Progressivism in Antiwork: Reform or Revolution?

Many long-term contributors to r/antiwork have concerns that the community is becoming too liberal, too centrist, and too far removed from its anarchist and socialist roots. New members seem more interested in slight improvements to the current system rather than they are in tearing down the global capitalist system.

To an extent, as a community grows and becomes more mainstream, this is inevitable. It’s also not necessarily a bad thing. As long as the original message of the community still has a loud voice, there is now an opportunity for that voice to reach a larger audience.

But that’s not really what this post is about; what I want to expand on more is how progressivism and reformism can be a path to ending work.

Let’s start with stating the broad aims of antiwork, which I hope should be non-controversial to people on the more radical side, even if it’s not as catchy as slogans like “destroy work”.

The aim of antiwork (as I see it)

To end work so that every person can use their time enjoying life, relaxing, and engaging in productive activities on their own terms.

But how can progressivism help with that? Surely only revolution can destroy capitalism?

I disagree, and think progressivism is the best path to achieving it, as long as we keep the end goal in sight. We must achieve incremental improvements, but not be satisfied by them.

Better hours is antiwork

If you can cut your work week down from 40 hours to 20 hours, you’ve halved your amount of work. (My fancy maths degree was worth those student loans.) That’s the greatest step towards antiwork since the two day weekend was invented.

For somebody in a typical Monday to Friday, business hours job, when you factor in commuting time, time spent getting ready for work, an unpaid lunch hour, and time spent asleep, they may only have three or four hours to themselves each work day. Consider laundry, cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks, and they have maybe two hours on these days to actually enjoy their life, if they even have energy for that. Halving their work day from eight hours to four hours gives them an extra four hours of quality free time. That’s a 200% increase.

Halving your hours may help you make additional savings on things like transport (if you’re working fewer days per week) and childcare. You’d have more time to cook, so spend less money on fast food, meal delivery, and restaurants. (And you’d be less stressed, so less inclined to comfort eat.)

No, shorter hours are not the full solution. But they get us part of the way there.

Better pay is antiwork

Even if your job gives you the flexibility to work part time, you may not be able to afford the pay cut. But increasing per-hour pay can give people the opportunity to choose to work fewer hours instead of making more money. As a simple example, if you were already making enough money to live comfortably, and your hourly pay suddenly doubled, then you could halve your hours and still live comfortably.

Better pay also helps you save more, and having savings gives you the financial freedom to take risks like starting your own business, where you, the worker, own the means of production. (Or even better, a co-operative or partnership.)

UBI is antiwork

Universal Basic Income is a policy that would need to be implemented with great care. There’s a very good chance that if every adult were paid a basic income of £1000 per month, landlords would just raise rents £1000 per month, and the people intended to benefit from UBI would effectively have no extra income. UBI does need to be accompanied with rent controls and strong protection against price gouging.

However, if implemented well, UBI is antiwork. If everybody had a guaranteed liveable income, they would have no incentive to stay in jobs which pay poorly or have long, inflexible hours. Employers would need to offer better pay and better hours (see above) to entice people to work for them. And with price gouging laws already in place, they’d need to pay those better wages by reducing shareholder dividend payouts and executive bonuses, resulting in greater income equality.

Like with better pay, UBI gives people financial freedom, allowing them to leave employment for self-employment.

Automation is antiwork (or it can be)

As much as we don’t like working, there’s always going to be work to be done. Right now it can’t all be automated, but technology is always improving, and who knows what will be possible in fifty or a hundred years?

As the cost of human employees rises, employers have more incentive to invest in automation as an alternative.

In the past this has often been a problem, as instead of resulting in an easier life for workers, it has resulted in less job security and greater income inequalities. Increased automation needs to be accompanied by more equal wealth distribution (possibly involving UBI) funded by wealth taxes and taxes on robotics and other technology that eliminates manual labour.

Co-operation is antiwork

An example I often use is two rival insurance companies. Company A employs 1000 sales people to try to steal customers from Company B. Company B employs 1000 sales people to try to steal customers from Company A. Overall, the effect cancels out, and a roughly equal number of customers flow in each direction. Overall, 2000 people are employed and work very hard, and the only effect they have on the world is annoying the entire population with phone calls trying to get people to buy insurance.

These are jobs which only exist because of capitalism and provide no benefit to the world.

What if instead, both companies were bought by their customers? So every insured person became a part owner of both companies and they merged. That’s 2000 people who can be reduced down to a team of about five people to provide tech support for customers who are struggling to buy insurance through the website.

Under capitalism having a single insurance provider with no competition would be a monopoly situation where the company could raise its prices and offer poor service and customers would have nowhere else to go. But if the company is owned by its customers, those customers have incentive to elect a management team who are going to offer the best prices and best services for the customers.

Co-operatives, whether worker-owned or customer-owned are antiwork.

Anticonsumption is antiwork

Something I touched upon earlier is that with more free time, people will need to waste less money on conveniences like childcare, fast food, and so on. And if you spend less money, you can work fewer hours. People can spend more time caring for their children themselves, cooking their own meals, and other tasks which they currently feel too overworked to do. This also has another effect though.

If people are buying less stuff, paying for less services, then fewer people will need to be employed to make, distribute, and sell that stuff, and provide those services. This is a reduction in work.

Reform beats revolution

The history of revolution shows that even when intended to be peaceful, they usually result in violence and death.

Let’s remember the broad aim of antiwork: To end work so that every person can use their time enjoying life, relaxing, and engaging in productive activities on their own terms.

You can’t enjoy life if you’re dead.

Reform is antiwork

Reforms like this certainly are not the only path to ending work. However, I hope I’ve shown that they are a path.

What is important is to not lose sight of the goal. When minimum wage rises, we can’t say that’s enough. When UBI is introduced, we can’t stop aiming for more.

Antiwork is a long term goal. The automation technology will take time. Building support structures will take time. Reducing the power capitalists have over society will take time. We won’t end work in my lifetime. We likely won’t in my grandchildren’s lifetime. But I do think that within decades, we will have made huge strides towards it.

And huge strides are what we have to make, because automation is coming whether we like it or not. There will be more people than jobs. We need to be ready for it.

The opinions expressed in this post are my own. And no, I don’t have grandchildren; I’m talking about potential future grandchildren.

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