A sometimes lyrical analysis of the future of work

A review of James Livingston, No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea. University of North Carolina Press

Marx famously did not elaborate much on what society would look like under socialism, often because, it is said, he doubted that he or anyone else would understand the motives and practices that would evolve to meet it. As the Socialist Party of Great Britain put it in the 1970s, "Marx always refused to give any detailed picture of what he expected it to be like: that was something for the working class to work out for itself." Erich Fromm quotes Marx in the last volume of Capital: ""In fact, the realm of freedom does not commence until the point is passed where labor under the compulsion of necessity and of external utility is required. In the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of material production in the strict meaning of the term."

And Fromm quoted a theologian: "Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, "a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality."

Both those sentiments are central to James Livingston's short book, No More Work, which his publishers at the University of North Carolina Press successfully resisted giving his preferred title, "Fuck Work." He thinks like Tillich and he deploys that same quote from Capital.

In 111 pages full of the sumptuous and pungent prose Livingston's confreres on Facebook are accustomed to, he -- a professor of history at Rutgers -- says unequivocally that industrial capitalism is over-financialized beyond the need for work. And so is work as we have thought of it, though both still put up a good front and, persistently, reproduce one of the most pernicious political and psychological barriers to socialism: the notion of the essential dignity of work.

As long as work, with some (even diminishing) compensation, remains available to some (a rapidly declining number) it will continue to be the objective of all, and its absence a principal label of the Other -- particularly those of color. The psychological value of having work is a major prop of the contemporary psyche and where would we be without it? As Livingston says, "Can you imagine the moment when you've just met an attractive stranger at a party, or you're online looking for someone, anyone, but you don't ask: So, what do you do?"

Nevertheless, anywhere from 45 percent (by a New York Times account) to two-thirds of today's jobs are "at risk of death by computerization within twenty years," Livingston says, and indeed the question is not whether it will happen but how acute the crash will be. In a review of Martin Ford's recent Rise of the Robots, the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert cites similar numbers and envisions "economic disruption on an unparalleled scale."

In Livingston's analysis,* this is not a crisis or failure of capitalism but the emblem of its ultimate success, and he deploys history to buttress this notion. Beginning in 1920, he argues, capitalism did not need new profits to produce and maintain the "means of production;" a threshold had been reached, revenues were sufficient to sustain production growth and (incidentally) a surplus of liquid capital had to seek new uses, bringing an era of increased financialization, regular downturns and some big crashes, such as 1929 and 2008. And work began a long, now-accelerating decline as automation coupled with these other forces to hollow out "socially necessary" labor.

The historian Livingston unpacks a fascinating chapter in this decline of work, which has been masked, in a way, by the notorious offshoring of US industrial jobs – curiously, they never (even at their sweatshop wage levels) reproduced the FTE jobs that were lost here. That should have made at least some wonder if something else were not going on.

Early recognizers of this actual end-of-work trend in the 1960s included the dynamic duo of the Iraq invasion, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, then "young guns" in the Nixon regime who were sobered by well-grounded academic research, filtered through and confirmed by the Rumsfeld-run Office of Economic Opportunity, that showed mechanization/automation just plain meant there would not be enough jobs anymore to sustain US families. Their solution was the Family Assistance Plan, which actually passed the House in 1970 and proposed a universal guaranteed annual income for said families, plus subsidized child care. As Livingston says, "what novelist could make this up?"

As we know, offshoring is still being mainly blamed for the job loss though much more of it is due to automation than is generally credited. Kolbert summarizes "How much technology has contributed to the widening income gap in the U.S. is a matter of debate; some economists treat it as just one factor, others treat it as the determining factor."

David Noble, in his 1984 classic Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation, observed that technology (pre-Internet) "has served at once as convenient scapegoat and universal panacea -- a deterministic device of our own making with which to disarm critics, divert attention, depoliticize debate, and dismiss discussion of the fundamental antagonisms and inequities that continue to haunt America." Quoting Emerson that "things are in the saddle, and ride Mankind," Noble took a dim view of the future "technological transcendence" that would purportedly rescue society but which he relentlessly showed was "de-skilling" the shop-floor machinists of the day. That degradation has left the US with an industrial working class subsisting on a memory of abilities and reputation that no longer apply.

Livingston's main concern in No More Work is not the lack of paying jobs supporting families -- a version of the universal guaranteed income, he argues, can and in fact must replace them -- but the ability of workers, especially men, to adapt to a workless life of leisure, when work today and in the modern history of capitalism has been seen as the spine of personal identity and character. "It forces us to imagine a world," he says, "in which the job no longer builds our character, determines our incomes or dominates our daily lives."

His argument suggests that in some way the FAP proponents of the 60s, including Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Treasury Secretary George Schultz, intuited that the relationship between work and income, having declined for years, was becoming apparent to ordinary working folks and what they delicately termed "income maintenance" would become politically necessary. These Nixonian stalwarts were buttressed in this effort by the astounding results of some big, on-the-ground experiments in income support in areas that we now know as the Rust Belt, where the work-income link was already beyond frayed for whole communities. Findings: When people were given more leisure time through income support, they actually worked harder!

As revelatory as this was to the Nixon gang, it indirectly confirms Livingston's concern that the identity value of paid work is so ingrained that the beneficiaries of income support might be the most difficult converts to a proto-socialist, post-work society. Such an arrangement is fiscally affordable (Eisenhower-era corporate tax brackets and an elevated income ceiling on Social Security payroll contributions, Livingston says) but is it psychically affordable for the worker schooled in the "dignity of labor" by his peers or her union? Many of these concerns, too, undergird the Left-Right consensus in favor of "full employment" and caused the House-passed initiative of 1970 to die in the Senate at the hands of liberal-ish skeptics like Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Liberal Democrats advanced the argument for a full-employment policy, not a "full-enjoyment" policy in Livingston's shrewd coinage.

After all, he points out, the Reformation, well before the advent of recognizable capitalism, established the "this-world" focus of the pious worker and family, with visions of advancement in the secular society. Before that, any thinking person of the ruling class would have scoffed at the idea that more virtue was to be gained by working hard than by not working at all. This transformation may have spurred the rise of capitalism, as Max Weber and others documented, but left the worker stuck in a "moral universe where we must earn our keep if we are to be true to ourselves." And the ruling class, once capitalism had arrived in full kit, found that convenient and worth reproducing.

So most of us are not prepared for the present moment, when "that ancient, aristocratic ideal of the good life as release or abstention from necessary labor is now within our reach because the end of work is now in sight." (italics in original) "If," Livingston wonders, "you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society-- as most of us were -- would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?" But what if you can't see the link between work and personal value? "What, exactly, is the point of earning a paycheck that isn't a living wage, except to prove that you have a work ethic?" As he says elsewhere of how this contradiction plays out in increased working-class mortality, "the work ethic is a death sentence because they can't live by it."

Facing this contradiction, "it makes us ask what social scaffolding other than work will permit the construction of character." The FAP theorists "searched for alternatives to work -- they tried to decouple income from occupations. We ought to be in the same hunt." But will this mere decoupling locate the "moral equivalent of work" that the famished psyche of capitalist consumer society needs?

Can micro-alternatives to working for The Man provide the bridge to a post-work society? Livingston has a tepid view of the potential in the worker self-management -- cooperative enterprise movement -- it appears, largely, because he sees it as also reproducing the idea of the "dignity of work" even in its return to the artisanal, pre-alienation vision of stuff to do. His interlocutors on this (which do not include the usual suspects, Alperovitz and Wolff) certainly seem to ride this hobbyhorse as they propose alternative structures within post-industrial capitalism that will achieve, yes, full employment within their own frameworks. They are, however, East Coast semi-academic theorist/consultants who bring to mind the out-of-touch intellectual Democratic elite who populate a major section of Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal. Livingston may have been selective about his straw men, but they make his point.

There are more comprehensive community-based activities such as the Democracy Cooperative's project in Cleveland that instead move beyond the standard AFL-CIO model by seeing workers as also family members and consumers, and viewing "work" as just one of the activities in which the members participate -- but a considered and integrated activity.

As we know, the contrasting standard capitalist practice in an under-regulated though unfree or "rigged" general market, instead, launches production -- and its attendant machinery, marketing and sales -- into a social vacuum, with the accumulation of currency while the fetishism lasts as its sole concern. The results, of course, we see and curse every day.

But these contrasts do not get us past the problem that Livingston rightly poses -- are we as workers so fettered by valorization-through-paid work that we couldn't adapt to the inevitable future where income support allows universal artisanship, a society of fervent concrete hobbyists? The inevitability is no figment of Livingston's imagination, or the likelihood that some form of unearned income support is equally inevitable. The New Yorker's Kolbert says Martin Ford recommends a guaranteed basic income for all, to be paid for with new taxes, levelled, at least in part, on the new gazillionaires.

Kolbert continues:

"To one degree or another," Kolbert continues, "just about everyone writing on the topic shares this view. Jerry Kaplan proposes that the federal government create a 401(k)-like account for every ten-year-old in the U.S. Those who ultimately do find jobs could contribute some of their earnings to the accounts; those who don't could perform volunteer work in return for government contributions. (What the volunteers would live off is a little unclear; Kaplan implies that they might be able to get by on their dividends.) [Erik] Brynjolfsson and [Andrew] McAfee prefer the idea of a negative income tax; this would provide the unemployed with a minimal living and the underemployed with additional cash."

In this low- or no-work milieu, the socialist question -- what would a next society look like if the essential inutility of full-time work were recognized and acted on -- becomes pretty urgent, and Marx's evasion of the question suddenly a betrayal. As Livingston says, "what purposes could we choose if the job -- economic necessity -- didn't consume most of our waking hours and creative energies? What evident yet unknown possibilities would then appear? How would human nature itself change as the ancient, aristocratic privilege of leisure becomes the birthright of human beings as such?" How would a post-scarcity future society look -- other than, for instance, the bridge of Picard's Enterprise?

Here Livingston justifies his chops as a ranking member of the Lyrical Left (his phrase, applied to others) and proves metaphorical and slippery. On the constraint side, he invokes and paraphrases William James: "We still fear emancipation from the fear regime imposed by thousands of years of scarcity" On the affordance side, he pivots on Freud's flat statement that Love and Work are the two main motors of human behavior and"the essential elements of a healthy life." He -- Livingston -- suggests that as work disappears, Love -- and the concrete activities of love, like the always undervalued caring occupations that seem to be the ones least touched by automation -- will be the characteristic value activity of the post-work era. Note that, as we understand when we think about it, love becomes easier as the fear regime recedes or dissolves, as one hopes and expects it would under these new conditions. It could count, without being particularly countable. And (although not cited by Livingston) as our DSA comrade Dr. Cornel West likes to say, "Justice is what love looks like in public."

The above is an unjust paraphrase or summary of what Livingston is getting at, because it must be said that there are many byways in his path to this point, where Tillich's notion of a resistance movement against the destruction of love by social reality are elaborated, Livingston-style. More explicitly he says, in a Coda, "I guess I've been asking if love can replace work -- whether socially beneficial labor, the love of our neighbors, can replace socially necessary labor" as the value factor in our lives. It will have to, he says earlier: it's all we've got when the work is gone.

*What Livingston describes as the "Cliff/Spark notes" on his book was recently published on the Brit online mag Aeon, where a good deal of the introduction and much other material is included for the reader's pursuit.

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