After Labor

Monday, 24 August, 2020 - 16:00

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Wage work, it is said, is disappearing in the “ new ” age of capital, to rising alarm across the world. Yet there is little agreement about why, where, or in what measure. Or what might take its place in the fore- seeable future. We — scholars, politicians, pundits, people at large — seem unable to think beyond a universe founded on mass employment. Why not? After all, capital has always striven to free itself as far as possible from a dependency on labor, with considerable success over the long run. This despite the fact that historical anthro- pologies have tended to focus on the “ unmaking of particular working classes ” pri- marily in recent decades. Or the fact that there have been times in the global north during which organized labor has managed to exercise its political and economic muscle — although, as is now widely recognized, more people have always been wageless than waged. But if mass employment has always been threatened by erasure, always more aspiration than actuality, why does it remain so central to both popular and theoret- ical understandings of economy and society under capitalism, alike left and right? Why does it “ dominate and pervade everyday life . . . more completely than at any time in recent history ”? How might this relate to anxieties about its imminent demise? More generally, what exactly is unique about the contemporary moment in the long story of labor? As we fail to imagine an age after work, we appear ever more haunted by the nightmare of our own redundancy, by surreal images of a world in which value is produced by other means: not merely by fi nance or arti fi cial intelligence but by workers who are simultaneously human and nonhuman, living and dead, present and absent. What, finally, does all this tell us about the afterlife of homo faber?

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