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Editorial: Welcome to an age of workplace geopolitics?

White heat, red plenty, green transition

This is the twentieth edition of Futures of Work, marking three years of publishing. As we noted in the very first Futures of Work editorial, the public and political conversation about the future of work tends towards economic rationalism and technological determinism. Because of this, factors like emotional reflexes and power relations are often disregarded. In particular, work futures discourse largely ignores the uncomfortable reality of an increasingly fractious world riven by populism and great-power competition, eliding its impact upon the changing workplace.

The recent UK party-political conference season is a case in point. As both Abigail Gilbert and Ed Atkins note in their contributions to this edition of Futures of Work, leaders of both main parties paint a vision of a productive, high-skill future jobs market driven by the white heat of technology and a green industrial revolution. It seems that the new terrain on which the future of work will be fought over is a protectionist national economy driven by state intervention in strategic industries compelled by competition with systemic rivals.

Prior to COVID-19, it was questionable whether a stagnating economy driven by sweated service-sector labour and the satisfaction of shareholder value could sustain the innovation and productivity associated with investment in ultimately unaffordable, inefficient autonomous technologies. When it hit, the pandemic appeared to destroy more than half a decade of automation hype, revealing a more realistic and pragmatic appraisal of the impact of the crisis on investment in new technology.

Some still saw in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 the potential for a wave of labour substitution sparked by socially-distanced or remote working, rising costs from health and safety precautions and the repatriation of formerly cheap manufacturing jobs, and a longer-term, more strategic orientation on the part of shareholders previously reluctant to sanction risky outlays on new technology.

But, aside from frontier firms like Amazon – documented by Tom Vickers and Dominic Holland in this issue – the empirical realisation of these expectations was ultimately limited to certain contexts like back-office operations in professional services settings, boom sectors like online grocery fulfilment, or the odd innovation in sectors previously largely immune to technological substitution like retail and hospitality.

As Gilbert notes elsewhere in this edition, COVID-19 reinforced the centrality of often undervalued or underrecognised forms of direct human labour to economy and society. Workers and unions assumed a tentative but nonetheless revitalised prominence in the policy landscape around key worker status and the furlough scheme.

In this context the conversation around work has been subtly shifting as the UK steps tentatively out of the worst stages of the pandemic and into the recovery. Under the banner of ‘building back better’, some of the previously fashionable rhetoric around how autonomous technologies would reshape the world of work has been replaced in the past eighteen months.

Rather than determinist fatalism about automation and looming technological unemployment, there have been signs that the post-pandemic public and political conversation around the future of work in UK has begun to place the human front and centre: labour shortages, skills gaps, wage demands, green jobs.

In balancing technological imperatives with a new politics of work, so-called ‘Global Britain’ is starting to look beyond its shores for inspiration. For instance, the East Asian developmental states that influence the current government’s vision of a high-tech innovation economy – deriving from Dominic Cummings’s ill-fated but influential spell in Number 10 – witness among the highest levels of automation worldwide combine with among the lowest levels of unemployment.

Meanwhile, policymakers either side of the aisle take inspiration from the US, where President Biden’s recovery plan promotes well-paid, union-protected jobs in high-skill industries as part of a wider stimulus and infrastructure package posing a robust economic challenge to China.

In particular, and as Atkins details, the transition to green jobs and industries has become a central focus of this policy imaginary, implying improvements in skills and wages and an industrial shift from services to sectors where productivity gains are more achievable. This shift is justified by the UK’s requirement to become more self-sufficient in products and technologies (e.g. production of e-vehicles and batteries, mining of minerals) to avoid net zero representing nothing more than a handout to rival export-led economies.

But there are serious obstacles confronting this agenda and its premature presentation as a fait accompli. Just as the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is mediated by a long-term productivity crisis and lack of productive investment in the service-driven UK economy, the ‘green industrial revolution’ (as Atkins observes elsewhere in this edition) will struggle to afford workers the promised opportunities for new skilled jobs on the back of decades of underinvestment in skills and training.

 

Forces of production, forces of destruction

Despite these limitations, the crisis-driven tenor of the time demands instant action on the basis that impending shifts – whether technological advances or climate catastrophe – leave little room for deliberation about how best to rebuild the British economy from the ground up in order to enable workers to take advantage of the transition. In so doing, they show a tin ear both for the emotional register through which voters process these shifts, and the power relations that shape the broader global context.

Perhaps owing to the difficulty and complexity of regulating contemporary labour markets, overly simplistic prescriptions for the coming future of work sidestep decisions about job creation and job quality in the light of intractable technological shifts or ecological collapse.

These futures of work, whether technological or ecological, are seen as a panacea without sufficient focus on what can be done to make the present reality of work better for those involved in the short-term.

At the same time, it is questionable whether this urgent political temporality is the right setting on which to operate, in spite of the very real and present dangers posed to humankind by the challenges it confronts. As Atkins notes, grand plans for industrial transition spark fear in many communities dependent on those kinds of work most affected.

In particular, it may be politically and strategically unwise for the likes of Starmer to recommend accommodation to the realities of rapid change to voters seeking stability and security. The ‘white heat’ shock of the new may stand to panic potential supporters straight back into the comfort zone of conservative or populist politics. This emotional dimension sometimes seems beyond the comprehension of rationalist appeals to the future.

Rather than the short, sharp shock of the new our present politics projects, the overhaul of the relationship between business, labour and the state needed to effect a transformation will be a long-term slog that would likely require the technocratic insulation of policy from the vagaries of electoral politics.

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One factor that might provide a plausible underpinning principle for such a technocratic approach, but infrequently considered as a foundation for work futures, is geopolitics, and in particular the ‘new cold war’ some see emerging between the West and China.

The shifting terrain of work futures in the wake of the pandemic signposts the significance of great-power rivalry and systemic competition to the contemporary unfolding of technological and industrial change. And, rather than through the rational allocation of resources by capital operating in open markets, in our increasingly post-neoliberal age it is at the level of the state that the futures of work are being determined.

To appreciate how these dynamics might shape the future of work in the context of a so-called ‘new cold war’, it is necessary to abandon a way of framing political economy that blights mainstream and radical approaches alike. Orthodox Marxist and mainstream liberal accounts of technological change and its workplace impact each, in their own way, exhibit a deterministic emphasis on historical progress and economic rationality.

As an alternative to explanations of the future of work based on the ‘forces of production’, Robert Kurz coined the concept of ‘forces of destruction’ to articulate the constitutive relationship between capitalist development, hot and cold wars, and the production of military means and civilian-military dual-use technologies – a dark underbelly mainstream and critical approaches deny.

Hot and cold wars, on this count, shape not only the creation and application of new technologies and the reconfiguration of industry for specific purposes, but also the relationship between the state, business and labour in regulating and coordinating the practice and management of production.

Projections of impending booms in productive investment and splurges on labour-substituting and labour-augmenting technologies tend to be based on a conceptualisation of economic rationality that conceptually seals off the world of work from a wider array of factors. These broader influences do not necessarily operate on the basis of capitalist profitability or what is rational or reasonable, but rather centre on what Francis Fukuyama calls the struggle for ‘pure prestige’ waged between states for power and strategic supremacy.

In this way, the power play of geopolitics may well shape the way otherwise unresolved technological tendencies play out, with unforeseen consequences. Indeed, unfolding directions in the digital and technological transformation of work in the UK and US are already being shaped by a policy and business context characterised by intensifying military and economic competition with China.

 

You take the high road, we’ll take the low

In this context we see the role of the state in shaping the future of work through national industrial policies compelled by geopolitical considerations. Examples here include the recent Industrial Policy Bill passed in Washington and the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published by the UK government.

Both use a national security justification to underpin a new industrial strategy, projecting a high-tech ‘high road’ to productivity and productive investment in skills and technology as a salvo in the emergent systemic competition with China.

Whilst Biden’s legislative agenda has attempted to establish a connection between decent, unionised jobs, infrastructure and innovation spending and national productivity and competitiveness within the context of the systemic rivalry with China, any such link with work is largely absent from the Johnson government’s policy agenda.

This is surprising, as the Integrated Review in some respects replaces the previous government’s abandoned Industrial Strategy, with its guarantees of greater R&D spending and place-based support for strategic industries like defence and aerospace. Moreover, where the broader vision of ‘Global Britain’ is linked to the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, there is an unfilled role for a politics of work rooted in the prevailing narrative of national renewal.

If the political economy of work futures in the US and UK is really going to be shaped by the emergence of a ‘new cold war’, then the government could do worse than look back to the twentieth-century version for a compelling politics of work that conferred some advantages to workers – something that conservative commentators in the US, like Michael Lind, have caught on to much quicker than their UK counterparts.

As Lind details, the institutionalisation of worker power in the cold war played a key part in driving systemic competition through productivity gains, manufacturing capacity and technological innovation. Rivalry with the Soviet Union compelled Western governments to pump stimulus into the economy to maintain competitiveness, creating and sustaining skilled working-class employment as well as higher-level technical and intellectual work.

From the post-war period onwards, unions played a constitutive role in economic growth, mediating between worker demands, business plans and government priorities. Following intensified class conflict, war economies saw the UK and the US broker reasonably durable settlements and compromises around work and welfare between business, labour and the state.

Translating workplace antagonism into a productive force in the economy, sectoral bargaining in strategic sectors harnessed worker organisations as what J. K. Galbraith called a ‘countervailing power’, deriving economic dynamism from contestation and holding capital to account by using labour as a lever for investment and productivity.

This corporatist pact between capital, labour and the state produced what some see as a kind of ‘golden age’ of capitalism, characterised by the fair distribution of gains from a period of impressive productivity and strong economic growth. This is illustrated in the work of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which, as we have charted here previously, owed much of its success to its origins as a rampart against communism where, politically, ideological competition took precedence over issues of economic interdependence.

Where President Biden draws from this history in his promotion of the role of work and workers in his infrastructure and innovation policies, there is little sense that their importance is recognised by the Johnson government in the UK.

Of course, the kind of systemic competition the West witnesses today with China differs in several ways from the industrial and technological rivalry experienced in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Soviet Union was nowhere near as entangled in Western supply chains, production networks and infrastructure provision as China is today, with countries like the UK dependent on its manufacturing capacity and inward investment.

The end of the cold war also unlocked the greater globalisation of the world economy. Coupled with increasingly repressive industrial relations regulations and fissured workplaces, the membership and power of trade unions was vastly weakened, and the possibility of bargaining improvements to wages, skills and productivity undermined.

The UK is now home to a low-skill service economy impervious to productivity gains through the implementation of new technology. Profits are eked out instead on the back of a precarious labour market, which, combined with business models based on satisfying shareholder value, disincentivises investment. Where companies do utilise cutting-edge technology, it is typically to sweat, surveil and subordinate workers, as in the case of Amazon, covered elsewhere in this edition of Futures of Work by Vickers and Holland.

This combination of factors presents a major barrier to the industrial renewal that the UK government proposes in its Integrated Review and Levelling Up agenda. It shows that there will be no ‘high road’ to national competitiveness and productivity without walking a path through the politics of work.

As Gilbert argues in this issue, there is a complex causality between innovation, skills and productivity within which workers play an active and not merely passive part. To realise this relationship, a more fundamental rethink of the UK’s political economy is in order, including the role of workers and trade unions within it.

There are promising signs of a revival of trade unionism in the favourable conditions presented by a tight labour market. Whilst diminished in stature elsewhere, the large industrial unions remain a strong force within leading manufacturers in defence, aerospace and other sectors central to the government’s new strategic approach.

Moreover, as Tony Dobbins pointed out in a previous edition of Futures of Work, there were glimpses of a resumption of old-school tripartite bargaining between government, industry and unions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic around issues like the furlough scheme.

On these foundations, granting workers greater power and voice through a liberalisation of union legislation and a strengthening of collective bargaining could help chart the elusive ‘high road’, compelling investment in productivity, skills and training and replicating some of the limited gains achieved during the cold war period.

 

IR[2]: International relations and industrial relations

Despite having temporarily adopted a more interventionist and coordinated approach to the relationship between the state, industry and labour in the shadow of the pandemic, the current UK government will be unlikely to devolve power to workers and their unions as part of any proposed national effort.

As much as the Conservatives pay lip service to ‘Levelling Up’ and promise skilled jobs in high-value manufacturing for the Red Wall constituencies they now represent, the deep-running Tory aversion to organised labour remains.

The Labour opposition, meanwhile, are showing growing signs that they understand the integration of the international and domestic that the government’s Integrated Review incompletely articulates in place of a genuine industrial strategy.

In recent speeches, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy has argued that the current government agenda does not capture concretely enough the connection between foreign policy and the lives of ‘people in Darlington and Selcoats’, even though ‘our relationship to China’ is ‘central to the factory operative earning £8.72 in Stockton’.

This month’s COP26 conference, Nandy has argued, acts as a chance for the government to more adequately connect the geopolitical aspirations captured in the ‘Global Britain’ agenda with the realities of working life in ‘local Britain’ around the Levelling Up agenda, putting in place a road map for industrial renewal that reflects the UK’s changing place in the relationships of world power.

Nandy positions trade unions as a key means to ‘defend working people the world over from this race to the bottom’. This emergent agenda is as good a place as any to begin mapping out a new age of workplace geopolitics, wherein industrial relations and international relations are once again as inseparable as they were in the mid-twentieth century.

Rubbing against the grain of technocratic visions of ‘white heat’ and ‘green transition’, it also provides an alternative way of talking about the future of work that promises workers agency and control over change rather than plaintively asking for their adjustment to it. Indeed, as Atkins’s piece in this edition of Futures of Work demonstrates, unions can play a vital role in ensuring a just transition to greener jobs.

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Reading the future of work through the prism of geopolitics exposes the constitution of industrial strategy in great power rivalry. It also reveals the hidden assumption underpinning ‘red plenty’ visions of a coordinated high-tech productive economy with workers in the driving seat.

The utopian futures such visions project all too often imply a kind of nostalgia for the very specific set of conditions produced by the cold war, which have until now seemed remote.

For instance, the ‘entrepreneurial state’-driven ‘mission’ or ‘moonshot’ economy promoted by the likes of Mariana Mazzucato cites the moon landings as its model, but omits the context of a dangerous cold war waged between nuclear powers.

For better or for worse, these preconditions are reassembling themselves today. On this basis, power-bloc competition could well help further propel innovation in such a way as to replicate the cold war interplay of the forces and relations of not only production, but those of destruction aswell.

It is doubtful that partisans of popular work futures would consider decades of systemic rivalry waged between heavily-armed military and economic blocs a price worth paying for some productivity gains and shiny new machinery.

But, in their creeping cold war realism, transatlantic government agendas capture, if only incompletely, how the geopolitical picture has become the key motivating principle for industrial strategy and thus the unfolding future of work.

The current geopolitical picture centres on how rival powers position themselves to influence the course of world events. An unanswered question, however, is how well workers are positioned to take advantage of this context to exert their own power in the workplace. There are opportunities to do so, in and against a closing world.

Image credit: Creative Lab