Peak Labor

16 December 2015


Boissard, Jean Jacques: Emblematum Liber (1593)

Jean Jacques Boissard, Emblematum Liber (1593)

I have often said that the most expensive commodity in an industrialized economy is human labor. While generally true, this is a claim that admits of many exceptions, and, as I have come to see, these exceptions are likely to increase over time until the exception becomes the rule and our perspective is transformed by changed circumstances. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I have also often said that a civilization can be defined (at least in part) by the particular set of problems that it engenders, and that once a civilization lapses, its problems disappear with in and new problems arise from the changed civilization that supplants the old civilization. Another way to express the same idea would be to say that civilization can be defined by its particular disconnects — i.e., the particular pattern of ellipses that persists in our thought, against all apparent reason — and this in turn suggests an even better formulation, by defining civilization in terms of both its unique set of “connects,” if you will, and its disconnects, i.e., the particular patterns of foci and ellipses that together constitute the conceptual infrastructure of a civilization (or, if you like, the logical geography that defines the epistemic space of a civilization; on logical geography cf. the quote from Donald Davidson in Epistemic Space).

In several posts I have examined some fundamental problems (which I have also called fundamental tensions) in our civilization, as well as major disconnects in our thought. In regard to fundamental tensions, in The Fundamental Tension of Scientific Civilization I wrote that science within scientific civilization will become politicized, but those scientific civilizations most likely to remain viable are those that are best able to resist this inevitable politicization, and I recently returned to this idea in Parsimony in Copernicus and Osiander and suggested that another fundamental tension is that between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism, i.e., scientific method exists in an uneasy partnership with scientific realism.

In regard to disconnects, in A Philosophical Disconnect I observed a disconnect between political philosophy and philosophy of law, which disciplines ought to be tightly integrated, since in our society law is the practical implementation of political ideals, and in Another Disconnect I observed a disconnect between accounting and economics, which again ought to be tightly integrated as accounting is the practical implementation of economics.

Another important disconnect has only just now occurred to me, and this is a disconnect that we see today in the conceptualization of the labor market. The disconnect is between the theoretical explanation of technological unemployment on the one hand, and on the other hand the increasing employment insecurity (therefore existential precarity in industrial-technological civilization) among many classes of workers today, and the failure to see that the two are linked. In other words, there is a disconnect between the theory and practice of technological unemployment.

In several posts, both on this blog and my other blog, I have examined the question of technological unemployment. These posts include (but are not limited to):

Automation and the Human Future

Addendum on Automation and the Human Future

“…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”

Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector

Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity

Addendum on Technological Unemployment

It would be best, in a discussion of technological unemployment, to avoid the facile question of is-it-or-isn’t-it happening. There is no question that changing technology changes the economy, and changes in the economy result in changes in the labor market. The relevant question is whether technological changes create new jobs elsewhere. But even this is a relatively shallow perspective, that carries with it assumptions about the role of labor in social stability. But social stability is an illusion — an illusion sustained by our perspective on history, which is parochial and relative to the individual’s perception of time.

As every prospectus always says, “Past Performance is Not Necessarily Indicative of Future Results.” As with investments, so too with the labor market, which has changed radically over time, and, the larger the sample of time we take, the more radical the change. Because of our innate human biases we tend to think of anything persisting throughout our lifetime as permanent, but the contemporary institutions of the labor market did not even exist a hundred years ago, and it is at least arguable that no concept of “labor” as such existed a thousand years ago. Labor as a factor of production, along with land and capital, is a venerable formula, but the formula itself is younger than the industrial revolution.

Rather than be surprised that macroscopic change takes place over macroscopic historical scales, we should expect it, and our experience of industrialization — itself only about two hundred years old — and the ability of industrialization to continually revolutionize production, should suggest to us that we continue to live in the midst of a revolution in which change is the only constant. The labor market will not be exempted from this change. The truly interesting questions are how the labor market will change, and how these changes will interact with the larger social context in which labor occurs.

One macroscopic structure that we are likely to see in the labor market over historical time is something that I will call peak labor. As an industrialized economy develops through its initial stages that drives up the cost of labor that only human beings can perform, but then eventually passes a technological threshold allowing most forms of human labor to be replaced by machine labor, such an economy will pass through a stage of “Peak Labor,” that is to say, a period when human labor is the most expensive commodity in the economy, after which point labor begins to decrease in value. As machine equivalents to human labor tend to zero over the long term (the very long term), human labor as a factor of production will also tend to zero. Human beings will continue to engage in activities that could be called “labor” if we continue to use the term, but the sense of wage labor as a factor of production is a strictly limited historical phenomenon.

Having learned from past experience that, in making any prediction, the assumption will be that some transformation is “right around the corner,” and we had better not blink or we might miss it, I must hasten to add that we are not going to see the value of human labor in the labor market tend to zero tomorrow, next year, in ten years, or even in twenty years. But what we will see are subtle signs in the economy that labor is not what it used to be. We are already seeing this in the gradual phasing out of defined benefit retirement plans, the decrease in lifetime employment, and the increase of temporary employment.

As non-traditional and unconventional forms of labor very slowly grow in their representation in relation to the total labor market, traditional and conventional forms of labor will shrink in relative terms as constituents of the labor market. This process has already begun, but because this process is slow and gradual, and some individuals are not affected in the slightest, with many traditional forms of employment continuing for the foreseeable future, the process is not recognized for what it is. And this is a fundamental disconnect for our industrial-technological civilization, for which, as I have elsewhere observed on many occasions, the problem of employment is one of the central and integral tensions of economic activity.

When wage labor eventually entirely disappears, no one will notice and no one will mourn, because the problem of employment is linked to a particular kind of civilization, and when the problem of employment disappears this will mean that a different form of civilization will have supplanted that in which employment is a fundamental tension intrinsic to that particular form of social organization. The form of social organization that supplants industrialism will not be without fundamental tensions, but it will have different problems and tensions than those which concern us today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Since posting Automation and the Human Future a few days ago, a reader has directed by attention to Technological Unemployment Amidst Stagnation at All Systems Need A Little Disorder by Ashwin Parameswaran. I have previously mentioned Ashwin Parameswaran’s blog, Macroeconomic Resilience, in my post Self-Dissimilarity.

While my last post credited the fear of technogenic unemployment primarily to recession-induced pessimism, Parameswaran takes technogenic unemployment very seriously, and anticipates “Transitioning To The Near-Automated Economy,” even considering the changes that must come about in education as this transition is made. What Parameswaran writes is so wonderfully sane and reasonable, and I agree with so much of it (indeed, it warmed my heart to see him refer to our economy today as “neo-feudal” as this is a point that I have made many times), that I hesitate to differ with him, and I don’t need to differ with Parameswaran too much if we adjust our expectations to la longue durée and make it clear that we are not talking about what is going to happen within 25 years or so.

I am certainly not beyond speculating on the possibility of very different employement structures. In my post Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution, I suggested the possibility of an industrial revolution of a different sort — an industrial revolution resulting in a society in which the supply and the demand for labor were not nearly so close to being in equilibrium as they are today. For despite the problems of unemployment that plague advanced industrialized societies, the astonishing thing about it is not that there is unemployment, but rather that supply and demand of labor are so nearly identical. In a different kind of society, a different kind of industrial civilization, this approximation of employment demand to employment supply might not obtain.

As long as we take a sufficiently long time-horizon I am willing to agree that we will be eventually transitioning to a near-automated economy. In a comment made on the Los Angeles Times article L.A. 2013 — about an article from 03 April 1988 (from the Los Angeles Times Magazine), seeking to predict a quarter century into the future to 2013, Yves Rubin wrote…

“In general, such futuristic articles should multiply time spans by at least 10. Downtown Los Angeles “may” look like in this article’s cover photo in 250 years!”

I largely agree with this. In 25 years we see little change, but in 250 years we are likely to see significant change. Think back to the world 250 years before the present — the world of 1763, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the Seven Years’ War — and if we compare that world, without electricity, without the internal combustion engine, before the industrial revolution, and before the United States existed, with our world today, we can see how radical the changes to the familiar world can be in a future an order of magnitude beyond the modest 25 years of the 1988 article about LA.

I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date. If the near-automated economy becomes a reality in 250 years — a scenario that I will not dispute — I don’t think that this will be much of a problem, because we will need machines producing the goods we need to expand the human presence in the Milky Way. Seven billion people is a lot on the surface of the Earth — and there will be even more people by that time — but when spread out in the galaxy, seven billion human beings isn’t even enough to scratch the surface, as it were.

The transition to a near-automated economy (contemplated in isolation from parallel synchronous changes) would require adjustments so radical that it would be an open question, once these changes were in place and the near-automated economy is up and running, whether we would still be living in the same old industrial-technological civilization we have come to know and love, or whether this historical discontinuity was sufficient to cause a rupture that results in the constitution an an entirely new civilization — perhaps even constituting a preemption event that ends industrial-technological civilization by replacing it with whatever comes next. Over time, these adjustments will happen more or less naturally, but contemplated in one fell swoop the necessary adjustments seem incomprehensibly radical.

In the article Real Robot Talk in The Economist that I quoted in my last post, Automation and the Human Future, the author wrote that, “modern economies continue to use wages as the primary means by which purchasing power is distributed.” What mechanism other than wages can be employed as a means for the distribution of purchasing power? How could goods and services be allocated within an economy without the quantification that wages effect? (The problem is similar to that of allocating capital and resources within a socialist economy: how is capital to be allocated to enterprises without a pricing mechanism?)

This is another example of thinking in conventional terms about a time in the future when conventional assumptions will no longer hold. By the time the automated economy will seriously alter social relationships, so many other things will have happened, and will be happening, that terms like “labor” and “capital” and “goods” and “services” will have come to take on such different meanings that to formulate things in the old way would be nothing but an anachronism.

It is to be expected that measures will be taken in the attempt to preserve the present structure of civilization as long as possible (and in so doing to preserve the familiar meanings of familiar terms), and some of these measures may seem quite drastic in their attempts to preserve certain institutions. For example, we may see mass mobility of labor across nation-state boundaries allowing technogenically superfluous labor to seek opportunities for work in regions of the world not yet transformed by the technologies of automated production. As entrenched as the nation-state is in our contemporary thought, it is not as entrenched as our idea of civilization, and we would sooner compromise the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state than we would allow our civilization to lapse.

Yet, in the fullness of time, not only will our nation-states lapse, but our distinctive form of civilization will lapse also, and it will be replaced by another form of civilization, as yet unknown to us.

It is one of the distinctive features of civilization that the problems intrinsic to a given form of civilization emerge simultaneously with the civilization and disappear with the disappearance of that civilization; that is to say, for the most past, the problems of a particular form of civilization are not passed along to new forms of civilization, which have their own problems. I take this to be one of the most fascinating features of civilization, and I don’t think that it receives sufficient attention in the study of civilization. What it implies is that, like an artist’s work, a civilization’s problems are never resolved, only abandoned.

The problem of royal legitimacy, for example, scarcely exists today, and in so far as it exists at all it only exists as a holdover from an earlier form of civilization that no longer exists, as is the case with the constitutional monarchies of Europe. But the intense debates over the divine right of kings simply don’t exist any more. The problem was never “solved” but was intrinsic to the form of civilization in which royal authority was central, and once royal authority was no longer the central organizing principle of civilization, the “problem” of royal authority, its source and its legitimacy, simply disappears.

Of course, one of the ways in which one kind of civilization succeeds another is through a radical innovation that “solves” (in a sense) the problems of the earlier civilization, but in so “solving” the problem another kind of civilization is created, and so the solution does not obtain within the previous civilizational paradigm; it defines a new civilizational paradigm, within its own problems (to become manifest in the fullness of time) awaiting a solution that will initiate another civilizational paradigm.

Automated production issuing in maximized abundance and the demise of employment as we know it today would constitute a transition to a distinct form of civilization from the industrial-technological civilization that we know today, and the emergence of a future industrial-technological civilization in which maximized abundance becomes an established fact and human labor superfluous to the maximized abundance would also constitute a changed socioeconomic context that would interact will all other synchronous historical events transpiring in parallel and therefore in mutual relations of influence.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Nietzschean Economics: A Utopian Division of Labor

One of my favorite quotes from Nietzsche is not at all well known, though it comes from that is probably Nietzsche’s best-known book, Beyond Good and Evil:

“In the end, it must be as it is and has always been: great things for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies for the refined, and in sum, all rare things for the rare.”

“Zuletzt muss es so stehn, wie es steht und immer stand: die grossen Dinge bleiben für die Grossen übrig, die Abgründe für die Tiefen, die Zartheiten und Schauder für die Feinen, und, im Ganzen und Kurzen, alles Seltene für die Seltenen. —”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, section 43

In so saying Nietzsche was echoing one of his own earlier pronouncements — something he often did in refining his own formulations. Here is the earlier version of the same idea:

My Utopia.–In a better arranged society the heavy work and trouble of life will be assigned to those who suffer least through it, to the most obtuse, therefore; and so step by step up to those who are most sensitive to the highest and must sublimated species of suffering and who therefore suffer even when life is alleviated to the greatest degree possible.”

“M e i n e U t o p i e. — In einer besseren Ordnung der Gesellschaft wird die schwere Arbeit und Noth des Lebens Dem zuzumessen sein, welcher am wenigsten durch sie leidet, also dem Stumpfesten, und so schrittweise aufwärts bis zu Dem, welcher für die höchsten sublimirtesten Gattungen des Leidens am empfindlichsten ist und desshalb selbst noch bei der grössten Erleichterung des Lebens leidet.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, section 462

I cited both of these passages in my Variations on the Theme of Life (in a footnote to section no. 404), where I wrote (with Nietzsche firmly in mind):

“As an educated taste discriminates finer distinctions, appreciates more subtleties, and discerns greater detail, so an educated intellect conceives more clearly, sees in sharper outline, and penetrates deeper than an uneducated intellect. Knowledge sharpens awareness; understanding focuses consciousness.”

I started thinking about Nietzsche’s utopian division of labor again when I was reading a recent column in the Financial Times. The column in question was Lucy Kellaway’s advice column, to which individuals write in questions, and Lucy Kellaway responds, also inviting responses from her readership. This is one of my favorite FT features, and in fact I wrote in to respond to one of these questions last year and my answer was published (anonymously, of course) among a selection of other comments from FT readers.

The question in question, Why can’t I get a job?, was one almost calculated to provoke a response from FT readers:

“In 2009, I graduated from a top-tier US university with a degree in European history and since then I have struggled to find work in the US. I tried civilian intelligence, then finance and venture capital — everything from sales to being a police officer. Now, in despair, I am enlisting in the swollen US military. I believe my liberal arts education has given me a good basis for joining the workforce (I also speak Russian) but it seems employers do not agree. They prefer candidates from a state university with qualifications in business or marketing. What has gone wrong?”

Lucy Kellaway (who, by the way, is an Oxford PPE) responded (in part) as follows:

“In career terms your degree has been a waste of time. It has not prepared you for the workforce at all: writing essays about Bismarck or the causes of the Crimean war is no grounding for the world of spreadsheets and marketing campaigns… The point of a history degree is not to get a job at the end of it but to broaden the mind, to learn to write a proper sentence — something that, though good in itself, is neither necessary nor sufficient to get on in corporate life.”

Many of the reader responses in the FT were more openly derisive of a liberal arts education than was Ms. Kellaway — this is, I suppose, to be expected from a business publication. But Kellaway and her readers are, ultimately, right: a humanistic education has no place in industrialized civilization. Being part of the “workforce” means being able to do the practical things demanded by an industrialized economy, and these things today are dominated by computer and technical and marketing skills. The accomplishments of a traditional humanistic education literally have no place in the world today.

Not only is a liberal education a “waste of time,” as Ms. Kellaway puts it, but it could be argued that it is an actual impediment to fulfilling one’s role in the workforce. It is entirely possible to competently undertake some technical task without any knowledge or appreciation of history, philosophy, literature, poetry, or art. And an awareness of such things may well be a distraction that could obstruct a meticulous and purely instrumental attention to a technical task. Moreover, it is well known that highly educated people are often dissatisfied with their work and are therefore a source of discontent in the lives of coworkers. This may help to explain why the very idea of “higher” civilization has become controversial today, and why industrialized modernity, in terms of its contribution to the tradition of civilization, cannot be considered a peer competitor (or even near-peer competitor) to classical antiquity or medievalism.

As pathetic as the questioner sounds, he has a point also; he, too, is ultimately right. He had probably been told to follow his passion, and he had gotten into a “good” school, but he did not realize that the world is changing at an ever-faster pace, and that sinecures that might have been available in the recent past are rapidly becoming unavailable as the contemporary economy is ruthlessly pared down to a sleek and minimalist functionalism, like the buildings we now have in our cities instead of the gorgeous architecture of ages past.

In my Variations on the Theme of Life, which I quoted above, I also wrote:

“Fire a young man with ambition, fill his mind with an edifying education, swell his heart with proper pride, urge him to dream big dreams, tell him that the world waits like a ripe fruit that comes to meet the hand that plucks it, prepare him for a life of adventure and achievement — then show him the practical impossibility of attaining his ambitions, and you may just as well have shown him the instruments of his martyrdom.” (section 41)

This is what happens to many young people who follow idealistic advice on their career choice, rather than the kind of hard-headed career advice dispensed by readers of the Financial Times. Who can fault them? The young are, by and large, by nature passionate, idealistic and innocent. It is a violation of that innocence to tell them the hard facts of life, and if they are told, they may not listen.

The irrelevance of humanistic education was not always the case. In the ancient world, a humanistic education was central to obtaining a position in political society. The kind of men for whom Aristotle wrote his Nichomachaean Ethics — other people (like slaves) didn’t matter and were therefore invisible to ancient philosophical ethics — would have obtained an education in philosophy and rhetoric as a preparation for a public career, which was essentially the only kind of career such men could have. Under such a system — the socio-economic system of the agricultural paradigm — the vast majority of people spent their time farming the land, while only a tiny minority were literate administrators making up urban, civil society.

Now the masses, who once labored on farms, labor in production facilities or in offices, and now they are literate, and they may have a say in the running of the political machinery by which they are ruled. The industrial revolution that created these changed social conditions is still quite young in historical terms. In many places in the world it has occurred within the lifetime of those now living. Traditional social institutions have struggled to keep up with the pace of change dictated by the industrial revolution, and educational institutions are no exception. The ideal of traditional humanistic scholarship is still to be found, like a vestigial trace of an earlier age, but changed conditions are rendering it progressively more marginal with the passage of time.

Whereas once masses unfit for farming but with no other option in life ended up doing agricultural work and drinking themselves into a stupor on holidays in order to forget the misery of their lives, now masses unfit (by and large) for industrial production or office work labor at these tasks because these are the tasks that are available, not because they are the best things for people to be doing (or the things that people do best), and they too drink themselves into a stupor to forget the misery of their lives.

Someone who hates their work is not likely to be a productive and effective worker. Someone who is indifferent about their work is not likely to be much more productive or efficient than someone who outright hates their work, but the conditions of labor today virtually guarantee that the greater part of a vastly swollen human population will labor at jobs to which they are indifferent, and perhaps which they openly despise.

There is an amusing and probably uncomfortably true description of unmotivated office work on the Asian Failure blog. This is from I almost got fired today!:

“I have absolutely no interest in the well being of the company, or my individual assignments, or my reputation, or even my self preservation for the most part. My general attitude has been to glide just under the radar, and skim by with just enough to keep getting paid and not get fired — but just like a dog you just bring home, I test all the boundaries of what I can get away with first… There are days where I come into work at 11 AM, surf the internet until 5PM. I have two monitors. That means youtube on one monitor, and reading comics and police blotters on the other. Then I work for about 30 minutes, and then I duck out 15 minutes before 6.”

(This is funnier in context; you should read the whole post. I have edited it for my present purposes.)

Probably everyone knows someone — maybe many people — who work at mind-numbing dead-end jobs, or who once had a passion but couldn’t earn a living from it and so went on to more “practical” pursuits. All of this lost passion and lost opportunity to do anything greater is a very real economic loss. An economy that could find a way to truly tap the ambitions and creativity of its population would find itself surging ahead of competitors.

When I think of the people that I have known in my life, and reflect as a kind of thought experiment what these individuals might have been capable of doing, I realize how much the right person in the right position could accomplish. Now, I am sure that my labor assignments in my Walter Mitty economy would probably surprise some of the people I have placed in imaginary positions of importance. Nevertheless, I quite sincerely believe that a better distribution of labor is possible under an alternative socio-economic structure, though I cannot say what form that economic system would take. But if such an economic system could, one day in the future, come into being, it would closely resemble the utopian division of labor that Nietzsche considered.

Just to reiterate: if anyone (or any society) can find a way to harness the passion, enthusiasm, and good will that people bring to work that they love, they will have an enormous competitive advantage. While the perennial dream of a better world is often a mere pipe dream, an economy able to tap the full talents of a population, rather than having intelligent and creative people stapling and date-stamping papers, would be a more productive, more profitable, and more resilient economy that would grow at a faster rate than existing economic institutions. These are practical, concrete advantages you can take to the bank, not pipe dreams.

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The industrialization of society produced profound consequences through the mobility of labor and the concentration of populations in urban centers, among another developments.

A counterfactual conditional is a statement making a claim as to what would be the case if the antecedent of the conditional were true, but in which the antecedent of the conditional is in fact false. This sounds confusing, but it is familiar in ordinary experience both in irresponsible historical speculation (e.g., “If the Nazis had won the Second World War, we’d all be speaking German now”) and in the commonplace recriminations and accusations that are unfortunately so much a part of our lives (e.g., “If you’d only done as I had asked, we would have been on time!”). As I have just implied, entertaining counterfactual conditionals can be an amusing but pointless way to pass the time, for example, on a long car trip with friends when the stereo isn’t working and everyone is bored.

In an as-yet unpublished manuscript I wrote the following about counterfactuals:

It is an almost irresistible temptation to speculate upon what the world might be like today if some particular change were made in the past. Speculative history is also an irresponsible impulse, as it can count only as a distraction from the real problems facing us, being a philosophical dead end. But let us be charitable, and instead of calling it irresponsible let us call it a guilty pleasure, and let us be twice charitable and give it a respectable philosophical title: a counter-factual thought experiment. Very well, then, I want now to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a counter-factual thought experiment.

The thought experiment I was contemplating in that manuscript I will leave for another time, but here I would like to suggest a counterfactual thought experiment relating to the Industrial Revolution.

I started thinking about this in relation to unemployment. Unemployment is a timely topic due to the recent recession. While the most recent figures show the US economy in the last quarter growing at an annualized rate of something like 5.9 percent (which is quite good), unemployment is still higher than most would like. This is not a surprise. But that the popular media reports this in hysterical tones also should not surprise. Employment is always a trailing indicator of economic growth. When an economy contracts, employers usually delay laying off employees as a last measure. When the economy expands, employers also usually delay hiring until they absolutely must hire in order to keep their businesses running. Again, there is nothing surprising in this.

What is surprising, from a long term perspective (a very long term perspective — the longue durée measured in centuries if not millennia), is that the match between employers and employees in the labor market is as close as it is. Even in a recession in an advanced industrialized economy, unemployment rarely goes over ten percent, though in some localized areas it may climb to twenty-five percent or more. Still, the vast majority of the employable labor force is working. Why should there be such a close match between employers and employees in the labor market? This question posed itself to me, and it suggested a thought experiment.

What if, instead of the Industrial Revolution that we did in fact have, we had had instead an Industrial Revolution of a different sort? Let me try to explain. The mechanization of agriculture has made it possible to feed a population of a given country with only, say, two to three percent of the workforce involved in food production. This is what makes the Industrial Revolution a revolution in a robust sense. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the population in all social systems in all parts of the world (which means in all climates, raising all different kinds of foodstuffs) were peasants tied to the land. It took ninety percent or better of the population laboring over food production just to keep people fed, and mostly they weren’t fed very well. And then the revolution came.

With the Industrial Revolution, civilization experienced a dramatic and wrenching change in the lives of its people, and this change had two parts. Food production could be managed by a small work force, which meant that the vast majority of the population left the farms and fields of their ancestors. What happened to them? They migrated to cities and got jobs in emerging industry. This is the second component of the movement of peoples spurred by the Industrial Revolution.

But what if we had had an Industrial Revolution that revolutionized agriculture and food production but which didn’t create vast industrialized cities with work for the masses liberated from what Marx called rural idiocy? The industrialization of agriculture could come through mechanization (as in fact it did, in part), but perhaps also it could come without a focus on mechanization but simply with improved techniques in pastoralism and husbandry. This sort of thing was already happening in England during the Enlightenment, and England was also the earliest part of Europe to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution.

It could be argued that the famous example in Adam Smith of the number of workmen required in order to make a simple coat illustrates the cascading nature of industrialization, and that any economy that industrialized agricultural production would necessarily have evolved other industries in parallel, the growth of which would absorb the masses no longer tied to subsistence agriculture. But allow us to suppose, simply for the sake of argument, that the components of industrialization could be separated, and that agriculture could be industrialized without the remainder of society being industrialized, so that food production employed at most five percent of the population, and the traditional elites that organized society made up about ten percent (probably less) of the population, thus leaving eight-five percent of the population at loose ends. What would the world look like if eighty-five percent of the population were terminally unemployed?

Since most rational discussions of the actual world revolve not around absolutes and extremes, but around rates and degrees, suppose that emergent industry, instead of employing almost all of the population no longer needed for agricultural production, employed only about half of them. This is certainly a conceivable scenario. What would the advanced industrialized economies of today look like if there was a nearly permanent unemployment rate of fifty percent? Could any known society survive the demographic challenge of so many idle hands? Would a very different society have had to emerge from these conditions, since society as we know it would simply self-destruct under these conditions?

If the necessities of life were present in abundance but work was not present in nearly equal abundance, civilized society as we know it today would not function. Perhaps Georges Bataille was right after all about the accursed share, that the real problem for society is not scarcity but superfluity, that we must construct socially acceptable ways of expending wealth. Moreover, consumption can only be fetishized when it is a commodity that is relatively scarce. Perhaps in a society revolutionized by the industrial revolution that did not happen, labor would be fetishized, and instead of the emergence of consumerism we would have a society based on productionism, i.e., fetishized labor. Authentic labor would then be the ultimate scarce commodity, and people would seek authentic opportunities to work as they now seek exotic opportunities for leisure.

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Georges Bataille: not the best known among twentieth century philosophers, but certainly among the most interesting.

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