Monday, August 30, 2021

Misleading title (2021)

Book Review from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wageless Life. A Manifesto for a Future beyond Capitalism. By Ian G.R. Shaw and Marv Waterstone. University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 131pp.

People who advocate a moneyless, wageless society of free access to all goods and services, as members of the Socialist Party do, would be likely to see in the title of this book an expression of support for this idea and expect to find in it details of how life in that ‘wageless’ society would be organised. However, the first few pages would make them aware, and perhaps disappointed, that this is not what is meant by the title. They would realise that ‘wageless life’ is not a way of describing the basis on which a post-capitalist society would be organised, but rather a reference to what the authors perceive as an ongoing development within capitalism, that is its inability to offer its populations wages to enable them to live.

That contention is neatly summed up by the book’s statement that ‘we live in a world sculpted by money but populated by the moneyless’ and is repeated in various different ways time after time throughout its pages. This wageless-ness of people due to their being surplus to capitalism’s requirements is seen as having begun seriously in the 1970s and as having intensified over the decades since, especially with the increased power of finance capital (so-called ‘financialisation’), so that now, we are told, ‘workers bounce between short-term jobs, zero-hours contracts, and other forms of induced precarity’ and most face ‘a jobless future’. As the authors see it: ‘Some of us are virtual paupers’, other are actualized paupers – but pauperism is our shared condition of oppression.’

Some may see this as an over-dramatic statement of the reality of advanced capitalism. Certainly other anti-capitalist commentators have taken different views of the effects of automation on the job market and the lifestyles of its wage workers. It should also be borne in mind that, even if the current development of capitalism may seem to be inevitably leading to long-run technological unemployment or at least wage stagnation and a proliferation of ‘bad jobs’, capitalism in its history has gone through numerous phases and crises and on the whole has managed, even if in an extremely uneven and irregular way, to actually improve living standards and conditions for large numbers of its wage slaves. In other words, current ‘trends’ are not necessarily long-term ones.

None of this however takes anything away from the authors’ thesis that we are ‘fundamentally pauperized under capital’, a system they characterise as ‘a war of profit against life on earth’. In capitalism we all scramble to sell our energies, ‘under conditions of duress and unfreedom’, as the authors put it, being denied our ability to control how we work, and so suffering an alienation that separates us ‘from the material conditions that enable humans to flourish’. They are undeniably correct to say that ‘we sell our time – our existence on planet earth – to somebody else, leading to a global division between those who sell their time and those who buy it’. And, among all this is their observation – especially striking and pertinent in view of the recent sporting events in Europe – that ‘distraction technologies and the entertainment industry sell us meaningless thrills to patch over the pain’. Their picture of modern capitalism is completed by a number of powerfully expressed reflections on the effects of capitalism on human psychology such as that ‘the keystone of capitalist realism remains the utter worship of paid work’, that capitalism ‘thrives on producing docile subjects who are alienated from their surroundings’ and that ‘we live in a society that prizes the most psychotic impulses of humanity: greed, violence and reckless individualism’.

All this constitutes a withering and irrefutable indictment of capitalism, which inevitably leads to a rallying cry from the authors for a different kind of society from the one existing today. Early on in this book they quote approvingly David Harvey’s statement from his Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism that ‘automation and artificial intelligence now provide us with abundant means to achieve the Marxian dream of freedom beyond the realm of necessity’ and tell us that ‘reversing the toxicity of the market economy has never been more urgent: to create alternative worlds animated by the ancient spirit of reciprocity, redistribution, and autonomy’. But what precise form will these ‘alternative worlds’ take? In this connection the authors refer to AndrĂ© Gorz’s Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society and his advocacy of ‘a culture-based society and multi-activity for everyone’, in which ‘work would occupy a much less important role in everyday life’ and ‘people would then be free to pursue other interests, either individually or in concert with others’. They declare the need for ‘rejection of hierarchy and authoritarianism, and a belief in collective self-management’. They talk about ‘decolonizing our minds of the entrenched common sense of what constitutes meaningful work and its connection to happiness, identity and self-worth’. They advocate the ‘right’ to movement across the planet, and a share in its resources’. And in the penultimate chapter entitled ‘Alter-Worlds: A Manifesto’, they stress the need to move away from seeing the objective of work as ‘earning enough to buy commodities’ to ‘working for the world’ and, in the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth, ‘fostering the expansion of our powers to think and create, to generate images and social relationships, to communicate and cooperate’.

To achieve all this, the authors argue, we need an ‘alter-politics’. The trouble is that, apart from abstractions such as ‘inventing a new economy that de-economizes exchange’ and the need to ‘threaten the capitalist system with mass demobilization’, to ‘build autonomous spaces’ and to ‘fight for the commons’, the authors do not seriously present what they themselves state as a necessity, i.e. ‘a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism’. They do not seem to contemplate that wageless, money-free economy which is readily achievable and can be voted into being if enough of us want it and in which democratic associations and women and men will engage in voluntary work and have free access to whatever goods and services they need because the whole society will then collectively own and control all the resources that provide these. In that society the whole nature of work will have changed, just in fact as Shaw and Waterstone advocate, since there will no longer be exploitation. People will no longer have to do jobs they hate because they need money — they will be able to do work they want to do and enjoy. And if there are some jobs that are less popular, there is no reason why more automation and the use of robotics could not take care of this. People will cooperate to do the work that makes society function and they will make decisions democratically – in workplaces, in their local communities, in their regions and, with some policy decisions, even globally. Above all there will be no more top-down control by leaders and governments and no more money controlling people’s lives, wasting so much of our time and energy and causing so many of the problems so eloquently detailed and analysed by the authors of this powerful and stinging critique of the capitalist system. This kind of society is precisely one that promises the ‘new social relations, new modes of economic existence and new collective worlds’ that the authors argue we should dare to imagine. So we would invite them to go a step further than they themselves dare to in their book and help to promote this vision of a society advocated by the Socialist Party and well described by another writer, Aaron Benanav, in his Automation and the Future of Work. He describes it as one in which ‘everyone can go to the social storehouses and service centres to get what they need’ and in which for most people it will be ‘the first time in their lives that they could enter truly voluntary agreements – without the gun to their heads of a pervasive material insecurity’.
Howard Moss

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