Freedom and de-alienated labour

[Credit: soc331.]

by Jeff Noonan

There is a long-standing tension in the socialist movement which dates back to Marx and concerns the extent to which  the value and freedom of human life depends upon replacing human labour with mechanised and automated systems.  In his earliest philosophical writings Marx argued that alienated labour constricted and deformed human capacities, but that a socialist society would de-alienate labour.  Once under workers’ control and freed from the capitalist form of division between mental and manual labour, labour would no longer be shunned, but embraced as a subjectively desired vital need.[1]  Later, however, in the midst of a burgeoning industrial revolution, Marx would argue (without ever explicitly repudiating his earlier humanist defence of de-alienated labour) that the expansion of the realm of freedom depended upon fully utilising machinery to “do for us”  what we formerly had to do with our hands and minds, so that as much time as possible could be freed from labour of all sorts.[2]  Underlying this tension is a deeper normative issue concerning human freedom:  is positive human freedom best expressed in our productive and creative capacities realized for the sake of contributing to the satisfaction of social needs (labour), or our capacities for non-instrumental experience and activity undertaken for the sake of our own enjoyment (play, in the broad sense of the term)?  If we conceive socialism as a society whose value system and institutions are consciously structured so as to satisfy the material and social (including temporal) conditions of human freedom that are not met under capitalism, we can pose the question implied by this tension as:  should socialist society be organized to maximise opportunities for de-alienated labour, or for play?

Dialectical thinkers might want to forestall any answer to this question by objecting to the dichotomy it asserts between work and play.  They would be right to voice this objection, and, at the end of the day, I will argue that a socialist society should aim to expand opportunities for both de-alienated labour and play (and that technological development is one factor that helps make this goal a material possibility).  However, two economic and political problems and one deep philosophical concern issuing from them necessitate posing the question initially as a choice between de-alienated labour or play.  First, there is the on-going concern amongst some bourgeois economists and social theorists that the rapid development of artificial intelligence and automated, autonomous systems will create a permanent structural unemployment crisis[3].  Second, since there is no capitalist solution to this crisis, its possibility is one more reason to re-think the socialist project in search of ways of re-building it as a credible and desired alternative, and a growing number of socialists have argued that the movement needs to openly embrace freedom from labour as its goal.  From the possibility of a long-term jobs crisis and the need to re-invent the socialist movement follows the third, more profound issue:  what is the meaning and value of human life in an age where automated systems really can do much of what (in Marx’s age) it appeared only human beings could ever do? Expressed politically, the philosophical question asks:  if socialism is about satisfying the natural and social conditions of human freedom, what exactly is it that we should do with that freedom if it is the case that technological development could abolish the social need for labour?

In this essay I will try to answer this question with the argument that socialism should not abolish the social need for labour, even if it becomes one day technically possible to do so, because labour—making ourselves real for others through our productive-creative activities in ways that contribute to the satisfaction of their needs—is a necessary element of a meaningful and free human life.  I will defend this claim in three steps.  In the first I will consider a debate between Nick Dyer-Witherford (who defends the idea that a socialist future should be a future without labour) and Michael Albert, who argues that labour will always be necessary, but also good, if de-alienated.   The debate about the politics and economics of labour points us toward the underlying normative issue:  the relative value of labour and play in human life.  The second section will consider this problem.  While I will conclude that both labour and play are essential elements of a meaningful and good human life, I will also argue that a world in which all life-activity is play would not be more free and valuable than one in which there were opportunities for both.  There are peculiar forms of life-necessity which structure labour but not play which are, I will argue, of irreducible importance to the meaning and value of human life.  The second section will focus on explaining these positive life-necessities and why they ought not be overcome, even if it became technologically possible to do so.  In the final section I will examine three recent examples of workers thinking and struggling creatively with problems posed by technological change not so as to stop it, but to work with it to create new spaces for meaningful, de-alienated work within capitalism.  While these examples are not fully developed alternatives to capitalism, and some have been, at least in the short term, failures, they are concrete (albeit undeveloped) examples of ways in which social wealth and technological capacity could be reconfigured to better satisfy human needs, to create more social time and space for both de-alienated work and play in a socialist future.

[Credit: Mitch Francis.]
[Credit: Mitch Francis.]
 I:  Exit Strategy

Marx’s thinking about the relative value of mechanization was informed by the absolute scarcity of resources he saw all around him in nineteenth century Europe.  The vast increase of productive capacity appeared to him as a necessary condition of satisfying even basic human biological needs, and he was, in his day, correct.  One hundred and fifty years after the publication of Capital, the undeveloped state of productive forces is no longer a problem. While there is still absolute deprivation of basic needs, this crime is not caused by lack of productive capacity, but inequality in the appropriation of natural resources and social wealth, a fact which is in turn caused by the class structure of capitalism.  As regards the level of development of productive forces, the problem here is not underdevelopment, but distribution.  That is, considered globally, existing levels of production and technological development are more than sufficient to ensure the satisfaction of our basic needs, but these are combined with zones where, for historical reasons, the productive and technological infrastructure is archaic.  Trotsky perceptively called this situation, evident even in the early twentieth century “combined and uneven development.”[4] The importance of this idea today is that it highlights the fact that what we face is not a technological-productivity problem, but a distribution problem (of technology, productivity, and life-requirement satisfying wealth and resources) caused by a class problem:  the private and exclusive control of natural resources and social wealth by the ruling class.  Hence, the solution is not more technological development in the abstract, but the eventual overcoming of this class structure and its replacement with collective, democratic control over life-resources for the sake of comprehensive satisfaction of fundamental natural and social needs.

The deeper issue today is thus freedom, not survival:  how much technological development and to what purpose is conducive to human freedom.  Further, if we define human freedom not simply as absence of constraint, but as the positive realization of our life-capacities in life-valuable ways, how much technological development is conducive to the widest and deepest possible development of those capacities?  Should technological development be allowed to follow its own path towards artificial intelligence and autonomous systems that could potentially do away with the need for all productive and creative labour, freeing us from labour to play as the substance of our active lives?  Or should it be developed within a value-frame that constrains and limits it to reducing socially necessary labour time and taking over meaningless, mundane work only?  To help answer these questions let us begin by examining a recent brief but informative debate between Nick Dyer-Witherford (author of, amongst other  important texts, Cyber-Marx) and Michael Albert, the creator of the Parecon (participatory economics)  model of an alternative democratic economy.

Dyer-Witherford criticises Parecon for “not being utopian enough” because it does not demand full automation and total freedom from work but instead affirms the value of democratic workplace management, the elimination (so far as possible) of the division between mental and manual labour, and necessary labour distributed to individuals as job complexes (instead of confining activity to one single job or a series of single jobs). Dyer-Witherford situates his critique of Albert in the historical ambivalence the socialist movement has shown towards work which I also noted in the introduction:

Historically the Left has had difficulty deciding how much of this nexus to reject.  State socialism replaced the market with command planning, but did not break with the society of work.  On the contrary, it made of Marxism a new and nightmarish economic reductionism, glorified the toil that built the so-called workers’ state, and enforced that toil with totalizing discipline.  It was against this conversion of communism into a giant workhouse that the libertarian Left fought.[5]

Dyer-Witherford is correct to critique the structure and experience of labour under Stalinism, surely every bit if not more alienating than work under capitalism.

[Credit: barryessex.]
[Credit: barryessex.]
For Dyer-Witherford work as such and alienated work seem to be identical.  He argues that the failure to break with the society of work leaves human energies and talents submerged in repressive and joyless tasks at the same time as technological development have made a total break with work increasingly materially possible.   The re-vitalization of the Left thus demands taking up the dreams of the libertarian Left, but now, no longer as dreams but a practical program that technological development can help realize. “Parecon is a long way from the graffiti scrawled by students in 1968:  ‘ne travaillez jamais.’  That slogan … was an expression of another sort of Left utopianism [that] goes by a variety of names:  the refusal of work, ‘zero work’ or ‘autonomism.’   For the sake of simplicity I will call it a strategy of exodus.  Exodus aims not to reorganize the society of work, but to defect from it.”[6] Note carefully that Dyer-Witherford explicitly rejects the re-organization of work.  It does not matter to the value of work in human life whether it is democratically managed or not, whether it is creative and demanding or not.  The mere fact that people have to work in a given society means that such a society is not fully satisfying the conditions of human freedom, because human freedom demands freedom from all imposed social necessities.  If we define play as self-motivated and self-affirming activity undertaken by choice and not social necessity, then what Dyer-Witherford supports is a society of play that opens up once the need to work has been finally and fully overcome.

Since human beings are mortal, our time for life-valuable experience and activity is limited.  Time lost to repressive and damaging activities can never be regained.  Hence the imperative to be active in free, life-valuable ways as much of our life-time as possible.  Time spent at work is never free or life-valuable, in Dyer-Witherford’s view, and so the real struggle must be to free life-time from work.  “What is missing from this [Albert’s] vision?  Time off … time away.  Time off from work … time for play, for aesthetics, for sex, mysticism, conviviality, idleness, carnival, and learning.  Struggles to maximise free time- rather than to provide incentives for long, onerous labour—have historically been crucial to the Left.”[7]  Even democratically managed and creative labour is still labour and, therefore, an illegitimate constraint on free time in Dyer-Witherford’s view.

If one asks about practical matters, about how such a society can be built, the answer would be:  gradually.  Dyer-Wihterford’s arguments against Albert are brief and not designed to make a fully convincing practical case for his totally liberated society.  Such programs do exist.  Srnicek and Williams, for example, have recently developed a detailed program that they urge the Left to adopt.  This program includes the expanded use of technology to vastly increase labour productivity.  Increased labour productivity can generate the wealth necessary to pay everyone a guaranteed basic income (GBI)  which will gradually free people from both the social need to work and the psychological compulsion that drives people to work in capitalism even if they do not have to do so.[8]  Overcoming the society of work is thus envisaged as a gradual process but one which, when complete, will result in a society whose members never have to do anything (apart from the basic things we need to do to stay alive).  I will return to the practical problems of decreasing and re-distributing socially necessary labour time and GBI in the concluding section.  In this section I want to remain focussed on the deeper normative issues.

[Credit: Darkow.]
[Credit: Darkow.]
Thus, before turning to Albert’s response, let us consider Dyer-Witherford’s list of experiences and activities that he believes require “time off” work in light of my distinction between work and play.  While I agree that we do need time off for self-directed activities, it is not at all clear to me that everything on this list is best understood as play rather than de-alienated labour.  Let us take aesthetics:  first, if there is to be art to enjoy, artists must make it, and surely making art is de-alienated labour, not play.  Moreover, appreciating, learning from, and valuing art requires cultivation of taste and judgement, and cultivation I would argue, is work upon the self. Learning is certainly a form of labour, and, when properly organized, not alienated.  Even sex can be understood as a form of de-alienated labour, not in so far as it can be a paid profession, but in so far as it requires work upon the self, both in order to make oneself attractive enough to another to become an object of their desire, and in order to make oneself a pleasing and fun lover.  The distinguishing characteristic of labour is that labour always has an intended objective outcome which constrains, but in a productive way, the particular expression of our capacities.  As I try to make my argument I cannot just list words at random but must attune what I say to the best charitable re-construction of my opponent’s position.  That is certainly labour, but it is labour that I desire to do, that defines me as the person I want to be (at least in my public life as a philosopher).  But it is hard—harder than some quite demanding manual labour I had to perform at earlier periods of my life.

There is a further difference between labour and play that must be noted and which follows from the preceding analysis:  there is no social life-necessity attached to play, in the sense that no one else needs you for the games you like to play, but we do, in general, need one another for the work we do.  The ties of mutual need from which labour follows is the real material basis of its life-value, and it is ignored by Dyer-Witherford in his rush for exodus.  The contribution that labour makes to the on-going biological life of human beings raises even mundane physical labour above mere drudgery to make it a component part of good lives.  Since good lives presupposes life, and labour of all sorts helps to sustain life, it is not only highly creative labour that can be de-alienated, but hard physical labour too. That does not mean that some class of people should be confined to taxing physical labour, but it does suggest, as I will argue in more detail in the second and third sections, that a much wider range of labour activities than might initially be thought can be de-alienated and made component parts of good and meaningful lives.  We might not want to automate transportation, or recycling collection, or sewage treatment even if we could, because, suitably re-organized, the labour done within them is life-valuable.

Albert does not respond to Dyer-Witherford in exactly these terms, and his response, like Dyer-Witherford’s critique, is compressed.  Nevertheless, the continuity between his rejoinder and my position is clear.  He begins by noting an ambiguity in Dyer-Witherford’s position, and proceeds from that ambiguity to make his substantive normative objections.  “If he means that we should get rid of alienated labour, get rid of subordinated labour, get rid of unequally rewarded labour, and also strive to increase the average quality of labour, I very much agree.  But if he means … that we should get rid of labour period, I think he is out of touch with reality- out of touch not only with reality’s material requirements, but also with the positive virtues of self-managed labour”[9]. As I have argued, Dyer-Witherford does not distinguish between alienated and de-alienated labour, but does argue for an end to all labour, on the seeming assumption that it will all appear alienated once technological alternatives exist.  Hence he falls victim to Albert’s second charge, with being “out of touch” with the way in which labour is essential to the construction and elaboration of the human world, and the positive virtues of de-alienated labour recognized as essential to life and good lives.  In the second section I will explicate the positive virtues of de-alienated labour by examining more closely the different meanings of “necessity” and the positive contribution some forms of necessity play in meaningful human lives.

[Credit: thecharnelhouse.]
[Credit: Picture of Heidegger, taken from thecharnelhouse.]
II:  The Positive Virtues of De-Alienated Labour   

Human beings do not live on that which they find ready at hand in nature but transform natural resources through labour.  Collectively, and over the whole of human history, a series of socio-cultural worlds has been built in which human creativity is realized (but also constrained by various forms of oppression, exploitation, and alienation).  Hence labour is a material necessity in two senses:  it is necessary for the perpetuation of life (natural life-necessity) and the construction of the social worlds in which truly human lives are possible (social life-necessity).  Truly human lives are any in which various excellences are possible, either immediately, within the given society, or mediately, in a changed form of society that has moved beyond oppression, exploitation, and alienation.  Natural and social necessity compel human beings to labour.  Unless we believe, with the Old Testament, that labour is a punishment for sin, we should not conclude that just because labour is necessary it is a constraint on freedom.  Dyer-Witherford does draw this conclusion, claiming that we should prefer play to work wherever technological development frees us from the necessity of work (wherever we can make machines do for us that which we formerly had to do for ourselves, as Marx put it).

Even if– per impossible for the moment, but perhaps not in the near-future– make machines do everything for us we formerly did for ourselves:  try court cases, diagnose and cure disease, pilot airplanes, compose music, teach philosophy– my argument maintains that we ought not automate labour out of existence, precisely because good lives require the experience of responding to certain forms of positive life-necessity.  What anti-work critics of capitalism, from Paul Lafargue in The Right to be Lazy in the nineteenth century to Srnicek and Williams and Dyer-Witherford in the twenty-first century fail to grasp clearly is that the enemy of freedom is not life-necessity, but imposed political and economic necessities that stem not from the demands of life and good living, but from the need to maintain a given oppressive, exploitative, and alienating system.  Play—activity completely under the control of the player, and therefore free from all forms of necessity—cannot replace the value of alienated labour, precisely because it lacks the pull of life-necessity.  As I noted and repeat here:  play has a vital place within the complex of experience and activities that enter into good lives in general, but it is a supplement to, not a replacement for, de-alienated labour.  Let me first explicate the problematic form of necessity and then return to a more careful explanation of the different forms of life-necessity essential to life and good living.

In any society in which a minority class lives by exploiting the labour of a majority class there will be a difference between the life-value and the system-value of the labour.  In class societies these two forms of value are inverted.  Instead of labour serving the universal life-interest as its first priority, it serves the particular political and economic interests of the ruling class.  This inversion of value is proven empirically by the fact that the lives of workers will be sacrificed in order to maintain the given system of rule.  They will be imprisoned or killed for rebelling, thrown into unemployment if their work cannot be profitably employed, or go without food if they cannot afford to pay market rates.  There is a form of necessity at work here:  the rulers regard it as necessary to maintain their rule, and so they organize social life so as to ensure the demands of this extrinsic (from the standpoint of the universal life-interest) form of socio-historical necessity are met.  This form of extrinsic socio-historical necessity compromises human freedom in three ways:  (1) for the rulers, it means that energy must be expended to maintain an ideological and violent apparatus which does nothing but oppress other human beings, thus squandering resources and talent  in activities that have no life-value; (2) for the workers, it means that their lives are contingent upon social, economic, and political dynamics beyond their collective, democratic control, making them the pawns and playthings of reified social forces and the class power that stands behind them; and (3) it constrains their range of experience and activity to  forms of realization that are profitable, which, in actual capitalist history has meant de-skilling divisions between mental and manual labour and an overall “degradation”  of work. [10] That which Dyer-Witherford and other exodus theorists rightly react against are these impediments to the full development of human experiential and practical freedom.  However, they are wrong to think that the sorts of life-necessity involved in (de-alienated) labour are the real problem (the class structure and reification that alienates labour is).

[Credit: Khalil Bendib.]
[Credit: Khalil Bendib.]
The first forms of life-necessity found in de-alienated labour are a natural and social life-necessity.  For our purposes their commonality-both contribute to the maintenance and development of human life—are more important than their differences (natural life-necessity refers to the survival of our biological organism and social life-necessity refers to the cultivation of our properly human capacities).  De-alienated labour which follows from either is necessary because without it people would either die or fail to develop their capacities in fully human ways.  Thus, without the labour of farmers, we would lack food to eat. Without the labour of teachers, we would not be able to realize our cognitive and imaginative capacities. If we freed farming from its industrial-capitalist form or teaching from its bureaucratic organization both would still be necessary in the specified sense, but not repressive wastes of time.  On the contrary, if socialists retain a commitment to positive freedom, then de-alienated labour that helps to satisfy natural and social life-necessities is a fundamental expression of positive freedom.

By positive freedom I mean individual freedom as the realization of our defining experiential and creative capacities.  A free society is one which ensures that the natural and social conditions of self-realization are comprehensively met.  Historically, people have struggled not only for representative institutions and freedom from total deprivation, but also for societies in which their talents and capacities can be cultivated and developed; in which they can become real for other citizens through the labour they contribute to others’ well-being.  Because this work contributes to the well-being of others, and, as social beings, we feel affirmed in our own self when our importance to others’ is reflected back to us, engaging in de-alienated, life-necessary labour is an affirmation of the self and an expression of positive freedom.  As proof consider the ways in which people will rush to the aid of others in an acute crisis without any thought of being paid for their efforts, or how friends willingly help each other on the weekends around the house or in the neighbourhood, even when the work is physically demanding.  What these examples illustrate is that human beings feel an inner motivation to be active, helpful contributors.  Where this motivation is lacking we should look not to the demands that such activity places upon the self in the abstract, but the field of forces in which that activity is structured.  If the activity is shunned as an oppressive burden, one must first examine whether that is because the activity is deformed by alienating social relations and institutions.  If it is, then the task should be to free it from those alienating relations through social change that aims to change institutions, not eliminating its life-necessity by turning it over to automated systems.

The inner motivation that we feel to be helpful and contribute is perhaps the most general and undeveloped form of the second form of life-necessity involved with de-alienated labour.  This second form is the irresistible pull of vocations and duties.  In English vocation is synonymous with “calling” a verb which very clearly explains the type of necessity I am referring to here.  When we are called we feel compelled to respond.  Objective circumstances might impede our ability to do so, but we do feel inwardly the need to do so, and it troubles us when we cannot.  When we read the biographies of artists or great sportspeople or doctors or pilots, we often encounter phrases like “I knew from childhood I had to become …” or “I would rather have died than not become…”  These phrases are the verbal expression of the inner life-necessity of the vocation.  The pull of the vocational call goes beyond the natural and social life-necessity that characterises de-alienated labour in general and is typically associated with highly demanding, uniquely individuating forms of life-activity.  However, I think the distinguishing feature of a vocational calling is not that it summons the special few to rarefied heights of achievement, but that in it we experience an inner need to make of our life something that is more than individually enjoyable.

[Credit: Tetsuya Ishida.]
[Credit: Tetsuya Ishida.]
The vocational calling connects meaningful life to a struggle against internal and external barriers to life-valuable achievement.  It is this that elevates human pleasure above mere hedonistic enjoyment and affirms the positive virtue of struggle and pain as signs of growth, development, and seriousness of purpose.  Again, the value of socialism in this regard is not to free people of these struggles to pursue their vocations, but rather to free the struggle to pursue their vocation from alienating social impediments.  As McMurtry argues, a life-valuable society must mandate “the vocational good of enabling and obliging each to contribute to the provision of these universal life goods consistent with the enjoyment of them.”[11]  Even if computers could compose music worth listening to or perform operations or provide nursing care we ought not turn those jobs over to them completely, as if they were meaningless functions towards which we can afford to be indifferent.  These are paradigm examples of vocations whose successful pursuit even in alienated conditions provides human life with substance, which makes it not only objectively life-valuable, but subjectively life-valuable, i.e., felt as such, and judged worthwhile because and not in spite of the difficult efforts to make oneself adequate to the demands of the job.

One can make an analogous argument in regard to moral duty.  I am not thinking of particular moral codes that can be dogmatically followed, but rather the general human ability to consider the interests of other people (whether immediately present as a specific individual, in the generality of fellow citizens or human beings, or as potential beings not yet born but which, as future human beings will have the same life-interests) and behave in a way that is responsible to them.  If there is one side of the human personality that is self-interested and materially driven towards immediate pleasures, then we have to work against it in order to be responsible to others.  If there were no other side to ourselves than the self-interested, there would be no felt inner struggle to behave responsibly rather than self-interestedly.  These inner struggles are essential to our being human:  if the lion is hungry, she hunts and kills, but the human does not similarly eat whenever he wants (unless he is a glutton) but only when it is appropriate.  We could always try to lie to escape responsibility for a personal failure, but we do not always do so, even when we could get away with it, because we think it is shameful to be so weak as not to own up to our mistakes.  This inner feeling is more than the repressive super-ego getting in the way of 24/7 fun, it is the voice of our deepest humanity, proof of our moral connection with others, our identifying the good of our individual life with what we do with and for others and not just for ourselves.  Greed (celebrated in capitalism) has been repellent to most moral philosophers through the ages (including Adam Smith) precisely because it turns the whole rest of humanity into an enemy, denying the deepest bonds that make life and good lives possible.  Would we really want to exist free of this need to recognise the equal value of other lives and recognition of the shared life-interest that allows us to be responsible in the face of it?

In all these cases, it is service to the life-necessity that makes the activity valuable.  To free human beings from this life-necessity, of having to serve each other through the ways in which we realize our capacities in de-alienated labour on the world and ourselves, would be to impoverish it.  The good life is not easy in all respects:  it demands that we find new problems and challenges.  The inner drive by which we seek them out and overcome them is the drive towards de-alienated labour.  It is, as a motivation for creative, life-serving, affirmative labour, the inner cause of our positive freedom, i.e., the active expression of ourselves in nature as transformative, constructive powers. Play, while intrinsically valuable and a necessary component of good lives lacks, this outer and inner life-necessity.  We need to play in order to be whole individuals, but no activity that we would associate with play (games, aimless amusements, pass-times, hobbies) is necessary in the ways in which non-alienated labour is necessary.  Without opportunities for serving others through the ways in which we make ourselves real, our lives lack meaningful connection and purpose.  Without opportunities for play our lives would be less enjoyable.  But an enjoyable life can become vacuous and ultimately tiresome:  pure enjoyment easily becomes pure boredom where there is nothing that calls you to demanding activities.  Thus, whatever the future of technological development holds, socialists must keep in mind the central and irreplaceable role that non-alienated labour plays in a meaningful and good life. Where opportunities to make concrete in-roads against capitalist structures of alienation open up, the goal should not be to free time from labour completely, but to free time for de-alienated labour and play.  I will conclude with some examples of struggles occurring or possible in the present that explain how those goals can be progressively achieved.

[Credit: Pinterest]
[Credit: Pinterest]
III:  The Struggle for De-Alienated Labour

Arguably the most transformative struggle of the workers movement, judged from the standpoint of the quality of everyday life of workers, has been the struggle to shorten the working day.  Since labour under capitalism is alienated and exploited, time re-claimed from alienated labour without loss of real income is lifetime reclaimed from capital.  Since human beings are mortal, those living now cannot afford to postpone the goal of freedom until a final revolutionary victory, but everyone must always struggle with achievable ends in view.  Where concrete gains are possible, they must be seized, both for the sake of immediate, lived freedom, and as plateaus of confidence form which deeper inroads against capital’s hold over life can be made.  Hence, the first concrete shape of struggle for de-alienated labour should be a revival of the workers’ movement’s struggle to shorten the working day.[12]

The inclusion of this demand might seem surprising, coming as it does at the end of a paper which has argued in favour of the value of de-alienated labour.  However, there is no contradiction between shorter working hours and the struggle for meaningful work. First of all, the overall aim of the workers’ movement must be to overcome capital’s hold on life.  Hence, where there are no prospects for complete social transformation, workers need to struggle for what they can achieve in the present to expand the matrix of life space and time for free, life-valuable activity.  Second, not all de-alienated labour need be paid labour.  As I have noted, much of what Dyer-Witherford excludes from his concept of labour should be included as de-alienated labour.  Work upon the self, creative activities pursued outside of paid labour, and the general cultivation of talents and capacities necessarily require conscious effort and are essential to a fully meaningful life.  More time outside of paid labour is (potentially) more time for life-valuable non-alienated labour and therefore a gain for working people.  Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, reducing working hours for each worker does not necessarily entail a reduction in the amount of life-valuable labour that needs to be performed in a society.  Hence, a reduction in individual working hours can mean—if there is a sufficiently sophisticated plan in place and a sufficiently powerful workers’ movement able to implement the plan—a re-division of labour such that more people have more access to life-valuable work (leaving the real meaningless drudgery to automated systems). If an artificial intelligence can be designed to ‘answer” phones and solve technical problems then we should turn the phone banks of the world’s call centres over to them, while resisting nurse and doctor bots, self-driving cars and airplanes, and data banks that claim to be able to replace teachers.  With more life-valuable labour to go around, and with more time to pursue non-paid de-alienated labour, the overall effect will be to expand the life-time and space of freedom for working people.

In order to ensure that the reduction of working hours does not come at the cost of real wages, the struggle for a shorter working day and week must be coupled with the struggle for a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI).  Perhaps surprisingly, the idea of a GBI is becoming increasingly popular in official policy circles as governments struggle to contend with a labour market which is no longer producing sufficient numbers of well-paid, secure, full-time jobs.[13] If—as appears to be the case–we are witnessing a structural change in labour markets, a GBI suddenly becomes attractive as a means of real income support.  Governments can “top up” wages through a GBI program, thus allowing workers to maintain their standard of living while allowing labour markets to evolve under new and ever changing technological conditions.

[Credit: freudquotes.]
[Credit: freudquotes.]
When an idea that emanated from the Left suddenly gains traction amongst the policy planners of the ruling class, suspicion is always in order.  There is a hidden danger in the idea of the GBI, the danger that it becomes a means of intensifying rather than relaxing the hold of labour and commodity markets over our lives.  The danger is brilliantly explained by long time Canadian anti-poverty activist John Clarke:

If people are moving between poverty wages and poverty level benefits more frequently in a precarious job market, perhaps they can be more effectively prodded into the worst jobs with less intrusive benefit systems. A less rule bound delivery of poverty income, that gives people a chance of retaining their housing, may be needed to keep them job ready. Linked to this, of course, is the huge boost to the employers of a BI [Basic Income] system that constitutes a form of wage top up. Provided the payment is meagre, it will not impede the flow of low paid workers but it will mean that their employers receive a subsidy that absolves them from having to pay living wages or come under pressure to increase the amount they do provide … the great advantage of neoliberal BI is that the inadequate and dwindling payment it provides turns those who receive it into customers in the marketplace. In my opinion, BI … in the context of an intensifying agenda of austerity and privatization, it is … really about the commodification of social provision.[14]

In other words, the danger is that the rate of the GBI is set at such a low threshold that people cannot live any sort of human life on it, and will be forced to remain in still tight labour markets, fighting over the low-wage work available.

Thus, in order to ensure that the struggle for reduced labour time and a GBI are in fact conducive to the freeing of life-time from alienated for the sake of life-valuable, de-alienated labour, it must be taken out of the hands of government policy experts and made a demand of an active, militant, and globally inter-linked workers’ movement which is also capable of contesting for power and control within the factory and office.  A GBI ‘from above” will not solve the problem of alienated labour, and could in fact make it worse.  A GBI from below, combined with shorter working hours, would have a profoundly transformative effect on workers’ lives, even if it falls short of being fully revolutionary when compared against the idea of a socialist society in which all decisions about economic life would be made democratically with the shared life-interest in mind. The GBI from below cannot be achieved unless workers are once again able to put pressure on capital where capital makes its money:  on the shop and office floor.   The only way to achieve that goal is through new organising drives and new tactics of struggle.  Those are practical issues best dealt with in local contexts by engaged activists.   At the same time, the other side of workers’ movement renewal is broadening the range of demands that are brought to the bargaining table.  In the context of rapid and potentially life-destructive replacement of labor by automated systems, the required expansion of demands must include the right of workers to participate in the determination of investment priorities.

[Credit: epeuthutebetes.]
[Credit: epeuthutebetes.]
This idea does not derive from abstract philosophical reflection on the problem of labour movement renewal, but (in my case) from reflection on the most recent round of bargaining between the union that organises Canadian autoworkers, UNIFOR, and the Big Three Detroit auto companies.  In a move that was controversial, UNIFOR made new, job-creating investment a priority for this round of bargaining, and was successful in so doing.  The move was controversial because it was achieved by making serious concessions on pensions (allowing the companies to shift new employees to a defined contribution from a defined benefit plan) and it did not involve any serious efforts on the part of UNIFOR to mobilise workers for a more militant struggle to protect and extend benefits and wages for all workers as well as gain a say for the collective voice of workers in the determination of investment priorities.  These criticisms are sound, but at the same time they do not call into question what I think is the more important long-term issue:  the principle that workers must have a say in the investment decisions that companies take.  The principle is nicely articulated by Bill Murnighan, currently UNIFOR’s director of research.  That which UNIFOR was trying establish, he maintains, was the principle that workers “contemplate directly challenging capital’s right to unilaterally decide where, and when, to invest” in order “to directly use the union’s own power to challenge corporations’ right to close factories and eliminate jobs.”[15]  In Murninghan’s view, UNIFOR in 2016 successfully proved that unions could demand and win some degree of control over corporations’ investment decisions.

This principle—and UNIFOR’s limited success in realizing it– is vitally important in the context of rapid technological change.  Corporations not only decide where to invest, but how much to invest in technological systems that either de-skill or replace labour.  The principle suggests that workers need to fight for those investments which implement technologies in ways that either preserve or create new forms of life-valuable labour even as more routine and mundane tasks are automated.  The almost unlimited variety of human activities and the rapid pace of technological change make a general discussion of how this principle could be implemented in specific workplaces impossible.  What is important is to state the principle clearly and then rely upon the practical intelligence of unions and other workers’ organizations to find the ways to concretely realise it in specific, local contexts.  Of course, gaining a say in investment is far from the socialist goal of democratic governance of the economy, and labour under capitalism can never be fully de-alienated.  But the logic of better and worse is unattractive only to ultra-Left dogmatists, who have nothing to offer but slogans.

The final example of struggles to de-alienate labour today is also from recent Canadian trade union history.  In its last round of bargaining with Canada Post, the Crown corporation that runs the Canadian postal service, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (long one of the most militant and progressive unions in the country) bargained around a plan to transform the post office in line with, rather than against, the grain of technological developments.  As digital communications have caused mail volumes to shrink, they have also made access to technology an imperative.  While on the surface it seems like there is less and less reason to have a public postal service, the postal workers’ union saw an opportunity to expand and transform the post office.  Especially in small and remote communities (of which there are many thousands in Canada) the post office remains an important community hub.  The complex plan, called Delivering Community Power, involved the creation of a postal bank (as a public alternative to the private banks), making local post offices community technology hubs (including charging stations for public vehicles), and the source of a local innovation fund for the development of life-serving technologies.  It opens with a direct challenge to the idea that postal work is obsolete:

Some consider the post office past its prime: the last decade has seen efforts to cut, devalue and undermine this quintessentially public service. These moves have been fiercely resisted by people across the country.  What if our cherished national institution, with its vast physical infrastructure and millions of daily human interactions, could offer us something completely different? What if the post office could play a central role in building our next economy—an economy that is more stable, more equal, and less polluting?[16]

Instead of saying:  “yes, postal workers are anachronisms that should be replaced,”  postal workers thought creatively about  the opportunities that technological change opened up.

[Credit: BBC Radio 4.]
[Credit: BBC Radio 4.]
As it turned out, the union was unsuccessful in this round of bargaining in making their plan a reality.  Nevertheless, like the UNIFOR example it is the underlying principles that will prove more important in the long term.   In this case the underlying principles are two.  First, that public institutions are an actually existing alternative to commodity markets as means of satisfying human needs.  In fact, their principle of distribution is already socialist:  from each according to her abilities to each according to his needs.  If they fail to live up to this principle in practice, then the proper response is to work to build better public institutions, the battle for their legitimacy having already been won.  More practically, vital, democratically managed, and adequately funded public institutions (schools and universities, libraries and cultural centres, sports facilities, hospitals and clinics, public health services, drug plans, pensions, etc.) are the necessary other side of GBI schemes.  Without robust public services, as Clarke noted, GBI is reduced too easily another market mechanism ensuring the preservation, rather than the transformation, of capitalism.

The second principle that underlies the creative response of Canadian postal workers to technological change is the principle that technological change not only eliminates jobs, but it also creates new and different forms of work.  As Ursula Huws points out,  “human knowledge, ingenuity, and creativity are absolutely essential to invent and design new products and processes, communicate and provide content for a wide range of products, and services that keep the wheels of capitalism  turning, and care for, educate, inform, distract, and entertain the entire population.”[17]  But inventing, creating, communicating, educating, informing, etc., are not in themselves  practices whose sole value is to keep the wheels of capitalism turning.  Rather, they are the practices through which meaningful lives are built.  The struggle should be directed against their alienated form, because the ultimate justification for socialism is that it satisfies the fundamental conditions of positive human freedom.  The living expression of positive human freedom is self-realization, and self-realization, the objectification of our ideas in material reality, must always involve de-alienated labour.

If we think through the implications of these three practical struggles together, from the standpoint of the principles that underlie them, the society their successful realization would result in would most definitely leave its citizens time for play and carnival, as Dyer-Witherford rightly demanded.  But they would provide much more too:  a democratic organization of life-valuable work in which people could feel the special joy that knowingly doing something that others need and value produces.   Necessity and freedom are often treated as antitheses, but is there anything worse for a social being than feeling useless, feeling that we are not needed?  To be needed is to be valued, and to be active in relation to that which makes you valuable, to  consciously devote time and effort to making yourself real for others by meeting their needs, is an irreducible dimension of the positive freedom for which socialists have always fought.

[Credit: Jose Rodriguez.]
[Credit: Jose Rodriguez.]
End notes:

[1] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3, New York: International Publishers, 1975, p. 274.

[2] Karl Marx, Outline of a Critique of Political Economy in, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works Volume 28, New York: International Publishers, 1986, p.250.

[3] See Martin Ford, The Rise of the Robots, New York: Basic Books, 2015.

[4] Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, New York:  Pathfinder Press, 1969, pp. 239-243.

[5] Nick Dyer-Witherord, “A Reply to Michael Albert,” Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neo-liberal Globalization, Mark Cote, Richard J.F Gay, and Greig de Peuter, eds., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 325.

[6] Ibid., p. 327.

[7] Ibid., p.326.

[8] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, 2015, Inventing the Future, London:  Verso, 2015.

[Credit: Stephanie McMillan.]
[Credit: Stephanie McMillan.]
[9] Michael Albert, “Reply to Nick Dyer-Witherford,” Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments Against Neo-liberal Globalization, p. 331.

[10] See Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital:  The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

[11] John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons  and Social Justice,”  Studies in Social Justice, Volume 5, Issue 1, 11-61, 2011, p. 25.

[12] As others have argued as well.  In addition to Srnicek and Williams, see Judith Schorr, The Overworked American:  The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, New York:  Basic Books, 1992, Stanley Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler, Post-Work, (New York:  Routledge), 1998; and Peter A. Victor, Managing Without Growth:  Slower by Design, Not Disaster, (Cheltenham:  Edward Elgar), 2008.

[13] A recent study by the Canadian Imperial bank of Commerce has concluded that Canada is in the midst of a long term trend toward part time low paid work as an increasing percentage of available jobs.  During the recession the share of part time work rose form 18 % to 20%, with no signs that it is returning to the lower figure.  More alarmingly, perhaps, is the related finding that a full 61% of Canadian workers are earning below average wages.  Benjamin Tal, “On the Quality of Employment in Canada,” In Focus, November 28th, 2016. https://economics.cibccm.com/economicsweb/cds?ID=1974&TYPE=EC_PDF access ed, January 2nd 2017].

[14] John Clarke, “Basic Income: Progressive Dreams Meet Neoliberal Realities, The Bullet, No. 1350, January 2nd, 2017. http://socialistproject.ca/bullet/1350.php accessed, January 2nd 2017.

[15] Bill Murnighan, “Unifor and Big Three Bargaining:  A Response to Gindin’s “Different Ways of Making History” The Bullet, No. 1322, October 31st, 2016. http://socialistproject.ca/bullet/1322.php accessed, November 11th, 2016.

[16] Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Delivering Community Power.  http://www.deliveringcommunitypower.ca/ accessed, November 11th, 2016.

[17] Ursula Huws, “What Will We Do:  The Destruction of Occupational Identities in the “Knowledge-Based Economy” Monthly Review, Vo. 57, No. 8 (January 2006), http://monthlyreview.org/2006/01/01/what-will-we-do-the-destruction-of-occupational-identities-in-the-knowledge-based-economy/ accessed, January 8th, 2017.

[Credit: Dr Hurd.]
[Credit: Dr Hurd.]
[Thank you indeed Jeff for this contribution. Lead picture credit: soc331.]

The writer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Windsor. He is also President, Windsor University Faculty Association in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. His most recent book is Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, (McGill-Queen’s University Press), 2012. More of his work can be found at his website: http://www.jeffnoonan.org

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philosophersforchange.org. Thanks for your support.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Advertisements

One thought on “Freedom and de-alienated labour

Comments are closed.