European Union, USA, World

Saving our jobs: Fredy Perlman’s dream

A reflection on the work of a neglected thinker whose writing offers important tools for challenging capitalism today.

The unrelenting challenges of overwhelming technological development entail a future of despair for large parts of our species. Alienated in an interconnected world, condemned to be forgotten, hampered by inequality and unemployment, we are now experiencing the shock waves of globalisation.

Our labour —our primary means of survival — is central to the current crisis. Only 15 % of global employees feels happy and completely engaged in their job. On the other hand, the unemployed look forward to getting those jobs that others bitterly despise. The search for concrete solutions to these challenges is now the main goal for our democracies. We must rethink, reshape, and reinvigorate these institutions if they are to be up to the task.

It is worth dusting off our ancient political traditions. Framed in an era radically different from today’s, those traditions offer answers to forgotten challenges; something that, perhaps mirrors exactly contemporary political discussions. An idea from a radically different time and even from a radically different ideological approach, might help us focus the lens through which we view a universal problem.

Fredy Perlman was born in Brno, Czech Republic, in 1934. As a child, he and his family fled to the United States, fearing the horrors of Nazi persecution. Considered an important figure within the American critical thinkers, Perlman nonetheless remains relatively unknown in the wider world. A rebel and an activist, he tried to bring down the pillars of science, technology, nationalism, the political left and, of course, capitalism. Even though he was always reluctant to be labelled under any –ism, Perlman collaborated with Fifth Estate, an American anarchist magazine, and became a prominent figure of  anarchist movements that departed from traditional leftist norms. Fredy Perlman died in a decadent Detroit in 1985, without being able to witness the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the rise of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

It is highly unlikely that Perlman imagined that some of his theses, updated over the years, could actually provide the philosophical foundation for a reform of the same capitalism that he vilified. In fact, it is quite possible that the mere idea would have been nauseating. However, his insightful and revolutionary ideas could today be the perfect ingredient for a capitalist reform that would contribute not only to the reduction of inequality, but to the ‘dignification’ of labour.

The following could therefore be described as a theoretical framework, which uses a brief essay written by Perlman, titled “The reproduction of daily life”, as its main pillar, and is filled with the materials extracted from the advancements of modernity, science, the current state of capitalism and the initial approaches to a universal basic income.

Working to survive or surviving to work 

For Perlman “…Capital is not a natural force. It is a set of activities performed by people every day. It is a form of daily life.” The only reason why it has existed on a continuous basis and expanded so far is, according to the Czech thinker, because of people’s disposition to continue to alienate their working lives; diluting their identity and losing the creative potential of their daily activities. This is how Perlman understands work and its alienating conditions in a capitalist society.

Our constant desire to  preserve our lives and reproduce —that is, our survival— leads us not to “creative practical ability”, but precisely the contrary. Creative activity is turned into labour — an activity that we exchange for a salary—, which at the same time is “a painful necessity for survival.” Labour is just the means to survival; certainly working to survive or surviving to work are two radically opposite scenarios.

“Do we have the adequate tools to transform the current model and give a new meaning to our labour?”

The subordination of our existence to the production and subsequent consumption of goods and services is something both capitalist liberalism and contemporary socialism have in common; the sole difference being the recipient of the product of that labour. Modern Marxist movements have been able to condemn the inequality of the production conditions, while unions and leftist parties have historically fought to achieve a certain level of dignity. However, in communist systems, labour has also been reduced, for a great number of citizens, to just a means of survival: divided, planned and alienating. In practice, these regimes differ significantly from what Marx and Engels actually proposed. Their idea of labour, explained in The German Ideology (1845), rejected the exclusive circle of activities that emerges from the division of labour which the worker cannot escape if they want to preserve their life: “In a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow.”

When we bring Fredy Perlman to our current context, the first thing that comes to mind is that the material and historic conditions that once contributed to the development of a capitalist system have changed greatly. At the same time, it seems that the overall system has not been radically affected. How can we justify that? Do we have the adequate tools to transform the current model and give new meaning to labour?

The analysis of industrial production that Fredy Perlman covered in his essay has become obsolete. Even though Perlman made no mistake when he said back then that “it is not Capital that transforms raw materials, nor Capital that produces goods” —the labour of generations of engineers, mathematicians, physicists…is embedded within each robot or industrial tool— he would be mistaken today were he to say “if living activity did not transform the materials, these would remain untransformed, inert, dead matter.” For Perlman, living, or more precisely, human activity, takes place through things, but he did not envision that those things could be able to perform activity autonomously.

“Living activity is not unique to human beings any more”

In the 21st century we have reached a turning point: those things proceeding from human activity are no longer mere mediating objects. In fact, they have become the worker’s substitute. These instruments are not inert objects. They are alive. And the worker is no longer the only agent that should be considered active during the productive process. Perlman says “it is only this living activity that breathes life into Capital and makes it ‘productive”, but living activity is not unique to human beings any more.

Yaskawa industrial robot

The new living worker

Having reached this point it is not hard to ask ourselves whether it is possible that, capitalism and scientific progress could offer us alternative perspectives on how we understand and configure our labour.

Perlman would not be pleased at all to find a positive answer to that question. In fact, he urged the global population to “abolish the capitalist form of practical activity, by abolishing wage-labor and thus de-alienating creative activity.” And while a groundbreaking revolution is hard to envision nowadays, we do need urgent democratic reforms that dignify labour, reduce inequality, and attain a fairer, more creative, and freer society.

Let’s go back then to the 21st century and to the analysis of the robot as the new worker. Automation, the digitalization of the Global Economy, and civil unrest were the central topics for discussion during this year’s World Economic Forum. Many of those discussions ultimately ended around the creation of a Universal Basic Income.

It is important to acknowledge that this is a complex and unfinished debate, with several points of view and contributions from many different disciplines. The purpose of this article is not to cover the whole field, but it is worth mentioning, in order to reinforce our thesis, the work of selected contemporary thinkers, such as Scott Santens, writer and Universal Basic Income activist.

Photograph of World Economic Forum

Through his advocacy of a UBI, Santens brings to light the weaknesses and limitations of our conception of labour. In his analysis, he emphasizes two very important aspects: first, the misery of the salaried worker and secondly, the futility of avoiding the disappearance of manufacturing, administrative, and easy-to-automate jobs.

In 1991, Noam Chomsky gave an interview to Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, a North American anarchist magazine. In that interview —during which he was asked about Perlman’s work and the main thesis of North American anarchism— the renowned linguist favoured machines taking over the alienating tasks of industrial workers, even though he could not be aware at the time of the many current arguments for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income.

“Do our jobs make salaried workers happy nowadays?”

When one of the magazine’s editors, Lev Chernyi, asked Chomsky about the possibility of creating a libertarian society, whose population would continue to engage in an assembly-line type of work, Chomsky emphasized precisely the fact that this type of work was a degrading burden for human beings, and that advanced technology should undertake to eliminate “a lot of the work that human beings shouldn’t do.” To him, technological progress is not inherently destructive, but rather neutral. It could be used either for the elimination of the worker’s alienation, or to oppress the individual in unimaginable ways. It is the social institutions in which the technology is going to be developed that hold the baton.

There is no doubt about the historical and current importance of the defence of the right to work and of the security that it offers to the worker, but, do our jobs make salaried workers happy today? We have reached a point in which our claims regarding labour should go a step further from the major milestones achieved by union vindications. It is possible that bitterly regretting the disappearance of manufacturing jobs makes no sense anymore. The automation of these jobs has the potential to irreversibly end labour alienation. Perhaps we should stop mourning their disappearance and start demanding a basic income that could provide a greater degree of freedom.

Maybe with this approach we can refound the pillars upon which our social coexistence has been built. As Fredy Perlman opined, “most of the living hours which [the workers] previously spent producing necessities will now be available for activities which are not dictated by necessity but projected by the imagination.” In fact, if Perlman could travel to the 21st century he could encounter the solution to his main concern: the problem of freedom. The current state of affairs —great technological leaps and the potential deployment of a universal basic income— could free the worker from identifying their labour as “the condition for their physical and social survival.” Ironically, science and our economic development, so maligned by Perlman, could turn into allies thanks to political creativity.

“The welfare state summand cannot be eliminated, as it is the foundation of our construction”

A universal basic income conceived in such way would never turn into a substitute for labour. It is true that human beings will no longer by necessity offer their lives’ creative and “productive” substance in exchange for a salary that could guarantee their survival. But by eliminating alienation from our activity we are not making that activity disappear; by ensuring the appropriate encouragement, people will continue working for the common good. The true challenge is therefore to find a way to offer that stimulus, as well as the recipe for financing such an ambitious possibility.

It is also important to take into account that, in our “equation”,  we have only removed the income that an alienating job provides (thus guaranteeing survival) and not the benefits and services of a fully functioning welfare state. Subtracting those welfare benefits from the equation and turning the universal basic income into its substitute is far from the intention of this article, and is the antipode of Perlman’s thinking. The nuance matters. The welfare state summand cannot be eliminated, as it is the foundation of our construction.

Universal basic income as recognition of the worker

As I have stated before, there are numerous scholars that have contributed to the universal basic income debate, and who would largely benefit from the timeless work of an author so far from our time and from our capitalism.

On one hand we have Rutger Bregman’s literature. The author of the defiant Utopia for Realists. He focused on a fundamental idea: that eliminating alienation does not exclusively emanate from class consciousness. This might not seem intuitive at a first glance, but this young Dutch thinker indicates that, “according to different surveys,  37 % of workers believe they are developing a stupid job as consultants, bankers or lawyers. In fact, the majority of them would want an income that could free them from their employment and allow them to dedicate themselves to what they find useful. Hence, a universal basic income would not only free the poor, but also the rich.”

On the other hand, David Wood’s thought reflects what Perlman defined as the creative activity of human beings. A worker’s creative activity or creative power is dissipated when it is transformed into a group of activities exchanged for a salary. According to Wood, our modern institutions have the chance to create a labour market where all workers, without class distinction, can find “a profound life purpose outside of traditional paid employment.”

“Dignified work today has to do not only with class consciousness but also with the recognition of an identity”

Additionally, the constellation of these modern times reveals that the political fight has been displaced. While in the 19th and 20th centuries, the problem of redistribution dominated the demands and actions of our political class, now  the battle for recognition that has become our main focus. As Daniel Innerarity so thoroughly explains in his magnificent work Politics after indignation, “the fight for recognition has turned into the paradigmatic form of political and social conflict since the end of the 20th century. The claims that aim for the recognition of a certain difference are at the origin of many of our world’s conflicts. (…) Some academics have talked about ‘postsocialist conflicts’ in which a collective identity has replaced class interests as the place for political mobilization.”

Therefore,  dignified work today has to do not only with class consciousness, but also with the recognition of an identity. The identity of the worker, no matter the class, where the worker becomes free to focus his or her “practical creative activity” towards what they consider important and enriching for themselves. Thus, it seems that the recipe to combat alienation can no longer include only redistribution as an ingredient, but also recognition.

Who knows whether the journey of this hard-to-label traveler might offer us a spyglass, built in the past, forged from the desire of avoiding our present, but with the most lucid crystal through which we can look into our future.


This article was first published on La Grieta in Spanish and was translated by the author, Ignacio Bañarez Sánchez.

Ignacio Bañarez Sánchez

An equal lover of science and letters, Ignacio Bañarez Sánchez was a career engineer, focusing on Sustainability and energy challenges. After a period as a consultant in the financial sector and the discovery of a late vocation, he  started his studies in Politics and Economics at the London School of Economics. Music and film are his private refuge.