Dr. David Frayne
"We need to define new freedoms and new collective guarantees that will allow us to finally turn the time saved by decades of productivity gains to humane ends, allowing everyone to benefit from more free-time."
As part of our website launch, Autonomy asked four leading experts in the field about the status and role of work in our society. Their responses touch on some of the most important facets of the question of work today: the gendered division of labour, the potential and actual uses of automation technologies, the changing nature of work practices themselves and more. We have also asked a question regarding basic income – a much discussed concept with a long history – that is central to current debates. Each week, for the next four weeks, we will publish the responses to a different question.
2. Why, despite the automation of so much labour, are many people working longer hours than ever before? What should be done?
It’s a good question to ask because my feeling is that some of the recent commentary on automation has glossed over this contradiction. There have been a lot of books and articles reflecting on the prediction that the majority of human workers will be replaced by robots in the coming decades and, whilst it is heartening to see the issue getting attention, some of the commentary has been too shallow. Writers have ruminated on the puzzle of what we humans would do with our new found free-time as though the future transition to a leisure society were a foregone conclusion. I think this assumption is naïve about the politics of technology.
The first thing to note is that, although the technological leaps are becoming bigger, automation is a longstanding feature of capitalist societies – and what the history of capitalism has shown us is that there is nothing inevitable about the idea that increased productivity will deliver humans more free-time. Abundant free-time is available as a technical possibility, but whether we will reap this benefit is really a political question because the official purpose of automation is not to create-free time, but to increase profits by making production more efficient, and by eliminating the need for human labourers (who are more expensive, less predictable, and have an annoying tendency to assert their rights).
“In its pursuit of profit, capitalism has historically re-appropriated the time saved by productivity gains to create additional forms of work”
Andre Gorz put it well when he pointed out that free-time, in which citizens are neither producing nor consuming commercial wealth, is actually quite useless to capitalism. We therefore see the time saved by productive development being channelled in different ways. One of the most obvious outcomes of savings in work time in our present system is unemployment (which of course is not really free-time, but a sort of dead-time, degraded by social isolation, financial struggle and ‘jobseeking’ activities). Another destination of the time saved by automation is its reinvestment in the further expansion of the economic sphere. In its pursuit of profit, capitalism has historically re-appropriated the time saved by productivity gains to create additional forms of work, which are often unproductive, environmentally destructive, and push the economic sphere into hitherto uncommodified areas of life. This partly explains why we don’t yet have a society of abundant free-time (as well as the mounting sentiment that a lot of the work we do is ‘bullshit’). Overall, I would say that the automation is just as likely to end in a dystopian scenario of mass joblessness and commercialism, as it is in the elusive leisure society.
In terms of what is to be done, the first step is definitely to recognise that this is a profoundly political question. We need to define new freedoms and new collective guarantees that will allow us to finally turn the time saved by decades of productivity gains to humane ends, allowing everyone to benefit from more free-time. Popular ‘post-work’ proposals include a society-wide policy of shorter working hours, coupled with a more even social distribution of necessary work. This would need to be underpinned by some form of guaranteed income, in order to reduce people’s reliance on wages for survival.
I will say more about these in response to your other questions, but it might be worth adding here that we must also scrutinise those ideas that masquerade as alternatives, whilst in fact representing more of the same. For example, we should be wary of those supposed solutions that aim primarily at changing individual behaviour or adopting new lifestyles: fads of ‘work-life balance’, ‘slowing down’, buying free-time by ‘outsourcing’ domestic labour, or worse, adapting oneself to abusive work practices with ‘resilience’ and ‘positive thinking’. These ideas are allowed to become popular precisely because they don’t constitute resistance, but function as strategies for containing disenchantment with work within the ‘safe’ parameters of the present. Whatever the solutions to the problems with work – they have to be collective, structural and radical.
Dr. David Frayne is a writer and social researcher interested in critical social theory, the sociology of work, consumer culture, political ecology, the sociology of happiness, and utopian studies. His first book, The Refusal of Work, was published by Zed books in 2015. His follow-up, Fitter, Happier. More Productive – an edited collection of critical essays on work and health – will be published by PCCS in 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Guardian, The Irish Times, ROAR Magazine, and Contrivers’ Review.