Even if we were to free ourselves from the capitalist work ethic and provide everyone with a universal basic income, our society would still require some amount of socially necessary labor. Socialists should strive to reimagine work, not eliminate it.
“Near or far all trades need to be touched by a reflection of art,” a sketch by Edmond Eugène Valton, 1887. (Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images)
From the beginning, socialists have imagined a free society as one of shared labor. Some labor is necessary, but that does not make it a mere burden. We can distribute it so that it becomes an expression of our human capacity for free cooperation. The necessary labor that we share would not be the sole expression of our freedom. But it could be one inextricable part of that freedom — if we take conscious, direct, and collective responsibility for the organization of that labor through democratic control over the economy. This way of sharing labor would free everyone from being forced to work, free anyone from being condemned to hard labor their whole lives, and allow necessary labor to become something each could do freely, in the sense of a freely accepted duty rather than mere necessity or external imposition.
That necessary labor is something we would do freely, by sharing it, is a thought running through writing by everyone from Gracchus Babeuf to Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky to Rosa Luxemburg, W. E. B. Du Bois to Sylvia Pankhurst. The “equal liability to work” is the eighth demand of the Communist Manifesto. Du Bois looked forward to the “coming socialization of industry,” in which “Work for All and All at Work” afforded “abundant time for leisure, exercise, study, and avocations.” Luxemburg spoke of “a general requirement to work for all who are able to do so” in a society where “work itself must be organised quite differently” because “the health of the workforce and its enthusiasm for work must be given the greatest consideration at work.” The reorganization of work helped explain why there was not just an obligation to do a share of the work but why there would be a generalized willingness to do that share.
In recent decades, this socialist vision has faded from view. It sets no horizon, provides no structure, to left politics.
Instead, a different way of thinking about work and freedom has become increasingly popular: work is a pure burden, to be reduced as much as possible and, ideally, eliminated. The core question of emancipation has become how to free people from work. The central institutional expression of this ideal is not the sharing of labor but a universal basic income that provides basic needs not conditional on working. The future society is said to be a free society because it is post-work: all are freed from any economic compulsion or ideological pressure to work. Whether anyone does work would be a matter of social indifference — entirely a question of whether a person chose to or not. This tradition has its own lineage, running through John Stuart Mill, Marx, Paul Lafargue, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, André Gorz, Philippe Van Parijs, Silvia Federici, Kathi Weeks, and a welter of contemporary figures. This view of work and freedom has become part of left-wing common sense, structuring the socialist imaginary.
The most promising feature of the post-work vision generally, and defense of universal basic income in particular, is the way it focuses left thinking on freedom. However, the more we bring this emancipatory ideal into focus, the more the arguments for it come apart. Arguments that a universal basic income is emancipatory rest on a deception or illusion about necessary labor. We cannot free ourselves from work by giving a universal basic income to all and ridding ourselves of the work ethic. We cannot even free people from work by giving everyone a universal basic income (UBI) and remaining indifferent to whether each of us works or not. Current arguments about income and work rest on a failure to face the problem of necessary labor squarely. As a result, those who make these arguments make deceptive claims about the necessity of labor and the possibilities for making work free. The deceptions involved are not just intellectual errors. They are also a political liability. They leave those arguing for a UBI and “against work” unable to grasp why resistance to their views is reasonable rather than just ideological confusion. And it leaves them unable to capitalize on widespread views about why everyone ought to be prepared to do some work and might even find meaning in their work. The political task facing the Left is at once more complex and more promising than finding our way out of, past, or beyond work.
The older, shared-labor socialist vision tracked a better line of thinking: the only conditions under which even necessary labor could be an expression of human freedom are in a democratically planned economy supported by a socialist work ethic. If we grasp that thought, then the Left could be in a position to offer a popular and attractive vision. It would be one in which everyone is free from unnecessary work because everyone is ready to do necessary labor, but labor is not merely a burden — it is also part of our social freedom.
The political task facing the Left is at once more complex and more promising than finding our way out of, past, or beyond work.
I cannot sketch out the full vision here. This essay’s main aim is critical. It is about creating the conceptual space for shared labor socialism. Through an internal critique of contemporary thinking about UBI, I will show why its proponents presuppose the very thing they claim to be freeing people from: socially organized necessary labor. Without an account of the institutions and mechanisms by which society guarantees that necessary labor will be performed on a regular basis, arguments for the emancipatory effects of a UBI are deceptive or, at best, incomplete. They fail to confront the material conditions of socialist freedom. Directly facing the problem of how to socially organize necessary labor should be the starting point for all left-wing thinking about work, leisure, and freedom.
The Post-Work Image Of Freedom
Any proper critique must begin with an appreciation. One of the most compelling features of the left-wing case for a UBI is the way it directs our attention to the question of freedom. “The main reason UBI ought to be a part of a left normative vision,” writes David Calnitsky, one of the UBI’s most forceful left-wing proponents,
is because it facilitates exit from relations of exploitation and domination. . . . For those who object to the compulsory nature of the capitalist labor market, basic income is appealing because it ensures that people not only have the abstract right to freedom, but the material resources to make freedom a lived reality. It gives people the power to say no — to abusive employers, unpleasant work, or patriarchal domination in the home.
Unlike those interested in putting a human face on capitalism, for whom a UBI is a path to ameliorating poverty or avoiding the paternalism of the welfare state, the Left is interested in full emancipation from the domination typical of capitalist societies. As the influential post-work UBI proponent Kathi Weeks puts it, “the demand for basic income can do more than present a useful reform; it can serve both to open a critical perspective on the wage system and to provoke visions of a life not so dependent on the system’s present terms and conditions.” Or, as Jacobin contributing editor Peter Frase says, “This is obviously a radical proposal, given that it subverts the typical insistence by both liberals and conservatives that social benefits be tied to work in some way.”
A universal basic income is central to current left thinking about freedom because of the way it promises to free people from the compulsion to work. Consider the basic features of the policy:
Universal: Because the UBI is universal, it is unconditional. Specifically, it is not conditional on the recipient performing work or on means testing. Unlike wages or poverty-related benefits, a UBI is for all members.
Basic: The UBI must be sufficient to satisfy all basic needs. A UBI cannot substitute for other in-kind provision of basic goods, like public education or health care. Rather, it serves as a complement so that people can satisfy all their basic needs.
Income: The UBI is income in the sense that it is distributed as money or some other all-purpose means for purchasing basic goods. What matters is not the nominal value of the income but its real value: it must be true purchasing power for acquiring basic goods.
It is easy to see the immediate, emancipatory appeal, especially since so much work under capitalism is dull, pointless, exploitative, or unnecessarily dangerous. People only do it because they are forced to. They need a job to meet their needs. Finding a way to avoid that work looks like one of the most pressing tasks. Why not free workers from the “dull compulsion of the economic,” as Marx called it? If everyone has a UBI that covers their basic needs, nobody is forced to work.
The post-work promise is not just freedom from capitalist exploitation and domination but from work itself. It is therefore a promise of a new freedom: control over your time. In capitalism, those without work are generally unemployed or poor. But with a universal basic income, they have the means to live, and therefore truly free time. If some still wish to work, they may do so, but they would now do it freely. Recipients, according to Sergi Raventós, “would have the freedom to reject work that enslaves them and be free to accept other work if they wish.” The post-work society of a basic income is therefore one in which people control their lives because they control their time.
It is easy to see the immediate, emancipatory appeal of post-work socialism, especially since so much work under capitalism is dull, pointless, exploitative, or unnecessarily dangerous.
Some might balk at allowing the able-bodied to consume without working. The very idea seems to violate widely shared norms about the duty to work or the value of it. “One of the most difficult problems in implementing a UBI and building a post-work society,” write Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “will be overcoming the pervasive pressure to submit to the work ethic.” But for its post-work adherents, the counter-normative character of a UBI is the whole point. The utopian horizon lies not just in the way UBI frees us from the necessity of working but in the way it helps liberate us from the work ethic itself.
In fact, the cultural critique of the work ethic is the other half of the post-work vision, since in the absence of any transformation of our attitudes toward work, a universal basic income cannot be adequately emancipating. While nobody would be economically forced to work, they would still be ostracized, shamed, or otherwise stigmatized for not working. If still subject to a work ethic, we would have imported that pro-work piece of capitalist ideology into a socialist future, undermining its emancipatory potential. People would not really be free to use their time as they saw fit. The truly emancipated society, the society of truly free time, must embrace and accelerate the counter-normative aspect of a universal entitlement that allows everyone to live without working.
A basic income is therefore not just a policy; it is a way of waging a culture war at the heart of the economy. As Weeks says, proposing a UBI allows us to “raise broader questions about the place of work in our lives and spark the imagination of a life no longer so subordinate to it.” “We’ve been told that work itself is supposed to bring us fulfillment, pleasure, meaning, even joy,” writes antiwork labor journalist Sarah Jaffe, but “the labor of love, in short, is a con.” The “con” of the work ethic is that it dresses up capitalist exploitation as self-realization, social duty, or personal meaning. “The willingness to live for and through work,” writes Weeks, “renders subjects supremely functional for capitalist purposes.” The work ethic just binds people to their own alienation and exploitation the way only inner religious belief can. Even if there might have once been some real basis for the work ethic, perhaps in craft production or in the need to develop humanity’s productive capacity, there is no point to it any longer. “Once upon a time, going or getting to work was a way of discovering and developing your capacities,” writes James Livingston, another antiwork defender of the basic income. “By now it’s become a way to avoid yourself.”
This critique of work and the work ethic even requires taking on parts of the Left itself. “In contrast to some other types of Marxism that confine their critique of capitalism to the exploitation and alienation of work without attending to its overvaluation,” writes Weeks, the post-work vision “offers a more expansive model of critique that seeks to interrogate at once capitalist production and capitalist (as well as socialist) productivism.” This critique of the Left’s “overvaluation” of work is in some sense the crucial task, since the Left vision determines our understanding of a future society and it directs our sense of the struggle worth fighting.
While out of step with public opinion, antiwork thinkers plausibly argue that the cultural obstacles to a UBI are not so insurmountable if we consider that so many people also hate their jobs, wish they could work less, and therefore stand ready to find a post-work society compelling. Some of the best recent labor journalism has shown how widespread dissatisfaction with work is. The vision of a society in which nobody is forced to work therefore taps into some of the deepest desires generated by a capitalist society that only socialism can properly realize. It is almost a commonsense utopianism: Who doesn’t see the appeal of simply enjoying life, of never having to work, and of working only when you want to? In some sense, the post-work case for a UBI might not be all that counter-normative and, given its potential to give expression to widespread discontent, could help inspire the emancipatory, mass political struggle that the Left has been so badly missing. “By directing the left towards a post-work future,” write Srnicek and Williams, “not only will significant gains be aimed for . . . but political power will be built in the process.” So the full appeal lies not just in the image of a society of leisure but also in the potential of that image to reanimate political struggle.
But the post-work politics and vision is, unfortunately, incoherent. As we shall see, this is because it presupposes the very thing it says it emancipates us from: work. Such incoherence generates a one-sided way of thinking about the relationship between work and freedom and is a political liability. We see this incoherence most vividly in the post-work version of the argument that “Rather than improving our ability to get to work, UBI provides the means to avoid it if we need to.”
The post-work politics and vision is, unfortunately, incoherent. This is because it presupposes the very thing it says it emancipates us from: work.
As we proceed, one clarification is in order. My main aim is to make an internal critique of post-work socialism by exposing the deceptive way in which it talks about necessary labor. But there is a more deflationary left-wing argument that can get conflated with the post-work socialist one. Some argue that a UBI is emancipating here and now, in capitalism, rather than a feature of a post-work socialist future. That more pragmatic argument rejects any full-scale critique of the work ethic. I believe the pragmatic left argument rests on a similar set of mistakes about freedom and necessary labor, but I cannot lay out those problems here. I take the post-work vision to be a more complete, distinct, and telling expression of left-wing thinking. Because it is less concessive to immediate, capitalist realities, it is also a better insight into the fundamental issues left political thinking faces when it comes to the relationship between work and freedom.
The Essential Deception: Who Would Make What We Would Buy?
The problems with the post-work form of socialism arise the minute we ask how a UBI actually functions as a universal entitlement. A UBI only provides an exit option from work if it is true purchasing power, not just nominal income. Money is only purchasing power if there are goods to buy with that income. In the case of a post-work UBI, these cannot be just any old goods. They have to be specific ones — the basic goods people need. It can’t just be that there are watches, tennis balls, or smartphones for sale. There must be food, clothing, energy, housing, cars, subways, trucks, health care, education, and all the raw and industrial materials — like electricity, iron, steel, plastic, wood, water, and fertilizer — that go into producing those goods and services. Moreover, these specific goods must be produced in sufficient quantities to be affordable for each and every person living on a universal basic income. There also must be sufficient production of future raw materials, new machines, and existing repairs to ensure basic goods are securely available in the future.
If a society produces insufficient amounts of basic goods or insufficient amounts for future production, the price of those goods will go up. Imagine that a society of one billion people only produces enough food, housing, medical care, and clothing on a consistent basis for eight hundred million. Any persistent shortages in basic goods, however those goods are defined, would inflate away the real value of the UBI. Recipients could no longer purchase all their basic goods with their guaranteed income. Some would now be forced to work to make up the difference between what they need and what they can buy with their UBI. In the case of shortages, only once production increased would there be enough of all the basic goods to buy with a UBI.23 But if a UBI can only be a UBI if there are large numbers of basic goods and services already available to buy, then a UBI presupposes that a large amount of work is already being performed. Enough people must be doing enough work in the relevant areas of agriculture, mining, construction, transportation, basic industry, and services to make those basic goods available.
We cannot propose a universal basic income and remain indifferent, from a collective standpoint, about whether, what kind of, and how much work is getting done.
The claim that a UBI frees people from needing to work is therefore deceptive. It presents an image of society in which work is purely optional. Yet work is only optional if some are doing the necessary labor to produce the goods people buy. Put another way, an unconditional basic income can be extended to each individual conditional on some working. An unconditional basic income might be individually unconditional, but it is collectively conditional. This is not just a logical point; it speaks to the priority of social tasks. We cannot propose a universal basic income and remain indifferent, from a collective standpoint, about whether, what kind of, and how much work is getting done. There must be firm, social guarantees that necessary labor gets done before being able to make any stable claims about what distribution of those goods is possible and what the effects of an income policy will be. These firm, social guarantees must, at minimum, satisfy two conditions. Given some set of socially defined needs, socioeconomic institutions must ensure (a) that there is adequate public coordination of labor and raw materials to reliably produce basic goods and (b) that there is enough labor supplied to produce those goods. We can call this the basic problem of necessary labor.
In the absence of any clear program for allocating necessary labor, there would be no way to know whether goods would be reliably available, for how long, nor what level to set income at. Which would mean we could make no reliable claims about the emancipating effect of a universal basic income in a post-work utopia. Any such claims are, at best, deceptive.
The Priority of Production: We Can’t Free Ourselves From Work by Redistributing Its Products
One way to think about the issue at hand is that it puts the distributive cart ahead of the productive horse. The “relations of distribution” must be compatible with the “relations of production.” The latter determine and limit the possibilities for the former. Any claims about the effect of distributive measures, like a UBI, on the organization of production (e.g., work) must be consistent with the basic way society organizes that production. For example, a society in which economic compulsion is the central means of securing a labor supply cannot distribute goods in ways that eliminate that compulsion because, in short order, not enough goods would get produced. That is a challenge for a full UBI in a capitalist society, but what about one in which economic compulsion has been removed? In a post-work society, in which there is not even cultural pressure to work, distributing goods unconditionally — through a basic income or otherwise — would be self-defeating. Not enough of the necessary goods would reliably get produced, undermining the emancipatory value of that very distributive measure.
In the absence of any clear program for allocating necessary labor, there would be no way to know whether goods would be reliably available, for how long, nor what level to set income at.
No major distributive policy can remain indifferent to how it would affect or presupposes the supply and organization of labor. Yet post-work theorists present their utopia as one that is indifferent on just that question. They deceptively speak as if a UBI could be distributed first and then we would just see what, if any, work would get done. For them, whether and which labor is performed is purely a matter of individual choice, rather than a fundamental question of social policy in which all have an interest. They even insist on this voluntarist feature of a post-work socialist utopia to emphasize the sense in which that society is free. “Few of us have the capacity to choose no job. A basic income changes this condition,” write Srnicek and Williams. “Workers, in other words, have the option to choose whether to take a job or not . . . making work truly voluntary.” But what if, for whatever reason, not enough people in their post-work society want to do agricultural, transportation, or mining work, care for children, or work in schools and hospitals?
Ironically, UBI proponents claim that their vision of society renders social control over production less necessary, when it would require more social control — in the sense of more conscious and centralized organization of production — than capitalism. In capitalism, what is produced and in what quantity depends upon what it is profitable to produce, which itself is determined by effective demand and supply costs. That is one reason why we end up in situations like having far too many luxury homes and Airbnb rentals but not enough affordable housing. In a post-work UBI world, social decisions about what and how much to produce would have to be less arbitrary, less up to uncoordinated individual choices. That is because, at minimum, we would have to ensure not just that work gets done but that the right work gets done. And there would have to be some democratic, political process for deciding what would count as the right work. Instead of the arbitrariness of effective demand, there would have to be a political determination of need, to determine what counts as necessary labor, an agreed-upon plan to ensure that labor gets done, and an agreement to execute the plan.
The Return of the Repressed in a Post-Work Utopia
The problem is not just that the post-work imaginary presupposes the need to socially organize production and guarantee an adequate supply of the right kind of labor. Post-work thinkers also give us strong reasons to think that the necessary labor would not get done. Even if they did articulate a mechanism for identifying which labor is necessary and in what amounts, they give us no reason to think there would be an adequate supply of people to do that labor.
Consider the standard mechanisms that induce people to work: (a) force, (b) culture or spontaneous motivation, or (c) incentives. In a capitalist society, a huge amount of labor is supplied by force — there is generally an oversupply of workers relative to the market’s ability to employ workers for pay. That is the kind of economic forcing that a UBI in a post-work utopia is supposed to eliminate. The post-work ideal also militates against any other alternative institutionalized forcing, like coercive national labor service in necessary sectors.
Even if they did articulate a mechanism for identifying which labor is necessary and in what amounts, post-work thinkers give us no reason to think there would be an adequate supply of people to do that labor.
The main alternative to force and coercion is norms and culture — a generalized spontaneous readiness to work grounded in some kind of public ethos. Cultural norms promoting the value of work or of some kind of work ethic are ways of institutionally securing a steady supply of labor. Culture induces work effort by generating inner motivations to work among those for whom it is normative and pressuring those for whom it is not normative to work through the use of social stigmas. But since the post-work socialists also want to use the UBI to undermine the work ethic and related beliefs about any duty to work, this cultural mechanism is also unavailable. On some versions of the post-work ideal, one can even imagine there would be cultural hostility toward those who are too eager to work.
If force and culture are unavailable, the only other institutional mechanism would be incentives, like extra pay for doing necessary work. Theoretically, one could imagine a post-work socialist society in which collective decisions are made to induce enough people to work in necessary areas. This would, at minimum, require some centralized way of deciding what counts as necessary labor so that the policy incentives would be attached to the right kinds of work — not just to any old activity. No post-work UBI proponent has ever proposed such a set of institutions in any plausible form, let alone recognized why it might be necessary to have such institutions. Doing so would already acknowledge the sense in which the post-work UBI presupposes labor it says it dispenses with. It is also hard to imagine how a planned incentive structure would fit with the post-work cultural project of removing the stigma from not working. And there is little reason to think that, having eliminated force and undermined the work ethic, individual responses to incentives would reliably generate enough of the right kind of labor supply. At minimum, the incentives needed to attract the necessary labor would be extremely socially costly. If nobody felt any obligation to do their share of what has to be done, then only extremely high wages would likely attract enough consistent effort. And the distribution of who would then do that necessary work would be arbitrary — whoever happens to want the benefits more.
But the deeper point is that this is all ad hoc. Incentives might induce enough people to work, but in a self-deceiving and unstable way. It deceives everyone about the necessity of some doing enough labor to produce what is needed, because it presents it as a matter of personal preference over leisure and labor. Those who work do so because the personal utility of the returns outweighs the personal utility of not working — which is much like how neoclassical economics models the labor market choices of workers. This is unstable because the ongoing performance of that necessary labor is dependent upon the unpredictable, aggregate consequences of people’s changeable personal preferences. The only stabilizing normative or cultural influences on those preferences would be post-work antagonism toward work being necessary or an obligation.
Lacking firm institutional guarantees that enough necessary labor would get done, the post-work utopia would be forced to reverse course. It would have to either resort to an intense ideological campaign in favor of work or deploy some kind of institutionalized force. Or, recognizing that there would not be enough people to do the necessary labor producing the basic goods for people to buy, a fully funded UBI would have to be abandoned. Notably, however, this would mean work would return only as a kind of externally imposed necessity, a nightmare intruding into the post-work dream, rather than as something freely organized by a society that has faced the challenge of organizing production squarely and self-consciously.
Lacking firm institutional guarantees that enough necessary labor would get done, the post-work utopia would have to either resort to an intense ideological campaign in favor of work or deploy some kind of institutionalized force.
The post-work UBI utopia is therefore self-undermining without acknowledging that fact. Liberating people from economic compulsion and from the work ethic means draining away the available mechanisms that induce people to work, while refusing to recognize the degree to which social freedom presupposes human labor. The more effective the post-work project, the less effectively it emancipates everyone from work.
Expanded Human Needs Means the Expansion of Necessary Labor
Once we acknowledge that necessary labor must be institutionally organized, we discover a further problem for the post-work utopia: the increase of necessary labor. Necessary labor is defined in relation to some conception of human needs. There is no well-worked-out conception of needs in their theory. An implicit claim of many post-work arguments is that a UBI is sufficient because human needs are limited to “necessities of life” — such as housing, food, and clothing — or to some “decent” standard of living. On this view, needs are fixed and limited by some acceptable level of subsistence. However, a standard left-wing thought is that a future society would see an expansion of human needs. That is part and parcel of its emancipated character. Unlike capitalist societies, which tend to reduce human needs to the “means of subsistence,” or what it takes to subsist and to have tolerable access to culture, socialist societies are usually imagined as providing everyone opportunities for full human development. An emancipated society liberates human need from the constraints of capital accumulation. Perhaps the most famous expression of this expansive ideal was Marx’s claim that, in a communist society, work would be transformed from being a “means of life to life’s prime want.” But any version of it involves people acquiring needs for self-development and meaningful contribution of their abilities.
An emancipated society liberates human need from the constraints of capital accumulation.
These needs develop when workers are reunited with control over the means of production. As part of that control, many dead-end or pointless jobs can be eliminated, and difficult labor is shared, so that nobody has to spend their entire lives doing routine, dangerous, or burdensome work. Therefore, everyone will enjoy some free time. If they wish to use their free time for pure play and enjoyment, nobody will stop them, since they have done their fair share of what’s necessary. But most, it is thought, will develop the need for a more active, creative use of their powers and abilities. They will want to engage in scientific research, exploration of nature, the design and redesign of cities, high-quality care and education, new forms of music and art, and many other productive activities. The development and creative use of some ability to make a social contribution will be an inner need, because work itself will have been humanized. Work will no longer just be a means to living one’s real life in the time outside of work. Instead, much work will become something governed not by alien but by human purposes and done in conditions where we are not at odds with one another.
But to do these productive activities, everyone will need access not to means of consumption but to means of production. For one, they will need resources that allow them to discover and develop their abilities — labs, chemicals, metals, construction materials, spaceships, musical instruments, electronics. Just for starters, imagine what properly resourced high school science classes would require if everyone, not just those living in wealthy neighborhoods or attending private schools, were to get a proper education — so that they could have a real opportunity to develop and exercise some complex ability. Now add in all the means of production adults will need. The urban planning teams reshaping mass transit systems, the agriculturalists experimenting with new kinds of fertilizer and irrigation, the engineers seeking to improve the capacity of machines to repair themselves, the musicians staging mass concerts — all will need extensive physical resources. Add to this the fact that the new need for creative activity will be considered a truly universal need in the sense of applying to all humanity around the globe. The material opportunity to engage in complex and enriching activity could no longer be the special preserve of a select class of people with the time, money, and access to scarce resources. Instead, everyone would have to enjoy some noncompetitive opportunity to engage in that activity. And those opportunities can only exist if society has organized production to properly resource them. The global provision of such resources would require massive increases in the wealth of poor countries, and quite likely a considerable increase in necessary labor by those in the North in order to raise the material wealth of the rest up to their level.
While the post-work socialists have observed that much paid work in capitalism is wasteful and pointless and would therefore be eliminated, they inaccurately draw the conclusion that this means work or total human labor time would unambiguously decline.
If new needs for self-development and contributive activity require new resources, and new resources have to be produced by human labor, then the labor that produces those resources is necessary labor. That labor is necessary to the enlarged lives of a socialist society freed from the artificial constraints on aspiration and human development that capitalism imposes. It is necessary for people to be fully free. While the post-work socialists have observed that much paid work in capitalism is wasteful and pointless and would therefore be eliminated, they inaccurately draw the conclusion that this means work or total human labor time would unambiguously decline. At minimum, the expansion of human needs means we have reason to believe there will still be quite a bit of necessary labor in a future society, even if that future society is vastly more technologically sophisticated than our own.
Many post-work UBI theorists do affirm that people will want to be productive in their free time, but they fail to recognize the force of that observation. For instance, Erik Olin Wright argues that a UBI is valuable for “enabling people to opt for a life centered around creative activity rather than market-generated income.” Weeks, quoting William Morris, says that “there might be for all living things ‘a pleasure in the exercise of their energies,’” which Weeks interprets to mean, “it is also possible to be creative outside the boundaries of work.” Such statements appear to recognize the sense in which people will deeply value creative activity. But they do not explicitly acknowledge that, from a social standpoint, these activities must be considered needs that require resources. Or those theorists are illicitly and unjustifiably reducing what counts as a creative activity to a narrow class of artistic or purely social occupations that require few physical resources, an issue to which we will return shortly. For now, the point is that affirming creative activity as a need means that a socialist society must guarantee that everyone enjoys some noncompetitive opportunity to participate in those activities. The socially organized labor to supply all those opportunities, in a properly resourced way, would have to be treated as necessary labor.
The failure to recognize creative activity as a need is a feature of the strangely reductive or consumption-oriented conception of need that rattles around the post-work, UBI argument. Whether such proponents define UBI minimally as meeting basic subsistence or more broadly as affording a certain level of comfort, their core thought is that a UBI meets people’s needs by securing a certain level of consumption. In the post-work utopia, there is no further social obligation to guarantee people any other resources to engage in productive activities.
The failure to recognize creative activity as a need is a feature of the strangely reductive or consumption-oriented conception of need that rattles around the post-work, UBI argument.
But from the socialist point of view, that must be considered an illegitimate, oddly consumerist conception of human needs. Any society that fails to produce enough resources so that everyone could develop some complex ability would have failed to meet people’s needs, unduly constraining their freedom. To the degree that post-work utopians are ready to recognize creative, contributive activity as a need, they must then explain how they would institutionally guarantee the additional necessary labor that produces the means of production each person needs — which they cannot do.
What’s Left of Freedom in the Post-Work Utopia?: Not Forced to Work Versus Free Time to Do Things
A reason for pressing this point about necessary labor and the expansion of needs is that there is a tendency to speak in an ambiguous and indeterminate way about free time in a post-work utopia. Consider the following, quite typical claim. The value of a UBI is that:
such a policy . . . makes possible an increase in free time. It provides us with the capacity to choose our lives: we can experiment and build unconventional lives, choosing to foster our cultural, intellectual and physical sensibilities instead of blindly working to survive.
This claim elides a crucial distinction: the period of time you are not forced to work to survive is not the same as the period of time when you are effectively free to engage in creative activity. Post-work theorists present free time as essentially negative. It’s the period of time when you are not forced to do anything. Yet talking about a policy that “provides us with the capacity” to engage in creative activity is no longer describing free time merely negatively but also positively, as presence of the material opportunity to develop and realize creative abilities. A UBI cannot purchase the material resources for building “unconventional lives” or “choosing to foster our cultural, intellectual and physical sensibilities.” It only guarantees people their basic consumption needs. Even on its own terms, it is at most negatively liberating because it removes economic compulsion. No proponent has ever suggested that a UBI could be scaled to include the ability to purchase adequate means of production for scientific, artistic, or other creative activities, nor could proponents reasonably propose that.
UBI cannot purchase the material resources for building ‘unconventional lives’ or ‘choosing to foster our cultural, intellectual and physical sensibilities.’ It only guarantees people their basic consumption needs.
It is certainly fair to call the time one is not forced to work a kind of emancipation. But it is false to call that negative condition full socialist freedom, and it is deceptive to call it free time. Post-work conceptions of free time focus on one kind of imposition of capitalist labor markets — the compulsion of basic needs — while avoiding another equally problematic restriction: lack of access to means of production. From a socialist standpoint, free time has positive content. It is the period of time when we have the real, fully resourced opportunity to develop a talent and make a contribution. To repurpose a phrase from Martin Hägglund, the proper term is not “free time” but “socially available free time.” That is, free time in the context of institutions that offer a range of social practices in which creative activities have meaning and that produces and distributes enough resources for everyone to use. If socialism “is about freeing people to pursue activities that cannot be described simply as either work or leisure,” as Aaron Benanav has put it, then we cannot avoid the question, “How would people gain access to the resources they need to pursue their passions?” The post-work vision barely recognizes the form of the question and gives us little reason to think it can provide a convincing answer.
Once we embrace the thought that “socially available free time” is a positive condition of access to resources, we return to the challenge that an enlarged life poses for our thinking about work. Without access to means of production, people cannot meet all their needs. Only the additional necessary labor producing those means of production can guarantee everyone truly free time. A society of socialist freedom is one with significant amounts of necessary labor.
One way that certain UBI proponents might try to get around this problem is by recognizing creative activity as a need but then conceiving the relevant activities as not resource-intensive. That romanticized approach conceives all creativity by analogy with poetry or the arts of conversation and would exclude huge swaths of human life, from the natural sciences to exploration to building, urban planning, and sport, even some kinds of music and media-intensive art. There is a tradition of thinking this way in liberal thought dating back at least to Mill, for whom the ideal “stationary state” was one in which productive activity was reduced to a minimum and the rest of the time was spent developing artistic and intellectual virtues. Russell and Keynes repeated some version of this idea, and it appears in various forms among some post-work theorists. For instance, Frase contrasts the “need to work for wages” with the freedom to “explore what it means to take care of ourselves and one another.” Some kinds of meaningful or creative work — parenting, caring for the elderly or infirm, teaching, music — appear to be fundamentally interpersonal or social and therefore not to require resources. But even care work requires physical goods, not just medicine or books but the toys, supplies, instruments, and games that make it the kind of contributive, rewarding work people have a need for. Not to mention, we cannot reasonably restrict the definition of meaningful, contributive work to those activities that require few or no resources. A full range of human activities should be socially available.
It is an illusion of capitalist society that labor choices can be purely individual and voluntary. Socialist analysis should make it possible to face directly and collectively the question of how to secure necessary effort so that all human needs are met and each can live freely.
One of the virtues of socialist speculation about abolishing wage labor should be that it clarifies the real conditions of our existence. It is an illusion of capitalist society that labor choices can be purely individual and voluntary. Socialist analysis should make it possible to face directly and collectively the question of how to secure necessary effort so that all human needs are met and each can live freely. That is why the category of necessary labor can and should be a part of socialist thinking, distinct from the historically specific form of wage labor that necessary labor takes under capitalism. Yet for all the discussion of how wage labor makes bullshit jobs seem necessary while concealing the necessity of much unpaid labor, the post-work socialists avoid taking the final clarifying step of separating out the concept of necessary labor from other concepts like paid work, work, and labor. Abolishing wage labor or even the value form does not mean we can also abolish the problem of how to organize and secure labor contributions of specific sorts — all implications to the contrary are deceptive.
Counterarguments: Automation, Globalization, and the Arbitrary Class of Idlers
What if we could avoid the problem of necessary labor entirely by automating production? Can’t machines replace human beings? If we are being truly utopian, then we should consider the most attractive and purest realization of socialist ideals of freedom. Why not think machines will do virtually all the hard work of producing basic goods that people buy or just consume on demand? Recent technological improvements in areas like robotics and computerization appear to offer the prospect of full automation — that is, not just automation of this or that sector but the full replacement of human labor with machines. In principle, something like fully automated luxury communism looks like the horizon of human freedom.
Automation will be a valuable but subordinate and only ever partial feature of an emancipated society.
While there is no doubt that machines have led to enormous increases in labor productivity and that they have the potential to eliminate a great deal of drudgery without reducing living standards, we cannot automate away the problem of necessary labor. I cannot fully explain here why I think full automation is not possible even in principle and, if it were, why it would be undesirable. For now, it is worth noting that automation can’t solve the necessary labor problem because (a) some kinds of necessary labor, like education and health care and childcare, cannot be fully automated; (b) some kinds of necessary labor, from construction to agriculture, might in principle be fully automatable but not in the near or even moderate-distance future; (c) many kinds of automation eliminate some tasks but create new ones that require human beings; and (d) machines have to be monitored and repaired, so even where machines do fully replace human beings, the necessary labor of maintenance remains. Not to mention, we cannot automate automation. Automating our way out of work still presupposes some collective capacity to engage in the relevant social decisions about what to automate. Automation will be a valuable but subordinate and only ever partial feature of an emancipated society.
Separating Production and Consumption: Globalization and Deindustrialization
If automation won’t eliminate necessary labor, post-work UBI proponents could appeal to another solution: separate the community of consumers from the community of producers. If those who receive the UBI are not identical with those who work, then it would be true that all those who receive the UBI would not be forced to work — but only because others are doing the necessary labor to produce the goods that people buy with the UBI. The UBI is nearly always presented as a national entitlement program. It is conceivable that all members of a single nation could be emancipated from the pressures of the labor market if they receive a UBI and then buy basic goods that none of them were forced to produce because they were produced outside that nation-state. The freedom from work of UBI recipients here presupposes the labor of a global proletariat.
“Post-workism in one country” is hardly an emancipatory vision for the socialist left. It is hard to believe any UBI proponent would accept this solution, since it is so incompatible with left egalitarianism and internationalism. But I do believe the global division of labor has played an unspoken role in papering over the economic deception regarding whether and in what ways a UBI presupposes the labor it supposedly emancipates us from. Globalization has created a kind of material basis for mystifying the relationship between consumption and production because so much of what national consumers buy is produced outside their nation-state.
The freedom from work of UBI recipients presupposes the labor of a global proletariat.
After all, it is hard to credit productivity-enhancing technologies for making a post-work leisure society seem feasible. As Benanav has pointed out, recent decades have seen a decline in productivity growth rates alongside a persistent underdemand for labor. There has been immense growth in the global labor supply and increased circulation of basic commodities produced abroad. In the context of deindustrialization in core countries and globalization of the division of labor, it has become possible for some to imagine a world in which “we” can consume goods that we do not have to produce, since the nation of consumers is separated from the world of producers. The nation of consumers in rich countries do much less producing domestically, with a much smaller and more efficient domestic labor force. And an increasing share of the labor done domestically looks strictly unnecessary — like a burgeoning service sector catering to the exaggerated needs of the wealthy. The changing composition of domestic labor in rich countries, coupled with the expansion of basic goods production in the Global South, has been the tacit background rather than the explicit foreground for UBI discussions. But it does mean that one thing making a post-work socialist utopia seem feasible is that it involves extending and radicalizing the current global division of labor.
The Arbitrary Class of Idlers
The separation of the nation of consumers from the world of producers is just the most disconcerting version of a general concern one might have about post-workism: in practice, UBI solves the problem of necessary labor by creating an arbitrary class of idlers next to an equally arbitrary class of workers. Those who live off their UBI without working would be able to do so only because others make the goods that the nonworkers buy. While some UBI proponents have been willing to defend the proposition that in their ideal world some would work while others wouldn’t, they have never presented this as a solution to how to allocate necessary labor. They instead present this as a free choice among different lifestyles, preferences, or visions of the good life. The “Lazy” might surf and the “Crazy” might work — to use Philipe Van Parijs’s famous terminology — but, so it is said, each is choosing freely how to use their time. Yet it is only the case that both Crazy and Lazy could have chosen not to work and still have access to basic goods if somewhere in the unacknowledged background somebody else — Hazy — was doing or was ready to do the necessary labor.
Without a credible answer to how the necessary labor will get done, post-work thinkers are vulnerable to the critique that a UBI could only be maintained by creating an arbitrary class of idlers maintained by an equally arbitrary class of workers.
Again, the point is not that antiwork thinkers would accept the creation of an arbitrary class of idlers on the national or global scale if they squarely faced the problem of necessary labor. Rather, they don’t acknowledge the scope and nature of the problem in the first place. They do not integrate into their thinking the way a UBI presupposes a significant amount of necessary labor, they give no account of who will do that labor or why, and they instead present the UBI as an emancipation from the necessity of working. Without a credible answer to how the necessary labor will get done, they are vulnerable to the critique that a UBI could only be maintained by creating an arbitrary class of idlers maintained by an equally arbitrary class of workers.
Conclusion: What Is Left of Freedom?
In a telling passage, Frase writes that imagining a society of pure automation in which “all need for human labor in the production process can be eliminated” is a useful heuristic because it puts to one side important but secondary questions. “I assume all human labor away to avoid entangling myself in a debate that has bedeviled the Left ever since the Industrial Revolution: how postcapitalist society would manage labor and production, in the absence of capitalist bosses with control over the means of production.” Frase is more honest than most about the fact that he is putting this question aside, but it is a problem that besets all the arguments that imagine a future society in which people are freed from work by handing them a UBI. Much of the Left dreams of a society in which the need for labor can be imagined away, or at least of a society where all pressure to work is gone.
Let us take a step back and draw together the ways in which the post-work image of a liberated society cannot avoid the problem of necessary labor. Recall the first basic point that for a UBI to be emancipating, it must presuppose the very labor it claims to emancipate us from: Who would produce the goods that we buy with our unconditional incomes? This is a complex institutional problem that would have to be solved prior to any distributive policy. But the post-work vision includes no such institutions and appears incompatible with them. Further, there is no reason to think that enough people would be willing to do the necessary labor, because all sources of labor supply — force, economic need, cultural obligation — will have been eliminated. Worse yet, expanded human needs, for means of production and not just consumption, would increase the amount of production required for full social freedom. For people to enjoy free time, they would need more than the absence of being forced to work. They need the resources to make use of that time. Necessary labor, as a fact, a political question, and a cultural problem, continuously reappears.
The Left can only look obtuse and disconnected when it gives no account of why necessary labor would get done while claiming to free everyone from any pressure to work.
These are not mere theoretical problems; they are politically damaging for the Left. Post-work socialists tend to see majority resistance to a UBI as cultural confusion or capitalist ideology, rather than as a reasonable response by those who think that we can’t just imagine away questions about how to organize and distribute work. Even in its right-wing versions, the thought that nothing is truly free isn’t wholly unreasonable: whatever we get for free, somebody had to produce. The Right distorts the fact that it would be unacceptable if nobody worked to argue that the class-based coercion of capitalism is acceptable and good. That right-wing distortion can seem more attractive, or at least more grounded, when the Left rejects outright the utterly reasonable thoughts that everyone should do some share of the work and that we can find meaning in work. The Left can only look obtuse and disconnected when it gives no account of why necessary labor would get done while claiming to free everyone from any pressure to work.
But if the post-work vision of work and freedom rests on a deception, it still might capture one important fact about work. Perhaps work is just a pure necessity, an objective and natural limit to our freedom. From that perspective, it might still be best to say that there is no reason to glorify, admire, obligate, or in any other way create an ethic around work. Perhaps we should still concede to the post-workists that the work ethic is an ideological device for binding workers to their exploitation.
But just because something is necessary does not mean it is unfree. What is necessary is also indeterminate. True, some work must be done. But which work, by whom, and under what conditions? The answers to those questions are normative and political, not natural or externally determined for us. The preferences, desires, and aspirations that count as needs are up for debate. Even something as basic as hunger, though a necessity imposed on us by our nature, is indeterminate. Which foods, produced by which people, should be available to meet our physical needs? And why limit our needs to physical survival? That has never, as we have seen, been the leftist view. We need full human lives, and we can decide to organize our society to make it possible to develop and realize our distinctively human capacities. Nature does not force us to make that choice — we have to make it, collectively and politically.
We need full human lives, and we can decide to organize our society to make it possible to develop and realize our distinctively human capacities. Nature does not force us to make that choice — we have to make it, collectively and politically.
If our needs are indeterminate, so too is the way we organize and distribute work. Yes, someone has to produce food and provide education. But again, that tells us nothing about who or how to do that productive activity. If work were mere nature-imposed necessity, wholly incompatible with our freedom, then there would not even be a history of work, or really a human history at all. We would not have different modes of production, nor could we see history as a process of human self-emancipation from economic constraint. That there is such a history is just the first reminder that we have a choice. But some choices about organizing work honor our freedom more than others. The choice to organize work in a way that honors that capacity to choose would point us to a specific mode of production. It would be one that made public and explicit the fact that a choice has to be made about how to organize work. Such a society would be one in which everyone has a say in how production decisions are made and everyone would share freely in the labor that has to be done. These are all background thoughts that have always informed varieties of shared labor socialism about why work can be free. It can be free when we accept its necessity. We become free not by escaping necessity but by taking responsibility for it. Accepting that necessity involves accepting not just that work must be done but that we must make a choice about how to do it. That choice, that facing of our collective freedom and of our responsibility for choosing, is just as necessary as work itself. Only capitalist societies have ever presented the illusory ideal of a society that requires no such coordination, in which all work is voluntary and we are socially indifferent to who does what or why.
The question is not whether but when work can be an expression of our freedom. I cannot lay out here the full conditions under which we can be free not just from but through work. But a few last points are worth making about the kinds of social freedom that a shared labor regime makes possible. One is that we can recover a piece of the post-work vision not by attacking the work ethic but by reconceptualizing it. In a society where everybody is ready to do their share of the necessary labor, nobody is forced to work. That is because, if someone were to stop doing what has to be done, others would step in and do it, meaning all the necessary work would still get done. Moreover, in a society where everybody is ready and willing to do their share as a matter of internal motivation, nobody would have to do all that much. The eight-hour day might become the four-hour day. That is the heart of the traditional connection between sharing labor and leisure in a socialist society. Sharing labor is the path to avoiding having to force people to work and to securing free time for everyone.
One is that we can recover a piece of the post-work vision not by attacking the work ethic but by reconceptualizing it. In a society where everybody is ready to do their share of the necessary labor, nobody is forced to work.
But sharing labor would not just be a means to free time or avoiding forcing. A society institutionally organized to share labor fairly would change the meaning of that work itself. It would allow work to become an expression of our solidarity rather than an activity used against us. Each person’s share of labor would truly contribute to providing everyone not just food and clothing but the conditions under which each had a noncompetitive opportunity to develop and contribute their talents. It would make each act of labor a direct contribution to others’ freedom. That would put each person in a position to do something they really ought to do. And making it a general social obligation for each to do their share would not express a predatory, alienating attitude toward a particular class; rather, it would be a fitting attitude to have toward each individual as a free person who can understand why they ought to do their share. We only expect people to fulfill obligations if they are free and rational beings who can understand what and why they might have a “contributive duty” in the context of institutions that share that duty fairly. The flip side of everyone sharing equally in necessary labor is that taking advantage of our opportunities for self-development would become something different than what it is today. Today, such opportunities are scarce and predicated on the exploitation of those who will never have their fair share of them. Whether we like it or not, each time one of us takes advantage of one of those limited opportunities, we participate in closing the door for others. We are not free to develop our own abilities without presupposing the class structure and domination of our society. But in a society that generates opportunities through freely shared labor, we acquire a new freedom: a freedom for each to develop themselves without preventing anyone else from having the freedom to do the same.
If we put these thoughts together, we can see that the freedom on offer is an integrated complex of different freedoms. A regime organized around sharing necessary tasks offers people freedom from having to do too much, freedom to work when one ought to not just because one has to, freedom for one’s work to be a true expression of our sociability, and freedom to develop oneself together rather than at the expense of others. This is a social freedom both because it is only achievable under specific social circumstances and because some of these freedoms are freedoms to express our social nature.
But none of this is possible if we view work as a pure burden. A mistake the post-work position makes is to think that the work ethic is ideological by its very nature. Ideology rarely works that way. In the case of work, capitalist ideology seizes upon something true about us and distorts it. People have good reason to think that, in principle, they ought to be ready to work, and they also have reason to think they could find meaning and even creativity in work. But under capitalism, the only way to satisfy that sense of purpose and solidarity is to find work under capitalist conditions. Capitalism seizes upon the reasonable, latently socialist sense that we should do our share and that we can get something out of work and distorts it into voluntary participation in exploitation. Capitalism even generates the reasonable response that we ought to just refuse to work or withdraw from it, even if collective resistance is futile. That is, in some sense, the general mood of our times, marked more by the individuated great resignation than by the labor militancy of the past. But that withdrawal is just as ideologically laden as the capitalist work ethic. It is a concession to a reality that is imposed by capitalism: that work could only ever be as it is here and now; that resistance is futile. The contradictions of our society make the contemporary antiwork ethic just as ideological as the work ethic.
Post-work thinkers make a concession to a reality that is imposed by capitalism: that work could only ever be as it is here and now; that resistance is futile. The contradictions of our society make the contemporary antiwork ethic just as ideological as the work ethic.
If the Left is to have a future, it cannot give up on work. It is not that we must make a concession to widely held attitudes about getting a job, finding status in employment, or having to earn your bread. Nor should we blindly celebrate work, insensitive to its actually existing form under capitalism. Rather, the point to hold on to is that the work ethic expresses, in a distorted form, a set of reasonable principles that could only find their real existence in a socialist society. A principled case for shared labor socialism can and should be made in a way that draws on and articulates these reasonable, popular attitudes. It can do so not by rejecting but by reframing the work ethic. A socialist work ethic built around doing a fair share of what has to be done, of wanting to share in decisions about organizing that work and take advantage of the opportunities for self-development, would support and stabilize a set of institutions that secure for everyone the freedoms they ought to enjoy. Then subjective attitudes and objective institutions would align. When we take collective and individual responsibility for the organization of necessary labor, the possibilities for human freedom do not narrow — they increase. Even necessary labor, when organized properly, can be something done freely.Original post