Be a maker

Does the future of work suggest owning the means of production?

Not for the first time in my life I recently said something that incensed a colleague so much they used the “C” word in my direction.

Only this time the “C” word was “Communist”

My sin was suggesting that the future of work meant, through the lens of making, discovery and creativity, we would each need to own the means of production. That the act of making liberated us from being a generation of consumers to become a generation of makers, producers and problem solvers.

I get it, “owning the means of production” sounds like something Karl Marx would say, although ironically, much of his writing was conducted whilst living in London opposite, what is now the exclusive private members club for the rich and famous, Soho House.

Marx, a German economist, social and political theorist, was the author of the “The Communist Manifesto”. However, the philosophy of communism described by Marx bore little resemblance to the ruthless totalitarian states subsequently created by Lenin, Mao or Stalin. These populists all made some use of Marx’ theories but for their own purposes of control as indeed is the want of autocratic leaders across the political spectrum.

For the record I think it’s fair to say that my political persuasion leans left. I believe in the Commons, that which should rightly be owned by the people. I believe that everyone should have access to equitable, free at point of access, high quality education, healthcare and other public services. I believe that people have the right to water, food, sanitation and shelter. I believe that an efficient economic system should make this possible or at least strive for this.

At worst, this might suggest that I’m a socialist but knowing myself better than most I would say that I’m more in line with Proudhon as a mutualist. But, like people who generally think, my views and values are more nuanced than any of these labels suggest.

Proudhon is widely considered to be the first anarchist. He believed in the small state but also that we should all, either individually or collectively, own the means of production.

Like Marx, Proudhon has been wildly misunderstood and wilfully misinterpreted to the extent that those with only a superficial grasp of social and political theory would feel comfortable in describing me as a communist.

Proudhon’s mutualist principles can be seen in practice in a variety of businesses large and small where those who work in them are regarded as shareholding partners rather than employees whose labour power has been purchased by the owner. These corporations, often set up in the form of trusts, include the construction firm Arup and the British retail giant John Lewis. Incidentally, neither company is generally considered synonymous with anarchy or communism.

When Proudhon said “all property is theft” he wasn’t talking about the home that you live in but the land upon which it was built. After all, given that we are all of the Earth, how is it possible to own land or the resources that come from it to the exclusion of others?

By distributing the underlying value of the land and resources fairly amongst our population we might end up with a less affluent but more equal society where each of us can expect food, water, sanitation, shelter and so forth, i.e. an economy that works for the people. Certainly we wouldn’t see the kind of concentration of wealth that means half of the worlds money is held by 8 men and where, Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos earns nearly 300,000 times more per hour than his warehouse employees on minimum wage.

World Economic Forum

The net result of this gaping inequality is the rise of what Prof. Guy Standing called, in his 2011 book of the same name, the “Precariat” — a growing social class lacking income security and, as a result, social agency who have been politicised around right-wing populism.

What is the Precariat? Professor Guy Standing, TEDx

Given current global socio-political unravellings one might argue that Standing was prescient in his thinking. This is before we experience the exponential impact on technological unemployment catalysed by ubiquitous AI and automation timed at a point when climate change and population growth may deliver as many as 1 billion climate change refugees by 2050.

“The climate debate can no longer only be about the causes — it also needs to focus on how billions of people at risk can rapidly adapt.”

Those who have followed my work and writing, especially in the field of education, the fourth industrial revolution and the future of work, will know that I have a particular interest in some other “C” words; creativity, critical thinking, computational thinking, communication & collaboration. These “C” words combine to form what many consider to be “21st century competences” or importantly those that ensure present and future generations thrive into the 22nd century.

These competences, which really amount to learning how to learn, adapt and get along with one another, are vital because a vast swathe of jobs that emerged during the industrial economy of the 20th century are being swept aside as a result of technological progress in the 21st.

The opportunity to automate the work and humanise the jobs is a good thing in my opinion, as long as we prepare ourselves and society for it.

As I’ve been widely quoted, “the jobs of the future are the ones that machines can’t do” and those jobs include entrepreneurship and the creation of jobs themselves. Which brings me back to my comrade whom I’d irked sufficiently for them to call me that other “C” word, communist.

The point I had made was about the dignity one gains in the transformation from being a consumer to becoming a maker and that the jobs of the future may very well be the ones that we create ourselves. It is only when we restrict access to the knowledge and skills of making that we not only limit human potential but also the opportunity to solve some of the most pressing global challenges that our species has ever faced.

Owning the means of production isn’t intended to be political commentary rather it is a call to action to reimagine our society, to consider what the new status quo will be, and then design an education system to get us there.

Another “C” word epithet directed at me was “Cerebral”. Unfortunately the person using the word meant it pejoratively. Thus, it seems that in a post-truth world you just can’t win.

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Unless specifically stated, opinions and points of view shared are my own.

As a, means of production owning, capitalist I talk for money, if you’d like me to present this work in a keynote for your conference or meeting please get in touch.

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