Pathways for Transformative Economics and Politics

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Labour in a Post-Work Society: How Should It Be Organized?

Paid employment within the formal economy (aka ‘work’) is facing an uncertain future. Prognoses range from tragic joblessness condemning us to a life of poverty, precarity, and maddening isolation, to lives emancipated from the drudgery of labour. These predictions emerge from the growing evidence that the latest wave of automation, powered by Artificial Intelligence, deep and machine learning and unassisted robotic processes, are radically reducing the part human labour plays in social reproduction. Just as computer-integrated production systems did in manufacturing, a new generation of smart machines might soon replace more jobs than they create, precipitating the redundancy of medical practitioners, mortgage brokers, professional drivers, paralegals, accountants, soldiers and many occupations. Whether an impending future of minimal work will take the shape of a dystopic nightmare, or a happy ‘ever after’ of ample free time and socio-political liberties will much depend upon setting up the right institutions and policies through which the transition will be managed.

There is little sustained consideration of the work that will remain, who will do it, or how it will be organized.

Critical examinations of this post-work condition focus almost solely on the non-work side of the equation (e.g. free time, leisure, etc.). There is little sustained consideration of the work that will remain, who will do it, or how it will be organized. This question is certain to the post-work project, in my opinion. Even in ultra-automated societies a modicum of paid human labour will still be necessary. State-of-the-art AI-robotic systems are unlikely to replace all human input given the persistent distinction between reckoning (AI intelligence) and judgement (human intelligence). There will be much that robots cannot do, and it will always be preferable that people perform at least some jobs (e.g. caregiving, etc.). Furthermore, free and fulfilling labour will presumably continue to be something we want. But precisely how should this residual work—at least the kind requiring formal coordination—be organized? In what follows, I adumbrate an institutional formula that will help as our dependence on paid employment wanes, what I call ‘Post-Work Organizations’ (PWOs). Although the appellation seems paradoxical, it is meant to accentuate the wider contextual backdrop of post-paid employment. PWOs are ‘work’ organizations geared for a jobless society. 

The design features of PWOs can be deduced from four potential antecedents of mass joblessness. These organizations will automate as much of the remaining work as possible and preferable (technological antecedents), decouple income from individual jobs and enlist workers on a part-time, voluntary basis (economic antecedents), assist in the equal distribution of socially useful work (sociological antecedents) and utilize workplace democracy and self-governance (political antecedents). Before unpacking these PWO components, let us first examine each antecedent in more detail.

Four extant dynamics at work

Technological Antecedents

Routine manual work has long been targeted by mechanization. However, if first-wave computerization made routine mental work vulnerable to substitution, then the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ targets non-routine manual and non-routine mental jobs too, including skilled professions once deemed safe from automation. This affects not only complete jobs but parts of them also, reassembling the performative makeup of roles and the incomes they attract.  

Mainstream economists argue that unemployment is not an inevitable corollary of these trends, citing the ‘compensation’ or ‘augmentation’ principles to explain why. The compensation principle suggests that technological unemployment is eventually corrected by new jobs in the economy. This occurs because cost savings stimulate increased investment and growth, generating additional work, often with higher skill premiums. Reduced production costs and greater efficiency translate into lower prices, generating consumer demand and more labour. Evolved products and industries may then follow (as in the gaming industry), upskilling employees in the process. Similarly, the ‘augmentation principle’ contends that new and existing jobs are enriched by high-tech capabilities, like airline pilots and fly-by-wire. In the long run, fear of unemployment is irrational; employees will eventually be reskilled as ‘Operators 4.0’ who collaborate with AI infrastructures, not compete with them. 

This techno-optimist approach has been criticized. According to Brynjolfsson and McFee (2014), the ‘Second Machine Age’ will destroy many occupations as Moore’s Law exponentially accelerates AI’s capacity to replace human cognitive and manual activities at ever cheaper rates. Nor will the ‘compensation principle’ mitigate these effects, Brynjolfsson and McFee insist. Major developments in automation will reinforce this, particularly in occupations associated with price-inelastic goods and services. Using mechanization to reduce the unit-cost of artificial lighting, for instance, didn’t increase demand once consumption levels plateaued. And even price-elastic commodities might not spark greater investment if the long-term elasticity coefficient equals one (and revenues remain unchanged), as John Maynard Keynes notably projected. 

If a workless future does emerge, can it be repurposed into a desirable and progressive development, expanding free time, socio-political liberties and community wellbeing?

What will the population do if paid employment disappears? Some imagine a ‘hunger games’ type scenario where capitalism’s socio-economic inequalities swell to even more obscene levels. According to Peter Frase, the unemployed multitude will “appear less like a proletariat than like inmates of a concentration camp, where populations are warehoused rather than exploited for their labour.” A kind of automated feudalism awaits. Other analysts, however, suggest that an emancipatory opportunity awaits. If a workless future does emerge, can it be repurposed into a desirable and progressive development, expanding free time, socio-political liberties and community wellbeing?    


Economic Antecedents

Dovetailing with technology are economic forecasts concerning declining demand for human labour power. This antecedent has two parts. The first pertains to how the above-mentioned technologies might reconfigure economic behaviour and institutions. Marginal cost analysis is prominent here. Economic commentator Paul Mason agrees with Keynes: the perennial ‘economic problem’—which for millennia made work an iron-clad necessity linked to biological survival—has largely been solved. Prosperity in the OECD indicates a condition of post-scarcity. This also applies to the way goods and services are produced in the internet age, many of which can be (re)created with zero marginal costs and ipso facto no extra labour. In his book, Postcapitalism, Mason concludes that, “the new information produced by a computer has a use value, or utility, massively in excess of its component parts. But the amounts of labour value embodied in information products can be negligible.” Only the stubborn institutions of contemporary capitalism, according to Mason, prevent us from fully realizing this scarcity-free society.  

This antecedent’s second subtheme concerns the falling demand for labour, which is not to be confused by labour participation rates in the economy, an issue I return to shortly. During the 20th Century, average work hours per capita steadily dropped (until the mid-1980s, at least). But as Aaron Benanav recently demonstrated, automation was only partly behind this. Large scale shifts in 1970s capitalism were also a key driver. Following the decline of manufacturing output growth in Western economies, manual labour was displaced onto an emerging service sector and internationalized. Compared to manufacturing, the so-called ‘New Economy’ proved to be a weak productivity engine, creating far fewer jobs than its predecessor. The golden age of high growth ended despite the so-called digital revolution. As Robert Solow famously quipped, we see the computer age everywhere, except in the productivity statistics.

This inability of the digital service economy to sufficiently generate new jobs hasn’t been helped by the falling labour share of national income and the dwindling bargaining power of workers (i.e., de-unionization). If we add the impressive efficiency gains from superior work systems (including technology) and the long-term aftershocks of COVID-19 on employment rates, a widening mismatch between available jobs and a work-ready population is likely. 

Labour market modelling reveals that well-remunerated jobs have been concentrated among a smaller pool of hyperactive workers, leading to chronic overwork for them. The remaining work has been spread thin among the populace, characterized by part-time and on-demand employment systems in particular.

But what about current unemployment levels, which are not as high as Benanav’s argument would imply? To begin with, governmental unemployment statistics are notorious for omitting people who cannot work (due to illness, etc.), are in training or have given up looking. When they are included, the official unemployment rate usually doubles. Moreover, we must also consider the endemic underemployment in advanced economies today. Labour market modelling reveals that well-remunerated jobs have been concentrated among a smaller pool of hyperactive workers, leading to chronic overwork for them. The remaining work has been spread thin among the populace, characterized by part-time and on-demand employment systems in particular. This is why OECD announcements that labour participation levels are at a record high, not seen since the late 1960s, are misleading. People had proper full-time jobs in the 1960s and were well paid—they certainly weren’t struggling to hold down three or four underpaid part-time jobs that barely covered the bills.

Factors aggravating the desperate reliance on jobs that are disappearing are certain peculiarities of the political economy which Albena Azmanova (2020) has conceptualized as the two contradictions of contemporary capitalism. Under the imperative of competitiveness in the global economy, states have slashed spending on public services and other non-work-related forms of economic support, thereby increasing individual reliance on paid employment as a source of livelihood. This leads to what Azmanova calls ‘surplus employability’: the tension between, on the one hand, the increased value of discretionary time and the increased decommodification potential of modern societies due to automation and, on the other, increased commodification of everything we do. This antinomy of modern capitalism entails a second one she names ‘acute job dependency’: the tension between decreased availability of jobs and increased reliance on a job as a source of livelihood.


Sociological Antecedents

Reinforcing these technological and economic trends are sociological antecedents. They refer to overemployment (or needless jobs) pervading labour markets and a growing awareness that formal employment isn’t an ontological necessity but a social artefact. Even if the economy no longer needs everyone to work, a pervasive ideology of work prevails, having us believe that modern formal employment is an artifice of biological survival, akin to hunting and gathering in a previous era.

The legitimacy we gain from paid employment has imbued the act of labour with a performative aspect. Being productive and looking productive become two separate logics in the employment sector today.

However, social legitimacy and cash dependence, not biological subsistence, are the primary reasons we still work so much. The legitimacy we gain from paid employment has imbued the act of labour with a performative aspect. Being productive and looking productive become two separate logics in the employment sector today. Swedish organizational theorist Roland Paulsen calls this ‘empty labour’. His study describes full-time employees struggling to pad out the workday, sitting at the computer pretending to work but basically doing little.  Overcapacity (too many people employed) and underemployment (too few jobs to go around as discussed earlier) are closely interconnected in the contemporary labour market. 

In this vein, David Graeber contends that post-industrial economies are replete with occupations that have little or no socio-economic value. Bullshit jobs are, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” This includes lobbyists, financial analysts, telemarketers, door attendants and university executives to name a few. Recent surveys add credibility to the argument. For example, a study of 12,000 US professionals revealed that 50 per cent believed their jobs had no meaning or societal significance. And 37 per cent of UK workers feel their jobs are pointless. Bullshit jobs are a by-product of the ‘ideology of work’, which Graeber maintains is deeply irrational if demand for labour declines in real economic terms. 

Graeber probably overstates his case. Nevertheless, the question of social value raises an important problem. Since many socially valuable jobs also attract the worst paid people (e.g., carers, nurses, cleaners, etc.), it is unsurprising that large swathes of crucial work receive no economic value. It resides in the informal economy instead, including housework, childcare, aged care, community service and so on. This tension between paid and unpaid labour has long framed formal employment and reflects a fundamental gender bias. Classical economist Arthur Pigou famously noted this using his wife as an example: hiring a housekeeper reflected positively in official employment statistics. But if he happened to marry her, the same figures suddenly decline, even though identical labour is being performed. We now know that much women’s work is ‘disappeared’ in this manner. This observation is central for conceptualizing PWOs because it separates socially useful labour (which would still be needed in a jobless society) from bullshit work.  


Political Antecedents

Neoliberalism perfected the strategy of superficially splitting politics from the economy, which significantly privatized paid labour in the process. This removed employment from public dialogue since work is now a personal affair between individual employers and employees. A substantial change may now be underway, however. Given fears about automation, the proliferation of precarious jobs, the lingering effects of the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic (including the ‘Great Resignation’ that followed in the pandemic’s wake), paid employment is being re-politicized. In other words, the question of whether work is inevitable or desirable has entered public political discourse, along with themes like sexism, climate change, racism and so forth. For sure, the COVID-19 pandemic debunked the mythology of work once and for all. In rich countries at least, many jobs were suspended during the crisis, prompting massive government stimulus and subsidy schemes. It turned out that the institution of paid employment wasn’t rooted in biological necessity at all. It was a disciplinary ritual reflecting a specific set of power relations. Economic scarcity too was a manufactured condition that could be adjourned at a moment’s notice.

Indeed, working today is just as likely to fragment communities and fuel social dislocation than promote cohesion.

This re-politicization consists of two concerns. The first is whether paid work still unifies modern society in a positive fashion. For Chamberlain (2018), neoliberal economies that continue to glorify paid employment are facing a legitimacy crisis. Jobs no longer serve as an affirmative source of social identity and affiliation (let alone pride or dignity) as it did under Fordism. Indeed, working today is just as likely to fragment communities and fuel social dislocation than promote cohesion. As the brilliant sociologist of labour Andre Gorz (1989, p. 70) so aptly put it, not only “is the society of work obsolete: work can no longer serve as the basis of social integration”.

The second concern is about whether paid employment is conducive to individual and social wellbeing. Studies of unemployment have traditionally justified the claim that paid work correlates with physical and mental health benefits. Recent research suggests, however, that it is not working per se that has this effect but the social virtue signalling it entails. For example, Hetschko, Knabe, and Schöb (2014) did find higher incidences of depression among the unemployed. But only until they reached retirement age. After that, incidences dramatically dropped. They concluded that the reclassification (from unemployed worker to pensioner) caused this sudden change since the stigma of unemployment ceased.  

Critics of this position typically retort that most people do actually like to work and would be at loose ends without it. The mounting evidence suggests otherwise, however. For example, a 2023 Gallup survey found that only 23% of employees’ worldwide feel engaged by their jobs and that 60% are ‘quiet quitting’. Furthermore, work is often a primary source of anxiety (Kalleberg, 2018) and prolonged stress (Jaffee, 2021). Insecure and contingent work has been linked to increased mental health disorders (Caroli and Godard, 2014), whereas office work is a major contributor to hypertension, obesity and heart disease (Ekelund et al., 2016). 

The repoliticization of paid employment is reformulating the demands workers make in and around the contemporary workplace. Once the battle for an eight-hour workday was won, the 20th Century trade union movement was largely driven by ‘right to work’ politics, preserving jobs and pay-rates. The quest to reduce work time fell by the wayside. But the tide may now be turning. A new ‘antiwork’ movement is emerging in post-scarcity societies. Examples include Reddit’s ‘r/antiwork’ forum. Its guiding slogan is ‘Unemployment for All, Not Just the Rich’ and has millions of subscribers. TikTok’s ‘Quiet Quitting’ meme is similarly popular, declaring that ‘work is not your life’. It was inspired by the massive #tangping antiwork campaign in China, which has subsequently been suppressed. In any case, as paid employment enters a legitimacy crisis in the political realm, conventional ‘right to work’ issues are being overshadowed by an emergent work refusal movement that demands the abolition of work in toto.


Conceptualizing ‘Post-Work Organizations’

Where do we go from here? The idea of a shortened work week is increasingly popular. Most recently, Senator Bernie Sanders has tabled a proposal in U.S. Congress for reducing the standard week to 32 hours (four days) without a pay cut, following a number of successful experiments with this idea. However, calls to merely shorten the working week are not enough because the centrality of paid employment remains, albeit with a healthier work-life balance. A post-work society would involve a massive contraction of paid employment, which in turn raises the problem of the equitable distribution and formal organization of remaining work. I suggest the concept of ‘Post-Work Organisations’ (or PWOs) may help us in this regard. And we can discern their specific institutional characteristics from the antecedents of joblessness discussed above. 

The basic premise of PWOs can be summarized as follows. These organizations ought to automate as much of the remaining work as possible and preferable (technological antecedents), decouple income from the role and enlist workers on a part-time, voluntary basis (economic antecedents), assist in the equal distribution of socially useful work (sociological antecedents) and utilize workplace democracy and self-governance (political antecedents). Let us examine each feature in turn.  


Technological Features of PWOs

PWOs will embrace the labour-saving potential of deep and machine learning, synthetic computational systems, unassisted robotic process automation, Precision Time Protocol algorithms and so forth. As we observed earlier, many manual and cognitive non-standard tasks can be performed by ‘second-wave’ digital technologies, and a conceivable ‘third-wave’ (involving the Holy Grail of computer science, ‘General Intelligent Action’) more so. As Paul Mason remarks, the liberatory possibilities are significant if we “gear technology towards the reduction of necessary work to promote the rapid transition towards an automated economy […] work will become voluntary, basic commodities and public services free, and economic management primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour (Mason, 2015, p. 270).      

To harness the emancipatory potential of automation, PWOs could interface advanced digitalization with a minimalist human labour process in three ways. The first entails observational labour. This work oversees and monitors digital suite technologies. Necessary training, expertise and skill will be needed to undertake this labour, with employees working over technology in a supervisory capacity. Second is augmented labour. This entails working with machines regarding data input, coding and synthetic computational design. Social labour is third. Some PWOs will require human interaction between co-workers, users, clients and so forth. This social labour may be augmented or semi-augmented, depending on the industry and sector. 


Economic Features of PWOs

Neoclassical labour market models presuppose an equilibrium between available jobs and labour supply, with a tolerable margin of natural and unnatural unemployment. Income is thus a derivative of skill demand under conditions of scarcity. Extreme joblessness, however, requires that we decouple work (or effort) from reward (or income). While Universal Basic Income (UBI) is being debated as a revolutionary innovation in this regard, the decoupling of income from work has occurred already in neoliberal labour markets with respect to spiralling income inequality. Think here of escalating CEO remuneration packages, which cannot possibly reflect extra effort or responsibilities. Income supplements and tax concessions for the working poor similarly distorts the nominal one-to-one formula between performance and reward. 

So far, disconnecting work from remuneration has worked in favour of the privileged. PWOs would subvert this tendency. Workers will be remunerated not only for the fixed and measurable work they do but for their meaningful social participation in the shared enterprise of community betterment. Two major changes would be required to achieve this. Firstly, non-market orientated remuneration systems would be integrated into the organization’s incentive structure. Clearly a division of labour will still be obtained in PWOs, delineating variable skills and responsibilities. A reward ratio might reflect those responsibilities above and beyond UBI, but not prejudicially so (perhaps following John Rawls’ justifiable inequality principle). Secondly, because labour will no longer be motivated by economic compulsion, participation in PWOs will be voluntary. And thirdly, work will be significantly de-personified or delinked from the individuals who perform it. Formal employment will play a comparatively minor role in our lives instead of consuming everything. Labour will be subordinated to life, with the former only undertaken to sustain an otherwise post-employment society. This is what incentivizes participation.


Sociological Features of PWOs

Sociological antecedents grow from the unnecessary ritualization of work, fuelling overemployment and bullshit jobs that are performed for their own sake. PWOs will represent the exact opposite, spaces of de-reified labour where work is treated strictly as a utility-orientated means—to support a post-work society—rather than a symbolic end in itself. This is an opportunity to reassess the kinds of tasks and roles that actually require human attention, with the main aim of identifying socially useful and necessary work. The idea goes back to the British socialist activist William Morris. Couched within a deep division of labour and yoked to an abstract monetary economy, productive wage-labour is actually unproductive and wasteful when viewed from a social needs standpoint. All that frenetic energy simply disappears into the industrial ether, Morris famously asserted, leaving the even most rudimentary human needs neglected. Socially useful work, on the other hand, is automatically more efficient because less of it is needed. We are no longer stuck on the endless mouse wheel of pointless toil but dealing with issues that really matter.      

This project will require the de-commodification of work. Neoclassical inspired labour markets define work in purely negative terms: as ‘marginal disutility’ (or lost opportunity for leisure) that is assigned an abstract exchange value and variable monetary price. Use value is an afterthought, something neoliberal grandee F.A. Hayek actually celebrated as the sign of a proper marketplace because demand should always trump social utility, merit or justice. In reality, this has led to several entrenched dysfunctions. Paid employment is privileged at the expense of essential unpaid labour, as feminist critiques demonstrate. And socially valuable paid labour (e.g., nursing, teaching, cleaning, social carers, etc.) is grossly under-rewarded compared to jobs widely considered useless or harmful (e.g., private equity managers, corporate lawyers, arms manufacturers, etc.). Overcapacity (e.g., bullshit jobs) coexists with undercapacity (e.g., gig workers desperately searching for more work). Chronic overwork booms alongside generational unemployment. 

PWOs clearly require a different allocation mechanism—one that distributes labour across society in an egalitarian manner, reducing the overall work burden for the greatest number. Bullshit jobs (whether well remunerated or not) will be fiscally devalued. Employment can be effectively de-bullshitted and allocated on a voluntary basis. This would be difficult to accomplish in a society aspiring for full employment, but eminently doable in a post-work scenario.

Further design features will characterize PWOs as a result. Obviously, the time spent in them will be minimal, making part-time work systems essential, facilitated by ‘partially connected’ digital infrastructures. This will be the case irrespective of a role’s responsibilities and skill. For instance, there is no reason why ultra-specialized medical professionals must work 18-hour days (as many presently do) if the skill’s scarcity is moderated through decommercialized training and resourcing allocation systems. At any rate, occupational minimalism will be a salient feature of PWOs, once again encouraging individuals to decouple ‘life’ from work. Employment will no longer define who we are. And finally, what Roland Paulsen terms ‘empty labour’—a symptom of overcapacity—will be eschewed in PWOs and replaced by full labour: namely, short periods of socially meaningful work undertaken on a voluntary basis.


Political Features of PWOs

The political implications of the PWOs stem from the internal governance structure that coordinates the workforce. Liberty is key here. For sure, genealogies of work have revealed just how profoundly unfree the institution of paid employment is today. Most have little choice but to sell their labour time at the market rate and perform jobs they would rather not do. This bears no resemblance to the paean of ‘individual freedom’ in neoclassical economics. Most organizations function as ‘private governments’ that hold inordinate power over hired workers. Employees must either consent or exit.

PWOs will operate differently. Because participation is now voluntary, part-time and uncoerced, an alternative governance model is required, one that endeavours to humanize the work undertaken. Wolff (2012) defines this as labour freely chosen, self-directed, intrinsically meaningful (in personal and socio-political terms) and not compelled by external threats or punishments. Two additional design features of PWOs follow from this. First, top-down management hierarchies are obviously inappropriate in these part-time, de-commodified and voluntary settings. Participatory self-governance (e.g., co-determination over task design via assemblies and councils) are more suitable for PWOs, qualified by differential expertise, experience and responsibility. Industrial democracy will incentivize individuals and impart a keener sense of purpose, even if the overall time commitment remains minimal. Undoubtedly some kind of administrative apparatus will still be necessary, though. Keeping with the ethos of genuine participation, I suggest that Adler & Borys’ (1996) notion of enabling bureaucracies may be pertinent. In other words, an administrative order that empowers individuals and fosters organizational learning, consonant with the non-coercive climate that will characterize PWOs.


Conclusion: PWOs and the Political Economy of Capitalism

Now for two big ‘ifs’, both of which are intertwined. Firstly, what if the ideology of work remains steadfast as it appears to be doing so today and the institution of paid employment continues its hegemonic reign? This tension—despite clear indicators that the socio-economic ideal of full employment has outlived its usefulness—is why post-work thinking often oscillates between description (what is) and prescription (what ought to be). It is sometimes difficult to tell whether we are dealing with normative projects or a sober analysis of unfolding trends. As for the second big if, let us assume that paid employment does radically contract. PWOs are clearly anti-capitalist institutions. There, realizing them in practice—even if only partially—can only happen if the broader political economy of capitalism is significantly transformed. This includes a major reorientation of government, the multinational corporation, financial markets and—perhaps most importantlyour own attitudes towards modern life and labour. For example, inaugurating a desirable post-work future—and thus necessitating the use of PWOs—would call for a different mode of statecraft. There are options here. Modern Monetary Theory presents a plausible alternative and could financially redirect the state towards a post-work scenario.

A considerable de-corporatization process will therefore be essential for pivoting towards a progressive post-work scenario, reversing decades of privatization in Western economies.

Although it will demand far less labour in the years ahead, the modern corporation remains an aggressive stalwart of paid employment. Its power is bolstered by financial markets, wealth networks, property law and international arbitrage (with respect to labour markets). A considerable de-corporatization process will therefore be essential for pivoting towards a progressive post-work scenario, reversing decades of privatization in Western economies. As opposed to the ‘profits before people’ rationality that often impels large business firms, PWOs will function more like community enterprises that encourage cascading spheres of non-work. 

The so-called free labour market is neither ‘free’ nor ‘unregulated’ but closely managed by state institutions, corporations and international governance agencies.

Closely connected to the state and corporate sector are labour markets. We have already noted the dysfunctions caused by neoclassical economic models. The so-called free labour market is neither ‘free’ nor ‘unregulated’ but closely managed by state institutions, corporations and international governance agencies. And given how these markets have buttressed precarity, inequality and the falling labour share of national income, their reform is all-important. That task will be less daunting in a post-work future. As opposed to state socialism (which strives for full employment), labour coordinating mechanisms would not require the same vast machinery in a post-employment context. More human-friendly methods of labour allocation can be explored like Active Labour Market Policies, which plan, train and help match workers to jobs, unlike neoliberal approaches that presuppose ruthless competition between isolated wage-earners.

Another variable is public (and more specifically) worker appeal. We all bitch and moan about having to work. But if presented with the opportunity to live without it, would there be a genuine appetite for a post-work society? Popular support for a post-employment society will be essential for implementing much of what I have proposed.

Finally, a post-work society would require alternate consumption patterns that do not rely upon exploited labour. Less consumption as a whole will be necessary, something ecological and ‘post-growth’ research has advocated too. Global consumption patterns will be required and the concrete feasibility of PWOs would be difficult to defend without addressing this issue.

To conclude, yes, these are big ifs. By the same token, unless we plan for a life largely liberated from paid employment, we are likely to end up with a society beset by precarity, impoverishment, and staggering inequalities in which many are deprived both from the right to work and the freedom from work. The brief sketch of Post-Work Organizations, whose features are derived from extant tendencies, is a non-utopian proposal that might help us avoid sleepwalking into a truly frightening dystopia ahead.



  • Adler, Paul & Borys, Bryan (1996). Two types of bureaucracy: Enabling and coercive. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 61-89.  
  • Azmanova, A. (2020). Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia. New York: Columbia University Press.
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  • Caroli, Eve & Godard, Mathilde (2014). ‘Does job insecurity deteriorate health?’ Health Economics, 25,131–47.
  • Chamberlain, James (2018). Undoing work, rethinking community: A critique of the social function of work. Ithaca, NY: University of Cornell Press. 
  • Delfanti, Alessandro (2021). The warehouse: Workers and robots at Amazon. London: Pluto.  
  • Ekelund Ulf, Steene-Johannessen Jostein, Brown Wendy, et al. (2016). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. Lancet, 388, 1302-1310.
  • Frase, Peter (2016) Four futures: Life after capitalism. London: Verso. 
  • Gorz, Andre (1989). Critique of economic reason. London: Verso.
  • Hetschko, Clemens, Knabe, Andreas & Schöb, Ronnie (2014). Changing identity: Retiring from unemploymentEconomic Journal, 124: 149-166.
  • Jaffee, Sarah (2021). Work won’t love you back: How devotion to our jobs keeps us exploited, exhausted and alone. New York: Bold Type Books.
  • Kalleberg, Arne (2018). Precarious lives: Job insecurity and well-being in rich democracies. Cambridge: Polity.
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Peter Fleming is the author of several books, including The Mythology of Work (2015, Pluto Books), Sugar Daddy Capitalism: The Dark Side of the New Economy (2019, Polity Books) and Dark Academia: How Universities Die (2021, Pluto Books). His new book Capitalism and Nothingness will be published by Bloomsbury in 2025.

How Capitalism Deforms the Logic of Work – and How to Reclaim It

What gives a human life security? What makes a person feel safe? Those are deep psychological questions, with philosophical, maybe even spiritual, dimensions. But there are also more mundane sides to them: the material, economic ones, and the sociological ones of the structures in which people live their daily lives and forge social bonds. What makes a person certain that they will be able to fulfill their needs, and those of their loved ones, now and in the future? How can they know that not only their bare necessities that will be covered, but also their immaterial needs: for autonomy, for respectability, and for tasks that are meaningful and in line with their values? And how do these questions hang together with the question of how work is organized? 

Capitalism thrives on uncertainty. What may feel like certainty for one group, e.g. a permanent, meaningful job in a stable industry, is an unused opportunity to introduce change for someone else, e.g. by inserting a disruptive technology in this market. The ability to react to new information and to make use of good occasions whenever they emerge is seen as one of its most valuable features by its defenders: the constant dynamism, the “creative destruction” that fuels constant innovation. One need not deny that this can be an advantage – but it comes at a cost. Whose livelihoods are being destroyed in the “creative destruction”? Whose way of generating an income – which is often also a way of life – is no longer seen as “competitive”? If capitalism goes unchecked and is not accompanied by other institutions, it produces precarity. As Albena Azmanova writes in her post, precarity is “a condition of politically generated economic insecurity and social vulnerability that harms not only people’s material and psychological welfare, but also society’s capacity to cope with adversity and to govern itself.”

Whose livelihoods are being destroyed in the “creative destruction”? Whose way of generating an income – which is often also a way of life – is no longer seen as “competitive”? If capitalism goes unchecked and is not accompanied by other institutions, it produces precarity.

In this essay, I explore the ways in which this tendency of capitalism plays out in the field of work: its relation to uncertainty, its meaning in people’s lives, and its relation to democracy. Work, I will argue, can be a source of identity and meaning and thereby contribute to giving people security and make them self-confident citizens, willing to stand up for themselves and others – but only if it is not subjected to the logic of capitalism, but to that of democracy. 

The race to beat uncertainty

The answer to how to give more certainty to one’s life that capitalism suggests is individualistic: you need to have money! Money buys the goods and services one needs to fulfill one’s basic needs, hence the psychological relief that comes from having some savings, both for unforeseen emergencies and for one’s retirement – but low wages have made this a privilege for the few. Money also buys services such as lawyers or advisors, not to speak of therapists or coaches that can help one “cope” in today’s complex labor markets. These services can be expensive, and one never knows when one will need them, and at what price – so again, one better set aside some more money. If money ever buys certainty, it can do so only if you have a lot of it! 

In the hunt for ever more money, the logic of work changes. It becomes a mere instrument for earning money, not necessarily out of greed, but out of the desperate wish to achieve some psychological security. Most people would readily acknowledge that work can also be an opportunity for self-expression, sociability, and making a meaningful contribution. But the more uncertainty people experience, the more difficult it becomes to see work in these ways, and to choose forms of work in which goods other than money, and the opportunity to contribute to society, are central. 

The problem, however, is that money, as a purely quantitative currency, has no natural end to it. There is no natural stopping point, and there is always someone else who has more of it whom one might want to emulate. This leads to what the 19th century philosopher GWF Hegel has called a “negative infinity”: an endless striving, without any qualitative distinctions. The same logic of “bad infinity” can also apply to other “currencies”, for example, in the world of social media, numbers of likes and followers. And it is not only external pressures that lead individuals into this striving – it often becomes an internalized disposition that comes to dominate their whole life. Work, as the central way of earning money, becomes hollowed out of its qualitative dimensions, and is turned into nothing but an endless rat race. 

The problem, however, is that money, as a purely quantitative currency, has no natural end to it. There is no natural stopping point, and there is always someone else who has more of it whom one might want to emulate.

The second answer that capitalism gives to the need for certainty, which may seem somewhat more collective, is the principle of insurance. Insurances pool risks and pay out money to those hit by a misfortunate, for example an accident. This practice precedes capitalism; it has existed for centuries on an informal basis, for example in burial associations or guilds. Under capitalism, however, it is driven not by solidarity but by the profit motive, with insurance companies trying hard to sort individuals into different risk categories and charging the highest possible price. In this sense, despite being collective, insurance remains a private solution – and given the prices of many policies, in practice it is a solution only for the financially privileged. So, the individualistic logic returns through the back door: you better work harder to earn those extra dollars to pay for decent insurance!

Institutional answers to uncertainty

To deal with the uncertainties of life, and to reduce the precarity that financialized capitalism has created, not individualistic, but institutional answers are crucial. One very straightforward way in which this needs to happen is to prevent capitalist employers and other decision-makers from pushing avoidable physical or psychological risk onto individuals: through health and safety regulation, but also through regulations of work time and other stress-inducing workplace practices. This is no rocket science – it is, indeed, often a matter of enforcing rules that exist, but only on paper, as workplaces have become “fissured” and supervisory authorities have been defunded. Unions can sometimes play a role as ersatz-enforcers on the local level, but they have been weakened as well. Having nobody to turn to who could help you to claim your rights at the workplace is another source of deep uncertainty.

A second institutional answer is to shift general life risks back to society, reversing the “great risk shift” to individuals that took place in the past four neoliberal decades. The term “social insurance” exists for a reason: the same logic of pooling risks can also be used as an instrument of public solidarity, to support those who are hit by misfortune. The post-WWII welfare states installed such systems for many risks of life, at least for its core constituencies: pension systems for old age, health care systems for illnesses and accidents, or unemployment support for those who lost their jobs and needed a temporary income and retraining. But these systems have been weakened, or outrightly hollowed out, in the last decades – they urgently need to be restored. And yet, they have not insured the loss of work, and so the fear of unemployment remains a source of troubling uncertainty for many people.

A second institutional answer is to shift general life risks back to society, reversing the “great risk shift” to individuals that took place in the past four neoliberal decades.

This is where a job guarantee comes in: it provides insurance not only against the loss of income, but also against the loss of meaningful activity that can give individuals a standing in society (at least as long as public jobs are not stigmatized). Moreover, it protects the potentially positive psychological effects of work. People can keep up routines and skills, or even acquire new skills. They are embedded in social networks, meeting not only new colleagues but also the clients who benefit from their work. Many of the goods of work can thus be ensured. Some critics say that a job guarantee keeps the focus on full-time, paid work, which might not be viable in a future in which much more work gets done by robots and algorithms. But the jobs in a public job guarantee program need not be full time, and can be combined with more free time for civic activities or private needs, in families or groups of friends. As Pavlina Tcherneva has argued, the Job Guarantee is also an institutional vehicle that can help redefine the meaning of work.

The importance of social relations

All these measures are important to reduce uncertainty at the workplace and beyond. And yet, I think that the critique of capitalism for its anxiety-inducement needs to go further. My subsequent reflections are based on the premise that genuine psychological safety has to do not only with formal institutions, but also, crucially, with the social relations individuals develop between each other. These cannot be directly regulated by state policy. But what can be done is to remove obstacles, and instead create spaces, for individuals to develop positive social ties and build trust among each other inside and outside of the workplace. It is a matter of allowing individuals to care for each other, in the widest sense of the word, not only in their closest family circles – among those who are like them – but also in other social circles, with others who are different along various lines. The French sociologist Emil Durkheim called this “organic solidarity”: solidarity not out of homogeneity and all the pressures that come with it, but solidarity across differences.

Workplaces remain one of the key sites for individuals to encounter others who are different from them along lines of gender, ethnic background, or religious and ideological views – more so than many other social spaces. To be sure, they could be more diverse than they currently are, and steps should be taken to work towards this. But whether or not this diversity can lead to ties of solidarity depends crucially on how work is organized. If individuals are bossed around all day and efficiency imperatives do not even allow them to have a break together, then one cannot expect much social integration to happen at the workplace (although it is fascinating to observe how many pockets of solidarity arise even under the direst of circumstances).

Capitalist thinking often emphasizes the importance of competition – even in contexts such as workplaces, in which complementarity and collaboration are much more important. This pits people against each other: they often experience constellations in which only one of them can win. While sometimes such situations are unavoidable (and tragic), often, they have been intentionally created, with the idea that this would motivate people to work harder. Work then becomes even more an endless, competitive rat race.

But work could also follow a different logic, without necessarily sacrificing efficiency. A metaphor that could replace that of a rat race is that of an orchestra (or rock band, or whatever musical genre one prefers): the members’ contributions are very different, and yet they all are needed, and they form into something that is bigger than the contribution of each single individual.1 Members are motivated by the wish to support their colleagues and to achieve their shared aim. While such harmony may be rarely fully achievable in practice, and while counterpower and resistance are all too often needed, work should not be organized such as to systematically undermine the possibility of such solidaristic team experiences. 

There are many independent arguments for democratizing work, but here is one that connects to the theme of this essay: only if individuals experience their workplaces as social spaces in which they can be themselves, speak their mind, and build trustful relationships with others, they can develop the kinds of social ties that support them in their self-understanding and personal development, reducing anxiety and creating a positive social identity. Workplace democracy makes it more likely that this can happen. Through representative mechanisms, it shifts the power more towards workers, protecting them better against abuse and rights violations. Through participatory mechanisms, it allows workers to govern their work together, defining the tasks and roles and setting the rules of how they work and related to each other. 

Democratizing work is one element in the toolbox of policy strategies that can move our current economic systems towards a “post-neoliberal” era. True, some democratic workplaces, e.g. the famous Mondragon cooperative, survive even under the harsh conditions of global capitalist competition. But to introduce worker representation in companies on a larger scale would require policy measures that make it mandatory, or at least provide strong incentives for companies to move in this direction, e.g. through tax incentives.2 At the same time, democratic companies can decide to orient their work towards a broader set of values than the profit motive – and they can do so more credibly than traditional corporations who, with all their talk of “purpose”, are not willing to share power with their workers. Empirical research on co-determined firms in Europe – a very imperfect form of workplace democracy, and yet different from the Anglo-Saxon type of the corporation – shows that they achieve better ecological and social outcomes. As such, democratic workplaces can pave the way towards broader reforms in which the economic system is redirected towards societal goals. 

Democratizing work is one element in the toolbox of policy strategies that can move our current economic systems towards a “post-neoliberal” era.

Democratic practices, especially participatory ones, are sometimes criticized for being slow – democracy might be “an endless meeting”, as a provocative book title goes. To be sure, democratically run organizations need to find ways of balancing their actual tasks and the task of self-rule. But what one should not underestimate is something else that can happen during these – hopefully not endless – meetings: people come to understand each other’s perspective, and can develop trust and solidarity. And trust and solidarity are an important basis for developing new ideas and trying out new things: the basic ingredients for innovation and change for the better, driven not by a desire for higher profits, but for serving one’s clients better or doing a better job.

And yet, this can only become a reality if the differentials of power and status, and the differentials of income and wealth on which these are often based, do not become too large. Here, I disagree with Ian Shapiro and Albena Azmanova – not because one should opt for complete equality, but because there are systemic effects of inequality that distort the possibility of fighting against precarity and creating structures in which individuals can gain stability at the workplace and beyond. The fights against precarity and against inequality need to go hand in hand.

One argument here is a simple consideration of power: in a highly unequal society, privileged groups are all too likely to block precisely those policies that would provide more security for ordinary families.3 If money rules in politics, the government is no longer seen as “ours” by the majority of the population, but is perceived as a matter of elites, which in turn creates a breeding ground for populism. Even middle-class voters, who feel powerless at work and fear for their standard of living and the future of their children, feel alienated from politicians who talk to corporate leaders and rich donors but seem to have forgotten what life is like for normal people.

A second argument concerns the kind of work that is available in society, and the forces that shape it. Is it work for the needs of others, or is it work for the profits of those who are already rich? Can all members of society see each other as contributing, each in their own way, to the production of social value? Can bus drivers, teachers, judges, managers, and cleaners all see each other as playing an important role for society? Or is the more apt metaphor that of a feudal ruling class and their peons and servants? This is also a problem for workplace democracy: can one expect people whose wages differ by a factor of several hundred to speak to each other at eye level? Even if democratic institutions were installed in workplaces, it is unlikely that a democratic culture could develop in the face of such differences. 

An unbridled capitalist logic undermines all the positive contributions that work can make to people’s lives and to their sense of security. Under it, work becomes a physical and psychological risk factor, and induces endless anxiety and stress about the money that needs to be earned. But it is also possible to envision work differently: as something that citizens do for each other, forging bonds of solidarity among colleagues and co-workers, and as a source of social identity. Such work is better able to shape individuals into the kinds of citizens that democracies need: sure of themselves, solidaristic with others, and willing to speak truth to power.


1. The orchestra metaphor is also used by John Rawls (A Theory of Justice, p. 524). 

2. Such tax incentives would reflect the positive externalities that democratic companies have on workers and society, in this sense there is even a purely economic justification for providing them.

3. Of course, other elements of the legal framework, e.g. campaign finance rules, also matter for this, and reform is needed in these areas as well. But the higher socio-economic inequality, the more difficult it becomes to defend such institutional barriers, and the more likely it is that financial power can be translated into other forms of power, including political power.


Lisa Herzog works at the intersection of political philosophy and economic thought. She has been held her position at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Groningen since 2019; since 2021 she is the Directer of the Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and since January 2023, Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy. Herzog has published on the philosophical dimensions of markets, liberalism and social justice, ethics in organizations, and political epistemology. She is a co-editor of the interdisciplinary journal Review of Social Economy. Her latest monograph is Citizen Knowledge. Markets, Experts, and the Infrastructure of Democracy . The current focuses of her work are economic democracy and the philosophy of work.