[final fl] Speculations on post-work

March 13, 2018, 4:55 p.m.

In “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work,” Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (S&W) outline the path that they believe we’ll have to follow in order to achieve a post-work world. They do not dwell on what that world might look like, but they do make one point clear: The end of wage labor would not in itself mean the end of capitalism. The system would still be essentially capitalist insofar as the principal mode of production would still be generalized commodity production, i.e., a system where private actors produce things in order to sell them. This claim raises at least one theoretical challenge that the book does not address: What of surplus value? It seems like a fairly uncontroversial claim to say that, in Marxist economics, an intrinsic moment of the capitalist mode of production that distinguishes it from other modes of production is the extraction of surplus value from wage laborers by capitalists.

Marx considered his discovery of the category of surplus value to be his most important achievement; it is at the very least a challenge to imagine how capitalism could continue without the extraction of surplus value, or even how the dynamics of class struggle — which S&W believe is the principal motor that will push these changes — could get us to such a point (a point which it seems would signal the quasi-complete defeat of capitalists and their methods of exploitation) without passing through a large-scale revolution. Indeed, if such a revolution were to take place, wouldn’t we expect much more from it than a simple mutation of capitalism? In this essay, you will go down a series of speculative paths to imagine different post-work worlds. We will start by giving an overview of the proposals that S&W make for constructing post-work capitalism, and, without concerning ourselves with strategies for how to bring each of them about, speculatively take these proposals as achieved. Then the idea is to consider different combinations, interpretations and implementations of these proposals, and what worlds these differences might yield, with the problem of surplus value as a central question to be resolved in each case.

S&W detail four main components for the construction of a post-work world, the first of which is Universal Basic Income (UBI). As this is an issue for debate across the contemporary political spectrum, they are intent on clearly differentiating their version of UBI from, say, a libertarian or a social democratic one. The left version of UBI must necessarily be combined with other measures, first of all, as opposed to being presented as a stand-alone solution to all social questions. This of course means inscribing it in the rest of the post-work program, but at the very least it means not casting UBI as a replacement for any existing social programs: UBI should be implemented in addition to health care, welfare, and so on.

For S&W, basic income means that the amount of money should be sufficient to live on without any other source of revenue. This is a crucial point (and one which, in practice, promises to be a site of intense political struggle) because the implementation of UBI would then mean that no one would be forced to work – more precisely, to work for wages – in order to survive. In a kind of transition period, anyone would still have the choice to work for wages, but this would be a free choice, unburdened by the basic necessity to survive, and would therefore signal a strong shift in the labor-capital balance of power in favor of the former.

The other crucial distinction of a left UBI is the universality. In order to prevent basic income from becoming another vector of oppression, it would have to be given indiscriminately to all people. Universality precludes all markers of race, gender and class, as well as an individual’s potential capacity to participate in the workforce.[1] Crucially, UBI cannot be tied to any notion of citizenship or nationality, or it would fail to address what S&W claim is one of the most important crises of our time: the problem of refugees. This raises a problem that we’ll go into more later on: It seems like, practically speaking, the struggle for a post-work world could conceivably only begin on a national scale. Because of the nature of the global division of labor, however, it would have to be implemented everywhere if it is to truly be a step towards the emancipation of all people, rather than an intensification of the imperialist nature of global exploitation.

The second component is the gradual reduction of the working week. This is a fairly obvious means of emancipation from wage labor and has always been one of the principal sites of class struggle. A shorter working week means alleviating the toll that work takes on us and leaves us with more time to do whatever we please. This includes, of course, organizing class struggle, and more generally, any work that is personally or socially important, but it also includes leisure.

In addition, the result would be the redistribution of labor-time among a larger amount of workers (given a fixed amount of labor-time necessitated by, say, a single firm) and thus less unemployment, which is desirable in itself (pre-UBI, that is) and also shifts the balance of power: with the threat of being fired and replaced gone or lessened, workers are free to strike or use that threat as a leverage point in negotiations. This isn’t, however, a trivial measure to be pushed for: since the 80s and the development of the neoliberal project the working week has actually lengthened in all social strata.[2] Working less has many economic benefits (for example, the immense medical cost of widespread physical and mental illness) and ecological benefits (for example, fewer people driving to work every day).

Together with UBI, it hopes to address the problem of surplus populations: a category that includes refugees and the unemployed, but also unpaid domestic workers (primarily women), young people who have never had a job, many forms of extreme precarity (zero-hour contracts, multiple part-time jobs) and people who survive off of alternative economies in the growing slums and ghettos of the work. As Joan Robinson says, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

The third proposal in S&W’s conception of post-work also addresses an important anxiety of our time: the automation of jobs by robots and AI. The technological possibility for full automation is a huge hypothetical on which the book rests (different studies estimate that anywhere between 40 and 80 percent of current jobs could be automated), but regardless it is a controversial argument, one which is important to hear independently of its feasibility. Just like the other proposals, full or gradual automation seems like a nightmare in isolation. Isn’t it just more and more people losing their jobs, and surplus populations growing ever larger? What S&W ask us to imagine, however, is how this could work as a demand from the working class, rather than as a thing to fight against. One important point to remember is that today, the main reason why jobs that could be automated are still done by humans is not a series of rights that workers have fought for. Instead, it’s simply that human workers are in fact cheaper than the machines that would replace them. This is a rather bleak consideration, on par with the fact that (socially beneficial) innovation has been stagnant for a generation because capitalists do not invest in it. It does remind us, however, of what is at stake when we say that a world without work is possible; this leads us into the fourth and final point of S&W’s program.

Perhaps the most adventurous claim of the book is that at the core, the reason behind the intense resistance to ideas like UBI and full automation, even on the left, is the persistence of what S&W call the work ethic. These proposals are only problematic insofar as we remain tied to the idea that what gives life meaning, or at the very least what gives an individual social recognition, is work. For S&W, the main problem with this conception is identifying work with wage labor, or with drudgery. For them, the end of wage labor would in fact free work from the shackles of wage: no work would be constrained by survival. In a post-work world, people would actually “work” much better, because they would work on what they are actually passionate about (just for fun, let’s reiterate that “do what you’re passionate about,” despite being a mantra of neoliberalism, is impossible to realize under the neoliberal system). This would also intersect much more naturally with the space of socially useful work than generalized commodity production does. The vast void that the disappearance of wage labor would leave in our lives should be seen as a beautiful challenge, rather than a terrifying prospect. Considering the work ethic in these terms, we can see why S&W believe that overcoming it might be the most challenging task among the four.

Easy mode

Level 1

This book is trash! Capital won’t let us not work! What are going to do, just vote for UBI at the UN? Go door-to-door convincing people that the only thing worth investing in is the robot that will take their job? Business owners are rich because we work for less than what we produce. If we didn’t, then they wouldn’t keep running their business, and they certainly wouldn’t buy a bunch of fancy new robots. What we need is a revolution, a dictatorship of the proletariat and then generalized commodity production and the state will gradually wither away until… wait —

Level 2

S&W have a secret plan! This is just a road to socialism with a bonus that Marx couldn’t envision: super smart robots! The advantage of this hot new program – it doesn’t even reek of antiquated Soviet aesthetics, wow! – is that it can attract all kinds of people: UBI fans, robot and AI fans and even people who are just lazy. UBI, a reduced working week and full automation will gradually be won through struggle, and through struggle we’ll develop working class consciousness, i.e., the idea that working sucks. With more and more robots and less and less workers, the rate of profit will gradually go down, and we’ll empty surplus value out of the capitalists’ pockets simply by taxing them for UBI, making fully automated industries public and working less (for higher wages or cheaper commodities). When the last boss can’t pay his final employee because a robot is doing the same job for free, they’ll both go out and pursue their passion for waterskiing like everyone else. But wait, who will the last worker be?`

Intermediate mode

Level 3

When Siri 2.0 will be switching channels for you and hosting every single talk show on American TV, while the entire country of China will be working day and night on one giant work of art during the whole 22nd century and spend the 23rd century interpreting it, who will be building the automatic cars, the artificial wombs, the self-cleaning cities and the robot lawyers? In this scenario, which Žižek has already dubbed “communism for the rich,” there is no more proletariat in the Global North. People of all ages (no more gender or race) use their UBI to buy healthy, sustainable products and happily associate in fashion-, math- or football-themed communes.

The Global South, however, is a toxic wasteland. Exploitation has intensified instead of being eradicated – industrial workers in South-East Asia, farmers in Africa, oil in the Middle East, robot designers and software developers everywhere. The North has kept the exploited in check by a combination of semi-continuous drone warfare and limiting their access to real and virtual resources. The post-work paradise envisioned by S&W is achieved in the North but was made possible and sustained by a re-intensification and diversification of colonialism. Surplus value is still being extracted from those we cannot see, those who don’t matter. We have to be very careful of who we are forgetting when we say post-work, because surplus value will not forget them.

Level 4

Very careful indeed. Let’s assume we’ve learned from the previous level. No human has been left behind in the struggle for post-work. Accelerated infrastructure-building robots, farmer robots, robot nannies, are equally accessible and in use all around the globe. Robot-building robots, programmer robots. Money is no longer wages — it’s just the social cost of creating and maintaining the robots that produce commodities. Price is now merely an indicator processed by the economist-AI so it can increase or decrease production of this or that commodity as a direct function of social need. Robots do what we want them to do, and nothing but that – no dystopian takeover in sight. Where’s the catch? No one sees it at first, because it is everywhere.

One can sense doubts at the First International Symposium for Philosophy Aficionados, where AI is meant to be used to simulate metaphysical hypotheses but where the most memorable debate ends up being between Lucca Shakur, hailing from Bolivia, and BK845*, from factory YT6 on Venus. The big shock comes with the first court case (presided by a robot-lawyer) to approve the romantic union of a widow and the robot care-worker she interacted with at the caring home. Suddenly everyone is asking the same question: If robots and AI are capable of doing all the jobs that we did, if we can have conversations, debates with them, even fall in love with them, what makes them different from us? Aren’t they humans, or people, or subjects, or whatever you want to call it, just as much as we are? The curse of exploitation has no end — by freeing humans from work we’ve created a cybernetic slave society where the ruling class (humans) is extracting a maximal amount of surplus value from the slaves (robots), only leaving them the bare minimum for maintenance.

Advanced Mode

Level 5

For Marx, under capitalism, things have value only if they’re socially useful, and there has been work done to produce them. The exception is the period of primitive accumulation, backed by the institution of private property. In a nutshell, within and outside of colonialist countries, those who can (who are already powerful) claim ownership to whatever they want (“Turns out everything inside this fence is my land now!”) by whatever means, including the genocide of indigenous people. This is the main reason for the existence of the fundamental class distinction between owners and workers in capitalism – it comes from an initial inequality, which is preserved or fought against through class struggle.

This initial difference could still exist in the post-work world, even if there is ostensibly no reason to maintain it. For example, gradual full automation could be achieved without an accompanying UBI and the reduction of the working week. Fewer and fewer people would be working, in depreciating conditions, and growing surplus populations would struggle more and more to survive. Robinson’s maxim about exploitation would ring ever truer. Even if UBI and post-work became a reality, however, the existing ruling class, who would still have control over the means of production, could hoard some commodities away from the masses. After all, we are familiar with the trope of the absurdly rich capitalist, who cannot find anything more to buy with her money but is still compelled to accumulate more and more of it rather than distribute it.

There would no longer be extraction of surplus value, but a congealed majority of it would remain in the hands of the few. This world could look a lot like Level 3, even if wage labor had gone away, if the most powerful refused to provide the means to build infrastructure in the poorest places, preventing them from evolving out of a neo-primitive state. There is no end to imagining the ways in which the status quo could be maintained – robot armies, biochemical and cyber weapons, the constant threat of embargo… — or the possible endgames: a successful revolution, in the best case, or constant war, or a wiping out of the poorest by some weapon, by famine, by disease … Perhaps the most terrifying prospect would be that things would go on, as most people resign themselves to mere survival.

Level 6

It’s important to keep in mind — especially since historically, capitalism has developed higher and higher forms of abstraction — that there are other forms of surplus value than the one that comes from exploiting labor. Simply by virtue of being a property owner, one can extract surplus value from rent. Because of the constant small fluctuations of the price of commodities, one can extract surplus value from speculation (in a nutshell, what financial markets do). Finally, surplus value can be extracted through loans in the form of interest rates (in a nutshell, what banks do). Financial markets today make it clear that these forms have some degree of independence from the actual processes of production, as well as very real repercussions on them: crises can be “imaginary” (everyone thinks that everyone else is losing confidence in something and will stop investing, which is what causes that to actually happen) but cause recessions that impact the whole world for a generation. They can also happen with “imaginary debts” whereby all kinds of people are lending out much, much more money than they actually have, until at some point it all comes crashing down.

Let’s try and imagine that these processes could become entirely independent of production, and thus survive in a post-work world. The millions of people who live in perpetual debt today, as well as those who rent, would still be in this situation. The system could be maintained by a ruling class (creditors, landlords, speculators, winners of the primitive accumulation game) with the same oppressive methods as in previous levels. Could we thus imagine an entirely “imaginary” surplus value, with artificial debts, debts on debts in endless recursive loops, artificial crises? With no work to do to pay their debts, individuals would need to artificially starve themselves of certain commodities instead — but the system would be engineered so as to make it impossible to ever reimburse all of your debt. As a whole, we could say that society would be pushing ever-increasing amounts of debt further and further into the future, consuming the future before it had even arrived.

Level 7

The conclusion of the previous level is extremely speculative, because in a sense it admits the possibility that capitalism could invent new abstractions that are unimaginable to anyone today, and puts those possible abstractions under the general name of the “future.” Nevertheless, it is also quite concrete in the sense that for speculators (as well as for banks who in some sense “speculate” that those to whom they lend money will pay them back) the future is already an abstraction with a certain amount of value. Different possible futures have different values depending on your investments, and building a good, “value-generating” portfolio is about investing in the right proportions on different possible futures. In a different sense, because everyone’s money depends on where everyone else puts their money in financial markets (hence the “crises of confidence”), people collectively “give value” to some futures, even cause some futures to be brought about, by investing in them. So it is possible to understand the future as a real abstraction and to extract surplus value from it.

However, we can also give a very concrete example of what we are talking about — one with a limit, where eventually the whole future will have been emptied out. This example is the Earth. Indeed, the Earth itself is a process, with resources that it transforms and renews. The problem is that some processes prevent it from renewing its resources, specifically many human activities. For example, in 2016, articles were published in August claiming that we had already “consumed an entire Earth” for that year. Expanding on this metaphor, we could understand all the natural transformations of an ecosystem as work  plus the consumption of the product of this work, and some (human) processes as extracting surplus value from the Earth insofar as they deplete resources without renewing them. Without claiming to have a fully developed Marxist ecological theory, we can imagine that there is an ostensible sense in which we are “in debt” to the Earth. So in light of the previous example, a fully functioning post-work world could still bring about the end of humanity, if at some point the future won’t let us borrow from it anymore — if some essential natural resource has entirely disappeared.

Expert Mode

Level 8

This last series of speculations has to do with the work ethic, which we haven’t really addressed so far. What if it turned out to be much more stubborn than we thought? Let’s suppose full automation happens, because robots and AI become cheap and it’s thus in the interest of capitalists. Further, let’s say we’ve struggled to obtain UBI and have overcome all the challenges of the previous levels. The system is sound, and no one is “working” in the way that we currently understand the idea. But what if people just can’t let go of the idea of work, or some kind of toil, as the meaning of life? How could value, and, more importantly, surplus value, sneak its way out of all the “traditional” senses of the word “work” and into yet unsuspected realms?

Understanding value as social utility (in as broad a sense as we want that to mean) and thus understanding all work as social leads us down one possible path. Social media occupy an increasing amount of space, time and energy in the lives of many. We are all familiar with the mechanisms of self-valorization that many such platforms end up being about, either implicitly (Facebook and Instagram) or explicitly (LinkedIn and Tinder). Different people have different values on social media, as do different connections, networks, posts and elements of your constructed self-image. It is not very difficult to imagine various hellish developments of social media that could take up all or most of our existence and involve activity that is no different from work in the sense of toil. Value would then be social standing.[3] The primitive accumulation phase would be the varying social standings that everyone would have prior to the appearance of this social media. The surplus value could be many things, but a simple idea is the one illustrated by episode 8 of season 5 of the TV show “Community,” called “App Development and Condiments”: social standing is valuable in itself, but it specifically gives you the potential power to influence others’ social standing – the popular kids get to decide who’s cool and who isn’t. Then any act inside this social medium, whether it be a new connection or some way to valorize yourself or a friend of yours, is work that produces (negative or positive) value, as we have shown, but also surplus value, as the (increased or decreased) power to influence value (your own and others’).

Level 9

Perhaps a more disturbing possible location of surplus value is sex work. What would a world where most or all people understood themselves as sex workers look like? Saying sex work is a service is insufficient to understanding how value and, potentially, surplus value, are generated through it. In industries such as prostitution and pornography, there is already a hierarchy of sex-workers (who get paid more or less) so we could imagine an extension of that to the whole of society. In addition, people who employ sex workers (the owner of a brothel, for example) clearly extract surplus value from them, so we could definitely imagine a class system on that basis. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan says surplus value just mimics surplus jouissance (enjoyment), but it isn’t the real thing. This world would therefore be a horrifying dystopia where the “semblant surplus jouissance” (surplus value) would be located exactly where the real one (symbolically) is — in sex. The contradiction between the two would thus be maximally heightened because what stands in for the real thing would also prevent the real thing from happening.

Level 10

Finally, let’s go all out and imagine that we’ve been able to rid ourselves completely of the problem of having a body – specifically one that can be assigned a value and/or one that is subject to the desire for pleasure and to jouissance. For example, we have managed to upload ourselves onto computers, have some kind of automated system of protection and renewal of this medium and interact with each other through bits and bytes. The space of what we would then desire would then be greatly reduced and focused. We’d like to imagine that we would collectively dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of the Truth and the Good. Presumably, however, this would still have to be done through language. Now if we could not rid ourselves of the work ethic, then we could understand language itself as the means of production, and value as sense, as in the thing we produce in light of the aforementioned pursuit.

But of course, sense itself can be circulated and repurposed. Pieces of knowledge have more or less value depending on the system in which they are understood, and therefore conversations, or any exchange through language, can leave some participants with more extra value than others, based on the system that they already had constructed. Primitive accumulation for this world has already happened, since everyone has access to a different amount of knowledge, and an additional phase could involve how many bytes of memory are initially allotted to each individual. If we did not put the means of production (language) and their product (sense) in common, then some could hoard their sense, and thus have a higher access to truth than others.

Contact Bilal Choho at [email protected], Abigail Schott-Rosenfield at [email protected], Hannah Frakes at [email protected], Jake Goulder at [email protected] and Joe Goodhew at [email protected].

[1] We may immediately think of retired and some differently abled people; a less obvious and fascinating question is whether we must also extend UBI to children – we recommend Shulamith Firestone’s “The Dialectic of Sex” on the question of the emancipation of children.

[2] For many workers, this takes the form of (unpaid) “perpetual work.” See Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism,” among others, on how enslavement to our smartphones makes perpetual work ubiquitous. The widespread scientific consensus is that this has caused the onslaught of mental and physical illnesses that we now consider to be banal.

[3] Variants of this arguably already exist, such as China’s “Citizen Trust Score.”

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