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28 April 2021

Labour must embrace a post-work future or condemn itself to irrelevance

Jon Cruddas and his allies are wrong to denounce “a workless future powered by automation” – this is the route to human liberation.

By Paul Mason

A new narrative has emerged on the right of the Labour Party, designed to justify a socially conservative agenda. It’s expressed in the recent Fabian pamphlet Hearts and Minds: Winning the Working Class Vote; in The Dignity of Labour, a new book by the Dagenham and Rainham MP Jon Cruddas; and in an entire issue of Political Quarterly, co-edited by Cruddas and devoted to attacking the notion of “postcapitalism”.

The crude version of the argument says that small-town, ex-industrial voters have abandoned Labour because, in a desire to represent younger, salaried, networked and multi-ethnic communities, the party no longer expresses the values of the “traditional working class”. In particular, Labour has replaced the concept of fairness – you get out what you put in – with liberal concepts of rights and equality.

At the extreme end of the argument is the Labour MP for Makerfield, Yvonne Fovargue, who writes in the Fabian pamphlet that “we are entitled to be worried about illegal migrants crossing our borders, or becoming a drain on our resources”. She sympathises with people who feel they have become “a stranger in their own country” and calls for tougher action on repatriating failed asylum seekers. It’s not hard to see the route from here back to the Labour-branded “controls on immigration” mugs of 2015.

A more sophisticated version of the argument, advanced by Cruddas, asserts that the Corbynite left, together with the liberal salariat, have together squeezed out traditional Labourism and any concept of ethical socialism. In the 1980s the right castigated the left over its support for strikes and public ownership. Now we are castigated over free broadband and universal basic income.

”Many on the left today,” writes Cruddas, “foresee a strange new utopia, one that will provide liberty through abundance and a workless future powered by automation… It is utopian thinking of a type unrecognisable to my East London constituents.”

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The remedy, for all concerned, is to refocus Labour politics around a communitarian rather than liberal ethic, and towards the goal of ensuring that everyone has decent and fulfilling work. 

Since my book Postcapitalism has become the number-one target for these Labour thinkers, together with one of its main proposals – universal basic income – I should start by saying I am not hostile to their tactical conclusions. To govern Britain, the Labour Party needs to find a way of reconnecting with what the political scientists call “authoritarian left” voters: people who want to see the railways nationalised and the death penalty returned, and who do not share the socially liberal ethos of the party’s new core voters. I have never thought basic income is the way to do that.

Connecting with what is progressive in their mindset will be easier done through a discussion about community and work than one about immigration (which they detest), human rights (which they see as for someone else) or significant redistribution (which they deride as “free stuff” or, as Fovargue puts it, “freebies”).

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The question is: who is to do the connecting and with what overall strategic goal? If Labour is to stand for something bigger than the agglomerated prejudices of elderly people in small communities, what is that something?

This, unfortunately, is a question avoided by the party’s right. There is, of course, no commitment within their politics to anti-capitalism. Their goal for more than 100 years has been simply to administer capitalism in a fairer way for working people. The problem is that’s become impossible.

Since the 2008 crash, when neoliberal globalisation failed, theirs has been an essentially backward-looking project: if only the market had not collapsed; if only city-dwelling workers had not become obsessed with anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ+ politics and decarbonisation; if only right-wing populism would go away; if only capitalism could provide decent jobs for all; if only the left were not obsessed by identity politics; if only…

Since none of these wishes can come true, Labour’s pre-Blairite “old right” are in a political cul-de-sac. If, by some miracle, politicians such as Fovargue manage to shape the party’s next manifesto they know it would immediately lose a large part of its remaining voting base to the Greens, the Lib Dems and progressive nationalists.

In the end they’re reduced to acting as cultural shop stewards for the small-town working class. As Fovargue puts it: “There is nothing wrong, as a party, with supporting LGBT or BAME rights or on campaigning on climate change or in discussing identity politics, and I hope this continues. But we must not forget that our core communities are more concerned with more mainstream issues which affect their everyday lives.”

I wish Fovargue, or indeed any Labour MP, had joined me and the 30,000 mainly black people assembled in Vauxhall, the safe Labour seat where I live, to protest over the death of George Floyd last summer. Why they, and their concerns, don’t qualify as “our core communities” I will leave you to ponder.

Cruddas, who has grappled with these problems heroically in his Dagenham constituency and is a lifelong anti-racist, wants to resolve the contradiction through a new political philosophy of the Labour right. He understands that, in its 21st-century form, Marxism has ceased to be a utopia based on work: the most vibrant anti-capitalist left movements are focused on a future beyond work, beyond carbon and in which individual human liberation is the primary goal.

He identifies the “post-work” left, which has emerged around Momentum, The World Transformed, the think tanks Common Wealth and Autonomy, the climate movement and the left of the SNP, as a more profound challenge to Labourism than the old Leninist left. The Trotskyists of the 1980s at least shared Labourism’s focus on work and scarcity. Today’s left – which is a British version of movements such as Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza and the Finnish Left party – does not.

But Cruddas and his co-thinkers misstate the anti-capitalist left’s argument. For us, it is not that the working class has “failed”, or that automation will soon replace low-paid jobs – making organisation pointless. There is every reason to fight for work that is decent, well paid and with trade union organisation; that’s why Labour under Corbyn pledged to scrap the anti-union laws and restore sectoral wage bargaining. 

The point for myself and writers such as Aaron Bastani and Guy Standing is that over the past 40 years capitalism has changed more profoundly than over the previous 200. The rise of financialised extraction – credit cards, overdrafts, mortgages, student loans, car loans, central bank money creation – has reduced the importance of waged work for the exploitation process. Likewise, the rise of technological extractivism: where tech monopolies farm our personal data for intellectual property. 

Work is still the basis of everything: without a job you can’t sustainably have a credit card, a mortgage or a smartphone. And without a semi-slave in a Chinese factory you cannot have the silicon chip that runs your digitally monopolised car.

But the streams of profit flowing from individual human activity into the bank accounts of those who own capital are now multiple and varied. You only have to look at the activities of Lex Greensill to understand how easily we are ripped off through every transaction, not just the wage relationship.

If you don’t want to get rid of capitalism – and the Labour right does not – this is of minor importance. But if you do, there are three questions from which everything else in politics flows: who has the interest in ending exploitation; how can it be done; and what are the technological means to achieve it?

For us, the answer is “everybody ripped off by the system”. Through a radical Green New Deal we intend to begin a transition beyond both carbon and a market-based economy. And the technological means are automation and digitisation, which can sever the link between work and wages. That’s the explicit programme I argued for in Postcapitalism – though it does not preclude fighting for the piecemeal reforms and “fairness” agenda that have become Labour’s stock-in-trade.

The Labour right is instinctively hostile to automation. Year after year I’ve sat on panels at Labour and Trade Union Congress conferences listening to evidence-free assertions that this or that job “can never be automated” and that “we’ve heard it all before”.

In the theory-free zone of Labour politics, nobody thinks to ask: what is the difference between a linotype machine and blogging software; or between a manned strike aircraft and a military drone? The answer is clear: all previous forms of high technology created a high-skilled job to operate them. Information technology destroys skilled jobs faster than it creates them and will go on doing so.

On this basis, if we believe – as Marxists must – that labour is the source of value, then the engine of value creation within capitalism will begin to stutter. Growth becomes reliant on state borrowing and money creation; wealth becomes reliant on asset values, not innovation; inequality, no matter how dignified or well-remunerated the remaining jobs are, becomes deeper and more entrenched.

The route beyond capitalism no longer need lie through a long period of scarcity. We can simultaneously decarbonise the energy system and expand the commons, albeit with large doses of traditional state ownership and planning thrown in.

“Dignified”, well-paid and respected jobs will exist until the state withers away: but there will not be enough of them. For the rest of us, as the late anthropologist David Graeber wrote, “most of the work we’re currently doing is dream-work. It exists only for its own sake, or to make rich people feel good about themselves, or to make poor people feel bad about themselves. And if we simply stopped, it might be possible to make ourselves a much more reasonable set of promises: for instance, to create an ‘economy’ that lets us actually take care of the people who are taking care of us.”

The fundamental fissure inside modern Labourism is this: that part of the proletariat – the urban, progressive, networked and educated part – understands what Graeber is saying here implicitly. And yes, Cruddas is right, there is another part for whom the whole idea is alien. They yearn for the return of the world they grew up in. When they hear demands for expanded public services, welfare and state spending, they assume it is they, not the financial elite, who will pay for it.

The task is to build an alliance between the two demographics, their two cultures and their two dreams. Most of the failures of recent Labour leaderships, from Brown to Miliband to Corbyn, and now Starmer, arise from their inability to think about or even acknowledge this problem.

So the masses do the thinking for them. When Black Lives Matter, or Sisters Uncut, or Kill the Bill, or Extinction Rebellion, or even the kids at Pimlico academy, take to the streets, they are expressing a politics of liberation. When Labour MPs sympathise with voters who despise these movements, they are at least expressing something real. What you cannot do is pretend these conflicting projects don’t exist. 

We need to construct an alliance. If supporters of the death penalty and opponents of free movement want a party that nationalises the railways, they must find it in Labour. Practically, as I argued repeatedly during Corbyn’s leadership, that means a radical economic policy combined with a traditional social-democratic policy on crime, foreign policy and defence.

But the political soul of Labourism has migrated to the urban heartlands. It is already, to use the derogatory term “woke”, not going back to the opposite: sleepy racism.

Those of us who stand firmly on the side of anti-capitalism have to stop revelling in our correctness and make the concessions needed to build the alliance. Either the Labour left finds a route to the hearts and minds of socially-conservative workers, or the party will never govern again. We must concede that to the Labour right.

But in turn, the Labour right needs to understand that millions of adults under the age of 60 do not regard human rights, equality, climate change, transgender issues, national self-determination, male violence or Black Lives Matter as “non-mainstream” or secondary issues. To the new proletariat, these are the primary forms of exploitation, injustice and thus identity. They are the terrain of the new class struggle. 

No matter how hard they are batoned, placed under surveillance and slandered in the press, their struggles will endure. They are the new heartland of Labour, whether the MPs or the leadership like it or not.