"Is this a 50-year or a 500-year moment?"
November 11, 2014 1:01 PM   Subscribe

"If we struggle to grasp the pity which the condition of dependence on wage-labour elicited in 14th century Florence—if we misread the fierceness with which people fought against being forced into that condition in England at the start of the 19th century, taking it for ignorant fear of technological progress—then this is probably because, for most of the intervening period, the opposed political and economic forces structuring our societies have been united in the assumption that this kind of work is normal and desirable. Wherever you look, to the left or to the right, you will have a hard time finding a politician who doesn’t want to create more jobs. They may argue over the best means to do so, but they would hardly think of asking whether employment as we know it is a good thing."
posted by Anyamatopoeia (34 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, but someone has to dispose of my garbage, or fix the roads I drive on. I stand behind his sentiment, but just the physical constraints of our society means that moving toward a society such as he describes is going to require changing a lot about how, and how much people can do a lot of things that they take for granted right now.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 1:12 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'll just set this here...
posted by dudemanlives at 1:19 PM on November 11, 2014 [13 favorites]


"And happiness is thought to depend on leisure; for we are busy that we may have leisure, and make war that we may live in peace." --Aristotle

Or, as Pieper re-states it, "'We work in order to be at leisure.' Doesn't this statement appear almost immoral to the man or woman of the world of 'total work'? Is it not an attack on the basic principles of human society? Now I have not merely constructed a sentence to prove a point. The statement was actually made — by Aristotle. Yes, Aristotle: the sober, industrious realist, and the fact that he said it, gives the statement special significance. What he says in a more literal translation would be: "'We are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure.' For the Greeks, 'not-leisure' was the word for the world of everyday work; and not only to indicate its 'hustle and bustle,' but the work itself. The Greek language had only this negative term for it (ά-σχολία), as did Latin (neg-otium)."
posted by resurrexit at 1:29 PM on November 11, 2014 [7 favorites]


We're gonna have to sort this shit out, and soon, because structural unemployment is here to stay and it's only going to get worse as technology gets better.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:32 PM on November 11, 2014 [14 favorites]


Yeah, but someone has to dispose of my garbage, or fix the roads I drive on.

I have come to believe that civilization requires hierarchy, and perhaps as a corollary: the more complex the civilization, the more pronounced the hierarchy required.

If I were an anthropologist, I would make hypothesis this the focus of my research.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:36 PM on November 11, 2014


One of the most fascinating things about the internet is that stuff like "the enclosure acts happened" and "wage labor is a historical phenomenon" and "famines are political more than natural phenomena", or even "the US backed military juntas in Latin America through the eighties in the interests of US corporations"....those things were secrets and you had to work like mad to convince people of even the most basic ones. (I remember trying to convince a family member - not a fool, either - that the US had engineered the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954 and even though I had a book, I just had one book from a small press with a boring cover....and now it's on Wikipedia.)

Will the truth make us, in some capacity, free? Or will we just live in a society of beautiful, marmoreal clarity and transparency in which we understand perfectly well all the cons and brutality perpetrated every day, and still nothing changes?
posted by Frowner at 1:36 PM on November 11, 2014 [44 favorites]


someone has to dispose of my garbage, or fix the roads I drive on

In many ways this does explain the persistence of unionization among public employees, to wit, jobs that are not easily outsourced or mechanized (although, indeed, many already have been) -- as well as the very aggressive attempts to limit public workers' rights. But just wait for the Google garbage truck. You know it's only a matter of years.
posted by dhartung at 1:39 PM on November 11, 2014


Will the truth make us, in some capacity, free?
No, it's labor that will set you free, right?

Is this where I take note of the massive value of unpaid labor known as "women's work" and ask where that fit into all of this? I mean, somebody has to wash my clothes, cook my dinner and take care of my children while I'm at my job disposing of garbage or fixing roads, right?
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:42 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that collecting the trash and fixing the roads are both going to be eminently doable by robots in the near future. This doesn't mean there won't be any yucky or difficult jobs left for humans to do.

Let me just say, the pressure to do things as quickly, accurately, inexpensively as possible, at least in high tech industries like civilian space, is only ratcheting up. If you have a job, a good job, you are going to have to work harder and smarter in order to keep it. As the ranks of the unemployed increase, any worker looks more and more replaceable. The distinction between employed and unemployed is going to become more and more severe. As a culture its a recipe for upheaval.
posted by newdaddy at 1:47 PM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


~someone has to dispose of my garbage, or fix the roads I drive on
~In many ways this does explain the persistence of unionization among public employees, to wit, jobs that are not easily outsourced or mechanized...


Well, where I live, road building, and a lot of the repair, is almost always bid-out to private sector contractors. Similarly, out here in the county (i.e. outside city limits) all of the trash pickup is done by the private sector. You have to pay them monthly or your trash sits.

And, trash pickup is semi-mechanized. You're given large plastic containers that you wheel out to the curb, and one man in a truck comes and gets it. He pulls up and a big arm grabs the container, lifts it over the truck and empties it. Then, it puts the can back at the curb.

I'm not sure about the road construction crews, but I'm pretty sure the Waste Management drivers aren't unionized.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:47 PM on November 11, 2014


What happens when there aren't enough people left making enough money to buy all the products being produced? I guess that's when all the superbillionaires blast off on their spaceship made of gold to conquer new planets.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:51 PM on November 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


That first link was really interesting. Thanks for posting.
posted by latkes at 2:07 PM on November 11, 2014


Trying to write off creative endeavors as purely cottage-industry stuff is not entirely realistic. Sure, a lot of it is. But the hardware and software I use to produce music at home was built by a combination of large corporations, universities, small companies, and one-or-two person hobbyist teams.

But our economic priorities do have to change. "Maximize profit for the wealthy" is increasingly unsustainable and "maximize employment for the non-wealthy" is increasingly nonsensical. We need a system where people don't have to work for someone else to live and thrive.
posted by Foosnark at 2:08 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


What happens when there aren't enough people left making enough money to buy all the products being produced? I guess that's when all the superbillionaires blast off on their spaceship made of gold to conquer new planets.

There was a Dianna Wynne Jones novel in which the evil kajillionaires were tricked into a spaceship...I mean, there was also time travel and magic and in theory the space ship wasn't just, like, aimed into the heart of the sun or something sensible like that.

But what will happen is that whole new kinds of labor will be developed - expect more and more exotic/intrusive/dangerous sex work, for instance; expect people who will get paid to undergo light torture (and not the BDSM kind either); expect newer and extremer sports; expect bizarre new biomedical stuff, like if they ever figure out how to grow cloned organs, people will serve as organ incubators; expect a vast servant class whose servitude is more obvious, intrusive and total than anything since slavery; expect the mashing together of previously separate job classes, mostly in terms of "you are the lawn maintenance dude but I also expect you to drop and give me a blowjob if that's what I want, and that's written into your contract, not some kind of negotiated extra that's semi-consensual".

Basically, think of the laziest, most entitled tech bro you can possibly imagine - someone who has zero empathy and also thinks he is the best and smartest human the world has ever seen while assuming that his every momentary wish deserves to be fulfilled - and then imagine a world created to gratify every single whim of that guy.
posted by Frowner at 2:09 PM on November 11, 2014 [28 favorites]


Ugh. Maybe I'm just getting old but I'm finding these nobody-questions-the-premises-maaan articles pretty trite. People aren't failing to ask "whether employment as we know it is a good thing", just about everyone, at least probably everyone in politics, asks themselves that at some point in their lives. (Often as not while smoking a joint in a dorm room.) It's not the asking that is the problem.

The issue is that nobody has found a good way of getting from here to there, and barring some sort of a workable proposal, in a modern political context, it doesn't really matter. So trying to link it to that is a mistake.

Politics, after all, is the art of the possible. What isn't possible, starting from where we are right now, is therefore outside its scope.

Politicians tinker around the edges of the existing system because that's how you fix things. If they didn't, they'd be revolutionaries, not politicians. And by and large, nobody in their right mind likes revolutionaries. They make pretty shitty company, if you are the sort of person who enjoys the finer things in life, like turning oxygen into carbon dioxide on an uninterrupted basis.

This is not to say that studying the process of enclosure, or more philosophically, the "original distribution" question, isn't with merit. It certainly is. But it's myopic to think that it somehow reveals a sort of grand truth about modern politics. There're no easy answers there. It might be easy to say, in retrospect, that Ned Ludd had something of a point, or maybe the Italians in the 13th century were right about fearing rents. Both are interesting. Neither are especially instructive, though.

Modern politics is a quagmire not because of any failure of imagination, it's a mess because large segments of the population have what they perceive to be fundamental disagreements, which prevent the sort of consensus that modern states generally ask for as a condition for legitimacy of government action. There's no end-run around that, unless you're willing to consider either just killing the other camp (a popular choice, historically), or in finding a basis for legitimacy that is something aside from the idea of consent and consensus (also dangerous territory; thar be dictators).
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:11 PM on November 11, 2014 [31 favorites]


And then, of course, imagine the services that will be needed to sustain the army of laborers who work for the tech bros - we'll all be dishing up cheap garbage slop that we cook in a burnt out oil drum in the alley, or hand-washing their UberWashio uniforms in the greywater overflow that runs out back, or figuring out ways to break into OrganInc's dumpsters to salvage the remains of the chickienobs, etc.
posted by Frowner at 2:12 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


Will the truth make us, in some capacity, free? Or will we just live in a society of beautiful, marmoreal clarity and transparency in which we understand perfectly well all the cons and brutality perpetrated every day, and still nothing changes?

The greater the number of people who are aware of an injustice, the larger the pool of individuals who could potentially dedicate their lives to fighting against it. It's not much to go on, I know, but there are still folks out there who have enough agency to fight the good fight, and movements start with individuals.
posted by The White Hat at 2:15 PM on November 11, 2014


expect the mashing together of previously separate job classes, mostly in terms of "you are the lawn maintenance dude but I also expect you to drop and give me a blowjob if that's what I want, and that's written into your contract, not some kind of negotiated extra that's semi-consensual".

Rome and Caligula: smutty historical epics or near-future science fiction dystopias?
posted by Dip Flash at 3:07 PM on November 11, 2014


also see...
-Technology and Inequality
-2040's America will be like 1840's Britain, with robots? [1,2]
-The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World
-Machine-Learning Maestro Michael Jordan on the Delusions of Big Data and Other Huge Engineering Efforts
-When Can We Expect Truly Autonomous Vehicles?
-Driving in Circles
-"The Singularity" [3]
-We're living through a new industrial revolution
-Horses Lost Job Security In 1910; Are We Stuck In Their Hoofprints? (viz. Humans Need Not Apply)

the thing is tho, horses never got to vote!

and btw...
-Against Productivity
-The Great Political Reality Of Our Time
-"In 1986 the America's bottom 90% of families had 4x the wealth of the top 0.1%. Now the shares are the same."
-"The number one thing that would let more independent artists exist in America is a universal basic income."
-Basic income: left & right
-Forget income splitting, tax the rich [4,5]
-Peter Thiel, Believe It Or Not, Is A Marxist
-Peter Thiel Is Wrong About the Future
-When I look at this, I see three ways that humans can make money in the computerized and robotized world of the future:
  1. Owning the computers and the robots.
  2. Having genuinely original and useful thoughts.
  3. Figuring out personal service-like things we can do that the people who do own the robots and thus have money to spend will be I willing to pay for--things that make them directly happy.
-Redwood Rhiadra said: In other words, if you want to make money in the future, you will have to...
  1. be born to the 1% wealthy class
  2. be a genius - another 1% tops
  3. be a prostitute
oh and a special report from the economist a month or so ago, which i haven't read at all yet, but here for your perusal :P
  • The third great wave - "The first two industrial revolutions inflicted plenty of pain but ultimately benefited everyone. The digital one may prove far more divisive, argues Ryan Avent."
  • Technology isn't working - "The digital revolution has yet to fulfil its promise of higher productivity and better jobs."
  • To those that have shall be given - "Labour is steadily losing out to capital."
  • Home economics - "Sky-high house prices in the most desirable cities are holding back growth and jobs."*
  • Arrested development - "The model of development through industrialisation is on its way out."
  • Silver lining - "How the digital revolution can help some of the workers it displaces."
  • Means and ends - "How governments can deal with the labour imbalance."
cf. Mobile is eating the world

---
*So You Want To Fix The Housing Crisis
posted by kliuless at 3:11 PM on November 11, 2014 [28 favorites]


I think part of the problem is that people don't have either the imagination or the inside knowledge to know where the real money and power are right now. Some kind of solicon valley tech bro? That's who you're imagining has the real leverage? Most of those guys are sleeping on cots in a startup house, three to a stack. Way behind on their sleep because they're blowing out their deadlines, and looking for the last can of noodles. Get real.
posted by newdaddy at 3:18 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Jesus, people. He's not saying that no one should fix roads. He's saying no one should have to in order to have food and shelter, because we have (and throw away) enough resources already that no one needs to. And that doing something like fixing roads should then qualify one for additional funds to contribute to a more robust leisure time, should one choose to go that path.

I'm not gonna sit here and pretend that I'm enough of an economist or sociologist to argue about the merits of his point, but at least I read the fucking article.
posted by shmegegge at 3:24 PM on November 11, 2014 [11 favorites]


Even prostitutes are going to be out of a job if/once they perfect virtual sex.
posted by The Card Cheat at 3:24 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


"In ten years, the penis will be obsolete."

Spider Robinson, By Any Other Name. Ironically, written more than ten years ago.
posted by misha at 4:23 PM on November 11, 2014


Even prostitutes are going to be out of a job if/once they perfect virtual sex.
Eh, if the internet has taught me Rule 34 correctly, then there's always going to be some freak who wants to have sex with actual biological humans.
posted by Flunkie at 4:25 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ack, should be five years, sorry, my memory failed me.
posted by misha at 4:27 PM on November 11, 2014


@misha, it is obsolete. But obsolete things get used past their point of obsolescence all the time. :-p
posted by chaosys at 5:03 PM on November 11, 2014


Spent all day at work sneakin' peeks at the excellent link dudemanlives dropped above, which takes into account nearly everything mentioned here. It's always a strange combination of amazement and sorrow for me when I see thinkers of the past having presaged/more-or-less-solved contemporary issues like this one that we consider to be eternal and intractable.

Sigh.
posted by riverlife at 6:37 PM on November 11, 2014


We're either going to find a way to use automation to not need (much) work for survival and set up a more equitable and sustainable society, or else we'll just end up as a problem to be eliminated by the automated weapons of the elites (those of us who haven't already starved to death or died from disease or violence).

They'll probably keep a few of us around for slaves/entertainment, but once we're not needed to mine, grow food, provide healthcare, or clean toilets, well, what possible use will the .001% have for the rest of us?
posted by emjaybee at 8:01 PM on November 11, 2014


And by and large, nobody in their right mind likes revolutionaries. They make pretty shitty company

False.

In fact, some even consider their company the closest thing to an IRL Metafilter
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:30 PM on November 11, 2014


@misha, it is obsolete. But obsolete things get used past their point of obsolescence all the time. :-p

By old men and collectors, yes.
posted by vbfg at 11:41 PM on November 11, 2014


Spider Robinson, By Any Other Name.

That's from John Varley's Steel Beach, actually. The opening line in its fullness is:

"In five years, the penis will be obsolete," said the salesman.
posted by dragoon at 1:58 AM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's no end-run around that, unless you're willing to consider either just killing the other camp (a popular choice, historically), or in finding a basis for legitimacy that is something aside from the idea of consent and consensus (also dangerous territory; thar be dictators).

I think the alternative basis for legitimacy option is already being pursued. De-legitimize all other alternatives and repeat as necessary.

Less of a dictatorship option and more of dicto-toriat option.
posted by vicx at 3:13 AM on November 12, 2014


Thanks, dragoon, I really do appreciate that correction. I was having so much trouble finding the quote to properly give the attribution or it, and now it is obvious to me that the reason for that was because I was so sure it was Spider Robinson's that I was looking in all the wrong places! Doh.

(Also, Steel Beach is an excellent book and well worth a read.)
posted by misha at 9:53 AM on November 12, 2014


Oh! Maybe this is why I conflated them. I just dug up my old copy of Steel Beach and there is this review blurb by Spider Robinson: "It was worth the wait! An opening sentence so outrageous that even I would never have attempted it."

No one else probably cares about this as much as me, do they? Sorry.
posted by misha at 10:01 AM on November 12, 2014


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