I teach several sociology courses in my department’s “economy, work and development” concentrations, and I have assigned James Livingston’s books, blogs and articles to the students in those classes. Rarely do readings polarize my students’ responses as much as Livingston’s do.
But the students’ disagreements do not revolve around the issues that Paul Jorion lays out in his preface. No one has yet been bothered by the question of whether Livingston’s argument boils down to sour grapes now that work is disappearing or the premise that we were stupid to have ever loved work. To my view, these are not exactly the two options, and they aren’t mutually exclusive anyway. In fact, I think Livingston has argued that work is an abomination, and we should never have learned to love it, and now that there is not enough work we should wake up and embrace our dis-employment and spend our time loving each other. Besides, it does not matter how we each feel about work, individually; it matters how we feel about it as societies, as cultures.
Regardless, this is not the problem my students have had with No More Work. Instead, they focus largely on two questions that Livingston’s book does not, in their minds, adequately address, and many of them conclude that while it is fun to read—”energizing”, as Jorion says—its ideas are “unrealistic.”
(The fact that Livingston’s writings make room for such observations is good enough for me; I don’t need him to solve every contradiction. I would like to have a job to do, too, at least as long as my income, and therefore my survival, depends on it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The two unresolved problems that students arrive at are the same ones that other scholars often come to, and raise, when I present my own arguments against full employment and productivism.
The most common objection is that technological unemployment is only a fantasy (or a nightmare) of the world’s leading economies, and the richest people in them. It is only in these places and socioeconomic strata that human workers typically cost more than machines and computers and are therefore at risk of being directly displaced. Conversely, it is in the poorest countries and in the bottom quintiles of the richest that a strategically deployed and more securely employed workforce with a sophisticated division of labour is more costly than a disorganized mass of tenuously employed and potential workers. Students cannot imagine that the whole world can work less and live well, and comparing the costs of wages to technology in different parts of the world it is difficult to fault them on this.
Because the fact is, it’s not always cheaper to use machines, particularly where labour power is already cheap. And the people whose labour power is cheapest tend to be already marginalized, locally or globally, or—god forbid—both. Marx knew this when he casually observed that “in England women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus-population is below all calculation.”
In effect, there are two worlds of work that are impacted very differently by the disappearance of certain jobs and parts thereof: the “marginal work world,” and the “central work world,” to call up a division drawn in the 1970s by social scientists from my school. In the marginal work world, we find “unsophisticated economic practices, low-capitalized firms and ‘businesses, little or weak unionization, and insignificant political influence”; there, smaller firms face “greater intra-industry competition,” “less steady production demand and little support via government purchases of their product.” In the central work world, we find the opposite. Between the two worlds, there are “conversion barriers” that prohibit most people from crossing. These are not simply two labour markets, as is sometimes posited. They are worlds with all of the connotations of that word—to be in one or the other is to have a different phenomenological experience.
This division speaks as much to our present circumstances as it did to those that spurred my retired colleagues to put it into words, and any critique of the present and vision for the future must deal with both worlds. When Jorion asks, “what about France?”, we are being directed toward just the tip of a comparative iceberg that must be acknowledged.
It gets even trickier when we try to move beyond critique and vision, and sketch out a plan (or line up the dominoes?) for redistributing socially necessary labour and decoupling it from income. Given what we know about how capital responds to geopolitical borders (like a marathoner crossing the finish line), and how it evades capture by taxation (with the help of wealth managers), nothing short of a consistent, enforceable and enforced worldwide strategy is required. We are talking about a global minimum wage, enforced global labour standards, global workweek reductions, globally-integrated job-matching schemes (to avoid the storekeeper/AI programmer problem Jorion describes, and get people doing the work that needs to be done), and local import replacement (reducing unnecessary imports and carefully planning trade according to social need, not corporate competitiveness). I doubt I am alone in doubting the likelihood of global action on anything, given the present state of geopolitics. Where does this leave us? I genuinely want to know.
What it tells me, if I believe it, is that this project doesn’t begin or succeed by changing the minds of ordinary, individual people, although that would help. We have to collectively fall out of love with work, and apply that newfound distance to social policy. And for me, it makes the most sense to start by falling out of love with economic growth, and the kinds of economic thinking that vaunt it to the top of every priority list. More on that below.
A further scary thing is that we do not know—we can only speculate—how low wages can go before there is no more cheap labour power to use in place of machines. The spread of gig-work and unpaid internships, checked only, and unevenly, by legislation, suggests wages can go as low as zero, and maybe even lower in such cases where the costs incurred by the “independent contractor” or the intern exceed their pay.
Add to this the apparently convincing case Walter Scheidel makes in The Great Leveler that only “catastrophic violence” has ever reduced social inequality, and the prospect of peacefully reducing heteronomous work and implementing some kind of basic income seems less and less likely.
That leaves us to decide, if we feel like offering answers, whether we believe the route to “no more work” is through policy, diplomacy, war, catastrophe, revolution, or some combination of these.
The second critique that my students make of Livingston’s argument is that it does not clearly or consistently distinguish between work and employment. That’s not what they say, but it’s what they mean, when they point out that some kinds of work, especially that which involves the care of human beings, will never go away, and thus don’t fit in his argument. The same can be said of Jorion’s preface.
Sure, in most places, it is clear to me that when either says “work,” he means paid work done within the context of an employment relationship. Neither explicitly brackets unpaid work off, and Livingston addresses it in several places. But at the same time, neither of them adequately deals with the problem of what ought to happen to the intense unpaid care of feeding, sheltering, clothing, cleaning and otherwise maintaining the health of children and elderly people, and also the day-to-day care of relationships and spaces that is not as life-and-death, but still important in the grand scheme: remembering birthdays, inviting people over for dinner, tending the gardens, walking the dog, shuttling friends, family and neighbours from A to B.
This work of individual and community care will never go away nor be completely automated; the work of political and civic life can’t be, either. So what happens to it, when we reduce and redistribute paid work? Does it become part of that stock of socially necessary labour that gets divvied up among all recipients of a basic income? Do we come up with a list of everything that needs doing, like a “total social organization of labour” database, and then assign the tasks to everyone according to ability? Do we attach a wage to familial and community care so that people who would like to do it “for a living” can? Can a town, or a country, or a continent do this, or does it have to be worldwide for it to work?
Don’t get me wrong; I like the idea that “work must be love.” I take it to mean a couple of things: that we have to learn to value one another on the basis of something other than our productivity, and also that we must prioritize the activity of care over other kinds of activity. I think it nicely directs attention to the fact that so many jobs that are (on some level) meant to structure and routinize a facet of care—social work, education, health care—demand of their occupants so much paperwork and machine-feeding that there is little time left, at the end of the day, for caring. I think of the social workers, for example, with whom I’ve discussed the topic of basic income. Instead of concern that their jobs will disappear—jobs which are now mostly chasing down social assistance recipients to make sure they’re not making money or spending it on the wrong things—they express optimism that if a basic income were implemented they might be freed up to empathetically and patiently help people navigate life’s challenges, as many of them say they became social workers to do.
So I have no issue with the call to be my brother’s keeper. It’s just that I take seriously Livingston’s point that if we agree with him, we now have “intellectual work” to do, to figure out what the world and our lives look like when we wrench paid work from the centre of them. And this, to me, demands that we dismantle one of the most powerful ideational regimes that has channeled thought and action for a century or more: that of productivism. In a nutshell, we must reject productivism’s central claims that economic growth is good in and of itself, and that better living conditions can only be achieved through increased productivity. These claims are patently false—just look at what productivity growth does to the environment, or examine any graph that plots productivity growth alongside indicators of well-being—they are harmful, and they make it very difficult to articulate futures that don’t entail full employment or descents into feudalism.
 Foster, K. R. (2016). Productivity and Prosperity: An Historical Sociology of Productivist Thought. University of Toronto Press.
 Capital Vol. 1, p. 517.
 Clairmont, D., & Wien, F. C. (1974). Segmentation, disadvantage and development: an analysis of the marginal work world, its linkages with the central work world and its role in the Maritime provinces. Dalhousie University: Institute of Public Affairs.
 Clairmont and Wien, 1974: 32-3.
 Harrington, B. (2016). Capital without borders. Harvard University Press.
 I say “apparently” because I haven’t read it; I’m willing to bet on it though. Scheidel, W. (2017). The great leveler: Violence and the history of inequality from the stone age to the twenty-first century. Princeton University Press.
 Glucksmann, M. A. (1995). Why ‘work’? Gender and the ‘total social organization of labour’. Gender, Work & Organization, 2(2), 63-75.