Tag Archives: labour

partially-automated bi-utopian communism

I’ve been quietly impressed by the ubiquity of Aaron Benanav across a variety of venues as he promotes his recently-published book Automation and the Future of Work, of which I received a copy a while back. Benanav’s been a guest on blogs and podcasts aplenty, and I’m glad to have read and listened to some of them, despite not yet having gotten round to the book itself. I suppose it’s a mark of a successful promotion drive that these encounters have encouraged me to bump the book higher in my TBR queue—though that of course assumes that the message of the book itself is of interest.

Which it very definitely is. His main point, which is made all the more persuasively (for me, at least) for its lack of spectacle and hyperbole, is that the very commonplace thesis that “robots are coming for our jobs!” is wrong. Benanav’s refutation starts from the erroneous use of unemployment rates as a proxy indicator for lack of labour demand; the latter is very real, he argues, but the former misframes the issue in a way that leads to mistaken conclusions, via a focus on the technoutopian spectacle of OMG ROBOTS. The actual situation, he says, is “that 45 years of economic stagnation and welfare state retrenchment, rather than workplace automation, are the forces making for a severe global jobs problem. It is a problem that long predates recent high tech innovations.” But there’s an interesting bit of intellectual judo, here, in that Benanav then goes on to say that we can achieve something like the fully-automated-luxury utopia promised by the automation evangelists without the need for the automation: instead, we reorganise and redistribute the work that still needs doing.

What I didn’t expect—but maybe should have?—was that Benanav draws a fair bit on utopian theory (an interest rooted in a life-long interest in science fiction). He talks about two models for workers’ emancipation, the first being the old autonomy/worker-controlled-workplace vision, and the second being the perhaps more modern (and more utopian?) vision of being free of work in the sense of being able to quit and do something else “beyond work”. The former is more appealing to those of us who do what we might call non-bullshit jobs, who value what we do, but wish we were able to do it for a reasonable number of hours a week, without being steered by MBAs who don’t understand the work they’re trying to manage; the latter is more appealing to someone loading the dishwasher at Wetherspoons, or pushing pedals for thin tips on Deliveroo. Benanav’s point is that a successful vision of a reconfigured society needs to accommodate both of these utopian urges:

People within emancipatory politics are going to have to think about these two visions of emancipation and the way that they relate to work and the possibilities within them. The inspiring vision of the future will likely be one that speaks to both experiences: on the one hand, transforming meaningful work to be done better—with greater worker (and consumer) control—and, on the other hand, working less. There is a connection, although not a direct one, between these different concrete experiences of work and the sorts of places people find it easier or more meaningful to engage in struggle and conflict. My sense is that engaging with utopian literature, even the misguided techno-utopianism of the automation literature, is worthwhile as a way to build a stronger emancipatory movement.

Further on in this interview, he hints that this distinction is mirrored in a comparison of Morris’s News from Nowhere and Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread: in the former, work becomes the true fulfillment of life, while in the latter, the lack of work provides the space for fulfillment to be found (or created).

So, yeah: while I can’t yet recommend the book on the basis of direct experience, I’m pretty sure that I will be able to do so once I get round to reading it. In the meantime, maybe take the opportunity to listen to the man make his own arguments? This episode of New Left Radio is ideal:


On Monday I finshed a (long-overdue) chapter for an academic handbook on placemaking. I outlined the thing months ago—almost half a year ago, in fact—but then life happened (and then the virus happened), and it got shunted onto the backburner. And so when I came to actually cranking the thing out, a process which I started on Saturday, I pretty much had to reconstruct it wholesale from a list of bullet points and sketched references which it seemed that someone else had written (albeit a someone else who knows a great deal about my field and my work and my theory). The first of three sections was about as much fun as ploughing a concrete field with a rusty Soviet-era tractor, but the other two came more easily. Unusually for me, I only overran my wordcount by about 20%… but given I know that’s just how I work, and given I know that the editors will inevitably want to cut a bunch of stuff, I just filed it on Monday night with the overrun, and with the intention of fixing it when the rewrite request comes in.

Then came a day of what I think of as a form of post-partum depression (with apologies to anyone who can or has actually given birth, for what may be a distasteful metaphor coming from a cis-man). For as long as I’ve been writing, the completion and submission of a work is always followed by a period in which I loathe what I’ve just released into the world, and loathe myself for having created it. I think it was perhaps exacerbated yesterday by the more general circumstances, which are stressful and angsty to say the least, but it’s a familiar thing now—and I guess the familiarity makes it easier to deal with, as does the relative stability of my life compared that from which earlier work emerged. (Submitting my PhD thesis destroyed me for about a fortnight, for instance—as did both sets of corrections. And my story “Los Piratas…”—OMG, don’t even go there. I think it worked out well in the end, but it was a horribly self-destructive act of creation.)

This is mostly a note-to-self: I spent most of yesterday reading work by other people online, people doing what seems to be an amazing job of thinking through the current situation, collating ideas and citations and themes into admirably coherent examinations of the issues… and, perhaps most importantly, producing. Everything I read just made me feel like a monstrous fake, a fraud.

Classic imposter syndrome, amirite? Not to mention an internalisation of the neoliberal logic of valuing oneself through the lens of arbitrary and ulitimately unquantifiable metrics of productivity. I managed to deal with it, in the end, by sitting down and cranking out an outline for the next piece of long-overdue writing that’s in the pipeline… as I just remarked to C, you’ve gotta get back on the horse after it’s thrown you, right? I worry that by doing so I’m effectively doubling down on the neoliberalisation-of-the-self thing… but given the enduring inescapability of that ideological context, I guess there’s not much to be done about it. More immediately, however, it’s good to know that there’s a way of dealing with the self-doubt that still accompanies any significant act of creation on my part—which I knew already, in a way, but which I somehow still forget every time.

The point of the work is the work.

contra Maslow

I really should have guessed, but I never did know that Ol’ Man Maslow was a management consultant. Sam Haselby at Aeon:

Why was corporate America drawn to [Maslow’s] hierarchy of needs? They liked it because it offered both a grand narrative and master explanation for human psychology in a changing society and a practical guide to managing people. It is precisely in the tension between these two visions of the hierarchy of needs – the reductive diagram and the rich social theory – that the hierarchy of needs acquires its power and its politics.


It is certainly not coincidental that a motivational theory dubbed the ‘hierarchy’ of needs was adopted in companies ruled by hierarchical organisational charts. The hierarchy of needs could all too easily map onto work hierarchies, with jobs at the top providing more scope for self-actualisation (while also commanding higher paychecks). Uneven distributions of work and workers surround the promise of self-actualised work; devalued work, which we don’t expect to bring satisfaction, and on the flipside, overvalued work, supposed to be all of life.

Haselby goes on to note that Maslow was not the origin of the notion of self-actualised labour, and points to Max Weber. But of course Weber got at least some elements of that notion from Marx… and I imagine someone better read in Marx than me could make a case that he in turn probably picked some of it up from Adam Smith and the other “bourgeois economists”. Which is not to rag on Marx, as such, so much as to point out (as many far smarter people than me have done before — IIRC, this is a major plank of Gorz’s Critique of Economic Reason, not that I’ve read the thing myself) that, perhaps inescapably, even the most critical understandings of capitalism end up accepting some of its fundamental assumptions.

This is, at a guess, because those assumptions long preceded capitalism’s emergence.… Weber put it down (at least in part) to the Protestant mind-set, after all, and Nietzsche was perhaps getting at a similar (though broader) point when he spoke of “slave morality”. So perhaps there’s a specifically Christian or even Abrahamic root to the notion of self-actualisation through work… though that’s perhaps a very blinkered and western thing to say, I dunno. Any thoughts out there?