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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Wednesday


pew poll graph

A story on the BBC, US Christians numbers ‘decline sharply’, poll finds, made me aware of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, reported in America’s Changing Religious Landscape. It is unusual for such a poll result to be reported so bluntly. Some time ago in Appearance and Reality in Demographics I noted that the WIN/GIP “Religiosity and Atheism Index” poll that I discussed in American Religious Individualism, had been reported under the headline WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, which seems to have been purposefully contrived to give the reader the wrong impression of what the poll revealed. This newest headline is another matter entirely. It is becoming more difficult to conceal the fact the traditional religious belief is on the decline.

While religious observance appears to be one of the most pervasive features of civilization from its inception, the example of Europe demonstrates that religious belief can pretty much vanish once conditions change. The US remains an anomaly as an industrialized nation-state with unusually high popular identification with religious faith, but the US may yet experience the kind of catastrophic collapse of religious observance that occurred in Europe from the middle of the twentieth century onward. In other worlds, secularization may yet come to America. Of course, if widespread secularism comes to the US, it will not play out as it played out in Europe, because these societies are so profoundly different.

The secularization thesis was widely believed in the middle of the twentieth century (when secularization was transforming European society), and then was widely abandoned at the end of the twentieth century as surging religious fundamentalism and religiously-inspired terrorism grabbed headlines and appeared to some (as strange as this may sound) as a sign of religious vitality. I discussed the secularization thesis in Secularization (which I characterized in terms of confirmation and disconfirmation in history) and more recently in The Existential Precarity of Civilization.

It is important to understand the religious backlash against modernity that became apparent in the later twentieth century in the context of traditionalism, as the role of a narrowly conceived religious belief is often made central in the debates over secularization, but this can be deceptive. In this context, “traditionalism” means any ideology or belief system dating from before the industrial revolution (which marked the advent of a new form of civilization), and so is a much wider concept than religion simpliciter, which is the most common exemplar of traditionalism.

Beliefs and practices associated with the pre-industrial form of our culture of origin persisted for ten thousand years (from the origins of civilization to the industrial revolution) and so they have left an enormous cultural legacy, and they are still very powerful elements of the human imagination. Almost every famous work of art which is a cultural point of reference for westerners (think of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s David, or the Mona Lisa), dates to this pre-industrialized period. The industrial revolution meant the dissolution of these ancient institutions and practices, sometimes within the life span of a single individual. The entire economic basis of civilization changed.

Even though civilization was forced to change, the cultural legacy of the past remains, and its hold upon the human mind remains. Although we live in modern industrialized societies, we don’t grow our own food, and we live alone in cities and not in multi-generational households, we continue to honor traditions that have become disconnected from our daily lives. Eventually the disconnect leads to cognitive dissonance as traditional attitudes come face-to-face with modern realities. There are two ways to attempt to address the cognitive dissonance: 1) a return to traditionalism, or 2) the abandonment of traditionalism.

It is impossible to return to a traditional (pre-industrial) way of life in an industrialized nation-state because you can’t just start farming in the middle of a city or create a multi-generational household out of thin air. So the return to traditionalism simply means the aggressive assertion of traditionalist claims, however empty these claims are. The most familiar form that the aggressive assertion of traditional claims can take is that of religious fundamentalism. This is not the only form of traditionalism, but it has become symbolic of traditionalism, and, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have noted in their paper Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, “…residual and symbolic elements often remain, such as formal adherence to religious identities and beliefs, even when their substantive meaning has faded away.”

If industrial-technological civilization endures (i.e., if it does not succumb to existential risk), all traditionalism is doomed to extinction. However, that does not mean that religion is doomed to extinction. Although I have defended the secularization hypothesis, secularization is only a stage in the transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization. The idea that the extinction of tradition (given the gradual lapse of a now-defunct form of civilization) is the same as the extinction of religion is only possible through a conflation of traditionalism and religion. This conflation is as invidious to the understanding of history as is the misinterpretation (at times a willful misinterpretation) of the secularization hypothesis.

Religion can and often does take non-traditional forms, but the (historically recent) experience of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, in which all social organization was subordinate to theological principles, has distorted our perception of the role of religion and civilization, and led to the conflation of religion and tradition.

In Europe Returns to its Roots I discussed the tentative return to pre-Christian forms of religion in Europe in the wake of secularization. Such cultural movements will, of course, be influenced by subsequent developments of civilization. No more than we can return to traditionalism now that traditional agrarian ways of life have disappeared can we return to Neolithic religious practices, but whatever religious practices there are must be consonant with the life of the people.

On my other blog I produced a series of posts concerned with the relation of religion to civilization, extending from the Paleolithic past to into the future. These posts include:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These were a mere sketch, of course, and one might well invest an entire lifetime in attempting to describe the relation between civilization and religion. The take-away lesson is that religion is a perennial aspect of human experience, and so it will be a perennial part of civilization, but it is a mistake to conflate religion and traditionalism. After the extinction of traditionalism, once terrestrial industrialization achieves totality (not only eliminating traditional ways of life, but also greatly reducing existential precarity), religion will remain, but it will not be the religions of the Axial Age that defined agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

When secularization comes to America, then, we should be surprised neither by the rear-guard action of traditionalism to defend the claims of a now-vanished civilization, nor by the inevitable emergence and rise of religious beliefs and practices independent of traditionalism. Expect popular accounts to conflate the two, but a developmental understanding of the relationship of civilization and religion reveals how starkly different they are.

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Sunday


Léonce Crenier

Léonce Crenier

The word “precarity” is quite recent, and does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but has appeared in the titles of several books. The term mostly derives from left-leaning organized labor, and has come into use to describe the lives of workers in precarious circumstances. Wikipedia defines precarity as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.”

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, writing in The Catholic Worker (coming from a context of both Catholic monasticism and labor activism), May 1952 (“Poverty and Precarity”), cites a certain “saintly priest… from Martinique,” now known to be Léonce Crenier, who is quoted as saying:

“True poverty is rare… Nowadays communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, Precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential element of poverty. That has been forgotten. Here we want precarity in everything except the church.”

Crenier had so absorbed and accepted the ideal of monastic poverty, like the Franciscans and the Poor Clares (or their modern equivalents such as Simone Weil and Christopher McCandless), that he didn’t merely tolerate poverty, he embraced and celebrated poverty. Elsewhere Father Crenier wrote, “I noticed that real poverty, where one misses so many things, attracts singular graces amongst the monks, and in particular spiritual peace and joy.” Given the ideal of poverty and its salutary effect upon the spiritual life, Crenier not only celebrated poverty, but also the condition in which the impoverished live, and this is precarity.

Jean XXII reçoit les transcriptions de l'interrogatoire de Gui de Corvo. Manuscrit du XVem siècle. Bibl Nazionale Braidense, Milan, Italie.

Jean XXII reçoit les transcriptions de l’interrogatoire de Gui de Corvo. Manuscrit du XVem siècle. Bibl Nazionale Braidense, Milan, Italie.

Recently studies have retained this leftist interest in the existential precarity of the lives of marginalized workers, but the monastic interest in poverty for the sake of an enhanced spiritual life has fallen away, and only the misery of precarity remains. Not only has the spiritual virtue of poverty been abandoned as an ideal, but it has, in a sense, been turned on its head, as the spiritual focus of poverty turns from its cultivation to its eradication. In this tradition, the recent sociology of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart is especially interesting, as they have bucked the contemporary trend and given a new argument for secularization, which was once in vogue but has been very much out of favor since the rise of Islamic militancy as a political force in global politics. (I have myself argued that secularization had been too readily and quickly abandoned, and discussed the problem of secularization in relation to the confirmation and disconfirmation of ideas in history.)

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart are perhaps best known for their book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Their paper, Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, is available online. They make the case that, despite the apparent rise of fundamentalist religious belief in the past several deacades, and the anomalous instance of the US, which is wealthy and highly religious, it is not wealth itself that is a predictor of secularization, but rather what they call existential security (which may be considered the economic aspect of ontological security).

While Norris and Inglehart do not use the term “precarity,” clearly their argument is that existential precarity pushes individuals and communities toward the comforts of religion in the face of a hostile and unforgiving world: “…the public’s demand for transcendent religion varies systematically with levels of vulnerabilities to societal and personal risks and threats.” This really isn’t a novel thesis, as Marx pointed out long ago that societies created ideal worlds of justice when justice was denied them in this world, implying that when conditions in this world improve, there would be no need for imagined worlds of perfect justice. Being comfortably well off in the real world means there is little need to imagine comforts in another world.

Speaking on a purely personal (and anecdotal basis), Norris and Inglehart’s thesis rings true in my experience. I have relatives in Scandinavia and have visited the region many times. Here where secularization has gone the furthest, and the greater proportion of the population enjoys a high level of existential security, you can quite literally see the difference in people’s faces. In the US, people are hard-driving and always seemingly on the edge; there is an underlying anxiety that I find very off-putting. But there is a good reason for this: people know that if they lose their jobs, they will possibly lose their homes and end up on the street. In Scandinavia, people look much more relaxed in their facial expressions, and they are not continually on the verge of flying into a rage. People are generally very confident about their lives and don’t worry much about the future.

One might think of the existential precarity of individuals as an ontogenic precarity, and this suggests the possibility of what might be called phylogenic precarity, or the existential precarity of social wholes. Fragile states exist in a condition of existential precarity. In such cases, there is a clear linkage between social precarity and individual precarity. In same cases, there may be no such linkage. It is possible that great individual precarity coexists with social stability, and social precarity may coexist with individual security. An example of the former is the contemporary US; an example of the latter would be some future society in which people are wealthy and comfortable but fail to see that their society is on the verge of collapse — like the Romans, say, in the second and third centuries AD.

The ultimate form of social precarity is the existential precarity of civilization. In some contexts it might be better to discuss the vulnerability and fragility of civilization in terms of existential precarity rather than existential risk or existential threat. I have previously observed that every existential risk is at the same time an existential opportunity, and vice versa (cf. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity), so that the attempt to limit and contain existential risk may have the unintended consequence of limiting and containing existential opportunity. Thus the selfsame policies instituted for the sake of mitigating existential risk may contribute to the stagnation of civilization and therefore become a source of existential risk. The idea of existential precarity stands outside the dialectic of risk and opportunity, and therefore can provide us with an alternative formulation of existential risk.

Toxteth riot in Liverpool

Toxteth riot in Liverpool

How precarious is the life of civilized society? In some cases, social order seems to be balanced on a knife edge. During the 1981 Toxteth riots in Liverpool, which occurred in the wake of recession and high unemployment, as well as tension between the police and residents, Margaret Thatcher memorably said that, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” But this is misleading. Urban riots are not a sign of the weakness of civilization, but are intrinsic to civilization itself, in the same way that war is intrinsic to civilization: it is not possible to have an urban riot without large-scale urban communities in the same way that it is not possible to have a war without the large-scale organizational resources of a state. Riots even occur in societies as stable as Sweden.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

We can distinguish between the superficial precarity of a tense city that might erupt in riots at any time, which is the sort of precarity to which Margaret Thatcher referred, and a deeper, underlying precarity that does not manifest itself in terms of riots, overturned cars, and burned buildings, but in the sudden and inexplicable collapse of a social order that is not followed by immediate recovery. In considering the possibility of the existential precarity of civilization, what we really want to know is whether there is a social equivalent of the passenger pigeon population collapse and then extinction.

1981 Toxteth riot in Liverpool

1981 Toxteth riot in Liverpool

In the 19th century, the passenger pigeon was the most common bird in North America. Following hunting and habitat loss, the species experienced a catastrophic population collapse between 1870 and 1890, finally going extinct in 1914. Less than fifty years before the species went extinct, there was no reason to suspect that the species was endangered, or even seriously reduced in numbers. When the end came, it came quickly; somehow the entire species reached a tipping point and could not recover from its collapse. Could this happen to our own species? Could this happen to our civilization? Despite our numbers and our apparent resilience, might we have some existential Achilles’ heel, some essential precarity, incorporated into the human condition of which we are blissfully unaware? And, if we do have some essential vulnerability, is there a way to address this?

Zoological illustration from a volume of articles, The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (Mershon, editor). Engraving from painting by John James Audubon in Pennsylvania, 1824.

Zoological illustration from a volume of articles, The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (Mershon, editor). Engraving from painting by John James Audubon in Pennsylvania, 1824.

I have argued elsewhere that civilization is becoming more robust over time, and I have not changed my mind about this, but neither is it the entire story about the existential security of civilization. In comparison to the precarity of the individual life, civilization is robust in the extreme. Civilization only betrays its existential precarity on time scales several orders of magnitude beyond the human experience of time, which at most encompasses several decades. As we ascend in temporal comprehensiveness, civilization steadily diminishes until it appears as a mere anomaly in the vast stretches of time contemplated in cosmology. At this scale, the longevity of civilization is no longer in question only because its brevity is all too obvious.

Joseph Voros discussing disciplined societies.

Joseph Voros discussing disciplined societies.

At the human time scale, civilization is as certain as the ground beneath our feet; at the cosmological time scale, civilization is as irrelevant as a mayfly. An appraisal of the existential precarity of civilization must take place at some time scale between the human and the cosmological. This brings me to an insight that I had after attending the 2014 IBHA conference last summer. On day 3 of the conference I attended a talk by futurist Joseph Voros that provided much food for thought, and while driving home I thought about a device he employed to discuss future forecasts, the future cone.

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen Director, Web Policy

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen
Director, Web Policy

This was my first exposure to the future cone, and I immediately recognized the possibility for conceptual clarification that this offers in thinking about the future. If we depict the future as an extension of a timeline indefinitely, the line itself is the most likely future, while progressively larger cones concentric with the line, radiating out from the present, become increasingly less likely forecasts. Within the classes of forecasts defined by the spaces included within progressively larger cones, preferred or unwelcome futures can be identified by further subdivisions of the space defined by the cones. Voros offered an alliterative mnemonic device to differentiate the conceptual spaces defined by the future cone, from the center outward: the projected future, the probable future, the plausible future, the possible future, and the preposterous future.

future cone 2

When I was reflecting on this on the drive home, I realized that, in the short term, the projected future is almost always correct. We can say within a high degree of accuracy what tomorrow will be like. Yet in the long term future, the projected future is almost always wrong. Here when I speak of the projected future I mean the human future. We can project future events in cosmology with a high degree of accuracy — for example, the coming collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies — but we cannot say anything of significance of what human civilization will be like at this time, or indeed whether there will be any human civilization or any successor institution to human civilization. Futurism forecasting, in other words, goes off the rails in the mid-term future, though exactly where it does so is difficult to say. And it is precisely in this mid-term future — somewhere between human time scales and cosmological time scales — that the existential precarity of civilization becomes clear. Sometime between tomorrow and four billion years from now when a swollen sun swallows up Earth, human civilization will be subject to unpredictable and unprecedented selection pressures that will either mean the permanent ruination of that civilization, or its transformation into something utterly unexpected.

What unforeseen forces will shape human life and civilization in the future? (First Contact, by Nikolai Nedbailo)

What unforeseen forces will shape human life and civilization in the future? (First Contact, by Nikolai Nedbailo)

With this in mind, we can focus our conceptual exploration of the existential precarity, existential security, existential threat, and existential risk that bears upon civilization in the period of the mid-term future. How far can we narrow the historico-temporal window of the mid-term future of precarity? What are the selection pressures to which civilization will be subject during this period? What new selection pressures might emerge? Is it more important to focus on existential risk mitigation, or to focus on our civilization making the transition to a post-civilizational institution that will carry with it the memory of its human ancestry? These and many other related questions must assume the central place in our research.

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About four billion years from now, when the sun is swelling into a red giant star, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will merge, perhaps resulting in an elliptical galaxy. The universe will be an interesting place,, but will human civilization be around to record the event?

About four billion years from now, when the sun is swelling into a red giant star, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will merge, perhaps resulting in an elliptical galaxy. The universe will be an interesting place, but will human civilization be around to record the event?

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