What might a post-work world look like? Such a question pivots on what we mean by work. The kind of disciplined 9-5 wage-labour characteristic of capitalism, where we’re policed by managers and generate profit for business owners, is historically unique. We know, for starters, that hunter-gatherers used to have approximately 4-hour work days, rich in play and collaborative (that is, non-hierarchical) labour, which led anthropologist Marshall Sahlins to christen them the ‘original affluent society.’ We also know that in Greek and Roman times, ‘work’ as we know it was considered the prerogative of slaves; ‘free men’ (and, unfortunately, they were almost always men) were to contribute to society through blossoming into an active citizen and a good friend. Even peasants had quite a different work-regime: various holidays and feasts and religious festivals insured that some only worked around 150 days a year, quite an improvement on our 5 - 6 weeks of holidays [1]. The central point here is that work does not necessarily equal wage-labour, and that how we configure our productive relations is a social question, not a natural one. 

Marx may be useful here. He distinguished between ‘work’ - understood as a universal metabolic relation between nature and society, in which humans furnished the material conditions of social reproduction - and ‘labour’ - a historically-specific form of exploitation in which labour was bought by capital through the paying of wages lower than the value that labour contributed. It’s important here to further historicise this labour-market, which for us represents quite a natural feature of modern life. In a section of Capital, Vol. 1 (1867) entitled ‘Primitive Accumulation’, Marx detailed the violent preconditions of wage-labour as the ‘expropriation of the direct producer,’ or their separation from the ‘means of production’ and the ‘means of subsistence.’ Through events like the English Enclosure Movement in the 18th and 19th century, capital forced peasants off of the land they used to live on, shunting them into the burgeoning cities as a class that lacks access to the necessities of life. Once in the cities, they were forced into horrendous labour for profit-hungry industrialists, through which they were given a paltry wage, that then allowed them to purchase the means of subsistence (rather than access them directly as they did as peasant farmers). Without first cleaving them from their livelihoods, workers would not have entered into the appalling conditions in the factories to make commercial goods for early capitalists. Alongside this separation, they were also thoroughly disciplined into their position as subordinate labourer, to maximise productivity and to crush dissent. Wage-labour, then, is not only historically unique, but is premised on quite violent struggles between classes to dominate one to generate profits for the other. Marx saw this struggle most nakedly in the fight over the length of the working day, where capitalists would literally exploit their workers to death, while trade unions would fight to guarantee a modicum of humanity. Indeed, the only reason we have weekends and work-time laws is because of exactly this kind of class struggle. 

Free-time, then, is an irreducibly political question. And the politics of free-time has had somewhat of a resurrection recently, spurred by the discourse around the looming threat of automation. This has a long pedigree. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren’, in which he predicted that, by 2030, productivity gains would have increased to such an extent we wouldn’t have to work more than 3 hours a day; through the human ingenuity of labour-saving technology, then, Sahlins original affluent society returns. But, as the reader may have already suspected, Kenyes post-work utopia has not come to pass. The problem was not the calculations  - productivity gains have indeed increased to the extent Keynes imagined - but his mistaken understanding of the dynamics of capitalism. Rather than using such productivity gains to expand what Marx called the ‘realm of freedom’ - that is, the sphere of life where each individual can pursue what fulfils them - against the ‘realm of necessity’ - the sphere of life taken up by the work necessary to reproduce social life - capital hoarded it all to increase production and consumption, and thus profits [2]. Capitalism has no interest in expanding our autonomous time; rather, it used the increases in productivity to exploit more and more labour to generate more and more inane goods to be sold for profit. It is no secret that much of what capitalism flogs is utterly superfluous: 32 different kinds of Colgate toothpaste alone, whose putative uniqueness is an artifact of their packaging; poo-shaped pool floats [3]; slippers with crocodile faces [4]; reams and reams of fast fashion that breaks or will be disposed of in a few weeks; and technological goods designed to have short lifespans (so-called ‘planned obsolescence’) so that we’re forced to replace them every year. If this analysis holds, then it places us in the following position: in order to redeem those productivity gains and expand the realm of freedom, we would have to impose our social interests on capital; restructuring the economy so that labour has far more say over what we do with our time, what we produce, and for what purpose.

This restructuring of the economy is necessary for another reason. If we allowed automation to occur without changing ownership structures - that is, who owns businesses, who has a claim to profits - it would tend towards crisis. Automation is a massive problem for capitalism, because in increasing the amount of machines at the expense of labourers, it also decreases the amount of people who have wages and thus can buy the goods being sold. Thus emerges, in Marxist terminology, a ‘realization crisis’, in which the value of the commodities cannot be realized, and thus profits can not be extracted, because there is insufficient demand to buy them. The only way to avoid this, if we do wish to increase automation, is to socialise the ownership of productive assets, so that everyone - not just a tiny few of very wealthy individuals; the future Jeff Bezos’ - can share in the wealth produced by collective technological advancement. 

The final point to make here is to emphasise that such a post-work world is indeed viable. Perhaps a better way of phrasing it is a post-
labour world. Work is an essential part of the human condition; not only is it logistically necessary for social life, but it also provides us with purpose and a sense of self-respect. The thrust of post-labour thinking is not that this must be done away with, but that we can retrieve precisely these positive features - purpose, fulfilment, social value - from the tyranny of wage-labour, in which those are so often undercut by arsehole bossess, terrible working-conditions, and an alienation from the purpose of the work. A post-labour world just means that those types of self-directed activities we usually relegate to hobbies become the fount of meaningful social activity: art, sport, intellectual engagement, care-work, gardening, cooking, political activism, etc. We can imagine these activities coordinated through multi-purpose public spaces providing luxurious and decommodified communal amenities: look here to Helsinki’s central library, Oodi, in which the purpose of a library is expanded to include high-quality music recording studios, film equipment, 3-D printers, woodworking tools. Different opportunities for these kinds of non-market, collaborative forms of work could be specified in public boards, their management conducted through participatory governance bodies where one can book spaces, decide how much resources should be devoted to what, and plan events.

Such a society promises a world where people can explore what gives them joy, and can nurture their capacities in a variety of different ways without becoming fastened to one specific career path. To end with Marx, who envisioned something like this in The German Ideology (1846), such a ‘society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’

[1] See Bob Black, "The Abolition of Work", in The Abolition of Work and Other Essays (1985)

[2] On this distinction and capital's monopolisation of our time, see Martin Hagglund, This Life: Why Mortality Makes us Free (2019)

[3] Nathan Robinson, "I Refuse to Believe This is the Best We Can Do", Current Affairs (2018). Accessed:

[4] Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures, ed. Matt Colquhoun (2021); p.133

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