Johanna Bruckner

The Future of Work: Scaffolds and Agencies in the post-work age

The Future of Work: Scaffolds and Agencies

Agency in the post-work age

Johanna Bruckner


The substitution of human labour with robotic technologies is challenging European welfare systems, generating a complex debate about the policies that should be adopted to regulate this process. According to recent discussions between politicians and representatives of other positions in Europe, either robots or the companies using them should pay a tax, in order to lessen the social costs arising from automation’s displacement effect. This ʻrobot taxʼ, some argue, should be used to finance a universal basic income.

The robot tax ends up being a tax borne primarily by the manufacturing sector, and not by other sectors of the economy that will likely invest heavily in automation, including autonomous vehicles in trucking and transport, smart conveyor belts in warehouses, electronic checkouts in retail, etc. However, former warehouse areas in particular are a testing ground for the practical and theoretical implementation of the robot tax, as well as for discussions as to the problems it may cause.

This script for a performed role game (from which only a small excerpt will be presented here)  is not just about the idea of a tax on robots that may indeed be introduced in the future but also about the social and political impact of displacing a large physical labour force and replacing it with automation. Could a game aimed at rehearsing our solidarity skills respond to the automation of the labour force in the former warehouse territories of Hamburg by suggesting solutions to the problematic displacement scenarios? This game offers us the opportunity to play about with other infrastructure models brought about as a result of automation and, particularly, to consider questions relating to the ambiguities of taxing robots. Ethical principles for the development and deployment of robots and artificial intelligence are to be identified and discussed.

Figure 1, local labour union:

In order to simulate the robot tax, a worker’s last annual income may be used as a reference salary, with income tax and social security charges equivalent to those paid by the worker being subtracted. However in the case of employment conditions in Hamburg’s HafenCity, most of the payments are made bybusinesses operating under corrupt, deregulated conditions, and thus can hardly be used as reference values for any future operation. The workers in Hamburg’s HafenCity receive different incomes depending on their employer. Most of them work without employment contract or work as free-lance construction side workers without them informed about this scenario.

Morever, as most of the jobs that may be created in HafenCity in the future may specifically for robots, there would be no previous human income to act as a reference salary for tax calculation purposes. Another complication, especially in the building industry is that robots may be integrated into other machines, so that the boundaries become ever more fluid between automated and non-automated labour.

Figure 2, global / international labour union:

The alternative to a robot tax, according to Varoufakis, is a Universal Basic Dividend (UBD). A public trust created from shares in all major corporations operating in HafenCity would generate an income stream to be paid out to all citizens. Effectively, society would become a shareholder in every corporation, and the dividends would be distributed evenly to all citizens. Insofar as automation would increase productivity and corporate profitability, the whole of society would begin to share in the benefits. Indeed, as higher profits and their automatic redistribution via the UBD boosted incomes, more funds would become available for the welfare state. Coupled with stronger labour rights and a decent living wage, the ideal of shared prosperity would receive a new lease of life.

In this context it is important for us that this public trust is coordinated by an international network of labourers in a decentralized way, to again aviod the concentration of capital and power to a few, not to mention bound to a certain territory.

Figure 3, a few performers with members of another Hamburg labour union:

As discussed HafenCity is an area characterised by unstable labour relations and working conditions, labour corruption and military-level surveillance, as is known from conversations with labour representatives from for example, IG BAU and Hochtief. State and global actors camouflage and obscure one another. For example, governmental control over labour, along with its last hopes of regulation, will disappear when the state loses control over income from goods and their taxation. To whom will taxes be paid if there is no longer a clear division between state and non-state actors? Whose remit will taxation and tax control be?

Figure 4; Figure against military state surveillance:

Increasingly, the technological ʻsmart toolsʼ and software systems used by companies such as CISCO and SAP operating in the HafenCity are produced as a result of military tests and/or for military purposes. The idea of a synergy between taxation and the UBI based on military resources, thus, is not an option.

Again, the local workers union:

In the light of recent developments in the sphere of automation, the labour force is likely not only to be confronted with different sorts of work, but also with far fewer jobs. More than fifty per cent of existing jobs in the harbour area are vulnerable to automation by means of the ʻsmartʼ technologies that are now commonplace and that govern our social interactions. These jobs are in transport, warehousing, and the remnants of the retail sector. If these predictions are accurate, the existence of a stable middle class seems to be a prerequisite for a liberal democracy. And, moreover, who will bear the costs of the transition to automation?

With the reintegration of workers from the South-East into a new labour market, having been retrained in new skills in order to adapt to the changing labour/robot regime, the migrant workforce no longer has a place in this scenario. The migrant workforce does not, however, disappear because no sustainable option has been created to provide these workers with proper wages, a decent standard of living and civil rights. A robot tax that destroys these jobs in one fell swoop establishes an invisible multitude of labouring subjects with lost and marginal perspectives, abandoned along with their families to the trade in humans. As an alternative, could the common public trust create new jobs for the former temporary labour force?

As the role of the state and, indeed, its influence vanish in response to these developments and the current transformations in the areas of labour and property, we, the performers, members of IG BAU and initiators of this game-based thinking structure, now call for stronger regulation of the new post-industrial residential urban zones!

With a few performers I have been working over several weeks in temporary social settings; within which the group develops scores that are transforming the urgencies into possible collective agencies – in dialogues with labour organisations and other representative stakeholders on side and in the international context. The bodies perform in relation to each other; creating a bodily language that temporarily stays autonomous. The emerging bodily consteallations perform as a self-determined, self-composed durational social endeavour; rehearsing the relational accountabilities. Communal knowledge is created through horizontal exchange and learning; and different experiences in the investigation of labour / automation are discussed and put forward. Following these scenarios, we are setting up support structures, through both, the performances and the conversations with organisations and subjects in the field on how to move on.