. The then Governor comically stated in 2015 ‘’It has been worse than we had expected and worse than we had expected for the last several years. We have been successively disappointed’. In a puzzling October 2018 appointment Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank, was made senior government adviser on improving Britain’s productivity. In 2015 Haldane had famously warned of threats to 15 million jobs through automation and yet was now recruited to investigate enduring productivity problems alongside record job creation!

Then Worked Stopped

Then our lives were threatened, and work stopped.  In the US 20 million jobs were lost in April alone, 8.6 million in leisure and hospitality. In the UK for the same month the ONS calculated an unemployment rise of 856,000 to 2.1 million, the biggest monthly increase since modern records began. On 15 April, the Universal Credit director general briefed that 1.4 million people had signed up for Universal Credit in the preceding four weeks. That same month the number of people on PAYE fell by 457,000. The outlook would have been much bleaker if not for the government’s furlough scheme, the biggest labour market intervention in history. Many companies did not lay off staff immediately because for six months the Treasury picked up the tab for 80% of monthly pay up to a limit of £2,500.  Without the wage subsidies covering 8m jobs, the UK would have faced an unemployment rate approaching 20% in early 2020.

Some sectors were disproportionately affected by the pandemic; the accommodation and food services sector, the arts, entertainment and recreation sector had the largest number of firms decreasing staff working hours. Around 15% of employees were working in a sector that has largely or entirely shut down during the lockdown. The virus was unequal. Some workers were disproportionally impacted. Low paid workers were more likely to work in shut down sectors and less likely to be able to work from home, as were the young. One third of employees in the bottom 10% of earners worked in shut down sectors, and less than 10% of the bottom half of earners could work from home.

The pandemic and the prospect of death forced us to revaluate what we value in our own lives and the lives of others. We applauded health and care workers. We re-evaluated the work of hairdressers, delivery drivers and a range of public servants, social workers, supermarket operatives and an array of tradespeople. We were forced to re-think how we value and reward the contribution of millions of front line workers. Will the economy that emerges after the pandemic honour and respects the dignity of this work?

My forthcoming book, The Dignity of Labour, weaves together these theoretical and practical topics by rethinking work. It re-habilitates certain intellectual and political traditions in the understanding of human labour and the regulation of employment and in so doing criticises a lot of fashionable thinking. The basic argument is a simple one: that the dignity of labour should inform how we order society and contribute to the social democratic renewal of justice.


This is an excerpt from The Dignity of Labour, forthcoming with Polity Books. The author, Jon Cruddas, is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham.

Image credit: Mike from Pexels