Beyond the work-centred society: a postscript to Cholbi’s ‘The Desire to Work as an Adaptive Preference’

By Kyle Lewis
July 2018

‘We must never forget the value of work because without it people are denied a sense of dignity and community. When you lose work, the meaning and purpose of life are taken away from you’

- Chuka Umunna, Labour MP

The quotation above[1] exemplifies the uncritical and narrow view of work as a moral good that must be defended at all costs. What unites the political centre right and left is the fetishization of waged labour as the sole moral foundation from which individual identity and social cohesion can be established and maintained. The purpose of this comment piece is to highlight the important contribution Michael Cholbi’s paper makes in challenging this uncritical view. By exploring the idea of waged labour as an adaptive preference, debates around a post-work future shift away from being solely mediated through the lens of technological determinism and instead focus on the political as the site upon which to contest and construct new alternatives to the work-based society, based on principles of social justice. I will look to expand upon the policy suggestions outlined in part four of the article by detailing how the Left can reclaim the future by offering a political vision that creates the conditions in which we challenge what we perceive to be possible.

As established throughout the paper, the desire to work in the form of waged labour is an adaptive preference i.e. the desire has been constructed under, and is a response to, the unjust context of the modern work-centred society.  This results in a two-part subjective response: work is considered to be indispensable despite the qualitative experience of it often being largely unsatisfactory and, in many cases, completely meaningless; secondly, we consider alternatives to work as simply unimaginable. Cholbi’s categorising of work as an adaptive preference follows a similar philosophical approach adopted by the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, whereby we should think of mental states through frames that are impersonal and political rather than solely individual and psychological.[2] In the same way that capitalist realism functions by constricting the political imaginary to a fatalistic pragmatism,[3] our fettering devotion to work reflects a political age in which we have collectively given up on the idea of the future.

In order to inspire hope and create real progress the contemporary left must adopt an approach to work that stimulates the political imaginary into thinking an alternative to the work-centred society is possible. In much the same way that the Beveridge report of the 1940s used the crisis of the Second World War to justify a radical economic programme based on social justice, the crisis of work today offers an opportunity to create an environment in which ideals that centre on human flourishing form the criteria according to which economic activity and progress are measured. The coming age of automation and AI technologies should therefore be utilised and choreographed in a way that reconfigures our relationship to waged labour. This means setting out an economic blueprint that creates jobs based on its adherence to ideals of real freedom: freedom of meaning, time and liberty. As Cholbi notes, policy makers must engineer ‘a soft landing’ in transitioning from a work-centred society to a post-work society (p.24). Therefore, creating an economic blueprint that sets out to regulate work in terms of what we do (offering free lifelong education and training), how much we do (a reduced working week) and on the conditions of our choosing (offering every citizen a basic income), will help foster a new work ethic that correlates with the transition to a post-work future.

Any economic blueprint based on the principles and policies above will be lambasted by the political centre as a utopian pipe dream that is unfeasible from a policy perspective and undesirable from the point of view of the electorate. However, as Cholbi highlights in section 4, adaptive preferences “can be dislodged if individuals are exposed to alternative possibilities that foster their scrutiny of those preferences” (p.24). Political visions of the future therefore function by creating the conditions for challenging what we perceive to be possible. The limitations of contemporary centrist politics are being exposed on a global scale due, in part, to its implicit, dogmatic belief in the present being the only possibility for the future. Right wing populism is breaking with that mould by renouncing the present in favour of the past. The slogans ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ exemplify our nostalgic longing for a future that has past. The Left must reclaim this ground by offering a politics that toes the line between the present and the future – a politics that is rational yet radical.

[1] Umunna, C. (2017) ‘The machine age is upon us. We must not let it grind society to pieces’. The Guardian [online] 14 November. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/14/post-work-world-age-of-robots-social-contract-jobs-artificial-intelligence [Accessed 14 June 2018].

[2] Fisher, M. (2014) Good For Nothing. The Occupied Times of London [online] 19 March. Available from: https://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12841 [Accessed 14 June 2018].

[3] Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Ropley: O Books.