Theme: Political Economy | Content Type: Digested Read

Post-Work Politics – Why the Tipping Point Thesis is Wrong

Paul Thompson


Franck V

| 9 mins read

Post-work politics, as pursued by the likes of Paul Mason, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, rests on the idea that the worlds of business and work have reached a tipping point. Capitalism can no longer supply the profitable business models or the jobs that can raise productivity, towards full luxury communism, a post‐work society or a collaborative, network economy is not only desirable, but inexorable.

Some claims rely primarily on assertions concerned with the effects of automation, while others can be located in the discourse of post‐capitalism. In both instances, the transformative powers of science and technology are the primary perceived drivers, and a universal basic income (UBI) is the logical outcome.

The problem with twin tipping point arguments is that they are not empirically sustainable.

Tipping point 1: post‐capitalism?

In post‐capitalism analysis, scientific knowledge in a third stage of capitalism (or post‐capitalism) increasingly displaces value created through labour in production. As the old economy shrivels, a new form arises: collaborative production of goods and services that no longer needs to respond to the discipline of the market and managerial hierarchy.

When the cost of producing goods and services shrinks to near zero the entire rationale of capitalism becomes meaningless. The disruptive capacities of technological innovation (notably AI, big data analytics) is held to be the ultimate driver.

Critique of post-work politics

The obstacles to a more rapid tipping point, such as the creation of monopolies to restrict access, extract rent (as profit substitute) and maintain scarcity, are treated by post-work analysts largely as the last throw of dinosaur corporations, swimming against the current. But this is wrong—they are (part of) the current.

Of the top fifty companies globally by revenue – which seems a reasonable place to start given claims about profitability – sixteen are financial corporations, nine energy or extractive, seven auto, six retail and the rest a mixture of health, electronics, telecoms, construction, pharmaceuticals, conglomerates and electronics. Only four of these firms had declining revenue in the latest year. And only two tech giants – Apple and Amazon – appear in the list, though the picture would look a little different if the criteria was market capitalisation. It is simply untrue that the kind of sectors and (implied) business models used in post‐capitalist projections dominate the global economy.

Central trends

The global economy is organised primarily through complex value and commodity chains. Chains can be thought of as complex networks of buyers, suppliers and intermediaries, with various ‘nodes'.

Contrary to the image of collaborative, horizontal relations, they are characterised by concentration of capital and centralisation of power. The key role in both buyer and producer‐driven chains is played by oligopolistic lead firms.

A recent report for the Resolution Foundation found that the proportion of revenue accounted for by the largest 100 UK firms (23 per cent) had risen by a quarter since 2003–4 and concentration has increased in two‐thirds of industries.

Media and entertainment industry concentration is a long‐term trend and the online giants have continued it. The acquisition of Instagram by Facebook has created a unique fusion of economic, political and social power. Commons‐based peer production initiatives such as Wikipedia are, unfortunately, not remotely typical of the sector.

More broadly, the sharing economy is a fiction. Companies such as Uber have built a business model that requires workers to be treated as independent contractors subject to algorithmic control. Along with others, such as Airbnb, they leverage their status as intermediary platforms and access to data to enter and build market power.

Alongside concentration and centralisation, financialisation, where the pursuit of shareholder value becomes the primary object is the most significant trend underpinning contemporary business models.

Even if we focus on the micro economy rather than the conditions that led to the global financial crisis in 2008, financialisation is a far better explanation for the crises and contradictions of contemporary capitalism than automation or zero‐cost production. For example, if it was automation, we would see evidence of far greater investment in physical and human capital and in innovation. Instead, we have deep‐seated productivity problems.

Tipping point 2: post‐work?

In a nutshell, the post-work claim is: most people hate their jobs, which is fortuitous because most of them are going to disappear because of automation.

Many people do work too much, either because of long hours, or excessive demands. Too many jobs are low quality, under‐rewarded, insecure, stressful and over‐managed. The leap from these observations to supposedly widespread hatred for jobs may seem logical, but that would be a mistake. Sources of work attachment are varied, but they are real and persistent and cannot be written off.

It is true that robots and AI (such as machine learning) could replace some routine tasks. But the language is of vulnerability, h and risk. Yet in the process of endless repetition and circulation, might has largely become will happen.

The limits of automation

First, job, tasks and occupation are confused and conflated in the above arguments. This matters. Tasks can be removed or configured without eliminating the job.

Second, the fact that something can be automated does not mean it will be. Many expanding sectors (hospitality, warehousing, platform working) operate low margin business models. Introducing robots would be expensive and largely irrelevant.

Job trends

The key point about job trends is that they reinforce scepticism about the medium‐term impact of automation. Paul Mason says that a future economy can't generate enough new post‐modern servants. Maybe so, but it doesn't have to. Sectors such as health, social care, cleaning and hospitality have been long‐term sources of growth, with surely unmet needs (such as aged and childcare provision) still to come.

But there is a shrinkage in the proportion of skilled and mid‐level jobs. The Resolution Foundation charts rising employment shares for high and low‐paid jobs in the last twenty years, with a ‘hollowing out' in the middle.

Conclusion: politics and policy

UBI is a solution to crises that do not exist. If UBI is a solution to another problem—for example, the coercive and commodified nature of wage labour under capitalism—that's fine, but good luck trying to persuade the electorate with that one.

The real job or work crises are not expressed in single or simple ways; therefore no one‐size‐fits‐all policy prescription is appropriate.

Take one example: there is a need for a more explicit politics of time. While it would be a good idea if most people worked less, a demand for something like a universal four‐day week is too blunt an instrument. A sizeable minority of the workforce wants to work more. This is a huge problem that contributes to in‐work poverty.

A contemporary politics of work needs to focus on the things that people do not enjoy, notably stagnant wages, rising work intensity and declining autonomy associated with excessive demands, blurring of work–life boundaries and punitive performance regimes. The problem, as I've argued elsewhere is bullshit in the job, rather than bullshit jobs per se.

The key point about the above changes is that none of them are the result of automation. They are the result of choices by employers and governments. Technological catastrophism obscures the agency involved.  

We do need a renewed policy agenda around job quality. But whether you want to change or replace capitalism, you need to understand the nature of the beast. Claims that we are at a post‐capitalist, post‐work tipping point do not stand up to scrutiny, no matter how many times its proselytisers appear on the telly or radio.

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  • Paul Thompson

    Paul Thompson

    Paul Thompson is Emeritus Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling.

    Articles by Paul Thompson