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The Foolishness of Post-Work Utopianism

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Every now and again, you see some essay about the utopia of a post-work society, suggesting that the disappearance of traditional paid labor (a lot of which is not much fun) will allow people’s real passions to flourish. Derek Thompson wrote a very long Atlantic piece exploring these ideas in a very positive way. I was not pleased. There is no utopian end of work. What follows the end of work is poverty. And such articles undermine what we actually need–motivating people to political action for economic justice and good jobs. The threat of automation creating mass unemployment is real enough, as I have discussed here repeatedly. But there’s nothing positive at the end of that process. Moreover, I felt like, although I can’t know, that all the people Thompson talked to as examples of people already engaging in a post-(traditional) work economy are relatively well-educated white people–the PhD who decided to start a foundry where people like mixed media artists and engineers come to labor/leisure, the bartender in Youngstown who is also a PhD student at the University of Chicago, the writer with two master’s degrees working in a cafe. Where are the African-Americans in Youngstown or Native Americans on the reservations already suffering from long-term unemployment? Do they have a place in this post-work future? They sure don’t seem to in Thompson’s article.

Luckily, I’m not the only person rolling their eyes at this sort of thing. Mike Konczal:

There’s been a consistent trend of these stories going back decades, with a huge wave of them coming after the Great Recession. Thompson’s piece is likely to be the best of the bunch. It’s empathetic, well reported, and imaginative. I also hope it’s the last of these end-of-work stories for the time being.

At this point, the preponderance of stories about work ending is itself doing a certain kind of labor, one that distracts us and leads us away from questions we need to answer. These stories, beyond being untethered to the current economy, distract from current problems in the workforce, push laborers to identify with capitalists while ignoring deeper transitional matters, and don’t even challenge what a serious, radical story of ownership this would bring into question.

But what is the impact of these stories? In the short term, the most important is that they allow us to dream about a world where the current problems of labor don’t exist, because they’ve been magically solved. This is a problem, because the conditions and compensation of work are some of our biggest challenges. In these future scenarios, there’s no need to organize, seek full employment, or otherwise balance the relationship between labor and capital, because the former doesn’t exist anymore.

This is especially a problem when it leaves the “what if” fiction writings of op-eds, or provocative calls to reexamine the nature of work in our daily lives, and melds into organizational politics. I certainly see a “why does this matter, the robots are coming” mentality among the type of liberal infrastructure groups that are meant to mobilize resources and planning to build a more just economy. The more this comforting fiction takes hold, the more problematic it becomes and easier it is for liberals to become resigned to low wages.

Because even if these scenarios pan out, work is around for a while. Let’s be aggressive with a scenario here: Let’s say the need for hours worked in the economy caps right now. This is it; this is the most we’ll ever work in the United States. (It won’t be.) In addition, the amount of hours worked decreases rapidly by 4 percent a year so that it is cut to around 25 percent of the current total in 34 years. (This won’t happen.)

Back of the envelope, during this time period people in the United States will work a total of around 2 billion work years. Or roughly 10,000 times as long as human beings have existed. What kinds of lives and experiences will those workers have?

Worker power matters, ironically, because it’s difficult to imagine the productivity growth necessary to get to this world without some sense that labor is strong. If wages are stagnant or even falling, what incentive is there to build the robots to replace those workers? Nothing is certain here, but you can see periods where low unemployment is correlated with faster productivity gains. The best way forward to a post-work atmosphere will probably be to embrace labor, not hope it goes away.

And if you actually were going to promote a post-work utopianism, you’d think you would go so far as to endorse the one policy that might alleviate a few of these problems, which is universal basic income. But nope, not a word about that. Just a vague of sense of fulfillment and belonging through artisanship and a sort of government funded online-WPA type proposal. So the policy recommendations here really fall short of even beginning to think about how to deal with unemployment in the present or in the future.

Finally, Thompson’s story ends with a 60 year old going back to get a master’s degree so he can become a teacher. He writes, “It took the loss of so many jobs to force him to pursue the work he always wanted to do.” Except that where are the jobs for 60 year old teachers?!? Thompson just leaves this here as if personal fulfillment somehow leads to economic stability. And anyone who knows anything about the current state of education and employment knows that even if you do love teaching, the realities of being in a classroom in a Rheeist society of extreme testing and attacks on teachers’ unions is not some glorious result. Rather, Thompson is engaging in a sort of romanticizing of teaching (a long tradition) to avoid real conclusions and a strong basis in the realities of work and labor policy in the United States.

In conclusion, I really have to wonder how many of these people who write about a post-work society in a hopeful way have ever actually experienced poverty or even basic working-class life. Not having employment is a terrible thing. And even if everyone else isn’t working either, it’s not like that leads to some universal acceptance of the situation and everyone getting over their Protestant work ethics. Rather, we can see what a bit of a post-work society looks like. It looks like Youngstown or it looks like southern West Virginia. And that’s not a vision anyone remotely progressive should want to replicate. If Youngstown is someone our national future because all the jobs are gone, there’s nothing to celebrate. There’s no positive endgame to that scenario.

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