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?

Consumer Citizenship

“Seldom can we re-create a moment in history in such a dramatic and living way,” Library of Congress preservation director Dianne van der Reyden said at Friday’s announcement of the discovery.

The discovery, as you may have heard over the weekend, was of a word beneath a smudge in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence.  The Library of Congress announced the discovery on Friday, July 2nd ahead of the July 4th weekend and you can read the Washington Post’s coverage here.  The smudge had long puzzled historians and the application of some high tech wizardry finally allowed them to uncover what lay beneath.  Unlike other revisions in the early drafts of the Declaration this word was not merely crossed out, it was painstakingly erased.  What’s more, Thomas Jefferson seems to have gone out of his way to make sure the word would never be read.  He carefully wrote the letters of the new word, “citizens,” so that they would overlap wherever possible with the letters of the earlier word.

His efforts had succeeded in obscuring his first choice until now.  Using “a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture” research scientist Fenella France reconstructed the original word.  And what was this mystery word?  “Subjects.”  In a sentence that didn’t even make it into the final draft from the section of the Declaration enumerating the offenses of George III, Jefferson referred to the colonists first as “subjects” of the king and then, apparently realizing the sudden incongruity of the term, opted for the more democratic “citizens.”  The significance seems to have been such for Jefferson that he attempted to physically erase every trace of his first infelicitous choice, as if by abjuring the term he would reconstitute the political situation.

Perhaps the designation meant something to Jefferson because he recognized that our own self-understanding would go a long way in shaping our actions.  (A recognition, comrade, not lost on subsequent revolutions.)  To refer to themselves as subjects in some sense already gave up the cause; to refer to themselves as citizens was as much an act of revolution as were the first shots at Lexington.  Now here is the question of the day:  By what word do we most frequently refer to ourselves?  My vote, and this is not an original observation, is for “consumers.”  Try it out.  Listen for how often the word “consumers” is used to designate Americans.  I suspect “citizen” still makes an appearance in certain obligatory contexts, but “consumers” seems the dominant self-designation.

Jefferson was on to something significant and the recent shift in terminology reveals a great deal about our political and moral environment.  Being a consumer implies a wholly different set of associations than being a citizen.  Citizenship entails an array of privileges and responsibilities wholly absent from the image of the consumer.  The consumer has but one relationship to the world — consumption.  The citizen participates, upholds, defends, sacrifices, invests, honors.  Perhaps this is why we hardly mind the label, it asks so much less of us.  Remember the weeks following 9/11.  There was no call to arms, no push to enlist volunteers, and certainly no talk of a draft.  The government, however, did urge us to continue buying and spending.  This is the whole duty of person as consumer.  Buy, spend, purchase — it is your patriotic duty. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

I may yet prefer subject to consumer.