Work Isn’t Going Away, But It Could Suck Less
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been considering long-term changes to our societies that haven’t always produced the best outcomes for the general public, and how we might change them in the future. This week’s issue spends a bit more time looking forward.
Early on in the newsletter, when setting out some of the principles that guide my view on these issues, I criticized the technological determinist perspective on social and economic change. Whether used by billionaires or leftists, it makes new technologies the primary actor of change, and our future is then positioned as a fight over who those technologies serve.
But in a new book entitled Automation and the Future of Work, Aaron Benanav dissects and disproves the idea that automation is eradicating work. Benanav explains that the “automation theorists” believe recent changes in the labour market are the result of jobs being lost to technology, but his research finds that’s not the case. Worsening job prospects are actually the result of overcapacity, low growth rates and the shift from manufacturing to services — and that implies a very different path forward.
Rather than having a society beyond scarcity dropped into our laps by the natural advances of technology, Benanav argues we need to reverse our thinking and begin by imagining “a world of generalized human dignity, and then consider the technical changes needed to realize that world.” Such a perspective gives us back the agency to determine our own future, and puts technology at the service of that vision.
Benanav believes our path forward requires “the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation.” Rather than seeking to abolish work, he writes, “The reorganization of social life to reduce the role of necessary labor is not, therefore, about overcoming work as such; it is about freeing people to pursue activities that cannot be described simply as either work or leisure.”
In short, it’s about creating a system of production where, as much as possible, we can pursue the activities we enjoy, while occasionally having to contribute to the necessary labour that needs to be done to keep society functioning. It’s an entirely different way of organizing production than under a capitalist system, but it could produce a much better quality of life.
Such a future makes me think about Ursula K. Le Guin’s science-fiction novel The Dispossessed. She describes an anarchist society that lives on a barren moon called Anarres, which broke off from the capitalist world they orbit many years before. It’s considered an “ambiguous utopia,” and while the extreme scarcity that comes with living in such an environment is unlikely to reflect our experience on Earth, I think there are still things to be learned from its social and economic systems.
The people of Anarres consider the world they escaped to be a “propertarian” society, obsessed with possessions and status that aren’t so important to them. Things are very simple, utilitarian even, in their world, in part because of the privation of living on such an inhospitable moon, but also because the communal experience is prized above personal wealth.
Le Guin describes how Anarresti society is highly decentralized and the economy is coordinated by a network called Production and Distribution Coordination, which links the syndicates, federations and individuals. People go to the Division of Labor office to request a work assignment they desire, or they can simply ask to be placed where labourers are most needed. In a crisis, like if not enough food is being produced, they can also request non-essential work be put on hold for the good of the collective.
When Shevek, the main character of the book, visits the capitalist world, he’s asked who does the dirty work on Anarres. His host explains that in their world, those workers usually get paid less than everyone else, and they’re happy to just have a job. This confuses Shevek.
On Anarres, he explains, everyone does the dirty work, “but no one has to do them for very long, unless he likes the work.” Every 10 days, the local committee will ask who is willing to join in on such work and make rotating lists to ensure it gets done. Longer postings doing disagreeable or dangerous work postings like mining generally only last for half a year.
Shevek’s host doesn’t understand why anyone would agree to do this without financial motivation, but Shevek explains their society has different incentives. The work is social and provides a break from people’s usual labour. In place of money, the motivations are “one’s own pleasure, and the respect of one’s fellows. That is all. When that is so, then you see the opinion of the neighbors becomes a very mighty force.”
I would argue the concept of social capital that Shevek describes is one that also used to be more common before our societies became so commercialized. When fewer of our interactions were facilitated by a transaction, this kind of cooperation and contributing to one’s community also carried a greater importance.
This also aligns with the future Benanav imagines. “Instead of seeking to end our obligations to one another,” he writes, “the point would be to recognize and transform those obligations.” He thinks the necessary labour to keep society functioning might take three to five hours a day, “about one-third to one-half of a standard workweek—although this work could be concentrated in certain portions of each week or in specific years of life.”
Benanav recognizes that “technologies developed in capitalist societies are not neutral: they are designed to embody capitalist control, not to free humanity from drudgery.” Thus, we need to imagine the better future we want, then develop the technologies we need to make it a reality.
Such a society would have a very different relationship to work, since it wouldn’t be governed by the need to earn a wage. Everyone would be provided with what they need, and we would collectively contribute to the labour needed to make that possible, using technology to reduce that responsibility and maximize our time for socializing, leisure and enjoying our lives.
Personally, that sounds like a much more attractive and realizable future than one filled with technologies pulled from science fiction that may not be feasible for a 100 years or more, if ever. We don’t need to wait for robots to do all the work; we can collectively decide what we need, then plan the economy to achieve it.
Perspectives from around the world
Cory Doctorow, activist and science fiction author, explains how fictional narratives influence how we see the world, and how he’s trying to write better ones.
Will Dubitsky, who formerly worked on environmental policy for the Government of Canada, explains why Canada’s plastics strategy doesn’t measure up.
Adrienne Buller, a senior research fellow at Common Wealth, explains how the finance industry is financializing nature.
Colectiva Sembrar, an international collective, discuss the mutual aid projects that have arisen around the world in response to the pandemic.
Ben Peterson, a national retailer organizer based in Wellington, New Zealand, argues Jacinda Ardern’s majority Labour government provides an opportunity for an organized left to win radical change.
On Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Blockchain Chicken Farm author Xiaowei Wang about how technology is connecting rural China to global ecommerce supply chains and what that tells us about global trends around technology and consumption. For Canadian Dimension, I also wrote about how Joe Biden’s climate plan is characteristic of the new denialism.