Introduction: No Retreat

Introduction: No Retreat

What will the future of work look like? As the writers in this special section show, the answer will have more to do with politics than robots.

Vuilniswagendans (City Machine Dance), May 15, 1985. Performance by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts.

As we stare down the barrel of a Donald Trump presidency, the future looks grim for labor. Our new president is a racist billionaire, with decades of experience in the art of screwing workers. And if his cabinet appointments are any indication, he’ll probably soon be busting unions nationwide. We don’t know what the future holds; Trump is quick to make promises about saving jobs at the same time as he enthuses about so-called “right-to-work” laws and declares that wages are too high. What we do know is that the U.S. workplace will likely look very different in four years’ time, and the left cannot simply go into retreat and hope that there will be anything left at the end of a Trump administration.

Predicting the future of work has become a popular activity in recent years. The robots are coming for our jobs, the prognosticators tell us. It’s inevitable. It’s already begun. Or wait, no, the robots are few and far between, it’s the algorithms we should worry about. Or the case for both has been vastly overstated, and the work we do now is the work we’re stuck with.

We’ve read hundreds of these stories. We know how they go. But the thing they all seem to gloss over is the question at the heart of this section: the question of politics. Even if one could pretend that technology was a natural force with a will of its own, unguided by human hands, history has never been a story of imminent, unavoidable progress. It is determined through struggle, conflict, and of course, labor. And if we’ve learned anything from November’s election, it is that we cannot assume that any particular result is inevitable.

When we sat down to consider the future of work, then, we decided to set aside the debate over whether, how many, and how fast the robots are coming and concentrate on these questions of politics, of power. Which workers have it, and how do they wield it? Whose work is valued, and how much? Who is a member of the working class these days, and how is that likely to change?

And we decided to think big. Though it might be hard to imagine a more dire political reality than the one we currently face, the shock of the recent election shows there is space for new political ideas. The authors in the following pages set out provocations and strategies to win the future we want, and warn of the futures we might get if we lose these fights.


Many younger so-called knowledge workers no longer toil nine to five in a regular office, but spend days and nights in front of their laptops at home or in co-working spaces. The multibillion-dollar corporation WeWork, which leases desks in New York, Tel Aviv, and thirty-two other cities around the world, encourages its members and employees to work and live as if the boundary between the two did not exist. Sound like hell? Kate Aronoff reports on how WeWork’s CEOs are using ideas about community to sell a culture of non-stop work, and finds some unlikely lessons for the left along the way.

The question we kept returning to in this section was: whose work matters? Janaé Bonsu of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) shows how certain workers—including prisoners, sex workers, and those in the drug trade—have been excluded from the basic protections most of us depend on. She argues that this exclusion is tied to this country’s racist past and present, and that to value the work that black people do going forward, we will have to consider reparations for labor that has gone unrecognized.

Other kinds of work, too, often go unnoticed. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the idea of emotional labor, as young feminists increasingly assert that attention to men’s needs is work and deserves pay. But is a little bit of cash for care and kindnesses really progress? J. C. Pan draws on the Marxist feminists of the past to argue for a more liberatory vision of how we might compensate women’s emotion work.

Meanwhile, the labor movement spent millions of dollars and knocked on thousands of doors to prevent the election of Donald Trump, and his unexpected victory left many feeling as though the ground had shifted overnight. And yet, argues Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in an interview, much of what the labor movement needs to do under President Trump is what it already needed to do: the kind of deep internal and external organizing for which there is no shortcut. When rank-and-file workers experience their own power, she tells us, they are very hard to defeat.

Debates about the movement of capital and labor across borders were central to the 2016 election, but the question of how this movement affects global inequality was largely ignored. Atossa Araxia Abrahamian challenges economist Branko Milanovic and his modest proposal to persuade citizens of richer countries to open their borders by reducing rights for immigrants, an idea that might have economic benefits for some workers but could have damaging implications for democracy.

Of course, as Rebecca Burns writes, “it’s much easier to predict the future when you have the power and money to shape it.” She finds that some gig economy CEOs and conservatives are doing just that—using a narrative of technological inevitability to undermine labor law and the social safety net. Burns’s revelation of the sinister aims of some of Silicon Valley’s key power players—whose ideas might well get more play under President Trump—should serve as uncomfortable truths for those on the left who have been eager to sign on to the techno-utopian idea that the wealthy will innovate the way to a better future for all of us.

Part of Trump’s appeal to some workers was his rejection of trade deals that have left whole swathes of the country without good jobs. Erik Loomis argues that the bipartisan political momentum around trade might present an opportunity to reject Trump’s nativism. Instead of looking at workers’ rights through a narrow, nationalist prism, the left would do well to recognize how working conditions in different countries are linked, and to imagine a future in which workers in all countries can enjoy decent wages and the right to organize.

Over the next four years, the left faces a long slog that will no doubt be deeply demoralizing at times. But election night did not bring us only defeat: in several states around the country, voters chose higher minimum wages, opted to legalize marijuana, and rejected right-wing ideologues like Joe Arpaio and Pat McCrory. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s failure to inspire enough working people of all races to come to the polls has prompted a round of soul-searching and a hunt for better strategy. To defeat Trumpism, we will need to create an inclusive vision for work—and life—that appeals to the whole working class. Here, we begin to imagine what such a future might look like.

Sarah Jaffe is on the editorial board of Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.

Natasha Lewis is a senior editor at Dissent.

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