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Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams on "postcapitalism and a world without work"


Bookforum has an excerpt from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s new book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, published by Verso. In the excerpt, the authors focus on the contradiction of the work ethic in an age of increasing unemployment, and the urgent need to overcome the work ethic entirely:

Overcoming the work ethic will be equally central to any future attempts at building a post-work world. Neoliberalism has established a set of incentives that compel us to act and identify ourselves as competitive subjects. Orbiting around this subject is a constellation of images related to self-reliance and independence that necessarily conflict with the program of a post-work society. Our lives have become increasingly structured around competitive self-realization, and work has become the primary avenue for achieving this. Work, no matter how degrading or low-paid or inconvenient, is deemed an ultimate good. This is the mantra of both mainstream political parties and most trade unions, associated with rhetoric about getting people back into work, the importance of working families, and cutting welfare so that “it always pays to work.” This is matched by a parallel cultural effort demonizing those without jobs. Newspapers blare headlines about the worthlessness of welfare recipients, TV shows sensationalize and mock the poor, and the ever looming figure of the welfare cheat is continually evoked. Work has become central to our very self-conception—so much so that when presented with the idea of doing less work, many people ask, “But what would I do?” The fact that so many people find it impossible to imagine a meaningful life outside of work demonstrates the extent to which the work ethic has infected our minds…

The dominance of the work ethic also runs up against the changing material basis of the economy. Capitalism demands that people work in order to make a living, yet it is increasingly unable to generate enough jobs. The tensions between the value accorded to the work ethic and these material changes will only heighten the potential for transformation of the system. Actions to make precarity and joblessness an increasingly visible political problem would go some way to generating the support for a post-work society. (In the same way that Occupy raised awareness of inequality, and UK Uncut highlighted tax evasion.) Perhaps most importantly, there is already a widespread hatred for jobs that can be tapped into. Much as neoliberal hegemony coopted real desires and garnered active consent, so too must any post-work hegemony find its active force in the real desires of people. The widespread demand that others adopt the work ethic is matched only by the disdain we feel for our own jobs. Today, across the world, only 13 per cent of people say they find their jobs engaging. Physically degraded, mentally drained, and socially exhausted, most workers find themselves under immense amounts of stress in their jobs. For the vast majority of people, work offers no meaning, fulfilment or redemption—it is simply something to pay the bills. Those already excluded from jobs should not be fighting for inclusion in a society of work and labor, but rather be building the conditions to reproduce their lives outside of work. Changing the cultural consensus about the work ethic will mean taking actions at an everyday level, translating these medium-term goals into slogans, memes, and chants. It will require undertaking the difficult and essential work of workplace organizing and campaigning—of mobilizing people’s passions in order to topple the dominance of the work ethic. The success of these efforts will be clear when media discussions about automation shift from fear-mongering over lost jobs to celebrations of the freedom from drudgery.