REVALUING AND RE-POLITICIZING WORK IN THE AGE OF AUTOMATION AND AI
[➡︎ read the rest of the symposium]
The spectre of increased automation and the unprecedented pace of developments in intelligent machine learning have brought into question the future of work and its normative value. The issues raised by ongoing debates about the future of work are interdisciplinary in scope—ranging from considerations in moral and political philosophy to economics, labour studies, and even futurism. This article will take as its point of departure the ethical implications of automation and AI through a critical dialogue between normative political philosophy and political economy. I will begin by briefly sketching the genealogy of value discourse and its relevance for normative debates concerning the future of work. I will then outline the widespread predictive evidence suggesting that automation and AI will radically transform the ways that human beings conceive, perform, and grapple with work. Such predictive considerations, which include prognoses of mass unemployment, under-employment, as well as utopian and dystopian renditions of complete automation, necessitate a prior discussion about the value that is assigned to work and working. Indeed, even the most pragmatic policy questions about whether automation should be welcomed or discouraged are predicated on the value or disvalue that commentators assign to work. I will argue that the meaning of work should be revalued and politically contested in the age of automation and AI.
Rather than calling for the abolition of work and resigning to an abstractly-conceived basic income, priority should be given to reducing working time through regulatory constraints that are wrested politically. Such a reduction in necessary working time should also coincide with a diversification of the range of skills and activities that are performed by human beings in the age of automation and AI. However, these goals can only be achieved by revaluing and re-politicizing work. Far from casting doubt about work’s value, the ongoing pandemic provides a striking illustration of why the future of work is a thoroughly political matter whose impact will vary dramatically across racial, gender, and class lines. While many theorists of post-work maintain that their rationale for abolishing work is oriented towards achieving appealing normative ideals (i.e. realizing freedom, equality, and human flourishing), such arguments often have depoliticizing tendencies because they ignore background conflicts of interest over automation and AI in search of life beyond work. Similarly, advocates of an unconditional basic income insist that their proposed schemes are the most viable and humane under present conditions while overlooking the undesirable political implications that their prescriptions may have in a profoundly unequal and polarized world
I. The Value of Work: A Brief Excursus in Value Theory
Considerations of value do not typically factor into mainstream philosophic discussions about labour and work, and ethicists are no exception in this regard. The “value” of labour was at one point considered the terra firma of economics, which still regards labour as but one commodity among others, varying in degrees of scarcity and price (Dooley, 2005). However, there exists a richer and more expansive tradition in the history of moral philosophy and classical political economy, stretching from Aristotle and Kant through Smith, Ricardo, Mill and Marx, which engages substantively with labour and its values (Andrew, 1995). I have in mind here a particular strand of “value theory,” whose application and relevance extends beyond the disciplinary bounds of philosophical ethics and marginalist economics. In his Politics, Aristotle famously distinguished between two kinds of value—use and exchange. The first sees value in qualitative terms, that is, value is conceived in terms of how well an object performs a specific use for human beings and the extent to which it satisfies concrete human needs. The latter conception (i.e. exchange value) is quantitative and captures the monetary worth of an object, which is usually expressed in the form of a price (Aristotle, 1998, 1257a). Aristotle’s distinction between use and exchange allowed him to set “natural” limits on acquisition, and thus to pass normative judgement against “unnatural” acquisition, whose underlying telos is limitless accumulation of exchange value—an unnatural form of exchange that he termed pleonexia.
Immanuel Kant introduced yet another important distinction concerning value in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant distinguished between two such conceptions—value/price (Wert/Preis) and worth/dignity (Würde)—that have become synonymous in colloquial usage.
In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price [Preis] or a dignity [Würde]. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity (Kant, 4:434-435, 1997).
The difference between value and worth, for Kant, boiled down to the broader question of whether an object under consideration can be appraised. Beings or entities which lack will and the capacity for personhood can be assigned a price, mostly so that they can be exchanged or replaced. Another way of looking at Kant’s taxonomy of value is by distinguishing between values that are intrinsic and those that are instrumental. At his most consistent, Kant concludes that human beings as such cannot be appraised, and hence are priceless. Kant’s understanding of value rests on the deeper claim that human beings are owed dignity because they possess immeasurable moral worth. That said, there is an ambivalent residue in Kant’s value theory insofar as his second formulation of the categorical imperative implicitly opens the door to an instrumental conception of value. Kant’s formulation reads as follows: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant, 4:429, 1997). The reference to not “merely” treating individuals as means is telling. It captures Kant’s sober view that, even in the Kingdom of Ends, there may be room for treating people as means. Kant’s subtle qualification of the categorical imperative is that human beings should never be treated “merely” as means, which would involve reducing them to the status of things or to articles of property (i.e. as slaves). It is to Kant’s great credit that he anticipated a modern society of rights-bearers that could indeed be treated with legal respect while still serving instrumentally as means to others’ ends. The society of modern rights bearers that Kant anticipated is one in which the dominant relation between human beings is mediated by the production and exchange of commodities on the market, which brings us to labour and its values.
In Capital, Marx draws on Aristotle’s original distinction between use and exchange value to capture the peculiar character of labour under capitalist conditions of production. Labour is at once concrete and abstract, qualitative and quantitative. This is because labouring activity or work is oriented towards fulfilling concrete human needs (i.e. a worker typically produces something definite and useful for other human beings, whether these are goods for consumption, knowledge for acquisition, or services rendered). At the same time, most forms of work are monetized, which means that regardless of qualitative differences between different lines of work, all forms of work can be subjected to the same abstract measure of value. Nowadays, wages and salaries are said to reflect the relative scarcity of skills and the demand for them on the market. However, at the time when John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J.S Mill, and Karl Marx were writing, labour was still regarded as the primary source of value. Marx differed from his predecessors in his identification of the dual character of labour (concrete and abstract) and its exploitation by capital in the sphere of production. Marx further demonstrated that labourers produce more than the time for which they are paid, and he referred to this phenomenon as the extraction of “surplus-value.” What is particularly noteworthy about Marx’s account of labour power is his insight that, in its function as an exchange value, labour power becomes “the most wretched of commodities” (Marx, 1978, 70). Far from advancing the dignity and autonomy of workers, labouring activity under capitalism is usually experienced as involuntary, alienating, and hostile, while the products of labour become endowed with active human qualities that their producers paradoxically lack (Marx, 1978, 103). The irony here is that Marx was able to show how the seeming inconsistency in Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative is borne out most clearly in capitalist society, where individual labourers possesses equal formal rights and are exploited to the extent that their labour powers become a means to other’s ends. Legal respect is consistent with exploitation because individual labourers are not reduced to a “mere” means, which is to say that legal or regulatory limits are introduced (often through direct pressure from organized labour) that rule out the indefinite selling of labour power in exchange for a wage/price.
While Marx brought to bear the alienating and exploitative character of labour under capitalism, he continued to regard labour power as potentially transformative, liberating, and intrinsically valuable. In his later work, Marx looked forward to social arrangements in which the most harmful and mundane forms of labour would be automated under associated production, leaving emancipated producers to engage in more creative activities that would be pursued as ends in themselves (Marx, 1973, 701). In Capital, Marx interpreted this expansion of freedom in distinctly value-laden terms:
Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy [my emphasis] of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite (Marx, 1967, 820).
As can be discerned from the above passage, Marx nevertheless maintained that the pursuit of freedom-enabling activities would still be grounded in the realm of necessity, thereby reserving a sphere for economically-necessary labour, even in the emancipated society of the future. As we will see in the subsequent sections, contemporary proponents of post-work and full automation sidestep this crucial dimension in Marx’s thinking between emancipating and abolishing work. By characterizing labour power as potentially creative and freedom-enabling, Marx departed from the views of his predecessors (Adam Smith) and successors (Max Weber), who thought that labour must be induced, either by way of monetary incentives or through a secularized form of spiritual sanction. Marx traced these views back to the doctrine of original sin, according to which the children of Adam and Eve were condemned to travail in perpetuity for the sins of their spiritual ancestors (Marx, 1973, 611). Marx could affirm the freedom-enabling dimensions of labour—at one point referring to it as “life’s prime want” (Marx, 1978, 531)—because he did not reduce the value of labour/work to exchange, whose motivating structure is typically cash reward, delayed gratification (Weber’s Protestant asceticism), or fear of starvation and spiritual reprisal. Nor did he distinguish hierarchically between labour and work, as does Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. Marx conceived of labour power instead as having intrinsic value over and above its extrinsic or instrumental value.
Looking at the contemporary context, it becomes evident that both the intrinsic and instrumental values associated with labour/work are being brought into question by automation and AI. It is to the future of work and its normative value in the age of automation and AI that I now turn.
II. Automation, AI and their Implications for the Future of Work
Recent years have seen a growing body of research that forecasts accelerated automation and increased deployment of artificial intelligence technology by employers in the formal labour market (Ford, 2015; Kaplan, 2015; Frey, 2019; Susskind, 2020). Before discussing the latest round of evidence to this effect, it pays to distinguish between automation and artificial intelligence. Automation refers to a process in which certain spheres of production and service delivery are performed by machines, often in conjunction with human operation and live conflict resolution. One pedestrian example of automation that will resonate with most consumers in advanced capitalist countries is the automated checkout station at local supermarkets. In most cases, the traditional cashier (often a woman) is replaced by a machine that guides the consumer’s transaction from start to finish. While these automated checkout stations invariably displace some workers, they are not fully automated, depending as they do on the routine operation, guidance, and conflict resolution skills of customer service representatives, most of whom are significantly underpaid. Other examples abound.
The deployment of artificial intelligence in the labour market differs from automation in that it holds the promise of not only matching but superseding and replacing the relatively scarce cognitive skills wielded by some of the world’s most intelligent human beings. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, digital innovation economists and authors of The Second Machine Age (2014), refer to this phenomenon as the surpassing of the “Polanyi Paradox” (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, 2016, 140). The Polanyi Paradox was formulated by the philosopher of science and economist Michael Polanyi, and holds that human beings know more than they are aware. In Polanyi’s view, human beings have a “learning edge” over the most intelligent machines, which intuitively casts doubt on ambitious attempts at wholescale automation. To date, McAfee and Brynjolfsson are convinced that Polanyi’s paradox has been thoroughly surpassed, which is not different from the more alarmist view of AI’s inevitable surpassing of “singularity.” As evidence for this conclusion, McAfee and Brynjolfsson refer to the automation of jobs ranging from customer services to medical diagnosis, and we might as well add the drafting of legal contracts and the composition of music into the mix. The prototypical example of automated intelligence that has been invoked time and again by AI champions is the victory of Google’s AlphaZero over some of the best chess players in the world. Similar possibilities present themselves in the domains of law, sexuality, aesthetics, athletics, finance, and other spheres of activity previously thought to be the privileged domain of human knowledge and intelligence.
To be sure, the spectre of automation is by no means a new phenomenon, and neither is the buzz around artificial intelligence (Rifkin, 1995). The struggle between machinery and labour is an old and reoccurring one in modern labour history, not unlike the anticipation of intelligent machinery and cyborgs in futuristic film and literature. What appears to have changed over the years is the unsurpassed potential that is now routinely attributed to intelligent machines by leading Silicon Valley conglomerates, innovation experts, and proponents of post-work. The debate about the promises and perils of automation has also gone mainstream, as evidenced by the attention that it continues to receive from public figures as different as Bill Gates, Democratic Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and ex-presidential hopeful, Andrew Yang. Needless to say, there are important differences between these disparate representatives, but all of them, even the most dystopian, agree that automation and AI will radically transform the future of work. What seems to be different this time around is the view, which has been articulated most recently by economist Daniel Susskind, that the spectre of “technological unemployment” is real and palpable. Rather than referring to the Polanyi Paradox, Susskind cites the prophetic words of economist Vasily Leontief, who predicted that just as horses were displaced by more efficient tractors and automobiles in the past, so too will human beings, except by robots and intelligent computers (Susskind, 2020, 3). For Susskind, a world without work should prompt us to take seriously the implications of “technological unemployment” and to contemplate a world where paid work loses the meaning and value that was bestowed upon it in the “age of labour” (Susskind, 2020).
Susskind’s prognosis about technological unemployment appears to be partially borne out by recent studies, ranging in diversity from those conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2017 to those of Frey and Osborne back in 2013, which predict that up to 50 percent of jobs may become automated in the United States. To be sure, these predictive studies differ in subtle details, mostly in how they define the automation of jobs and in the percentage of jobs that will be displaced versus replaced by technology. While nothing can be predicted with certainty, there is a growing consensus among economists that low-paying jobs will be the first on the chopping block because they are the easiest and cheapest to automate (Frey, 320; McAfee and Brynjolfsson, 140). Here as elsewhere, these predictive studies suggest that the most marginalized segments of the population will be most adversely affected by automation. The automation of jobs should be viewed against the background of increased labour flexibility, informalization, precariousness, wage stagnation, economic inequality, and “fissuring” (Standing, 2016). The concept of fissuring is routinely invoked in the scholarly literature on the future of work to denote the movement from relatively secure higher-paid jobs to lower-paid and precarious jobs through a combination of “outsourcing, franchising, and contracting” by firms (Estlund, 2018, 283). These are all, in part, policy-related issues that cannot be explained away by technological forces. The take-away point is that the displacement of labour by automation and AI should not be viewed in abstraction from the broader political and economic dynamics of contemporary financialized capitalism
Sceptics of the mass technologically-induced unemployment thesis, such as Aaaron Benanav, emphasize the need to distinguish conceptually between the prognosis of mass technological unemployment and underemployment (Benanav 2019a; 2019b). Drawing on the insights of economists Thomas Piketty (2014) and Robert Gordon (2016), Benanav suggests that contemporary capitalism evidences the rise of precarious underemployment that is accompanied by a deepening economic stagnation. While firms have been reaping profits, deindustrialization has contributed to a decline in economic growth and a broader trajectory of economic stagnation. In Benanav’s view, a decline in economic growth will mean that the total share of income going to labour will continue to atrophy. Indeed, predictive trends attest to a consistent pattern of wage stagnation in developed capitalist economies over the last thirty years (Sitglitz, 2012; Piketty, 2014; Streeck, 2014). Not surprisingly, Benanav’s conclusion is that technology and AI should neither be regarded as the decisive causes nor the hopeful remedies for a world of increased underemployment and task-encroachment. Causes and remedies are to be sought in the domain of politics (Benanav, 2019b). While I am sympathetic to the view that Benanav develops in his two-part article, particularly the need to re-politicize the future of work, those concerned with the ethical implications of automation for the future of work must consider these implications beyond issues of inequality and distributive justice.
To be sure, one would be hard pressed to find anyone concerned with the threat of technological unemployment who is not also worried about growing economic inequality and the erosion of tax revenue for public spending among indebted states. Indeed, as we will see, these concerns fall under the purview of distributive justice and lend popular support to cross-ideological initiatives aimed at instituting a targeted basic income. While such considerations are appealing and urgent given existing trends, they do not broach the deeper issue at the heart of my article, namely, what normative value ought to be assigned to work in the age of automation and AI? My answer to this question is that, regardless of whether automation and AI are welcomed or discouraged by policy analysts, we are still left to ponder the value or disvalue of work in the automated future. It does not take an expert in formal ethics to realize that work could have value beyond its remunerative rewards. McAfee and Brynjolfsson, for example, readily acknowledge that “declining work-force participation is troubling not only because work provides income but also because it gives people meaning” (2016, 147). It is still the case that many individuals find value and meaning in their work beyond monetary compensation. Remuneration is but one important factor in determining career choice and job satisfaction. The history of political philosophy presents more profound reasons. G.W.F Hegel, for instance, regarded modern occupations as conferring a dignified status on the individual, reaffirming that they are a “somebody,” who ought to be recognized as such by fellow members of the Corporation (Hegel, 2008, §207). Work, in Hegel’s account, is associated with liberation, dignity, and a powerful sense of belonging that is made possible through the market and the modern institution of civil society.
Beyond the terrain of idealist political philosophy, empirical evidence has also shown that people who work reasonable hours tend to experience better mental and physical health, and are happier (McAfee and Brynjolfsson, 2016, 147). We should of course be sensitive to context and not hypostatize overwork and burnout, which are all too real under existing labour regimes. The point I am trying to make is a normative one, namely, that work has intrinsic and expressive value beyond its extrinsic value, and that it should be re-conceived and revalued in the age of automation and AI. While the justified anxiety around technological unemployment has given rise to a myriad of different views, few of them have been particularly concerned with considerations of value. Brynjolfsson and McAfee leave the impression that the Second Machine Age is a fact of contemporary life, and that the responsible thing to do is to frame policies around this newfangled reality, which requires, among other things, greater labour flexibility on the part of workers and accompanying adjustments by governments and firms. Others commentators, such as John Danaher (2019), embrace the coming utopia of full-automation as a break from the drudgery that has been imposed on human beings by structural forces since time immemorial. Aaaron Bastani’s Fully-Automated Luxury Communism (2019) is perhaps the most striking example of this view, albeit one which envisions the realization of a luxurious communist utopia through complete automation and the institution of a generous basic income by accelerating the existing contradictions of financialized capitalism. The same is true for Srnicec and Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, though the latter are arguably more concerned than Bastani with the challenges of forging an accompanying political movement against capitalism. In fairness, not all visions of the automated future are as rosy in their predictions, even among those who also trace their intellectual lineage to Marx. The recent interventions of Dyer-Witheford et al (2019) paint a more dystopian future, one in which the AI juggernaut, assisted by capitalism’s self-valorization, cements capital’s status as subject and renders futile renewed efforts at class struggle by the reserve army of unemployed workers. In this future, if the class struggle is to have a protagonist in the future, it is unlikely to be human. For all of their imaginative thinking, the leading utopians and dystopians of work have nevertheless failed to consider what value, if any, work ought to have in the age of automation and AI.
III. Revaluing and Re-Politicizing Work
Much of the appeal of recent utopian and dystopian literature on the future of work is rooted in a thoroughgoing critique of existing arrangements and the yearning for political, economic, and social forms of organization that are freedom-enabling. Judged from this light, such literature is a welcome break from the fatalistic view that there is no alternative future of work beyond the present horizon. It is partly from this standpoint that feminist political theorist Kathi Weeks has called for a more radical utopian imaginary of post-work that breaks decisively from the structurally coercive, gendered, and racialized cult of productivism that has been at the heart of work’s valorization (Weeks 2011). Those who do not see the need for a utopian imaginary of post-work nonetheless agree with Weeks’ demand for an unconditional basic income. Philippe Van Parijs, a leading left-libertarian political philosopher, has long advocated a universal basic income that would provide “real freedom” for all, including the freedom to perform only those forms of work that one finds fulfilling (Van Parijs, 1995, 2004, Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017). A number of insights can be gleaned from both Weeks and Van Parijis, including the view that care work and the sphere of social reproduction are still gendered, racialized, and grossly undervalued. Van Parijs and Weeks are also to be commended for challenging the truism that income should always be tethered to labour contribution, particularly in wealthy capitalist societies where many onerous forms of work are persistently undervalued.
Having provided a very cursory rendition of arguments for post-work and basic income, it may seem that my call for revaluing work in the age of automation and AI is either plainly outdated or a futile apologia. In order to relieve these doubts, it should be emphasized that a revaluation of work need not take the existing regime of wage-labour as given, nor is it the case that a revaluation of work is necessarily bound up with a romanticized view that is oblivious to the alienating and destructive consequences of work under existing political-economic arrangements. It is precisely out of a normative concern for real workers and their lived experiences that political philosophers should be sceptical about how quickly proponents of post-work and basic income embrace a world without work. At stake is the question of whether work has value for human beings beyond economic necessity and compensatory exchange, and my answer is that it does. One need not be a one-sided productivist to recognize that the displacement of work can have devastating consequences for the lived experiences of actual human beings. Witness the dramatic increase in the use of opioids in recent years, particularly in North America. While the causes of the ongoing opioid crisis are undeniably multifarious and complex, the onslaught of deindustrialization and unemployment have been contributing to the exacerbation of the crisis. Going back to the opening of the article, it is important to recognize that work has use value beyond its exchange value. Once we recognize this otherwise overlooked insight, we can take steps to revalue and re-politicize work. As we will see, the connection between the revaluation and re-politicization of work is closer than first meets the eye.
There has been a proliferation of literature on the urgency of implementing an unconditional basic income in recent years that has been buoyed by experimental initiatives with basic income pilots in Finland, the Netherlands, Scotland, and until recently, in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. Proposals for basic income have come from a variety of political quarters—left, right, and centre—and have previously factored in the work of Chicago School economist Milton Friedman (Friedman, 1962, 191-195). To be sure, there are important differences in how advocates of basic income propose funding its administration, outlining its distributive scope, and justifying its ultimate aim(s). Most proposals for basic income have frequently come under criticism for being fiscally unfeasible, especially when framed in unconditional and universalist terms (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2016). More sympathetic critics like Brishen Rogers have suggested that while the implementation of a basic income should be welcomed as a step forward towards equality, the absence of a strong social infrastructure in countries like the United States will mean that the working and unemployed poor will remain grossly underserved by an even modest basic income in the absence of systemic transformation (Rogers, 2018). Rogers’ critique speaks to the broader challenges of implementing a basic income against the backdrop of austerity politics (Blyth, 2013) and the continuing rollback of the welfare state. Among the most serious shortcomings of proposals for basic income is a reoccurring neglect of existing political realities, as well as the perils of succumbing to depoliticized solutions. Beyond the generalized fear of automated unemployment, right-wing advocates routinely welcome basic income precisely because it provides a basis for countering the expansion of the welfare state and curbing the power that was once wielded by trade unions through collective bargaining. On the reverse extreme, left-wing advocates point to an expansive basic income as the definitive way for severing the connection between work and income, between wage-labour and capital, and between the productivist capitalist present and the emancipated post-work future. Although the stated aim in this case is to radically transform rather than conserve the existing political-economic order, the left-wing case for basic income defers the question of politics to a post-work future.
If proposals for basic income—left, right, or centre—are abstracted from existing political constraints and realities, then they risk depoliticizing the future of work. The danger with depoliticization is that it transforms the debate about the future of work into a strictly technological problem, one that demands a “technical fix” in a world without work. The trouble is that the debate about the future of work is normatively loaded and cannot be abstracted from its political-economic context. Technological possibilities have and will continue to be harnessed for different aims. These aims are normative in character and are prescribed politically. Even mainstream economists and technologists such as Carl Frey acknowledge that “the challenge [of AI-enabled automation] lies in the sphere of politics, and not in that of technology” (Frey, 2019, 349). If Frey is correct in presuming that the threat of wholescale technological unemployment is far from inevitable, then this should give us room to rethink the relevance of politics. Frey, for his part, grants that “worker resistance and adverse public opinion could slow the pace of change, as it has in the past” (Frey, 331, 2019). Be that as it may, the danger of depoliticization is magnified when one takes into account that organized labour has been in decline and that real wages have remained stagnant in capitalist democracies over the last thirty years. These gloomy trends have understandably given way to political resignation, including among left-wing advocates who see basic income as the most humane and realistic solution under existing constraints (Standing, 2017).
To be sure, critics of my position will likely point out that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put the future of work into serious question, reaffirming the centrality of a universal basic income in any foreseeable future. There is no doubt that the pandemic has generated unanticipated challenges for workers, employers, and governments around the world. Some governments have indeed responded with the provision of unconditional income relief payments in response to the destructive consequences of COVID-19. While such efforts are to be welcomed and lauded at the level of policy, proponents often overlook the ways that the pandemic has also allowed employers to exacerbate labour flexibility to the point where there no longer exists a clear and necessary distinction between home and work. It is true that public rhetoric concerning the value of frontline workers has shifted somewhat in light of the pandemic, reaffirming the need for higher wages in accordance with greater labour burden and risk. However, this changed rhetoric has proven ephemeral at best—a momentary necessity and aberration that is being clawed back before our eyes. As far as unemployed and precarious workers are concerned, it was not long before income relief schemes brought with them the old distinction between the so-called “deserving” and “undeserving poor” that finds earlier roots in the despised Poor Laws. Above all, the ongoing pandemic has been reinforcing existing inequalities among workers and will only be counterbalanced by active political mobilization and resistance. One cannot fortuitously assume that a modest basic income (not to mention living wages) will be presented to workers on a silver platter, particularly against a background of economic precariousness and uncertainty.
Without disputing the state of disorganized labour, it is still the case that our increasingly-automated present has its share of winners and losers. As soon as the future of work is cast in unambiguously political terms, we can begin to ask why the greatest share of income continues to go to capital and not to labour. Similarly, why are manufacturers of AI technology relying on a subsidized social and political infrastructure without paying their respective dues to the replenishing of this very infrastructure? Relatedly, why are governments allowing public funds to be spent with the long-term goal of displacing workers and undermining effective demand if they are concerned with maintaining a strong tax revenue base? To ask these questions is to re-politicize the debate around the future of work, which is otherwise left to the expertise of technologists, innovation economists, and futurists. In this respect, Aaron Benanav is correct in insisting on the centrality of political mobilization with the long-term aim of achieving greater democratic control over working conditions and the economy as a whole (Benanav, 2019b). Such an approach also opens the door for a broader debate about the merits of deploying AI technology in different lines of work, the question of who ought to own and control it, and the rights and responsibilities of all those concerned. I would further argue that such a re-politicization of work must be predicated on its revaluation. Unless work is valued for the use and meaning that it continues to have for human beings, it will continue to be treated as a wretched commodity that can indeed be exchanged and automated, which finally brings us back to Marx’s seemingly moderate proposal for reducing the length of the working day.
Although Marx did not look forward to the abolition of work in the way of post-work theorists, he did think—correctly—that a basic perquisite for expanding the realm of human freedom involves reducing the length of the working day. Those familiar with Marx’s elaborate chapter on the working day in Capital will appreciate the importance that he attached to class struggle and politics in the determination of what counts as a “normal” working day” There is no good reason to think that political struggles over the reduction of the working day are somehow outdated in the age of automation and AI. On the contrary, they are all the more pertinent, particularly as the cost of living continues to rise in capitalist democracies while the total share of wealth going to labour continues to stagnate. Labour lawyer Matthew Dimick has proposed regulatory reductions in working time as a more effective strategy for advancing the rights of workers than the implementation of a basic income (Dimick, 2017). Casting doubt on Dimick’s approach, Cynthia Estlund (2018, 324) has proposed separating employee benefits from the employment contract so as to lower labour costs for employers and thereby reduce the threat of automation in the present. Estlund nevertheless tasks the state with bankrolling entitlements to health care, paid leaves, and skills-training, which highlights the need for a supportive social infrastructure in a context of soaring living costs and rising economic inequality.
However, none of the aforementioned proposals can be achieved without the re-politicization and revaluation of work. The future of work is indisputably a normative and political matter. Under the present labour regime of overwork and burnout, the demand for reduced working hours remains a basic prerequisite for securing the freedom and dignity of workers. The same is true for reducing the “mandatory” retirement age for those who choose to leave the sphere of paid work. After all, the end of paid work in the form of wage-labour is not the end of work as such. Indeed, a reduction in working time brings with it the possibility of diversifying the range of activities that can be performed by human beings, including care work, recreation, athletics, literature, engaging in the arts, education, and scientific discovery, which are not always bound by the logic of capitalist accumulation. These activities also remind us from time to time that work can be meaningful, fulfilling, and valuable beyond the present strictures of wage-labour and exchange value. Consequently, thinking critically about the future of work in the age of automation and AI calls for its revaluation and re-politicization.
* Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethics of AI, Centre for Ethics, University of Toronto.
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