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Why Did We Return to Work?

On the future of work.
Mathew Lawrence

Many of us returned to work this week. In doing so, we resubmitted to life under undemocratic rule. This is because in the private government of the workplace, capital commands and labour obeys. Domination and the one-way extraction of wealth is the everyday consequence. Why does this social order — that runs counter to widely held norms of justice, freedom, and democracy — continue? Why do we return to work on such unequal terms? The reason for most, as the political theorist Søren Mau explores in his forthcoming book: “the mute compulsion of economic relations”.

Necessity compels us, in other words. Separated from what we need to live freely and well outside of the market, the majority depend on selling our labour power to access the goods and services we need to survive. This compulsion — so pervasive as to appear natural — sets in train a dynamic in which work appears on the surface an exchange between free and legally equal partners, but in reality, due to deep inequalities of power between those who own and control the means of production and the propertyless majority, is in fact a relationship in which labour produces wealth but neither fairly shares in it nor has a say in how it is invested. Economic power — mechanical, impersonal, rooted in inequalities of ownership, singularly focused on expanding accumulation — makes domination ordinary and injustice systemic.

What's more, inequality in production is enabled by inequities in how the fundamental pre-conditions of economic life are organised. Waged labour would be impossible without the work of social reproduction — not just vital and undervalued paid care work, but the vast and unwaged effort of producing and reproducing life, an effort that rests on an unjust gendered order. Nature's extraordinary riches are incessantly and brutally transformed into cheap “inputs” and “sinks” for production; ecological health is the foundation of material wealth even as capitalism’s drive for ceaseless expansion catastrophically erodes its vitality and sustainability. Just as nature is subjugated, so racialised people, land and resources continue to be expropriated, their life and livelihoods unrecognised and violated, reproducing a deeply unequal global economy. And while it is political institutions that create and maintain the very tools that make economic relations possible, of property, markets, and finance, the scope of democratic authority to order the economy is severely circumscribed. How we meet our needs, how production and work are organised, who controls our relationship to the environment and — through control of investment — the future; these fundamental decisions are substantively delegated to private authority and market relations, not collective democratic decision-making.

How should a recognition of economic power — and its roots in property relations — shape the development of a progressive agenda that matches the challenges of our age of crisis? What demands flow from recognising the reliance of production on social reproduction, of the inseparability of natural and social wealth, of the way private power is constituted by public institutions, of accumulation driven by conjoined processes of exploitation and ongoing expropriation? What would it take for us to return to work on terms of justice, democracy, and genuine freedom?

One fundamental point emerges: any project committed to those goals must work to reclaim and transform the conditions of existence so we can all live securely and well. From housing to energy systems, from how we distribute and allocate the social surplus to the rules that structure our economy, it must reshape how we organise and access the means of a safe and thriving life, including but beyond just production. That, as Nancy Fraser argues in her new book, will necessarily involve reshaping the relationship between the political and the economic, opening up new terrain for democratic decision-making at multiple scales and institutions, from how — and who — allocates the social surplus, to the rules that define the government of the firm. It will require centring and valuing social reproduction for its own sake, not simply as an enabler of economic production; reimagining how we provide the fundamentals of care, housing, transport, and energy would be a start. It will require overcoming the nature/economy binary in which the former is cannibalised by the latter, recognising instead that the nurturing of ecological health is the precondition for thriving and healthy societies, with patterns of investment and relations flowing from that fact. And it will depend on recognising that any freedom that rests on the expropriation of the wealth of other people and places is no freedom at all.

The outlines of such an agenda are emerging through practice and design, out of both necessity and invention. It is an agenda for the democratic economy, one that shrinks the scope of market rule while pluralising and rebalancing power in the marketplace – and beyond. A Living Income would substantially undercut the force of mute compulsion by guaranteeing everyone access to the resources needed to live a decent life outside of the market. Reimagining the corporation, scaling a pluralism of business forms, and strengthening worker rights can recover the generative potential of purposeful enterprise to meet needs. By empowering workers, domination is undercut; by democratising ownership, control of the surplus is redistributed, opening up new possibilities for investment and production. Through new commoning strategies, from land to data and intellectual property, we can begin to replace relationships built on enclosure and extraction with new forms of stewardship and democratic control. The expansion of public investment, attentive to the requirements and urgency of the climate and nature emergency, can, meanwhile, extend collective control over the development and direction of our mutual capacities and infrastructures, reasserting that the allocation of society’s surplus is what it always has been: a fundamentally political question. And through the provision of housing, care, and renewable energy as a public good, not a site of accumulation, we can begin to unpick the dis-equalising logic of the asset economy.

All these and more provide the seeds of a new social order, one that if woven together can overcome the systemic force of “mute compulsion” and instead give back voice and control to ordinary people and communities. The challenge in 2023 and beyond is to nurture and scale this alternative against active resistance. Efforts to further tighten trade union laws are just one example of how the boundaries of economic compulsion and the scope of private authority are constantly in flux, contestable, and at the very core of political struggle. But if the return to work in future years is to be on terms different to our own — free from domination and exploitation, founded on relations of justice, democracy and freedom — it is that struggle that must be joined and won.