This is a text contributed to an interdisciplinary workshop on work and its governance I have been involved in organizing, and at which I will present, taking place at the University of Bristol tomorrow. It is in response to themes raised by this provocation paper, of which I was one of the authors.
Today, the assumption of a single, unfolding horizon of a postcapitalist society of automated abundance is the anchor point around which reenergized radicals envision a left path to power. But in reality the intellectual dominance wielded by of a certain vision of the future is blocking any attempt to develop a coherent centre-left programme for government in the likely event of other, less utopian, futures. How do we get past the current preoccupation with a singular future of work focused on technology and production, to plural futures of work focused on politics and organization? The sense an incipient or imminent ‘future of work’ awaits us seems to be widely felt once a decade or so. This plays out in both the popular and the academic imagination. The sci-fi vistas of the post-war economic boom, the reshaping of Fordist labour by technological advances in the eighties, the Dot.Com bubble of the late nineties and early noughties, the affordances of AI and renewed appeals to automation today. Intellectual and political fashion has followed or informed public debate in each case. Where the good ship ‘future of work’ last set sail at the cusp of the millennium, it is all set to embark on another such venture now. Forever going ‘back to the future’, each return stakes a claim to a singular ‘future’ of work. But the repetition of such claims, each stressing certain specificities, already suggests a plurality of futures available at different points of time and space. How do we institutionalise these plural futures against the grain of a world seemingly going only one way?
Successive iterations of the future of work posit a set of empirical tendencies leading inexorably into a fundamental shift in the relationship of humans to employment. Whereas the wired hype for the New Economy of the nineties promised a world of better work latched onto in the UK by New Labour, the configuration of technological forces today promises a world of no work latched onto by intellectuals around Labour’s current leadership. The latest iteration suggests that robots and automation, teamed with the provision of a basic income, will produce a revolutionary reduction in working hours to zero, or close. But the turnover of such futures is suggestive of the success with which these tendencies unfold. The world of better work celebrated in eulogies to the New Economy never came, and it is likely the world of automated worklessness present-day paragons proffer will meet the same fate. By emphasizing novelty and change, the continuities and persistent contradictions of capitalism are conveniently elided. For instance, today for all the talk of automation, we live in an age of unprecedentedly low innovation and investment in productivity-raising measures. With workers deprived of the means to upturn a low-wage economy, and shareholders insistent on dividends, employers have little incentive to place their employees in competition or collaboration with machines.
Indeed, the persuasiveness of the idea of a single, unfolding ‘future’ of work seems as sociological as it is empirical. There is work to be done ascertaining the wider sociological factors that support the sporadic upsurge of the sense we are on the cusp of the future. It may be that conceptualisations of a future lying close at hand constitute coping strategies, outsourcing change to inexorable technological tendencies without the compulsion to act. Conspiracy theories, for instance, are historically associated with upheaval and uncertainty. Freemasonry, the Knights Templar and an imaginary international Jewish banking conspiracy have all had lumped on them unfortunately resilient- and, in the last case, specifically racist- folk attempts to falsely theorise changes in political and economic life, be they liberal reform movements or financialised streams of investment and accumulation. At other times, sudden spikes in sightings of UFOs track political unravellings in the real world. Perhaps the similarly science-fiction feeling that the “Future of Work” is finally here performs the same function. To deal with uncertainty, science-fiction theories of conspiracy and imminent futures alike outsource visions of how and why things change to mysterious forces outside the capacity of individuals and states to act upon them- a convenient alibi for political paralysis. Specifically, we see today a forlorn clinging to the notion that we live in a golden age, when all around the world and its order is crumbling.
There is also more work to be done understanding precisely who comprises the constituency in which these ideas are taken up. Conspiracy theories, for instance, find their constituency in the same precarious or downwardly-mobile classes whose fearfulness fascism feeds from. For sure we can say that the future of work, in thought and practice, is experienced and felt more tangibly by different groups. It empowers some with its promise of a new hegemony based in real historical shifts. Its uptake appears to be most among those with least to lose or adapt to in the transition to the post-work world the current iteration of that future offers. Academics, journalists, writers and creatives would all more or less keep on keeping on whether work was automated out of existence or not. Intellectually, measures like a basic income and ‘full automation’ rally support from an unlikely coalition of interests spanning radical leftists, centrist think-tankers, enlightened free marketeers, neo-fascist accelerationists and Silicon Valley gurus in pursuit of a technological singularity between humans and machines. Via Corbynism’s blank canvass, the first group, specifically, has mainlined into the contested intellectual terrain of the contemporary Labour Party a radical vision of the future derived from various discarded or questionable elements of the Marxist inheritance. Here, the forces of production propel the relations of production into new shapes and forms, so that technological advances teleologically catalyse a new kind of society. But this is at the expense of considering how continuingly relevant social relations constrain the technological forces on which utopian hopes hinge.
With these ideas gaining the ear of Shadow Treasury team, and Labour the possible next governing party of the UK, the stakes are high for debates about the future or futures of work that realistically lie in wait. The tangible sense that we are within or at the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution propelled by new technology leads to a politics that seeks to follow and respond to these tendencies rather than shape them into multiple and open futures. The danger of building a politics around the apparently incipient and imminent unfolding of a singular future of work is that the latter as commonly imagined may well not happen. Indeed, many of the policy prescriptions offered to mitigate the negative impacts of automation both presuppose the latter and militate against it. The basic income may have a stifling effect on labour struggles by replacing the waged relationship of the buyers and sellers of labour with a direct monetary relationship between individuals and the state with no recourse to collective bargaining. And without organization for better wages, there is less incentive upon employers for the implementation of the automation proposed to free us from labour to begin with. Moreover, the example of Speenhamland in the eighteenth and nineteenth century suggests that the introduction of a basic income might well embalm in aspic relations as they are, just as the system of parish relief locked handloom weavers in a prolonged and debilitating competitive struggle with the powerloom rather than freed them from it definitively. Down this road, rather than potentiate an escape from drudgery, automation may merely create the worst drudgery of all, humans alternately either replaced or reduced to mere appendages of machines.
What is dangerous about this reactive politics is that it presupposes something that might not unfold whilst simultaneously disempowering people of the agency to shape and resist it through organization, regulation and governance. In this way, it exerts the same disabling consequence as conspiracy theory. On all sides of the political spectrum, the tenor of politics today centres on a search to ‘take back control’. The object of this control, whether a world of automated luxury or national sovereignty, is nearly always abstractly beyond reach and thus seldom attainable. In a world of capitalist social relations- and perhaps any world- humans create abstract structures that take on a life of their own and control them from without. But these structures begin from our concrete struggles and our agency nonetheless, and we can select between better and worse options so long as this radically pessimistic limit point is accepted. The search for control, sold on false futures, is potentially uncontainable and combustible where no control can be found, as in the search for impossible sovereignty or an impossible automated luxury. Current visions for the future of work, in fact, threaten an even more distant and alienated relationship with the material world of things and human purposes, a world where we are even more ‘out of control’ than ever before. It is better, therefore, to build a politics of labour out of a radically pessimistic reckoning with what exists already. Rather than forcing things as they are within the framework of an abstract utopia, what is instead needed is to work from and amplify what already concretely proceeds in practice, on the ground- in short, to work from how things are rather than how we’d like them to be.
Working from and amplifying the real alternatives already in motion opens up the space to consider multiple futures rather than a single teleological horizon. It allows us to imagine and regulate into existence not one future but many. And much of what is already happening at the grassroots provides a basis for a more effective and foolhardy search for control than contemporary politics of radical right and left can offer. Cooperatives, alternative organisations, mutuals, new forms of trade union, new ways of reconstituting communities around work and practice like co-working or makerspaces: these experiments in the small and the hyper-local are often dismissed as a kind of ‘folk politics’ by the prophets of accelerationism. But they reckon with the question of control in a way that works within and against the way things are already, keeping within the continuities of capitalism and its traditional modes of resistance and organization whilst opening up the possibility to create islands of excess within it that project forwards multiple futures rather than one. It should be the aim of any politics of labour to regulate, organize and govern in order to expand, proliferate and, crucially, institutionalise these spaces. Therein, people are not waiting on a world that has been willed into being many times before but may not come. They are acting in advance of it. The imperative upon politicians, activists, academics, policymakers and others is to understand what they do and what needs to happen to support, reproduce and replicate their struggles and social innovations, rather than waiting for a future to unfold that, like other such futures before it, may never come.