‘A World Beyond Work?: Labour, Money and the Capitalist State Between Crisis and Utopia’ by Ana Cecilia Dinerstein and Frederick Harry Pitts reviewed by Dante Philp

Reviewed by Dante Philp

About the reviewer

Dante Philp is studying for an MSc in Political Theory in London. …

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Over the last three decades, the Open Marxist tradition has sought to follow Adorno in wrestling Marxism from those ‘perverters of historical materialism’ who would limit their analyses of capitalism to simply quoting Marxist classics ad nauseum (Bonefeld in 2019:4). It has, instead, championed an evolving framework of open concepts, to be continually remoulded to address the ever-shifting antagonisms underlying capitalist social relations. In A World Beyond Work?, Dinerstein and Pitts continue their on-going collaboration by drawing on this approach to diagnose and dismiss various ‘post-work’ imaginaries. An intervention into the uptake of post-work proposals, such as the demand for a universal basic income (UBI), by social-democratic theorists and think tanks, the book is an effective primer on disputes concerning the capacity of the state to usher in an era of post-work luxury.

Dinerstein and Pitts propose that various post-work theorists have fundamentally misdiagnosed the nature of work under capitalism, and so fail in representing capitalism as a whole. Resultingly, they have generated political programmes incapable of transcending capitalist social relations, and which may actually intensify our subordination to them. This argumentative thread is weaved throughout each chapter, as the authors establish how post-work theorists misunderstand the central categories of capitalism – of labour, value, money, the state and social reproduction – and cannot explain ‘why we have to work in the first place, and what keeps us working’ (60). In a deft survey of the surrounding theoretical milieu, Open Marxist insights emerge as a corrective to ‘postoperaist’ analysis, and as a supplementary perspective enriching the scattered traditions of social reproduction theory and the New Reading of Marx’s value-form theory.

A brief preliminary chapter situates their intervention as both a more local commentary on how a post-work agenda took shape around the electoral project of Corbynism, which has ‘now come to an overdue close’, and a weighing up of post-work prospects for navigating capitalism’s crises (5). The second chapter offers a concise overview of trends in the automation of work, and parallel discourses of hype, over the last centuries; neatly collapsing the false image of ‘technological dynamism’ and imminent full automation that serve as the foundations for the post-work prospectus (38), Pitts and Dinerstein echo researchers like Aaron Benanav in identifying how decades of low demand for labour are not a result of automation displacing jobs, but due to economic stagnation and manufacturing overcapacity (42). These shaky empirical foundations are matched by a naïve conceptualisation of technological development being ‘propelled by agency of individual executives or entrepreneurs’ (35), rather than as bound by the imperatives of profit-seeking (41).

The crux of the next two chapters is in outlining the theoretical missteps post-work theorists like Hardt, Negri, Mason and Vercellone have made in advocating UBI as a curative for the supposed crisis that ‘immaterial labour’ has inflicted upon capitalism. In short, post-work theory sees ‘immaterial labour’ – cognitive, collective, informational and symbolic work – as creating value in such ‘immeasurable plenitude’ (72), that it cannot be captured by capitalism, nor can the workers producing it be sufficiently rewarded. Basic income is an appropriate measure for this crisis, as bosses can no longer provide sufficient recompense for this novel form of work.

Dinerstein and Pitts argue this approach is plagued by a fundamental misreading of value and labour. For Open Marxists, value is not produced immediately through concrete acts of labouring, whether traditional or ‘immaterial’, but through the ‘social validation of abstract labour in exchange’ (52); only when commodities, produced by labour but made equivalent in exchange, meet in the marketplace, does value really emerge. To view concrete acts of labour as the sole source of value would mean separating from the social system ‘in which it is imbricated’, and therefore obscure how it is the rule of abstract labour that ‘standardises, rationalises and homogenises’ our work and lives through the imposition of its social form (57). Furthermore, post-work theorists are necessarily trapped by a ‘productivist’ outlook in contesting not how capitalism demands we must work to live or that value comes to haunt all social relations, but that we are insufficiently re-imbursed for our efforts in working. Ultimately, without seeing value as a ‘negative category of domination’, post-work advocates cannot grasp what is uniquely violent about capitalist society (12).

The fifth and sixth chapters aim to dampen optimism regarding the mechanisms through which a post-work future might be delivered, in arguing that neither money nor the state are neutral mediums to be harnessed to deliver boundless leisure-time, as they are in reality the ‘economic and political forms of capitalist social relations’ (92).  Money is not a ‘neutral unit of exchange and account’ but an expression of the ‘antagonistic relations of exploitation, production, consumption and social reproduction’ of capitalist society (91). While money as a means of exchange pre-dates capitalism, under the rule of value, money only entails a ‘relation of subordination’ reflecting our dispossession (93-4). The nation-state is similarly not a ‘neutral and malleable’ tool to be harnessed by means of a popular hegemony, but is rather fundamentally a capitalist state in that ‘it is built into the whole structure of capitalist social relations’ and acts as ‘the most important political mediation’ in maintaining and suppressing the contradictions of class society (106). The danger in a basic income therefore lies in attaching money more thoroughly to the state, and so generating a new wage-form in which money remains the ‘supreme social power’ (94-6). The potential trialling of basic income by Modi’s authoritarian nationalist government in India is taken as emblematic of this threat, with the possible use of exclusionary bio-identification cards for payment illustrating how the state use money to expand its capacity for social control (113).

A sprawling penultimate chapter addresses how left radicals cannot solely engage workplace politics, but must interrogate ‘the conditions that make possible a world wherein we work to live in the first place’ (136) – that is, we must understand what enables the necessary sale of labour-power for a wage which fundamentally characterises life under capitalism for the majority (124). Dinerstein and Pitts adopt a Marxist-feminist approach, well-attuned to demonstrating how a broader sphere of social reproduction lies behind the state-backed ‘real illusions’ of buyers and sellers of labour power engaging in the market as equal parties, to articulate how struggles over housing, food, education, health and care are fundamentally class struggles. This focus on social reproduction evidences well the Open Marxist ambition to go beyond the ‘New Reading of Marx’ value-form approach in clarifying the ‘concrete social relations the value-form mediates’ and so gauging ‘the antagonistic social bases that makes it historically and continuingly possible’ (Pitts, 2019:97).

Dinerstein and Pitts conclude by contrasting the ‘abstract utopias’ of the post-work prospectus with their own ‘concrete utopias’ that pose a more substantial contestation of capitalism’s command over work and life. While post-work theorists like Srnicek and Williams have dissuaded grassroots struggles as merely ‘folk political’ movements which cannot support their preferred hegemonic policy projects, ‘concrete utopia’ is a concept formed to both avoid such Eurocentric and elite-oriented designations, and to capture the collective struggles of the dispossessed and marginalised across the globe (143). These concrete utopias are rediscovered and novel forms of social reproduction which give ‘materiality to the not-yet through praxis’; they are moments of ‘demediation’ which invent alternative forms of life, and go against and beyond the abstractions which organise capitalist life (168). Echoing Bloch, a foundational figure for Open Marxism, these utopias create ‘territories of hope’ which demonstrate possibilities for reshaping the world while not reliant on the imposition of state policy or isolated changes within the workplace (167).

The Unemployed Workers Organisations of Argentina, originating in the 1990s as a collective mobilisation of workers, indigenous people, the landless and the unemployed, serve as the primary example of these attempts to emancipate social reproduction. Through protest and community resistance, these groupings drew from state benefits for collective use, directing resources toward essential services under their control to ensure greater dignity and autonomy in work and life (152). The strength of these movements is identified in their ability to translate radical demands into institutional solutions, while never avoiding the reality that this dynamic will be one of constant antagonism and that any gains must be defended from depoliticising integration into the state (155).

A World Beyond Work? closes with this hopeful elucidation of concrete utopian praxis, but several ambiguities regarding the book’s central themes seem evident. A half-hearted promotion of various co-operative projects in the UK, from the Co-operative University project to freelancing platforms, for example, perhaps reflects the difficulty in translating these ‘concrete utopias’ to contexts beyond Argentina. As the authors themselves note, the Argentinian state’s relationship to social movements is highly divergent to that in the UK, and more work is required to render ‘concrete utopias’ a more readily available concept for other scenarios.

A vacillation over UBI as an anti-capitalist tool similarly leads to a degree of uncertainty in the authors’ position. At once deemed to be ‘obliterating class struggle’ and never possibly facilitating a break with capitalism (136), the space for universal basic income is also kept open by the authors’ suggestion that the Left might create a ‘bulletproof UBI’ (133) – although the shape of this improved basic income is never really made clear. While Weeks’ proposal of basic income as a universal right, not attached to any reward for work, is suggested as a ‘potential way out’ of Hardt and Negri’s productivism (82), Dinerstein and Pitts might have also brought greater clarity to their stance through a sustained comparison of their concrete utopian use of state money with the more feminist-inflected demands for basic income circulating today.

A final concern is worth noting. Given the clear ability and aspiration for Open Marxism to trace the texture of class conflict across waged and socially reproductive labour, little is said of those struggles which do not strive to invent new forms of work and reproduction, but are more fundamentally negative in form, such as the refusal of work. Whether as organised withdrawal or more inchoate practices of sabotage, the political dynamics of refusal, which so animated the operaists who emerged prior to the ‘postoperaists’ that Pitts and Dinerstein convincingly dismiss, are paid insufficient attention – an unfortunate omission arguably requiring greater justification given the authors’ aspiration to ‘keep open the space for labour struggles’ in contemporary left politics (13).

While readers might justifiably lament the disappearance of ‘communism’ or ‘revolution’ as the horizons for left politics or wish to question further how sufficient ‘concrete utopias’ really are for either orienting or understanding anti-capitalist struggle on a global level, A World Beyond Work? is worth engaging above all for its demonstration of the severe pitfalls in contemporary post-work thinking. Equally, for those on the left unconvinced by the abstract and state-bound political imaginaries still flourishing today, Dinerstein and Pitts articulate one possible path for re-orienting critical theory toward struggles from below by means of their spirited Open Marxism.

28 September 2021

References

  • Dinerstein, A. C., Vela, A.G., González, E. and Holloway, J. (eds) 2019 Open Marxism 4: Against a Closing World London: Pluto Press

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