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Work isn’t working: how to build a radical alternative, and why we must

We should re-imagine work and society based on the extension of democracy into the economy.

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Tomorrow belongs, David Bowie once claimed, to those who can hear it coming. Today, if you listen closely, you can hear the sound of the future coming from Spain, where the government has just announced that a four-day week will be at the heart of its plan for rebuilding its post-pandemic economy. Starting with subsidies for companies to reduce employees’ working hours with no loss of pay, the trial offers an enlivening vision of the future: time – our most finite resource – reclaimed from the command of capital and turned over to new forms of leisure and communal pleasure. 

The ambition of the Spanish government’s proposal begins to match the scale of the moment. Covid-19 is only one of a series of interconnected crises now urgently confronting us: structural racism and gendered inequality, the accelerating climate and environmental emergency, and an economic crisis. These structural problems must be met with radical solutions. What, then, are the transformative ideas that can address the causes of this multifaceted crisis and reshape the economy so that it emerges from the pandemic more equitable and democratic? If one step is reclaiming our time from work, the next frontier is re-imagining work itself.

Contemporary work is structured by stark asymmetries of power that produce ingrained inequalities of agency and reward. To usher in a fairer, more fulfilling world of work, three structural drivers of this imbalance must be addressed. First, the fundamental condition of work under capitalism: for the majority, dependent on selling their labour power to survive, subordination and dependency are woven into the very fabric of the capitalist employment relationship. Important protections and gains can be won, as with the inspiring trade union victory that has forced Uber to pay drivers a minimum wage, holiday pay and pensions. And, of course, many find fulfilment, expression and friendship in their work. However, in the “private government” of the workplace, inequality and hierarchy is a feature not a bug.

[see also: The Precariat’s Revolt: How Uber drivers fought back]

Second, global capitalism remains stuck in what the economic historian Robert Brenner terms the “long downturn”: a decades-long economic slowing, visible in the stagnancy of key indicators – output, investment, employment and wages – and marked by a decline in capitalist dynamism, flattening real investment growth, and under-demand for labour. As the social theorist Aaron Benanav has shown, this under-demand is primarily expressed not as mass unemployment, but as rampant underemployment, with more people forced to eke out a living in the “informal” sector and in various other kinds of precarious, poorly paid work. In the UK, this phenomenon has expressed itself in rising insecurity and painfully slow wage growth for ordinary workers, and the mushrooming of a heavily financialised, rentier-dominated economy. With historically sluggish growth expected for the rest of this parliament, and real wages forecast to be below 2008 levels in 2026, we can expect little improvement without transformative action. 

And finally, capitalism is dependent on the enclosure and extraction of wealth from both the free gifts of nature and the unpaid work of social reproduction to sustain itself. This work is often highly gendered and racialised in its distribution, reproducing long-standing inequalities of gender, race and class. This deliberate and often brutal “cheapening” of labour and nature is fundamental to the propulsive power of capitalism and its structural injustices.

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Building a future of radically different work – purposeful, stimulating, centred on meeting needs, and affording everyone the opportunity to freely develop their capabilities in common with others – will depend on re-imagining the institutions that currently shape work: the pre-existing distribution of resources and rights that shapes when and how people enter the labour market, and how much economic power they have once in the workplace (the affluent, for example, can more easily wait for a good job and securely leave a bad one); the rules and ownership structures that determine how businesses are organised and for what purpose; and the direction and quantity of investment. Three interlocking steps are needed to pave the way for realising this alternative future.

First, to rebalance power we need a new legal settlement for governing work – from reintroducing sectoral collective bargaining so workers can secure what’s due to them, to a new bill of economic rights for all workers. This agenda must extend to the iniquitous global supply chains that are central to contemporary work. A transformative legal agenda can also redesign the fundamental institution of capitalism that organises work: the corporation. Dominated by its shareholders and senior management, with employees and other vital stakeholders, such as local communities, excluded from governance, the corporation as it is currently organised is incompatible with economic, environmental and democratic justice. In its place, we should legally recode the company as an institution of the commons: democratically governed, stewarded for long-term success, and organised to meet social and environmental needs instead of maximising shareholder value. 

[see also: Inequality and climate change are inextricable, and must be addressed together]

Second, democratising production must be matched by decommodifying provision of the foundational goods and services we all need to thrive: an ambitious post-pandemic settlement should ensure everyone can live freely and well outside the market. Since the political extension and encasement of market relations is at the heart of neoliberal governance, an alternative agenda must have a more expansive vision of freedom at its core. Two initiatives – the introduction of a minimum income guarantee to replace our punitive and inefficient welfare system, combined with a universal basic services agenda, from internet access as a right to free childcare – can extend the horizon of decommodification and nurture the shared institutions we need to live secure, flourishing lives. These steps would also help to rebalance economic power by ensuring everyone has the means to exit bad work if needed.

Finally, to escape the “long downturn”, we need to “boost it like Biden” and unleash a sustained, transformative green stimulus to overcome chronically weak demand, restructure the economy towards sustainability, and meet urgent social needs. Given private investment is locking us into a low-growth, high-carbon recovery, a green recovery requires public investment and democratic planning to play a central role in determining the economy’s direction, matched by steps to increase the purchasing power of ordinary households, which a minimum income guarantee and the gains of collective bargaining would deliver. A Green New Deal that unlocks the power of co-ordinated fiscal and monetary policy can give new purpose to the economy: oriented to the essential work of care, nurture of human and non-human life, and the building out of the industries and infrastructures of post-carbon plenty. 

[see also: Why Labour must follow Joe Biden’s example and advocate a radical economic alternative]

This agenda is both radical and necessary. The central lesson of our crisis-ridden era is that the economy is always political, not an autonomous space, and can therefore be shaped according to our needs. Economic institutions and relations that can appear natural, inevitable and beyond politics are in fact generated and sustained by political decisions and policies. We can remake them towards justice, sustainability and mutual flourishing, re-imagining work and society based on the extension of democracy into the economy and the workplace, the acceleration of decarbonisation, managed fairly and sensitively, and the expansion of decommodification. We can do these things, and, to build an equitable post-carbon future, we must.

Mathew Lawrence is the founder and director of the think tank Common Wealth.