Laborers Without Labor

Kevin Drum in Mother Jones (2013):

“This is a story about the future. Not the unhappy future, the one where climate change turns the planet into a cinder or we all die in a global nuclear war. This is the happy version. It’s the one where computers keep getting smarter and smarter, and clever engineers keep building better and better robots. By 2040, computers the size of a softball are as smart as human beings. Smarter, in fact. Plus they’re computers: They never get tired, they’re never ill-tempered, they never make mistakes, and they have instant access to all of human knowledge.

The result is paradise. Global warming is a problem of the past because computers have figured out how to generate limitless amounts of green energy and intelligent robots have tirelessly built the infrastructure to deliver it to our homes. No one needs to work anymore. Robots can do everything humans can do, and they do it uncomplainingly, 24 hours a day. Some things remain scarce—beachfront property in Malibu, original Rembrandts—but thanks to super-efficient use of natural resources and massive recycling, scarcity of ordinary consumer goods is a thing of the past. Our days are spent however we please, perhaps in study, perhaps playing video games. It’s up to us.”

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958):

“Closer at hand and perhaps equally decisive is another no less threatening event. This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s ‘toil and trouble,’ is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

However, this is so only in appearance. The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.  The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaninfgul activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.  Surely, nothing could be worse.”

Update: A short while after I published this post, I was reminded of an article by Philip Blond I’d linked to a couple of years ago. It included this”

… according to Blond, “Neither Left nor Right can offer an answer because both ideologies have collapsed as both have become the same.”  The left lives by an “agenda of cultural libertarianism” while the right espouses an agenda of “economic libertarianism,” and there is, in Blond’s view, little or no difference between them.  They have both contributed to a shattered society.  “A vast body of citizens,” Blond argues, “has been stripped of its culture by the Left and its capital by the Right, and in such nakedness they enter the trading floor of life with only their labor to sell.”

“With only their labor to sell” – an arresting phrase that, in present context, raises the question: What if even this is taken away?

4 thoughts on “Laborers Without Labor

  1. Hreat point. No story or adventure or growth without stakes. Without desire first, no fulfilment. But there is so much amazing work to be done that is not being attended to now which is more rewarding than some labor. And labor can be rewarding. Like landscapeing .

  2. Unfortunately I don’t believe either scenario will ever come true. I actually see the opposite, where technonology will indeed make humans superfluous in many cases. And instead of it being an Eden of sorts, I believe it will only hasten the divide between the haves and have nots. I don’t say this as someone who hopes this comes true, but as someone who has seen technology progress faster and faster, while it seems that humans have only regressed. Looking from 100 years in the past, we are living in a Golden Age. And it is a Golden Age, but only for the select few. For the rest, it is as it always was. Poverty.

    1. I think your concerns are warranted. I’m far from indiscriminately optimistic myself. As you say, “making humans superfluous” seems to be the consequences of much of our emerging technology and something we need to think very carefully about.

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