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?
There are two basic answers to this question. The mainstream response often looks at J.M. Keynes’ 1930 prediction of a 15 hour work week, then tries to answer why this hasn’t happened. For this group, the essential reason why is because of consumer desires. We could all work less, if we were to be satisfied with a 1930 standard of living – but because we’re constantly creating new desires and new commodities to satisfy those desires, our inclination to work has been steady despite increases in productivity. This is a rather pessimistic account of post-work possibilities because it bases its claims on an ontological primitive (infinite human desire) and derives the impossibility of reducing work from that. We’ll never reduce work because we’ll always want more.
But there are a lot of assumptions that go into this account. First, there is the claim of infinite human desire. I’m inclined to believe this assumption, but on the basis of an account of what it means to be human. The problem is that this assumption is often posited unproblematically, without giving any consideration to what sort of image of humanity it presumes. More troubling, this account assumes that human desires are only satisfied through commodity consumption. If we were to have other means to satisfy ourselves, then commodity production wouldn’t be necessary, and long work hours would fade away. Lastly, this account also assumes that it is an individual choice to work longer hours, rather than a structural necessity imposed by the logic of capitalism. Put simply, capitalism’s use of productivity-enhancing technology is to reduce necessary labour time, not to increase free time.
This leads us to the other account of long work hours, which is that capitalism is not seeking to liberate humans from work, but instead seeking to extract more surplus value. This distinction is essential. Productivity-enhancing technology is a way to reduce the costs of living, reduce the value of labour, and thereby extend the surplus labour time in any given shift of work. Giving workers more free time would be the opposite of this goal, as productivity enhancements would go towards the benefit of workers and not towards capitalists. So why do we continue to work long hours? Because we live in a mode of production that aims at endless accumulation rather than the satisfaction of human desires.
Dr. Nick Srnicek is Lecturer in Digital Economy in the Digital Humanities department at King’s College London. His current research is focused on post-work politics and social reproduction, and how the two separate areas can be fit together. He is the co-author, with Dr. Helen Hester, of a forthcoming book, entitled After Work (Verso, 2018) and has previously written on labour market transformations – Inventing the Future (co-authored with Dr. Alex Williams, Verso, 2015) – and on the digital economy and its dynamics: Platform Capitalism (Polity, 2016).