The politics of work
in The roots of populism
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Having charted the background and growth of British populism from nineteenth-century worker agitation to discontent with the gig economy of the 2010s, this chapter offers a concluding prognosis of the possible future of UK liberal democracy in the wake of Brexit-based populism. Bringing together the two threads of cultural denigration and economic marginalization of the working class, the question arises: how can contemporary populism be channelled into a renewal of democratic political culture? Here I consider the complex and influential interventions of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2016) and Paul Mason (2015), which have in common the notion that the current wave of automation sweeping through the global economy has the potential to lead us out of the prevailing pattern of mass material scarcity and deprivation. One of the mechanisms seen as pivotal to such a transition is a radical and scalable programme of universal basic income (UBI). I reject this solution as untenable, in part because it represents an extension of André Gorz’s (2012) earlier and, I contend, implausible argument that the very idea of the ‘working class’ should be abandoned as automating technology and structural unemployment make work a less politically significant reality. While leftist commentators and theorists may criticize the legacy of Marxism for enthroning a ‘labour theory of value’, the lived reality of the working class cannot be so easily severed from its connections to socially meaningful work. In other words, progressive populism cannot, I contend, take the form of a world beyond work.

The roots of populism

Neoliberalism and working-class lives

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