At our leisure

Rupert Read anticipates 'Peak Robot', and examines how, exactly, the leisure society could replace labourism

Rupert Read

A generation or two ago, there was a lot of talk about 'the leisure society'. Where did all that talk go, and why? It was trumped by the march of consumerism and of economic growth. Society chose, in effect, to take the proceeds of affluence as stuff, rather than as time. We plumped for material wealth rather than for wellbeing.

We made a mistake.

That's become increasingly obvious, as we have become richer (and more unequal, at the same time), without any improvement whatsoever in quality of life (in fact, quite the reverse). And as the level of pollution has risen, we've thus started to threaten our very future as a civilisation.

And perhaps that's why talk of 'the leisure society' is returning.

A leisure society - where our sense of meaning comes more from the life we live than from labouring as much as possible to earn as much as possible - is clearly now necessary. Better still: it's also possible. It's possible that we could have a citizen's income (see Caroline Lucas's article on p.10) that would end wage-slavery forever. And we could have a working week that gets shorter every year. We could find meaning in our life from caring-activities we engage in on a volunteer basis, spending more time being citizens and less being consumers, and seeing family and friends. Spending time - rather than just money.

But to realise these possibilities, we are going to have to retake power from the one per cent - to stop being fobbed off with trinkets, and reassert our right to a life dominated by neither producing nor consuming and to defeat the hegemonic ideology of growthism and replace it with a post-growth common-sense that turns away from the culture of 'more', the culture of stuff.

There's more than enough to go around already, if only we share it around better.

As we get all this sorted, we should demand that the leisure society becomes a reality. We should only have to work as much as we need to make each other collectively happy.

Don't get me wrong, though: there is still going to be plenty of such work to do, forever. We need more people back on the land; we need to staff the NHS; and so on.

And in embracing a future society of leisure, we must be wary of the idea of 'fully automated luxury communism', which purports that robots are going to replace most human labour altogether, within our life-times, and that this is a good thing: the thinking goes that everything will be automated and that there will be common ownership of that which is automated.

This is a dangerous fantasy. Even if hyper-automation were controlled by people, rather than by profiteering corporations, it would still be dangerous.

Why? For the same underlying reason that we need the leisure society: because we're breaching the limits to growth. 'Peak Robot' is a problem because robots are fantastically energy- hungry; their 'bodies' embody humongous amounts of energy and materials and their use accelerates the damage we do to the earth. Moore's Law, which says that the number of transistors on a microprocessor chip will double every couple of years (meaning the parts get smaller and the computers become more powerful), is about to run into the buffers: within five years, computers' working parts will become so small that they start to become vulnerable to quantum instabilities. (And remember: as they get smaller, they also become more impracticable to recycle.)

Fully-automated luxury for the 99 per cent is in this respect no different from fully-automated hyper-luxury for the one per cent: it's a recipe for human self-destruction.
So: we need to create a leisure society in which most of the work that we still choose to do is done by us.

Let's choose this future. For one-planet-living. And for our own wellbeing.

Rupert Read chairs Green House ( and was Green candidate for Cambridge in the 2015 election