Workless, or working less?

by John Quiggin on February 1, 2017

That’s the title of my review of Tim Dunlop’s excellent new book, Why the Future Is Workless, published at Inside Story. It’s over the fold.

Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency has brought to the fore issues that have been simmering for some time. Despite his manifest unfitness, nearly half of American voters supported a candidate who promised to “make America great again,” most obviously by bringing back good jobs. As Trump’s dystopian inauguration speech made clear, good jobs are part of a past to which many Americans aspire.

These hopes raise the obvious question: will jobs of any kind survive in the future? This is the issue addressed by Tim Dunlop in Why the Future Is Workless.

The future (or lack of a future) of work is well-trodden ground. Dunlop surveys the wide variety of views to emerge in recent years and also, more importantly, challenges assumptions about work, labour and jobs that are taken for granted most of the time. As he points out, “jobs” as we understand them didn’t exist in significant numbers before the middle of the nineteenth century. When American politicians were drawing up the US constitution in the late eighteenth century, he writes, they “envisioned a nation of independent yeoman farmers and other forms of self-employed workers, not one of wage slaves who worked for someone else.”

Good jobs – secure and well-paid enough to support a family in reasonable comfort ­– only became a standard expectation in the middle of the twentieth century, and it is these jobs, rather than the facts of work and labour, that are now disappearing.

Dunlop draws heavily on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “work” and “labour,” which she saw as crucial to understanding the thinking of the ancient Greeks. For them, according to Arendt, labour consisted of the repetitive drudgery necessary to maintain life, and was therefore fit only for women or slaves, while “work” was undertaken only by free (male) citizens, in the public sphere, and involved the creation of a shared world in which achievements are durable and socially meaningful.

This distinction between “work” and “labour” has been erased in modern society. All work is judged by whether it produces outputs of marketable value (whatever their usefulness or lack of it), making it “labour” according to Arendt’s distinction. Under such conditions, jobs are essential to our wellbeing and self-respect. The unceasing claims of politicians of all stripes to be the bringers of “jobs, jobs, jobs” responds to, and reinforces, this understanding of ourselves.

Yet it is increasingly unclear whether our economy can continue to generate jobs, or at least enough jobs paying wages sufficient to maintain our current pattern of social organisation. The past few decades have been bad for workers, particularly in the leading industrial economy, the United States. Wages have stagnated and the ratio of employment to population has fallen, particularly for men but more recently for women, too.

More generally, the whole social structure built around the idea of a “job” or “career” has been eroding for decades and is now approaching collapse. While perceptions of short-term job security fluctuate with the business cycle, the idea that anyone can reliably plan a course through his or her working life has essentially disappeared. Any job, anywhere, can disappear because of changes in trade patterns, or budget cuts, or simply because cutting it will boost next quarter’s profits.

In these circumstances, the claim implicit in Dunlop’s title has a lot of intuitive appeal. The interesting question is: what can and should be done about this? But before we get there, we need an explanation of why things seem to be turning out this way.

Much of the time, the discussion about the future of work is posed as a debate between two competing stories. In the first, the blame is placed on globalisation, usually interpreted narrowly to mean reductions in barriers to trade in goods. This free-market globalisation is blamed for the loss of “good” jobs, commonly understood as those in the manufacturing sector.

The alternative story can be summed up in a single word, “robots.” The associated claim, put in the strongest form by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their recent book, The Second Machine Age, is that advances in information technology have rendered more and more jobs susceptible to automation. The obvious cases include manufacturing and routine clerical jobs, but the claim is that jobs of all kinds will soon be vulnerable. The failure of much-touted “expert systems” in the 1990s casts some doubt on strong versions of this claim, but there is no denying the amazing progress of artificial intelligence, manifested in such wonders as self-driving cars.

Dunlop rejects the dichotomy between globalisation and robots. He begins with a broader view, in which free-market globalisation – known to Australians as “economic rationalism” but more commonly called “neoliberalism” – is merely part of the dominant ideological framework of the past thirty years. The most obvious features of neoliberalism have been policy shifts such as privatisation and the explosive growth of the financial sector produced by “deregulation” (a misnomer, since the financial sector, more than any other, relies on government for its very existence).

Equally important, but more subtle, has been the relentless focus on work and the production of marketable goods and services as the measure of all things. Dunlop quotes some particularly egregious statements from Julia Gillard, whose exhortation to workers to “set the alarm clock early” contrasted sharply with more than a century of union struggle against excessive working hours. But Gillard was merely echoing the assumptions that saturate the entire political class and have seeped into the thinking of just about everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The idea that one could live a good life without a central role for paid work has become just about unthinkable.

Yet, at least since the global financial crisis, the neoliberal economy has been in a state of crisis. It is still delivering huge benefits to the very rich, but it is failing everyone else. And this is why technological progress, which has mostly benefited society, is having such disruptive and negative effects today.

What, if anything, can be done about this? Or will the market economy take care of it? The latter is certainly the view of proponents of the “sharing economy,” such as the young American philosopher Cory Massimino, who welcomes a new, liberated economy that is slowly but surely transcending government shackles.

Dunlop is appropriately scathing about this idea. Drawing on the work of Harvard scholar Yochai Benkler, he explains how the free ride-sharing and house-minding practices that emerged in the early days of the internet have been thoroughly commercialised – under the label of the “sharing economy” – by the likes of Uber and Airbnb.

We don’t need a new term here. The practice of sharing our vehicles and houses for money has been around since the dawn of civilisation. It’s called renting, hiring or leasing. The only difference today is that the internet enables Uber and Airbnb to get around licensing requirements and other restrictions faced by traditional taxi companies and hoteliers. That has both good and bad effects. Mostly, though, it’s part of the general reshaping of the regulatory state to serve corporate interests at the core of neoliberalism.

This is most obvious in apps like TaskRabbit and Mechanical Turk, which enable people to bid competitively for small jobs. Again, apart from the use of the internet, the markets here are no different from practices in the past – the way workers were hired on the waterfront in the 1930s or, for that matter, are still hired on the street corners of American cities where casual (often undocumented) workers wait to see if they will be picked out for labouring and construction jobs. And once the legal obstacles can be negotiated, that kind of hiring will presumably go online as well.

As Dunlop says, a better description of these developments is the “on-demand economy,” a term that encapsulates the “flexibility” Australia’s economic reformers have been pushing for decades. “Flexibility” sounds very nice, but workers figured out long ago that flexibility is, most of the time, a zero-sum good. The more flexibility employers have in calling workers in and sending them home, the less flexibility those workers have in managing their own lives.

If the on-demand version of the workless future is dystopian, what is the alternative? Dunlop puts forward two linked ideas: reductions in working hours and a universal basic income. Both imply that the benefits of technological progress would be taken increasingly in the form of greater leisure and less through increased (and more unequal) consumption of goods and services.

Although a reduction in working hours seems radical, in Australia, as in most developed economies, it would represent nothing more than a return to the historical norm. For more than a century, beginning with the achievement of the eight-hour day (or forty-eight hours a week over six days) by Victorian stonemasons in 1856, workers have struggled to claim more leisure, and that claim has consistently been resisted by employers.

For much of the time since then, the workers had the best of it. The standard working week of forty-eight hours, universal in Australia by the early twentieth century, was reduced to forty-four, to forty, and finally, in 1983, to thirty-eight hours. Along with sick leave and long-service leave, annual leave became a standard condition, and by 1973 had been expanded to four weeks a year. Maternity leave for public servants was introduced at the same time, and had been extended on an unpaid basis to the entire workforce by 1979.

Since the rise of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, the movement has gone entirely in the other direction. Standard working hours have remained unchanged in most respects, but the majority of full-time workers have ended up working additional (often unpaid) hours. The trend towards earlier retirement, which persisted into the 1990s, has been reversed, to the extent that workers in their forties today can expect that they will be seventy or older before they become eligible for the pension.

Critics of the case for increased leisure claim that long working hours reflect the insatiability of human demands for goods and services. But the history described above tells a different story. Even more than paying higher wages, employers resent and resist paying the same wage for fewer hours of work. As long as unions were powerful, employers had no choice but to do so. But ever since they regained the upper hand in the 1980s, employers have pushed relentlessly for longer hours and harder work.

The second and more radical part of Dunlop’s proposal is a universal basic income, or UBI. The general idea is to provide an unconditional income, sufficient to live on, to everyone, regardless of employment status. By removing the necessity to work, a UBI would pull society in the direction of both greater leisure and more enjoyable and satisfying work.

Proposals for a UBI raise quite a few technical problems, particularly in the purist form proposed by Dunlop, according to which the minimum income is paid even to those whose income is already high. Although there are ways to resolve these problems, Dunlop tends to understate their significance by implying that a UBI could be achieved in the short term and with relatively modest adjustments to taxing and spending.

The fiscal obstacles to the implementation of a UBI are, in fact, substantial. The scheme would require substantial increases in the effective marginal tax rate faced by middle- and high-income earners, whether this was achieved through the income tax schedule or through means testing. The political obstacles are even more substantial. The whole thrust of policy for decades has been to increase the intensity of work testing for benefits of all kinds. And, unlike much of the neoliberal agenda, measures like “work for the dole” have plenty of public support, despite the largely spurious nature of the work that these can involve.

But the difficulty of the proposal is precisely the point. A UBI represents both a long-term challenge to the entire organisation of work and labour and, in the short term, a rallying point for a rejection of one of the central themes of neoliberalism, the critical importance of (paid) work. As the collapse of the neoliberal order accelerates under pressure from the political right, this mixture of utopian vision and immediate resistance is exactly what the left needs to offer.

Technological change has been rendering old skills obsolete ever since the invention of the spinning jenny in the eighteenth century, and will doubtless continue to do so. The real problems we face today are not technological but social and economic. Like it or not, a radical reorganisation of work is under way. The question is whether we can shape it to benefit the world as a whole, or whether it will continue to enrich the few at the expense of the many. As Dunlop concludes, “We have been told that when it comes to work, there is no alternative. What these new technologies suggest is that maybe there is.” •



Brett 02.01.17 at 6:48 am

I see a basic income – either in direct monetary support or “goods and services in kind” – as the ultimate end goal, even if the path to it is more convoluted (I’m personally skeptical that we’re anywhere near the point where automation is going to lead to chronic issues with joblessness).

If the political support and technology isn’t there yet to support a true basic income, then a Job Guarantee policy would be a transitional policy. If technology really does create mass joblessness, then more and more workers would be absorbed by the Guarantee system, which in turn is more directly under the government’s control and more amenable for experimentation (such as with shorter hours, etc).

For more than a century, beginning with the achievement of the eight-hour day (or forty-eight hours a week over six days) by Victorian stonemasons in 1856, workers have struggled to claim more leisure, and that claim has consistently been resisted by employers.

Mostly. Although Salon had an interesting essay that pointed out that while the main pressure for lower hours was coming from unions, workers, and progressives, there was an employer-side push of it in the early 20th century:

Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over — across many business sectors in many countries — business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable.

By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.

Modern employers seem to have forgotten this.


Matt 02.01.17 at 7:13 am

And, unlike much of the neoliberal agenda, measures like “work for the dole” have plenty of public support, despite the largely spurious nature of the work that these can involve.

If the public generally believes that people should not consume without working for their income*, having the government employ people directly when labor demand from businesses is insufficient sounds ok. Particularly since unlike a profit-driven business the government can employ people to generate positive externalities or remediate past messes caused in pursuit of profit. A modernized riff on the Works Progress Administration sounds… not bad at all? I assume there’s a way that “work for the dole” has managed to studiously avoid useful infrastructural or environmental ends, given the way it is described here.

*With notably rare exceptions for royalties, rents, windfalls, and inheritance. Not-working for a million a year because your parents were Rockefellers is natural and fine; it’s not-working for ten thousand a year with no name that anyone heard of that is inexcusable.


ComradeSabotabby 02.01.17 at 8:34 am

Time and again we find that a certain old codger was more clever than most give him credit for.


Lee A. Arnold 02.01.17 at 11:17 am

First, let’s get a word for it. We might say that we are moving from “the economy” to “the satiety”.

Pronounced with a long “i”, as in “society”. First usage in this context I can find:

“an increasing number of commodities might reasonably be expected, from the standpoint of the individual household, to pass out of the class of economic goods and be available practically up to the satiety point. This could be brought about either by arrangements between public agencies and producing concerns or by nationalization or municipalization…” (Schumpeter, 1942)

Next, note that some few things cannot pass out of the class of economic goods by satiation. A big concern for households is real estate, and particularly, desirable real estate (at the beach, on a mountain, in city center, etc.) This persistence of even one major economic good, amidst all the satiated goods, confuses the concept of the circulation of money in the satiety. So this has to be sorted out.

It’s easy for most people to understand that the jobs are disappearing around the globe. Their next observation is often, “Then we should get the automated factories back from overseas, so those businesses can pay taxes HERE.”

Part of the question of taxes can be alleviated by a public corporation that provides the satiated goods (formerly economic goods), perhaps in a separate money cycle (via the UBI and public employment).

Then the next question is how to control the crooks at the head of the public corporation (i.e., bad politicians). The answer here is Ostrom’s Rules: tiny bureaucracy, transparency, low overhead, simple regulations, etc.

One thing that may help to change attitudes about private jobs is continued localization of practical expertise via the internet, and the likely demassification right down to household AI for all, with desktop printers that can provide many kinds of goods. Sort of the Star Trek “replicator” thing (although I would still never step into a Star Trek “transporter”).

People often combine two moral issues, 1. social trust and 2. the personal need to be defined by work. These are combined because the distrust of people who don’t work for a living predates the market economy. But I think the future might resolve them separately.

Social trust: People need to believe that everybody else believes the same thing about how the basic system is to function. Agreement comes only by simplicity and comprehensiveness, at the same time. (When it works, social trust becomes the concept of “social capital”.)

Note that what most people believe now, i.e. that the market system is the best system, is both simple and comprehensive. (And they now also believe it is being violated, which is the cause of the massive distrust.)

But note that the basic belief in the market system is NOT a natural belief. There has been a conscious, concerted effort since the 1970’s to inculcate market ideology into the voting public, via funding for think-tanks that send op-eds to newspapers, etc. Regular people aren’t born automatically believing this stuff (as history shows), it was an indoctrination. It could be demoted again, in even less time.

It is also necessary to demonstrate to environmentalists that we can have a high-tech, high-energy satiety without destroying more wilderness or destroying the biosphere. So this is a two-front war — because on the other front, a lot of big business would rather develop and pollute.

Self-definition by work: This problem is not so difficult, because there are many kinds of satisfying personal effort that shade over into competition (games & sports) creativity (arts & science) joy (play) & love (helping). The big switch is to realize it needn’t be monetized, to prove your worth. (Quite the reverse, the market economy degrades effort and even destroys human value in each category, as nearly everyone has observed.)

So I think, this big change could be easy!!

“The most fundamental human need concerns what to believe… We are, the pragmatist would point out, searching for new belief — those things upon which, once we have them, we are quite prepared to act. That is all there is.”

— Daniel W. Bromley, Sufficient Reason: Volitional Pragmatism and the Meaning of Economic Institutions (2006), pp. 1, 224.


Lee A. Arnold 02.01.17 at 11:18 am

Another old codger:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue — that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.

I look forward, therefore, in days not so very remote, to the greatest change which has ever occurred in the material environment of life for human beings in the aggregate. But, of course, it will all happen gradually, not as a catastrophe. Indeed, it has already begun. The course of affairs will simply be that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed. The critical difference will be realised when this condition has become so general that the nature of one’s duty to one’s neighbour is changed.”

Keynes, 1930.


nastywoman 02.01.17 at 12:34 pm

– as all of the ‘working’ or ‘workless’ concepts have been tried out – the one way or the other at one place or the other in the last 50 years – there is one major lesson the current frustration of ‘workers’ in the so called ‘advanced economies’ makes painfully obvious.

For most humans their subjective impression of doing some ‘productive’ work – and at the same time finding a ‘work-life balance’ – which also gives them enough leisure time – is ‘their most important thing’.

And such a (banal?) conclusion makes a ‘workless’ live impossible – as such a ‘workless’ life might lead to ‘the millions of frustrated white men playing video games or being depressed and on pain killers’ a Stanford University Study has identified.

Or in other words: ‘Dudes seem to need a (working) purpose -(and women too)’.
And so – there are already concepts where pretty well working ‘life work-balances’ have been established and amazingly it is often in manufacturing ‘really good’ products – and having enough leisure and ‘family time’ on top of it.
And like with the best working Health Care Systems – all what has to be done is to adapt the best existing working concepts – where they don’t exist yet.


Sumana Harihareswara 02.01.17 at 1:39 pm

Dunlop draws heavily on philosopher Hannah Arendt’s distinction between “work” and “labour,” which she saw as crucial to understanding the thinking of the ancient Greeks. For them, according to Arendt, labour consisted of the repetitive drudgery necessary to maintain life, and was therefore fit only for women or slaves, while “work” was undertaken only by free (male) citizens, in the public sphere, and involved the creation of a shared world in which achievements are durable and socially meaningful.

I had not known before now about Arendt making this distinction — thank you for bringing it to my attention! For years I’ve been informally thinking about chores versus tasks, and this helps me put it in crisper perspective.

And by the way, in case anyone here doesn’t already know: frequent Crooked Timber commenter and sometimes guest poster Tom Slee wrote a great book related to this topic: What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, published last year.


Z 02.01.17 at 2:09 pm

Interestingly, this very analysis and the related advocacy of a UBI has been the basis of the successful primary candidacy of the otherwise not very prominent left candidate to this year French presidential election. It met considerable opposition from other primary candidates within the left and now meets even more opposition from other candidates (and considering the extreme volatility of the presidential campaign this year, the idea will probably die quickly) but it was interesting nevertheless to see how quickly it emerged and how successful it proved among left-leaning workers.


MisterMr 02.01.17 at 2:21 pm

My two cents:

It’s not that “jobs are disappearing” (as is noted people who enter the job market now will likely go in retirement much later).
What happens is that worker’s bargaining power is disappearing, hence wages become smaller in relation to productivity and less secure; employers can ask for longer hours from workers who really want more money but contemporaneously many people who would want a full time job are forced to accept a part time job (this is both a cause and a consequence of worker’s lower bargaining power).

– shorter maximum working hours: good, it increases worker’s bargaining power.
– limits on “employment on demand”: again good, it increases worker’s bargaining power.
– UBI: good in that it is a better form of unemployment insurance, thus again it increases worker’s bargaining power, but I think it is an error to think that the UBI is a brand new concept: since the difference between the UBI and UBI + normal wage will always be quite big, it’s just a form of unemployment insurance.


Erik Stenius 02.01.17 at 3:06 pm

The trend towards earlier retirement, which persisted into the 1990s, has been reversed, to the extent that workers in their forties today can expect that they will be seventy or older before they become eligible for the pension.

To be fair, this is largely a consequence of something quite positive: ever-increasing life expectancy, which (outside the much publicised special case of the United States) has been a reality everywhere in the affluent West for generations now, neoliberalism or no neoliberalism, and financial crisis or no financial crisis. And the increasing life expectancy is of course itself a tribute to the success and resilience of the good old welfare state, despite all the attacks it has had to withstand.

If the retirement age is (say) 65 while average life expectancy improves from (say) 75 to 85, then either contributions into pension funds or the rate of yield on the investments of the pension funds needs to double, for obvious mathematical reasons that have nothing to do with political ideology or economics. And if offered a hypothetical trade-off between earlier retirement and a longer lifespan, very few would plump for the former.


rootlesscosmo 02.01.17 at 4:19 pm

I’m glad to see an explicit comparison of the “gig economy” with the old waterfront “shape-up” system. The most effective way that waterfront workers dealt with the effects of that system–workers underbidding each other for job tickets, walking bosses taking bribes (dramatized in an early scene of “On the Waterfront”)–was to force (by striking) the creation of a union-run hiring hall. Is there a way to create anything similar in the gig economy? Can Uber drivers and Taskrabbit workers (etc.) establish a stable organization with the resources and capacity to operate a hiring hall, and force employers to use it rather than bypass it?


William Timberman 02.01.17 at 5:20 pm

rootlesscosmo @ 11

Fond memories. I sat in an ILWU hiring hall in San Francisco for a week in 1966. Despite the Vietnam War, there wasn’t much work, and the A and B listers got what work there was — none of it trickled down to us wanna-bes, at least not while I was one of them. I suspect that most of the action was over in Oakland and the East Bay.

Anyway, being a bit desperate, I left and went to work for Manpower, inc., at shit wages. (I found out later, by looking at some office accounting documents in one of the places I worked, that Manpower charged the company twice what I was being paid for my services.)

Nevertheless, I treasure the memory of that week, because during most of it I sat in the back of the hall with a few old-timers, who regaled me with tales of fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against the fascists in Spain in 1936-37. When I hear white working class these days, I don’t think of Reagan Democrats, or racist Dixie loudmouths with Trump hats, I think of those old guys. Oddly enough, most of them were actually younger than I am now. Sic transit gloria mundi….


Yankee 02.01.17 at 6:18 pm

Who will buy these Chevrolets not made by human hands? If not people on the assembly line, it must be people on the dole. If those that be actually want to keep the wheels turning, though not clear that that is the actual game being played.


bruce wilder 02.01.17 at 6:40 pm

Get a grip, I want to say. The OP concludes,

The real problems we face today are not technological but social and economic. Like it or not, a radical reorganisation of work is under way. The question is whether we can shape it to benefit the world as a whole, or whether it will continue to enrich the few at the expense of the many.

“social and economic” but not political? a radical reorganization is underway — curiously passive. can we shape it? or will it “continue to enrich the few at the expense of the many”? Well, duh, if the worst of the rich are allowed unopposed to radically reorganize work and the economic system, what do you expect to happen?

Cotton candy is colorful, sweet and mostly air — cotton candy is like the pseudo-ideologies of left-liberals in this twilight era, this age of Trump after the setting of the social democratic sun and before the darkness envelopes us all. No nutritional content, no real structure, just artful and extensive omissions of almost all the interesting and difficult features of the political system that allocates and motivates and adapts. (Other commenters have already referenced some of the omissions, e.g. global resource limits, bargaining power.)

I tend to think the “workless future” and a UBI, as they are framed here, are mostly idle fantasy, the stuff of political impotence. Remote, as some other commenters have put it, but also argued for, from omission and the overlooking of details not to mention difficulties of all kinds. In a perhaps odd way, I see a connection, not in logic but in spirit, to the curious thesis that the pace of technological innovation has unaccountably slowed, and this slowing is the cause of something (see Tyler Cowen); and in the same vein, the nearly hysterical Silicon Valley lust for “flying cars” and if we cannot have that, then driver-less Uber.

The OP does a job of indicting the greedy cultural spirit of thirty or forty years of neoliberalism, but not the neoclassical economics that provided technocratic undergirding and legitimacy, not to mention the marginalization of effective critics (and the substitution of the likes of Krugman or DeLong or Stiglitz for effective critics).

Neoclassical economics is ill-adapted to this analysis. The OP cannot quite decide whether to endorse or reject the meteorological economy: what is happening to us? it asks, as if half expecting to find a cold front of globalization and technology moving over us triggering a thunderstorm or an enveloping fog. Clearly, some analysis of trends and changes in how work and labour are organized is called for, but for this the argument must call outside to Hannah Arendt and accept the import in almost poetic form — a reference to the Greek polity, as if a latter-day birth of tragedy must impinge our collective consciousness before we can solve this new, old problem put before us by the possibility that machines will at last replace the slaves, as Aristotle once speculated they might.

We need a darker spirit. The global frames should be pessimistic. There are too many people on this planet, trying to do too much and the rich are way too rich (and too vicious). We have to eat the rich, before they eat us. A lot of the work people in advanced countries and higher in the social and political hierarchy do is unnecessary and socially harmful. (Yes, Virginia, there is a hierarchy organizing production — we don’t live in a “market economy” — grow up!) This is a big political problem, made more so by the fact that so much of the political base of cosmopolitan left-liberals is economically dependent on providing the technical expertise to run these systems of production and predation, which — at the margin — are producing socially negative frauds and pollution and waste and not much of genuine value, destroying communities, sending armies of salesmen and marketeers out to annoy everyone, designing financial schemes to ensnare and harvest the unwary or unlucky and so on. It is ugly out there. And, it got ugly because the political left gave up trying to defend the common or mass interest forty years ago and went neoliberal. We are not a bright idea (UBI) away from utopia.

I apologize for the darkness of my thoughts today; other things are making me grumpier than is maybe necessary to the topic.


Hidari 02.01.17 at 8:42 pm

I have a gigantic post ‘written’ in my head, which I will refrain from boring the world with.

TL;dr…How utterly unbelievable, how astonishing that we are all panicking and worrying about losing our shit, underpaid jobs when we could be seeing this as a liberation? The dreams of the communists, were just that, dreams, with 19th century technology (‘who is to clean the toilets then?’ was always the unanswerable question) but now, of course, they could become reality. Maybe not now, but in 40/50 years time, like Steve Austin, ‘we will have the technology’ to automate all our terrible jobs, to track everything that gets produced and, with the aid of AI create a truly planned economy that meets all our needs. And what would we do?

Well in ancient Athens they had a similar ‘problem’, with all their work being done by slaves. What did they do instead? They did…democracy. A radical redistribution of democratic power (not always wealth, unfortunately). But the day of the average citizen was spent as it should be: on debate, on taking part in trials, in standing for office (and being selected for office) and all the other things that, in a truly democratic society should be mandatory.

Not quite yet, but very soon, we will have a race of slaves to serve us too: robots and AIs with many of our other problems solved by the possibilities of the internet (cf Paul Mason). And all the other changes in technology with a sane and coherent attitude to the economy and society, could genuinely move us towards, not exactly utopia, but a state fundamentally more moral and equal than the one in which we now live.

But instead we seem to be determined to create new hells to live in. Everyone’s vision of the future is nightmarish. No one can even contemplate a better world, let alone go about building it. Sad! as someone might tweet.


Matt 02.01.17 at 9:31 pm

Who will buy these Chevrolets not made by human hands? If not people on the assembly line, it must be people on the dole. If those that be actually want to keep the wheels turning, though not clear that that is the actual game being played.

I don’t think that self-interest on the part of the owners is sufficient to prompt a UBI or other schemes for maintaining mass participation in the economy. A stagnant neo-feudal order where those at the top own everything and those at the bottom can neither sell their labor nor buy — but just die off as anachronistic remnants of an earlier mass-participation economy — seems more like the “natural” trajectory of a heavily robotized world with economic decisions dominated by self-interest. The more you expect homo economicus to rule the Earth, the worse the future looks for the public.


pnee 02.01.17 at 11:25 pm

This distinction between “work” and “labour” has been erased in modern society.

Surely not, though perhaps it is disguised somewhat? Some jobs have prestige and some don’t. Some (like manager, or even professor) entitle one to deference at work, and some, like retail, or front line customer service, require extreme deference even in the face of provocation. Some are paid generously, some are paid poorly, and some (childcare, elder care, etc.) are not paid at all.

Though the line is more carefully blurred than in Classical Greece, I think it’s still alive and well. There’s even still a powerful race and sex bias in who gets to do what.

As an aside, there’s also a component of this that goes into who can really postpone retirement. A white collar professional can typically continue to do their work well into their 70’s, and might be happy for having something to do. A person working in construction, or truck driving, or even a field with a degree of physicality like Nursing, cannot really be expected to do this. But white collar professionals are quite confident that they can decide among themselves that the retirement age can be raised with no consequences.


Sandwichman 02.02.17 at 6:07 am

MrMr @ 9

“– shorter maximum working hours: good, it increases worker’s bargaining power.”

Which is precisely why it doesn’t happen and won’t happen, short of near apocalyptic struggle by workers. It is not so much the small bargaining power increase that would result now from a small reduction in working time as the lesson that might be learned by workers who enjoyed that small increase. Employers — and the state acting on behalf of employers — have held back reduction in working time so long that the normal metabolism through which it occurs has become constipated.

As Bruce Wilder says @ 14, “we need a darker frame.” The only way the constipation and sclerosis of the old political economy of the 19th century was unclogged was with STRIKES. Not end of contract work stoppages as a bargaining tactic by certified bargaining units but general strikes, wildcat strikes and militant work stoppages that were not beholden to the legal or administrative dictates of a toothless, gormless government labor board.

The beatings will continue until there is labor unrest widespread and militant enough to raze the temples of capitalism. Whether or not this actually means the end of capitalism is beside the point. If it doesn’t at least confront the THREAT of its extinction, capitalism will extinguish civilization.


Dr. Hilarius 02.02.17 at 6:46 am

bruce wilder @ 14: thank you, no need to apologize


john mcgowan 02.02.17 at 9:11 pm

A question: why, if we are heading toward a workless future, do employers want more hours from their employees? The reality of work for many, many people today is being given much more to do than could possibly be achieved in the by-the-book time allotted. So there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of work–just of the willingness to pay the worker.


reason 02.03.17 at 10:48 am


Usually I agree with what you write, but I have to push back here. A general strike ain’t going to happen. A general strike is a weapon for a predominately manufacturing economy with clear class stratification. Too many people have mortgages, they have too much to lose. Too many people work at jobs that are either not time critical enough (the work will wait for them to come back), or are too time critical (people will die if they are not there) to practically achieve anything with a strike.


Underpaid_Propagandist 02.03.17 at 7:43 pm

22. You’re a disgusting anti-Semite.[Eds – this refers to a deleted comment that seemed innocent at first glance, but wasn’t. Our apologies].


Sandwichman 02.03.17 at 11:30 pm

reason @ 21 “A general strike ain’t going to happen.”

You may be right. You are probably right. My argument is that capital must never be allowed to be CERTAIN that a general strike is impossible.

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