Why we must abolish all work to truly be free

In partnership withVerso
Why we must abolish all work to truly be free
Recent years have seen many proposals for how to reduce the time we spend working. But they too often neglect the considerable burden of domestic labor and other care work, disproportionately borne by women, argue Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in their new book, After Work.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a flourishing of imagination and reflection upon what a postcapitalist future might look like. Ecosocialist projects — aimed at sustainability, the end of the GDP fetish, and a rethinking of luxury — have all developed considerably in recent years. Ideas of digital socialism and platform co-operatives have proliferated as alternatives to our world of platform capitalism. There has been a resurgence of debates over the possibilities and limits of economic planning. And there has been a return to first communist principles, with work reflecting on the failures of the twentieth century and the potentials of communism in practice.

One of the most prominent strands of this general future-oriented turn has been the rise of projects based around the end of work — that is, projects that see work as something to be reduced to a minimum. There is little doubt that contemporary work, even in the relatively privileged regions of the Global North, is increasingly intense, unrewarding, and precarious. While some believe the goal should therefore be to improve the conditions of work and create decent jobs, for postwork thinkers this remains insufficient.

The problems of work lie not only in its contemporary incarnation, but also in its general capitalist form. Work, understood as wage labour, is doubly unfree. We see this most obviously in the daily forms of subjection workers experience during their time on the job (and increasingly outside of it). Wage labour means that we sell a considerable portion of our time to people or organisations, who then have significant control over us. In December 2021, for instance, six Amazon workers died when the warehouse they were working in collapsed during a tornado — after management had forced them to continue working until the last moments. It’s no surprise, then, that the labor republicans of the nineteenth century labeled the new capitalist forms of market dependence “wage slavery” — deliberately invoking and expanding the notions of slavery that were prominent social features of the time.

Beyond the personal domination exhibited by managers and bosses, wage labour is also unfree by virtue of the impersonal domination of capitalism’s imperatives. For the vast majority of humanity this translates to the fact that subjecting ourselves to wage labour is necessary for survival. We are coerced into work on pain of homelessness, starvation, and destitution. Postwork begins from these premises — that wage labour is doubly unfree, regardless of working conditions — and proposes alternative visions of the world that aim to abolish this social form.

The recent salience of this project is due in no small part to media-fueled popular anxiety around the future of work. Many have forecast that an inevitable wave of automation, based around new technologies like machine learning, is set to swamp the labour market and dramatically reduce the number of jobs available for humans. Whatever the veracity of these predictions, they have both grasped and generated a real anxiety about a lack of good jobs. While more orthodox approaches have responded through efforts around reskilling and education, and through endeavours to create “decent work,” the more radical postwork approach has been to reject the centrality of work entirely. Postwork’s advocates take this perceived crisis — of too few good jobs — and argue that it should form the basis of a new political and economic order where everyone sees their work reduced and dependence on the market lessened. Work, these thinkers suggest, should be framed as a problem rather than a solution, and we must seek to be emancipated from (rather than through) our labour.

Contemporary postwork positions, then, represent a proactive response to the imagined end of job-based cultures; they eschew a celebration of work, emphasising instead the possibilities that are opened up when we no longer centre our lives and societies around wage labour.

But What Is Work?

The recent renaissance of postwork perspectives has, however, tended to miss the full spectrum of work. In particular, postwork thinking has almost entirely focused on wage labour — and primarily on industries and jobs that are dominated by men. As a result, the work of social reproduction — the work that nurtures future workers, regenerates the current workforce, and maintains those who cannot work, while also reproducing and sustaining societies — has largely been neglected in speculations about the “end of work.” When postwork imagines the end of work, it typically envisions robots taking over factories, warehouses, and offices – but not hospitals, care homes, or nurseries.

Why has this work been overlooked? In some cases, reproductive labor has simply been ignored — deemed to be not really work at all. This is particularly the case when the activities involved are unpaid or take place within the family. Andre Gorz, for example, says the goal of postwork should not “be that of liberating women from housework but of extending the non-economic rationality of these activities beyond the home.” Such ideas often underpin the approach to waged work as well: feminised caring jobs such as teaching, nannying, and nursing are framed as a vocation, the rewards of which should be viewed as separate from or in excess of any financial benefit. Immense efforts have been made to naturalise this work as an expression of innate feminine qualities, such as being house-proud or maternal.

When postwork imagines the end of work, it typically envisions robots taking over factories, warehouses, and offices – but not hospitals, care homes, or nurseries.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

This encourages the idea that reproductive work is somehow special and beyond the scope of postwork’s ambitions. It is seen as autonomous affection, a labour of love, and even postcapitalist resistance. The family, likewise, is popularly understood as a space of respite from the stresses and burdens of the outside world, and the intimacies that it contains are often deemed to be a model for a better world. (It is not a coincidence that businesses often want employees to feel like they’re all part of “one big family.”)

Other thinkers, however, recognise reproductive labour as work and yet argue that postwork ambitions are simply incompatible with this sphere of activity. In recent decades, attempts to refuse or reduce reproductive labor have been deemed hubristic, ill-conceived, and even unethical. For instance, the idea of reducing working time via automation seems relatively straightforward when it comes to imagining robots in factories, farms, warehouses, and offices. One would simply replace humans with machines, thereby freeing up time for human flourishing. Yet what happens when, as is the case with a lot of reproductive work, it isn’t possible — or desirable — to automate this work? In fact, a defining feature of much of this labor is that it is resistant to productivity increases. Wouldn’t a reduction of work time simply mean a reduction in care — less time spent looking after others, leading to the perpetuation and deepening of neglect already felt by many recipients of care?

There are no simple answers to these sorts of questions, which has led many to believe that the only hope for reproductive work is to valorise and celebrate it — or at best, to share it more equitably across the population. Earlier radical proposals against domestic work have been forgotten and we appear at an impasse: postwork has nothing to say about the organization of reproductive labour.

Working Is Caring, Caring Is Working

And yet time spent on reproductive labour is an immense and growing part of advanced capitalist countries. In the formal economy, social reproduction is a major source of jobs. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example, is among the largest employers in the world, and as of 2017 employed (directly and indirectly) around 1.9 million people. In Sweden, three of the top five employing jobs are linked to care work and education.

Across the last five decades, there has been a growing proportion of jobs devoted to the sectors of health care, education, food service, accommodation, and social work. In the United States, for example, care work has taken up an increasing proportion of low-wage job growth for decades now – accounting for 74 per cent by the 2000s. In the G7 countries, social reproduction jobs employ around a quarter or more of the labor force. For comparison, at its peak in the 1960s, America employed 30 percent in manufacturing. If we once spoke of the US as a manufacturing powerhouse, today we must speak of economies centred around the reproduction of their workforces.

This will only continue, as the future of work is not coding but caring — more high-touch than high-tech. Nearly all the fastest-growing jobs in America revolve around the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and caring, with almost half of all new jobs coming from these areas. Similar trends hold for the United Kingdom, where again well over half of all net job growth between 2017 and 2027 is set to be in sectors like health care, cleaning, and education.

While many of the most visible and culturally influential narratives about the future of work assume that the dominant job sectors will be highly specialised, dependent on digital skills, and command high salaries, the reality is that most future jobs are likely neither to require a great deal of advanced formal education nor to pay very well. Most of the new jobs being created are not for doctors or registered nurses making decent wages; instead they are for home health aides, food workers, and janitors. A domiciliary carer, who supports and assists people living in their own homes, for instance, can expect to earn roughly the same amount as a fast-food worker. As things stand, this is likely to be the future of work.

Most of the new jobs being created are not for doctors or registered nurses making decent wages; instead they are for home health aides, food workers, and janitors.

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

And this only takes into account the paid aspect of social reproduction. There is, in addition, a vast amount of unpaid work done in the home that remains largely invisible to the statistical agencies of the state. This opaqueness leads to some perverse consequences: as Nancy Folbre notes, “If you marry your housekeeper, you lower GDP. If you put your mother in a nursing home, you increase GDP.” It is only recently that we have begun to systematically collect information that can shine a light on the size of this unpaid sector. It turns out that the amount of unwaged reproductive work being done in the home is immense. In the UK, 8.1 billion hours were spent doing unpaid long-term care work in 2014. Americans spent 18 billion unpaid hours just taking care of family members with Alzheimer’s. And the International Labour Organization estimates that, for the sixty-four countries on which it has data, 16.4 billion hours are given over to unpaid work every single day. Overall, most countries spend 45–55 percent of their total labor time on unwaged reproductive work.

By any measure, social reproduction therefore occupies a large and rapidly growing share of our economies. To ignore this work is to ignore a significant proportion of the concrete labour that advanced capitalist societies are performing.

After Work

But the supposed stalemate between reproductive labour and postwork ambitions isn’t the end of the story; instead, the postwork project, suitably modified, has significant contributions to make to our understanding of how we might better organise the labour of reproduction. And conversely, the postwork project can only be fully realised when it takes into account this immense sphere of activity.

There are considerable efforts to be made, however, if we wish to develop a postwork perspective on reproductive labour. To begin with, the arguments that motivate many aspects of contemporary postwork perspectives — namely, those regarding work’s dual unfreedom — hold for waged labour but not in any straightforward way for the unwaged labour that makes up a large part of social reproduction. To be sure, a growing proportion of contemporary reproductive labour is performed by wage labourers, and the earlier arguments for postwork hold just as well in those cases (perhaps with the added point that care labour is particularly ill-suited to capitalist rationalisation). But when it comes to the vast amount of unpaid labour that social reproduction currently involves, further thinking is required. Why should we want to reduce the time spent on unwaged social reproduction in the first place?

We might begin with the point made by socialist feminists, that this work remains work, much of which can be boring, monotonous, and isolating. To be sure, there can be pleasurable and fulfilling aspects of reproductive labour: playing with a child, cooking for friends, helping an elderly neighbour, and so on. Yet much of reproductive labour is also drudgery and can be particularly exhausting when there is little respite — a state of affairs that can lead to depletion (including worsening mental health) for overtaxed carers. Much of this work is, as the saying goes, “never done.” As the inventor of a self-cleaning home once put it, housework is “a nerve-twangling bore. Who wants it? Nobody!” Angela Davis likewise criticised proposals that focused solely on the gendered redistribution of this work, noting that “the desexualisation of domestic labour would not really alter the oppressive nature of the work itself. In the final analysis, neither women nor men should waste precious hours of their lives on work that is neither stimulating, creative nor productive.” All of this provides motivation to keep some parts of reproductive labour to a minimum.

The dominant argument for reducing unpaid work, however, is that it enables women to enter into waged work. This proposal has a long history and many proponents, ranging from revolutionaries like Friedrich Engels and Alexandra Kollontai to middle-class second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan, to archcapitalists such as Sheryl Sandberg, and has been widely accepted and adopted by contemporary welfare states. For many, it is an established fact that the emancipation of women comes through the labor market.

Efforts to reduce unpaid reproductive work in order to enable waged labour are simply trading one form of unfreedom for another.

Photo by niu niu on Unsplash

While waged work has undoubtedly granted women a measure of financial independence and social recognition, the generalised expectation that everybody must earn a wage is hardly something to be celebrated. As we have seen, waged labour is itself a form of domination, oppression, and exploitation that should be abolished. Far from being an emancipatory project, efforts to reduce unpaid reproductive work in order to enable waged labour are simply trading one form of unfreedom for another. Moreover, these efforts nearly always entail passing this work on to a poorly paid workforce — a redistribution of labour, not a collective reduction.

Against this approach, we must insist that the reduction of unwaged work is necessary, not because it lets people take on more waged labor, nor simply because much of it is drudgery. Rather, this reduction is essential because it expands the availability of free time that is a prerequisite for any meaningful conception of freedom. The struggle against work — in all its forms — is the fight for free time. It is only on the basis of this free time that we can be allowed to determine what to do with our finite lives — to commit ourselves to life paths, projects, identities, and norms. This is not simply a matter of making “more time for families,” nor is it a question of more time for waged labour, nor does it concern some mythical idea of work-life balance. The fight for free time is ultimately a matter of opening up the realm of freedom itself and maximising the extent of autonomously chosen activity.

An approach to social reproduction should value freedom for all — recognising reproductive labour as work, reducing this work as much as possible, and redistributing any remaining work in an equitable manner. By aiming to reduce the amount of time necessary for some elements of social reproduction, we can respond to the depletion affecting providers of care and the neglect all too commonly experienced by receivers of care. Moreover, insofar as this is a universal project of reducing work, it requires that the obligations of this work, its pains and pleasures, be shared equally and not be disproportionately borne by any one group of people. The current system — which so often pushes work onto immigrant women and leaves intact the gendered division of labour in the home — is not a viable approach to a universal project of postwork social reproduction. It is a series of displacements, not solutions.

After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time
is out now on Verso Books.

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