Assessing the Jobless Future

by Rob Horning

27 April 2010


I found this Matt Yglesias post pretty inspirational, even though I can’t bring myself to agree entirely with it. He writes that “it’s more possible than ever for people’s non-commercial labors to have a meaningful impact on the world,” an idea that is basically the driving force behind my writing this blog.

Though I think the future he envisions is fairly attractive, I wonder about the process he sees as getting us there. Basically, he argues that capitalism’s progress is slowly producing more time for nonmarket production and clearing space for nonmarket relations—an almost counterintuitive claim considering how technology has tended to blur the distinction between work and leisure, between public and private, between friendship and networking and so on.

It turns out that welfare state capitalism just is the alternative to capitalism. After all, if you look at how life in the developed countries has changed from 1930 to 2010 what you see is that people spend more and more time in school, more and more time retired, and more and more time on vacation. In other words, people are step-by-step liberating themselves not from market capitalism as a means of obtaining consumer goods but from wage slavery in the worker-capitalist relationship.

We’ll do less meaningless work for bosses and more meaningful work for ourselves. Sounds great. Dalton Conley puts this same idea slightly differently in Elsewhere, U.S.A.: “The very rhythms of most professionals today could be clearly seen in the natural light of the artist live-work lofts of 1960: an integration of home and work; odd hours; individualized, nonsalaried work; status insecurity; and so on. We are all artists now.” Another way to put this is to argue that we are all being forced into the gig economy.

Whether one views that trend positively or negatively hinges on whether you regard the nonsalaried life as liberating or insecure. Yglesias seems to imagine a robust welfare state supporting us to produce on our terms at our leisure. Others imagine chronic unemployment producing civil disorder and urge a fight to preserve jobs that may be economically moribund. Yglesias, in this post, regards the chief ideological fight as contesting the terrain of leisure—pundits want us to hew to something like the Protestant work ethic to combat the pernicious income effect. Yglesias writes sarcastically: “Don’t people know that they were put on this planet to work! How dare we, as a society, take some of our increased productivity in the form of an increased measure of liberation from our employers rather than more material possessions?” But he doesn’t articulate what drives people to argue for more work and more consumption—the need to sustain economic growth and capital accumulation. The way to square the circle, resolve the ideological argument, is to develop ways to capitalize on immaterial labor—people’s unmanaged, voluntaristic work in self-actualization becomes a resource for capital (self-disciplined workers who don’t require management) even if the leisure-laborers don’t notice and/or get paid in attention rather than wages. By these means, “nonmarket production” gets sneaked back into consumer capitalism, though the social relations of production are changed or obscured. The boss-worker relation is transformed; hierarchical, centralized management gets dispersed into a cloud of peer-to-peer relations. But consumerism remains, as does the alienation of regarding oneself as a firm or a brand.

It’s also worth noting here that arguments about the “jobless future” that productivity and technology would bring us have been kicking around for a while; the Left Business Observer‘s Doug Henwood was casting a skeptical glance at them back in the mid 1990s, when books like futurist Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work were being published. Henwood observes that “Throughout history, capitalism has constantly drawn new people into paid labor, though the demand for jobs always outstrips the system’s capacity to provide them.” This tenuous balance is a defining quality of capitalism: maintaining enough job growth to make wage labor the norm while preserving a reserve army of the unemployed to keep those wages low enough to protect the exploitative arrangement. If wages being paid in the form of leisure are growing, it may be because capital has discovered a new mode of exploitation. Building on Marx’s oft-quoted passage on machines in the Grundrisse, Henwood writes, “the social knowledge and coordination behind technological production could make possible a more leisurely and humane way of life, but instead is used for the accumulation of money.” That seems a pertinent rejoinder to Yglesias’s hopeful view.

It also seems like there is something missing from Yglesias’s wrap-up:

For rich countries—productivity growth, social insurance, and efforts to improve public health all aiming at allowing people to live more and more of their time outside the bonds of commercial work. For poor countries—capitalism, to get the process of prosperity and social betterment rolling. At the interface between the two—a generous and humane approach to migration issues so that people can have the freedom to escape bad situations, and a trade regime that aims at facilitating the exchange of goods rather than coercing poor countries into adopting the preferred policies of rich world companies.

The problem of de facto imperialism—of rich countries exploiting the opportunities provided by the poverty of poor countries (as a cheap labor pool mainly)—must be accounted for. What if the prosperity of rich countries depends to a degree on the poverty of poor countries, and inequality is structured into the global economy? Capitalism works by finding competitive advantages—i.e. weaknesses or conditions of uneven development to exploit. In theory, by finding these weaknesses, they will be exploited away—the way arbitrage is supposed to eliminate profit opportunities in finance. (Emphasis on supposed to—this paper by Andrei Shleifer and Robert W. Vishny (pdf) discusses the limits to arbitrage). But in practice, effort can be invested instead in preserving the uneven development to protect the vested interests in a given situation. The “interface” between rich and poor countries may be set up to preserve that distinction—perhaps what Yglesias is saying is that political activism should be directed toward making sure that isn’t the case and instead assure that the interface works to dismantle its own necessity as all countries presumably become rich.

So anyway, yes, by all means, more shared prosperity, more non-commercial production and meaningful work and social relations not determined wholly by capitalist production. I’m just not sure that the self-branding that has developed with the networked society is delivering all that or moving us in that direction; it seems that it may be yielding something more mixed, something that demands (like so much else) our concerned ambivalence.

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