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The long read: Times of upheaval are always times of radical change. Some believe the pandemic is a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. Others fear it may only make existing injustices worse

Everything feels new, unbelievable, overwhelming. At the same time, it feels as if weve walked into an old recurring dream. In a way, we have. Weve seen it before, on TV and in blockbusters. We knew roughly what it would be like, and somehow this makes the encounter not less strange, but more so.

Every day brings news of developments that, as recently as February, would have felt impossible the work of years, not mere days. We refresh the news not because of a civic sense that following the news is important, but because so much may have happened since the last refresh. These developments are coming so fast that its hard to remember just how radical they are.

Cast your mind back a few weeks and imagine someone telling you the following: within a month, schools will be closed. Almost all public gatherings will be cancelled. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will be out of work. Governments will be throwing together some of the largest economic stimulus packages in history. In certain places, landlords will not be collecting rent, or banks collecting mortgage payments, and the homeless will be allowed to stay in hotels free of charge. Experiments will be underway in the direct government provision of basic income. Large swathes of the world will be collaborating with various degrees of coercion and nudging on a shared project of keeping at least two metres between each other whenever possible. Would you have believed what you were hearing?

Its not just the size and speed of what is happening thats dizzying. Its the fact that we have grown accustomed to hearing that democracies are incapable of making big moves like this quickly, or at all. But here we are. Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better. The global flu epidemic of 1918 helped create national health services in many European countries. The twinned crises of the Great Depression and the second world war set the stage for the modern welfare state.

But crises can also send societies down darker paths. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, government surveillance of citizens exploded, while George W Bush launched new wars that stretched into indefinite occupations. (As I write this, the US militarys current attempt at reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan, 19 years after the invasion, is being slowed by coronavirus-related complications.) Another recent crisis, the 2008 financial crash, was resolved in a way that meant banks and financial institutions were restored to pre-crash normality, at great public cost, while government spending on public services across the world was slashed.

Because crises shape history, there are hundreds of thinkers who have devoted their lives to studying how they unfold. This work what we might call the field of crisis studies charts how, whenever crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear. In such moments, whatever is broken in society gets revealed for just how broken it is, often in the form of haunting little images or stories. In recent weeks, the news has furnished us with countless examples. Airlines are flying large numbers of empty or near-empty flights for the sole purpose of protecting their slots on prime sky routes. There have been reports of French police fining homeless people for being outside during the lockdown. Prisoners in New York state are getting paid less than a dollar hour to bottle hand sanitiser that they themselves are not allowed to use (because it contains alcohol), in a prison where they are not given free soap, but must buy it in an on-site shop.

But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and its never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world were entering become clear.


The pessimistic view is that a crisis makes bad things worse. People who study disasters and especially pandemics know all too well their tendency to inflame xenophobia and racial scapegoating. When the Black Death came to Europe in the 14th century, cities and towns shut themselves to outsiders and assaulted, banished and killed undesirable community members, most often Jews. In 1858, a mob in New York City broke into a quarantine hospital for immigrants on Staten Island, demanded that everyone leave and then burned the hospital down, fearful that it was putting people outside at risk of yellow fever. Wikipedia now has a page collating examples from more than 35 countries of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic: they range from taunts to outright assault.

In a totally rational world, you might assume that an international pandemic would lead to greater internationalism, says the historian Mike Davis, a renowned American chronicler of the disasters incubated by globalisation. For Davis, who wrote a book about the threat of avian flu in 2005, pandemics are a perfect example of the kind of crises to which global capitalism (with its constant movement of people and goods) is particularly vulnerable, but that the capitalist mindset (with its inability to think in terms beyond profit) cannot address. In a rational world, we would be ramping up production of basic essential supplies test kits, masks, respirators not only for our own use, but for poorer countries, too. Because its all one battle. But its not necessarily a rational world. So there could be a lot of demonisation and calls for isolation. Which will mean more deaths and more suffering worldwide.

In the US, President Trump has tried hard to brand the new coronavirus as inherently Chinese, and to use the pandemic as a pretext for tightening borders and accepting fewer asylum seekers. Republican officials, thinktanks and media outlets have claimed or implied that Covid-19 is a man-made Chinese bioweapon. Some Chinese officials, in turn, have pushed the conspiracy theory that the outbreak came to China by way of American soldiers. In Europe, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbn, recently announced: We are fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.

Nathalie
Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

When youre fighting a war, you want to know as much about the enemy as possible. But its easy, in the rush of crisis, to put in place surveillance tools without thinking about the long-term harm they might do. The scholar Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, reminded me that, prior to 9/11, the US government had been in the process of developing serious regulations designed to give web users real choice about how their personal information was and wasnt used. In the course of a few days, Zuboff says, the concern shifted from How do we regulate these companies that are violating privacy norms and rights to How do we nurture and protect these companies so they can collect data for us?

For governments looking to monitor their citizens even more closely, and companies looking to get rich by doing the same, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect crisis than a global pandemic. In China today, drones search for people without facemasks; when they are found, the drones built-in speakers broadcast scoldings from police. Germany, Austria, Italy and Belgium are all using data anonymised, for now from major telecommunications companies to track peoples movement. In Israel, the national security agency is now allowed to access infected individuals phone records. South Korea sends texts to the public identifying potentially infected individuals and sharing information about where theyve been.

Not all surveillance is inherently malign, and new tech tools very well might end up playing a role in fighting the virus, but Zuboff worries that these emergency measures will become permanent, so enmeshed in daily life that we forget their original purpose. Lockdowns have made many of us, sitting at home glued to our computers and phones, more dependent than ever on big tech companies. Many of these same companies are actively pitching themselves to government as a vital part of the solution. It is worth asking what they stand to gain. People have a hard time remembering privacy rights when theyre trying to deal with something like a pandemic, says Vasuki Shastry, a Chatham House fellow who studies the interplay of technology and democracy. Once a system gets scaled up, it can be very difficult to scale it back down. And then maybe it takes on other uses.

The prime ministers of both Israel and Hungary have effectively been given the power to rule by decree, without interference from courts or legislature. The UKs recently rolled-out coronavirus bill gives police and immigration officers the authority in place for the next two years to arrest and detain people suspected of carrying the virus, so that they can be tested. The US Department of Justice has, since the outbreak began, filed a request with Congress for a new rule that would allow judges to suspend courtroom proceedings in emergencies, creating the possibility of people being jailed without ever being able to formally object. Those of us who follow the police know how this goes, said Kevin Blowe of Netpol, a UK group focused on protest rights. These powers get put in place, and it sounds reasonable enough at the time and then very quickly theyre applied for other purposes that have nothing to do with democracy and nothing to do with public safety.

In a 2008 report on the legal aspects of pandemic response, prompted by the increase in pandemic flu outbreaks, a team of historians and medical ethicists assembled by the American Civil Liberties Union bemoaned a common tendency resurgent, in their view, since 9/11 for government to address public health problems using mindsets more appropriate to tracking down criminals. This suspicious mindset, they argued, ended up most affecting racial minorities and the poor. Tactics like these can make fighting the disease harder, by driving a hard wedge of distrust between government and citizens. As the report put it: People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.


Theres another school of thought that looks at crisis and sees glimmers of possibility. For thinkers in this camp, the example of the 2008 financial crash looms large. But where, from their view, 2008 led to defeat with the broad public giving up a great deal while a small few profited Covid-19 might open the door to political progress.

I think were just so different to how we were before we saw the aftermath of the 2008 crash, said the American writer Rebecca Solnit, one of todays most eloquent investigators of crises and their implications. Ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. Theres room for change that there wasnt beforehand. Its an opening.

The argument, in its simplest form, is this: Covid-19 has revealed the political status quo to be broken. Long before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus, people died of diseases we knew how to prevent and treat. People lived precarious lives in societies awash with wealth. Experts told us about catastrophic threats on the horizon, including pandemics, and we did next to nothing to prepare for them. At the same time, the drastic measures governments have taken in recent weeks testify to just how much power the state does have the extent of what government can accomplish (and quickly!) when it realises it must act boldly or risk being seen as fundamentally illegitimate. As Pankaj Mishra recently wrote: It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.

For years, in mainstream politics the conventional line on everything from healthcare to basic living expenses such as housing has been that even if the world has its problems, expansive government intervention is not a feasible solution. Instead, we have been told that what works best are marketplace solutions, which give large roles to corporations motivated not by outdated notions like the public good but by a desire to make a profit. But then the virus started spreading, governments spent trillions in days even going so far as to write cheques directly to citizens and suddenly the question of what was feasible felt different.

From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.

In her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit used case studies of disasters including the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 2001 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina to argue that emergencies arent just moments when bad things get worse, or when people inevitably become more scared, suspicious and self-centred. Instead she foregrounded the ways in which disasters opened up human reserves of improvisation, solidarity and resolve, pockets of purpose and joy, even in the midst of loss and pain. The book was not a call to celebrate disaster but to pay attention to the possibilities it might contain, and how it might shake us loose from old ways. In Solnits telling, official disaster responses had a tendency to muck things up by treating people as part of the problem to be managed, not an invaluable part of the solution.

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Sometimes this mismanagement is a result of mere incompetence other times it is more sinister. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, the Canadian writer Naomi Klein laid out a dark account of crisis politics. In Kleins view, there is always Disaster 1 the earthquake, the storm, the military conflict, the economic slump and Disaster 2 the bad things that people with power subsequently get up to, such as ramming through extreme economic reforms or gobbling up post-crisis opportunities for self-enrichment, while the rest of us are too dazed to notice. (In fact, Klein argued, these people sometimes engineer Disaster 1 to get the process started.)

Unlike Solnits book, The Shock Doctrine doesnt have much to say about the resilience of everyday people when everything goes horribly wrong. (Indeed, Solnit directly criticised Klein for this omission.) But the two books fit together like puzzle pieces. Both address crisis not in terms of what inevitably or naturally happens as they unfold, but in terms of choices that people make along the way. And both were well-timed to contribute to the political conversations taking shape in the rubble of the financial crash.

In 2008, days after Barack Obamas election, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said: You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Todays leftists, for whom Obama mostly represents disappointment, are prone to agree. They feel that, in the wake of recent crises, they lost, and now is the time to make amends. If, facing a pandemic, we can change this much in a few weeks, then how much might we change in a year?

For anyone making this argument, the contrast between 2008 and the present crisis is striking. Compared to the opaque financial crisis, with its credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations, the coronavirus is relatively easy to understand. It is a dozen crises tangled into one, and theyre all unfolding immediately, in ways that cannot be missed. Politicians are getting infected. Wealthy celebrities are getting infected. Your friends and relatives are getting infected. We may not quite all be in it together as always, the poor are hit worse but there is more truth to the idea than there ever was in the wake of 2008.

In this, the optimists believe, there is hope that we might begin to see the world differently. Maybe we can view our problems as shared, and society as more than just a mass of individuals competing against each other for wealth and standing. Maybe, in short, we can understand that the logic of the market should not dominate as many spheres of human existence as we currently allow it to.

More people are in a position to connect the dots, Klein said. It has to do with peoples experiences; for people of a certain age, their only experience of capitalism has been one of crisis. And they want things to be different.


That screaming buzzsaw noise in the background of this conversation is the sound of the climate crisis. If 2008 is the disaster that Klein and like-minded thinkers want to avoid repeating, climate change is the much bigger disaster they see coming that they know is already here and that they want to fight off. Indeed, in the years since publishing The Shock Doctrine, Klein has made climate change her central focus, framing it as the paradigmatic emergency that must be wrenched from the clutches of fossil-fuel profiteers and their enablers in government.

Although Covid-19 is likely the biggest global crisis since the second world war, it is still dwarfed in the long term by climate change. Yet the two problems have suggestive similarities. Both will require unusual levels of global cooperation. Both demand changes in behaviour today in the name of reducing suffering tomorrow. Both problems were long predicted with great certainty by scientists, and have been neglected by governments unable to see beyond the next fiscal quarters growth statistics. Accordingly, both will require governments to take drastic action and banish the logic of the marketplace from certain realms of human activity, while simultaneously embracing public investment. In other words, to think of this new level of state intervention as a temporary requirement is to ensure that we continue barrelling down the path to climate disaster.

Weve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode and into emergency mode, said Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist who now heads the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization. What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode when they fundamentally accept that theres danger, and that if we want to be safe we need to do everything we can. And its been interesting to see that theory validated by the response to the coronavirus. Now the challenge is to keep emergency mode activated about climate, where the dangers are orders of magnitude greater. We cant think were going to go back to normal, because things werent normal.

The analogy between the two crises only goes so far. There is no getting around the fact that the impacts of climate change are more gradual than those of Covid-19. Most people do not feel they or their loved ones could die from the climate crisis this month, and so emergency mode is harder to activate and sustain. As Salamon pointed out to me, if we truly accepted we were in a climate emergency, then every day the news would lead with updates about which countries were reducing their emissions the fastest, and people would be clamouring to make sure their leaders were adopting the policies that worked.

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Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

But it is not unimaginable that the experience of Covid-19 could help us understand climate change differently. As the virus has reduced industrial activity and road traffic, air pollution has plummeted. In early March, the Stanford University scientist Marshall Burke used pollution data from four Chinese cities to measure changes in the level of PM2.5, a particularly harmful pollutant that attacks the heart and lungs. He estimated that, in China alone, emission reductions since the start of the pandemic had in effect saved the lives of at least 1,400 children under five and 51,700 adults over 70. Meanwhile, people around the world have been sharing their own anecdotal findings online stories of sweet-smelling breezes, expanded bike lanes and birdsong returning to neighbourhoods in a way that almost resembles a digitally distributed Rebecca Solnit project: people catching glimpses, in the midst of a disaster, of a future they know they want and need.

Alongside these hopeful signs, a far less heartening story is unfolding, which fits Kleins shock doctrine framework. Disaster 1: Covid-19. Disaster 2: the dismantling of even the meagre existing rules designed to protect the environment. On 26 March, following lobbying from the energy industry, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that, in recognition of the pandemics effects on the workforce, it will not punish violations of pollution regulations so long as companies can link those violations to the pandemic. Chinas environmental ministry has started waiving inspections that assess the environmental impact of industrial facilities. And advocacy groups funded by the plastics industry have launched a public relations blitz on behalf of single-use plastic bags, spreading the unproven claim that the virus is less likely to stick plastic than to the cloth fabric of reusable bags. Looking back at the crisis of 2008, we can see that emissions dropped then, too only to rebound drastically in 2010 and 2011.

Salamon believes that one lesson of the coronavirus crisis is the power of shared emotion, which has helped make possible radical action to slow the pandemic. Im not talking about people giving each other medical expertise. Im talking about people calling each other up and saying: How are you doing? Are you scared? Im scared. I want you to be OK, I want us to be OK. And thats what we want for climate, too. We need to learn to be scared together, to agree on what were terrified about. Only then, she said, would governments be forced to act. Its good that were entering emergency mode about the pandemic, she said. But unless we also do it for climate She didnt finish the sentence.


What kind of actions would it take for the optimists vision to materialise? The historian Philip Mirowski, author of Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, warns against complacency. The left thought it was so obvious to everyone that the crisis revealed the utter bankruptcy of a certain way of looking at the economy, he told me. And it wasnt obvious to everyone, and the left lost. How do we prevent the world from going back to a version of the way it was before Covid-19, with the virus vanquished but all of the old ongoing disasters still unfolding?

The political outcome of the epidemic, said Mike Davis, will, like all political outcomes, be decided by struggle, by battles over interpretation, by pointing out what causes problems and what solves them. And we need to get that analysis out in the world any way we can. One major obstacle, of course, is social distancing, which certainly hinders many time-tested methods of waging such struggles, such as political canvassing and street protest. The biggest risk for all of us, said Klein, is going to be frittering away this time sitting at home on our social media feeds, living the extremely limited forms of politics that get enabled there.

Davis hoped protesters would find their way into the streets sooner rather than later, and speculated that a street action with all the sign-holding participants spaced 10 or 15 feet apart would make a dramatic media image. He lives in Ppaaloa, a small community in Hawaii, and as our conversation wrapped up, he mentioned that he was planning to spend part of the afternoon doing his part by standing by himself on a street corner, holding a sign. He hadnt decided what to write on it yet, but was thinking about SUPPORT THE NURSES UNION or DEMAND PAID SICK LEAVE.

Solnit told me she was taking heart from all the new ways people were finding to connect and help each other around the world, ranging from the neighbourhood delivery networks that had sprung up to bring groceries to people who couldnt get out, to more symbolic interventions, such as kids playing music on an older neighbours porch. The Italian political scientist Alessandro Delfanti said he was finding hope from a post-outbreak wave of strikes roiling Amazon warehouses in the US and Europe, and also the steps that workers across different sectors of the Italian economy were taking to help each other secure equipment they needed to stay safe.

What happens next might depend on the optimists ability to transport such moments of solidarity into the broader political sphere, arguing that it makes no sense to address Covid-19 without at least trying to fix everything else, too, creating a world where our shared resources do more for more people. We dont even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological, Solnit wrote in A Paradise Built in Hell.

The world feels awfully strange right now, but not because or not just because it is changing so fast and any one of us could fall ill at any time, or could already be carrying the virus and not know it. It feels strange because the past few weeks have exposed the fact that the biggest things can always change, at any minute. This simple truth, both destabilising and liberating, is easy to forget. Were not watching a movie: were writing one, together, until the end.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/31/how-will-the-world-emerge-from-the-coronavirus-crisis

The long read: Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative

Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life especially in Britain and the US more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. Hard-working families are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.

In all these mutually reinforcing ways, work increasingly forms our routines and psyches, and squeezes out other influences. As Joanna Biggs put it in her quietly disturbing 2015 book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, Work is how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.

And yet work is not working, for ever more people, in ever more ways. We resist acknowledging these as more than isolated problems such is works centrality to our belief systems but the evidence of its failures is all around us.

As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty around 8 million people are in working households. In the US, the average wage has stagnated for half a century.

As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people supposedly the systems winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as working in a non-graduate role. In the US, belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement. (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)

Work is increasingly precarious: more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes; more corporate restructurings for those still with actual jobs. As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership for much of the 20th century, the main successes of mainstream western economic policy work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises. For many people, not just the very wealthy, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home.

Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they cant afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging what the American anthropologist David Graeber called bullshit jobs in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers telemarketers, bailiffs, and the ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working.

The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.

Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health: Stress an overwhelming to-do list [and] long hours sitting at a desk, the Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming notes in his new book, The Death of Homo Economicus, are beginning to be seen by medical authorities as akin to smoking.

Work is badly distributed. People have too much, or too little, or both in the same month. And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations. The crisis of work is also a crisis of home, declared the social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in a paper last year. This neglect will only get worse as the population grows and ages.

And finally, beyond all these dysfunctions, loom the most-discussed, most existential threats to work as we know it: automation, and the state of the environment. Some recent estimates suggest that between a third and a half of all jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence in the next two decades. Other forecasters doubt whether work can be sustained in its current, toxic form on a warming planet.

Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before. We know works multiplying problems intimately, but it feels impossible to solve them all. Is it time to start thinking of an alternative?


Our culture of work strains to cover its flaws by claiming to be unavoidable and natural. Mankind is hardwired to work, as the Conservative MP Nick Boles puts it in a new book, Square Deal. It is an argument most of us have long internalised.

But not quite all. The idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed and mocked and suppressed for as long as modern capitalism has existed. Repeatedly, the promise of less work has been prominent in visions of the future. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner. In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that in beautiful factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only four hours a day.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an age of leisure and abundance, in which people might work 15 hours a week. In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, the French social and economic theorist Andr Gorz declared: The abolition of work is a process already underway The manner in which [it] is to be managed constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.

Since the early 2010s, as the crisis of work has become increasingly unavoidable in the US and the UK, these heretical ideas have been rediscovered and developed further. Brief polemics such as Graebers bullshit jobs have been followed by more nuanced books, creating a rapidly growing literature that critiques work as an ideology sometimes labelling it workism and explores what could take its place. A new anti-work movement has taken shape.

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Illustration: Nathalie Lees for the Guardian

Graeber, Hester, Srnicek, Hunnicutt, Fleming and others are members of a loose, transatlantic network of thinkers who advocate a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater. They call this future post-work.

For some of these writers, this future must include a universal basic income (UBI) currently post-works most high-profile and controversial idea paid by the state to every working-age person, so that they can survive when the great automation comes. For others, the debate about the affordability and morality of a UBI is a distraction from even bigger issues.

Post-work may be a rather grey and academic-sounding phrase, but it offers enormous, alluring promises: that life with much less work, or no work at all, would be calmer, more equal, more communal, more pleasurable, more thoughtful, more politically engaged, more fulfilled in short, that much of human experience would be transformed.

To many people, this will probably sound outlandish, foolishly optimistic and quite possibly immoral. But the post-workists insist they are the realists now. Either automation or the environment, or both, will force the way society thinks about work to change, says David Frayne, a radical young Welsh academic whose 2015 book The Refusal of Work is one of the most persuasive post-work volumes. So are we the utopians? Or are the utopians the people who think work is going to carry on as it is?


One of post-works best arguments is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the work ideology is neither natural nor very old. Work as we know it is a recent construct, says Hunnicutt. Like most historians, he identifies the main building blocks of our work culture as 16th-century Protestantism, which saw effortful labour as leading to a good afterlife; 19th-century industrial capitalism, which required disciplined workers and driven entrepreneurs; and the 20th-century desires for consumer goods and self-fulfillment.

The emergence of the modern work ethic from this chain of phenomena was an accident of history, Hunnicutt says. Before then, All cultures thought of work as a means to an end, not an end in itself. From urban ancient Greece to agrarian societies, work was either something to be outsourced to others often slaves or something to be done as quickly as possible so that the rest of life could happen.

Even once the new work ethic was established, working patterns continued to shift and be challenged. Between 1800 and 1900, the average working week in the west shrank from about 80 hours to about 60 hours. From 1900 to the 1970s, it shrank steadily further: to roughly 40 hours in the US and the UK. Trade union pressure, technological change, enlightened employers, and government legislation all progressively eroded the dominance of work.

Sometimes, economic shocks accelerated the process. In Britain in 1974, Edward Heaths Conservative government, faced with a chronic energy shortage caused by an international oil crisis and a miners strike, imposed a national three-day working week. For the two months it lasted, peoples non-work lives expanded. Golf courses were busier, and fishing-tackle shops reported large sales increases. Audiences trebled for late-night BBC radio DJs such as John Peel. Some men did more housework: the Colchester Evening Gazette interviewed a young married printer who had taken over the hoovering. Even the Daily Mail loosened up, with one columnist suggesting that parents experiment more in their sex lives while the children are doing a five-day week at school.

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Piccadilly Square in London during the three-day week of 1974. Photograph: PA Archive

The economic consequences were mixed. Most peoples earnings fell. Working days became longer. Yet a national survey of companies for the government by the management consultants Inbucon-AIC found that productivity improved by about 5%: a huge increase by Britains usual sluggish standards. Thinking was stimulated inside Whitehall and some companies, the consultants noted, on the possibility of arranging a permanent four-day week.

Nothing came of it. But during the 60s and 70s, ideas about redefining work, or escaping it altogether, were commonplace in Europe and the US: from corporate retreats to the counterculture to academia, where a new discipline was established: leisure studies, the study of recreations such as sport and travel.

In 1979, Bernard Lefkowitz, then a well-known American journalist, published Breaktime: Living Without Work in a Nine to Five World, a book based on interviews with 100 people who had given up their jobs. He found a former architect who tinkered with houseboats and bartered; an ex-reporter who canned his own tomatoes and listened to a lot of opera; and a former cleaner who enjoyed lie-ins and a sundeck overlooking the Pacific. Many of the interviewees were living in California, and despite moments of drift and doubt, they reported new feelings of wholeness and openness to experience.

By the end of the 70s, it was possible to believe that the relatively recent supremacy of work might be coming to an end in the more comfortable parts of the west. Labour-saving computer technologies were becoming widely available for the first time. Frequent strikes provided highly public examples of work routines being interrupted and challenged. And crucially, wages were high enough, for most people, to make working less a practical possibility.

Instead, the work ideology was reimposed. During the 80s, the aggressively pro-business governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan strengthened the power of employers, and used welfare cuts and moralistic rhetoric to create a much harsher environment for people without jobs. David Graeber, who is an anarchist as well as an anthropologist, argues that these policies were motivated by a desire for social control. After the political turbulence of the 60s and 70s, he says, Conservatives freaked out at the prospect of everyone becoming hippies and abandoning work. They thought: What will become of the social order?

It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but Hunnicutt, who has studied the ebb and flow of work in the west for almost 50 years, says Graeber has a point: I do think there is a fear of freedom a fear among the powerful that people might find something better to do than create profits for capitalism.

During the 90s and 00s, the counter-revolution in favour of work was consolidated by centre-left politicians. In Britain under Tony Blairs government, the political and cultural status of work reached a zenith. Unemployment was lower than it had been for decades. More women than ever were working. Wages for most people were rising. New Labours minimum wage and working tax credits lifted and subsidised the earnings of the low-paid. Poverty fell steadily. The chancellor Gordon Brown, one of the countrys most famous workaholics, appeared to have found a formula that linked work to social justice.

A large part of the left has always organised itself around work. Union activists have fought to preserve it, by opposing redundancies, and sometimes to extend it, by securing overtime agreements. With the Labour party, the clue is in the name, says Chuka Umunna, the centre-left Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, who has become a prominent critic of post-work thinking as it has spread beyond academia. The New Labour governments were also responding, Umunna says, to the failure of their Conservative predecessors to actually live up to their pro-work rhetoric: There had been such high levels of unemployment under the Tories, our focus was always going to be pro-job.

In this earnest, purposeful context, the anti-work tradition, when it was remembered at all, could seem a bit decadent. One of its few remaining British manifestations was the Idler magazine, which was set up in 1993 and acquired a cult status beyond its modest circulation. In its elegantly retro pages, often rather posh men wrote about the pleasures of laziness while on the side busily producing books and newspaper articles, and running a creative consultancy with corporate clients, Idle Industries. By the early 21st century, the work culture seemed inescapable.


The work culture has many more critics now. In the US, sharp recent books such as Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Dont Talk About It) by the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, and No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea by the historian James Livingston, have challenged the dictatorial powers and assumptions of modern employers; and also the deeply embedded American notion that the solution to any problem is working harder.

In the UK, even professionally optimistic business journals have begun to register the extent of works crises. In his 2016 book The Wealth of Humans: Work and its Absence in the 21st Century, the Economist columnist Ryan Avent predicted that automation would lead to a period of wrenching political change before a broadly acceptable social system emerges.

Post-work ideas are also circulating in party politics. Last April, the Green party proposed that weekends be lengthened to three days. In 2016, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said Labour was developing a proposal for a UBI in the UK. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told his party conference last September that automation can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure a springboard for expanded creativity and culture.

It felt like a watershed moment, says Will Stronge, head of Autonomy, a British thinktank set up last year to explore the crisis of work and find ways out of it. Were in contact with Labour, and were going to meet the Greens soon. Like most British post-workists, he is leftwing in his politics, part of the new milieu of ambitious young activist intellectuals that has grown up around Corbyns leadership. We havent talked to people on the right, Stronge admits. No ones got in contact with us.

Yet post-work has the potential to appeal to conservatives. Some post-workists think work should not be abolished but redistributed, so that every adult labours for roughly the same satisfying but not exhausting number of hours. We could say to people on the right: You think work is good for people. So everyone should have this good thing, says James Smith, a post-workist whose day job is lecturing in 18th-century English literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. Working less also ought to be attractive to conservatives who value the family.

Outside the insular, intense working cultures of Britain and the US, the reduction of work has long been a mainstream notion. In France in 2000, Lionel Jospins leftwing coalition government introduced a maximum 35-hour week for all employees, partly to reduce unemployment and promote gender equality, under the slogan, Work less live more. The law was not absolute (some overtime was permitted) and has been weakened since, but many employers have opted to keep a 35-hour week. In Germany, the largest trade union, IG Metall, which represents electrical and metal workers, is campaigning for shift workers and people caring for children or other relatives to have the option of a 28-hour week.

Even in Britain and the US, the vogues for downshifting and work-life balance during the 90s and 00s represented an admission that the intensification of work was damaging our lives. But these were solutions for individuals, and often wealthy individuals the rock star Alex James attracted huge media attention for becoming a cheesemaker in the Cotswolds rather than society as a whole. And these were solutions intended to bring minimal disruption to a free-market economy that was still relatively popular and functional. We are not in that world any more.


And yet the difficulty of shedding the burdens and satisfactions of work is obvious when you meet the post-workists. Explorers of a huge economic and social territory that has been neglected for decades like Keynes and other thinkers who challenged the rule of work they alternate between confidence and doubt.

I love my job, Helen Hester, a professor of media and communication at the University of West London, told me. Theres no boundary between my time off and on. Im always doing admin, or marking, or writing something. Im working the equivalent of two jobs. Later in our interview, which took place in a cafe, among other customers working on laptops a ubiquitous modern example of leisures colonisation by work she said knowingly but wearily: Post-work is a lot of work.

Yet the post-workists argue that it is precisely their work-saturated lives and their experience of the increasing precarity of white-collar employment that qualify them to demand a different world. Like many post-workists, Stronge has been employed for years on poorly paid, short-term academic contracts. Ive worked as a breakfast cook. Ive been a Dominos delivery driver, he told me. I once worked in an Indian restaurant while I was teaching. My students would come in to eat, and see me cooking, and say: Hi, is that you, Will? Unconsciously, thats why Autonomy came about.

James Smith was the only post-workist I met who had decided to do less work. I have one weekday off, and cram everything into the other days, he said, as we sat in his overstuffed office on the Royal Holloway campus outside London. I spend it with our one-and-a-half-year-old. Its a very small post-work gesture. But it was a strange sensation at first: almost like launching myself off the side of a swimming pool. It felt alien almost impossible to do, without the moral power of having a child to look after.

Wheelbarrow
Photograph: Getty

Defenders of the work culture such as business leaders and mainstream politicians habitually question whether pent-up modern workers have the ability to enjoy, or even survive, the open vistas of time and freedom that post-work thinkers envisage for them. In 1989, two University of Chicago psychologists, Judith LeFevre and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, conducted a famous experiment that seemed to support this view. They recruited 78 people with manual, clerical and managerial jobs at local companies, and gave them electronic pagers. For a week, at frequent but random intervals, at work and at home, these employees were contacted and asked to fill in questionnaires about what they were doing and how they were feeling.

The experiment found that people reported many more positive feelings at work than in leisure. At work, they were regularly in a state the psychologists called flow enjoying the moment by using their knowledge and abilities to the full, while also learning new skills and increasing self-esteem. Away from work, flow rarely occurred. The employees mainly chose to watch TV, try to sleep, [and] in general vegetate, even though they [did] not enjoy doing these things. US workers, the psychologists concluded, had an inability to organise [their] psychic energy in unstructured free time.

To the post-workists, such findings are simply a sign of how unhealthy the work culture has become. Our ability to do anything else, only exercised in short bursts, is like a muscle that has atrophied. Leisure is a capacity, Frayne says.

Graeber argues that in a less labour-intensive society, our capacity for things other than work could be built up again. People will come up with stuff to do if you give them enough time. I lived in a village in Madagascar once. There was this intricate sociability. People would hang around in cafes, gossiping, having affairs, using magic. It was a very complex drama the kind that can only develop when you have enough time. They certainly werent bored!

In western countries too, he argues, the absence of work would produce a richer culture. The postwar years, when people worked less and it was easier to be on the dole, produced beat poetry, avant garde theatre, 50-minute drum solos, and all Britains great pop music art forms that take time to produce and consume.

The return of the drum solo may not be everyones idea of progress. But the possibilities of post-work, like all visions of the future, walk a difficult line between being too concrete and too airy. Stronge suggests a daily routine for post-work citizens that would include a provocative degree of state involvement: You get your UBI payment from the government. Then you get a form from your local council telling you about things going on in your area: a five-a-side football tournament, say, or community activism Big Society stuff, almost. Other scenarios he proposes may disappoint those who dream of non-stop leisure: Im under no illusion that paid work is going to disappear entirely. It just may not be directed by someone else. You take as long as you want, have a long lunch, spread the work though the day.

Town and city centres today are arranged for work and consumption works co-conspirator and very little else; this is one of the reasons a post-work world is so hard to imagine. Adapting office blocks and other workplaces for other purposes would be a huge task, which the post-workists have only just begun to think about. One common proposal is for a new type of public building, usually envisaged as a well-equipped combination of library, leisure centre and artists studios. It could have social and care spaces, equipment for programming, for making videos and music, record decks, says Stronge. It would be way beyond a community centre, which can be quite depressing.

This vision of state-supported but liberated and productive citizens owes a lot to Ivan Illich, the half-forgotten Austrian social critic who was a leftwing guru during the 70s. In his intoxicating 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, Illich attacked the serfdom created by industrial machinery, and demanded: Give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency from power drills to mechanised pushcarts. Illich wanted the public to rediscover what he saw as the freedom of the medieval artisan, while also embracing the latest technology.

There is a strong artisan tendency in todays post-work movement. As Hester characterises it: Instead of having jobs, were going to do craft, to make our own clothes. Its quite an exclusionary vision: to do those things, you need to be able-bodied. She also detects a deeper conservative impulse: Its almost as if some people are saying: Since were going to challenge work, other things have to stay the same.

Instead, she would like the movement to think more radically about the nuclear home and family. Both have been so shaped by work, she argues, that a post-work society will redraw them. The disappearance of the paid job could finally bring about one of the oldest goals of feminism: that housework and raising children are no longer accorded a lower status. With people having more time, and probably less money, private life could also become more communal, she suggests, with families sharing kitchens, domestic appliances, and larger facilities. There have been examples of this before, she says, like Red Vienna in the early 20th century, when the [social democratic] city government built housing estates with communal laundries, workshops, and shared living spaces that were quite luxurious. Post-work is about the future, but it is also bursting with the pasts lost possibilities.


Now that work is so ubiquitous and dominant, will todays post-workists succeed where all their other predecessors did not? In Britain, possibly the sharpest outside judge of the movement is Frederick Harry Pitts, a lecturer in management at Bristol University. Pitts used to be a post-workist himself. He is young and leftwing, and before academia he worked in call centres: he knows how awful a lot of modern work is. Yet Pitts is suspicious of how closely the life post-workists envisage creative, collaborative, high-minded resembles the life they already live. There is little wonder the uptake for post-work thinking has been so strong among journalists and academics, as well as artists and creatives, he wrote in a paper co-authored last year with Ana Dinerstein of Bath University, since for these groups the alternatives [to traditional work] require little adaptation.

Pitts also argues that post-works optimistic visions can be a way of avoiding questions about power in the world. A post-work society is meant to resolve conflicts between different economic interest groups thats part of its appeal, he told me. Tired of the never-ending task of making work better, some socialists have latched on to post-work, he argues, in the hope that exploitation can finally be ended by getting rid of work altogether. He says this is both defeatist and naive: Struggles between economic interest groups cant ever be entirely resolved.

Yet Pitts is much more positive about post-works less absolutist proposals, such as redistributing working hours more equally. There has to be a major change to work, he says. In that sense, these people want the right thing. Other critics of post-work are also less dismissive than they first sound. Despite being a Tory MP from the most pro-business wing of his party, Nick Boles accepts in his book that a future society may redefine work to include child-rearing and taking care of elderly relatives, and finally start valuing these contributions properly. Post-work is spreading feminist ideas to new places.

Hunnicutt, the historian of work, sees the US as more resistant than other countries to post-work ideas at least for now. When he wrote an article for the website Politico in 2014 arguing for shorter working hours, he was shocked by the reaction it provoked. It was a harsh experience, he says. There were personal attacks by email and telephone that I was some sort of communist and devil-worshipper. Yet he senses weakness behind such strenuous efforts to shut the work conversation down. The role of work has changed profoundly before. Its going to change again. Its probably already in the process of changing. The millennial generation know that the Prince Charming job, that will meet all your needs, has gone.

After meeting Pitts in Bristol, I went to a post-work event there organised by Autonomy. It was a bitter Monday evening, but liberal Bristol likes social experiments and the large city-centre room was almost full. There were students, professionals in their 30s, even a middle-aged farmer. They listened attentively for two hours while Frayne and two other panellists listed the oppressions of work and then hazily outlined what could replace it. When the audience finally asked questions, they all accepted the post-workists basic premises. An appetite for a society that treats work differently certainly exists. But it is not, so far, overwhelming: the evenings total attendance was less than 70.

And yet, as Frayne points out, in some ways, were already in a post-work society. But its a dystopic one. Office employees constantly interrupting their long days with online distractions; gig-economy workers whose labour plays no part in their sense of identity; and all the people in depressed, post-industrial places who have quietly given up trying to earn the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust.

Last October, research by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that UK unemployment is three times higher than the official count of those claiming the dole, thanks to people who are either economically inactive no longer seeking work or receiving incapacity benefits. When Frayne is not talking and writing about post-work, or doing his latest temporary academic job, he sometimes makes a living collecting social data for the Welsh government in former mining towns. There is lots of worklessness, he says, but with no social policies to dignify it.

Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In todays lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell. As with free-market capitalism in general, the worse work gets, the harder it is to imagine actually escaping it, so enormous are the steps required.

But for those who think work will just carry on as it is, there is a warning from history. On 1 May 1979, one of the greatest champions of the modern work culture, Margaret Thatcher, made her final campaign speech before being elected prime minister. She reflected on the nature of change in politics and society. The heresies of one period, she said, always become the orthodoxies of the next. The end of work as we know it will seem unthinkable until it has happened.

Main illustration: Nathalie Lees

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/19/post-work-the-radical-idea-of-a-world-without-jobs