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Academic Special Session: Degrowth, critiques of work, and postwork politics

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Special Session proposal: ‘Degrowth, critiques of work, and postwork politics’

In the debate on degrowth and social-ecological transformations, the role of work is a central subject of dispute. The discussion mostly remains limited to notions of ‘sustainable work’ (UNDP 2015), ‘green jobs’, work-time reduction or job guarantees, as advanced by several ecological economists (e.g., Antal 2014; Jackson & Victor 2011; Kallis et al. 2013; Unti 2015). However, as work constitutes the central social relation of modern societies and is structurally linked to production and consumption, it is crucial to discuss its role in a degrowth society more fundamentally.

In recent years, a new discourse under the term ‘postwork’ (Weeks 2011) has emerged in academic research and popular culture, inspired by a long tradition of marxist, anarchist, and feminist theory (Seyferth 2017; Weeks 2011). Postwork as a concept is based on a profound critique of wage labour and the centrality of abstract work in modern societies. One main argument put forward by postwork scholars is that wage labour as central social relation is not a natural given, but a social construction unique to industrial societies and their mode of production, very closely linked to the imperative of growth. Although technological change could allow for much shorter working hours, these productivity gains mostly result in unemployment, or are reabsorbed into economic growth via the creation of more work. In a society where abstract work serves as the main mechanism for the distribution of income and social inclusion (Frayne 2015), people are moreover often forced to accept inhumane working conditions or meaningless jobs, just to ‘earn a living’ (Graeber 2018). In fact, work is the “institution around which our most oppressive power structures” are built (Paulsen 2013); it is characterised by levels of unfreedom that would appear unacceptable if exercised in the political realm. However, it is not only economic necessity that urges people to work, but also a strong work ethic. In industrial culture, work is commonly conceived as an end in itself and a moral obligation, constituting an important source of social recognition and identity construction (Weber 2005 [1920]; Frayne 2015). In this sense, postwork criticises the glorification of work and productivism as such, not only wage labour in its problematic societal functions.

Additionally to its radical critique of the work-centered society, the postwork discourse offers alternatives and imaginations of a variety of desirable futures without work. These political visions of a postwork society are based on ideals of autonomy, equality, human flourishing, and environmental sustainability; they promise economic democracy, emancipation and a richer life no longer subordinated to work. The most prominent political demands include an unconditional basic income, a fundamental reduction of paid work, as well as the according strengthening of social bonds beyond the wage relation, i.e. autonomous, non-commodified social organisation (Weeks 2011; Frayne 2015; Srnicek & Williams 2015).

The postwork debate offers a very promising perspective for degrowth. Most degrowth scholars are highly critical towards the commodification of more and more areas of life, the biosphere and social relationships to respond to structural pressures of growth and employment. In this context, it is important to note that ‘free’, unproductive time in which people are neither producing nor consuming commercial wealth is useless to growth (Gorz 1989). A radical shift away from work-centred societies is also in line with degrowth as it is in fact work that deprives citizens of autonomy, time, and skills to satisfy their needs otherwise than by means of resource-intensive consumption (paid for by money earned through employment fuelling the growth machine). Finally, to make the practices and imaginaries of work compatible with the necessary drastic reduction of throughputs, the postwork endeavour of radically questioning work, industry and productive attitudes offers a promising approach. There is, however, a strand in the postwork literature that might be in conflict with ecological concerns. Authors such as Srnicek and Williams (2015) envision a “world without work” in which essentially machines take over most human labour. This techno-optimistic approach fails to factor in the material and energetic inputs required for work based on full automation. Nevertheless, similar perspectives are often voiced in degrowth debates as well and therefore require critical attention.

In this session, facilitated by an interdisciplinary group of researchers from all over Europe, we aim at exploring the concept of postwork in relation to degrowth, thereby advancing both degrowth and postwork debates by introducing important perspectives to each. After the four inputs, there will be time for an interactive, inclusive and in-depth fishbowl discussion, encouraging all participants to share their knowledge and ideas on the futures of work.