- Interview by
- J. C. Pan
For most of us today, work sucks. Labor is organized around what’s profitable for capital rather than what’s good for our society, and workers have to take whatever jobs they can find just to afford basic necessities. Once we show up for work, we find ourselves under the tyrannical authority of the boss, and most of our effort just goes to swell his bank account.
Socialists have long promised to overturn this exploitative state of affairs. But what does that mean, exactly? “Postwork socialists” have a simple answer: abolish work. In their vision of a postcapitalist society, everyone will be freed from the requirement to work through the provision of a universal or unconditional basic income, while much or even all work will be automated.
In his Catalyst article “Post-Work Socialism?”, political scientist Alex Gourevitch argues that the postwork vision is untenable. He advocates instead for an ideal of “shared labor socialism,” in which everyone will freely share in the burdens of work once it has been separated from capitalist control and exploitation. The Jacobin Show’s Jen Pan recently interviewed Gourevitch about his criticisms of postwork socialism and why we should embrace shared labor socialism instead. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
I want to start with basic definitions. I remember anti-work and postwork having a big moment after Occupy. I thought it was very interesting; there’s a lot of it that I still agree with. Right after Occupy, I knew many people reading Kathi Weeks’s book The Problem with Work. And more recently, we’ve seen another, second wave of interest in postwork/anti-work because of the kind of dialogue around the “Great Resignation.”
In your Catalyst piece, you find value in a lot of postwork thinking. How exactly would you characterize postwork or anti-work thinking? And what do the postwork theorists get right?
Postwork socialism is one answer to the general socialist question: What kind of freedom is a future socialist society offering its members? And [postwork socialists’] answer is: it’s a society without work. It’s one in which nobody is forced to work, because everybody gets an unconditional basic income (UBI) or some other way of unconditionally supplying their basic needs.
And importantly, it’s a society where there’s no work ethic. So it’s a society in which you won’t be ostracized or dishonored or shamed or fail to have some public standing if you choose not to work.
Those two features are equally important in postwork thinking, because the thought is that if you gave everyone a UBI, and they had everything they needed to live, but you still had the work ethic that’s in some way familiar to us, people would still feel such intense social pressure to do work, to do something specific with their time, that they wouldn’t really enjoy free time. The postwork socialist vision is an answer to that question: What kind of freedom do we enjoy in a future society by saying it’s a society not just freed from work, but where people really have free time?
Said like that, it’s obviously a very compelling view. When I first got interested in Marxism, it was through the question: If we have so much technology, why do people work so much?
There’s a few things they get right. One is that there are many jobs in our society that are unnecessary, that suck, that are super exploitative — or that, even if these jobs are in some way necessary or important, they are done under unacceptably exploitative conditions. So postwork theorists get right a basic thought that our way of organizing labor is through force, compulsion, domination — that’s the central mechanism by which a capitalist society gets most of its labor done.
These theorists also get right that the way the work ethic functions in our society is to kind of induce cooperation with that subordination. We’ll get to that later. Maybe I disagree with how they interpret the work ethic, but I do think they get aspects of that right.
The other thing they get right is that there’s a real promise to technology (at least some postwork socialists). The pulse of the people who are more futuristic, like Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and to a degree Kathi Weeks, is that there is this immense, productive potential that capitalism generated and continues to generate — but that, instead of reducing the hours of labor of anybody asked to work, this potential seems to on the one hand just produce unemployment, and on the other hand, make work worse. That’s just a standard Marxian thought. That’s an important thought for them when they think about why we can have a postwork future.
Let’s turn to the question of a UBI. As you point out, this is the main policy proposal of the postwork thinkers: a universal basic income that everybody gets — it’s actually 100 percent universal and basic in the sense that it will ensure a floor of standard of living for everybody. That sounds great.
That does seem like it would undercut employers’ and capitalists’ power — as Erik Olin Wright formulated, workers are not just separated from the means of production but also from the means of subsistence. So if we can at least guarantee the second part of that, that seems like a huge step forward.
But the heart of your article is taking that assumption apart. Why can a UBI, which sounds great, not actually deliver us a postwork society?
In the article, what I’m looking at is the role of the UBI in the wider postwork argument, because there are about ten thousand different kinds of arguments for a UBI, and it’s impossible to address them all at once. They’re actually very different arguments for very different policies. So, I’m not trying to make a general argument about a UBI. I’m just trying to make an argument about how postwork socialism thinks about freedom through this crucial policy device.
The role of the UBI in the postwork vision is that we’re free because all of our basic needs are met, and not conditional on working. So, it’s not partial, and it’s an income — it’s given to you in the form of money, and you then choose the particular basic goods that you’re going to buy. It’s claimed that this UBI emancipates everybody, because it means that nobody is forced to work. And we can be socially indifferent about what people choose to do with their time. That’s the important fact about the UBI and the postwork socialist view.
I think that it’s deceptive, because when they imagine a society like this, they’re saying, “Look, come be a socialist and join our particular struggle, because we’re offering you a future society in which everyone can be free in this way; no one’s going to be forced to work, and we can be indifferent as to how people choose to use their time.” The problem is, in that world, postwork socialists are presupposing the very thing they’re saying they’re freeing us from: the existence of a whole bunch of necessary labor, which they’re then saying nobody has to do. They’re presupposing it because for the UBI to work in that world, there have to be things to buy. And not just any goods, right? It can’t be toy sailboats and tennis balls and paper napkins. It’s got to be the basic goods; we have to be able to meet all of our basic needs by buying the basic goods that we need to survive.
And it’s not just basic goods — it has to be enough basic goods that everybody could buy them at the same time with their UBI. And it has to be not just enough basic goods for today; it’s got to be basic goods plus all the raw materials and industrial machinery that’s available to produce the basic goods for tomorrow and the next day and the next day.
You have to produce and reproduce all those raw materials and do all the production of the machines that are going to produce your basic goods next time: the food, the clothing, the medical care, the teaching, the child care. For the UBI to be emancipating in the way they say, somebody’s got to be producing all those goods that you buy. There’s something very deceptive about saying this is a free society in the sense that nobody is forced to work and we can be indifferent to what people do with their free time. You can say it might be true that [the UBI] is not conditional on any particular individual doing work. But it is conditional on some or even many people doing quite a bit of work to produce those necessary goods.
The postwork response to this criticism would point to technology and automation as a way to deal with the labor that would have to occur in a postwork society. Why does that response not cover all the bases?
If it did, then we wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that some labor has to be done. That’d be good news. But the problem for the postwork socialist view isn’t just that it presupposes the necessary labor that has to be done, and implies it is not a political problem that we have to solve. (I.e. how are we going to determine what counts as the needs? And then who’s going to do the necessary labor? And on what terms? And how’s that going to be distributed?)
Additionally, we have reason to worry that in the postwork socialist society uniquely, nobody would do it. Because not only are people being given this UBI, but also, they’ve attacked the work ethic, which would be the other source of motivation to work. They presuppose necessary labor without acknowledging it and give us reason to believe it wouldn’t be done — in which case, the UBI would be useless, and you fall back into some other labor system.
But then what about automation? The problem with automation is this. I think automation is a partial solution to the problem, but it’s a partial and subordinate one; it’s not the answer. There are many jobs that you could automate. There are many forms of necessary labor that probably would get automated if we already lived in a democratic and socialist society in which we were able to collectively control and decide what’s going to be automated and what isn’t, rather than leaving it up to what is profitable to automate.
But automation is only a partial and subordinate solution because there are some forms of labor that are intrinsically not automatable, like teaching, caring, and all kinds of medical provision. And there’s quite a bit of that labor, especially in an advanced industrial society, where there’s a lot more of that work to do.
There are other kinds of work that you can probably automate, like 90 percent of it. But people still need to do some of it. There’s also the work of maintaining the machines. There’s all kinds of work. Automation gets rid of some labor and creates new labor. And it does that continuously; you can eliminate ten jobs, but you create one or two new ones that the human beings have to do. And then there is the labor of superintendents, which means there are people who still have to be there managing and watching machines.
It’s true that in a democratic socialist society, you could automate away a lot of labor. You wouldn’t just get rid of the bullshit jobs, right? You would get rid of a lot of labor and reduce the necessary labor people have to do to a relatively small share of the workweek. I’m not rejecting that. But there are two other reasons I think automation isn’t as strong an answer as postwork socialists have made it out to be.
First, you can’t automate automation. So, you first have to have a political process of determining what’s going to count as a need. If there’s some political determination of needs, or some social choice about needs to know, then what’s the kind of labor we’re going to call necessary and therefore want to automate away first, or reduce through automation? And automation isn’t self-automating. Sometimes it’s assumed that any task can be automated, but there’s an infinite number of needs that can be satisfied. And machines can’t tell us where we should direct our efforts; at any given moment in time, we can’t automate everything. That’s a political problem.
Second, there’s a way in which necessary labor will increase in a future emancipated society, because human needs will expand. And I think postwork socialists are really vague about this. Sometimes they talk about needs as just what we need to survive. So long as we have our basic needs met, then there are no other needs. There’s nothing else that must be produced. Everything else is just free time.
But part of the point of emancipated society is that our needs expand. It’s capitalism that reduces people’s needs to what it takes to show up to work the next day. But a future socialist society is one in which we have a need for the development and realization of our talents. That requires an immense amount of resources. If you want to be a scientist, or you want to be an urban planner; if you want to stage massive music concerts . . . You can think of a million tasks that require resources. You need access to some share of the means of production, not just the means of subsistence, if what you want is to develop and realize that aspect of you and contribute it to society. So, all that stuff has to be produced, and we have to think of those goods as necessary. There’s going to be an increase in necessary labor.
In your piece, you advocate for something that you call “shared labor socialism.” We’ve already discussed the postwork critique of the work ethic; where does your framework disagree with the postwork thinkers on this? And what do you think a socialist or at least noncapitalist work ethic might look like?
I originally found it unnatural to think this way; I was with the postwork socialists. And when I thought more about it, and especially the question, “Why the interest in the work ethic?”, I came to the conclusion that there’s something fundamental to the postwork view which underlies the work ethic thing: the idea that because work is necessary, it must be unfree.
And I realized that’s just not true. Just because something’s necessary does not make it unfree; what’s necessary is also indeterminate. Some work has to be done, but which work and under which conditions and by whom is not determined. That’s why we have history; we have modes of production, we have different work relations, because that isn’t given to us.
It’s capitalism that constantly reduces work into something merely necessary, just a means to other ends. That’s in part because all work under capitalism is organized around profit. The workers, the conditions under which they work, are determined by whether hiring them and having them work that way is profitable.
But a shared labor socialist society would change the character of the necessary labor, because necessary labor would be shared; everyone would do some, so that nobody had to spend their whole life doing all of it. And it would be work that everyone has a reason to do, therefore, because it means they are not contributing their efforts to a society that just uses them. They’re contributing their efforts to a society that has their freedom as its aim.
You start that by sharing the necessary labor; that reduces the amount that anyone has to do to a relatively small amount. It does create real free time then to use as you like, including to go and develop and contribute your talents if you want. But that would then mean that work has been transformed from something merely necessary into something that is an expression of human solidarity.
Therefore, even that part of the day that is in some sense necessary is something that could be the expression of a kind of duty people have as free people. We only have duties if we’re free — if we can choose to do them for the sake of doing them as duties, not just because we’re forced to. This is actually one of the oldest thoughts in communism; it goes back to Gracchus Babeuf, the first modern communist, who said that we can transform work into a kind of civic act, whereby we contribute our abilities to the creation of society that is organized for the sake of everyone’s freedom.
I know that sounds very abstract, but it matters because it’s the part of the work ethic, even today, that is at once reasonable and incipiently socialist. The postwork view of the work ethic is to say it’s just a capitalist ideology, or it’s just a way of inducing people to consent to their own exploitation.
That’s not the way ideology tends to work, at least not in this case. What it does is take something totally reasonable people think, which is that everybody should do their share. But the problem of capitalism is that there’s no way for people to do their share in a way that isn’t contributing to the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist society. That’s the problem, that their subjective orientation is in conflict with the objective institutional meaning of what they do.
It’s natural for some people to react against that and say the true way out of this ideology is to say, “I refuse, I don’t want to do any work, I’m going to reject work, I’m going to be against it.” But that attitude is just as ideological as the work ethic, because it just flips the whole situation on its head. It says, “Work can’t be meaningful; it can be nothing but a form externally imposed necessity on us.”
A shared labor society would be based on its own work ethic, a widespread norm that everybody ought to do their share. And in fact, if everybody or the vast majority of people were ready to do their share, you wouldn’t need to force them to do it. They would do it spontaneously and freely. You wouldn’t need to compel them; you wouldn’t need to constrain benefits so that people were forced to work for their benefits.
In fact, there’d be good reason to think that we wouldn’t make the share that each person receives of what people produce dependent on how much work they do, because we would want work to be done for noninstrumental reasons. The whole idea would be for work to be an expression of our freedom and solidarity. We wouldn’t attach what you earn to the amount of effort you put in — we would just say you do your share, and in exchange, you get a share of what you need to be a self-developing person who can contribute their talents to society.
Does this conception maybe rest on an assumption about human nature? Because, humans being humans, I can’t help but think there’s always going to be somebody who says, “I’d rather kick up my feet and not do the work.” Maybe talk a little more about how you see this socialist work ethic cohering.
What is human nature, and how do we know it compared to human beings as we have encountered them in a world that we’ve made? Some people think people are always going to shirk; if you don’t force people to work, they’re just not going to work. And that is an old conservative view.
But to the degree that we worry this might be inscribed in our nature, it’s worth pointing out that a future shared-labor socialist society would have social norms; it would have a work ethic, which means that we would tend to disapprove of people who didn’t do their share. We can’t be socially indifferent to what other people do, because no individual satisfies their needs through their own labor — we’re all mutually interdependent.
Our freedom depends upon how we institutionally set this system up and upon what others do. The question is whether we can accept the demands of others as reasons for own actions. So, one answer is, to the degree that people might be naturally reluctant to do their share, in this future emancipated society, there would be social pressure. We wouldn’t force them. We wouldn’t have conscription at gunpoint; it wouldn’t be that you won’t live if you don’t do your share.
But unlike in the postwork view, there wouldn’t be this social indifference toward what people do with their time. You would be socialized into a society in which it was held to be a good thing to be ready to contribute your talents and abilities to society generally and where that would mean you don’t just get total personal choice over your time. There’s social determination of what the needs are, what the valuable contributions are, at least when you’re ready to do your share of what has to be done.
I can’t imagine that social determination not bleeding into how you use your free time generally. We would tend, perhaps, to admire the person who invented this incredible machine that now makes it possible for everyone to dispose of all of their household waste without anyone having to be involved in garbage collection, or something like that. Or perhaps we would admire the person who figured out how to create tunnels from city to city so that we could use underground trains traveling at multiple times the speed of sound; that would be a huge enterprise involving a lot of people using their free time.
So, to some degree, the answer is: people will feel sometimes quite intense social pressure to use their time. But I think, ideally, we’d also tolerate some degree of people not doing it.
The second thing is that it’s true that we enjoy kicking our feet up and socializing and having free time, and there would be a lot more of that. But I think that our sense of what we want to do with our free time is so intensely shaped with how work is organized now that I’m not inclined to think that we can observe how people use their time now as a good guide. People have a reason to want to make a mark on society, to make something of themselves. And at the very minimum, we’d have to live in a society that made it possible for everyone to do that, even if they didn’t take that opportunity. And that would require the resources to do that.
The thought experiment I gave is: imagine we want to make it possible for people to pursue a scientific career if they want it. So that means they’d have to be educated in basic science. Just imagine what it would take for every high school to have a proper chemistry lab, so they could learn chemistry . . . it’s actually a lot. We have a really shitty school system. If you go to private school, or if you go to a wealthy suburban high school, then you have good chemistry labs — what if everybody did?
You have this vision of shared labor socialism — what are the steps or reforms that could put us on that path? The reason I ask is because the big thing for the postwork theorists is the UBI. Are there policy proposals that you think move us in the direction of shared labor socialism?
One very reasonable claim the postwork socialists make is that any struggle, any development of left-wing political struggles, requires a vision of the future — something that makes the struggle worth it, since it’s risky, it’s long term, and many of the people involved now will never see it, that kind of thing. So, the struggle has to be something that’s really compelling.
I wanted to point out that these weird ways in which postwork socialists presuppose the very thing that they say they emancipate us from, and even more so their hostility to the work ethic, are in the end a liability, because all they can end up doing is then seeing people who are committed to the work ethic as politically problematic. They don’t see what’s reasonable about work and the work ethic.
Many people are resistant to a UBI, not for ideological reasons, but for reasonable reasons: they understand that some work has to be done. Therefore, some different kind of political vision is needed to avoid the political liabilities of that postwork view, no matter how much it might seem compelling.
But that’s a negative point. What’s attractive about shared labor socialism is that it overcomes some of the political liabilities of the deceptions and mistakes of the postwork view. But I don’t think I have any political policy to offer that would take us there. And that’s because I don’t think the problem is a policy one — I think the fundamental problem is the lack of a well-organized workers’ movement.
So, the answer to your question is: there’s no way of getting there without a very well-organized workers’ movement, because it would involve a dramatic change in property relations, and it would involve an immense conflict. And that immense conflict can only happen if there’s already a very well-organized workers’ movement that has its own party that it can control in a democratic way, which could be used then to seize the state and reorganize the economy.
I don’t claim to have an answer to this — the form of the answer would be, if there is a policy that would help and assist the development of that movement, then that’s the one.
Sometimes people sniff out that there’s a problem with the UBI in that there’s a suspicious amount of support for it among neoliberals. The truth of that is that, here and now, a UBI is demobilizing, not mobilizing. The clearest example was COVID. We got everyone to stay indoors without protests by paying them off — the most intense form of demobilization that we had had in a very long time. So, the background resistance I have to the UBI is that it, like anything right now, is not going to be the expression of workers’ power, that they will use then to build more power — it’s going to be individuating, individualizing, atomizing.
I don’t think we can really say policy X does something absent the political context, and whose victory that policy is. The problem is a political one. So, all I can do is offer this as a vision that I think is more essential and compelling as a way of thinking about freedom, and which one could offer through the agency of some independent political party.
You know, though you can see UBI getting absorbed into Democratic thinking, I have trouble believing they’d really get it going for shared labor socialism. So I think it would have to be the offering of a real political party independent from the mainstream parties.