The robots are not coming

Jon Cruddas defends the arguments in his recent book looking at the future of socialism and work

In a recent edition (Chartist #312 [pdf]) Don Flynn provided an elegant, critical review of my book The Dignity of Labour, concluding that I retain a limited understanding of capitalism due to a parochial concern with changes in the Dagenham labour process over the last century. Don’s argument is informed by a deep understanding of the history of the left alongside decades of political activity on behalf of those cruelly exploited by the system. I respect his approach; it deserves a response.

My argument is not about the periodisation of capitalism, the dynamics of globalisation nor patterns of international development as such. These are clearly critical issues in terms of the changing international division of labour and certainly inform shifting work patterns in my constituency. However, my concerns are less ambitious: to use the changing forms of labour in Dagenham to contest certain contemporary approaches on the left regarding how we understand the forms by which labour is commodified, exploited and understood as an economic and social category. Simply put, fashionable elements of the left seek to alter the very purpose of radical politics and its association with the working class.

Such an approach might shed light on three intersecting crises. First, the crisis of the left and its lack of moral purpose. Second, the rise of authoritarian populism rampaging across the planet and upending our politics. And finally, our decade-long productivity ‘puzzle’ and longer term structural economic problems. Returning to the terrain of how human labour is understood, rewarded and represented – rather than the broader dynamics of the capitalist reproduction – might offer a political route to renewed relevance for the left by rebuilding a politics of work.

I make a simple argument. Labour should rebuild around questions of human dignity as we emerge out of the pandemic, specifically the dignity of labour. A popular response to this argument is this is obvious, painfully self-evident; it is what labour is all about. But is it? Historically yes, but recently we have become over-reliant on assumptions that the working class are on the wrong side of history, withering away due to technological change; the robots are coming.

I believe this is wrong and not just because there is very little evidence for it. The political danger is that such thinking writes the working class out of the script. People know it – they feel it – and funnily enough are less prepared to vote for us because of it. I think this is a better entry point into debates around the ‘Red Wall’ and political strategy than much of the noise you hear on the subject.

Thomas Piketty has recently talked of the rise of the Brahmin left. The most educated citizens and the greatest beneficiaries of the knowledge economy and our meritocracy have captured left wing parties at the expense of the working classes. Brahmin means a socially or culturally superior person.

It is unarguable that Labour is increasingly drawn from certain parts of society and certain parts of the country – 74% of our membership is now drawn from the professional middle class. We pull an increasing vote share from social classes ABC1. Recent YouGov polling suggests a 25% Tory lead – 52/27 – over Labour amongst working class voters.

Here is the kicker and I why I jumped in. Without any debate or real discussion a dramatic reset is currently underway on the left, underreported but highly significant. Let’s call it a new emerging new socialist imagination. It is best captured in talk of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, of seamless transitions to a vague utopia of abundance labelled ‘postcapitalism’. An inevitable destination where en route we demand full automation and a world without work financed by UBI. Within this new imagination there is no such thing as dignified work. The historic mission of the left anchored around contesting the capitalist employment relation is being jettisoned from within. What is emerging is a powerful lobby who self identify as the post-work left.

My parochial concern in the book is to contest some of this new thinking by returning to how we understand socialism and Marxism, the capitalist labour process and the politics of work referenced by the changing character of the Dagenham working class. Not least because this re-engineering is driven by highly questionable readings of Marx and historic interpretations of socialism that require scrutiny. Dagenham is a useful portal into these debates not least because of what it tells us about the rise and fall of Fordism and with it the decline of the organised industrial working class in this country, the one-two punch of Thatcherite deindustrialisation alongside the ‘Right to Buy’ and being situated on the front line of recent epic battles against domestic fascism within the so-called ‘Red Wall’ and amongst – in that dreadful term – the ‘left behind’. This year marks the centenary of modern Dagenham and the construction of the mighty Becontree Estate, and offers a condensed story of the changing character of the British working class over the last century.

The book considers how three competing economic philosophies regarding human labour have defined post-war British politics: the classical political economy of Smith, Mill and Ricardo influencing post-war corporatism; the neo-classical revolution of the 1870s that helped define the politics of Thatcherism; and the fashionable Marxism present across the Corbyn left and its fraught relations to classical Marxism and socialism.

The book also considers three competing political philosophies regarding labour issues and questions of justice: the first, concerned with maximising human welfare; the second, with questions of rights and freedoms; the third, more ancient concerns with promoting human virtue. I argue it is the latter tradition – a politics of the common good – that has lost out in battles within the history of the left. To rebuild the ethical character of the party we need to rehabilitate such lost histories not least by returning to questions of human labour. Without doing so, it could literally be all over politically – as revealed in Brexit and a crumbling Red Wall which are symptoms and not causes of longer term decay across the left.

Human labour remains central to the notion of the common good. There exists a mass of evidence about the purpose of work in our lives; a source of dignity above and beyond material reward. I basically seek to rehabilitate a lost post-war social democratic tradition – a form of early stakeholding – that sought to bolt the working class into the operation of the economy through the promotion of good work and extension of free collective bargaining – and seek to update it for today. Because you will find no evidence of this tradition on the left today. Technological determinism – a core feature of the modern left, from Corbyn to Blair, that has disfigured the history of the left – must be resisted.

The evidence that suggests the robots are coming is highly questionable. Technology is not destiny: these are political questions and not technologically inevitable. There is very little consensus about the future disruption – much of it is speculative and contains serious methodological flaws. We should instead focus on the political choices that confront us going forward – starkly revealed by a tiny virus.

Many in Labour hate the argument; a lot of both the Blair and Corbyn crowds reject it out of hand. Both often remain captive to forms of technological and demographic determinism that see victory in every defeat. I accept this – that is politics – but the clock is ticking. We have lost four elections in 11 years; there is no political safe space here. It is not inevitable that Labour will survive.

The Tory levelling-up agenda is a very serious threat to Labour. We have to confront it rather than hand over traditional communities and bed down in the urban settings and university towns – that would be deadly. There is no coalition that can win in those parts of the landscape.

Finally, and put simply, that was not what the Labour Party was created for. The party was created to advance the interests of working people. You cannot just decide to reject that; politics is not just about dicing and slicing and chasing votes. I argue a necessary, at times parochial, first step in a painful journey is a return to understanding human labour as an economic and social category.

My response to Don’s review therefore is to accept his criticism; I devote too little attention to global transformations shaping the workplace. However, I believe a specific, at times parochial, rethink in understanding human labour is necessary before we can achieve this because literally as we speak many fellow socialists are dramatically redrawing the purpose of the left and that also deserves scrutiny. From our different perspectives we might not disagree after all.

The Dignity of Labour
by Jon Cruddas
Polity, 2021, £14.99

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