After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time
Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek
Verso, $26.95 (cloth)
The Right to Be Lazy and Other Writings
Paul Lafargue, translated by Alex Andriesse
New York Review Books, $15.95 (paper)
In 1980 Frances Gabe applied for a patent for a self-cleaning house. The design was based on her own home, which she had worked on for more than a decade. Each room had a sprinkler system installed; at the push of a button, Gabe could send sudsy water pouring over her specially treated furniture. Clean water would then wash the soap away, before draining from the gently sloped floors. Blasts of warm air would dry the room in less than an hour, and the used water flowed into the kennel, to give the Great Dane a bath.
The problem with most houses, Gabe thought, was that they were designed by men, who would never be tasked with cleaning them. The self-cleaning house, she hoped, would free women from the “nerve-twangling bore” of housework. Such hopes are widely shared: a 2019 survey found that self-cleaning homes were the most eagerly anticipated of all speculative technologies.
Cleaning, like cooking, childbearing, and breastfeeding, is a paradigm case of reproductive labor. Reproductive labor is a special form of work. It doesn’t itself produce commodities (coffee pots, silicon chips); rather, it’s the form of work that creates and maintains labor power itself, and hence makes the production of commodities possible in the first place. Reproductive labor is low-prestige and (typically) either poorly paid or entirely unwaged. It’s also obstinately feminized: both within the social imaginary and in actual fact, most reproductive labor is done by women. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that political discussions of work often treat reproductive labor as an afterthought.
One place this elision shows up is in the “post-work” tradition. For the post-work tradition—whose influence on the Anglo-American left has been growing for the last decade—the aim of radical politics should not (just) be for higher wages, more secure employment, or more generous parental leave. Rather, radical politics should aim for a world in which work’s social role is utterly transformed and highly attenuated—a world in which work can no longer serve as either a disciplining institution or the fulcrum for our social identities.
Two new publications bookend the tradition. Paul Lafargue’s 1880 essay, “The Right to Be Lazy”—a touchstone for post-work theorists—was recently reprinted in a new translation by Alex Andriesse. (A Cuban-born revolutionary socialist, Lafargue married one of Karl Marx’s daughters, Laura, in 1868.) Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek offer a more contemporary contribution. In After Work: A History of the Home and the Fight for Free Time, they blend post-work conviction with feminist scruples. A post-work politics must, they argue, have something to say about reproductive labor. The post-work tradition grapples with the grandest themes in politics—the interplay between freedom and necessity. But within its lofty imaginaries, there must also be space for a dishcloth, and a changing table.
Automation has always been central to the post-work imaginary. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), Oscar Wilde envisages a world in which “the machine” is made to “work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing.” But Wilde gives little thought to the soul of woman under socialism. While the machine frees men from “that sordid necessity of living for others,” it does not lend a hand with the laundry, or feeding the baby. Even in the age of the machine, it seems, women are mopping up after others.
Maybe Wilde thought breastfeeding would be harder to automate than coalmining. But even if we could automate reproductive labor, it’s not clear that we should. It’s one thing to imagine robots taking over the factory, the warehouse, and the office. But, as Hester and Srnicek point out, it’s quite another to envisage them in charge of the hospital, the nursing home, or the kindergarten. A world where no one spends tedious hours on the assembly line is a world worth aspiring to. But a world where no one nurses their children or cooks food for their friends? That sounds like a nightmare.
Reproductive labor, then, resists automation. Can we still aspire to a world without work? One might argue that reproductive labor is not really work (because it is unwaged, or because it happens inside the home, or because it is bound up with love) and therefore lies beyond the scope of a post-work politics. Hester and Srnicek are (rightly) unconvinced. Reproductive labor is work—and work that we can’t offload to a machine. But, they argue, when properly understood, the post-work project can absorb the stubborn realities of reproductive labor; indeed, they write, it “has significant contributions to make to our understanding of how we might better organize the labour of reproduction.”
Critiques of capitalism tend to come in one of three flavors. Distributive critiques locate the badness of capitalism in its tendency toward an unjust distribution of goods. Others identify the wrong of exploitation as capitalism’s core moral flaw. Hester and Srnicek work within a third critical paradigm, whose key moral grammar is that of alienation. Under this rubric, the true badness of work under capitalism—traditional wage labor and unpaid reproductive labor alike—lies in its distortion of our practical natures. When we fashion the world in accordance with our freely chosen ends, we realize ourselves within it. We exercise a key human capacity: the capacity to make ourselves objective. But under capitalism, we are not free to choose and pursue our own ends; we are forced into projects that we value only instrumentally. We mop floors, deliver packages, or babysit not because we think these activities have value in and of themselves, but because we need the money. We act on the world, yes, but we cannot properly express ourselves within it.
Hester and Srnicek don’t actually talk in terms of alienation; their critical registers are those of “temporal sovereignty” and “free time.” But these are novel placeholders, used to freshly mint an argument for which alienation has been the customary coin. “The struggle against work,” they say, “is the fight for free time.” And free time matters because, they argue, it is only when we have free time that we can engage in activities that are chosen for their own sake: activities in which we can “recognize ourselves in what we do.”
Such activities needn’t be leisurely. Someone who composes a sonata might be composing just for the sake of it—laboring with “the most damned seriousness, the most intense exertion.” (Here Hester and Srnicek quote the Marx of the Grundrisse.) Even dull, menial, and repetitive activities may enter into this “realm of freedom” when they are a constitutive part of appropriately valued projects. “Laboring over a hot stove,” Hester and Srnicek write, “can take on the quality of being a freely chosen activity in the arc of a larger self-directed goal.” Hester and Srnicek, then, are not advocating indolence. For them, the problem with work is not that it is effortful. Humans are agents. We make and we do. Work, though, catches our making and doing in a trap: it is caged agency. Hester and Srnicek want us to open the cage.
Hester and Srnicek’s friendliness to effort marks one point of difference between their approach and Lafargue’s. For Lafargue, freedom is more closely tied to idleness. Hot stoves don’t feature in his post-work world. His vision of the good life centers on lazing about, smoking cigarettes, and feasting.
The differences don’t stop there. Hester and Srnicek offer a moral critique of capitalism, one that appeals to values. Despite Lafargue’s title, with its talk of a “right,” his main focus is political economy. He is best read as offering a “crisis theory” of capitalism: a form of critique that appeals not to moral damage but rather to capitalism’s structural instability. Capitalism, says the crisis theorist, is a flawed economic system not because it is (say) cruel, but because it is a self-undermining system. It destroys its own capacity to function.
The roots of crisis, for Lafargue, lie in the inevitable mismatch between the productive capacities of a capitalist society and that society’s capacity to consume what is produced. Capitalism, he thinks, requires that workers play two roles: they need to make things, but they also need to buy them. Eventually, these two roles will come into conflict. Suppose that a commodity is overproduced, so that its supply outstrips demand. Its price will fall. To compensate, factory owners will cut costs or slow production. And that means they will pay their workers less or lay them off. Consumer demand will then further contract, incentivizing further wage cuts, which will further suppress demand. Worker and capitalist will both be trapped in an ever-tightening fist of economic dysfunction.
Lafargue’s innovation was not to link overproduction with crisis—hardly an original suggestion—but rather lay in his proposed solution. Where twentieth-century Keynesian reformists proposed to coordinate production and consumption by stimulating demand, Lafargue pushes in the opposite direction. We should coordinate by suppressing production; workers should simply work less. Thus, Lafargue posits not so much a right to be lazy as a duty. Those who shirk it are to blame for overproduction. “The proletarians,” he writes, “have given themselves over body and soul to the vices of work [and so] they precipitate the whole of society into those industrial crises of overproduction that convulse the social organism.” (This haughty tone is of a piece with the rest of the essay, which is consistently disdainful.)
This argument makes for an unusual brand of crisis theory. Most crisis theorists trace overproduction to structural features of the capitalist economy. This underpins their contention that overproduction is not just bad luck but a sine qua non of capitalism. “It is in the nature of capital,” Marx wrote in Theories of Surplus Value (1863), to “drive production to the limit set by the productive forces . . . without any consideration for the actual limits of the market.” Insofar as overproduction is sufficient for crisis, then, it will also be “in the nature of capital” to undermine its own productive capacity. For Lafargue, by contrast, overproduction is not a structural necessity but a function of working-class myopia.
Lafargue doesn’t worry that suppressing production will lead to scarcity. If the proletariat do manage to withhold their labor, he thinks, then laziness will become not a duty but a default. If workers work less, industrial equipment will be developed more quickly to compensate; and this trend will eventually result in a post-scarcity, post-work idyll. And Lafargue is at best impressionistic as to what life in such a world might be like. The niceties of (say) institutional design are quite beyond his ken. This marks a third point of contrast between Lafargue’s essay and After Work. Lafargue is primarily focused on the pathologies of industrial capitalism and on how they might be overcome. After Work, by contrast, is more interested in providing a blueprint than a roadmap—less concerned with how we might arrive in a post-work world, that is, than with how to organize things once we get there.
After Work begins with a puzzle. Post-work theorists propose “free time for all!” But what if the parents’ free time can only be purchased at the cost of their baby going hungry or unwashed? How can free time for all be secured alongside care for all?
In their attempt to realize both, Hester and Srnicek make three key moves. First, they argue that a lot of reproductive labor is unnecessary. They give the example of ironing. If style norms became more crumple-tolerant, ironing one’s shirts could become an optional eccentricity rather than a burdensome chore. And if caring for someone doesn’t mean doing their ironing, care and free time become more compatible as goals.
Of course, some reproductive labor is nonnegotiable; Hester and Srnicek know this. So they make a second move. Reproductive labor’s resistance to automation, they contend, has been overstated by the squeamish (and the privileged). Waged care workers often “point to elements of their jobs that could usefully be automated,” giving them more time to focus on the bits of their job that require a genuine human connection. Hester and Srnicek cite surveys showing that pensioners are significantly more open to the use of robots in elder care than other groups are. This is perhaps not surprising when we remember—Hester and Srnicek are careful to remind us—that we should not sentimentalize caring relationships. Many older adults are abused by their caregivers.
Hester and Srnicek are not crude techno-optimists. They realize that tech can be labor-extractive as well as labor-saving. Despite the “industrial revolution in the home” in the first half of the twentieth century, full-time housewives spent more hours per week on housework in 1960s (fifty-five) than they did in 1924 (fifty-two). Social expectations tend to ratchet up alongside technological proficiency. If it now takes half the time it used to take to hoover—well, you’ll just be expected to hoover twice as much. Hester and Srnicek give a deadpan account of a 1940s advertisement for a washing machine: “once the clothes are in the washing machine,” says the delighted customer, “I’m free [sic] . . . to do other housework.” Automated reproductive labor, then, doesn’t guarantee more free time; we must also lower our collective standards. (That’s good news for slobs like me: crumpled clothes, hairy legs, and messy houses can be figured as a kind of a kind of lo-fi political resistance.)
Nonetheless, Hester and Srnicek do still have a somewhat coarse view of the relationship between technology and freedom. For Hester and Srnicek, technology expands the realm of freedom. It does this by adding new options. Without a dishwasher, I have no choice but to do the dishes. But once I have a dishwasher—here they quote Martin Hägglund—“doing dishes by hand is not a necessity but a choice.”
The example is not as compelling as it might seem. I once could have traveled by horse and carriage from Oxford to London, but thanks to the internal combustion engine, the public infrastructure required for such a trip to be feasible no longer exists. The United States’ car-focused public infrastructure prevents its citizens from doing simple things, like walking to work. When it comes to social arrangements, technology both adds options and takes them away. It destroys some forms of compulsion while creating its own mandates. It need not roll back the sphere of necessity.
Hester and Srnicek might more be sanguine than most about automating some reproductive labor. But they are not sanguine about automating all of it. This technological remainder motivates a third move: efficiency. The basic social infrastructure of the Global North funnels reproductive labor into the sealed-off space of the household, which is tied to biogenetic kinship and “nuclear” living arrangements. This enclosure prevents specialization and (temporal) economies of scale: when everyone has their own kitchen, everyone has their own kitchen to clean. But such an arrangement is not inevitable; the atomic household needn’t function as the default locus for care work. We might instead rely, as the United Kingdom did during World War II, on public canteens—decorated with art from Buckingham Palace—that cooked nutritious meals prepared at scale. (These “British Restaurants,” Hester and Srnicek point out, were initially called “communal feeding centres,” but the name was vetoed by Winston Churchill for “sounding too communist.”)
It’s helpful to situate this suggestion in terms of three social dynamics posited by Nancy Fraser. First, there is the struggle for social protection: demands for material security. Second, there is marketization: the tendency for more aspects of social life to be commodified. Third, there is the struggle for emancipation: demands that social hierarchies like those of race and gender be dismantled. Fraser notes that each of these forces is politically ambivalent. The family and the welfare state are iron fists as well as velvet gloves: they can offer protection, but they also discipline those who break its rules. Marketization breeds vulnerability, but it can also offer a route to freedom. You might, like me, prefer for your material security to depend on your earning power than on your ability to keep your husband happy. And emancipation struggles may weaken social bonds—and thus a basis of social protection—in the course of dismantling hierarchy.
In terms of this typology, After Work attempts to show that demands for social protection—specifically in the form of care—can be met without compromising on emancipation. Existing models of care provision tend heavily towards privatization: your care is either a business (traded on the open market), or nobody’s business but yours (a family affair). After Work suggests a third option: care should be communal. Households should be more porous—for example, they should share communal goods and spaces—and they should no longer be the centers of gravity around which informal relations of care revolve. As a result, the burden of care is lifted from the household, but not offloaded onto the market. What’s not to like?
Yet real life is messier than this solution allows. Communal spaces can be lovely; they can also be deeply unpleasant. I don’t like cleaning my kitchen, but I also like not having to share it. When I read After Work, I was visiting my brother in Edinburgh, and we sat talking about it on the bus. He was enthusiastic about the idea that more of our lives should take place in shared spaces. Then a baby started to scream, and we couldn’t talk for the rest of the journey. “I guess this is why people like cars,” my brother said, darkly.
It could well be that other people’s screaming children are a price worth paying for a functional care infrastructure. But there’s no getting around the fact that there are costs to making our lives more communal. No transition to a post-work world is (democratically) possible unless people can be persuaded that the form of life on offer in the communal feeding center is a form of life that they would want.
Such persuasion might well be possible, but it’s not a task that Hester and Srnicek really attempt. They do acknowledge that “not everybody would feel comfortable living in fully collectivized living spaces for any great length of time, and many will want more than a single bedroom to retreat to.” And collective living, they are clear, “cannot be imposed from the top down.” Hester and Srnicek argue that, if we want free time, we will need to live more communally. But what they take as an argument for more collective living, someone else might read as an argument against shrinking reproductive labor to a minimum. After Work maps the territory for political battle but doesn’t begin to fight it.
The book’s vision doesn’t end here. Hester and Srnicek realize that while we might be able to shrink the amount of reproductive labor that needs to get done, we can’t shrink it to zero. So alongside their main approach—lessening the burden—they offer two other strategies.
The first is to incorporate care work into their picture of flourishing: what it means to live a good life. In a truly just society, this strategy says, caring labor will no longer be alienating, because we will value service to others—either for its own sake, or as part of an authentically valued project. In the lesbian separatist communities of second wave feminism—the landdyke commune, the Oregon-based “WomanShare”—participants dug ditches, converted livestock outbuildings into homes, and went in for low-tech farming. Under different conditions, such work could easily be alienating. But when folded into a larger political project to which the women freely subscribed, even their drudgery became meaningful—an expression of agency, rather than a straitening of it.
Wilde thought a post-work utopia would mean a world in which we are relieved of the “sordid” requirement to care for others and would be free to “realize” our own personalities. But Wilde got things back to front, say Hester and Srnicek. Caring for others is not a squalid compromise with scarcity; rather, we can realize our personalities by caring for others.
The analytic Marxist G. A. Cohen illustrated the logic of such arguments by analogy. Say we want a world where there’s a plentiful supply of blood for transfusions, but also where no one is coerced into giving blood. It might seem that there is a tension between these two goals. But there isn’t, Cohen says: if we create a culture in which people want to give blood, then we can have both blood and freedom. Similarly, After Work suggests, a just society will shape the souls of its citizens, so that they want to serve. One might wonder whether soul-making is really an alternative to coercion, rather than a particularly subtle form of it. But in Hester and Srnicek’s hands, at least, it is not sinister social programing so much as the insight that necessary labor could be structured on “more agential terms,” thus making it a more attractive pastime.
Besides, Hester and Srnicek are clear-eyed about the limits of any such transformation. They don’t think that cleaning the toilet can be turned into a treat; they allow that some necessary labor will remain burdensome even in a post-work utopia. Its existence is compatible with freedom, they say, so long as we ought to divide that labor “equitably.” Their picture, then, is one on which some reproductive labor may cease to be alienating because our attitudes toward it will be transformed. But there will still be some care work that no one chooses for its own sake. This brings us to their last strategy: the remaining work, they say, should be distributed equitably, divided “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
That’s a nice enough slogan, but in After Work it never becomes a serious proposal. Suppose you work faster than I do. Do you have to work the same number of hours that I work, and therefore perform more tasks? Or do you have to complete the same number of tasks as I do, in which case I will have to work more hours?
Beyond this lack of detail, there is a more serious problem. Even in a perfectly just society, there will be people who just don’t want to do any care work at all: they will prefer to freeride rather than do their fair share, whatever that turns out to be. Once we attend to would-be freeriders, it is not clear that a post-work society could really be a society of freedom, at least as Hester and Srnicek themselves understand it. As they put it, freedom entails that “the means of one’s existence will never be at stake in any of one’s relationships.” But a society that relies on everyone doing their fair share of care work presumably couldn’t get by without the resources to penalize those who opt out. And if a society has the means to impose such penalties, it will be a society in which the means of one’s existence can be a stake in one’s relationships. If we really want an equitable division of care work, some people will need to be coerced into doing it.
Hester and Srnicek might concede that perfect freedom is not compatible with care for all, but at least we would be much freer in a post-work society than we are now. (Perhaps more political theorists should be Winnicottians—concerned with developing the “good-enough” society.) So long as we have sufficient time to choose and pursue our own projects, it should not matter too much that there will still be allotments of necessity: parcels of time that are not truly our own. And, perhaps, these refractory parcels could even be packaged as a feature, rather than a bug.
For Hester and Srnicek, freedom and necessity are like land and sea—one a hospitable dwelling-place, the other a hostile territory. They think that with some ingenuity we can wall ourselves off from the water. For my part, I see human life as lived in a sort of tidal zone—an in-between place, with its own alluvial treasures. Necessity can serve as a spur to moral learning, wresting us from or filling out a cramped set of values. We often discover the projects that give shape and meaning to our lives only because we stumble into them, forced into roundabout routes by a fractal floodplain. We want to author our own lives, yes. But the value of some activities is opaque until we try them: it can’t be grasped in advance.
The actor Sally Phillips, who has a son with Down’s syndrome, puts the point perfectly. “I have such a rich life,” she says. “They say the special needs club is one that nobody wants to join, but once you do, you realize you’re in it with the best people in the world.” If an expansion of the realm of freedom is an expansion of the realm of choice, then perfect freedom might, in effect, exile us from certain forms of goodness. A life composed only of self-realization will tend to create a self of the sort that doesn’t deserve to be realized. Unwanted work can serve as a teacher, shushing the would-be brat that lurks in every human heart. Communal life presupposes a deep structure of Bildung, through which we become fitted as companions for others.
When we reflect on the two-facedness of necessity—on the ways it serves us, as well as on the ways it does us damage—we come up against the limits of After Work’s politics. Hester and Srnicek’s preferred rubrics—free time, self-realization—can’t distinguish between just and unjust forms of compulsion.
When a sulky teenager is made to set the table by her parents, her labor is alienated; she would rather be doing something else. Her activity is unchosen and imposed; she refuses to avow the purposes it serves. But to know whether the teenager is wronged, it is not enough to know how she feels about setting the table. Rather, we need to ask questions like: Does the teenager’s work benefit a community that is oriented toward her flourishing? Does the community weigh her claims and interests equally to those of its other members? Does she have a meaningful say over its policies, priorities, and direction? Or does it serve a community who dominates her, who sweeps her along while blocking their ears to her claims and interests?
The answers make a difference to the character of the compulsion (as more sophisticated theorists of alienation acknowledge). Someone whose work serves a democratic community—a community for which they serve as a trustee, rather than merely as a mute resource—is not wronged, regardless of whether her work is dull or stimulating, cherished or resented. Conversely, feeling happy about one’s work is no antidote to victimization. Someone who cares for her baby because she loves him can still be an exploited worker. Her love, although it benefits the baby, also benefits Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, by creating a future worker and consumer, from whom they can harvest data, and profit. (This is the trick of capitalism: it takes our freedom and turns it against our deepest interests.)
Because Hester and Srnicek take choice as the measure of emancipation, they end up saying relatively little about the broader social relations in which labor should be embedded. Yet social relations are the real springs and cogs of justice. What really matters, when it comes to work, is not whether we can realize ourselves through it or whether we identify with its purposes. It’s the social relations that wrench us into motion. Without a way to talk about these forces, we will go on misdiagnosing the real pathologies of our contemporary work regime.