Amidst the shifting political fault lines of the world today, one thing is clear: work is still the issue. It is not an overstatement to say that in the UK, and worldwide, we are experiencing nothing short of a crisis. For example, despite having record levels of employment (a fact that politicians regularly draw upon), real wages are at a historic low and ‘precarious’ work – defined by insecurity and uncertainty – continues to expand its share of the labour market. Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that the majority of those currently in poverty in the UK belong to working families; in this sense we can say that work is becoming increasingly useless for its ostensible purpose – that of providing a sufficient income for people to live comfortable lives. Coupled with this decline of the quality and sustainability of waged work, we’ve witnessed what can only be described as punishments for those who exist outside of work. Drastic cuts in welfare provisions and disastrous, disciplinary assessments that attempt to adjudicate how ‘fit to work’ people with disabilities are constitute obvious symptoms of a society bent on the enforcement of work no matter the human cost. With these tendencies in mind, it is hard to hold either the mere fact of mass employment or the ideal of employment in high esteem.
Set to exacerbate this situation is the next wave of automation technologies. A plethora of studies predict that radically disruptive technological innovations – from algorithmic management to driverless cars – will change the face of many industries at the national and global scales in the coming decades. These predictions vary and have historical precedents that warrant a healthy scepticism regarding their conclusions; technological change is dependent not just on the development of new instruments, but also upon cultural and political forces. What is not in question, however, is the remarkable increase in the technical capacity to replace many of the tasks normally carried out by human labour power as part of a range of jobs. The question, therefore, concerns what incentives exist for the introduction of these technologies, the precise conditions under which they would be introduced, their specific effects upon people’s lives, and most importantly, who wields control over them.
Our particular conjuncture thus forces us to reconsider what work actually is and what functions it performs for the population, for the economy and for our global context. Two basic questions emerge: is the current work-centered society beneficial for people and is a continuation of this work-centred society a viable political aim in the new automated world we are entering? It is at this point and in this context that the Autonomy seeks to intervene. It is our belief that in order to face the new challenges that modernisation poses to our working lives, we cannot draw on traditional responses from Right or Left: the state of work today requires new thinking that seeks progressive, pragmatic and desirable solutions. Equally, we see the crisis of the job-based society as an opportunity for us to imagine a different, fairer and sustainable world and not the chance to return to an impossible – and in many ways undesirable – past. Revising our beliefs about the value of work allows us to imagine and to concretely picture better worlds wherein work has its particular place; this is progress.
We are a research institute aimed at rethinking work – a practice constituted by diagnosis, prognosis and proposal. Our core team is small but we are collaborating with researchers from across the globe to address the array of issues involved in our chosen problematic. Expect research papers, analyses of employment and recruitment processes, funding strategies for alternative income models, interpretations of corporate consultations on automation, a speculative blog and more. We are not the only ones on this trajectory: other think tanks, social movements and activist groups have joined the recent wave of voices questioning the virtues of a work-dominated society. The Basic Income Network (and its assorted affiliates), Plan C, Disabled People Against Cuts, Boycott Workfare, as well as NEF and IPPR – to name just a few – have successfully highlighted both the worst excesses of a society committed to labouring at all costs and the untapped potentials of a society organised around different principles. Autonomy settles into this ecology of institutions, eager to work with those already attempting to bring about change and keen to bring in a new wealth of informed perspectives.
In seeking to truly rethink work, we must expand what counts as research. We do not believe that knowledge is reducible to statistics or to mathematical models (as essential as these are). Indeed, we claim that a true grasp of our times requires political, economic, sociological, and cultural analyses. We must seek cutting-edge empirical and theoretical expertise from different disciplines – political economy, sociology, robotics and beyond – in order to construct critical tools, rigorous diagnoses and alternative models. Work is a contested term (for starters, does waged work even capture what we mean by the word?) and discussion must grasp the technological, cultural, environmental, economic and political conditions that constitute the practices of work if we are to achieve the rigor sufficient to our task.
To that end, Autonomy is a multi-disciplinary laboratory for new ideas and perspectives on work and a platform for innovation. It is time to revise our inherited beliefs and establish a new, realistic common sense about the position of work in individuals’ lives and in our political economy as a whole. We begin by asking four basic questions to leading researchers within the field – their responses will be published over the next four weeks. Alongside these, we have provided some basic fact sheets that help summarise current research regarding some of the phenomena at the core of the crisis: precarity, gender, debt, wage stagnation and automation. These phenomena can be understood as our premises.
If you want to help change the dominant narrative concerning work in our society, please go to the Support Us page, and consider becoming a monthly supporter. On behalf of the Autonomy team, I’d like to thank all of the contributors who have got on board at this early stage of the project. In particular, special thanks to Helen Hester, Jamie Woodcock, Nick Srnicek, David Frayne and Jack Haslehurst for their input.