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Academic Special Session: Degrowth and chronopolitics of work and play

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Special session: 'Degrowth and chronopolitics of work and play'

The future of work is the subject of intense debate. Artificial intelligence (AI), automation, casualization and deindustrialization all threaten capitalist and growth based work paradigms. In part this is because articulating concrete visions of the future of work without growth is extremely difficult: our lived experiences of both are bound up in the social relations of growth. And, (to misquote Frederic Jameson) it is easier to imagine the end to the world than to imagine the end of growth. But if degrowth is going to be a reality, we have to attempt to answer the question of what life might look like after growth. We have to begin telling compelling and desirable stories about work in a degrowth future.

In search for such stories and a concept of work in line with degrowth, this session covers various utopian visions and literature from a broad range of discourses and academic disciplines. The first paper deals with two abiding inspirations for advocates of Degrowth. It presents William Morris’ and Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian vision of work from a political science perspective. The second paper also reflects on Morris’ News from Nowhere, and further covers a critical utopian reading of land of Cokaygnian, from a political economy perspective. The third paper considers concepts of work and value from a history of economic thought and a motivational psychology perspective.

We look at how work has been conceptualized by people living outside the growth paradigm. Or, at least, people living within different forms of the growth paradigm. We can do this either by looking to past societies for whom growth was not the paradigm, or by looking to fictional worlds without growth. Put another way, before imagining futures of work and the role of play, it is useful to explore their past and alternative presents. The second paper argues that Morris’ and the utopian reading of Cokaygnian lack an alternative political economy vision. This is taken up in the third paper which starts from a criticism of economic value theory, and proposes an alternative concept of work inspired by the literature about “quality work” and psychological literature about work motivation.

The presented papers dismiss the concept of work as a necessary evil or curse. They deal with “good work” or “quality work” and highlight the relevance of voluntarily chosen tasks and activities. This aspect illustrates the importance of intrinsic motivation and play for a reconceptualization of work in a degrowth society.

Reflecting on work turns out to be an essential element for avoiding the fallacies of commodification of work and consumerism. We hope to stimulate thought and discussion that critically reflects on and helps us move beyond growth based conceptions of work.

1st Paper
Dr. Laurence Davis
University College Cork, Ireland

‘Work and Play in the degrowth utopian imagination’

Literary utopias explore both ‘what is’ and ‘what might be’, as well as the relationship between the two. They do so by means of a ‘speaking picture’ that surveys contemporary society’s norms, practices, and possibilities for change; portrays in some detail the principles and practices of one or more alternative imaginary societies; and enquires about the relationship between ‘what is’ and ‘what might be’ by considering the possibilities, effects, and desirability of various changes. In contrast to conventional normative political theory, which attempts to organise our beliefs about right and wrong into systematic moral principles and abstract political theories, literary utopias cause us to ‘see’ an ideal philosophical city by means of a feigned concrete description, quite a different achievement from a mere explanation of the principles on which it should rest.

In this paper I consider two literary utopias that have been a source of abiding inspiration for advocates of degrowth, William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1891) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), focusing specifically on their depictions of the relationship between art, work and play. My argument is that both books still have much to contribute to contemporary degrowth debates, particularly as a corrective to ‘post-work’ utopian theories which assume that work is necessarily a curse. In contrast, in both these literary utopias, work in the context of post-capitalist, post-industrial libertarian communist societies is portrayed as an entirely voluntary activity free of coercively imposed external restrictions, one generally regarded as a form of play integrally associated with sociability, festivity, and joyful artistic creation. Considered together, these utopian masterpieces suggest a feasible and compelling alternative ‘exit route’ from wage-based societies, one in which people voluntary choose to work not primarily out of necessity or a sense of duty but because they find it a pleasurable and intrinsically rewarding activity.
Keywords: work, art, play, utopia, Morris, Le Guin

2nd Paper
Mair, Simon; Jackson, Tim; Druckman, Angela

The Future of Work: Lessons from the History of Utopian Thought.

In this paper we look to two utopias that cross multiple points in time and space in search of lessons for degrowth narratives of work. The first of these is the Cokaygnian tradition of folk utopias. Characterised by a complete separation between work and consumption, Cokaygne is a land of plenty whose influences can be found in medieval French literature and Hollywood blockbusters. We explore various interpretations of Cokyagne, highlighting a moralistic reading and two utopian readings. The second utopia is News from Nowhere. Written by William Morris, News from Nowhere blends romantic and socialist ideas to argue that work can be meaningful and creative. We explore News from Nowhere in the context of Morris’s own experience of work and his rejection of an emergent consumer capitalism.
We then make connections between News from Nowhere, the various interpretations of Cokaygne and modern debates around work, highlighting several lessons for degrowth narratives of work. First, we argue that Morris’s prescriptions for making work good all hinge on the slowing down of production. This implies a reduction in labour productivity. As such Morris’s prescriptions for good work may allow us to provide good work for all, even in the context of a shrinking economy. More challengingly, both News from Nowhere and the critical utopian reading of Cokaygne argue that bad work is caused by the market relations that surround work in capitalist and proto-capitalist societies. Consequently, both Cokaygne and News from Nowhere suggest that to be made ‘good’, work must be freed from the market. However, the political economy of both Morris and Cokaygne fall short of providing concrete alternatives. Moreover, we argue that both utopias miss the fact that markets are not dependent on capitalist relations. Consequently, rather than removing work from the market altogether, it may be possible to realise their utopian visions of work through developing new relations between work, markets and society.

3rd Paper
Dr. Wolfgang J. Fellner
Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria

The Value of Time: Its Commodification and a Reconceptualization

The discourse about commodification of time indicates that under the current socio-economic regime important values get systematically ignored. This paper reviews literature about the value of time in classical political economy, neoclassical economics, the household production approach, household economics, and activity models. Starting with neoclassical economics, all these approaches are largely in accordance with utilitarian methodology. Utilitarian methodology turns out to be incapable of explaining the value of time. The debate about “quality work” allows us to identify the following intrinsic values: power, playfulness, a sense of meaning, and a sense of belonging. Along with these aspects of work the meaning of work has to be reconceptualised. Work has to be understood as an essential for living our human capacities. It cannot be reduced to providing purchasing power. Equally important, work is part of someone’s identity. Playfulness is another important aspect and value of work, which is closely related with the properties of work mentioned in William Morris’ News from Nowhere (addressed in the first presentation). We show that the identified intrinsic values match with the “five sources of motivation” in contemporary psychological research (i.e. extrinsic / instrumental motivation, internal self-concept, external self-concept, goal internalization, and intrinsic process motivation). This finding confirms the empirical relevance and irreducibility of these values for understanding behavior. We propose a definition of commodification of time and illustrate some of the potential effects of commodification of time.

economic methodology, theory of value, motivation, restlessness, identity, playfulness, power.