The Fight For Free Time: Helen Hester & Nick Srnicek’s Post-Work Future

In an inspired work of applied utopianism, the (co-)authors of Xenofeminism and Inventing the Future seek to expand the horizons of a world without labour. It all sounds eminently sensible to Enrico Monacelli

Work sucks. It just does. Especially in the state that we’re in: a good job is harder and harder to come by. Let alone a good job that gives you the time and means to enjoy all the things that make a life worth living: a nice place to rest your head, quality time with those you love and free time to idly cultivate those very talents and aspirations that makes you human in the first place. More and more people feel like life is being sucked out of them just to get by. Work lingers throughout each aspect of our daily life like a horrid Thing that gnaws at our very vitality.

The most infuriating part is, of course, that nature is not in it. As much as the powers that be would like you to believe so, the economy is not some unshakeable state of nature. It is neither natural nor necessary but a very human, very transient arrangement. An arrangement which led us to believe preposterous things such as: “money is real”, “money dictates how your value”, “the system has the God-given right to starve you to death if you’re not valuable enough”. If you look at it from a historical, scientific perspective, capitalism is a young little shit we made up and somewhen (soon, hopefully…) it will die out for good like the rest of the things we made up.

As maddening as this last bit may sound, it is also a great source of hope: if it isn’t natural, we can kill it. And a lot of people are already starting to imagine what might come after its very welcome demise. One of the most interesting strands in this lot is surely the whole “post-work” movement.

According to the post-workists, we have enough tools to start conspiring against a work-dominated world, plotting a life beyond its drearealism. The whole gist of post-work is precisely the idea that work is the way in which an unjust system (the aforementioned little shit) keeps our life in check, dominating every aspect of it. A job is a way to force you to schedule your hours and organize your life entirely around capitalism’s every demand, leaving no space to your autonomous ability to enjoy or do whatever you like. There’s no pointing in reforming work or creating better jobs then: an oppressive system of total domination remains an oppressive system of total domination no matter how much you ameliorate it. As Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek put it: “Beyond the personal domination exhibited by managers and bosses, wage labour is also unfree by virtue of this impersonal domination of capitalism’s imperatives. For the vast majority of humanity this translates to the fact that subjecting ourselves to wage labour is necessary for survival […] Contemporary post-work positions […] represent a proactive response to this imagined end of job-based cultures; they eschew a celebration of work, emphasizing instead the possibilities that are opened up when we no longer centre our lives and societies around wage labour”.

Hester and Srnicek have been leading figures in the post-work movement. On the one hand, Helen Hester has been one of the core members of the Laboria Cuboniks collective and a vocal proponent of xenofeminism, a movement which openly called for “no more futureless repetition on the treadmill of capital, no more submission to the drudgery of labour, productive and reproductive alike, no more reification of the given masked as critique”. On the other, Nick Srnieck penned, together with Alex Williams, possibly one of the foundational texts for a-many post-work punks: Inventing the Future.

It is actually not an exaggeration to say that a good chunk of the post-work political imagination developed alongside their respective work. And it is, therefore, great news for those who dream a work-free world that the two of them joined forces to produce an agile tome of post-work critique: After Work, published by Verso.

After Work is, at the core of it, a dazzling work of applied utopianism. The underlining thesis that runs throughout the book is quite simple: post-work is good, sure, but it did not dig deep enough in our collective misery. The very title of the book itself is an evocation of this duplicitous stance regarding post-work: it names both the concrete utopia of a life after work and, at the same time, all the work that goes on once our day job is done. In fact, there’s a good deal of work, mostly un- or underpaid, that has gone unexamined in our post-work tirades: tending to our houses, raising our kids, taking care of the elderly or the sick.

An enormous load of care work that weighs heavy on our collective existence and which remains basically invisible, unscathed by our critical tools. Work which, on top of its ubiquity and invisibility, lays mostly on gendered shoulders: in fact, most of these jobs rely on the workforce of a vast array of feminized subjects. According to Hester and Srnicek, the only way to carry out a proper post-work revolution is to de-labourify all of this caring, using our technology and collective power to free all of those people who are silently trudging under its tiresome burden.

Despite this deepening of the post-work horizon, the end goal of Hester’s and Srnicek’s remain the same (and as radical, of course) as ever: laying the groundwork for a life free of work and beyond capitalism. The psychedelic ideal that moves the entirety of After Work is the idea that “the struggle against work – in all its form – is the fight for free time. It is only on the basis of this free time that we can be allowed to determine what to do with our finite lives”. But in order to do so, Hester and Srnicek contend, we have to stress all the forms work assumes under capitalism. The sci-fi proposal the book puts forth is that the only feasible political goal for the twenty-first century is “the liberation of time and the creation of institutions through which we might consciously and collectively guide the development of humanity. We need the freedom to determine the necessary”.

The book has mostly one major drawback: its prose. At times it reads a little anaemic. It is very matter-of-fact, divided into very academic sections. It is highly accessible, but it defends its position with a hefty bibliography, a bunch of graphs and a whole lot of very sound logic – which are very informative, granted, but can also be quite stodgy at times. It’s no fiery manifesto, that’s all I’m saying. Nonetheless, this very stiffness is also a great feature in the public political sphere: it demonstrates that a world without work is not only desirable, but extremely reasonable. It may not be always a blood-pumping read, but that’s probably because sensible, vital things (even when they sound quite grand and utopia) aren’t very flashy. And a life without work might be one of the most basic, vital things we need right now.

After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time by Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek is published by Verso

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