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Two Cheers for Luddism

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An interesting discussion in the comment thread to Erik’s post on the welcome decline of robocheckers below. There’s been some mild pushback against the notion of resisting robocheckers out of solidarity with the actual paycheck-drawing, rent-paying, family-feeding workers. The pushback is of the sort of “that may work in practice but not in theory” variety, and is seen as lacking in scope and vision for the future of work.

Warren Terra:

We are a wealthy country: people willing to work deserve a job and a wage worthy of their time and dignity. If their efforts can satisfactorily be replaced by a few thousand dollars of computer and conveyor belt, that shouldn’t be a problem but an opportunity; our society should ensure that it is made richer by the change, and not poorer. Surely some job can be found for these people that isn’t so demonstrably unnecessary, thereby enriching our society and justifying their wages rather than wasting their time as an overpriced substitute to a simple machine?

Later, Dirk Gently

Using technology to eliminate menial jobs is not the problem. Structural inequities which create and perpetuate the conditions in which human beings are only really good for menial labor is the problem. You good Marxists’ beef is with ongoing poverty, ongoing educational failures, etc., not with machines that, in my experience, are faster and work perfectly well in particular situations (i.e. 25-ish items or less).

Two general comments on this line of thinking. First, let’s be clear that this is some deeply utopian stuff. This makes third party advocates seem downright practical. We’ve had a modern capitalist economy for quite some time now, in many different countries, and I can’t think of any that have come anywhere close to this, or made it a meaningful priority. Of course some unpleasant and meaningful jobs have been largely eliminated, and more probably will be in the future, but when this does occur it is almost always with indifference or actual malice toward the eliminated worker, rather than compassion. And while the overall mix of jobs in a society may improve for the better over time, it’s virtually never the case that workers in eliminated fields end up better off. If the elimination takes place in a moment of robust employment they may be OK, but for the most part those who lose the jobs are going to be worse off for a good long while. Even in the most robust and humane welfare states the modern world has developed, unemployment is generally associated with a decline in living standards, sense of self-worth, and so on.

Now, this is not in itself a critique; there’s nothing inherently wrong with utopian theorizing about how we could dramatically restructure the modern economy in a more humane and just way. But the key to such utopian theorizing is to not let it crowd out practical measures to improve lives. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, people are going to badly need the job they’ve got. The depth and force of this truth became much greater in the great vaporization of jobs of 2008, and this is basically our new reality. Should full employment ever return (and I’m a skeptic we’ll see anything like for well over a decade) I’ll consider revising my priorities. But for now, solidarity with workers seems, if not particularly visionary, a heck of a lot more important than re-imaging the economy without menial jobs. (And it’s not limited to boycotting robocheckers, of course, at a more intermediary stage, we can advocate for policies that improve these jobs, through regulations, unionization, and so on.)

Secondly, this line of thinking makes some assumptions that I’m sympathetic to, but can’t entirely get on board with. First, the assumption that we can theorize about jobs in this concrete and certain way and determine that supermarket checker (and I assume many much worse jobs) are ‘menial’ and we should hope for a world in which humans don’t do that sort of thing. I like my early Marx, too, but I can’t get on board with this. I simply don’t think we have the tools to do this kind of universal theorizing about the essential nature and value of this or that job. People have long found meaning and dignity in all manner of repetitive and uncreative work. Others have approached the world of work with indifference; they work to pay the bills and finding meaning and value in other aspects of their lives. Marx, of course, chalked this sort of thing up to alienation and false consciousness and the like, but I’m more of pluralist about what a dignified and fully human life looks like. At a minimum, I don’t have all the answers, and have a healthy distrust of letting my own tastes and proclivities get in the way of respecting other’s ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms.

Later, Malaclypse weighs in on the poor track record of luddism

There was a name for a movement of people dedicated to resisting the use of technology to change labor relations. History is not kind to the Luddites.

This is a widely held view, but it needs some serious rethinking. If we define Luddism as the resistance of new techniques or technologies that threaten to eliminate the demand for labor, including more subtle forms, its track record is far more mixed than it’s doomed namesakes. The thing is that when it’s successfully pursued successfully, we don’t hear or read about it. Even some of the most powerless and impovershed workers have all kinds of clandestine tools of resistance available to them, as James Scott’s ethnographies unearthed, but without really knowing what you were looking for, outsiders (and bosses) would never see it. But in other cases this sort of thing is perfectly visible, but we don’t think of it in terms of luddism.

Think about the internet. Massive gains in productivity have been realized because of it. That’s cost some jobs, surely (although almost certainly created more). But the average office worker wastes something like two hours a day on the internet. If your office or cubible is configured correctly, you can even look busy doing it! This is a form of luddism properly understood, and thank God for that. It enhances and improves our lives, and keeps our productivity at levels that allow for significantly more employment. The mindset that the value of worker productivity overwhelms the added value here is surely something we can finally bury, after several decades of productivity gains being utterly divorced from wages. The violent smashing of machines version of luddism has little value in the modern world, but the basic idea behind it is sound and necessary.

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