Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Why the future is workless

Why the future is workless by Tim Dunlopdunlop_workless

It’s 9:29pm on a Friday night. I’ve had dinner, watched a movie, and finished a glass of wine. And yet two minutes ago, I sat down at my computer and checked my work email.

Everywhere we look, computers are changing the face of work. We are plugging them into existing machines so they can drive themselves. We are custom building machines to enable them to manufacture everything from iPods to houses. And mere software itself is replacing human workers, spitting out stock reports or providing medical advice.

According to Tim Dunlop, there are three ways we as a society are responding to this change. The ‘Business as usual’ school of thought recognises the change, sees there’s a profit to be made from it, and hopes that our historical experience —where machines create as many jobs as they consume— will hold. The ‘Back to the future’ school by contrast pines for the industrial era, rails against ‘neoliberalism’, and want protectionism and a large welfare state to manage the disruption.

Neither is that attractive or coherent as a world view. Instead, argues Dunlop the future needs to be ‘Workless’. In this engaging and accessible book, Dunlop argues that we need to fundamentally re-think how society is organised if we are to manage and indeed benefit from the radical changes occurring in who does the labour of our society.

The link between technology and the organisation of society is one that has long been recognised —just ask yourself why you live in a city but your great great grandparents may not have. As the machines change, so must we. The heart of Workless is Dunlop’s argument for two essential political adjustments to smooth the transition. One material, the other moral.

First, he strongly endorses a Universal Basic Income. Showing the results of trials around the world, of emerging scholarship on the idea, he argues that only through such a scheme can we provide a financial floor which sustains those who will lose part or all of their work to computers. That is, between 40 and 70 percent of us if the predictions are true.

Second, he wants society to abandon its ‘work ethic’. The notion that anyone who doesn’t work is a bludger, that work is what ought to define us and our value. Wrapped into this is a somewhat erratic argument against neoliberalism and the cost of economic reforms of the past thirty years.
As much as I really wanted to love this book, it is this second theme that I struggled with. In part because I have a more pro-free market and optimistic outlook than the author. But more so because even with a UBI and robots everywhere, I still want a human society which is ambitious, that strives, that builds and creates anew.

Ironically, it was a book Dunlop draws on early on in his analysis which began to pull this thread loose for me. Dunlop draws in the work of Hannah Arendt to make the important distinction between ‘labour’ —menial tasks required for survival— and ‘work’, meaning the higher level acts of creation and destruction which define human achievement.

Dunlop only makes occasional reference to what humans would do in a society where all questions of labour were handled by machines. Like Arendt, he makes occasional reference to the ancient Greeks, recognising that on the back of slave labour, they made astounding advances in astronomy, mastered mathematics, and created the foundations of western philosophy, science, art, governance, theatre and history.

But, in a point I’m sure Arendt liked to stress, these were not people without a ‘work ethic’. On the contrary, they were fiercely competitive, willing to publicly condemn those who did not live up to their social ideals. They were not a people who allowed public retreat to the comforts and indulgences of home. You lived your life in public, and were judged for it. They created the Olympic Games precisely to judge who was the strongest, the fastest, the bravest, and the best among them.

So following Dunlop, I agree there is a need to radically rethink our society in light of the technology of change, and I am increasingly willing to support a UBI as a minimum first step. But following Arendt and the Greeks, I want to preserve a deep ‘work’ ethic in our society.

Let us leave labour to the machines, and free men and women to throw themselves wholeheartedly into their own work. Into creating art, building communities, starting businesses, designing and refining ideas and participating in public governance as a genuine and ongoing act of citizenship.

Not only do I find this a more invigorating vision of society than the one Dunlop implies, I fear his anti-market tangents in the book will unnecessarily alienate many potential supporters to his ideas. That’s a shame. This is a bold and engaging book by one of Australia’s best thinkers, and it tackles one of the fundamental questions of our time. SoWorkless is an important contribution, but the task of working through the social changes of the digital revolution is only just beginning

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