The Future of Work: From Dystopia to Utopia?

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 14:30
Location: Hörsaal 11 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Chris TILLY, University of California Los Angeles, USA
The current world of work is largely a dystopia created by four interrelated processes. First, work has been degraded by widespread adoption of a neoliberal public policy package.   Relatedly, most countries have devoted shrinking resources for public investment to meet massive needs for productivity-expanding, welfare-enhancing services.  Third, technological change has been deployed to the disadvantage of workers, reducing the ranks of industrial workers historically most able to collectively defend their standard of living, and displacing workers from a broad range of sectors.  Simultaneously, politically protected monopoly control of innovative ideas blocks workers’ access to new means of production.   Finally, employers have restructured their organizations to fragment the workforce. As a result of these trends, inequality has grown and precarious work has become the dominant form of new employment.

But four countertrends could pave a very different path. First, some democratic states have moved to limit or partially reverse the advance of precarity, expanding the scope of social protection and the “social wage.”   Second, mobliziation strategies are essential, both to provide political foundations for more progressive state strategies and to shift the calculus of employers away from “low road” strategies.   New models of precarious worker organizing are particularly promising.  Third is the resurgence of visions of the cooperative organization of production—akin to Robert Owen’s utopian strategies—most recently in experiments the “solidarity economy.” Finally, while technological change has been used to degrade work, technology’s current trajectory also has subversive possibilities that undermine capital’s power and legitimacy and have the potential to support a modernized Owenite vision of collaborative “peer production”.   None of these countertrends is sweeping the field, but they have proven resilient and could be particularly powerful in combination. A utopian world of work is not as remote as it seems.