Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fukuyama in the Factory: The End of Work and the End of History

Over at Jacobin, Peter Frase and Seth Ackerman have been debating anti-work politics and post-productivism. In "Stop Digging: The Case Against Jobs", Frase argues that the left ought to challenge the "historically perpetuated" view that treats "wage labor as though it is a unique source of dignity and worth." "As long as the left remains fixated on more wage labor as the solution to our problems," he writes, "we'll always be vulnerable to the argument that the socially beneficial changes we want will 'kill jobs.'" For Frase, "socialism should be about freeing people from wage labor, rather than imprisoning them in lives of useless toil." To do this, he calls on the left to agitate for more radical measures and "move away from tightly linking jobs and income." He proposes, as a kind of solution to massive unemployment, a guaranteed minimum income.

However, fellow Jacobin writer Seth Ackerman finds fault in Frase's reasoning. In "The Work of Anti-Work"Ackerman writes, "I'm left cold by the suggestion...that it would be better to transform the 12.5 million Americans forced out of work by the recession into a quasi-permanent class of idle citizens." The problem, according to Ackerman, is that this would create "classes of arbitrarily idled citizens, supported by their fellow strikes me as presumptuous to assume that most unemployed would want this." "The more general - in fact, almost universal feeling," Ackerman states, "is that it's problematic when some are poor and others rich, or when some spend their lives working while others are at leisure." A guaranteed minimum income would, therefore, neither lead to full employment nor eliminate class resentment.

The End of Embodied Labor?
All this hypothesizing about the economic landscape of the future reminded me of Francis Fukuyama and "The End of History." In a NY Times article entitled "After Neoconservativsm," Fukuyama writes, "The End of History" "presented a kind of Marxist argument for the existence of a long-term process of social evolution, but one that terminates in liberal democracy rather than communism." "The Neoconservative position," he lamented, "was... Leninist; they believed that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will." Fukuyama's lament, I think, can also be applied the the views of Frase and Ackerman (minus the value judgement Fukuyama implies with "Leninist"). A legislative agenda aimed towards transcending productivism or a plan to create a guaranteed minimum income are attempts to deal with an unclear economic eventuality - a "post-productivst" future - that could very well be a historical inevitability. The left, then, should focus not on forestalling history, but on preparing for its end.

Both Frase and Ackerman ignore the fact that a "post-productivist" future looks increasingly possible, especially in light of austerity measures. However, this "post-productivist" future will not be the result of a more generous welfare state. Trends in financialization, workplace automation, population aging, and precariousness all pressage the end of embodied labor. Even now, in the short term, efficiency gains and technological improvements have rendered human labor increasingly superfluous. This means that for all the agitation about separating jobs from income, post-industrial societies may be left without the option to do so. Jobs may become scarce enough that income must be stripped from its association with employment.

It is an interesting thought experiment to view the current struggles against austerity measures as the first stages in "of a long-term process of social evolution" that terminates in a society without, or with significantly limited, human labor. Part of the pain of austerity measures, aside from the proletarianization of the salaried middle class, is the recognition that, to a greater extent than many would like to admit, humans are not needed for many productive tasks in the post-industrial economy. During the recession, when many firms fired workers to improve their bottom lines and combat the drop-off in consumer consumption, it became clear (in certain industries) that a reduction in the size of the workforce did not lead to a decrease in productivity. In the era of austerity, governments have come to the same realization.

The seeds of an economy run by robots and made by robots have already been planted. In the finance sector, algorithmic trading is in the process of eliminating the need for people on the stock market floor. In the manufacturing sector, human workers have long since been replaced by automated machines. Slowly but surely, man is creating technology that makes himself superfluous to the processes of production. And naturally, this dramatically changes the relations of production. If capital no longer needs labor, then what is labor to do?

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