Why the future isn’t working

When envisaging the future, social movements should not just consider how to make work better but also how to move beyond the wage contract, writes Emma Hughes

October 17, 2012
5 min read


Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.

Greece’s ‘troika’ of creditors – the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – has demanded that the Athens government introduce a six-day working week as part of the terms for the country’s second bailout. Those Greek workers who still have full time jobs already work the longest hours in the EU. Yet now the austerity technocrats are ordering them to work even longer and harder to pay off the bankers’ debts.

It is not just in Greece that longer hours are heralded as a solution to capitalism’s crisis. Britannia Unchained, the recent book by five Tory MPs from the 2010 intake, claimed that ‘the British are among the worst idlers in the world’. They bemoaned the country’s low work hours and early retirement age and ended by lamenting ‘the lost virtue of hard graft’. The authors render invisible the vast amount of labour that takes place outside official working hours.

On 20 October the TUC is holding a mass march for ‘a future that works’. There are many problems with work today: unemployment, low wages, precarious and temporary employment. Struggles for ‘more and better jobs’ are important. That is why we begin our ‘beyond work’ section by surveying current trends in industrial planning and look at the limits and omissions of these.

But even jobs with relatively ‘decent’ terms and conditions often monopolise too much of people’s lives. It isn’t just Britannia Unchained that valorises hard work and long hours – the work ethic pervades current thinking. Work, as defined by the labour market, is accepted as an obligation of citizenship – and the main way in which people are offered a role in society.

People’s desire to contribute to the common good, or their dreams of accomplishment, are only offered realisation through waged work – even though its prime purpose is not to produce social wealth but private surplus value: profit. Work has occupied the imaginations of both the political right and the left. When envisaging the future, social movements should not just consider how to make work better but also how to move beyond the wage contract.

The future cannot be postponed; it must be built today. If we want an alternative tomorrow we must find a way to reach it in our current struggles. To borrow Kathi Weeks’ phrase we must make ‘utopian demands’ – ones which offer concrete goals but can also act as a bridge towards transformation.

Such ideas are easy to describe and far harder to put into practice, but demands that point to a world beyond the wage already exist. Calling for shorter working hours without a reduction in wages is just such an idea. A 30-hour working week would help address some of the problems of underemployment and overwork. In addition it also challenges accepted ideas about the role of work in relation to other activities. While a shorter week may seem a moderate demand, it opens up new questions and critiques, and therefore offers a possible way towards more radical aspirations.

In our section looking beyond work Red Pepper also offers some moderate demands with potentially radical ends – demands like food sovereignty which aim to give people control over the material elements of their life and collectively reclaim food from the market. Or a citizen’s income which, like the women’s movement, recognises the labour involved in reproduction and also takes an imaginative step further, to think of a life outside of wage work.

We explore neighbourhood assemblies in Spain, which are beginning to root themselves in the day to day organising of local activities: spawning co-ops and action groups. Such creative new forms of co-operation outside of the workplace open up the possibility of a wider challenge to capital.

And in our essay, Hilary Wainwright highlights examples of trade union activity in the workplace that aren’t just organising for better terms and conditions but challenging the very purpose of work. She explores what it would mean for industrial policies to be devised with the purpose of releasing the social creativity of labour, whether in the workplace or not.

The disparate ideas we point to are connected by a creativity that is neither proprietary nor patented, by a labour that is neither individual nor alienated. The crisis of capital is not abating, and in this moment of post-Occupy strategising an imaginative leap beyond work can link current goals with future hopes.

Subcomandante Marcos said the society for which the Zapatistas struggle would be like a cinema programme in which they could choose to live a different film every day – and that the reason they have risen in revolt is that for the past 500 years they have been forced to live the same film over and over again. We must look beyond the screen of work to other possibilities and horizons. An alternative future is not based on working, but enabling creative and productive activity to occur beyond selling our creativity on the market.


Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


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