Imagining a World Without Work

At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, someone asked American suffragette and political activist Mary Elizabeth Lease what she thought the world would be like in 100 years’ time. Lease had a bold answer: “By the end of the next century,” she predicted, “three hours will constitute a long day’s work. And this work will liberally furnish infinitely more of the benefits of civilization and the comforts of life than 16 hours’ slavish toil will today.” As we say here in the 21st century: LOL. Sadly, Lease’s prediction hasn’t exactly come true. But you can see why she made it: she imagined that in the 21st century, we’d have all these wonderful machines that make our lives easier! Instead, it’s one of the paradoxes of capitalism that while the amount of labor dedicated to keeping us alive is growing ever smaller, the amount of work we’re actually doing is growing ever larger.

When I mean by labor dedicated to keeping us alive is exactly that: by pretty much any measure, the constant stream of new technology, dating back to the Industrial Revolution, means that less labor is required to feed, clothe, and maintain the human race than at any other point in history. Our population has increased exponentially, and yet, it’s national divisions and politics that condemn millions to poverty and starvation, not an inability to support such a huge number of people. This is, of course, especially the case in First World countries. Take the US agriculture industry, for instance — in 1900, seven years after Lease made her prediction, 41% of the US workforce was employed in agriculture. A century later, it was 1.9%. That translates to roughly 11,680,000 people in 1900 and 2,721,712 people in 2000. The reasons for this are intuitive enough: the advent of industrial farming, the globalization of supply chains, and so on.

You can boil all these factors down to technology: the machines that allow for intensive farming, the jet planes that fly food in from around the world, the incubators that drag chickens into premature maturity so they can be slaughtered all the earlier. All of this means that the amount of human input required to feed America is vastly reduced from what it was 100 years ago. There are externalities, sure — the labor required in the Mexican fields that ensures we can have bananas and avocados all year round, the ongoing and often disastrous impact on the environment of intensive farms, the health and safety issues that arise from the nature of factory agriculture.

But on the whole, we’re looking at a country where only one in a hundred of us is working to keep all of us fed, whereas a hundred years ago it was 40 out of every hundred. Other necessities of life? The construction industry currently employs about 4.7 million in “production and nonsupervisory roles,” which means that about another two in a hundred are keeping roofs over out heads. You can count off other essential industries yourself: health, transport, sanitation, etc. But even if you factor all those in, there’s still a whole lot of workforce left over. Of course there is! The US population has quadrupled, more or less, in the last century, while the amount of the jobs we’re looking at has declined, not just in per capita terms, but in absolute terms: there are four times as many people and fewer jobs.

What are the rest of us doing, then? You know the answer already: we’re not working three hours a day and gamboling in the sunshine for the rest of the time, carefree in our liberation from the necessity to work. No, we’re working harder than ever. That’s not to say that all jobs outside of primary production are worthless, of course. But a lot of them exist because they have to exist, because if they didn’t exist the whole machine would grind itself into a shuddering, shrieking mess. David Graeber addressed this phenomenon in detail in his definitive 2013 essay on this subject, “Bullshit Jobs,” which does pretty much exactly what its title might suggest: it examines the idea that, “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”

The reasons for this, again, are intuitive enough: our entire economy is based on a continuous cycle of production and consumption, a perpetual motion machine that would disintegrate completely if it ever came to a halt. We work to earn money to spend on consumer goods whose production keeps others working. We can’t just stop working, because if we did we’d stop earning money, which would mean we’d stop spending money, which would make businesses nonviable, which would result in the jobs they create becoming nonviable, which would mean those people would stop working, and so on.

This hasn’t seemed to concern anyone greatly over the last hundred years, largely because the jobs that are being automated out of existence are the traditional domain of the working class, which is fine, because hey, we can always find more menial jobs for them — so it is that people who a century ago would have been cropping fields or mining coal now work for a pissant minimum wage in fast food restaurants. Automation allowed for the replacement of skilled, unionized workers with unskilled, non-unionized labor. This is the legacy of the production line: if you’ve got a guy whose job is essentially to be the cog in a giant machine, then he can be replaced just as easily as a cog in a giant machine.

So it is with a lot of minimum wage jobs these days — they work just like production lines. Anyone can work in a McDonald’s, and that means anyone working at a McDonald’s is replaceable. The people reaping the benefits of automation aren’t workers whose lives are ostensibly being made easier by the machines to which they’re chained; it’s the people who run companies whose entire raison d’être is paying unskilled laborers as little as possible and watching the profits roll in.

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Such is the story of labor in the 20th century. The 21st, though? As Zeynep Tufecki’s fascinating essay in Sunday’s New York Times magazine notes, “machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs. Not just low-wage jobs, either.” As one might expect, those machines started by making life even more difficult for the working poor — Tufecki cites the example of call centers, which are essentially labor sinks for the unskilled and the unlucky, where jobs consist of reading off scripts and being shouted at by irate consumers whose problems you’re never able to solve, even if you wanted to.

In other cases, it’s not so much that technology is replacing workers as it is making their lives untenable — the telematics software explored in Esther Kaplan’s excellent recent essay for Harper’s, for instance, or the insane layouts and algorithm-optimized operating schedules of Amazon warehouses. In both those cases, we have technology being used to make people act as much like machines as possible — except, of course, we aren’t machines, and trying to operate like them tends to leave us sick, disillusioned, and burned out. But again, who cares? The way our economy works means that there’s a pretty much infinite supply of minimum wage labor to replace the parts that break down.

What happens when machines start squeezing out the middle class, though? It’s already happening; I can easily book an airline ticket without a travel agent, for instance, something that would have been a massive pain in the ass 25 years ago. If I had the cash to buy stock, I could happily do so without a stockbroker. What happens when the job you went to college for ends up being done by a piece of software that can do it faster than you can? What happens when the surgery you need can be performed more reliably by a machine than a doctor who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a college education? What happens when I can walk into a shop off the street, get cheap laser eye surgery from a machine and dispense with the need for optometrists forever? What happens when someone creates software that can read and synthesize more thought about the nature of capitalism than I ever could, and suddenly it’s that machine writing this essay instead of me?

graeberThere are two answers, it seems to me: the first is that such machines can’t be allowed to exist. Graeber addresses the idea of how the pace of technological innovation has largely shifted from grand research projects into the creation of consumer goods (ones that have to be replaced every couple of years by a newer, fancier model) in his essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” which was originally published by The Baffler and is also part of his (excellent) new collection The Utopia of Rules. Under this model, the future largely resembles the present, only your iPhone’s a bit faster and your computer’s a bit lighter. (This idea of mundane futurism is certainly manifesting in culture of late, as I discussed here.)

The other is that we reach some sort of critical point for capitalism, one at which the disconnect between the necessity to work and the futility of work becomes so great that some sort of change is required. We’ve already seen that this doesn’t happen if the people getting screwed are the working class: short of armed revolution, there’s not a lot they can do to effect change, and even those uprisings tend to be ultimately futile. (The Luddite riots of the early 1800s didn’t slow the Industrial Revolution, and in any case, the concerns of the Luddites that the machines would put them out of a job seem both charmingly naïve and disturbingly prescient — if he was alive these days, Ned Ludd would probably be flipping burgers for a living.)

If the middle class gets upset, though, that’s a different story. Suddenly you have revolutions like Pinochet in Chile and Franco in Spain, which served to protect middle-class interests against a perceived socialist threat, or revolutions like those of 1989 or thereabouts, which served to provide space for a burgeoning middle class to grow. These revolutions tend to stick, because of course they do: in a system of global capitalism, revolutions that institute or promote capitalism are likely to be successful.

In the 21st century, though, the existential threat to the middle class might come from capitalism itself. Or, more accurately, it might come from the form of accumulative capitalism in which we live at the moment, one where wealth concentrates at the top, creating an ever sharper pyramid that squeezes more and more people into its bottom portion. That sort of pyramid is unstable. We tend to imagine that if it does fall, it’ll come crashing down; the other option, though, is that perhaps we reach a point where the idea of work as a goal in and of itself, and the resultant demonization of the poor as work-shy scroungers by a parade of opportunistic politicians, comes to an end.

What would such a world look like? This isn’t really a question that we see addressed in popular culture these days — most examples come from the days when the future was still seen as a wonderful place, creations of the ’50s and ’60s like the Jetsons. Dystopian fiction is currently all the rage, a trend that my colleague Jonathon Sturgeon traced back to Hurricane Katrina, to fascinating effect. There’s Wall-E, where humans do so little that they’re basically immobile, leaving robots to clean up after them. In this model, the working class has been entirely absorbed into the middle class, its labor entirely automated. It’s not exactly a positive view, though — we don’t see humans creating or being highly evolved and wonderful. Instead, we’re presented with them as fat, lazy slobs incapable of wiping their own asses. Work, Wall-E seems to want to tell us, is a necessity.

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It’s a failure of the popular imagination, I think, as much as it is a measure of the ubiquity of capitalism, that we can’t seem to imagine a world without capitalism — unless that world is some sort of post-apocalyptic dystopia where capitalism has been torn asunder by external forces. And even then, the specter of capitalism looms large — take The Matrix, where humans have literally become part of a machine that exists only to further its own existence. (It’s no accident, I’m sure, that Agent Smith gives a speech about the first version of the Matrix being one where humans existed in utopia: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?” he asks Morpheus. “[A world] where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program.”)

We can do better than this, though. We have to. The great myth of the “free market” capitalism in which we exist today is that it’s the best of all possible worlds, that it might not be perfect but it’s the best we can do. This is a line that’s often wheeled out by right-wing demagogues with interests to promote — none other than George W. Bush pronounced “democratic capitalism” to be “the best system ever devised” in an address to the nation in September 2008. This is demonstrably untrue — for a start, pretty much every other First World country, and plenty of non-First World ones, manage to gives their citizens universal healthcare — but even if it was true, “best to date” doesn’t mean “best possible.”

The paucity of depictions of a post-work society in pop culture seems to reflect a defeatist mentality, the idea that such a world can never and will never exist. The prevalence of dystopian fiction clearly reflects a growing pessimism about the future, a sort of impotent cynicism that holds that this is the way things will always be, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And, of course, the fact that none of us have ever lived in anything but this capitalist system makes it feel somehow wrong to imagine a world where work isn’t venerated as a virtuous thing in and of itself. People tend to recoil instinctively from ideas like guaranteed minimum income, despite the distinct possibility that it’s exactly what is needed to rectify some of the structural problems of the economy as it exists today — even the idea’s proponents scurry to make it clear that it’s not a disincentive to work.

But why shouldn’t it be? Or, more importantly, why don’t we address the most significant disincentive to work: that the majority of it is a giant waste of everyone’s time on this planet? Work has value if its product is valuable. Someone digging a hole to install, say, a storm drain, is valuable labor; someone digging a hole so someone else can fill it in is a waste of both people’s time, even if it provides them both with a job.

If we’re to devote our imagination to anything, it shouldn’t be ways to outpace the machines, or what might happen when they take over completely. It should be how our economy might work in a world where consumption isn’t a sort of economic ouroboros, where all the hole digging that is required gets done and everyone else finds something better to do with their time. If economists think about such a world today, it’s with trepidation. For the rest of us, though, imagining a world where bullshit jobs are a thing of the past… that’s a challenge we should relish.