Ever since I attended Haunters and theHaunted I have been dwelling on the concept of ghost labor and ghost desires. This post will explore the concepts of ghost labor and ghost desires – or, to be more precise, according some thoughts I put HERE, phantom labor and phantom desires.
In this article The Guardian does what it does best. It criticises the ‘government’, an admirable endeavour, but forgets to make any substantial point in doing so. Indeed, The Guardian has perfected the fine art of hand wringing and brow furrowing – so much so one could be forgiven for thinking it is the end of its work and not the means to say or demonstrate anything else.
The article is concerned with zero hours contracts. It details the plight of people who wake up each morning not knowing if they are going to work or not. Such stuff is standard fare and nothing new. Of course, for the people trapped in such a predicament, it is awful – but this is where my agreement with the article end. It is largely where the articles opinion ends too. Nobody needs a smug Oxford grad’s gleefully tutting reportage to know that a father of young children would find life hard if he had to wake up each morning not knowing if he is going to get paid that day. It is a fretful piece of click-bait, but no doubt many will read it in their parlours and exclaim how frightful it all is.
Chakrabortty writes “that something in the jobs market is fundamentally broken”. What I want to argue here is that it is not the nature of jobs that are broken. It is the market itself. I do not want an end to zero hour contracts. I want an end to the necessities of work for humans. The toasters can deal with precarity. I want an end to the sellers of labor, the workers, who feel they have a right to sell, to exchange their time and efforts for money. Admittedly this is, at first glance, an offensive sentiment. Let me explain. Presently people have to work to live. So people have to work. It is perhaps because of this that the phantom right – the right to work rears its Thatcherite hood. No one should have a right to work. If you feel you have a right to provide some sort of service in exchange for money you are, like the many presuppositions in the media, missing the point entirely. One doesn’t and should never have a right to work. One should have a right to life – a life that includes a reasonable amount of means. Means to eat and live in some form of comfort. The right to work is a phantom belief. It is caused by a similar process of denial and deferral as I detailed in my blog on BMW cars. The right to work cloaks the fact that people need work in order to sustain a life. The belief in the right to work or the right to be able to find a job is the mask of the belief that humans have no right to continue living in any meaningful way. The right to work only gains political purchase at the moment that the right to lead a meaningful life in and of itself diminishes. If one takes the position that a person has no right to a meaningful life then you presuppose that that person should somehow earn it. This is the dominant belief today. If you are lucky enough to toil away for some vague but precarious remuneration then splendid – enjoy your hard won milky coffee.
However, as I said, I do not believe that people have any right to earn anything. Instead I believe people have a right to some sort of life with means to do various things. This belief is not at all radical. It is, and this may sound absurd at first, a belief that is more inline with the job market trajectory of late capitalism than the belief that people have a right to work. Here is why.
We all know most cognitive labour is pointless. Pointless in that the majority of cognitive labour is essentially quantification – aside from the fringes of innovation and creativity the contagion of counting and collating dominates. The trend in almost all work is quantification. “Lets get busy with our abaci and tot stuff up!” is the unspoken mantra of today. It extends to Doctors, who, fresh from taking the Hippocratic oath, are tasked with budgeting for the life and health of their patients. It extends to teachers who find themselves trapped in an administrative maze of confidence eroding self-evaluation and anxiety inducing peer review processes. School corridors are like private businesses operating ni a nature somewhere between Kafkian labyrinth and institutional Panopticon. Private businesses too are dogged by the frenzy of quantification. My first job was with a small company that visibly displayed this. The company employed more people to count the sales and profit margins of our product than people to sell and fit the product.
Of course, any form of quantification is essentially work that can be done by computers. Today some aspects of it still require fleshy little things in dull suits to help out but in the future I have no doubt that it will be possible for all aspects of any quantifiable work to be fully autonomized. Of course, not all work is quantifiable work. But much work is. Postmen, factory workers, warehouse workers, taxi-drivers, payroll administrators, lifeguard etc are the types of jobs that are easy to imagine being farmed out to machines. After all, I would rather Sonny watched over me than an volatile, illogical and emotionally driven human like me. I expect that in my lifetime the manually operated car will die once insurance companies price up the less reliable driver and private companies insist on increasing amounts of out of office engagement. The jobs of today are tomorrow’s algorithms.
In William Gibson’s The Peripheral Flynne Fisher works online in a virtual London. She is employed to swat flying dragonfly-like paparazzi drones away from a location. “They were interested in the building. Like AI emulating bugs, but she knew how to do that herself.” This is what work is today. The circus of collation, quantification and evaluation is little more than bald mammals emulating the AI that will soon usurp them. This may seem hyperbolic but even the medium of work is now better tailored to machines than our rickety bi-pedal operating system. Modern work is conducted more often than not in digital worlds or via communication networks. We have autonomized our signatures, our authenticating mark of absent presence, on work communiqué. Isn’t the out of office signature a sign of things to come? The thin end of the wedge? So why not autonomize the rest of ourselves? Why should we toil away in zombied ruts of familiarity doing repetitive work that can be better done by a computer?
Autonomization of work will not cease and nor should it. I do not ever want a human doing work a machine could do. The combine harvester was a good thing. But this is where I come back to zero hour contracts. What is the ultimate appeal of such contracts to employers? Flexibility. As anyone can appreciate, an employer (especially a profit making business), would rather pay over the odds for short term workers than pay less for workers who will may require redundancy payouts, sick pay, maternity pay and various other entitlements of permanent workers. From a balancing the books perspective, from a dynamic-and-fast-paced (read precarious) business perspective it makes sense. It makes sense in a particularly economic way. Profit making companies need to constantly discover and introduce efficiencies so that they can survive. They may do so for a variety of reasons. I except that such a variety would include increased profits for shareholders or so they can undercut their competitors and grow. Nonetheless, if a company cannot continue to compete in its market it would not survive. Mechanise or die. The zero hour contract is the limit point of human work. It is the bleeding edge of mechanisation and human labour. It is a space where humans are still needed for things machines cannot quite do yet – but not needed quite so much a whole permanent workforce is needed. Zero hour contract workers are needed in the most disposable and myopic fashion. Modern companies commit more to property, equipment and infrastructure than they do to people.
But, unlike Chakrabortty, I do not think that the solution lies in discovering secure jobs for everyone. Rather, I think that it is time to face up to the fact that jobs for all (humans) is a fantasy. The cloaked denial of a decent life for everyone that masquerades as the right to work is what holds late Capitalism back from more autonomization and efficiencies. To believe in the giveness of the necessity of work and engage with zeal in tasks that could be done by a machine is to become zombie careerist. Today most people (especially in the private sector) will move through three consecutive careers. Self-employed consultation is at an all time high in the UK. How many more registers of the flat-lining ‘job for life’ does one need? More it seems. Because zombie workers engaged in phantom work seem not to accept this but push more and more in the face of eroded security, employment rights and conditions people keep at it. Presumably in the hope that if they can just give that extra pound of flesh then stability and wealth will follow. Sadly, for so many, I doubt this will happen.
So, the end question is what happens to the people who don’t work. Once the right to work is dismantled a right to live must be secured. The solution is surprisingly compatible with our Capitalist value system: universal basic income (UBI). Under UBI, the fallacy of the right to work would perish and the recurring benefits media headache would be appeased. In the UK an increasingly large chunk of benefits spending goes to people who are already working. Also, for the ‘government’, pension spending is over tentimes that of jobseekers allowance. UBI could solve both of these. The first question put UBI is often: how will it be afforded? A corporate Robot tax that lands somewhere between human tax threshold and the current average human worker income, perhaps in the region of five or six thousand per annum is an obvious opportunity. There are more promising prospects for affording UBI if Capitalism is allowed to run its course. Capitalism needs punters. High-finance algorithms trading between ‘one another’ aside, machines alone don’t turn a profit. So for Capitalism to continue people need to continue to be engaged in various stratum of consumerism, be it necessity or frivolity. But more importantly the refinement of Capitalist business, the very competition driven practice of autonomization for efficiency, will allow for cheaper and cheaper products on condition of a free-market (so of course it wouldn’t work for things like trains). As businesses force one another into increasing states of efficiency, as people chose not to work because they simply do have to and make choices about their own buying the old utopian fantasy of better products and less work comes into possibility. It is a strange thought. It is strange to think that for Capitalism to continue it needs less human workers and a trajectory including universal basic income. UBI is often talked of under the shadow of Marx or Communism but I feel it may gain traction in my lifetime as a means to maintain Capitalism.
In Postcapitalist Desire Fisher bats Jamesons dialectic of Wal-Mart back at Louise Mensch’s comments about Occupy London Stock Exchange causing nothing more than Starbucks biggest ever queues. Mensch made the tired connection between anti-capitalist protestors and their use of capitalist products. In Utopia as Replication Jameson detailed how Wal-Mart is an oddly dialectical enterprise. It is utter capitalism thus it operates in the most uncapitalistic fashion. It is the beating heart of Capitalism, and thus, has killed capitalism – as one anonymous CEO once said: ‘Wal-Mart killed free-market capitalism.’ In Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire this dialectic is extended to brands like Starbucks and Apple. Starbucks and Apple embody all the typical and worn criticisms of communism; they are generic, homogenous, crush individuality or enterprise. But they are also massively efficient and highly autonomized networks. Fisher cites Jameson’s sense of dialectic within capitalism and suggests that the ‘dialectical ambivalence’ of ‘admiration and positive judgment…accompanied by…absolute condemnation’ is found in all the loyally hateful patrons of so many ubiquitous and anonymous corporations. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Apple who are, in all their monopolistic blandness, simultaneously capitalist to the point of being communist.
Fisher, asks: ‘can’t we conceive of consumer capitalism’s culture of ready-meals, fast food outlets, anonymous hotels and disintegrating family life as a dim pre-echo of precisely the social field imagined by early soviet planners’. Absolutely. Our fetishization of the latest anonymous iPhone, or vaguely differentiated car, is little else than a collective enthusiasm of the homogeneity of state communism. Everything you think is Capitalist, the coffee, the laptops, the anonymous suburbs and paneled non-spaces of hotel foyers is strangely communist. But this is where I want to come back to UBI. Isn’t UBI the only conceivable way to maintain our current form of capitalism and the trajectories of autonomization? Is UBI the spectre of capitalism? Far from being a quite communist or socialist drive, UBI could be regarded as a drive to maintain the political structure of global laissez-faire capitalism? Is UBI the only possible solution to keeping the capitalism of market driven efficiencies? After returning from the job centre, now staffed entirely with robots, UBI would be our last resort. The phantom of the right to work must give way to the spectre of how to maintain capitalism. UBI would also be the only way for companies to survive, to maintain their consumer markets. Our only way to keep Kraft, P&G, Nestle et al in business and afford a little life for ourselves as well is UBI. UBI could save us from having to work to live, but only by maintaining the current trajectory of capitalism.