The Future of Work, Automation and the Left

Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Cyberpunk Dystopian Nightmare, or Something In Between

March 30, 2018

Automation is one of the great buzzwords of the century. As work becomes more precarious and workers more divided from each other and alienated from their labour, more and more jobs are being done by machines – whether it be the robots that assemble cars in factories, or the algorithms that diagnose illnesses and find you the cutest cat pictures on the Internet.

It’s easy to see how this threatens workers - the twentieth century is replete with examples of humans losing jobs to faster, more efficient machines. What might be less clear is the opportunity this presents the left, to turn this technological tide to our advantage. But to do so, socialist movements are going to have to investigate what it is that they wish to accomplish – and maybe change the way they think.

The state of work

Modern society is organized around work. Work informs our relationship with our peers and with ourselves. The needs of businesses and workers shape our cities and the way we structure our lives. Our education system, rather than teaching us how to think and be well-rounded humans, is all about preparing us for an ever-more competitive job-market. Indeed, we’re even encouraged to make fun of people with “useless” degrees, like philosophy, fine art or basket-weaving, simply because they’re unlikely to be lucrative.

There’s a case to be made that we all work too damn much. Many public health officials have warned that sitting at a desk all day and living with the stress of long hours is becoming a public health crisis on par with smoking.

What’s more, most people don’t find the work they do satisfying, or even useful. Anthropology professor David Graeber coined the term “bullshit jobs” to describe the administrative or service industry make-work that so many 21st century workers do. Huge swathes of people in Europe and North America spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe don’t need to be performed. In Marxist terms, much of the population is alienated from its labour. The things that people do find personally satisfying – creating art, spending time with family or friends, devoting time to their religious or social communities – are not lucrative enough to make a living.

We don’t work because it’s necessary, or because it produces things of value, or because it enriches us. We work because our economy is structured in such a way that for most of us, the choice is either work, or starvation. That’s the coercion of capitalism. Despite what libertarians, conservatives and anarcho-capitalists would have you believe, work is not the outcome of a fair contract between two equal and consenting parties. This is especially true under the present conditions of the job market, where the prevalence of contract jobs with no benefits, weakened labour movements, and the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ have resulted in the rise of precarious workers, who must string together multiple unstable gigs just to make ends meet.

The irony is that many of these ‘gigs’ are jobs designed to meet the needs of the rest of the populace, who are working long hours for increasingly diminished “real wages” – jobs like 24-hour food delivery, babysitting, dog-walking and so on.

According to Graeber, if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is dangerous to the social order— look what people did with their free time in the 1960s.

So capital pushes the idea that hard work is its own reward. But this is a recent ideological development (comparatively speaking), combining 16th century protestant moralizing with the rhetoric of 19th century industrial capitalism and the 20th century drives of consumerism and ‘self-fulfillment’. If hard work is its own reward, then why are workers working harder than ever, and miserable about it?

The state of automation

The first decades of the 21st century have been, like the early 20th century, a gilded age where a few ‘captains of industry’ wield enormous wealth and influence. In the 1920s it was Carnegie and Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. In 2018, it’s Musk and Bezos, Zuckerberg and Kalanick. No one can deny that the inventions of companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Tesla have been remarkable – or that they have made their owners and shareholders wealthy beyond imagining.

Silicon Valley represents the essence of late stage capitalism. Jeff Bezos is worth more than a hundred billion dollars, but the employees in his fulfilment centres work in appalling conditions. Google and Facebook programmers work in a futuristic office where the salaries are high, and their every whim is catered to – by a staff of underpaid labourers who have to commute for hours to get to work serving lattes or sweeping floors.

Labour is being automated out of existence. Driverless vehicles are forecast to make up 75% of traffic by 2040, which will leave millions of people unemployed. That technology can be extrapolated out to any machine whose function is to move things from point A to point B – everything from Amazon pickers in fulfillment centres to enormous construction and mining equipment. Amazon is piloting a grocery store sans cashiers. A general purpose robot like “Baxter” can perform many simple tasks, like serving drinks at a bar. So, a bunch of those “bullshit jobs” are going to be eliminated.

Advances in software and hardware are bringing automation to all kinds of fields. Office workers are more expensive and more numerous, from the boss’ point of view – which creates a bigger incentive to automate their labour. Automation could replace 250,000 public sector workers in the UK over the next 15 years. Computer programs talking to other computer programs run the stock market, largely replacing traditional day traders. In many law firms, research bots do a lot of the “discovery labour”. IBM’s Watson is a diagnostic machine, giving guidance on lung cancer treatments. “Thinking” jobs are now automatable as well.

This technology is in the early stages – but the genie is out of the lamp. It’s easy to see why capital favours automation. A machine is not going to take sick days, breaks, or maternity leave. It’s not going to slack off on the job. It’s unlikely to form a union or launch a complaint about unsafe work conditions. Machines can work pretty much all the time – so they can generate more profit. A given bot doesn’t have to be perfect at its job – it just has to be a little bit better or cheaper than a human worker.

During the Great Depression, 25% of the workforce was out of a job. According to some researchers, 40% of jobs will have been automated by 2050. It’s not hard to imagine this turning into a dystopian nightmare. There would be two classes of people – an enormously wealthy and powerful elite class who control the automated labour force and extract their surplus value. And the rest of us, locked into a kind of serfdom – a few lucky people will find their labour necessary, and the rest of us would be superfluous.

Since capitalism has (at best) inadequate mechanisms to provide for a huge population and not enough work, we can anticipate social unrest, alienation, and misery. Some would argue that this future is now, that we already live in a dystopian post-work society. How many of us spend our 8 hour work days actually working, instead of goofing off on Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat? Does your office job, or your UberEats gig, give you a sense of meaning or accomplishment at the end of the day?

Right-wing think-tanks like Reform in the UK encourage people to embrace the gig economy using buzzwords like ‘dynamic’ and ‘entrepreneurial’. Canadian finance minister Bill Morneau infamously told people to get used to job churn – precarity, high employee turnover, short-term contract work. There is lots of worklessness, but no social means of dignifying it.

The cyberpunk genre (of which Blade Runner, Neuromancer and Altered Carbon are good examples) is predicated on a future much like our present, where the world is ruled by amoral mega-corporations, civil rights are under constant attack (if they exist at all), and most people live a miserable alienated existence, using drugs or some version of VR to escape their meaningless lives.

That’s a pretty grim vision of the future - but does automation have to lead there?

The vision of the left

Given that automation is pretty much inevitable, what vision of society can the left propose?

For many people, the solution is Fully Automated Luxury Communism, or FALC - a future where automation has led to a society free of scarcity, where human beings pursue their own interests, contribute to the social good, and fulfill their potential however they see fit. Think of Star Trek, with its post-cash Federation of Planets and replicators, or the science-fiction novels of Kim Stanley Robinson or Iain M. Banks.

The idea of a society where work hours are drastically reduced, leaving people more time for leisure pursuits, has long been a staple of socialism. Even in 1884, the socialist activist William Morris proposed that in “beautiful factories of the future, employees should work only four hours a day.”

Even non-socialist economists predicted that automation would reduce, if not eliminate, the need for tedious labour. John Maynard Keynes, no socialist he, predicted that by the early 21st century, we should have a 15 hour work-week. The advances of the Industrial Revolution should have led to a decrease in human labour – but instead they led to a redistribution of it.

In the present day, there is an anti-work intellectual movement well under way. Aaron Bastani is one such thinker, who was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “There is a tendency in capitalism to automate labour, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions … In recognition of that, then the only utopian demand can be for the full automation of everything and common ownership of that which is automated.”

If the population were able to exert democratic control over the automated labour force, the benefits of that labour would be used not to benefit a few billionaire robber barons, but the whole population. Some propose to fund a universal basic income by taxing the labour or ownership of the mechanized means of production. Some people think we should exert direct democratic control, a kind of robot co-op. Or perhaps we should nationalize the robots.

Whatever form it takes, seizing the robot means of production would go hand in hand with a huge expansion in social programs – guaranteed housing, education, healthcare, and a vastly reduced working week.

Proponents of FALC recognize that this utopian idea seems outlandish – but they’re also quick to point out that, not so long ago, the idea of everyone owning a car or having a 40 hour work-week were also considered unreasonable.

Some on the left are sceptical, if not actively hostile, to the idea of a universal basic income or a post-work society. Leftist organizing for the past century or more has been centered on work. Union struggles tend to be about preserving good jobs, getting good overtime pay, and so on. However, it’s worth noting that up until about 40 years ago, when Unions were still strong, they would often fight for a shorter working week as a way to deal with unemployment.

Some leftist activists don’t believe that it’s realistic to advocate for FALC – they prefer to concentrate on building workers’ power. They are quick to point out that previous waves of automation have never resulted in significantly less labour and more civilized leisure pursuits. It makes sense, when you consider that the development of machines and automated processes tends to happen in privately-owned corporations. Thinkers like Frederick Harry Pitts point out that post-work ideology is driven largely by journalists, academics, artists and so on – not the traditional “working class”. These people would find it relatively easy to adapt to a post-work life. Leftist critics of the post-work ideology tend to critique it as a naïve and defeatist alternative to the harder and more immediate work of making work suck less.

Of course, the capitalist class have a very different critique. They tend to question whether pent-up workers have the ability to enjoy or even survive the freedom that post-work thinkers envisage. The notion of a post-work or even a reduced-work society offends the moralism of many conservatives, who equate not working with moral failure. (Think of the insidious, racist cliché of the “welfare queen”.)

The post-workers argue that this attitude, especially when it comes from the left, is fighting last century’s war. In 1915, the horse population was at its zenith. Horses were essential to human life, even though much of the work they used to do was being taken over by farm machines and automobiles. Few people could envision a world without horses in the labour force. In 2018, we know better. There are working horses still – but their numbers are a fraction of what they were a century ago. In 2018, humans are the horses, staring down the barrel of our own obsolescence.

What’s next?

So, where does automation leave the left? What future does the worker have in a society that no longer revolves around work? The post-workers have spent a lot of time thinking about what a post-work society would look like. Society would be re-oriented to place less emphasis on work as our sole determiner of social value.

A reduced working week could still include routine. Local community organizations might organize activities or meetings. There’d certainly be more time for political organizing and engagement, which any leftist should cheer for. Your work could be spread out throughout the day – by taking a long lunch, for example.

This might also involve a radical re-imagining of the city. Cities are currently built for work and consumption. We could adapt office blocks and other workplaces to reflect a more holistic, multi-purpose usage. Picture a new type of public building – a combination library, recreation centre and communal artist’s studio.

A post work society could also reshape our conceptions of family and home. Life could become more communal, with families sharing kitchens, domestic appliances, and larger facilities. In “Red Vienna” in the early 20th century, the city government built housing estates with communal laundries, workshops and luxurious shared living spaces. This kind of post-work society could even appeal to the “faith and family” conservatives, since there would be more time for both.

This would allow us to focus on the things that actually give our lives meaning, whether that’s faith or family, friendships or romantic relationships, or our hobbies or our art. In the post-war years, when unions were strong, taxes were high, and the social safety network was more robust, art and culture flourished, producing beat-poetry and postmodernism, rock and roll, avant-garde theatre, movements for black liberation, and demonstrations against needless imperialist wars. We could live lives dedicated to fulfilling ourselves, rather than grinding out value for shareholders. That’s the “roses” part of bread and roses.

A glimpse of things to come

There are already mainstream political movements reflecting this shift. The UK’s Green Party has already proposed a 4-day workweek, arguing that a more flexible work week makes people happier and healthier. The shorter week could contribute to making the divisions in domestic labour more equal and would also mean a smaller environmental footprint and fewer carbon emissions, so it would be better for the environment. The Green Party is careful to point out that wages should go up correspondingly, so no one loses out financially. The UK’s Labour Party has gone one step further by flirting with the idea of Universal Basic Income, or more recently, Universal Basic Services, where the basic needs of the populace would be free at the point of use. This would necessarily go hand-in-hand with a reorganization of the economy.

In France, they’ve already introduced a 35 hour work week for all employees, under the slogan Work Less, Live More. Germany’s largest trade union is campaigning for caregivers, parents, and shift workers to have the option of a 28 hour work week.

Even capital sees the writing on the wall. Amazon and Uniqlo have experimented with a reduced working week. Google CEO Larry Page has said he doesn’t see why anyone needs to work a 40 hour week anymore. (Though, of course, many Google employees could afford to earn a day’s less salary, Larry Page included.)


The fact of automation is something the left is going to have to wrestle with, because it’s something the whole world is wrestling with. Workers all over the world are dealing with precarious jobs, stagnant wages, and an uncertain future.

Automation isn’t coming - it’s here. It’s not immigrants taking your jobs, it’s robots. There is a version of the future where everyone enjoys the fruits of automated labour. To bring this better world into being, the left must present a vision of the future we want. We must organize towards that future. We must build solidarity around that vision, with people from all walks of life. We must demand of our politicians that everyone shares equally in the bounty. A better world is possible - it’s just around the corner - but if we’re all going to enjoy it, we must act.


Jeremy Large

Jeremy Large (@JeremyEBSLarge on Twitter) is a freelance writer working and living in Toronto. He’s written fiction, entertainment journalism, screenplays and much more. He was radicalized by Twitter.

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