Bad Utopias? Discussing post capitalism, Automation, UBI and the ‘end’ of work Thompson, Paul, Dinerstein, Ana Cecilia, Pitts, Harry, Wood, Alex, Briken, Kendra

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Today, the post-work society has become a hot topic of debate. Based on the presumption that a wave of automation will displace labour from production and bring an end to 'work' as we know it, the post-work prospectus has translated from the domain of radical theory to take hold in mainstream debate. The post-work prospectus is recruited in the name of an appeal to an incipient 'postcapitalist' society germinating from within the shell of the present. In this special session, we will explore and critique the nascent 'post-work' imaginary and its claim that a post-capitalist society rises from the ruins of work. The contribution will each suggest that, even were the historical conditions in place for it, the escape from 'work' is no escape route from capitalism. The papers address five fronts on which the postwork prospectus fails. The first (Pitts) is that the post-work literature is counterintuitively productivist insofar as it sees 'work' as the central relation of capitalist society and not as the antagonistic relations of property, ownership and subsistence that logically and historically precede a society in which most people are compelled to sell their labour to live, nor the specific kind of results assumed by the products of that labour in the market. In so doing it remains locked within a capitalist understanding of what is productive and what is not, despite professions otherwise. The second (Dinerstein) is that the vista of automated worklessness supported by a basic income rests on a continuation of the money wage in all but name and the presence of a strong state that becomes the wage-payer of both first and last resort, with attendant consequences on the capacity of people or workers to resist and contest the conditions or pay to which they are subject. Nowhere in the popular imaginary of post-work or post-capitalist society does class struggles feature, when it is only by means of this and the creation of 'concrete utopias' that a post-capitalist society can be accessed at all. In the third (Thompson), some of the flawed theoretical and empirical underpinnings of the anti and post-work project are uncovered and critiqued. The actual and potential for a radical politics of work are explored, along with the implications for the sociology and sociologists of work. The fourth (Wood) is that post-work accounts are based upon a fallacy regarding the diminishing importance of paid-work. It is neither true that technological advancement is leading to a reduction in aggregate employment or that paid work is becoming less important as a source of well-being. Employment is a central institution of capitalism and strong mechanisms exist which ensure its reproduction. Speculating about the end of paid- work ignores people's real struggle and need for dignified paid-work and distracts us from the existing social problems of inequality, environmental degradation, and concentration of power within the hands of a few tech companies. The fifth (Briken) is that a post-work society necessarily needs a change in the role assigned to work in general. So far, the concept seems to be reduced either to a redefinition or refusal of work ethics seen as fundamental to the capitalist mode of production, or defined as a ‘cultural shift’ in the perception of work, somehow suggesting a flaw in workers’ own ‘false consciousness’. In challenging these approaches with a sociology of critique based on Boltanski and Thevenot’s conceptialisation of justification, it will be argued that any attempt to understand actually existing ‘work ethics’ needs to include the ‘critical capacities’ actors use in disputes and controversies of working life. This will allow us to go beyond rather too generic analysis like ‘bullshit jobs’ and to overcome the tendency to reinforce the top-down hierarchisation of work in society.
Period12 Sep 2018
Event titleWork Employment and Society Conference 2018: Putting sociology to work
Event typeConference
LocationBelfast, United KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational