Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism
By Mareile Pfannebecker and J.A. Smith
Zed Books (2020)
In this book, authors Pfannebecker and Smith summarize the current anti-work movement and literature. In view of rapid displacement of blue and white collar workers by robots and computers, coupled with the offshoring of most manufacturing jobs, there are growing calls for an end to waged work altogether.
The chorus has only increased following the 2008 global economic crisis, which has caused a large proportion of young people to face a lifetime of precarious low paid, part time, and temporary employment.
The economic shutdown accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic makes a examination of the role of work especially timely. With the forced closure of non-essential businesses – and resulting bankruptcies – many analysts are predicting unemployment levels as high as 33% – or higher.
The first half of Work Want Work looks at the big change in the nature of work over the past few decades. The authors start by providing numerous examples of the monetization of non-work activities (eg the collection and sale of our personal data by Facebook and Google to corporate advertisers). They also delineate how more and more workers are required to perform tasks outside their training and job description – for example teachers are asked to identify potential terrorists, university professors to guarantee jobs placements, and doctors to manage health promotion.
The book introduces new terminology to help explain categorize these changes in the nature of work:
- malemployment – refers to work that fails to provide sufficient income to live on, precarious employment, work in healthy or unsafe environments, work falsely categorized as self-employment (eg the “gig economy”), and “workfare” (where recipients are forced to work at a sub-minimum wage to receive unemployment, sickness, and disability benefits).
- disemployment – refers to workers expelled from the economy (and society) when they cease to qualify for benefits.
- young-girlification – refers to the complex phenomenon enabling corporations to profit from the bigger-than-life persona people cultivate on social media and reality TV (eg YouTube and Instagram “influencers,” the Kardashians, and the Pope).
Examining what a post-work world might look like, the last third of the book asks what people will do with their new-found leisure time. Obviously we don’t want a system in which government and/or experts decide the best way for us to spend our time. At the same time nearly all have us have been conditioned by advertising and government/corporate propaganda to desire stuff that probably isn’t good for us.