A World Without Work

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What would a world without “work” –  those scare quotes are important  – really look like? The following is openly utopian – hopefully in the best possible sense of that word – but its inspiration essentially boils down to the maximization of time and the minimization of worry. I assume a lot and there are certainly gaps, practical and otherwise, that I do not address. However, it is hoped these will be excused and that the whole thing is treated as, at worst, an indulgence in optimism.

Karl Marx, in one of his (sadly) brief imaginative forays into the form and content of communist society, suggested the following as a possible description of life beyond capitalism:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Obviously for Marx, this comes after a great deal of upheaval, revolution, struggle and probably violence. But are we necessarily committed to such a process in order to reach the fruits here described? Is there a way to facilitate a bloodless means to solving ‘the riddle of history’? Most Marxists – at least of a more orthodox bent – will likely have already stopped reading: Before anything close to these kinds of fruits can be harvested much more of history’s manure must be slopped out. The idea that a single policy could trigger the ‘birth pangs’ – apologies for the mixed-metaphors – necessary for communism is just so much wishful thinking.

But I am not convinced.  

Certainly unconditional basic income is not the end of the fight. Indeed, part of its very emancipatory logic is the instrument it provides: A way out of exploitative relationships, a tool to resist employer’s demands and negotiate with power, to even wrest that power away from its current holders. But in so performing the role of instrument, to what ends are we hopefully building toward? While many baulk at the idea – including many comrades on the left, who fasten hard to Marx’s line of work becoming ‘life’s prime want’ – I think a pretty good approximation of where we might like to head is a society absent ‘work’. That is, at least, what we currently mean by work (i.e. waged labour) without the decency of further investigation into the content of what that work might imply.

So long as we don’t program the machines to care about their own existence, develop conceptions of the good and foster resentment against their masters  (!) there seems to be nothing intuitively wrong  with automating vast swathes of current work where this is possible. Indeed, the process is – and has been for millenia – well underway. According to recent studies, by 2034 47% of all work could be automated. If we retain the same fixation that links the means to live with access to work, this statistic should terrify us. Once we break the two, such that people no longer need access to work in order to attain the means to live, this news should be greeted as as near to divine pronouncement as we can hope for.

Given that waged labour dominates so much of our time and imagination what would a world without work look like? Work does not just dominate our time during the 9-5 (8-6) (5-9) slog. Even when we clock off, large amounts of our free-time is spent consuming. it is thus dependent  on – and sustaining of – the world of work. The bread we eat, beer we drink, clothes we wear, electronics we use are all created out of work. If the Marxist labour theory of value is certainly controversial (i.e. the idea that labour is the sole creator of value) a minor adjustment reveals its true force: whatever the connection between labour and value, traditionally those who labour have certainly been the creator of things of value.

But this is one more connection we can afford to sever. So what if we do not create the things we then use and value? So what if machines do that work for and the stuff that gets produced does just kind of fall in our lap like ‘manna from heaven’? It is like we are imposing on ourselves the punishment of Tantalus, condemning each other to the sight of nearby fruit without the possibility of savouring it. If it is within our grasp to make to have fruit, water, bread and wine – and for free at that! – then we’d be masochists not to jump at the opportunity.   

This is undoubtedly a fabulous world of super-abundance I am describing. But it is not to be imagined as an orgy of consumption where anything we could hope to want is fashioned out of nothing but desire and wish-making. It is often this image that is employed when economists continue to talk about the ‘problems of scarcity’. Scarcity exists because solidarity doesn’t. There is plenty to go around. Plenty. But when priorities are perverted and people are denied access to that abundance this is not scarcity to which we bear witness, but monopoly and greed. There is more than enough to go around but when we have a select bunch aspiring for infinity pools, penthouses and the other trappings of vapid wealth, this abundance gets concealed from the rest of us. Certainly, a world without work could not the current unquenchable desire for material objects. This is a place my optimism with regards to abundance simply refuses to stretch. Whatever diversity is preserved in this future, the preferences and lifestyle of the Wolves of Wall Street (and the minion-cubs who aspire to becomes these wolves) are a species that will be happily – and necessarily – socialized out of existence.

But with our needs satisfied and our desire to consume quenched, are we not condemned to useless indolence? In the absence of this drive for more things are we not left as little more than feckless layabouts?

First, occasional lay-abouting is not such a problem as the workaholics would have you believe. Animal indolence can be a wonderful thing. Second, are we really such a mono-tone creature as this? Are we so without complexity and depth that ease reduces us to slugs and sloths?  If so, then so be it – our natures have been revealed to us: better slugs and sloths than neo-liberals!

In reality, however, what we are freed from in a world w/out work is the insecurity and fear that comes with wondering whether necessities are taken care of and whether we have sufficient purchasing power to gain access to the goods we need in order to survive and plan our lives. We would not necessarily throw all production toward the robots but, with the added time not spent working bullshit jobs we have every reason to despise, we might reclaim other labours – domestic and social – for ourselves. No longer exhausted by the menial/inhuman/boring, we turn our energies toward local productive efforts of all varieties, from bread-making and clothes production, all the way up to car-manufacture and house building. Time is what we need and time is what we’d have.

A world without work is a world without this worry. It is a world where fear is removed, that chief motive – parallel with greed – that dominates our connections as organised by the market. New motives and connections will have sufficient space to emerge. Where relations of exchange have the effect of turning us into means for one another (wherein ‘for me you are only an instrumental means for the production of this (need-satisfying) object, that is an end for me while you yourself conversely have the same relationship to my object’), a system where this has been eliminated would institute in its place a relation where work ‘would be a free manifestation of life, hence an enjoyment of life’.

This is work ‘reclaimed’. Where fear and motive have been eradicated as the prime reasons for mutual cooperation and involvement work – that which we do for others to answer to their needs – takes on an entirely different texture and meaning. We work because we want to, because it means a great deal to us to be able to work with and for others.


Cattle Herder courtesy of Spoeknkieker

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