We worry about work a lot: lack of work, furloughed work, unstable work on zero-hour contracts. And then there’s new forms of work, guided entirely by an algorithm, stripping out any sense of agency or job satisfaction. These fears go back a long way, in step with the gradual spread of the industrial revolution from the late 18th century onwards. By the turn of the 20th century there was, as the historian José Harris puts it, “a lurking grief at the memory of a lost domain,” a sense that where work was concerned, “change was inevitable, and in many respects desirable, but that its gains were purchased at a terrible price.”
In Marx’s Capital, the passages on the division of labour and the perfection of complex machinery are written with the vivid energy of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Some 80 years later, Walter Benjamin laments the passing of…
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