How should we imagine a world without work, and prepare ourselves and our society for it? The publication of another “the robots are coming!” piece in this morning’s Grauniad brought the passing thought that maybe we could look to classical ideas of the Golden Age, as sketched by Hesiod and others, when the Earth fed its children without any need for them to drag it out of her with violence and endless physical exertion. The idea of such a comparison is not that it will offer us a template for the fully automated leisure society – there are only so many babbling brooks besides which to recline while singing songs to the nymphs, even in temperate regions – so much as a means of deepening the debate by highlighting some assumptions that might otherwise be taken for granted.
For example, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there’s a tendency in those sorts of future-gazing pieces to assume that technology is the thing that’s moving, against a fixed backdrop of universal and eternal capitalism. To be fair to Avent, the possibility of an alternative is recognised in passing, though framed in terms of “social collapse” if it proves impossible to accommodate the new population of the permanently unemployed within the existing system; the article is focused on the medium-term problem of reconciling the self-satisfied winners within global society to the idea that their taxes should support a basic income for everyone else. Still, the way that employment becomes increasingly insecure and poorly paid appears as the natural and inevitable result of abstract and inexorable technological change, rather than the product of choices and/or a system of exploitation. Historical comparisons, with a pre-capitalist world, might help expose the consequences of those of these assumptions for how we view our situation.
More strikingly, the role of work as a primary source of social and personal identity is virtually treated as a given: there is a recognition that this will need to change in future – the work is going to vanish, so we’ll need new foundations for our sense of self fairly sharpish – but no acknowledgement that in any case it’s a relatively new phenomenon. One thing a classical comparison can offer is clear evidence that work is not intrinsic to conceptions of human existence, or necessarily seen in positive terms; ancient ideas offer alternative models, including a powerful notion that leisure (hitherto confined to the privileged in existing forms of society, but perhaps now to be extended much more widely) is more essential to a full (and fully human) life. It’s an interesting parallel to the exploration of similar themes in Iain Banks’ Culture novels, presenting a post-scarcity society in which most feel themselves set free to develop their full potential (with just a few, as in The Player of Games, longing for the primitive delights of high-stakes competition and crushing victory, a return to the Heroic Age).
But, as Carol Atack (@carolatack) pointed out on Twitter, ancient discussions of the Golden Age don’t just offer positive visions of the life of leisure; they offer debates about the nature of utopia and its dark side. As Plato explores in The Statesman, the Golden Age in which humans live a life of ease alongside the gods is inextricably bound up with a loss of autonomy and political agency – it risks becoming the existence of a domestic pet, kept in meaty chunks because of affection or whim but always at the mercy of a vastly more powerful being who controls the tin opener; better than the life of the pig or the calf, but not qualitatively different. If the present problem is conceived as a need to reconcile ourselves to the end of work as a means of apportioning resources and establishing social status, while leaving everything else in place, then this risks giving Zuckerberg, Thiel, Musk and the rest the position of gods in this future society, while the best we can hope for is to grow fat and lazy indoors, watching the world through a pane of glass…