Full automation and the end of work? That's no utopia - RSA

Full automation and the end of work? That's no utopia

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  • Picture of Benedict Dellot
    Benedict Dellot
    Former Head of the RSA Future Work Centre and Associate Director
  • Economics and Finance
  • Employment

A new book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams takes aim at the left’s unambitious folk politics and calls for a grand project to rival that of neoliberalism. But does their proposal – full automation and the end of work – ring hollow?

“Where did the future go?”

So begins Inventing the Future, a new book offering a diagnosis as to why the left has been on the back foot since the 1970s.

Its central target is so-called ‘folk politics’, a set of behaviours and attitudes that, in the words of Srnicek and Williams, prize the immediate over the strategic, the everyday over the structural, feeling over thinking, and the particular over the universal. Think of the Occupy movement, the Slow Food campaign, protests against hospital closures and calls for local currencies.

Srnicek and Williams voice their dismay at how these relatively small-scale activities and the ideals behind them have taken centre stage in the left’s response to encroaching neoliberalism. The authors argue that folk initiatives like these are often impractical, overly nostalgic, too emotionally driven and impossible to scale. While real achievements are made, they leave the overall system and its fundamental inequities in tact.

Occupy is singled out for particularly bruising treatment. The authors criticise the movement for its lack of overt demands – for even revelling in having no demands – and for its empty slogans. Calling for world peace and bemoaning the extent of banker greed just won’t cut it, say Srnicek and Williams. They add that Occupy’s ‘horizontalist’ tendencies, which emphasise direct democracy and consensus in decision-making, paralysed it from the get go.

Are they being unfair about grassroots initiatives? Almost certainly. The Occupy protests in 2011 dominated the headlines for months and helped ingrain the idea of the 99% vs. the 1% in the public consciousness. It’s also inaccurate to portray folk politics as inherently unscalable. Worker co-operatives are presented as curious one-offs, yet they have a presence throughout the world and are underpinned by well-established systems.

Still, the authors are right that capitalism will never change without a concerted ‘hegemonic’ and universal effort, and that this will have to involve some action on the part of the state. It is easy to forget that neoliberalism was only able to take off because it used the powers of national governments to create favourable conditions – on tax, welfare, regulation, competition policy and so on. The state is as important to neoconservatives as it is to socialists. 

But what might the left’s grand project be? For Srnicek and Williams, the answer is to eradicate work in its current guise, aided by a policy of mass automation. The rationale behind their demand is that automation is already taking a significant toll on the labour market and the quality of jobs, and that we would be better off pre-empting the inevitable and making sure the obsolescence of work happens on our own terms. The authors further justify their call by claiming that, for most people, work is already drudgery.

Quite the eye-catching proposal, but is it possible and desirable? Srnicek and Williams make a convincing case that we are on the verge of a second machine age where automation will take on a new degree of intensity and scope. Advances in robotics, deep learning and pattern-recognition technologies are likely to upend more industries and eradicate well paid and low paid occupations alike – from legal researchers and journalists, through to financial traders and care assistants.

A debate rages on over whether new sectors will emerge to replace those automated out of existence – personally, I think so – but let’s park that for now. Where I take greatest issue with the book is in its overall critique of work. Srnicek and Williams portray the labour market in a devastating light, characterised by jobless recoveries, underemployment, precarious zero hour contracts, stagnant wages and mass surveillance.

Who wouldn’t want the end of work in these circumstances? The problem is that they overstate the difficulties facing today’s labour market. While it is true that real wage growth has been frustratingly slow, our economic recovery was far from jobless and the UK’s rate of unemployment now stands at a 10 year low (leading some commentators to call Cameron the ‘job maker’).

At one point the authors note there is a “widespread hatred for jobs”, and that across the world, only 13 percent of people say they find their jobs engaging. Yet the UK’s Workplace Employment Relations Study paints a far less gloomy picture. According to its surveying, 68 percent of UK workers are proud to tell people who they work for, 75 percent feel loyalty to their organisation, and 61 percent feel their job is secure. These figures could and should be higher, but it's hardly the stuff of drudgery.

It is not just that Srnicek and Williams take issue with the quality of work available – they also question the fundamental principles of work itself. As the book reads, “Our lives have become increasingly structured around competitive self-realisation, and work has become the primary avenue for achieving this”. And therein lies the rub for the left. To call into question self-realisation is to challenge basic human desires and enlightenment ideals. 

None of this is to deny that work is problematic for many. Sluggish wage growth and in-work poverty are extremely troubling. But that doesn’t mean calling for mass automation and the end of work is the answer. Rather than dwell on a thought experiment about jobs, the left should focus on the real avenues for economic empowerment – re-thinking models of corporate ownership, breaking down oligopoly power, and experimenting with new ways to distribute wealth (income, of course, is only half of the story). 

Srnicek and Williams are at their best when urging the left to reclaim modernism for a more human and progressive end. They say we need a new utopia, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s just that the one they present leaves us with more questions than answers.

Follow Ben on Twitter @BenedictDel




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  • On my earlier comment on the need for more attention to be paid to accelerating trends on inequality and exclusion in the jobs market, I think this piece from the inestimable Fraser of Allander Institute at Strathclyde University does the theme a service:

    Scotland's labour market: 'joib polarisation' and inclusive growth.':

    "Considers the phenomenon of 'job polarisation' or the 'hollowing-out' of the labour market. Explains that job polarisation is the process by which the shares of total employment accounted for by both high skill/high wage and low skill/low wage jobs have expanded relative to that of middle-ranked jobs, and argues that it is a major factor in rising household income inequality."


  • Must admit I've never heard anyone calling David Cameron the 'job maker; lots other things that are less flattering, but never 'job maker'. - I suppose it depends on what circles you move in.

    On the left's lack of response to neoliberalism, I suggest it's fair to ask what left? on Automation I believe that more recognition is needed in this blog piece about the (accelerating?) direction of travel. The plethora of developments opening up under the Industry 4.0 paradigm are hugely significant. If there is still something called 'the left' it is not alone in not addressing the implications, still less furnishing responses. That automation, intelligent machines, learning robots etc. are upon us and that society is failing to address it is illustrated usefully in, 'Leaning about Deep Learning, by Bob O'Donnel of TECHnalysis. He asserts that,

    "Weare now on the verge of this new reality with little generalunderstanding of what it is that artificial intelligence,convolutional neural networks, and deep learning can (and can’t)do, nor what it takes to make them work."


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