The text you are about to read will energize you. I took great pleasure in reading Livingston’s book, and I hope you will not deny yourself that pleasure. I first came across his ideas in the journal Aeon in November 2016. I read his article, laughed a lot, and looked for someone who could, despite its length, translate it for my Blog de Paul Jorion. Its publication in September 2017, followed by a response by Madeleine Théodore in December, brought over two hundred comments.
But what is Livingston’s argument? Does he say that work is an abomination and if we had an ounce of reason, we would never have learned to love it? Or does he say that there is no more work and that we should mourn it? These are, of course, different conclusions and their assumptions are different. In the first case, if we should never have learned to love work, then our present era doesn’t differ at all from those that preceded it, and our own stupidity – of which our love of work would be the confirmation – is a constant.
Why did we love work? Because, according to Paul Lafargue (1842-1911), Karl Marx’s son-in-law (and mischievous critic of his father-in-law), in his Right to Laziness (1880), we were victims of a plot, which Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), the slaughterer of the Paris Communards, himself summed up well when he wrote: ‘I want to make the influence of the clergy omnipotent, because it is they who propagate the idea that man is here to suffer, as opposed to the other philosophy, which says to man: “Enjoy!”’
But in the second case, where we will have to stop loving work simply because it has ceased to exist, then our disenchantment is like that of LaFontaine’s fox, who, as soon as he realizes the grapes are out of his reach, says, ‘I thought those grapes were ripe, but now I see they were quite sour.’
But, in fact, as you’ll see, James Livingston, the author of Fuck Work! (this was not the title of his book in English, though it is the title he would have preferred), doesn’t make this distinction. For him, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t like work because you knew for all eternity it sucked, or if you once loved it, but you’ve since mourned it now that it’s dead and buried. ‘Whatever, good riddance!’ he storms.
But in this ‘whatever’ will he fail to convince you, as he failed to convince me? I was not convinced because it does matter whether it is one or the other, as the remedy for each option is different. It’s up to you to decide whether what you are about to read here is the preface to Fuck Work!, or if it should be the afterword, to read once you have finished the book. In that case, come back to me then.
One could easily imagine a universe in which the benefits of the historical process of mechanization (which ranges from flint to artificial intelligence) would have accrued to all. I’m not telling you anything new when I tell you that has not been the case, that if the machine works to the benefit of its owner, then the one who has lost his job simply needs to find himself another job in an industry where human labour hasn’t yet been replaced by machines. For the employee, the machine has never been an ally, but as rightly emphasized by Livingston (following Lafargue), a rival. And today, the machine is better, accomplishing a growing number of tasks, faster, more reliable, and much less expensive than the human labourer.
The employee has historically been called the day labourer. It is important to emphasize this, because Livingston commits an error here. Let me explain.
In a sharecropping contract, for example, the owner of the farm puts the land at the disposal of the sharecropper. The sharecropper is then responsible for sharing the crop in a pre-defined manner, ‘fifty/fifty,’ for example. In this context, the labourer is the extra worker recruited by the sharecropper when there is more work to do on the farm, but who is dismissed as soon as the workload returns to normal. In exchange, he is paid in proportion to the time during which he rented out his labour. The labourer’s fate is indifferent to the vagaries of a good or bad crop, which affects the owner and the sharecropper. It is precarious employment, therefore, for this labourer is hired and fired without justification; but he receives a ‘rent’ of a fixed amount based on his labour.
Livingston’s error is that he doesn’t see the corporation within the context of sharecropping, that is, with the investor in the position of the landowner and the managers of the enterprise in the position of the sharecropper, very naturally, not as the result of any scheme or conspiracy. He sees the corporation as a sort of helping hand, whereas in fact it inserted itself into a long and well-established tradition. He writes
In the 1880s and 1890s, capitalists tried nearly everything. What ultimately worked was the corporation, a bureaucratic solution to a socioeconomic crisis. But the corporation was founded upon the separation of ownership and supervision. The capitalists condemned themselves to social death by entrusting the fundamental decisions regarding production and distribution to salaried managers who were obviously not owners. This was just as their aristocratic predecessors had lent their land to commoners and thus confronted the social crisis of late feudalism, and condemned themselves to a slow social death.
But Livingston forgets that the development of stock options by the McKinsey company in the mid-1970s created a holy alliance between the ‘salaried leaders’ of the enterprise and the ‘owners of property.’ Through the price of the firm’s stock, their interests were aligned with each other.
Following Marx, Livingston recalls a period when an extra injection of capital allowed industrialists to buy more machines, which gave them the opportunity to replace some of their employees. But there was also a parallel movement, elsewhere in the economy, to recruit manpower to build the machines themselves. Today, the economy mobilizes more capital to create machines, robots, software, or algorithms than it does to create new jobs for humans. But we have now reached the limits. There isn’t sufficient consumer power to purchase in sufficient quality so as to inject more capital into the economy. And as for the ‘real’ economy, we see a rise in dividends for shareholders, and bonuses for management, of occasionally staggering amounts. When the corporation runs short of imagination, it can always redeem its own shares. Worse still, when it doesn’t know what to do with its cash, the corporation entrusts this money to hedge funds, which create a systemic risk that weakens the financial system as a whole, and therefore the economy.
Yes, an increase in wages would allow the economy to absorb greater demand, but that in and of itself would also be an incentive for industrialists to mechanize even more, since the comparison between rising wages and the cost of replacing humans with robots, software, and algorithms is not favourable to humans (such a rise in wages isn’t reflected in the price of mechanization because it has no need for a workforce), an observation already made by Lafargue.
One answer to the harmful social consequences of the disappearance of human labour could be the reduction of the work week. But this, too, has its limits and disadvantages. Imagine that we go to the 30-hour week and then to the 20-hour week. This supposes that there is a purely quantitative solution to the question of the work that robots, automation, and software eliminate. But the question is in fact an essentially qualitative one; it does not arise in the case of swapping out a pound of potatoes for any other pound of potatoes. There is no purely quantitative equivalence between one hour of work in one area of the economy and one hour of work in another area. Thus, it makes no economic sense to cut to 20 hours of work per week for an artificial intelligence programmer on the basis of sharing work hours across the economy, as her expertise is very much sought after. Reduce the week of storekeepers, sure. But as it is, we must recognize that robots already exist that can do the same job, faster, with fewer mistakes, and much cheaper. If we can reduce the working hours of the storekeepers, let’s be frank, it is because they are obsolete, and they, as employees, are already condemned.
Livingston offers up statistics relating the position of American workers as compared to the poverty line. So, he says, a full one-quarter of ‘full-time’ adult workers fall below this line. At present, 20% of American household income comes from entitlements from Social Security. Without this, a full half of the American population would be below the poverty line. His verdict is final: the ordinary employee is already subsidized and the trend suggests that things will only get worse in the future.
Okay, but what about France?
At first glance, the figures are comparable since we must note that 14% of all people in France are below the poverty line, as opposed to 13% in the United States. A thorough study would reveal, however, whether these percentages are truly comparable, as the poverty line is calculated very differently in the two countries. In France, ‘poor’ is defined as a person whose income is 60% less than the median income, which divides the population into two, one earning more, the other earning less. In the United States, the poverty line is the culmination of a complicated calculation that focuses on spending more than one-third of household net income on food-related expenditures.
Livingston, as we shall see, shows the unanimity from left to right in favor of full employment, a craze that remains popular, despite recent events. To argue today that nothing has changed, that everything is as before in the labour market, and that we can always hope to achieve full employment, stems in the best-case scenario from naïveté based upon the presupposition of an immutable order, as sometimes expressed by trade unionists, for whom the ‘world of work’ is forever cast in iron. In the worst case, it is based on the bad faith of one in whose eyes the subject of employment no longer deserves to be taken seriously because it is now a simple question of order: what to do with all of those who have already lost their jobs, or who will lose them soon, and who will never find new jobs?
What led Keynes, then, to make full employment the goal of a generation, namely that of the Great Depression? One reason was that if it was not possible to reach a consensus politically that would lead to general happiness, it was possible to go in the opposite direction, to minimize the misfortune of all. In this framework, one thinks of what produces the greatest resentment in the population and then tries to eliminate it. Thus Keynes insisted on full employment which was for him, in that time and place, the ideal means of achieving this end. Reducing misfortune as much as possible was a political, not an economic, solution. It is entirely possible that a purely economic basis of rationality would lead us to another conclusion than full employment, Keynes noted. But no matter, we are talking about human societies, made of men, women, and children, and not of a universe of material objects whose fates should be indifferent to us.
So what would be the equivalent today of full employment, from the perspective of trying to minimize resentment amongst populations? The answer seems obvious: a world without money. As an intermediate step in the transition to this ideal world, one can imagine that indispensable products and services would be provided to all for free. I personally advocate this as an alternative to universal income, as it does not create an incentive for consumption and the destruction of the planet is taken into account. This also protects against the greed of our financial system and economy.
Livingston also notes that same political consensus that an RSA or universal basic income program could only be worthwhile if it does not discourage recipients from seeking employment.
Is it his reconciliation with the observation that work disappears, in the manner of Lafontaine’s fox and the grapes, or a fundamental opposition to the dogma of work as a necessity of the human condition, as is found in Lafargue’s The Right to Laziness, when he writes: ‘They do not yet understand that the machine is the redeemer of humanity, the God who will redeem man from sordidæ artes [literally translates as ‘dirty tricks’ from Latin] and wage labour, the God who will give him leisure and freedom?’
As you shall see, Livingston recalls that the idea of a basic universal income is not new. As early as 1964, in an open letter to President Johnson, the influential group Students for a Democratic Society emphasized that ‘it is essential to recognize the that the traditional link between jobs and income is broken.’ The emphasis was on the fact that only a war economy still allowed for full employment. Two years later, in 1966, Johnson’s National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress wrote in its report: ‘We suggest that Congress seriously consider a “minimum income allowance” or a “negative income tax.”’ A negative income tax means that instead of simply exempting households whose incomes does not reach a certain level from taxation, those who are under the bar receive a compensatory allowance.
But while he advocates a basic universal income, Livingston is not at all concerned with the practicalities of implementing such a thing. A group of researchers at University College London ran a costing exercise in October 2017. It compared the cost of a universal basic income in the United Kingdom to that of a ‘universal basic services,’ a free-of-charge approach of the indispensable. These basic universal services in the UK would cost around £42 billion, as opposed to £250 billion for a basic universal income, or one-sixth of the cost. The basic service model would account for 2.2% of British GDP, as opposed to 13% for the universal basic income model. This latter figure is, of course, unrealistic.
Livingston explains the attachment to full employment in terms of the Protestant work ethic—the ideal of the self-realization of the worker who, if he is not yet independent because he is always employed, nonetheless aspires to be independent. Having overcome the obstacle, he will be his own master and flourish in his confrontation with the world, or in his confrontation ‘with Nature,’ to use the words of William James (1842-1910), one of the founders of modern psychology. Livingston cites James’ 1909 text, The Moral Equivalent of War: ‘If now – and this is my idea – there was, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the youthful population for a number of years for a part of the army enlisted against Nature…our golden youth would be mobilized, according to their choice, to coal and iron mines, freight trains, fishing fleets in December, washing dishes, linens, and windows, building roads and tunnels, foundries and fire hydrants, reinforcing skyscrapers, to have childhood extracted from them and to return to society with healthier inclinations. They would pay their blood tax, and have done their part in the immemorial human war against Nature.’
But the left, which has traditionally placed work at the heart of its values and ideals of generosity and sharing that are its source, is incapable of recognizing that work is disappearing and that in the future there will be less, not more. It does not deny the disappearance of work, it is simply that without it, the left falls into prostration, absolute silence, it simply does not know what to say. Livingston concludes, disillusioned: ‘They are all improbable prisoners – or should we say guards? – of the Protestant work ethic.’ The psychoanalytic reason for this stupor: ‘our eagerness to sublimate is, in fact, an impulse to produce a surplus…what I have called…the principle of productivity.’ This is no longer the Protestant work ethic, but the atavism of the squirrel obsessed with putting aside a supply of hazelnuts.
In the same way that is has been salutary for all of us (this is the condition for each of us, to be present here and now) that the reproductive instinct of the individual manifests itself in each of us for the species (whatever the source of distraction that it constitutes for us), it was beneficial that we lived to wrestle with the world to build up reserves, to bend our desire to make it different than it is: more comfortable, more in line with what ensures our immediate satisfaction – tasks for which we have ceased to be necessary, with machines now taking our place, to our own satisfaction.
A classic objection to the proposals of a deliberate disconnect between work and income is of the type: ‘Can the human race cope with the disappearance of work?’ But the question should not be put in these terms because the choice doesn’t really exist anymore; the disappearance of work is in progress.
Our withdrawal from work must take place: work is disappearing and it is imperative that we come to terms with this idea. If we don’t, we will continue to blame those who fail to find work in a shrinking labour market. If the question is not posed in these terms, then one possible outcome will be the elimination of employees, condemned to structural unemployment, which becomes final. They will be reduced to an idle mass, cumbersome to the eyes of the small minority whose income will be procured by the work of the machines by the mere miracle of private property.
All in all, however, Livingston fails to avoid the pitfall against which all goodwill has been shattered thus far: the problem of the human condition will be solved as soon as . . . human nature is amended to achieve a higher ideal. The solution, he says, is love.
Love, according to Paul of Tarsus, who said in his time all that there is to say:
If I speak the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophesy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. (First Letter to the Corinthians, 13, 1-18)
But we also know that, two thousand years later, these splendid words are just as incomprehensible to us as they were when pronounced, because if we admire them without reservation, we still do not know how to put them into practice.
When Josiah Warren (1798-1874), one of the founders of the American anarchist movement, wondered what had failed the highest ideals of the ideal city of New Harmony, Indiana, (founded in 1825 by 900 disciples of Robert Owen (1771-1858), the inventor of the cooperative) he wrote:
We had a world in miniature – we had gone back through the stages of the French Revolution, producing desperate hearts instead of corpses – it seemed to us that we had been defeated by one of the laws of nature, the Law of Diversity…What we called our ‘unified interests’ was in direct conflict with the individualities of people and circumstances of the survival instinct itself. (Periodical Letter, II, 1856)
The brilliant forerunner of science-fiction, HG Wells (1866-1946), the author of The Time Machine (1895), quoted by William James in his essay on The Moral Equivalent of War, said he was wishy-washy about the work and the army in this respect, because he was a pacifist at heart: ‘Here, at least, men are not deprived of employment and condemned to death because there is no work to be done. They receive training and training for better services. Here, at least, a man is supposed to access promotion through the forgetfulness of self and not through egocentrism.’
Would human nature be fulfilled only by the war against ‘Nature’ or by war itself? Or would it be necessary, feet firmly on the ground, that we more peacefully launch the young to conquer the stars so that the atavistic aspiration of the human race for exploration and colonization finds an outlet superior to video games and barroom brawls?
The solution that Livingston doesn’t talk about is this: the way we are going, we will have no choice but to conquer the stars if we want to survive as a species. We will have to feel terrifying trepidation at the start of the rocket, be tormented by the fear of the lack of oxygen, by the fear of seeing our eyes explode as a result of depressurization, in order perhaps to rediscover the feeling of living fully. We were not born to watch football on TV, or any melodrama over and over again. The tumult of the Trojan War that shook the world in its time, or the exaltation of the conquest of the Wild West from the incomprehensible and cruel occupants before us. From birth, we are exalted explorers of the unknown continents, navigators of oceans hostile to our explorations, winners of the unfathomable abysses and climbers of the inaccessible mountain peaks. The rest of the time, let’s face it, we twiddle our thumbs and get bored. But don’t worry, the new challenges will fill us. In truth, we haven’t seen anything yet!
 [Translator’s note: The Fox and the Grapes, or, in French, Le Renard et les raisins, is one of Aesop’s fables, but were recollected by the French folklorist Jean de la Fontaine in the late 17th century. De la Fontaine’s Fables are a classic of French literature.]
 [Translator’s note: The term Jorion uses is métayage, which translates as sharecropping. However, this refers to a French/European model which is akin to, but not the same as the American sharecropping system in that it does not carry the same baggage as sharecropping in this country.]
 Lafargue is a constant reference for Livingston, though he unfortunately does not fully cite him in Fuck Work!.