A World without Work is a World without Liberalism

We can hope.

I rail on liberalism a lot, even with Donald Trump in power. This may not make sense but most of the writers I see actually struggling with work most of the time are liberals. Most of the sites I’m reading aren’t going to be The American Conservative and instead are going to be venues like The Atlantic. So some of it is a selection bias as well: I’m more likely to read things that are at least marginally closer to my point of view than ones on the opposite side.

Besides that, many of my friends on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere are also more likely to have a similar selection bias. So not only am I more likely to read these articles but I am also more likely to hear about them through outside sources Though it should be pointed out that, ironically, I had heard nothing about the article I am focusing on today.

Derek Thompson, a name I swear I’ve seen elsewhere, wrote a very long article called A World Without Work.

Given its length, we’re going to be here for a bit.

Strap yourselves in.

I.

First, I want to say: Read this article.

It’s very well-written and even well argued in some places. I was pretty hooked on it the whole way through and while I know I’m obviously going to take an interest in the subject, anyone who has an iota of interest in the subject of work should give this article a thorough read. I think I gave it that and shall be remarking positively and critically.

I’ll be skipping around here and there since not all of the ideas struck me as interesting, or I’ve discussed them before elsewhere and likely at length. I’ll try to cite the cases where I’ve done the latter if I find it relevant enough.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.

For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War  II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.

There’s an argument against anarchism that, charitably reconstructed, reads something like:

“But countries without governments do terribly! Why would you want to destabilize a society and lead us to those same terrible results?”

Now, whether the first claim is even remotely true, the argument here confuses the lack of government with anarchism as a political system. Anarchists do indeed want a society without government but anarchism isn’t (and shouldn’t) be relegated to mere anti-statism and also should not be seen as abolishing the government with no forethought at all.

Furthermore, governments becoming destabilized by other governments, as is sometimes the case in continents like Africa or South America, is not a good example of anarchist praxis. Imperialism and colonialism leading to the widespread lack of access to centrally planned resources by governments is not, last I checked, a popular strategy by anarchists. Instead, anarchists advocate horizontal organizations subverting and subsuming necessary societal services as well as individualistic and collectivist acts of direct action and educating the masses.

But okay, great. What does this have anything to do with the above quote?

Thompson reveals he knows better later in the article but the post-work movement (as he calls it) isn’t looking for the end of work to happen quite like it happened to Youngstown. Most of us in the post-work movement are deeply skeptical of capitalistic markets. So beginning an article about the “end” of work and conflating that with mass unemployment that was forcibly caused by a town’s over-reliance on a gigantic corporation seems out of place.

It seems out of place in the same way that conflating anarchism with lack of a central authority or a lack of central authority happening because of other governments (or civil war, or warlords, etc. etc.). A post-work movement isn’t looking for towns to become Youngstown and certainly not in the way it became what it currently is.

“Youngstown’s story is America’s story, because it shows that when jobs go away, the cultural cohesion of a place is destroyed,” says John Russo, a professor of labor studies at Youngstown State University. “The cultural breakdown matters even more than the economic breakdown.”

Maybe the better story is that when you rely on one company for most of your jobs you’re creating an unstable central point of failure that affects millions of people when it fails. Maybe the better story here is that when your “cultural cohesion” is dependent on marketplaces built on the incentives of capitalism (profit over people), it isn’t sustainable.

As opposed to many leftists, I don’t think profit is an inherently bad thing. But I do think the way that capitalistic markets operate within the context of profit is particularly harmful. The way that they reduce individuals to cogs in a larger machinery of corporate bureaucracy and hierarchy to the detriment of individual expression and freedom.

But sure, I agree with Russo that the cultural breakdown is just as important (if not more) as the economic breakdown.

Though I’d quibble that this doesn’t show anything about jobs and instead says more about the way jobs are valued in society and what we think are good ways to preserve those values. Turns out those methods can be highly unsustainable and lead to the economic downfall of whole cities.

It’s almost like capitalism is unsustainable, huh?

If John Russo is right, then saving work is more important than saving any particular job.

Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions.

What might happen if work goes away?

Arguments like this are frustrating to me because they presume what they’re trying to prove. They’re begging the question of whether the “heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions” are good things to begin with. And we get no radical analysis of whether those things have been historically a positive force for people or not.

This is what I mean by liberalism: There’s no radical analysis of the root of these issues. Instead, there’s only surface level criticisms of what’s above the roots. The radical wants to pull out the rotten plant and start over again with better growing materials and a better plot of land, liberals just want to try a new mixture to better water the diseased plant.

II.

The beginning of the second part, given how the article starts, is a little frustrating:

What does the “end of work” mean, exactly? It does not mean the imminence of total unemployment…

If “end of work” doesn’t have anything to do with how unemployed people are, then why bring up Youngstown?

There’s a point Thompson makes further down that I’ve been noticing more and more:

The spread of nonworking men and underemployed youth.

The share of prime-age Americans (25 to 54 years old) who are working has been trending down since 2000. Among men, the decline began even earlier: the share of prime-age men who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the late 1970s, and has increased as much throughout the recovery as it did during the Great Recession itself. All in all, about one in six prime-age men today are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether.

This is what the economist Tyler Cowen calls “the key statistic” for understanding the spreading rot in the American workforce. Conventional wisdom has long held that under normal economic conditions, men in this age group—at the peak of their abilities and less likely than women to be primary caregivers for children—should almost all be working. Yet fewer and fewer are.

Personally, I hope the American workforce continues to “rot” but I’d rather it rot in particular ways that make a post-work society more likely, not less. Having less people work or feel like they need to is a good start but it doesn’t accomplish much if those same people don’t have outlets for whatever energy they have, or feel shame for their situation.

Here’s another astute observation by Thompson I agree with:

Young people just coming onto the job market are also struggling—and by many measures have been for years. Six years into the recovery, the share of recent college grads who are “underemployed” (in jobs that historically haven’t required a degree) is still higher than it was in 2007—or, for that matter, 2000.

And the supply of these “non-college jobs” is shifting away from high-paying occupations, such as electrician, toward low-wage service jobs, such as waiter. More people are pursuing higher education, but the real wages of recent college graduates have fallen by 7.7 percent since 2000. In the biggest picture, the job market appears to be requiring more and more preparation for a lower and lower starting wage.

This was one of the (many) reasons I dropped out of college. Why should I put myself in so much debt for the same low-paying jobs that everyone else is going to have? And especially if having a college degree made me overqualified for certain positions or actually limited my options in some meaningful sense. There was no guarantee that this would happen, but why risk it if I ended up needing to work low-paying and entry-level jobs?

Thompson makes an admission further down:

Humans can do much more than trot, carry, and pull. But the skills required in most offices hardly elicit our full range of intelligence. Most jobs are still boring, repetitive, and easily learned.

If this is the case, why should work be saved? Is the trick to make jobs exciting, varied and have a slightly higher learning curve so people feel more accomplished? It’s important to ask whether capitalist markets can facilitate such jobs and whether they have in the past. I think if we start asking ourselves these critical questions, we might find that the answer to that question is “no” and that it’s been a “no” for a very long time now.

I agree with Thompson when he says:

The most fundamental and wrenching job restructurings and contractions tend to happen during recessions: we’ll know more after the next couple of downturns. But the possibility seems significant enough—and the consequences disruptive enough—that we owe it to ourselves to start thinking about what society could look like without universal work, in an effort to begin nudging it toward the better outcomes and away from the worse ones.

Thompson also makes an interesting framework from which to further his article:

To paraphrase the science-fiction novelist William Gibson, there are, perhaps, fragments of the post-work future distributed throughout the present.

I see three overlapping possibilities as formal employment opportunities decline. Some people displaced from the formal workforce will devote their freedom to simple leisure; some will seek to build productive communities outside the workplace; and others will fight, passionately and in many cases fruitlessly, to reclaim their productivity by piecing together jobs in an informal economy.

These are futures of consumption, communal creativity, and contingency. In any combination, it is almost certain that the country would have to embrace a radical new role for government.

I agree with the first part and, using Thompson’s model here would say that I’d prefer a post-work society to be mainly made up of consumption and communal creativity. I don’t think contingency would last very long in a post-work world, though I don’t think it would be looked down on either, it could be useful for some.

In the same way that I think large land holdings would be an impractical project in an anarchist world (due to the lack of the state), I think the same holds for contingency in a post-work world.

III.

This is where it gets interesting because Thompson has done his homework and has read Peter Frase and others who would see themselves as advocating a kind of post-work world.

Let’s start with Frase’s idea of work:

…the means by which the economy produces goods, the means by which people earn income, and an activity that lends meaning or purpose to many people’s lives.

As it happens, I have nothing inherently against any of these sorts of work.

If an economy is just it shall produce just goods and in which case the way that folks earn and income and derive meaning or purpose is likely to be just too. But if we have an unjust economy (such as the current one) then people are likely to focus on the second kind of work to the detriment of the third.

As an individualist anarchist, people earning an income and being able to pay for things they want isn’t an issue. As long as they have a bountiful amount of options for themselves and are not being exploited, making money isn’t wrong. In fact, it can be a necessary part of an economic landscape in which we have not quite achieved abundance yet.

The last part is the closest to the sort of “work” that should exist in a post-work world. Activity that engenders meaning or purpose into our live are the exact sorts of things that are very hard to find now. We need to further these types of activities as much as possible to the detriment of only doing the second kind of work or only the first and second.

In today’s economy we have individuals who almost never do the third kind of work and instead simply produce goods for an economy that they are being exploited by. And they’re doing this for the main purpose of earning an income so they don’t have to live in squalor. This is obviously not an optimum situation except for anyone who is already privileged.

There’s an excellent point made by Benjamin Hunnitcutt, a historian at the University of Iowa:

Hunnicutt told me that if a cashier’s work were a video game—grab an item, find the bar code, scan it, slide the item onward, and repeat—critics of video games might call it mindless.

But when it’s a job, politicians praise its intrinsic dignity. “Purpose, meaning, identity, fulfillment, creativity, autonomy—all these things that positive psychology has shown us to be necessary for well-being are absent in the average job,” he said.

This is a fantastic point, especially as someone who does play video games from time to time. Now, I could imagine a video game called “Work” that is more of a message than a game. You could organize it almost exactly like Hunnicutt says and see what your “high score” is, AKA how much time you can bare doing this.

I suspect not many people would even play the game, let alone last long.

Moving along:

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being.

Well, some post-work proponents think government is necessary anyways.

I don’t.

Here’s a big part I wanted to engage with Thompson on:

…[T]his vision [of the post-work world] is problematic: it doesn’t resemble the world as it is currently experienced by most jobless people. By and large, the jobless don’t spend their downtime socializing with friends or taking up new hobbies. Instead, they watch TV or sleep. Time-use surveys show that jobless prime-age people dedicate some of the time once spent working to cleaning and childcare.

But men in particular devote most of their free time to leisure, the lion’s share of which is spent watching television, browsing the Internet, and sleeping.

Retired seniors watch about 50 hours of television a week, according to Nielsen. That means they spend a majority of their lives either sleeping or sitting on the sofa looking at a flatscreen. The unemployed theoretically have the most time to socialize, and yet studies have shown that they feel the most social isolation; it is surprisingly hard to replace the camaraderie of the water cooler.

Okay so:

  1. Of course the vision of a future doesn’t fit neatly with the way it actually is right at this moment. There’s no vision of a future world that completely resembles how present day dynamics play out right now. But the point of the vision is to get us there, so pointing to the fact that this isn’t how it currently is misses the point.
  2. This surface analysis of “jobless people” is an aggravating one I’ve run into multiple times. And I say “surface analysis” because it doesn’t ask why these people are making the choices they are in the first place. Commentators seem to not realize that our culture nearly despises jobless folks on some level. They’re lazy, untrustworthy, deviants and all of the rest of the things we don’t want in society, allegedly. Can we imagine that even the most ardent of post-work proponent might felt some bit of guilt and may spend a lot of their time looking for jobs or trying to take their mind off of it through entertainment and rest? I know I have.
  3. It’s also a partially insulting analysis. Of course the jobless don’t spend their times socializing or taking up new hobbies, they have to worry about getting a job. This seems like a no-brainier to me, but apparently it slipped the mind of Thompson and others who have levied this criticism at post-work theory. Why would we expect people who feel shame and pressure to get a job or to make themselves scarce, to then go outside more often?
  4. Lastly, theoretically retired people have more time…but is that the reality? Is social security a sufficient amount to live on and not worry about your bills? And especially to such an extent that you can mostly focus on hobbies and socializing? Again, theoretically, it is. But I doubt that’s the case in practice for many “retired” seniors.
  5. p.s. People who have been brutalized by work for most of their life and working something they hate may feel slightly less influenced to strike out on their own and be creative or sociable. Just a thought!

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments.

I won’t go at length with this as I’ve discussed this phenomenon before (here, here and here as well) but basically why wouldn’t people be miserable when they cannot do the things that Thompson has admitted society says gives us so much meaning, but if we had in any other context (e.g. a video game) it’d be Hell.

None of these things are good arguments for work but excellent arguments for a post-work future.

In 1989, the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Judith LeFevre conducted a famous study of Chicago workers that found people at work often wished they were somewhere else.

But in questionnaires, these same workers reported feeling better and less anxious in the office or at the plant than they did elsewhere. The two psychologists called this “the paradox of work”: many people are happier complaining about jobs than they are luxuriating in too much leisure.

Other researchers have used the term guilty couch potato to describe people who use media to relax but often feel worthless when they reflect on their unproductive downtime. Contentment speaks in the present tense, but something more—pride—comes only in reflection on past accomplishments.

I haven’t read this study (though I feel I’ve addressed it before) but would question how much the conclusion follows naturally from the premise. Just because you are happy to complain about your job doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like as much leisure as possible. And it also is worth investigating why people would be less stressed at work than anywhere else. What else is often going on in people’s lives that makes work some sort of relief for them?

Further, there’s no reason to conflate a post-work with a purely idle culture. A post-work world would have activities, games and ways for folks to be creative, just on their own terms. Which makes this dichotomy between a world of too much work or too much leisure a false one. We can have a world of leisure without feeling so much guilt by self-managing our own projects and joining up with others who hold similar values.

The post-workists argue that Americans work so hard because their culture has conditioned them to feel guilty when they are not being productive, and that this guilt will fade as work ceases to be the norm.

This might prove true, but it’s an untestable hypothesis. When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, “I’m not sure that such a place exists.”

This is something like my argument but it’s actually not untestable. We could ask people who have made work less of the norm in their own life and see whether they feel less guilty or more about it. Also, we don’t need communities of post-work folks to figure out that many unemployed people are there because they are forced to be. Many would choose to be employed, if they could. But why? Likely because they have bills to pay, not because they consider it meaningful.

Proponents of work seem too quick to draw conclusions that benefit their analysis without doing the proper critical thinking first. If unemployed people want jobs then pro-work advocates seem to think this is a great showing for the evidence that work is necessary for a society. But these kinds of conclusions ignore the context for why people make the choices they do or value the things they do. It’s a half-baked analysis which explains why they end up defending work.

Lastly within this section:

…it’s hard to imagine that leisure could ever entirely fill the vacuum of accomplishment left by the demise of labor. Most people do need to achieve things through, yes, work to feel a lasting sense of purpose. To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages.

There’s some definition based conflation going on here.

When we talk about work are we talking about any and all activities? Are we only talking about wage labor? Are we talking about labor that is boring, meaningless and unproductive? Thompson doesn’t clarify his own definition of work so I’m not sure why he thinks “labor” and “work” are the same things.

Would we be without labor if we didn’t have work? I’m not convinced, given the phenomenon of productive play that I’ve mentioned before from Bob Black:

…the production of use-values — with the best of play, which I take to be every aspect of play, its freedom and its fun, its voluntariness and its intrinsic gratification, shorn of the Calvinist connotations of frivolity and “self-indulgence”…

In any case, why would people be without formal wages? There’s some sort of presumption here that abolishing work would abolish the need for income. But I guess I don’t see the argument for that conclusion anywhere here. And when I do see the argument for this sort of conclusion in other places I’m not persuaded by it.

IV.

This part is mostly made up of Thompson answering his own question: Would it be possible to replace work with other pursuits? The answer seems to be: Maybe, perhaps even likely.

The factories that arose more than a century ago “could make Model Ts and forks and knives and mugs and glasses in a standardized, cheap way, and that drove the artisans out of business,” Katz told me.

“But what if the new tech, like 3-D-printing machines, can do customized things that are almost as cheap? It’s possible that information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy … an economy geared around self-expression, where people would do artistic things with their time.”

In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.

Something like this future is already present in the small but growing number of industrial shops called “makerspaces” that have popped up in the United States and around the world. The Columbus Idea Foundry is the country’s largest such space, a cavernous converted shoe factory stocked with industrial-age machinery. Several hundred members pay a monthly fee to use its arsenal of machines to make gifts and jewelry; weld, finish, and paint; play with plasma cutters and work an angle grinder; or operate a lathe with a machinist.

You don’t need any particular fondness for plasma cutters to see the beauty of an economy where tens of millions of people make things they enjoy making—whether physical or digital, in buildings or in online communities—and receive feedback and appreciation for their work.

The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers.

Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose.

I don’t have any qualms with this section and love the attention to detail he gives for these makerspaces.

V.

This section describes “contingency” and how people survive in one sort of “end of work” scenario, specifically in Youngstown and the results are fascinating in some instances:

One mile to the east of downtown Youngstown, in a brick building surrounded by several empty lots, is Royal Oaks, an iconic blue-collar dive. At about 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, the place was nearly full.

Places like Royal Oaks are the new union halls: People go there not only to relax but also to find tradespeople for particular jobs, like auto repair. Others go to exchange fresh vegetables, grown in urban gardens they’ve created amid Youngstown’s vacant lots.

It seems like even in the absence of work, even an imposed sort, people survive and sometimes even thrive. Thompson discuses a new spirit of independent and ingenuity that is celebrated within Youngstown. Corporations are trusted much less (for obvious reasons) and the police that have failed them many times have not returned.

That doesn’t mean it’s an anarchist society or is utopia by any means however. Many of the people there, as Thompson notes, cannot hold steady jobs and have no real job security at this point. Some have embraced this and constantly work part-time jobs (which is something I’ve been doing) and others keep trying to fight for a career.

This sort of “contingent” space is a complex one, as Thompson is careful to note:

But while it lacks the comforts of the consumption economy or the cultural richness of Lawrence Katz’s artisanal future, it is more complex than an outright dystopia. “There are young people working part-time in the new economy who feel independent, whose work and personal relationships are contingent, and say they like it like this—to have short hours so they have time to focus on their passions,” Russo said.

I often find myself in a contingent space, constantly trying to tackle whatever can earn me money at the time. Job security doesn’t mean a lot to someone like me, someone who doesn’t think that’s a real thing anyways. Even at the highest levels, when your job is handed to you by corporations and structures that are largely unaccountable, job security is almost always a myth. It’s at the least exaggerated and so you’re better off knowing where you stand, then not.

That’s how I see it anyways. It offers me more flexibility and control over my schedule (relatively) and it allows me the time to write articles like this, write poetry, play music by myself or with others, enjoy entertainment, etc. I would never want the responsibility of a full time job unless it was doing something I loved.

And even then, I feel like the repetitiveness of it might just drain the fun out of me.

I’m not alone on some of these feelings evidently, as the previous quote indicates.

VI.

This is probably one of the most contentious part for me, Thompson decides to start talking about the potential roles for government in a post-work world:

In the near term, local governments might do well to create more and more-ambitious community centers or other public spaces where residents can meet, learn skills, bond around sports or crafts, and socialize. Two of the most common side effects of unemployment are loneliness, on the individual level, and the hollowing-out of community pride.

A national policy that directed money toward centers in distressed areas might remedy the maladies of idleness, and form the beginnings of a long-term experiment on how to reengage people in their neighborhoods in the absence of full employment.

I would ask whether Thompson has learned anything from his study of makerspaces or Youngstown union halls. Is it not evident that people can create their own community centers without the government and often in spite of it? It seems to me that the examples Thompson brings up don’t rely (at least not obviously so) on the existence of government.

So why then all of the sudden do we need to worry about whether people will meet and develop skills or not? People do these sorts of things through the internet all of the time through social media, why do we need the government for that?

As for the second point, it seems like those who are “idle” don’t stay idle long, should they have the resources to make their time worth something to themselves. So the answer might be then to give them those resources. Ideally not through some sort of universal basic income (UBI) but through mutual aid and direct action.

We could also make it easier for people to start their own, small-scale (and even part-time) businesses. New-business formation has declined in the past few decades in all 50 states. One way to nurture fledgling ideas would be to build out a network of business incubators.

Here Youngstown offers an unexpected model: its business incubator has been recognized internationally, and its success has brought new hope to West Federal Street, the city’s main drag.

Has Youngstown relied on government in order to do this? It wasn’t clear to me from the article thus far that Youngstown needed anything more than a horrible situation and some component folks to work it out themselves in the long-run. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t painful and there weren’t better ways to do it, I’m just not convinced the government is it.

Perhaps more egregiously, Thompson advocates for makework:

The most direct solution to the latter problem would be for the government to pay people to do something, rather than nothing. Although this smacks of old European socialism, or Depression-era “makework,” it might do the most to preserve virtues such as responsibility, agency, and industriousness.

I’ve talked about this here and here, and here so I won’t belabor (no pun intended) the point.

Past that, the virtues of responsibility, agency and industriousness can clearly be done without work and Thompson has already proven that through showing makerspaces. So, again, what do we need the government for?

…the simplest way to help everybody stay busy might be government sponsorship of a national online marketplace of work (or, alternatively, a series of local ones, sponsored by local governments).

And there it is: The idea here is to help everybody stay busy.

It isn’t to, you know, provide value to society.

And if there’s anything that governments are good at, it’s not providing value to the society and filling their time with busy-work. So you would think that governments would excel at the sorts of programs Thompson is talking about. But in reality, this sounds like a lot of logistics to go through, just to reinforce that “idle hands make the devil’s work”, etc.

And as John Danaher has commented on that idea:

I find this objection unpersuasive.

One reason for this is that it is difficult to determine what is so bad about so-called “vice” and “idleness”. But suppose we could determine this. In that case, I have no doubt that in the absence of work many will succumb to “vice”, but I’m pretty sure they do that in presence of work anyway. It’s not clear to me that things will be any worse in a world without work.

People have basic psychological needs — e.g. for autonomy, competence and relatedness — that will drive them to do things in the absence of economic reward.

Continuing:

There’s a case to be made for using the tools of government to provide other incentives as well, to help people avoid the typical traps of joblessness and build rich lives and vibrant communities.

After all, the members of the Columbus Idea Foundry probably weren’t born with an innate love of lathe operation or laser-cutting. Mastering these skills requires discipline; discipline requires an education; and an education, for many people, involves the expectation that hours of often frustrating practice will eventually prove rewarding.

In a post-work society, the financial rewards of education and training won’t be as obvious. This is a singular challenge of imagining a flourishing post-work society: How will people discover their talents, or the rewards that come from expertise, if they don’t see much incentive to develop either?

Three points:

  1. Members of the CIF may not have been born with an innate love, but sometimes love of a certain production can come early on in life, to be fair. And even when it doesn’t, many people develop their interests and desires in spite of the role that governments takes in their lives.
  2. Does discipline require education? And what should an education look like to begin with? These are big questions outside of the scope of Thompson’s article (and my own here) but they’re worth considering.
  3. The last point conflates income with rewards. Ideally, the pursuits people will have are going to be intrinsically rewarding but even if they aren’t, I still don’t understand why we would abolish money. Perhaps that’s something that Frase, et. al. see as preferable, but I don’t.

Finally, Thompson admits something I find humorous:

Modest payments to young people for attending and completing college, skills-training programs, or community-center workshops might eventually be worth considering. This seems radical, but the aim would be conservative—to preserve the status quo of an educated and engaged society.

Whatever their career opportunities, young people will still grow up to be citizens, neighbors, and even, episodically, workers. (emphasis mine)

Conservative indeed.

VII.

When I think about the role that work plays in people’s self-esteem—particularly in America—the prospect of a no-work future seems hopeless. There is no universal basic income that can prevent the civic ruin of a country built on a handful of workers permanently subsidizing the idleness of tens of millions of people.

But a future of less work still holds a glint of hope, because the necessity of salaried jobs now prevents so many from seeking immersive activities that they enjoy.

A conservative project, ultimately, won’t question or try to get us to question the role that something plays in harms us. It just wants to change the level of harm. It just wants to change the way we feel about the harm. But it won’t question the harm itself or what feeds it to begin with. That’s what the liberal project amounts to: Conservatism that sometimes even admits that it only appears radical, but is actually a deeply conservative project of re-inspiring civic obedience.

And instead of questioning whether salaries are a good thing or careers are overrated or something to move away from. Or if the post-work future can be had in some other way besides a universal basic income, we get hopelessness.

This is why a post-work world cannot coexist alongside liberalism.

Conservatism and hopelessness have no place in a brighter future.


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