POSTED: March 19, 2017

Reducing work to transform work. A response to John Bellamy Foster

If you follow debates about the future of work then no doubt you will be familiar with an essay by John Maynard Keynes written in 1930 on the ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’.[i] In it, Keynes imagined what economic life would be like in a hundred years’ time, and envisages vastly higher standards of living and a fifteen hour working week. “For the first time since his creation”, Keynes wrote, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Indeed, the fear was, he argued, that “ordinary people” used to hard work would struggle to occupy all their spare time.

Keynes’ predictions were not to bear fruit. But his vision of a reduced work week in favour of increased leisure time remains a common reference point for many who dream of a more sustainable prosperity today. In contrast to this approach, that invests hope in inexorable economic and technological progress, John Bellamy Foster argues that we should be much more concerned with thinking about, and striving for, work in a positive sense – as meaningful, socially useful and creative – rather than as the negative reflection of leisure time. Foster revives the concentration on craft, and critique of the division of labour that runs through the utopian, romantic socialism of William Morris.

In many senses, though, the rejection of the ‘ideology of work’ by a range of Left thinkers, including Andre Gorz who Foster marks out for criticism, appears quite a normal reaction to the state of work today. It is the rejection of an increasingly segmented labour market, which delivers only precarity, ‘Bullshit Jobs’ and extreme managerial oversight to a growing number of workers, including those in the creative industries.[ii] They see the effort to decrease the length of the working week not as an inevitability but as part of a struggle to give labour more autonomy and bargaining power in the immediate term. There is much to this that Foster would undoubtedly agree with.

For those advocating the reduction of working hours the aim is not to retain these degrading aspects of work and managerialism at a smaller scale while simply expanding leisure time. Proposals to move to a three-day weekend, to redistribute work, or to introduce a universal basic income, for example, are seen as demands that place labour collectively in a stronger position to determine the conditions and nature of work itself. It is important to note in this regard that our work hounds us in our ‘non-work’ hours like never before, particularly as our smartphones ensure we are constantly contactable. In this context, a defence of expanded and demarcated ‘leisure’ time as a period defined by non-work pleasures would appear politically attractive.[iii]

Foster cites Harry Braverman’s embrace of automation as a process that offers a reunification of production processes and opportunities for creative labour to prosper. Similarly, those advancing ‘post-work’ futures acknowledge that while automation might relieve workers from the drudgery of certain tasks, for both technical and ethical reasons, a variety of creative work, affective work and care work will and should remain resistant to full automation.[iv]

In this last regard, I would suggest that there is also an important omission in Foster’s paper: the role of social reproduction. Foster highlights Morris’ vision of gender equality in a future workplace that aims for the production of ‘genuine needs’. Yet, the role that socially reproductive labour might take – the traditionally highly gendered and undervalued work of rearing children, care-giving and domestic work – appears absent or underdeveloped. For degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis, “care can become the hallmark of an economy based on reproduction, rather than expansion.”[v] For those advocating policies like a universal basic income or the measurement of the costs and benefits of social reproduction, it is necessary to recognize and value this unremunerated yet essential work.[vi]

There appears to be a set of critiques of work ‘as we know it’ which call for both a reduction in as well as a transformation of work, and see the one as part of the other. The political salience of this position would seem apparent. Foster is right that we mustn’t abandon the project of pursuing non-alienating work, nor simply see work as a disutility. Yet, there is clearly space for articulating the importance of reduced, reproductive and redistributed work, and systems of social security that support these circumstances, as part of efforts to deliver democratic control over meaningful work.

[i] Keynes, J.M. (1930) ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’

[ii] On the development of a ‘precariat’ class, see Guy Standing’s (2011) The Precariat, Bloomsbury: London. The issue of ‘bullshit jobs’ is explored by David Graeber (2013) On the social redistribution of work see David Frayne’s (2015) The Refusal of Work, London: Zed Books. For a strong critique of managerialism and its role in perpetuating degrading work, see Peter Fleming’s (2015) The Mythology of Work, London: Pluto Press.

[iii] See for example the new ‘right to disconnect’ law introduced recently in France, which seeks to define the rights of employees to ignore out-of-hours work emails

[iv] See Srnicek, Nick & Williams, Alex (2015) Inventing the Future, London: Verso, pp. 109-114.

[v] Kallis, Giorgos (2015) ‘The Degrowth Alternative’

[vi] On the measurement of social reproduction’s costs see Rai, S., Hoskyns, C., & Thomas, D., (2013) ‘Depletion: the cost of social reproduction’,

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