Past futures of work (I)

Transnational network “Working Futures”: Bénédicte Zimmermann, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; Andreas Eckert, International Research Center “Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History”, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; Lisa Herzog, Groningen University
Vom - Bis
28.10.2021 - 29.10.2021
Url der Konferenzwebsite
Sanja Beronja, Centre Georg Simmel, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

Work has been undergoing important transformations in the last decades. Taking place in the context of the digital transformation, globalization, and, more recently, the Covid pandemic, these transformative processes highlight the global transformation of capitalism and fuel the current debates about possible futures of work. However, imagining scenarios about the future of work is not a new activity. Since the 19th century, philosophers, sociologists and economists have analyzed work as a social institution and imagined its possible and desired futures.

Bringing together political scientists, economists, philosophers, sociologists and historians, the goal of the first part of the workshop was to contextualize and historicize current debates on the future of work by revisiting debates from the past. What can past debates about work tell us about current issues? What can we learn from past experiences and what do they entail for the present?

The participants were invited to place past and current issues in dialogue: What is the historical relationship between education, work and society and how do they mutually impact each other? What legacies can be traced from past utopian communities? For instance, what can past utopias tell us about work-related issues such as commitment and conflict resolution? How can the relationship to work be revisited through a socialist work ethic? And, what does automation discourse tell us about the labour market and anxieties of the modern society?

FRANZISKA REHLINGHAUS (Göttingen) focused on how international organizations’ policies shaped the future of work by offering “alternative educational futures.” The OECD addressed the crisis of the labour market in the 1970s by forging a concept of “recurrent education,” aimed at putting more flexibility in the traditional “education – work – leisure – retirement” pattern. “Recurrent education” was a tool meant to develop new workers’ skills throughout their working life and thus help them adjust more quickly to shifts in the labour market, responding simultaneously to individual and societal needs. Rehlinghaus argued that the OECD-alternative educational futures project, though strongly dependent on the national contexts, had an important impact in member states and prepared the framework for the development of the concept of lifelong learning. According to Rehlinghaus, this “alternative educational future,” though utopian, also allowed the OECD to become an influential actor in educational policies.

DAMIEN ROUSSELIERE (Rennes / Montréal) analyzed the contribution of a past utopia by offering historical insights into the 19th century Icarian and Fourierist intentional communities. Conceived as utopian organizational forms, the creation and functioning of those communities raise several issues relevant up to this day: recruitment of new members, labour allocation, remuneration and conflict resolution. Rousselière highlighted that the disappearance of these utopian communities was driven by individual strategies and changes in the social and economic environment. The case of utopian communities is informative in terms of ways through which alternative forms of work can be brought to life and what threatens their survival. In this sense, utopian communities have had a strong impact on modern alternative forms of work, such as cooperatives.

ALEX GOUREVITCH (Providence, RI) offered an account of alternative visions of work by analyzing varieties of socialist work ethics in the 19th century. By deconstructing socialist and communist arguments, he offered a historical perspective on issues such as: What is the intrinsic motivation for work? What is the value of work? How should work be organized? How should work be remunerated? By doing so, Gourevitch offered a critical view on the dominant paradigm stemming from the protestant work ethic, that sees work as a duty to engage in production for the sake of production itself.

AARON BENANAV (Berlin), in turn, challenged dominant discourses on the future of work by offering an account of the automation discourse of the 20th and 21st centuries. Benanav presented the core of automation theory based on the premises that automation is an on-going reality that will have strong negative social impacts, such as the suppression of jobs. He offered a critique of such visions by arguing that the automation discourse was not a social reality, but rather a recurrent discourse that distracts us from present-day labour conditions. The reasons explaining the periodicity of this discourse are to be found in the anxiety about the labour market. Automation is also a utopian discourse, based on the idea of potential benefits of technology that would produce limitless resources and thus resolve the scarcity issue. Benanav concluded with reference to alternative visions of post-scarcity found in 19th century socialism.

OPHÉLIE SIMÉON (Paris) presented a case study of the Owenite utopian movement of the 19th century which was created as a reaction to the dehumanizing labour practices of capitalism. Siméon argued that the main contribution of this movement was the attempt to “reconcile work and machines” and to promoting the concept of “happy labour.” She demonstrated how social dynamics structured the functioning of these communities (recruitment, labour allocation and conflicts) and eventually led to their disappearance. Siméon argued that popular education and the 8-hour working day can be considered as legacies of this community.

The lively discussions during the workshop made clear that past utopias and discourses offer a rich conceptual and theoretical contribution to the analysis of work in the 21st century. The discussions raised questions about the concepts of class and gender and forms of work that can offer important insights into current forms of work. They also addressed the relationship between work and technology, often presented as conflictual in discourses on the future of work, and touched upon the conditions of production of these discourses and what they tell us about the social, economic and political challenges affecting work and societies of a given period.

Conference overview:

Franziska Rehlinghaus (Göttingen): “A total system reform.” Imagining alternative futures for industrial societies at the OECD in the 1970s

Moderator: Jürgen Kocka (Berlin)

Damien Rousselière (Rennes / Montréal): Bargaining over capital and work remunerations in Intentional Communes: The case of the Midwest American Utopian Communities of the 19th Century

Moderator: Constance Perrin-Joly (Paris)


Alex Gourevitch (Providence, RI): Work ethics in 19th century socialism

Moderator: Lisa Herzog (Groningen)

Aaron Benanav (Berlin): Automation and the future of work in the global economy

Moderator: Anke Hassel (Berlin)

Ophélie Siméon (Paris): Building a “new moral world”? The future of work according to Owenite socialism (UK/USA, 1820–1845)

Moderator: Laure de Verdalle (Berlin)

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