Peak Labor

16 December 2015

Wednesday


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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The Genealogy of Labor

3 September 2012

Monday


Michel Foucault

A Reflection for Labor Day

Foucault is perhaps most remembered for his early books, written in a very dense and at times elusive style, which constitute what have been called “critiques of historical reason.” Foucault takes up the ideas of madness, the clinic, prisons, philology, biology, political economy, and eventually (later on) sexuality, providing a staggering wealth of documentation from original source materials, even while one understands that these details are only there to serve a grand plan that is never made quite explicit. I have previously quoted the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who characterized Foucault’s style as, “sweeping summary with eccentric detail” (cf. Foucault’s Formalism). Foucault’s effort owes much to Nietzsche’s earlier efforts to formulate what he called a genealogy of morals. Foucault said that, “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary,” but for Nietzsche it was colorful, inventive, and exciting, and I think these are also qualities that made Foucault’s intellectual genealogies so interesting.

Since Foucault’s fascinating genealogies have appeared, others have taken up the task and gone on to write genealogies of all manner of historical phenomena that had, until recently, been regarded as largely unproblematic. Foucault was the next great “master of suspicion” after Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud (as identified by Paul Ricoeur), and Foucault’s influence has spawned suspicion enough to call into question every received institution of Western civilization. From this perspective, Foucault can be seen as part of a reaction against progressive Whiggish history more than as a continental embodiment of the largely Anglo-American history of ideas, to which genealogy is related, but only distantly.

I wonder if any of Foucault’s followers has written a genealogy of labor — certainly it would be a rich field of study. Foucault discussed labor in his The Order of Things, and even called one chapter of this “Labor, Life, Language,” but Foucault takes up labor from the stand point of the discourse of political economy and not from the stand point of the labor movement. I started thinking of this today when I was writing a post on my other blog about the labor movement in recognition of Labor Day, A Celebration of the American Laborer. A genealogy of labor that brought sweeping summary with eccentric detail to the gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary work of a critique of the historical reason as it underlies the labor movement would be a real achievement, and something that someone ought to take up if they haven’t already done so.

In that post I discussed my discomfiture with labor slogans and the labor movement generally speaking. I did not do justice to my chosen topic because there is so much more to say, but while I was struggling with setting limits to how far I would go in attempting to understand the social semiotics that characterize labor today, which is to say labor in industrial-technological civilization, I realized how easily this topic would play into a Foucauldian critique.

Foucault’s constant drumbeat throughout his critiques of historical reason is that the institutions of contemporary society that we have become accustomed to seeing as expressions of an emerging and growing humanitarianism are rather methodologies of control, and the professionalized discourses in which they are formulated — whether psychiatry or economics or penology — are in fact discourses of power that serve to channel privilege within a society. Although Foucault distinguished himself among philosophers of his generation by sedulously maintaining his distance from Marxism, it would be difficult to imagine a more thorough-going Marxist critique of the oppression of the masses than that formulated by Foucault.

The labor movement has been dominated, intellectually speaking, by those on the left coming from a Marxist perspective (even if, in the US, they could not for obvious socio-political reasons make their Marxism explicit), and as such one ought to expect the labor movement to be part of the critique of power relations in the industrialized world, but the labor movement has itself become a part of that industrial-technological establishment and now would rightly be subject itself to a critique for its professionalized discourse of labor relations and worker protections. The AFL-CIO campaign Work Connects Us All, which I just mentioned on my other blog, is a perfect example of this.

While the labor movement is part of the Marxist tradition as I mentioned above, it is also part of the humanist tradition. In so far as the labor movement is part of that broad social movement that seeks to humanize the institutions of industrialized society, it is vulnerable to the same critique that Foucault leveled against “humane” psychiatry, mental institutions, clinics, and prisons. Just as utopian dreams usually issue in dystopian nightmares, so too humanitarian good intentions more often than not issue in dehumanizing, depersonalizing policies. The “humane” workplace is more and more coming to resemble those other institutions, what Erving Goffman called “total institutions,” that interested Foucault.

In the attempt to make people feel involved, connected, and important by way of their labor, the labor movement must inevitably treat human beings as laborers, and it may well be that, even though the working class spends the greater part of its time engaged in alienated labor, and that this engagement necessarily has a formative influence on life and personality, workers might not want to be identified with their work or reduced to their labor. Some may even feel that this identification with a task they perform in exchange for financial compensation is an insult and slight in view of their other talents and abilities. Certainly not all, but some.

The contemporary workplace has become a regime of observation and documentation and regimentation far more encompassing than Bentham’s panoptican, which latter drew Foucault’s attention and has been a consistent point of reference for Foucault’s followers ever since (I wrote about the panopticon in A Flock of Drones). The panopticon only observed individuals at a particular moment; the regime of workplace surveillance now encompasses the life of the individual entire, from cradle to grave, and in so doing eliminates the personal life. An individual’s history before being employed may be investigated, their pictures and statements on social media examined, they will likely be tested for drugs that have nothing whatsoever to do with their performance on the job, their e-mail, web browsing, and phone calls while working may be monitored, and so long as they are employed they will continued to be monitored on the job and off the job, to whatever invasive extent sanctioned by the professionalized legal discourses constructed as a means to relieve individuals of the responsibility for their own lives. (I’m sure Freud would have had something interesting to say about the professional classes monitoring the urination of the working classes.) Of course, all of these things are done in the name of safety and order and the well-being of all — but aren’t they always?

What has the labor movement done about this unprecedented invasion of privacy? Nothing. What has the labor movement done about the extirpation of the private life? It has contributed to it, by identifying the private life with work, job, career, and professional status. The labor movement has only served to facilitate the institutionalized regimentation of worker’s lives, acting as agents for the powers that be, because they obtain their living by the same means as the owners and the managers they affect to confront.

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Thursday


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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Saturday


Everyman: O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind; In thy power it lieth me to save, Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind, Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, And defer this matter till another day.

Everyman: O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind; In thy power it lieth me to save, Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind, Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, And defer this matter till another day.

There is famous medieval morality play titled Everyman in which an ordinary man is made to face the meaning of his life. In the play, this confrontation comes in the form of a conversation with Death, as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal it comes in the form of a chess game with Death. Yet existential soul-searching can come in many forms, and may be precipitated by life crises of many kinds.

Death playing chess with an unlucky mortal: we know who wins this game every time.

Death playing chess with an unlucky mortal: we know who wins this game every time.

We have all today heard the term “career suicide” to identify self-destructive stupidity that brings a swift end to one’s socioeconomic status. In the industrialized world, this is a kind of death — career death, which in some circumstances is brought about by career suicide, while in other cases it is brought about by career homicide (i.e., the politics of personal destruction). Since in industrialized society we are encouraged to invest our hopes and dreams in our jobs and careers, in the way that former ages encouraged the faceless mass of the peasantry to invest their hopes in a better world beyond this life, career death can be as traumatic and as devastating as any existential crisis.

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal dramatized the existential crisis of death, who here visits a knight, one of the elites of the medieval world.

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal dramatized the existential crisis of death, who here visits a knight, one of the elites of the medieval world.

At present I am listening to a rather trivial book, How Starbucks Saved My Live: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill. It is difficult to justify this to myself, but it is easy to listen to and is something of a break from my usual fare. The book is essentially the story of the death of a career, the existential crisis occasioned thereby, and a re-evaluation of the author’s life in view of his altered circumstances.

Gill Starbucks front

Any story — even the story of a remarkably privileged life — can be animated and made interesting by a great writer, but Mr. Gill is apparently a very mediocre man, and (fortunately) aware of his mediocrity. He is the Everyman of the Industrial Age, and he does an honest and passably fair job of so portraying himself.

Gill Starbucks back

What happens when a mediocre man discovers his mediocrity and loses the privilege to which he previously believed himself entitled? Well, he presents himself as having improved as a human being as a result of this change in socioeconomic status. No doubt he did change for the better. However, he wishes to frame the things he learned from this change as universal human truths.

Having discovered, late in his life, the virtue and dignity of labor, he conflates this same virtue and dignity with a calling. While it is true that some people, perhaps many people, have a calling for service, and indeed some people define a calling in terms of service, not all callings in life are a calling to service. Mr. Gill obviously learned something about himself and about the world from his experience of service — viz. the service industry as represented by Starbucks — and I would not want to deny the value of this knowledge painfully acquired.

Forgive me, if you can, for quibbling, but it could be argued that service as a calling and the service industry are two starkly different things. The service industry is the industrialization of service, and one can reasonably ask whether that spirit which animates service and can transform it into a calling can be captured within the context of the service industry. I do not deny that it can be so captured; I only suggest that it is an open question if it can be captured. Having worked for a living my entire adult life but never having worked in the service industry or in retail, I cannot speak with first-hand knowledge of the experience of industrialized service.

I have personally known people who have come from a life of privilege and who have entered the working class late in life. It is not an unusual occurrence today. Many of them adapt well, even admirably. But some are so transformed by the ordeal of change that they think that everyone needs to engage in the kind of service sector labor in which they were able to find themselves. While I think it is a wonderful thing for a person to find themselves, even late in life, life is much more than labor and service, however virtuous, dignified, eye-opening or consciousness-raising.

The vast majority of people who fill jobs in the service sector don’t usually find these jobs to be very inspirational (even if they are good at what they do) because they have mostly known little else in their lives. Most people with jobs at Starbucks haven’t had the opportunity, prior to their career as a barista, to obtain an Ivy League degree in art history, to run with the bulls in Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin before they are twenty, to meet Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other literary lights, and so forth. Thus for Mr. Gill, working an “ordinary” job at Starbucks was a new experience. Most people stuck in dead end jobs have known nothing else. The parallel to Mr. Gill’s life would be to take someone from the working class and then, late in life, to show them the world and expose them to a life a privilege. No doubt they would learn as much from this as Mr. Gill learned from joining the working classes.

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Everyman

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