A Warning For The Future

(This essay is the final part of the series ‘How Jobs Destroyed Work’)
Earlier, we saw how market efficiency has no general consideration for what is being bought and sold. It really doesn’t care if the products and services are useful or not, harmful or not, so long as cyclical consumption is kept at an acceptable rate. The same is true of labour. So far as the market economy is concerned, the true utility of labour, its actual function, is not as important as the mere act of labour itself. So long as cyclical consumption and growth is maintained, what the job consists of- whether it actually serves a necessary function that encourages work as I would define it or is detrimental to it- is far less important than perpetuating the current system.
Here we are no longer just talking about the practical argument for jobs. Were that the case, we would likely use technological unemployment as an opportunity to end wage slavery and transition to a post-hierarchical world in which robots occupy positions that used to be jobs, freeing up people’s time so that they can pursue callings. Marshall Brain’s novella ‘Manna’ presents two visions of how the rise of robots could affect our lives, one negative and one positive. The positive version does show that we can imagine ways in which we might adapt to a world in which jobs are no longer a practical necessity. But we don’t just have the practical justification to deal with. There is also the ideological part of the argument, and as the practical excuse begins to wane, becoming harder to justify as machines gain the abilities needed to make Aristotle’s vision of a hierarchical-free society a genuine possibility, we shall likely see the ideological justification for maintaining the current system pushed with increasing fervour.
The ideological argument is that jobs are not in fact a miserable necessity we should look forward to being rid of as soon as practically possible, thereafter to engage in nonmonetary forms of productivity as we create the work, selves and societies we actually want; rather, jobs are work, the only kind of work anyone should aspire to. Maybe it could be argued that when jobs were very much a practical necessity it did make sense to encourage a belief that submitting to a job and working hard mostly for someone or something else’s benefit was a way of achieving success in one’s own life. But as the practical justification for jobs is rendered obsolete by technology, the old ‘work ethic’ that cannot imagine a good reason for productive effort beyond ‘doing it for money’ becomes a serious impediment to transcending the current system. 
We must ask: Who really benefits from perpetuating this ideal of working hard for most of one’s waking hours, mostly for the benefit of a ruling class of financial nobility? Obviously, it is in the interest of whoever occupies the top of a hierarchy to maintain the structure from which their power and prestige is derived.
Throughout history there have been a few who, craving power, have done all they can to convince the rest that they ought to sacrifice the time of their lives. They have come in many guises- as lords and monarchs insisting we should be bossed by the aristocracy, as socialists who believe we should be bossed by bureaucrats, as libertarians who think we should be bossed by corporate executives. Exactly how the spoils of power should be divvied up is a topic of some disagreement among them. There is much argument over working conditions, profitability, exploitation, but fundamentally none of these ideologues object to power as such and they all want to keep us working in some form of servitude for one simple reason: Because they are the ones who mostly benefit from making others do their work for them. It’s very convenient for this powerful minority that the populace subordinate to them do not become too happy and productive in the true sense of the word; that anyone not willing to submit to work within whatever context suits their agenda is viewed with pity or contempt. As George Orwell wrote:
“If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away”.
In Orwell’s story, an endless war is fought between three superstates. The real purpose of this war is not final victory for one of the sides. In fact, the war is intended to go on forever. The real purpose of the war is simply to destroy material goods and so prevent leisure from upsetting the hierarchical power structure.
In reality much more subtle methods, part of which has to do with market as opposed to technical efficiency and manufactured debt, are used to perpetuate the hierarchy. A popular reply to the question “what happened to reduced working hours?” is that a massive increase in consumerism occurred, as if we collectively agreed that more stuff was preferable to more free time. But that provides only a partial explanation. Although we have witnessed the creation of a great many jobs, very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of goods. Jobs such as those- in industry, farming, have been largely automated away and increasingly service-based jobs are targets for automation as new generations of AI come out of R+D. So what kind of jobs are maintaining the need for so many hours devoted to the narrow definition of work? David Graeber answers:
“Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects… we have seen the ballooning not so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector…While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speedups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy that no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper pushers ultimately seems to expand”.
Over the coming years will we likely see more administrative jobs created in order to provide oversight, regulation, guidance, and supervision of robots, or at least that’s how propaganda will spin it. In truth such jobs will serve no purpose other than to keep us working in the narrow sense of the word. We have seen signs of this already. The London Underground’s strong union blocked the introduction of driverless trains in the name of ‘protecting jobs’. Protecting them from what? From progress toward a future in which nobody’s time has to be wasted in driving a train each and every day? I think all these union leaders are really interested in is maintaining the hierarchy they derive their power and prestige from. Not much call for unions when robots have liberated us from servitude to corporate or bureaucratic masters.
The 21st Century will see the rise of bullshit administrative jobs that have no practical justification for their existence, and are there merely to perpetuate the class-based hierarchy that has dominated our lives, in one form or another, throughout history. Such a claim may sound like a total contradiction of prior claims that business strives to eliminate work, but bare in mind that I was referring to work in the true sense of the word, not the narrow “jobs= work” definition we are now talking about. Automating truly productive, intrinsically-rewarding work out of existence and increasing the amount of bullshit administrative jobs is a win-win outcome for those with a vested interest in perpetuating the class-based hierarchy. 
Do not think that those bullshit jobs will provide security. No, the rise of the bullshit job will coincide with the rise of ever-less secure forms of employment. The move toward employing more temporary workers who are entitled to less benefits than their full time counterparts will speed up as technological unemployment does away with productive and service-based jobs. Those displaced from such jobs, fighting to get off the scrapheap of unemployment, will provide a handy implicit threat to be used against the ‘lucky’ paper-pushers in administration. Although owners and workers generally have opposing interests (the former preferring workers who do more work in the narrow sense of the word for less personal reward, the latter preferring more personal reward and less work in the narrow sense of the word) they are not true enemies but rather co-dependents (or at least they have been). No, the true enemy of the capitalist is other capitalists- rival businesses competing to corner the market, and gain a monopoly. And the true enemy of the worker is the unemployed, who are in competition for their jobs. When the percentage of unemployed workers is low and the number of available jobs is high, the working classes are at an advantage. Conversely, when there are high numbers of unemployed and not many jobs available, power tips in favour of the owners. As a large percentage of jobs are lost to automation, causing an appreciable rise in the number of job-seekers, businesses will likely use their strengthened negotiating position to bring about an ‘Uber’ economy of ‘permalancers’- workers putting in full time hours but on temporary contracts with little if any benefits other than minimal pay. As Steven Hill wrote in a Salon article:
“In a sense, employers and employees used to be married to each other, and there was a sense of commitment and a shared destiny. Now, employers just want a bunch of one-night-stands with their employers…the so-called ‘new’ economy looks an awful lot like the old, pre-New Deal economy- with ‘jobs’ amounting to a series of low-paid micro-gigs and piece work, offering little empowerment for average workers, families or communities”.
According to Graeber, one of the strengths of right-wing populism is its ability to convince so many people that this is the way things ought to be: that we should sacrifice the time of our lives so as to perpetuate the system. He wrote:
“If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are ruthlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the- universally reviled- unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc)- and particularly its financial avatars- but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value”.
It sounds crazy when written down. Who could possibly be in favour of defending something like this? But this is the world that exists today. A world in which all productive activity that falls outside of the narrow definition of work is dismissed as being of no real value; those who engage in such work regarded as ‘doing nothing’. A world in which success and reward are thought of in purely materialistic terms. A world in which those who refuse to submit to the system are deserving of nothing, no matter how much material wealth our technologies could, in principle, produce. A world in which that material wealth is concentrated at the top, not because of superior productive ability and greater input, but because the monetary, financial, and political systems have been corrupted and actually stand opposed to the free-market ideals they claim to uphold.
As Bob Black pointed out, the ‘need’ for jobs cannot be understood as a purely economic concern:
“If we hypothesize that work is essentially about social control and only incidentally about production, the boss behaviour which Rifkin finds so perversely stubborn makes perfect sense on its own twisted terms. Part of the population is overworked. Another part is ejected from the workforce. What do they have in common? Two things — mutual hostility and abject dependence. The first perpetuates the second, and each is disempowering”.
Follow these developments to their logical conclusion, as Marshall Brain has done. The belief that those who do not submit to serving the system deserve nothing will result in warehouses for those affected by technological unemployment, kept out of sight and out of mind, entitled to nought but the bare minimum of resources needed to sustain life. Those who succeed in getting a bullshit administrative job will be under intense pressure from their corporate masters ‘above’ and the impoverished, jobless masses below to ‘agree’ to intense working pressures, minimal benefits and no job security whatsoever. They will be required to consider themselves ‘lucky’ to have a job at all. Wealth will concentrate even further as the means of production, totally commodified labour power, natural resources, security and military forces and the political system will become the private property of the owners of the artificial intelligences and the financial nobility that bankroll them. The world will have become a plutocracy, run by the superich elite, for the superrich elite and there will be little anyone can do to challenge their supremacy. And all of this will be partly our fault, the consequence of continuing to believe in that false ideology that jobs are work, the only kind of work that counts, the only kind worth aspiring to. We have been told a lie, a made-up justification for why things are the way they are by those with a vested interest in keeping things that way. We must re-discover the true meaning of work, find our collective strength and push technological progress toward a future that serves the many rather than concentrates power into the hands of a few. And the time to do that is running out.

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3 Responses to A Warning For The Future

  1. Link to book on Amazon?

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