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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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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