Workplaces will look totally different in the future.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin, a Guardian US columnist, and the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.
Your ancestors were probably peasants. They worked a little plot of land and on that land grew a harvest. They ate some of it and gave up some of it to a local lord who would have killed them otherwise, and then they might have taken the remainder to town and sold it at the market.
But chances are you’re different. You say you’re into locally sourced, sustainable food on your Tinder profile, but you don’t own any land. All you have is your ability to work and some personal property (in my case, hair gel, a Bernard King rookie card, and a dozen blank CDs I bought in 2003).
That’s where your boss comes in. By virtue of owning a place of work, private property, an employer has something any would-be employee needs. Without land to sow, your labor power by itself isn’t going to produce any commodities. So you rent yourself to your employer, mix your labor with the tools they own and the efforts of the other people they hire, and in return you receive a wage to buy the things you need to survive. This is called wage labor.
Today, almost everyone would agree that extreme forms of exploitation, like slavery or the feudal system, should be prohibited. In 50 years, we’ll see that the wage-labor we have today is in fact an unacceptable form of exploitation, too — and that we have alternative ways of structuring work.
The power imbalances are obvious when you enter into your employment contract. Though your boss needs workers, they need you as an individual employee less than you need grocery money. But that doesn’t mean that the arrangement isn’t mutually beneficial. Better to be exploited in a capitalist society than unemployed and destitute.
Under feudalism, it’s clear that a lord is exploiting a peasant — the peasant is doing all of the labor. Capitalism complicates matters: Capitalists contribute to production as managers and conveners of labor, and their efforts are necessary to create new places of work. And, crucially, capitalists themselves are hostage to the market. If they tried to behave any differently, they would be undercut by less benevolent competitors.
The capitalist system has created a world of tremendous abundance. It’s also uprooted communities and caused massive environmental destruction. But now we finally have the tools to organize society on a different basis. Most of us are socially gathered into groups of workers who we collectively labor with already, and we workers know, at all levels of design, production, and delivery how to make the things society needs.
In my favored model, workers would control their own workplaces. They could elect their managers and hold them accountable, as well as shape firm decisions. Instead of a wage decided by the boss, workers would become real stakeholders that receive a share of profits. These organizations would pay a tax on capital assets (the building, the land it’s one, machinery, etc), in effect renting it from society as a whole. Funds from this tax would be used to fund new firms and (along with an income tax) a robust welfare state.
Any advanced society will need a division of labor, but that doesn’t mean work has to be as alienating as it is today. It’s no wonder that existing cooperatives — firms owned by the people who work there — today are more productive than traditional workplaces.
There would still be market competition, and inefficient firms would still fail. But the penalty for worker-owners who “lose” in this competition could be getting a fresh start with the aid of a strong social safety net — a right to housing, health care, child care, education, and nutrition — not destitution.
For the firms that do succeed, the grow-or-die imperative doesn’t apply when the goal is no longer to maximize total profits but rather to maximize profit per worker. And instead of a race to the bottom, there’s pressure to make sure janitorial and other jobs once seen as less desirable are well compensated. With the aid of active labor market policies and social supports, we shouldn’t fear the automation of these roles, either. This would be a social system that both materially and morally values all people.
There may still be inequities in income, inequities that can be mitigated through taxation and other measures. But there won’t be the same inequities in power. Everyone will be on equal footing, in that we’ll have the same access to social goods and no one will be able to hire another person to labor for them — all work will be done in democratic workplaces or in an expanded public sector.
It sounds fanciful, but it’s not a year-zero leap into the unknown: It’s taking what we know works (universal social services and worker-owned cooperatives) and building a social system around them. In our new Gilded Age, it’s an obvious alternative to a world where some live in lavish luxury, but most never have their incredible human potential — to create and leave lasting legacies — nurtured and celebrated.