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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In The Industrial-Technological Thesis I characterized industrial-technological civilization as involving an escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering, each generation of which feeds into the next so that science makes new technologies possible, new technologies are engineered into new industries, and new industries create the instruments for further scientific research. I further argued in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology that the only property more pervasively inherent in industrial-technological civilization than escalating feedback is war — since escalating feedback is characteristic only of The Industrial-Technological Thesis, whereas war typifies all civilization. Thus technological growth and war are both structurally inherent in The Industrial-Technological Thesis, so much so that to entertain the idea of civilization without either is probably folly.

Now I realize that in recounting the escalating spiral of science, technology and engineering, that I was recounting only the “creative” side of the “creative destruction” of industrialized capitalism, and that the creative destruction of capitalism as it is played out in industrial-technological civilization also has a destructive side that is expressed in a way entirely consonant with the distinctive character of industrial-technological civilization. Each phase in the cycle of science, technology, and engineering fails in a distinctive (and in a distinctively interesting) way.

The counter-cyclical trend to that of the exponentially escalating spiral of science, technology, and engineering is the exponentially deescalating downward trend of science in model crisis, stalled technology, and catastrophic failures of engineering. Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science. Human beings, being what they are, have invested science with the “truth” once reserved for matter theological; but science has no “truths” — there is only the scientific method, which remains the same even while the knowledge that this method yields is always subject to change. Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.

Industrial accidents are intrinsic to industrialized society, and cannot be wished away.

I hadn’t previously thought of these disruptions to industrial-technological civilization together, but now that I see them whole I see that I have already written separately about all the phases of failure that so closely parallel the successes of industrialization. Mostly, I think, these disruptions have taken place separately, and have therefore only proved to be temporary disruptions in the rapidly-resuming cycle of technological growth. However, once we see the possible failures as a systemic, counter-cyclical trend that destroys old knowledge, old technology, and old industries in order to make room for the new, we can easily see the possibility of an escalating disruption in which scientific model crisis would limit knowledge, limited knowledge would lead to long term stalled technologies, and stalled technologies would lead to escalating industrial accidents and complex catastrophic failures.

None of this, of course, is in the least bit surprising. Ever since the industrialized warfare of the twentieth century we have been discussing the possibility that industrial-technological civilization will more or less inevitably destroy itself. Civilization, when it was suddenly and unexpectedly preempted by industrialization, has opened Pandora’s box, and the evils that fly free cannot be shut back inside.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012


Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.

For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.

I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.

It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?

I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.

In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism

Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.

In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.

The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.

I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.

I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.

Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Civilization, like the world itself, is always a work in progress, perpetually under construction.

When we use the word “civilization” we usually think of it as naming a thing. Moreover, it is usually the function of nouns in English to name things, and the Cambridge online dictionary defines the suffix “-ization” as “used to form nouns from some verbs.”

Interestingly, the same Cambridge online dictionary has two definitions of civilization. One is “civilization noun (DEVELOPED SOCIETY)” (the definition: “human society with its well developed social organizations, or the culture and way of life of a society or country at a particular period in time”) and the other is “civilization noun (PROCESS)” (the definition: “the process of educating a society so that its culture becomes more developed”). I will not take the time to criticize dictionary definitions, as these are soft targets, but I will point out that we would do well to think of civilization as much as a process as as a thing.

In the spirit of civilization as a thing, another online dictionary defines the suffix, “-ization” as “the act, process, or result of making or doing” giving “realization” as an example. In this sense, “civilization” may be defined as “the act, process, or result of making civil.” As far as dictionary definitions, this isn’t too bad. It has been said that philosophical inquiry ends with definitions rather than beginning with them, so we shall not take this as a point of departure, but as a signpost along the way of seeking an adequate philosophical definition of civilization.

It is a somewhat similar case with the word “industrialization,” though I am inclined to think (without any opinion research to back it up) that people are more likely to think of industrialization as a process than of civilization as a process. Perhaps part of this tendency (if there is, in fact, any such tendency) is that in the world today we can see the process of industrialization going forward and gradually transforming societies, whereas civilizations seem to be a given, almost a fact of nature.

Perhaps civilization suffers from from Sartre called the spirit of seriousness — the idea that values (in this case, the values that constitute civilization) are ready made, that is to say, already out there in the world for us to seize, but not something we make for ourselves. I would say that we do, in fact, make civilization for ourselves, and we should accustom ourselves to thinking in this mode. Many of Sartre’s most famous deliverances on the human condition could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to address civilization. To whit:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that civilization first of all exists, encounters itself, surges up in the world — and defines itself afterwards.


The genius of civilization is the totality of the works of civilization, outside of which there is nothing. Why should we attribute to civilization the capacity to produce yet other works of genius when that is precisely what it did not produce? In history, a civilization commits itself, draws its own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait.

Such Sartrean formulations of civilization could be multiplied with a minimum of effort. It would be both potentially enlightening and amusing to do so, but I will leave such extrapolation to the interested reader.

If you like you could call this an existentialist conception of civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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