August 5 2022
The post-work turn to social reproduction
As ‘post-work’ political perspectives have evolved over the last decade, there has been a marked shift in focus from narrower concerns with the transformation and abolition of waged labour, towards approaches foregrounding social reproduction and the future of care work. The impetus of new theoretical contributions, such as Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now (2019), Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018), and Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek’s After Work (forthcoming) has been joined by renewed appreciation for the insight of established texts in the post-work canon, like Kathi Weeks’ The Problem With Work (2011). Common to all, however, is the attempt to expose all forms of reproductive labour to a process of denaturalisation and socialisation, whereby work is first stripped of gendered and familial expectations, and then reduced via proposals to socially re-distribute such forms of labour. Inspired by the ‘Wages for Housework’ movement, these post-work perspectives draw on its political activism and strategy in attempting to denaturalise and detach domestic labour and care work from notions of femininity.
These critical insights and utopian horizons have, however, largely failed to gain traction when it comes to the futures of work envisaged within prominent green strategies, such as Degrowth or the Green New Deal. This speaks, in part, to a broader lack of engagement between ‘post-work’ and environmental politics to date, where surface level differences have led protagonists to often overlook a number of deeper affinities.
Post-work positions, for instance, are often criticised on the grounds that they promote supposedly ‘abstract’ utopias. According to recent critics like Jon Cruddas or A. C. Dinerstein and F. H. Pitts, the ‘post-work prospectus’ fails to meaningfully engage with ‘real politics’ due to its propensity to create ready-made ‘abstract’ utopias born out of the collective imagination, to be realised in the future only when predicted conditions arise. Preoccupation with narrow, idealised versions of the future push out important and overlooked aspects of reality. Although this account fails to offer adequate engagement with post-work themes and texts other than those focused on technological emancipation, its reductionist critique does point to one wider issue within post-work literature: namely, its inability to engage with and demonstrate the ways in which a post-work future is also a radically green future. The modernist or tech-oriented aesthetic favoured by many post-work thinkers has sometimes left its ecological credentials understated.
A post-work alternative hedonism?
Where we do witness an engaged post-work intervention on care work and ecological politics, is Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living: For An Alternative Hedonism (2020). Soper’s concept of an ‘alternative hedonism’ – an account of collective pleasure beyond contemporary consumerism – concurs with the utopian aspirations of post-work texts in its propensity to foreground and promote an emancipatory potential alternative to capitalist work-based societies. However, while Soper agrees with the maximalist tendencies of post-work positions regarding the political aspiration to use automated technologies to reduce unnecessary toil and economic – i.e. ‘productive’ – output, she imposes a clear limit as to which types of work this ought to be applied to. For Soper, a post-work alternative hedonism should regard care work, for instance, as its political limit rather than its aspiration:
An alternative hedonist would certainly welcome the role of automation and green technologies in making free time more available but need not accept that domestic and caring tasks – the work of running a house, and especially looking after children and tending to the less fit and able – are just a drain on time, to be handed over, wherever feasible, to automated systems.
Soper’s ring-fencing of care work can, in part, be attributed to a limited and homogenized account of post-work as simply a form of left accelerationism – her only real reference points are Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future (2015) and Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2019). Soper, like its critics, presents post-work positions as a form of abstract technological utopianism. In doing so, she excludes the rich tapestry of feminist post-work perspectives mentioned earlier that foreground a politics of reproductive labour centred on denaturalisation and socialisation, over and above the role technology can play within achieving certain progressive political ends. Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek’s forthcoming book on this subject, After Work, is illustrative of a feminist post-work approach to social reproduction that advocates technologies of care as one element in a wider process of political transformation. For example, Hester and Srnicek suggest, worker-led automation steered by the self-identified needs and wants of those in receipt of care, would work in consonance with policies aimed at re-thinking the organisation and design of the domestic home as a place of work. A ‘public luxury model’ would not only aim to relocate some forms of social reproduction beyond the single-family home – something Autonomy has explored through the idea of Long Term Care Centres – it would also offer a revived commons in which state support for free time infrastructure (parks, recreation facilities, the arts) would be expanded and understood as collective and ecologically sustainable resources.
Care in a green future
Indeed, Soper’s account of post-work positions on social reproduction is illustrative of the limited ways in which green strategies around care work are becoming formalised within mainstream politics. For example, many Green New Deal and Degrowth policy positions have reformulated care work into either a ‘green job’ or a form of ‘voluntary simplicity’ within their vision of a post-carbon future. Whilst recognising the undervalued, underpaid nature of care work in capitalism today, in addition to understanding its ‘sustainability’ (both in terms of a low carbon footprint and its essential nature for human development and support) must be welcomed, what’s needed is the critical lens offered by feminist post-work perspectives on such an approach.
For example, by adopting an industrial strategy based on mass job creation through care work, do we miss alternative approaches that foreground socialising and denaturalising this type of work as a more sustainable and progressive alternative to creating ‘good jobs’? In addition, by classifying care work as being innately ‘labour-intensive’, do downscaling strategies premised on reducing societal waged labour exclude care work as a special case, as a form of non-work that cannot or should not be minimised? When imagining radical transformations to a post-carbon economy, we need to ensure that received notions of ‘work’ are not simply reproduced.
These are questions that require sustained deep thinking. By directly engaging with Degrowth and Green New Deal strategies, my ongoing research in this area aims to bring post-work ideas into conversation with their respective visions on the future of work. Moving beyond productivist notions of social reproduction can widen the utopian horizons of both movements’ approaches to the future of care work. In addition, contemporary green strategies can help ground post-work’s utopian vision within concrete political movements.
Kyle co-founded Autonomy and leads on shorter working week consultancy and research. With Will Stronge, he is the co-author of Overtime (Verso, 2021).