Framing the Future

A review essay by David Frayne

October 2018

In September this year, the Trade Union Congress announced plans to introduce the four day working week as an official policy objective.  The TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, argued that combined with decent pay, a shorter working week could allow workers to ‘share the wealth from new technology’.  The stated goal of a shorter working week is to transfer some of the benefits of productivity gains from the shareholder to the worker. Instead of technological development being geared towards intensifying work and increasing profit, it could be directed towards giving workers more free-time.

The same proposal for a shorter working week has also been supported on different grounds, more palatable to business owners. The ‘business case’ for the shorter working week echoes popular justifications for the work-life balance campaigns of the early 2000s.  Its argument is that a shorter working week could be good for businesses because workers who have more free-time are less stressed, and are more likely to remain loyal and productive.

What we have here is a case of one policy and two framings – one geared towards worker’s interests, and one focussing on the business.  There are also supporters who fall somewhere in between, describing the policy as a ‘win-win’ for businesses and workers.  Watching the debate unfold in the weekly cycles of commentary on the likes of Twitter and the Guardian, a question I now regularly ask myself is how much does framing matter? Does the way people argue for alternative economic policies alter the reach of their outcomes?  Campaigners understand the obvious rhetorical benefits of making a case in terms that are more palatable to economic rationality.  But to what extent does couching alternatives in terms of existing values and priorities limit their transformative potential?

Post-work writers and campaigners may never reach a definitive consensus on such questions, but it remains important that we ask them, especially as policies such as the shorter working week and Universal Basic Income gain traction.  There is a lot to debate, and perhaps no better time to read James Chamberlain’s new book, Undoing Work, Rethinking Community (published in 2018 by Cornell University Press).

The central challenge that Chamberlain sets before us is to think in more explicit ways about the ethical ideals, political aspirations and utopian fantasies that underpin alternative labour market policies, especially as they enter the political mainstream or garner support from unexpected places.  Chamberlain’s feeling is that the framing does matter and, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s maxim to ‘think what we are doing’, he urges those who support transitions to a less work-centred future to strive for clarity about the nature of their demands.

Unthinking Work, Rethinking Community by James Chamberlain (2018)

Incursions on Freedom

In the book’s opening chapter, ‘The Ends of Work’, Chamberlain cements his intention to frame his own approach to the problems with work in terms of their incursions on freedom.  Avoiding the dizzying scale of philosophical debates on the nature of freedom, Chamberlain takes a fairly straightforward definition as ‘the capacity of agents to act according to their own values, needs, and desires, or ends, for short’ (p.10).  As he explains, this idea of freedom requires more than the absence of coercion or interference; it also requires a social context that allows people to satisfy their biological needs, and provides scope for people to collectively express themselves, deliberate, and experiment with different ways of living.  Proceeding on the basis of this definition, Chamberlain opens his book by exploring the work-centred society’s main offences. His insights here will be familiar to anyone absorbed in post-work ideas, but the book does a useful service by grouping the main critical themes into categories.

The first is a lack of choice about whether to participate in employment. As Chamberlain reminds us, in the commercial structures and dominant norms of capitalist societies, there are few opportunities to access what we need other than through a work-generated income, and few ways to gain social recognition and respect without having a job.  The norm is that people work, to earn, in order to purchase the things they need and want on the market, and – through these activities – gain recognition and become ‘good citizens’.  This lack of genuine choice about whether or not to work is heightened by commercialisation, which reshapes our social and institutional environments in ways that make it harder to meet needs without income.  It is also heightened by the stigmatisation of people without jobs, given extension through social policies designed to ‘activate’ people into work.  Such policies serve to monopolise people’s time and energy with work-related activities, even outside employment. Ultimately, most people have little choice about whether or not to seek employment, and Chamberlain sees this as a major incursion on freedom.

The second set of infractions refers to those that take place within the workplace.  Chamberlain explains how deep changes in the nature of work, currently tied to forces like globalisation, deregulation, accelerated technological development, and the reduced influence of collective institutions like the state and unions, have all functioned to decrease the power of workers to shape the terms and conditions of their work.  His discussion makes one think of popular examples of workers pushed to the brink as they struggle to meet performance targets in call centres, have their movements tracked by handheld computers in Amazon warehouses, or battle unmanageable workloads in the corporate university.

Chamberlain’s third category of incursions on freedom describes the way in which our work-centred society has reduced the human reserves of time and energy required to take part in nonmarket activities.  Not only does work occupy a large proportion of the week’s hours, it also exhausts people’s energies, requiring us to spend significant time recuperating.  The problem also extends to an issue explored in Chamberlain’s later chapter, ‘Flexibility’, namely, the mandatory self-entrepreneurialism required if one is to succeed in today’s insecure labour market – a quest for employability that leaves less time for non-instrumental activities involving care, friendship, play or idleness. Chamberlain suggests that one of the biggest incursions of all of this residual economic activity is on people’s time to think.  The ability to engage in reflection, by oneself and with others, around questions of meaning, values, needs and desires is one of the key prerequisites for freedom: ‘only this reflexivity can shield the subject against the ever-present threat of unthinkingly conforming to tradition or the ends of others’ (p. 11-12).

Last but not least, the final incursion of today’s work-centred society on human freedom lies in the way it reproduces inequalities (since any rigorous definition of freedom always rests on a precondition of equality).  Here we might consider rampant inequalities in pay and job quality, or the way in which socially valuable activities outside the economic sphere – particularly care work – remain undervalued and unremunerated, often on account of their being associated with marginalised groups such as women and migrant workers.  Moreover, we still find that the feminisation of employment has not been matched by efforts to reorganise care work beyond the home and its gendered division of labour, leaving many women overstretched. We might also consider the way in which the work ethic has withheld recognition from people who cannot work, such as disabled people, full-time caregivers, or people living in areas with high unemployment.

Taken as a whole, Chamberlain’s focus on the problem of freedom is perhaps one of the strongest qualities of Undoing Work, Rethinking Community.  Not only does it offer a concise survey of the work-centred society’s main offences it also, for me, represents a refreshing contrast to today’s more fashionable tendency to critique work from the standpoint of ‘well-being’.

Here also is a question of framing.  It can be argued that the focus on freedom perhaps represents a stronger ideal than ‘well-being’ because (as Michael Cholbi explained in a recent article for Autonomy) it is perfectly possible for people to feel well and state a preference for situations that are hostile to freedom, or even actively oppressive, especially when there is a lack of imagined or real alternatives.  With an ideal of freedom at the helm, post-work campaigners might be more vigilant against those policies that aim to increase people’s well-being without changing broader social norms and structures.  One thinks, for example, of the current raft of initiatives to improve ‘wellness’ at work – stress-busting courses, corporate mindfulness classes, and the like – whose ideals of well-being do little to address bigger issues like working conditions or a lack of worker power.  Ultimately, well-being is perhaps too amenable to what Erich Fromm called the ‘adaptive view of health’, which privileges individual integration over social transformation.  Ultimately, ‘do these polices make us free’ is a far more potent question than ‘do they make us feel well?’  For these reasons, Chamberlain’s focus on freedom felt like a superior framing, faithful to the more radical examples of post-work thinking.

Policy in search of a frame

With work’s incursions on freedom established, at the centre of Chamberlain’s book is his argument that certain policies and ideas in the broader remit of ‘post-work’ have fallen short in terms of satisfying the ideal of greater freedom.  His argument is that many of these proposals are simply too continuous with the work-centred society of the present.

This point is clearest in Chamberlain’s dedicated chapter on the Universal Basic Income.  Chamberlain is wise to point out the nebulous nature of UBI, a policy with no fixed ideology or purpose, which has garnered support from all across the political spectrum. In its Marxist incarnation, the official purpose of the UBI is to help us move beyond the work-centred society. By providing people with a baseline income, regardless of participation in employment, the intention is to reduce labour time and provide people with the means to develop themselves in activities outside the economic sphere.  At its heart is a challenge to today’s cultural focus on employment, as well as the monopoly of the market over people’s time and social environments.

However, Chamberlain notes the possibility for more conservative incarnations of policies like UBI to treat the policy merely as an economic sticking plaster: not as an attempt to move beyond the work-centred society, but as an attempt to shore it up by remedying its failure to adequately distribute income or achieve full-employment.  In these cases, the UBI has much in common with the current welfare state, whose function is to give a measure of protection against the contingencies of the labour market, but expressly not to undercut the value of work, or furnish people with the time and resources to meet their needs outside the formal economy.

Chamberlain’s research reveals incarnations of UBI that retain an overall commitment to the value of work, taking us through instances where UBI has been valued for its employment-boosting potential.  There are some who have argued that UBI could incentivise work by supplementing low wages, or give people time to work on their employability.  One can also easily imagine a neoliberal case for UBI, based on the premise that the financial security provided would slacken the pressure on employers to provide workers with adequate protections, and indeed on the state to provide robust public services (the support for UBI from business moguls like Elon Musk is telling in this regard).

Whilst all advocates of UBI have abandoned the idea of conditionality, Chamberlain demonstrates how approaches have still run the full gamut from celebrating to rejecting the value of work.  He provides an important reminder that by itself, UBI does not necessarily spell the end of governments attempting to shape people’s conduct, aspirations and needs to the ends of work.  UBI does not necessarily depart from the idea that employment is of central value.  And it does not necessarily address the current distortions of social esteem that marginalise people who do not or cannot participate in paid work.

Whilst it is certainly the case that a substantial enough UBI – framed in any terms – could offer real benefits for distributive justice, what is pivotal, argues Chamberlain, is the overall political and ideological environment into which the UBI is implemented:

‘…without a cultural shift in the meaning of work and a transformation of society that would provide access to nonmonetary goods (self-respect, social esteem, a sense of purpose, social connections and so on) one might wonder why people would work significantly less if they received a basic income’ (p.74)

This brings us to his central proposal that we need to criticise the social function of work.  Chamberlain argues that if alternative economic policies are to reach their full potential, we must also let go of certain ethical ideas: the idea that working is what qualifies a person as a citizen, that having a job is the ultimate expression of virtue, and that working elevates people above reprehensible ‘dependency’.  The difficulty, perhaps, is that these values continue to remain dear to portions of the political Left, as well as the Right.  Commenting from a US perspective, Chamberlain quotes Bernie Sanders, who ran on a platform committed to establishing full-employment.  Sanders is quoted as saying, ‘work is part of what being human is about’.

The idea that we must revalue work and its grammar of social recognition is by no means new to the field of post-work debate.  It is present and correct in all of the most prominent critiques, from André Gorz, to Srnicek and Williams, and Kathi Weeks. There are interesting and difficult questions to ask about how this ethical shift might be accomplished, and whether there are alternative ideas that could capture the imagination to the same degree as the work ethic. However, Chamberlain’s book takes a surprising and confrontational twist when it suggests that even the more radical post-work theorists may have unwittingly reinforced the value of work.

Although Chamberlain acknowledges his debt to writers like André Gorz, he points out that their post-work utopias still often retain the idea that working is essential for social membership – even if this work happens to take place in a rejuvenated cultural sphere, regulated by co-operation and mutuality, as opposed to the realm of paid employment.  Chamberlain’s treatment of the source material is intelligent and involved, and I would not do justice to the details by representing them here, but the key argument which emerges is that Gorz and others have failed to adequately address the fate of people who do not engage in social enterprise.  Even in Gorz’s ideal society, where ‘multi-activity’ has replaced employment, and the economic sphere has been shrunk to its necessary minimum, work in some form is still thought to be the glue that binds a community.  (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s texts receive a similar treatment, though Chamberlain’s representation of their ideas did little to relieve this reader’s sense of exhaustion with their terminology).

This realisation sends Chamberlain in search of a new notion of community – one that departs from what he calls an ‘individualist social ontology’, which conceives of separate individuals, integrated into society through their productive efforts.  He turns to the somewhat obscure work of the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, who puts forward an idea of community whose bond is not formed through productive efforts, but pre-exists these efforts, in the form of a shared lack of common identity.

The idea is abstract – perhaps frustratingly so – but Chamberlain is reaching toward something important here. He wants to reach a more encompassing idea of community – one that pre-exists anything we might do to secure our belonging within it.  It is here that Chamberlain’s work might have relevance for those disability activists of a ‘post-work’ persuasion, who are also now contesting the idea (against a rough tide of political pressure) that marginalised people should be integrated into society through inclusion in work.  What is needed is a new system of values to recognise the inherent value of a person, independently of their productive capacities.

Post-work proper

Chamberlain’s book is a refreshing reminder that policies aimed at redistributing work and free-time do not necessarily represent a silver bullet, or passport to freedom.  They will not meet their full radical potential without an equally as strong commitment to rethinking the ethical value and social functions of work.  This argument is a welcome antidote to those admirable but rose-coloured claims about ‘what UBI will do for us’, doing the daily rounds on Twitter.

In a final chapter on ‘The Post-Work Community’, Chamberlain sets out in more detail the changes he would hope to see, which include combining employee-focussed work-time policies with a robust Universal Basic Income.  He envisages that the amount of the UBI would need to be substantial at first, but could be reduced as alternative infrastructures of co-operation and exchange are created to serve people’s needs outside the formal economy.

Crucially, such changes must also be merged with a drive to rewrite the grammar of social recognition.  For Chamberlain, this requires not only that we attribute value to productive activities outside the sphere of work, but also that we question deeply the idea of work (even non-economic work) as the glue that binds a community.  He suggests that this revaluation of work will be most persuasive if it can resist reinforcing the value of work, whilst simultaneously resisting the idea that a post-work society would be a society of layabouts.  So, whilst Chamberlain of course does not dismiss the importance of working for the benefit of others, he does argue that this should not be ‘the essence of a community, such that full membership depends on adhering to it’ (p.139).

Chamberlain also poses the important and divisive question of whether these policy proposals imply a move beyond capitalism. It seems that even within a capitalist framework, UBI and a revaluation of work could have significant advantages. Those inclined to do so could withdraw their labour and invest their energies in other activities (so long as they were able to resist any residual moral pressure to work, along with the considerable temptation to blow their UBI on consumer goods).  With the benefit of increased financial security, people would also be free to look around for jobs more compatible with their interests, and have more leverage for bargaining over working conditions.

Even in a Left-liberal or conservative form, policies like Universal Basic Income might also help remedy what I have increasingly thought of as ‘strangulation by work’ – a situation in which work and its related activities, especially in a climate of austerity, have left some people with literally no breathing space to consider anything other than their immediate needs.  The problem, as André Gorz saw it, is that between this strangulation and the risible quality of jobs under capitalism, people have no ideal model of autonomy to aspire to.  In their everyday experiences, many workers have so little freedom that it becomes difficult to imagine things being any other way.  I propose that even if this stranglehold were loosened just a little, we might see a widespread revaluation of work follow close behind.  From this perspective, the most urgent priority is simply to slacken the grip of work, and if this right must be won through a business-case for alternatives, then perhaps so be it.  When so many people feel strangled by work, perhaps it is not the time to fret about how best to frame the debate.

Yet in the long run, we will always need to contend with the limitations of pursuing a post-work agenda within the framework of capitalism.  As Chamberlain himself notes, one imagines that an economy concentrated in the hands of private ownership is still likely to resist any social changes that interfere with profit.  Likewise, one can expect strong opposition from capitalists if the reduction of working hours were to interfere with the appetite for consumption (as André Gorz has theorised it would). Capitalism’s spirit of competitive individualism is also hardly conducive to hopes for a flourishing system of new co-operative networks, outside the economy.  Ultimately, it seems that framing really does matter and, for my part, Chamberlain’s book excels in its ambition to make readers think in more reflexive ways about post-work proposals.  What is the endgame?  How should we frame proposals, and how is this likely to alter the outcome?

My conviction – strengthened by reading this book – is that only an integrated suite of changes has the capacity to realise the ideal of greater freedom, present in the more radical post-work arguments.  We need new economic policies to redistribute income and free-time, but we also need ethical shifts to alter the grammar of social recognition.  On top of these, we need broader social changes, to provide the institutional spaces for people to have encounters and co-operate in different ways, outside the realm of employment. Proposals that fail to address all three of these fields – economy, ethics, and society – will only partially succeed.

And what role does automation have in all of this?

One of the novel things about Chamberlain’s book is how little the issue is mentioned.  Here resides one final question about framing.  The emergence of ‘the future of work’ as a distinctive field has gained significant publicity of late, largely through the framing of ‘how to distribute the goods of work in societies about to be devastated by technological unemployment’.  As someone who has spoken publicly on post-work issues, I understand the temptation to fall back on this narrative – however unproven it may be – as a way of justifying the need for change.

One of the things I enjoyed about Chamberlain’s book was that it never relied on a narrative of mass job losses to justify its hopes for an alternative.  This is a good reminder that decades ago, post-work writers already saw the reduction of work as an existing possibility, owing to the productivity gains that had been accumulating since the industrial revolution.  The radicalism of such authors is that they did not need to tell tales of a coming job apocalypse to legitimise their proposals: their proposals for a post-work society were already legitimate on the grounds that they might provide greater freedom. By mirroring his forerunners’ focus on freedom, Chamberlain has given us something rare: not an easy or a comfortable book, but a genuinely radical one.

Undoing Work, Rethinking Community – A Critique of the Social Function of Work is published by Cornell University.