Automatic for the People

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond BY Daniel Susskind. New York: Metropolitan Books. 320 pages. $28.

The cover of A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond

In the downstairs bar of a Brighton comedy club, I sat with sixty or so activists clustered around tables to discuss the four-day workweek. They were participating in The World Transformed, a radical gathering held alongside the Labour Party’s annual conference, where the party’s left wing hashes out proposals that it hopes Labour will adopt. Indeed, by the time this panel met, a shorter workweek had already been announced by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in his floor speech. The people in that club, then, were thinking about implementation, as well as dreaming about what they’d do with more free time. A playwright with a day job talked of having more time to make art; care workers noted that it’s often clients’ needs, not bosses’ orders, that shape their schedules.

From Labour Party activists to dockworkers to mail carriers, workers’ demands are rising again for shorter working hours, tied of course to the increasing misery of work under late capitalism, where the labor market is bifurcated into a tiny number of extremely well-paid jobs in technology or finance while everyone else faces casualization, falling real wages, and declining benefits. But those demands are also tied to the latest wave of worries over automation and fear of what Daniel Susskind’s new book calls A World Without Work.

If you’ve been avoiding the news for the past decade or so, Susskind’s book kindly summarizes the situation: New technology, including what’s often (wrongly) called artificial intelligence, is improving at such a rapid clip that it is becoming better at doing certain kinds of work than humans. And as that technology continues to improve, more and more jobs are going to be automated away, rendering the people who used to do them obsolete. It’s the “robots are coming for your jobs” argument, and it’s often offered as a comeback to the “immigrants are coming for your jobs” nationalism so prevalent these days, missing the fact that the real threat comes from neither machines nor migrants but management.

Automobile manufacturing plant, 2008. Wikicommons
Automobile manufacturing plant, 2008. Wikicommons

Susskind traces the history of automation panic from the Luddites on forward in curiously deterministic fashion, filled with passive-voice declarations: “Whole industries were decimated,” he writes of damage caused by the Industrial Revolution. “Communities were hollowed out and entire cities thrust into decline.” But by whom, and how and why? That’s one of the major failings of Susskind’s book—he treats so much of history as a trajectory that simply happened, as if no human decision-making went into what kinds of machines to build or how to implement them in the workplace. He compresses the history of capitalism—with a bloody record of enclosing the commons, accumulation by dispossession, slavery, and rebellion after rebellion—into one where, “when machines drove human beings from a traditional life on the fields, those people transitioned into manufacturing with relative ease.” People, he writes, have “always struggled to agree” on what to do about inequality, and “almost all societies have settled upon the market mechanism” as a way to distribute society’s wealth. Of course, Susskind doesn’t have space to explain hundreds of years of history in detail, but descriptions simplistic enough for a social-studies textbook are unworthy of his subject matter.

When he turns to technology itself, Susskind is more willing to dig in to tougher arguments, parsing the way artificial-intelligence research faltered when programmers tried to replicate the human mind and showing how technology advances not by mimicking the way we think but by breaking down jobs into small tasks that can be handled with pure processing power. At times, though, this part of the book seems to take marketing copy at its word, breathlessly describing computers that can do caring labor by discerning facial expressions or tell better than we can if someone is lying (the question there, of course, is how do we know?).

Whatever we think of AI or self-learning computers, the real problem with technological unemployment is that it is unequally distributed. We’re already used to unequally distributed futures—the deindustrialized strips of the US and UK are constant topics of political debate, even if most commentators can’t be bothered to spend time there. But to workers with limited employment opportunities, it doesn’t really matter whether the work is going to a factory abroad or a robot down the street. The issue here is that there are too few options and workers have little power to change that fact. Susskind is aware of this, writing, “A world with less work, then, will be a deeply divided one: some people will own vast amounts of valuable traditional capital, but others will find themselves with virtually no capital of either kind.” In other words, the question of who benefits still comes down to the age-old question of who owns the means of production.

But those owners—whether they’re firing workers or influencing policymakers—almost never come into play in Susskind’s book. Instead, he retreats into abstraction—whether that means an overreliance on the “pie” metaphor for the economy or using the term “the economy” itself as a euphemism. The book will make more sense if you substitute the word capitalism for Susskind’s use of “the economy,” because the system of work Susskind fears is ending is the type of wage labor particular to capitalism. He is unwilling to follow his argument to its conclusion, though: that if technology can really do what he says it can do, well . . . the entire economic order just might break down. (There is also no mention of climate catastrophe in this book, a strange omission considering research that shows one of the drivers of climate change is how much we work.)

Susskind’s pretense at objectivity conceals its ideology. His reliance on an overused (and possibly apocryphal) metaphor—the one writer Aaron Bastani referred to as “peak horse”—is a good example. It goes like this: Horses were once the main form of transportation, so ubiquitous that cities were, according to legend, choked with their manure. Yet they were replaced by cars in a matter of decades. In the early 1980s, Susskind writes, economist Wassily Leontief predicted that humans could essentially go the way of the horse. New tasks were not created for the horses, Susskind argues, because “their capabilities had been exhausted.” It sounds like a neat explanation until you remember that horses worked not because they longed to find meaning in their simple equine lives, but because people made them work and then discarded them for fossil-fuel-burning engines, the obsolescence of which Susskind has no interest in. If workers are becoming obsolete, who made the decisions that made us so? Does Susskind think it was the machines?

This is what happens when the powerful—the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, the billionaires, take your pick—are airbrushed out of the picture. The fact is that technology does not develop along a linear path—an idea Susskind is very aware of when he’s discussing the researchers who developed the tech in the first place. It is created by humans whose research is directed by a series of decisions, many of them about funding. Tech is deployed strategically to break workers’ power as well as to streamline production. Engines were more efficient than horses because horses are temperamental beasts; humans are even more so, and, unlike horses, we have the pesky tendency to organize.

But organizing plays no role in Susskind’s solutions, even if he does acknowledge, finally, that “power is being used to increase inequality, but using it to do the reverse is possible, too.” Instead, he offers technocratic prescriptions for tinkering around the edges of a problem he also wants to paint as world-historical. His suggestions are, at times, laughably small-scale. For example, his proposal for a top income tax bracket of 70 percent doesn’t come close to where that bracket sat as recently as the Eisenhower administration, when it was over 90 percent. He proposes changing the business culture of accountants away from tax avoidance. And while even a couple of Silicon Valley plutocrats propose a universal basic income as a possible way to distribute wealth, for Susskind, a basic income needs to be “conditional.”

He has a technocrat’s preoccupation with individual intelligence—some people, he writes, may simply be unable to acquire the relevant skills to keep up with the jobs of the future. Such an assertion relies on the assumption that some inequalities are not only natural but just. It’s the centrist’s triangulation, acknowledging that “we” must act, politically, to make sure those lesser beings don’t starve and die in the streets for want of work, but not question why certain workers have been able to gain the things we call “skills” in the first place. And forget about believing that the people left out by automation could organize to change their circumstances—better to give them means-tested programs to make sure they aren’t gaming the system.

Susskind does wind up asking at least one of the right questions: What do we do if we don’t need to work so damn much? The argument that we inherently draw meaning from wage labor, he notes, is perhaps overblown; in the US, he writes, “almost 70 percent of workers are either ‘not engaged’ in or ‘actively disengaged’ from their work, while only 50 percent say they ‘get a sense of identity from their job.’” So maybe a world with less work could give us time to discover what we might really prefer to do? Susskind doesn’t dare to imagine a world beyond capitalism, but his dreamiest ambition—that “the daily lives of those without work are likely to be divided . . . between activities that they choose and others that their community requires them to do”—echoes, perhaps unconsciously, Marx’s famous line, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

The working people at The World Transformed had plenty of ideas for what they’d like to do with more time off and a detailed understanding of the ways in which technology had transformed their jobs. Postal workers—whose union had backed the four-day-week resolution—spoke about the surveillance tech that tracked their movements and the shift to more time outdoors as mechanical sorting systems replaced human hands. It was the union that had fought to shorten the workers’ hours and to distribute what work remained between more people. Technology, they understood, wasn’t neutral, but was made to control them as much as to replace them. They needed no enlightened technocrats to tell them what to think or how to fight for the world they desire.

Sarah Jaffe is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Bold Type Books, 2016) and the forthcoming book Work Won’t Love You Back.