Labor Without Laborers

Posted: February 19, 2017 in Corporatism, Culture, Economics, Ethics, History, Idealism, Politics, Science, Technophilia
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This past Thursday was an occasion of protest for many immigrant laborers who did not show up to work. Presumably, this action was in response to recent executive attacks on immigrants and hoped to demonstrate how businesses would suffer without immigrant labor doing jobs Americans frequently do not want. Tensions between the ownership and laboring classes have a long, tawdry history I cannot begin to summarize. As with other contextual failures, I daresay the general public believes incorrectly that such conflicts date from the 19th century when formal sociopolitical theories like Marxism were published, which intersect heavily with labor economics. An only slightly better understanding is that the labor movement commenced in the United Kingdom some fifty years after the Industrial Revolution began, such as with the Luddites. I pause to remind that the most basic, enduring, and abhorrent labor relationship, extending back millennia, is slavery, which ended in the U.S. only 152 years ago but continues even today in slightly revised forms around the globe.

Thursday’s work stoppage was a faint echo of general strikes and unionism from the middle of the 20th century. Gains in wages and benefits, working conditions, and negotiating position transferred some power from owners to laborers during that period, but today, laborers must sense they are back on their heels, defending conditions fought for by their grandparents but ultimately losing considerable ground. Of course, I’m sympathetic to labor, considering I’m not in the ownership class. (It’s all about perspective.) I must also admit, however, to once quitting a job after only one day that was simply too, well, laborious. I had that option at the time, though it ultimately led nearly to bankruptcy for me — a life lesson that continues to inform my attitudes. As I survey the scene today, however, I suspect many laborers — immigrants and native-born Americans alike — have the unenviable choice of accepting difficult, strenuous labor for low pay or being unemployed. Gradual reduction of demand for labor has two main causes: globalization and automation.

Globalization effectively opened up labor markets so that North Americans were forced to compete with labor in SE Asia and elsewhere paid a fraction of American wages. Accordingly, the ownership class relocated many production facilities overseas where cheap, disposable labor was plentiful. Oddly enough, some production is now repatriating, but labor is replaced by automation, resulting in what’s called technological unemployment.

Automation is the subject of Nicolas Carr’s book The Glass Cage (2014), which I just finished reading. I won’t offer a full review of the book, but I want to draw out a couple things. Curiously, the library copy I read (first ed.) bears the subtitle “Automation and Us,” whereas the subtitle at the link above indicates “How Our Computers are Changing Us.” The book explores the fraught relationship between people and their technological creations and innovations. We appear to be entering a new phase in labor history as deskilling and technological unemployment become commonplace. Although Carr is critical of disruptive social impacts stemming from technology, he often writes with an irritating, journalistic, I-report-the-controversy-you-decide blandness. This passage actually communicates admiration and affection for technology:

Technology is as crucial to the work of knowing as it is to the work of production. The human body, in its native, unadorned state, is a feeble thing. It’s constrained in its strength, its dexterity, its sensory range, its calculative prowess, its memory. It quickly reaches the limits of what it can do. But the body encompasses a mind that can imagine, desire, and plan for achievements the body alone can’t fulfill. The tension between what the body can accomplish and what the mind can envision is what gave rise to and continues to propel and shape technology. It’s the spur for humankind’s extension of itself and elaboration of nature. Technology isn’t what makes us “post-human” or “transhuman,” as some writers and scholars have recently suggested. It’s what makes us human. Technology is in our nature. Through our tools we give our dreams form. We bring them into the world. The practicality of technology may distinguish it from art, but both spring from a similar, distinctly human yearning. [p. 215]

Yet Carr is no technophile or tech cheerleader (plenty of those around), not that one would know it. Many such passages could be cited, which readily acknowledge the obvious bounties of technology. However, Carr also observes the tendency of technology to reshape (and misshape) us when adopted uncritically. One might wish for a sharper critique, but I suppose that approach would be too easy to dismiss by those in the thrall of technology.

So what of the Thursday labor action? I suspect rank-and-file workers understand the issues poorly and simply want their share of the pie. Leaving their jobs for one day might awaken a few humanistic managers/owners to the absence of necessary human labor, but at the same time, this tactic reinforces already heightened sensitivity felt by the ownership class, who clearly want invulnerability to the demands of labor. Put more bluntly, workers demanding a living wage, say $15 per hour, provides incentive for employers to drop them from the workforce altogether and replace them by machinery, software, and robotics. Indeed, the very first employer of many Americans, McDonald’s Corporation, is moving in that direction by installing fast food kiosks to bypass cashiers. Panera, Wendy’s, and others are following the example. As Carr points out, professionals such as pilots, physicians, and lawyers are also vulnerable, already having suffered transition of many of their job tasks to software. Moreover, Carr makes the trenchant point that whereas we initially designed machines to assist and serve us, as those machines become more sophisticated and replace more of our effort, we end up monitoring and serving them.

One last point. An important facet of recent labor history is the democratization of production. For instance, relatively cheap recording equipment, editing software, and distribution networks now enable individuals to produce their own music and video and reach audiences without the outlay of tens of thousands of dollars it used to take to get up and running. Sometimes, the results even rival those of high-dollar productions. Ironically, these very same innovations and efficiencies have freed the ownership class from need of human labor and expertise, both blue and white collar. It has, one might say, emancipated owners from needing to hire workers. For instance, agribusiness and mining now operate with far diminished labor forces compared to even 60 years ago. The canard often cited as rationalization for discarding people is that those dropped or forcibly ejected from the workforce are then free to pursue their dreams, to be entrepreneurial and creative, similar to labor-saving devices that supposedly would free consumers from mundane, everyday tasks to enjoy lives of leisure or pursue intellectual and artistic interests. Of course, that’s not how things have developed despite decades of beating the technological drum. What really frees people to pursue dreams and interests is wealth. Some counterculture types might argue that abject poverty does the same, in the sense that one then has nothing to lose. Unfortunately, that social result (penury) is stalking us all as wealth concentrates in ever fewer hands, but sadly, there is no creative renaissance or entrepreneurial boom flowing out of it.

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