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19 September 2021

Automatons of the world unite!

How the party of workers began talking about the abolition of work.

By Jonny Ball

In 1917, in the same month of the Russian Revolution that swept Lenin’s Bolsheviks to power in Petrograd, the New Statesman’s founders, Sidney and Beatrice Webb,drafted Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution. According to the clause, the aim of the Party would be “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

It was a constitutional commitment to full-blooded socialism, based on the belief that working people were, under capitalism, denied “the full fruits of their industry”, that value was created collectively by workers through their work, but appropriated privately by the owners of capital. The remedy would be “common ownership”, “popular administration” and “equitable distribution”. This was a party founded to represent the labour interest and defend the dignity of work.

Over a century later, the Labour Party, and the late-Victorian economic model that spawned its creation, have been transformed beyond recognition. The factory-based mass production that had once made Britain the workshop of the world has given way to a service-based economy. Labour-intensive manufacturing has declined. It has been replaced with highly automated, data-driven, advanced methods of specialised production that employ a fraction of the workforce. Assembly lines have moved abroad in search of cheaper workers. The primary industries that fuelled a coal-fired economy have all but disappeared; the manual, back-breaking work that accompanied it replaced by so-called “immaterial”, cognitive labour carried out in silicon-dependent offices. An all-pervading finance sector powered by algorithms, high frequency trading and speculation sits alongside a debt-driven retail sector, the creative industries, the knowledge economy, and low-paid gig workers (for whom back-breaking work is still very much a reality) taking orders from mobile phone apps. Rapid advances in bots and computer software have decimated industries that were once thought immune to automation. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have spread the threat of mechanisation from blue collar, manual work, to white-collar, service-sector jobs as well. A 2018 report by PwC found that 30 per cent of jobs in finance and insurance were at risk of automation by 2029. Clerical work and human resources departments are being transformed by robotic process automation (RPA). Under these circumstances, under an economic model in which fewer tangible goods are produced, in which value is seemingly ever more detached from productive activity, in which technology is driving exponential productivity gains, and in which the manufacture of scarce objects seems to happen in another world entirely, ideas about work and the “dignity of labour” have altered dramatically.

Clause IV was dropped in 1995 as Tony Blair attempted to rid Labour of its militant leftwing image. But rather than reject automation as a threat to job security and workers’ livelihoods, a significant faction on the party’s activist left has embraced it, taking up the promises of emerging technology, automation and AI to espouse a “post-work futures” and “fully automated luxury communism”. Recent technological advances, so this interpretation holds, have made possible an (almost) workless utopia, in which human needs and wants are satisfied by the ever-expanding productive capacities of robots and machines. The post-work Labourites are inspired by sections from Karl Marx, reinterpreted by leftwing Italian “postworkerist” theorists several decades ago: the ‘Fragment on Machines’ predicted that as “large industry develops, the creation of wealth comes to depend less on labour time”, and thus “the free development of individualities” would be made possible. This is a post-scarcity world of publicly owned fleets of driverless cars, of mass-produced synthetic meat, of asteroid-mining for rare minerals, of state-run, solar powered dark factories churning out the latest goods, and of a digital and creative commons providing the wealth of humanity’s cultural and intellectual output free at everyone’s fingertips. AI and automation have provided the catalysts for the party of labour to go from advocating full employment to one which attracts those that advocate for no employment.

The tendency reached the height of its influence during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, when it found fledgling expression in 2019 manifesto policies like Universal Basic Income pilots, the move towards a four-day week, and free universal broadband for all. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell promised “socialism with an iPad” and a “hi-tech economy of the future” even as critics lambasted his “broadband communism” as unworkable and unaffordable.

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From 2015 onwards there was a flourishing of literature that was, says Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham, “intertwined with Corbynism”. Influential texts emerged from leftwing academics. Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams implored readers to “demand full automation” and “demand universal basic income” on its cover, while espousing a “left accelerationism” that embraced full-throttle technological change and a “post-work” “left modernity”. Leftwing writers like Paul Mason embraced visions of tech-enabled, automated “post-capitalism”, with machine learning, big data and computer algorithms working in the service of radicalised “networked youth”. The late pro-Corbyn anarchist academic David Graeber published Bullshit Jobs, which explained that automation had not led to shorter working weeks because people were increasingly employed in pointless professions that could easily be abolished. And pro-Corbyn journalist Aaron Bastani introduced the “FALC” acronym to a reenergised, youthful British left in “a manifesto” on “fully automated luxury communism”.

“Initially I found this post-work stuff quite compelling”, says Dr Harry Pitts, a lecturer in management, co-editor of the online magazine Futures of Work and specialist in work futures at the University of Bristol. “When I entered the labour market in my teens I was doing a lot of precarious, service-based jobs and I was looking for a way of understanding how that differs from the type of jobs that my dad did, or my brother, or my grandfather – the meaning and purpose and community that they got from their work was absent in mine.” But, Pitts adds, the post-work tendency “wishes away things that are going to be much more permanent and longer-lasting, and also some things that are worth returning to about work as well… There’s something about work – even the so-called ‘Bullshit Jobs’ – that can be a source of meaning and social life and enjoyment, which of course are quite important to keep as part of our lives.”

For Cruddas, the emergence of techno-utopian and post-work thinking amongst Labour’s left wing factions coincided with a period of intellectual bankruptcy on the Labour right. “This was a time when [that side of the Party] had nothing to say and hadn’t had anything to say since Blair and Brown had gone”, he told Spotlight. “They were devoid of energy, and it looked like the energy and vitality was on the left.”

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A generation of activists had come of age during the direct action, anti-austerity struggles of #Occupy and UK Uncut, and had made headlines during the student protests and occupations of 2010. Some of the oldest of their cohort had been involved in Camps for Climate Action, alter-globalisation movements and anti-G8 and G20 protests, and when Corbyn became leader, many joined the Labour Party. But unlike in previous waves of the UK left’s resurgence, workplace struggles had taken a back seat. There was no equivalent of Arthur Scargill, ‘Red Robbo’ or Jimmy Reid on the picket lines for the new urban service workers or the underemployed precariat. The industries that they represented as shop stewards or union bureaucrats had dissappeared, and this newer left wing emerged at a time when trade union membership and militancy remained at historic lows following the defeats of the Thatcher era. The stage was set for a left that was detached from the labour movement, and one that saw the world of work as something not to be transformed or to be decommodified, but to be liberated from via breakneck automation. The philosophy, Cruddas says, is underpinned by a crude “technological determinism”, which holds that the inexorable rise of AI and automation technologies will inevitably lead to an overcoming of capitalism and a new post-capitalist future. 

Post-workerism, according to Pitts, “prematurely serves up the fruits of struggles that haven’t yet been waged or won”. “The imposition of technology in the workplace in the past has tended to dovetail with workers’ militancy, struggles for higher wages, or with bargaining around productivity with strong trade unions coordinating industrial relations”, he says. “That infrastructure of gains, of struggle, of militancy, isn’t necessarily so much in evidence. We have a kind of economy that doesn’t make that possible since the role of unions has been eroded.” This is a contradiction that post-work advocates are aware of and account for, but not one that has been resolved through a groundswell of grassroots action around implementing a shorter working week, or on introducing labour-saving technology into workplaces. When Corbyn led Labour, the strategy had been informed by what Pitts calls a “populist left” electoral turn – the automated, post-work revolution would be implemented top-down by a rebuilt, Corbynite state following a general election victory. But that model of social and political change has “come a cropper”, he says, following the 2019 defeat and Keir Starmer’s ascendancy to the leadership of the Party.

A year into the Starmer era, the post-work left have settled into a period of waning influence but remain as a definite intellectual strand and even inter-Party, factional presence, organising around groups such as Forward Momentum. “They’re subtly trying to present themselves as innovative political strategists for Labour post-Corbyn”, Cruddas says. The Dagenham MP and former Policy Coordinator under Ed Miliband has written extensively on the need for his Party to reconnect with its working class roots. His recent book, The Dignity of Labour, earned praise from the current leadership. Post-work leftists, according to Cruddas, “jettison the working class as the agent of left politics… they double down on what they say is the new base of the left – the urban, educated, networked youth… and in political strategy that translates into doubling down on the cities, the new heartlands, the university towns, and saying the red wall voters are nativist and reactionary, and that they don’t have a future in left politics.”

Debates on the evolving nature of class, and on who the Labour Party should be for in an age of increasingly automated, hi-tech, cognitive-cultural, advanced capitalism, rage on. The Labour Party’s key demographic has undoubtedly become younger, more metropolitan, more educated, and more scarce in areas where traditional industries and the organised working class once dominated. The post-work left can promote a focus on the “new heartlands” with confidence that a “one-two punch of technology and demography” is on their side, Cruddas tells me, and that the red wall can be safely abandoned, its voters dismissed as asset-rich pensioners or hopeless reactionaries. “I’m of a certain age and background where I find that a bit uncomfortable”, he laments.“I think we’re in a terrible state”.

This article originally appeared in our policy report on The Future of Work: AI and automation. To read the full report click here.