Start Talks Now on Work Reduction!
The title of this essay is an old slogan I came up with in the early 1990s, back in the days we were founding such disparate “organizations” as the Committee for Full Enjoyment (not Full Employment) and the Union of Time Thieves Local 00. It was in the context of the last years of Processed World magazine, which was published from 1981 until 1994, always shining a bright light on the insipid pointlessness of daily life on the job across corporate and nonprofit and educational America, especially in the newly emerging high-tech offices of the era. Talking about work has always felt like going public with a terrible secret, revealing a closeted awareness that the emperor has no clothes, that work as we know it is largely a waste of time if not actually making the world much worse for the doing.
For many years it seemed that few others would take up this topic, and if so, only from the point of view of rather traditional leftist frameworks. So we have had endless campaigns promoting “jobs” as something we should be in favor of, fighting to bolster palpably corrupt or inept trade unions, and a basic acceptance of the notion that economic growth is good and capitalist profits benefit the whole society. Leftists even to this day will argue that workers just need to be reminded that they are part of the mighty Working Class, and that with this reinforced consciousness, radical social change will naturally follow. In light of the moribund ideologies surrounding conversations about work and workers, it’s hardly surprising that neoliberalism’s emphasis on individual “freedom” and self-organized entrepreneurialism have influenced more people’s daily practices than anything on offer from the “left.”
Given the desultory state of critical thinking on the left with regard to work and economy, it is gratifying that some new books have finally begun to appear that challenge this situation. The four writings I’m going to weave into this piece share a certain despair at their core, but I think despair is a pretty reasonable state of mind facing our predicament. And I don’t think despair means paralysis, nor is it that old bogeyman “defeatism.” We have to hit bottom before we can start back up again to something fresh that can shake off the doldrums and stodgy stasis of revolutionary thought.
It has been almost two years since I last took up this topic on this blog. I brought in some of the new writings at that time that inspired me, from Miya Tokumitsu’s cogent critique of the bait-and-switch promise hidden in advice to “Do What You Love,” to Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work, both of which get referenced in a couple of the works I cite here. The new books I just plowed through for this are Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex by Nick Dyer-Witheford, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself by Peter Fleming, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and lastly a long essay in End Notes #4 called “A History of Separation: the Rise and Fall of the Workers Movement 1883-1982”.
Taken together these writings help define the predicament we face, which is not easily summarized in a soundbite or even two. The century-long effort to promote workers organization, most prominently in the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements that arose in the late 19th century, depended on assumptions which have not been deeply challenged in a very long time. The comrades from End Notes face it in their essay, concluding that rather than an emerging collective consciousness based on a shared experience of work as predicted by everyone from Marx onwards, “atomization won out over collectivization.” They anchor this self-evident truth in a challenge to the theoretically suspect assumption that Marx shared with the 2nd International’s Karl Kautsky and the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky: “to achieve the abolition of the proletariat, it is first necessary that each individual be reduced to a proletarian. The universalization of this form of domination is the precursor to the end of domination.” But that rosy expectation has been shattered by the actual evolution of modern life. In the early 21st century, End Notes understands that working people still produce the world we inhabit:
Society is still the product of all these working people: who grow and distribute food, who extract minerals from the earth, who make clothes, cars, and computers, who care for the old and the infirm, and so on. But the glue that holds them together is not an ever more conscious social solidarity. On the contrary, the glue that holds them together is the price mechanism. The market is the material human community. It unites us, but only in separation, only in and through the competition of one with all. (p. 160)
Our atomized, hyper-individualized world, which we experience as being shaped by forces beyond our control, is far from a world where working-class community, or much of any other kind of community, provides a safe haven, or a meaningful daily life. We are on our own.
At present, workers name the enemy they face in different ways: as bad banks and corrupt politicians, as the greedy 1%. These are, however, only foreshortened critiques of an immense and terrible reality. Ours is a society of strangers, engaged in a complex set of interactions. There is no one, no group or class, who controls these interactions. Instead, our blind dance is coordinated impersonally through markets. The language we speak—by means of which we call out to one another, in this darkness—is the language of prices. It is not the only language we can hear, but it is the loudest. This is the community of capital. (p. 166)
Clearly a despairing analysis. Workers employ populist rhetoric to try to understand what they’re up against, but the very language and conceptual universe in which we are enveloped locks us into a “community” that is founded on our exploitation. Still, work remains at the (vulnerable, fragile) heart of capital. Similar to how we relate to cancer, we rely on language to understand work as a personal predicament rather than a social phenomenon, rather than an outcome of socially constructed choices and shared effort. But the antipathy to understanding work socially started long ago. It parallels the steady diminishment of taking pride in work, that intensified during the height of Fordist factory work when anyone with a brain found it boring and unfulfilling. The deindustrialization of the past decades is not the cause of the collapse of working class identities, but rather an accelerant for the social atomization that was already underway.
In Inventing the Future¸ Srnicek and Williams recognize that the historic left’s dependence on the industrial working class as its frame of reference has been outflanked by historical developments, not the least of which happened within the working class itself.
For the left at least, an analysis premised on the industrial working class was a powerful way to interpret the totality of social and economic relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thereby articulating clear strategic objectives. Yet the history of the global left over the course of the twentieth century attests to the ways in which this analysis failed to attend to both the range of possible liberating struggles (based in gender, race, or sexuality) and the ability of capitalism to restructure itself—through the creation of the welfare state, or the neoliberal transformations of the global economy. Today, the old models often falter in the face of new problems; we lose the capacity to understand our position in history and in the world at large. (p. 14)
The ideas that the working class is the motor of history, or that class struggle follows a teleological trajectory towards human liberation, are harder to believe in now. The evidence of a century of war, barbarism, modernization, and radical technological and social change does not seem to have brought us much closer to revolution. Still, trying to make sense of the complicated relationship between our own labor and the world that confronts us is at the heart of our predicament. Reclaiming the concept of “proletariat” before we dump out the rubbish bin of history is a helpful step, and each of these writings does that in their own ways.
Srnicek and Williams define proletariat “by its lack of access to the means of production or subsistence, and its requirement for wage labor in order to survive. This means that the ‘proletariat’ is not just the ‘working class’ nor is it defined by an income level, profession or culture. Rather, the proletariat is simply that group of people who must sell their labor power to live—whether they are employed or not.” (italics added, p 87) But once forced into proletarian status, workers depended on wage-labor for their ability to survive, a dependency that is rapidly eroding in the early 21st century.
…it is often forgotten that Marx argued that the expulsion of surplus populations was part of ‘the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation.’ … With technological change proceeding apace, the already large numbers of surplus humanity look set to swell. The very social basis of capitalism as an economic system—the relationship between the proletariat and employers, with waged work mediating between them—is crumbling. (p. 92)
Dyer-Witheford offers an up-to-date understanding of the term “proletarian” rooted in a basic affirmation of class society:
Proletariat encompasses not only the assembly-line electronics worker or the call centre operative but also the former peasant populations plucked off the land without necessarily being able to find employment, or labour ejected from production by cybernetic automation and communication. Now, as in Marx’s era, proletariat denotes the incessant phasing in and out of work and workless-ness, the inherent precarity, or the class that must live by labour, a condition raised to a new peak by global cybernetics. (p. 13)
Writing in The Mythology of Work Peter Fleming ‘’advanc[es] this case for putting work and class at the centre of a critical theory of neoliberalism not in the old spirit of the Left that wants to see the importance of work everywhere, nor in the old humanist tradition of imbuing work/labour with venerably anthropological categories… I wish that capitalist waged labour was not the defining point of all other struggles. I dislike it as much as anyone else, especially today when much of it is clearly pointless and antithetical to our collective needs. But the fact remains: to fight neoliberalism, class is THE relation we have to tackle, even if it is through its mediation on other registers of social distinction and domination. (p. 33)
Dyer-Witheford emphasizes in Cyber-Proletariat why we have such a hard time remembering class as a crucial category of modern life:
A Marxist concept of class designates the division of members of society according to their place in a system of production: today, as capitalists, various fluid intermediate strata or ‘middle classes’, and proletarians… The point is that a dominant stratum exploits all the others. Since the concept of class identifies a process of predation, it is unsurprising that no message is more frequently transmitted through the intellectual organs of society than that class does not exist. Or that it once existed, but has now passed away. Or that in so far as it exists, it is entirely innocuous. (italics added, p. 7)
We have here a constellation of writings that prioritize the analysis of class and work even if they also break with the assumptions that have typically formed the foundation for such queries. Dyer-Witheford’s goal in Cyber-Proletariat is to show how early 21st century capital is bent on using the planetary working class to work themselves out of work! His brilliant analysis takes us through the rise of cybernetics to show how an emergent system of “robots and networks, networked robots and robot networks” is pushing the global proletariat into a “cybernetic vortex,” often with the helpless complicity of the most downtrodden. Nowhere is this more visible than in the rise of the mobile phone in the past decade.
…mobile phones are paradigmatic technologies for a new global level of capitalist subsumption that simultaneously includes and ejects vast surplus populations, exploiting a constant condition of transient and intermittent employment. (p. 104) …the cell phone figures as a way of enduring, not abolishing, proletarianization. It is a technology rapidly adopted by an insecure, nomadic global workforce, continually coping with crisis, largely lacking basic social services, threatened by war, civil disorder and natural disaster amidst frail infrastructures, dependent on familial and communal networks offering support provided neither by capital nor state. Mobiles have become a necessity in these contexts because conditions of life and labor are precarious. In this respect, they manifest a cybernetic circularity. (p. 121)
Various writers have reminded us that in the 1930s workers fought for six-hour days primarily to share the available work. But rather than a system-wide effort to reduce work then, the state instead created a vast network of make-work projects, many of which produced still-useful infrastructure, often quite aesthetically beautiful (see the Living New Deal project for a vast catalogue of such works still undergirding our daily lives). After WWII the 40-hour week became standardized and lasted until the frenzy of overwork took off under Reagan’s aggressive push to return the United States to a bucolic America he remembered from the movies. The End Notes writers point out that “it is the failure to generate free time that creates employment. Endless busy-work, which is nevertheless essential for valorization, is what creates jobs and generates incomes. Direct human labor remains central to the work process; it is not a supplement to the power of machines.”
This is a tension at the heart of these new analyses. Do we need human labor to generate value which in turn can be accumulated as capital? Or can capital escape its dependence on humans through a process of extreme automation? Or, as the writers of Inventing the Future argue, is that program of “full automation” only achievable under a post-capitalist, post-work social order? Dyer-Witheford, deeply immersed in looking at the dynamics of global capitalism now, concludes that in response to workers’ revolts, capital is increasingly willing to go all-in on the automation option in pursuit of a frictionless future of profit-making:
Everywhere cheapened labor has revolted the option of technologically eliminating it returns to the table, enhanced by new generations of robots emerging from early twenty-first-century wars, and increasingly directed not just against manual work, but at the white-collar jobs of intermediate positions once imagined as secure. With the growth of social media—the greatest part of which has come since 2008—the destination of the internet is revealed as a vast harvesting of algorithmic data to codify, predict and even machine-delegate consumption activities, while post-crash finance exhibits a renewed determination to leap directly from money to more money by means of high-frequency trading and other network exploits, by-passing both production and consumption. (p. 169) … In futuristic accumulation, capital would learn to function, not while drawing populations into production, as in primitive accumulation, but while ejecting them from it. [emphasis added] Humans would continue to provide the ‘conscious linkages’ required by cybernetic systems, but in increasingly unimportant and unremunerated ways. The bands dividing the planet into high- and low-wage zones will continue to rotate and shift alignments as the global search for low-wage labor persists. However, precarious labor, on-call as and when machine systems need it, will become a norm. (p. 186)
A Marxist premise has been that the reproduction of capital requires reproduction of a working class: the social relations that generate value must be human relations, however inhumanly organized. This, however, is the assumption cybernetics confounded at its origin, by insisting on the transposability of different types of ‘information engines’ as ‘automata’ whether ‘in the metal or in the flesh’, and which contemporary computing seeks to abolish by eliminating the annoying ‘variability’ of the human in favor of entities—robotic or cyborg—’fixed’ and ‘constant’ in their subjugation to capital. Singularity theory removes the humanist confidence that such a capitalist system would, by annihilating the basis of value, destroy itself. Instead it leaves the possibility that it would create, in successively larger incremental iterations, a surplus humanity on a ruined planet unfit for all but machine habitation. (p. 192)
Well, well, that’s a bit bleak, isn’t it? Like I said earlier, all these writings drink deeply from the well of despair. Peter Fleming does his part too in The Mythology of Work. He has no illusions that the incessant promotion of work for its own sake has any foundation in material necessity.
The attempt to persuade us that a life of work is obliged by both basilar necessity and moral rectitude has long been abandoned. Everybody knows that we work now to keep the authorities at bay (the landlord, the tax man, the credit-card company, the multinational retailer, and so forth). But we also realize work’s impudent needlessness. And this perception of senselessness has to be closely managed, something which neoliberal society only partially achieves. Since it is blindingly evident that there is not enough work to go around, the corporatized state apparatus fears both the employed and the unemployed. Moreover, those of us “lucky” enough to have a job are so disgruntled by what it has done to us that a whole industry has arisen to deal with work’s pathologies. We work, not because we want to or like it, but because it has become a way of life with little alternative or way out. The ideological universalization is a key governance strategy that neoliberal institutions use to keep the frantic pace of useless toil cranking along at a breakneck pace. (p. 22)… The purpose of neoliberal discourse is to remind us that it exists and is the only game in town…This is what makes the fear of being abandoned by our employers all the more irrational. Abandonment has already concretely arrived (the power elite don’t care one iota about you) and we are constantly reminded of this fact in order, paradoxically, to convince us otherwise. (p. 48)
Dyer-Witheford’s point that capital now organizes production to expel workers rather than retain them finds agreement in Fleming’s book.
The concern with retention—how to dissuade employees from leaving—has now been replaced by a preoccupation with deciding precisely when to abandon them. Indeed a vast cultural script built around the theme of abandonment now informs the management function in enterprises, the public sector and a raft of other institutions. Today, employers have little problem recruiting workers. They are lining up at the door in droves, grossly overqualified and willing to work for lower wages than previous generations. Engagement and motivation is not a problem either. Workers understand very well that feigned enthusiasm, self-reliance and ‘going the extra mile’ is simply what one must do to avoid the deleterious gaze of capital. Retention, however, is a problem… In a practical sense, the HRM function is now inordinately interested in disposability. When and how to divest its ‘human capital’ is capital’s central problematic today. (p. 85)
Where Fleming really shines though is in his analysis of the Kafka-esque absurdity of the neoliberal-defined workplace. The rhetorical insistence on pure marketization with which neoliberal proponents frame things is wildly dysfunctional in real workplaces. “If we actually had pure neoliberalism in the office—say, complete individualism, no state regulation, profligate competition, no mutualism or open co-operation—absolutely nothing would get done.” In highlighting this, Fleming also hints at a tactical approach that can sometimes flip the power relations at work—in this case a “work to rule” approach in which nobody does anything not explicitly suggested in the purported values of the corporation. Towards the end of his thoughtful book, Fleming insists that capitalism cannot acknowledge its systemic impotence, and that its dependence on living labour is its ultimate Achilles heel. Here Fleming joins the End Notes scribes to insist that Dyer-Witheford’s bleak prognosis of a future world with minimal human work is existentially impossible for capital.
Fleming is no triumphalist though, claiming revolutionary potential in the face of so much contrary evidence. Even if in the end he insists on capital’s vulnerability to labour, throughout most of his book he emphasizes the imprisonment of today’s working and middle classes in what he calls the “I, Job” function. In it, work is “transformed into something we are rather than something we simply do among other things. Work becomes an inescapable way of life, 24/7.” The Orwellian outcome of this process is “the ‘open prison’ of neoliberal society” in which “optics empties the subject of history… The new visual apparatus that purifies the capitalist present for everybody (i.e. the totality) is actually about diminishing the faculty particular to our proletarian memory. The hurt, vilification and dispossession that define a collective past evaporate when capitalist culture goes hyper-optical. Never has so much been seen and so little truly viewed.” (p. 73) Or as he puts it elsewhere: “We witness the class offensive as something like a bad movie that we are unable to walk away from. Late-capitalist democracy amounts to being strapped in a chair and forced to watch another Adam Sandler offering.” Ouch! Bleakness rules!
Fleming can be obtuse in his writing. He often cites Deleuze and Guattari’s Ten Thousand Plateaus as well as Michel Foucault’s seminal works. I appreciate that these French writers are important analysts for understanding the way capitalism and power have evolved over the past half century, but I am also not a big fan of their hyper-dense and inaccessible writing. Fleming mostly avoids the worst of it (though maybe you found some of his words above a bit thick?). I found especially resonant his invocation of Herbert Marcuse in a brief discussion of debt and history:
…present-day debt can only be transformed into guilt by erasing a particular version of history. Here, personal liability is not about the past, but is always co-present with a timeless ‘now.’ Neoliberal debt in particular relies upon the freedom of the subject who knows no past and is thus entirely responsible. This is why a worker’s historical imagination is the enemy of the capitalist project; [as Marcuse puts it,] “to forget suffering is to forgive the forces that caused it—without defeating these forces.” (p. 74)
The timeless “now” is an idea that is also at the heart of the Situationist critique of the society of the spectacle. The erasure of history and historical memory is essential to the maintenance of this way of life. We can indulge in episodic celebrations of carefully edited versions of nostalgia-inspiring memories, invoking patriotic “greatness” in, for example, the abolition of slavery or the defeat of the Nazis. But the tangled, complicated histories that actually underlie the Civil War and WWII are always excised in the rush to summarize and gloss over the barbarism and genocide that are at the heart of U.S. history. Applying this oft-used technique to hiding the social relations that produce a mountain of unpayable debt (that nevertheless serves to coerce the vast majority into “willingly” paying their bills and going to work) is equally essential to maintain the legitimacy of the debt and the moral power that prevents it being challenged.
I’ve spent years helping to produce Shaping San Francisco, motivated primarily by the sense that we live in an increasingly amnesiac society. Shaping San Francisco is part of a critical thread of popular history these days that rejects the grand narratives of the past, that seeks to find the lost and forgotten histories that comprise the daily lives of countless millions instead of the typical accounts of great men, states, wars, etc. But Fleming is thinking about the role of history too, and in his well-founded critique of the hegemony of the neoliberal order he shows how this impulse toward anti-authoritarian structures of thought has been co-opted by neoliberal hegemony.
… hegemony has extensively appropriated the critique of meta-narratives so that now there is no longer one truth, only ‘points of view’ and opinion. This provides space for false truth telling to emerge. Ideology critique must therefore ‘compete’ in the capitalist marketplace of ideas along with the most ridiculous ones. This might look like pluralism, but it is the exact opposite. It conveys a peremptory structuring of the background master index so that the ideas of the ruling classes are the only ones that really win in the end. (p. 166)
The same neoliberal hegemony is put in the crosshairs by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the authors of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. They too notice that the critique of meta-narratives has inadvertantly reinforced the dominant order’s hold on popular imagination:
…with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight, [there] has not been the decline of belief in metanarratives per se, but rather a broad disenchantment with those offered by the left. The association between capitalism and modernization remains, while properly progressive notions of the future have wilted under postmodern critique and been quashed beneath the social wreckage of neoliberalism. (p. 74)
Neoliberal hegemony has played upon ideas, yearnings and drives already existing within society, mobilizing and promising to fulfill those that could be aligned with its basic agenda. The worship of individual freedom, the value ascribed to hard work, freedom from the rigid work week, individual expression through work, the belief in meritocracy, the bitterness felt at corrupt politicians, unions and bureaucracies—these beliefs and desires pre-exist neoliberalism and find expression in it. (p. 64)
How have we gone from a dynamic, practically revolutionary surge of social movements a generation ago to a world that has so thoroughly captured those liberatory aspirations and more or less turned them into chains by now? Srnicek and Williams (S & W from here) put the blame on what they call “folk politics.” Frustrated by nearly a quarter century of anti-authoritarian politics that has insisted on horizontalism, leaderlessness, adhocracies of various types and a general aversion to institution building, S & W want to revitalize the left by reclaiming modernism and technological progress, and insist on the need for political strategy that is capable of confronting global capitalism globally. They show how the structures and tactics of political life during the past twenty-five years has not only failed to overcome global capitalism, but that in crucial ways it has tended to reinforce some of the deeper shifts in thinking that have accompanied the rise of the neoliberal epoch.
… folk politics often reduces politics to an ethical and individual struggle. There is a tendency sometimes to imagine that we simply need ‘good’ capitalists, or a ‘responsible’ capitalism. At the same time, the imperative to ‘make it local’ leads folk politics to fetishize immediate results and the concrete appearance of action. Delaying a corporate attack on the environment, for instance, is lauded as a success—even if the company simply waits out public attention before returning once again… Without the necessary abstraction of strategic thought, tactics are ultimately fleeting gestures. Finally, the abjuring of complexity dovetails with the neoliberal case for markets. One of the primary arguments made against planning has been that the economy is simply too complex to be guided. The only alternative is therefore to leave the distribution of resources to the market and reject any attempt to guide it rationally. Considered in all these ways, folk politics appears as an attempt to make global capitalism small enough to be thinkable—and at the same time, to articulate how to act upon this restricted image of capitalism. (p. 15)
S & W concede that all politics starts locally, and that what they’re calling “folk politics” is necessarily part of any political project. But they blame it for accepting “the transient, small-scale, the unmediated and the particular” as adequate for political engagement.
…folk politics privileges the local as the site of authenticity (as in the 100-miles diet or local currencies); habitually chooses the small over the large (as in the veneration of small-scale communities or local businesses); favors projects that are un-scalable beyond a small community (for instance, general assemblies and direct democracy); and often rejects the project of hegemony, valuing withdrawal or exit rather than building a broad counter-hegemony. Likewise, folk politics prefers that actions be taken by participants themselves—in its emphasis on direct action, for example—and sees decision-making as something to be carried out by each individual rather than by any representative. The problems of scale and extension are either ignored or smoothed over in folk-political thinking. (p. 11)
Since publishing Nowtopia eight years ago, my own attention has also been arrested by the limits of the local, by the inability of radicals to address complex systems and urban life beyond platitudes and wishful thinking about spontaneous self-organization. The projects I focused on in Nowtopia such as DIY bike kitchens, community gardens, and free software projects, were trapped. As I noted in the book, up to that point (and continuing, for that matter) if any of these temporary projects survived very long it was always in the form of a small business or a nonprofit organization. Avoiding the surrounding society of capitalist business is impossible the longer one remains functioning in a sea of commerce, commodification, credit, and cash. Perhaps the most obvious example is how the Burning Man festival has become a super wealthy yearly event run by a nonprofit corporation that raises and spends millions every year.
It is this predicament that S & W are trying to answer. They argue that folk politics attracts enthusiastic participation because of the “collapse of traditional modes of organization on the left, of the co-optation of social democratic parties into a choice-less neoliberal hegemony, and the broad sense of disempowerment engendered by the insipidness of contemporary party politics. In a world where the most serious problems we face seem intractably complex, folk politics presents an alluring way to prefigure egalitarian futures in the present.” (p. 22)
But as Jodi Dean has noted elsewhere, “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you have chickens in your back yard”! Reorganizing how we produce life, not just in a household, neighborhood, or a small business, or even a municipality, but globally, is an incredibly complicated process. Of course I’m in favor of a bottom-up, self-organized, conferederated system of relationships between communities across the world, based on free cooperation and association. But in practical terms, how would such a world come about? Little of what exists prepares most people for that kind of life, based on egalitarianism and sharing the wealth, a world with much less work and much better living.
Leaving aside such grandiose, global questions, S & W intelligently point out that political collective action “is more often than not carried out through complex divisions of labor, mediated chains of engagement and abstract institutional structures. The social aspect of synthetic freedom is therefore not a return to some human desire for face-to-face sociality and simple cooperation, but instead a call for collective, complex and mediated self-determination.” (p. 81)
This invocation of “synthetic freedom” is where their future departs from mine. I agree with S & W that we should be demanding “full unemployment” and that a “21st century left must seek to combat the centrality of work to contemporary life,” (p. 126) and that “the true transformative potentials of much of our technological and scientific research remain unexplored.” (p. 152) But in their embrace of what some are calling an “accelerationist” agenda based on “synthetic freedom,” they start to echo the early Italian Futurists—and not in a good way! Their enthusiasm for technological augmentation is hard to take seriously living in the tech-enraptured Bay Area. They demand a “spirit that refuses to accept any barrier as natural and inevitable. Cyborg augmentations, artificial life, synthetic biology, and technologically mediated reproduction are all examples of this elaboration,” (italics added, p. 82)
Capitalism, for all its appearances of liberation and universality, has ultimately restrained these forces in an endless cycle of accumulation, ossifying the real potentials of humanity and constricting technological development to a series of banal marginal innovations. We move faster—capitalism demands it; yet we go nowhere. Instead, we must build a world in which we can accelerate out of our stasis. (p. 181)
My own vision of a liberated, postcapitalist life with less work is based on intelligently engaging with natural systems, NOT seeing such systems as barriers. Cycles of nature are simply the context in which we must live. The enthusiasm expressed by S & W for the synthetic and artificial seems to be a knee-jerk response to the excesses of hippie localism, understandable but not terribly rational. Basic issues of water, soil, and food are already severely compromised by human interventions and chemical manipulations (California’s insane plumbing, and agribusiness’s embrace of genetically modified foods and chemically soaked landscapes are obvious examples). Solutions are not to be found in automation or artificial augmentation or a further speed-up of daily life, but rather in slowing down in general, and reorienting agriculture to well-developed systems of ecologically sound, biodiverse and biodynamic production. It’s an open question to see if we can integrate more fully food production with urban living, or some new hybrid of the two. Clearly plenty of specific technologies are useful for exploring and perfecting this approach, from plows and water sensors to computers and satellites. But an exciting vision of modernity to me does not fantasize about going faster and further into the cul-de-sac that capitalism has already taken us. Nick Dyer-Witheford feels the same ways as he wraps up his Cyber-Proletariat with a cautionary rebuttal to the accelerationist fantasy of full automation:
Neither accelerationist embrace nor anarchist rejection seems adequate to the challenge posed to the communist imagination by cybernetics. Communism is not an acceleration of capital’s tendencies, any more than it is just a stop, a pulling of ‘the emergency break’. It is a swerve, a departure in a different direction from that of capital… In the face of capital’s cybernetic assault, it is necessary not only to uphold the most fundamental activities of proletarian reproduction—safe birth, loving care, provisions of food, water, environmental safety, collectivity and education—but also to affirm that these are matters of corporeality, of flesh, and not, for communists, indifferently transferable to automata of metal (or silicon), as they are for cybernetics and capital. (p. 196-197)
Hear hear! After a despairing analysis of the automation of life, Dyer-Witheford returns to a basically humanist aspiration. I’m sure he wouldn’t dispute Srinecek and Williams’ insistence that “an engagement with the totality of power and capital is inevitable, and we should be under no illusions about the difficulties facing such a project. If full transformational change is not immediately possible, our efforts must be directed towards cracking open those spaces of possibility that do exist and fostering better political conditions over time.” And that brings us back to Nowtopia and the kinds of efforts that can be achieved in the here and now (only to succumb to the iron logic of capitalism over time).
S & W center their “program” on technological innovation and full automation, reduction of the work week, provision of a basic income, and a frontal assault on the work ethic. But they also argue that on the path to this more radical program a “forward-thinking government could support mission-oriented projects such as decarbonizing the economy, fully automating work, expanding cheap renewable energy, exploring synthetic biology, developing cheap medicine, supporting space exploration and building artificial intelligence. The challenge is to develop institutional mechanisms that will enable popular control over the direction of technological creation.” (p. 147) This is where their vision glosses over as many glib assumptions as they earlier dissected in their target, “folk politics.” The assumption that cheap renewable energy is within reach and that basic thermodynamics can be overcome, that synthetic biology might not seriously damage the web of life, that space exploration is a good idea or artificial intelligence is either possible or desirable, are all deeply suspect concepts. And the easy caveat about developing ways to ensure popular control over technology just doesn’t answer anything. It glosses over how incredibly confusing and complicated any kind of genuinely democratic process to evaluate and support specific technological paths would be.
But I’m glad these writings, each in their way, have started us talking about work reduction. We have been going along for far too long without seriously considering this. How would we reorganize material life so everyone alive has a good life and their basic needs met? How would we balance technology and human activity in a dance that reduces work as much as possible, while enhancing the quality of life for the people doing the work, the people who live with the social and ecological consequences of that work process, and the surrounding natural world that also thrives—or doesn’t—depending on how we solve this? Some days it seems that these are solvable and already within our grasp. Other days it seems so outlandish and impossibly utopian that I despair. But like I said near the beginning, despair is probably a healthy response to our bleak reality. That said, there is much beauty, great creativity, and incredible talent and inspiration all around us every day. Imagine if we embarked on a process of reinventing life based on those capabilities and realities, rather than constrained by the stunted possibilities this violence-besotted world of narrow options presents us?