Ever since his first novel, Down and Out in Magic Kingdom (2003), Canadian author Cory Doctorow has been both a utopian dreamer and an activist based in a realistic understanding of our complex world. This is no contradiction, as his novels analyze the way our society is headed, quite accurately if you look at Little Brother (2008) and its assumption of a police state on US soil. And yet, he has also always pushed for some utopian vision of how to address the most central issues of our times, such as against overly strict copyright protections in Pirate Cinema (2012), for a globalized union movement for virtual work places in For the Win (2010), or for an alternative to our hypercapitalist mode of consumption in his last novel Walkaway (2017).
In October 2019, before the pandemic and while Cory was working on his new book Attack Surface (due out in October 2020), I had the chance to talk to him about my current research project. As part of the FutureWork-project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), my research looks into the way that science fiction (sf) imagines our concepts of work changing in the future. The project combines sf with other disciplines, such as sociology, labor studies, and futurology to develop a set of scenarios that are supposed to guide institutions and policy in facing future challenges for organizing labor. As someone dealing with work in many of his novels, Cory was chosen as an expert to interview for the scenario’s wild cards. Here are his answers, to inspire a new way of thinking about the “future of work”.
Lars Schmeink (LS): Thank you for agreeing to the interview. The project FutureWork asks how work will have changed the year 2100. Starting off, I have a very basic question for you: how do you think we will work? In general, in the year 2100. What are the major aspects or factors, when it comes to the future of work?
Cory Doctorow (CD): I think that the big question is going to be climate change: Figuring out how to mobilize resources to do climate remediation, in the broadest sense, which includes everything from installing solar, to taking care of people who are sick or injured or who lost their homes, to doing basic research, to just filling sandbags. And how we can mobilize the resources that are going to be needed for that—that is probably the most urgent question we have in terms of the future of labor. I think there was a period a few years ago, when universal basic income (UBI) was becoming more common, when there was a widespread belief that maybe we were reaching the end of work and that we would use automation to do away with all of the need to work.
But today, it’s far more likely that we are actually entering a period of full employment for one to two hundred years, for everyone to work on climate remediation. And this is going to require deep shifts in how we approach our economic allocation problems. Particularly, it’s going to run up hard against the Euro and the European Central Bank (ECB). Because, ultimately, the way that we’re going to manage this is with deficit spending. And the ECB is dominated by deficit hawks primarily from Germany, and those deficit hawks are going to have to be sidelined.
We’re going to have to spend big! We are going to have to make very deep deficit spending and deploy macroeconomic tools to sequester a lot of the money that gets deficit-spent into existence and to prevent it from becoming inflationary.
Let me explain by example of what we did during World War II. The allied powers convinced their citizens to buy war bonds, notionally to fund to the war effort, but actually just to stop them from spending all the money that was being pumped into the economy through war spending on the things that the government was trying to buy without war spending money. Like if I’m paying everyone to make tanks and then they go and they spend that money on the rubber that I need for my tanks, then my tanks get more expensive. And so, what I do is, I convince them to just put that money somewhere else and convert it to bonds. Bonds are money that makes money. But not money that you can spend, right? It’s like sequestering carbon. We’re gonna have to figure out how to, on the one hand, pay people to mobilize their labor and, on the other hand, convince them not to spend the money.
I also think that we are going to enter a period where labor is going to figure out how to bridge the gap between the anxiety about de-skilling and the flexibility that automation delivers. Organized labor and labor theorists have long been concerned about de-skilling and the so-called gig economy. The idea that it creates a plug and play worker who is disposable to their employer—and that is a legitimate concern. But one of our major sources of resource consumption is centered around the coordination problem. Say, for example, that I need to go to work on a day when it’s snowy, because if I don’t show up to work, you can’t do your job. That means, that we need to have a snowplow to clear my road. But if we can flexibly redeploy who works where and when, then we can just decide not to plow certain roads or not to undertake certain activities from moment to moment and day to day. This is much more similar to the old agricultural way of living, where you made hay when the sun shone, and you stayed inside and spun wool when it was raining.
The difference is that we would address circumstances while coordinating a super high-tech, advanced, industrial economy. We need to square the circle of that individualized school of labor, where you suit your labor to the immediate environmental characteristics around you. We would allow you to coordinate with others in order to produce industrial scale goods by using lots of technology that allows you to selectively do different kinds of tasks on different dates. This will require much lower skill levels for many tasks. And that is the ultimate direction of automation. To make it easier for you to do different things depending on what we have the energy for at any given moment, so that we’re not squandering energy in order to simply allow people to do stuff that’s gotten harder because of the external environment.
LS: That means, the kind of work we’re going to be doing is very much oriented towards sustaining a certain life. But who are we going to work for and what are we going to work for? What will our compensation be and who’s going to give us that kind of job?
CD: Foundationally this is going to be arranged around the federal job guarantees that are in the green new deals and, generally, a forefront of modern monetary theory. One of the classic criticisms of modern monetary theory and its precedence—tribalism and neo-tribalism, which are the ideologies that it grows out of—is that modern monetary theory says: well, governments spend money into existence and if they spend too much, they can tax some of it out of existence, and that way you can prevent inflation. But the political problem is that raising taxes is something politicians have to do. And politicians who raise taxes don’t get reelected. So, there is this fear that the route politique of democracy trying to accomplish this very technocratic, monetary theory would run up against these political limits. That we would just vote out all the politicians who raise taxes, thus we would maintain a high level of spending, but without contingent and high levels of taxation. We would eventually end up with ever increasing amounts of money chasing the same goods without any increase in the production of those goods and that would create hyper-inflationary spirals. And the answer to that is the idea of a federal job guarantee in which you have a federal program that funds a job for anyone who wants one, where those jobs are then determined on a fairly local basis, like on a municipal or regional basis, but the wages are set nationally. When prices start to go up and wages start to fall, people would move from the private sector back into the public sector and when it regulates, they would move back out again. This mechanism acts as a kind of natural check against inflation. No one has to make a decision to raise taxes. The federal jobs guarantee keeps the kind of homeostatic relationship between the amount of currency units in the economy and the goods that those currency units are trying to buy.
One of the corollaries of the federal job guarantee is that you would devolve the decision-making about it to a relatively local level. On a city by city or region by region level, you have different priorities that determine the kind of labor that is available for anyone who wants it. In some places there would be an unlimited amount of labor, for example, filling sandbags and installing pods. One could imagine that all of the Netherlands might be mobilized through such a project. For anyone who wanted a job, there would always be a good paying job. You could get paid to help remediate the rising seas. In other places, it might be more about caring labor. We are also enduring this demographic crisis, where we have a rising tide of elderly people who are beyond the working age. In addition, you have people of working age who want to have children, but they can’t because they’re already using all of their extra time taking care of their parents. In a place that is riven by that crisis, there are lots of jobs mobilized to do caring work. That will free up people in the prime productive years to do the most intense work of climate remediation. It will really vary from place to place.
I do think money is going to be a part of it. We’re going to see a return to sovereign currencies. To my mind, the EU project has been a catastrophe. Seeing the rise of fascism, much of it can be blamed on the austerity driven by the ECB. Austerity is always fascism’s handmaiden. When you traumatize an entire nation like Greece and then someone comes along and starts to offer simplistic explanations. Gives a reason for why your family members died of preventable cancer, because the radio isotopes weren’t in the hospital. Or why the island you grew up on is now being sold off to a Russian oligarch. Those people are going to believe in fascism and in authoritarianism, and they are going to mobilize themselves in violent mobs. We will probably see a retreat from the Euro and a return to sovereign territorial currencies. This will allow individual territories to control the rates of inflation and their monetary policy to achieve local goals. Goals that are distinct from the goals of the finance sector, which will always dominate big central banks like the ECB.
LS: What you’re saying is that the work market needs to be more controlled and oriented towards national or regional needs?
CD: Yes, but I do think that we will have a private sector that will create and pay for labor. But right now, what’s core to the private sector—to the extent that we have one—is a minimum wage. And then there are the limits of the welfare state. Why do people take really terrible, low paid jobs? Well, because they can’t get public assistance to sustain themselves, and because the minimum wage is very low. To my mind, federal job guarantees with high-quality jobs that are well paid—or even low-quality jobs that are better paid than right now, mean that the private sector will not be able to profitably offer the kinds of businesses that currently represent the worst employment circumstances. You won’t be able to pay people sub-starvation wages to do sweatshop work in an Amazon warehouse. Not because we make it illegal—although we might do that too—but because anyone qualified to do that job can get a better job working for the government.
LS: Aside from national politics, what other frameworks do we need? How do we organize and regulate this stuff?
CD: I think, we need high rates of marginal taxation and a progressive taxation system. It needs to be backstopped by a global wealth tax, which will probably have to be grown in the mold of Piketty. You start with the Euro-zone with a wealth tax—taxing all the wealth that you can find in the Euro-zone—and you expand that to the EU. And then you expand that to Schengen countries. And then you expand it to the OECD. And so on. Basically, what you do is you chase untaxed wealth into territories where there’s nothing to buy, so you might be able to hide your billions in the British Virgin Islands, as they sink, or in Somalia, but you can’t buy anything there. As soon as you buy something there and try to bring it back into the rest of the world: we tax it.
This Piketty style path to a global wealth taxation regime is, I think, a necessary precondition for a different future of labor. We need steep marginal rates at top tiers, not because we need the money that billionaires have to pay for these jobs. The government can make as much money as they need, provided that their debts are denominated in the same currency that they are generating and spending. It is impossible for the Canadian government to run out of Canadian dollars. And if all the money it owes, it owes in Canadian dollars, then it will never default on those debts. It can make as many Canadian dollars as it needs. It doesn’t even need a printing press, it does it on a computer, adding zeros to the federal treasury account until enough zeros to pay off all of bond holders are there. That part is not an issue. The part that is an issue, is that extreme wealth concentration is anti-democratic. It allows billionaires to buy the outcome of vital truth-seeking exercises. For example, the US had a billionaire family that was able to use some of the surplus capital from monopoly rents to buy the medical conclusion that opioids were not dangerous. And on that basis, they were able to make themselves much, much, much richer. The Sackler family are now richer than the Rockefellers. And they were able to just take a steady slice of that mounting capital and devote it to buying the outcome of truth-seeking exercises that continue to ask the question: Are opioids still safe? Eventually that ruptured, once more Americans had died of opioid overdoses than had died in the Vietnam War. Regulators finally had to stand up and take notice, but that was very late in the game. And we see the same thing happening with climate change. We see it happening with vaping. We see it happening with all manner of exercises. All of those represent concentrated wealth in a few hands, that is able to mobilize that wealth to buy political outcomes that run counter to the public interest. And for that reason, we need to have progressive taxation.
It’s a necessary precondition for having accountable, credible truth-seeking exercises that allow us to answer questions like: can we and should we increase the albedo of marine clouds in order to reflect more solar radiation back at the atmosphere to slow climate change? That may turn out to be a thing that we can do, but right now anybody that is qualified to answer that question is so beholden to rich oil interests that we can’t trust its outcome. And so the only way that we can trust outcomes and therefore remediate climate disasters and provide all the other things that we need as a species to thrive and prosper, is to reduce the oligarchic control of our truth-seeking exercises and make them pluralistic and critical and evidence-led.
LS: Let’s turn our eye to the bigger picture of the economy. How will our economy be organized in the future? What is there for corporations to be doing and what are the challenges for corporations? What is it that society expects of corporations in the future?
CD: That is a really interesting question. Actually, I am grappling with this as I plan my new book out. There are two camps in the green left. And one camp you might call the “de-growth left,” the other ones you might call the “bright greens” or the “hi-tech greens.” And the de-growth left, I find very non-credible. They start from what I think is the correct premise: that you can’t have continuous growth without running out of resources. But they ignore the fact that growth is not the only way to abundance. That efficiency—in our production, in distribution, and management—can yield up enormous dividends in terms of the abundance that we all live through. You could imagine, for example, something like Amazon that was divorced from its poor labor conditions and its need to return dividends to the capital classes. It still manages to represent a means by which goods of a wide variety can be located, assessed, and efficiently delivered to people who need them, but without the exploitative labor relations. Leigh Phillips, an Anglo-Canadian academic, wrote a book called The People’s Republic of Walmart. There you replace the board of Walmart with democratically elected management, and you have them root out the exploitative labor relations and the poor climate and environmental practices, but you leave intact the idea that it’s actually pretty nice to be able to go to one building that has all the things that you need, rather than having to run all around looking for them.
And that is kind of the bright green vision for things. Sort of a replacement of low wage, exploitative labor with robots; the replacement of environmentally inefficient and catastrophic tech manufacturing and distribution practices with a circular economy that incorporates graceful degradation back into the material stream for manufactured goods; but that maintains the idea of abundance, a life of material comfort. The de-growth left has a kind of—to my mind and I’m partisan here—muddier agenda. Part of it is a purely aesthetic idea that life is nicer when you kind of live a small-town kind of life. Where down the High Street there’s fifty little shops, each offering little varieties of goods that are idiosyncratic and distinctive. And where the centralization model that you have with Walmart, with shopping malls, or with Amazon goes away. And that’s, I think, mostly an aesthetic thing. There’s nothing intrinsic about small holdings and small shopkeepers that are more environmental or more sustainable than centralization. Centralization has lots of efficiencies that it can realize, provided that the centralization is being democratically managed, instead of profitably managed to the interests of a small coterie of investors who want to externalize all that negative cost and internalize all the benefits.
And then there’s this other question: Can we somehow sustain the population of the planet? Or do we need to de-populate the planet and therefore reduce the industrial intensiveness of the activities around it, so that we can have a life that is in some way more in tune with nature, or at least, notionally more in tune with nature? I’m very skeptical of this. First of all, I don’t think that there’s anything natural or unnatural about living in a town versus living in the city versus living as a nomad. None of those exists in a state of nature, and none of those are divorced from a state of nature. They are merely different ways in which our species, which is part of nature, can arrange its affairs, and some of them are good, and some of them are bad. An algae bloom that chokes off marine life is natural, but it’s not good. And a city that is environmentally unsustainable and produces pollution and poisons the land around it is not good. Whereas one that uses the concentration of population and resources to accomplish a highly circular economy where waste heat and waste resources and waste materials are easily captured and reintroduced back into the use cycle – that’s a very good thing.
And I think that those things are easier to accomplish in high-tech, high-intensity cities. And those tend to favor the kind of centralization that you get with the Walmarts and Amazons of the world. Those Walmarts and Amazons work best when they’re delivering to or providing services for a highly concentrated population. As opposed to people who have to drive from a long way away or who have their purchases driven from a long way away back to them. And one of those things that that kind of centralized depot can do is provide a platform. And again, if you can imagine a people’s platform rather than a profitably managed, private platform, that platform might allow businesses of different scale to use capital in the way that we see it being used today. It might fund risky ventures that represent idiosyncratic individualized preferences and that is what the world wants.
That would exist as a kind of mixed economy. It turns out that if you give people a welfare state so that they can afford to take a rest, and then you give them an economic upside that motivates them to try bold experiments, then you get a bunch of things that are really cool. Provided that you also regulate them, so that in the process of inventing cool things, they aren’t also destroying other people’s lives, the lives of people who are their customers, and therefore they don’t have to worry about it. That is a kind of mixed economy, where markets are treated as a tool for creating innovative, productive, useful services, but not as arbiters of the worth of individuals or as a value of ideas. Where an idea, simply because it is profitable doesn’t get to proceed if it’s also harmful to non-stakeholders. They also get a seat at the table to say: you know, it’s great that you figured out how to let wealthy people get around with Uber helicopters. But, you know, my house sits on the flight path and is now subjected to a constant barrage of noise and I require that no matter how profitable to you, that you cease this activity because it is disrupting my quality of life. Those kind of democratic checks and balances on the profit motive are critical. It is not a radical idea. When you peer into the history of our most profitable high-tech business—like information technology—you find tremendous state subsidy. For example, the University of California system that put Steve Wosniak through university at a highly subsidized rate, or the semiconductors and general-purpose computing architecture and eventually the internet that they were able to leverage to make Apple computers profitable. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with us producing public goods that are then used by the private sector to create innovative finished goods or manufactured goods through a kind of assemblage. What we need to make sure is, that they don’t then get to close the door behind us on the production of new public goods and on public accountability for these privately produced goods and services.
LS: Technology is a good point: What kind of technological project do you foresee for labor in the future and how would that impact the way that we work?
CD: The major issue is going to be leveraging the flexibility that we see in exploitative labor relations in the gig economy to non-exploitative, sustainable labor mobilization. We need to decompose people’s jobs into tasks. That can vary based on the environmental or material circumstances from moment to moment and place to place. When there’s a lot of energy, because the sun is shining or the tide is strong, we have a set of things that we do that’s distinct from what we do when it’s cold out or dark. Whenever it is that you’re ready to work, whenever you’re ready to clock in, there is a task that you can do that is productive. And that provides something for someone downstream from you, who is providing the next part of the task and uses up something that someone made upstream of you. So, it’s the people’s republic of Uber. It’s just like in your home life. You have projects that you do that are circumstantial, like you might wash the dishes while you’re on the phone or you might work in your garden when it’s not too hot out—or other projects of that ilk. We need to be able to manage that on an industrial scale so that people both upstream and downstream of your work product can coordinate with you; that someone, whose skills lend themselves to the next part of a task, can always find someone upstream of them who are doing the previous part and take the output of their labor and continue to work on it. And then someone who’s downstream can do it, too. We might have a variety of workplaces. We might have a variety of work that we do from home using computers and a blend of the two that will vary based on the external circumstances of the world.
LS: We’ve talked about society and the economy, but we haven’t really talked about the individual people. You’ve touched upon this a little bit. But what kind of expectations are we going to place on people, on individuals? What kind of relationship is there going to be between people and their work?
CD: We’re going to replace the illusion of choice, of unlimited choice, with the reality of a more constrained set of choices. Right now, we tell people: you live in a free market economy, you can do anything that you want. But for nearly everyone, that’s not true. For nearly everyone, you have a monopolistic employer, who’s the only purchaser of labor in your area. And you have to do a narrow set of jobs that are described by that employer. Now, it’s true that for certain people in the capital classes, who are at the top of the wealth and income distribution, there is actually a very, very wide range of choices about what you can do. If you have access to capital, you can start a business to do virtually anything. As we’ve seen even things that are stupid and ridiculous, you can start and run for a long time. For that tiny minority, not even the one percent, a tenth of a one percent, there is really unlimited choice about your employment. But for nearly everyone else, there’s almost no choice. And I think, what we’re going to do is have a reckoning with this, where we say, actually, you have a lot of meaningful choice about your employment through the federal job guarantee and through the dismantling of oligarchic structures, where you have single employers that dominate employment in a region.
But the way that those jobs get created and described, regulated, perpetuated, and expanded is through local municipal politics. It’s not through your individual choice. You will have a conservative leeway in terms of your individual choice. The major means by which labor is going to be deployed and redeployed is by showing up at town meeting or campaigning for local politicians to make federal job guarantee jobs that are oriented around the things that you think need doing in your community, and not by hoping that Elon Musk starts a business to do it.
LS: Can you be a little bit more specific in terms of what kind of skills I need, as a person, when I go into the job market. Is flexibility the only thing that I’m going to take into the job?
CD: I think that it’s the other way around. That this kind of flexibility that I envision is in part about making sure that people have the right skills. But I think skills are overrated, in the sense that when you look at skills gaps as an explanation for our lack of productivity or low earning, it has very little explanatory power. Skills are often a great kind of neoliberal answer to stagnating wages, because the answer to a skills gap is paying me to run a private university to retrain workers at. There’s kind of a business model for attributing stagnation to skills gaps. But when you go and retrain, say, coal miners to be IT workers, they don’t really find IT jobs either. Instead, what we would do is take account of the proclivities and abilities of people who want federal jobs. And we would democratically figure out which programs could use those skills and those proclivities, those desires. We would ask people: what do you know how to do? What are you willing to learn how to do? What do you want to do? And that would be the constraint on our ability to use a federal job guarantee to create local jobs. If you don’t have anyone who lives near you, who wants to take care of old people, you have a lot of old people in need taking care of, a federal jobs guarantee is not going to take care of those old people. So, you’re either going to have to convince people that that’s a skill they want to acquire—which you might do by raising the wage in the federal job guarantee. Or you might do that by creating normative programs about solidarity with earlier generations or what have you. But we don’t start by saying, well, look at all these people we have lying around who know how to take care of old people. Let’s put them to work. You know, it’s the other way around.
LS: Cory, thank you. This is a very interesting take on the future of labor. And not one I would have expected. Again, thank you.
This originally appeared in Foundation:
Schmeink, Lars. „The Future of Work: An Interview with Cory Doctorow.“ Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 138 (2021): 62-71