Published 17 May 2017
Underlying modern day capitalist production are environmentally unsustainable practices and accelerating levels of automation. Below, Frances discusses her essay, which sees care-based work as central, but often overlooked, aspect of the future of work on a climate-changed planet.
Have you ever noticed the way that debates about the ‘future of work’ seem to happen in a different conceptual space to arguments about the future of the planet? My essay, ‘A consensus for care: reframing the future of work’ starts from the premise that we need to grapple with climate change, automation and late capitalism as a set of joined-up, mutually entwined challenges. While it’s very natural and understandable to focus on all that will and must change in the coming decades – not least the drastic renovation of our present systems for agriculture, transport, and resource extraction – we should also not lose sight of the things that will remain the same in a low-carbon, highly automated society. The labour involved in maintaining the biological processes of the earth, including the care for young, old and sick human bodies, for instance, will remain with us. Such work is non-automatable, because it fundamentally concerns human relationships. It cannot be offshored, and it is also low carbon. What happens if we place this sort of work at the centre of our vision for the ‘future of work?’
At the moment, ‘maintenance’ work in our society, such as early childhood education and care, aged care, cleaning, security and repair work of all kinds, is vastly undervalued. Many early childhood educators earn so little they cannot afford to have children of their own; aged carers are offered very limited career paths, and salaries so low they risk poverty. Neoliberalism has handed us an impoverished set of tools for thinking about these problems, encouraging us to think about this kind of labour as a source of profit for private corporate interest, rather than as the foundation for human flourishing in a low-carbon world. In the essay, I argue that Hannah Arendt, and her idea of a tripartite division between ‘work’, ‘labour’ and ‘action’, as providing a helpful set of conceptual tools for re-thinking where we are, and how we might re-value and re-distribute the work of care in the 21st century. It also points to useful precedents we might look to from the mid- 20th century, too, when the architects of the welfare state took on the challenge of building a set of interlocking policies and institutions to enable human flourishing on a vast scale. I do not mean, here, that there are blueprints from this period that we should copy, but rather that there are aspects of their outlook on the role of government and collective institutions we could learn from, such as the promotion of ‘essential work’ for instance, and their confident assertion that it is the proper role of government to steer society in a particular direction for a compelling public purpose. While we do not face conditions of total war, the existential threat posed by climate change is no less grave. The revaluation of the work that we know is urgent and will be part of our low-carbon, highly automated future.
– Frances Flanagan
You can listen to Frances talking about the essay on Radio National’s Sunday Extra program below.
Frances Flanagan is the author of Remembering the Revolution: dissent, culture and nationalism in the Irish Free State (Oxford University Press, 2015). She holds a DPhil and MSt in historical research from the University of Oxford, and bachelors degrees in arts and law from the University of Western Australia. She has been a senior scholar at Hertford College Oxford, a Royal Historical Society Marshall Fellow at the London Institute of Historical Research, and a postdoctoral researcher at Birkbeck, University of London. She is currently a research affiliate at the Sydney Environment Institute, and is working on a project concerning the commemoration of ecological loss.