Après Nous, Le Déluge

The internet has been aflame this week following a lengthy article in the New York Times about the corporate culture at Amazon.  (A follow-up on Gawker, arguing that tech money in general, but Amazon in particular, has helped render Seattle unlivable, made some good points, but was undercut by having been written by a callow, oblivious young native who constantly shot his own arguments in the ass.) Some of the claims were general observations about the new American way of work — interminably long hours, a vanishing sense of job security, a relentless pressure to perform more work for less compensation. Others were specific to Amazon’s “peculiar” structure — subsuming one’s personal life to the company credo, deemphasizing the value of skilled workers and allowing a mysterious set of data metrics to dictate hiring procedures, encouraging employees to snitch on each other through a new set of electronic tools.  But all of them seemed to point to a future in which these deteriorations of worker status and valorizations of daten über alles will be the norm and not the exception.

What’s curious, considering the constant chatter we hear about the sharing economy, the crowdsourcing of employment, and the general trend of companies sloughing off their responsibilities to workers and turning the entire workforce into perpetually hustling ‘independent contractors’, is not so much that they are unique, but that they are appearing in the literature of business instead of that of futurists, sociologists, and radical visionaries.  In fact, the notion that, in the post-industrial economy, we have moved past the need to have people perform the same jobs every day for the rest of their lives is hardly new.  Forward-thinking philosophers on both the left and the right have talked about it for decades.  As far back as 1980, the great André Gorz predicted that automation, economic shifts, and technological progress would render irrelevant the standard model of employment we had become used to during the liberal consensus of the 1970s; in his classic work Farewell to the Working Class, he predicted that the future of work would be one of teams with specific skill-sets, assembled for the purpose of devising and executing specific large-scale projects and then disbanded once the work was done.  Aside from groups of maintenance laborers, permanent positions would disappear, a relic of a less efficient past.

This sounds startlingly similar to many of Amazon’s ideas, not to mention the dreams of neoliberals, technocrats, and other libertarian-leaning data fetishists.  The difference between them and Gorz, of course, is that he believed the role of the state was to provide for the basic needs of these workers when they were idle.  The work teams would be assembled; the men and women at the top would make the lion’s share of the revenue as befit their status as planners and makers, while the laborers at the bottom would gain more money than they usually would by sharing in whatever profit was to be made.  But when the project was over, everyone would return to a condition of guaranteed income, receiving enough money and benefits — funded by the state through taxation — to keep them alive and thriving during the downtime.  And here is the essential paradox of modern capitalism:  despite its claim to reward visionaries and idea men, it has yet to do the single thing necessary to advance its model of a new world of employment:  imagine a system that will replace itself.

For while every other major development in economic models has found — albeit, often, through great effort and no small degree of pain — a way to contend with the massive shifts in the social order brought about through new technologies, new ways of buying and selling, new class structures, and new approaches to making a living, only modern consumer capitalism, in the libertarian technocratic mode that now dominates the American marketplace, has yet to come up with any solution to the massive displacement of workers, the uprooting of traditional employment, and the unprecedented decay of labor power and upward transfer of wealth that their globalist vision is creating.

Every day there are new questions about what people will do to make a living if long-term, permanent employment disappears; about what displaced workers, robbed of the use of their lifetime of skills and education, will do when technology passes them by; about who will create a market for the ever-rising tide of consumer goods and services if the working class is reduced to penury and the middle class disappears; about how untold millions will make ends meet if their sources of income are taken away. These answers were met in the past, although often with great difficulty.  The earliest feudalist economies at least let the poor own their own land and grow their own food; this is no longer possible with the rise of a rentier economy of landlords and leaseholders, and with arable land, like everything else, the property of a handful of oligarchic corporations.  The rise of industrialism saw landholding disappear, but it was at least replaced with labor, industrialism, and various degrees of skilled and unskilled occupations, and unions were able to at least attempt to negotiate a worthwhile life for even the least of these.  Today’s greatest thinkers, though, the TED talkers and tech billionaires and free traders, meet these vital questions with little more than a shrug, or some fabulist nonsense about turning every single worker into an entrepreneur, turning every possession into a moneymaking opportunity, every hour into an entry in the opportunity cost column, every waking second into a need to hustle for bread while the CEOs clock millions while sleeping.

As multi-million-dollar companies push back against minimum wage increases for service workers by implying that they will automate these jobs out of existence if they prove too costly, self-absorbed Americans in love with their own asocial tendencies rub their hands together at the prospect of going through their daily pattern of consumption without the onerous burden of ever having to speak to another human being. The black Trotskyite C.L.R. James once pointed out that the patience of the poor was the strongest asset of the rich, and as long as the plutocrats come up with something that will take the place of full-time employment, Americans will likely forswear the urge to loot their homes and put their heads on display outside the comfortable confines of a museum.  But they can’t keep proposing nothing.  It may not happen now, and it may not happen soon, but that story always ends the same way, and it signs its name in fire.

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