Work and Machines.
THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule
By ALAN MACFARLANE.
A CENTURY AND A HALF AGO Karl Marx foretold the collapse of capitalism. The reason for the imminent socialist revolution was simple. Capital, that is money, machinery and the private ownership of all resources, would become monopolised in a few hands. The working-classes would become redundant. Their labour would not be needed and they would be economically powerless. They would rise in revolt and overthrow the capitalist system.
For one hundred years afterwards many people scoffed at Marx’s prophecy. People seemed as busy as ever and the working-class seemed to increase its power through the Trade Unions and progressive legislation. It seemed a false prophecy. Yet it now seems that Marx may have been right, but for somewhat different reasons to those to do with the monopolization of capital that he put forward.
WE CAN SUMMARISE the history of work and the rewards for labour briefly. Throughout almost all of human history since the advent of civilisation, the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants have had to work incredibly hard, while a small group of the literate and the militarily powerful have controlled them and lived in relative leisure. From slavery to serfdom to ‘free’ industrial and agricultural workers, people have had to use their shoulders, arms, legs and brains, harnessed to simple tools and to animals, to produce all the commodities they need for survival. This was the situation up to about one hundred and fifty years ago. Hard, physical labour filled most of people’s lives and it was a proportion of the fruits of that labour that sustained people.
What we have seen since then, as yet predominantly in the Western nations, but now very rapidly spreading around the world, is a stepped, but revolutionary, set of changes. I shall make the changes visual by illustrating them in terms of occupational groups who are represented by the nature (or absence) of the collars on their shirts. The colour of these collars is related to the degree of sweat involved in the job they are doing. I shall also illustrate the process mainly in relation to Britain and America, though it also happened in spreading ripples around the world.
In the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, the vast majority of people were agricultural workers, those who worked under the burning sun at tough farming tasks and often wore no collars at all. And in this precise century, in the West, they became redundant. The process started with better agricultural machinery, ploughs and harvesting machines which meant that one person with horses could do the work of dozens. The fields emptied of labourers. This tendency grew ever more powerful with the advent of petrol and diesel driven tractors from the early twentieth century. These replaced the horses and increased the power of one individual so that he (and occasionally she) could do the work of several hundred labourers.
The vast expanses of North America, or the lesser fields of Europe, were finally emptied of a class of agricultural labourer who represented much of humanity’s experience over the centuries. The same is happening today in India and China, with vast consequences. The high suicide rates among Indian farmers, the emptying of the countryside except for the old and the poor, the pouring of huge waves of migration into the expanding cities, these are all features of the shift from the countryside to the cities.
THE SECOND REVOLUTION occurred in the later half of the twentieth century, this time amongst those who also sweated, but perhaps to a lesser degree since they were working within buildings, the ‘blue-collar’ workers created by the first industrial revolution. Their work in mills, factories, workshops and mines, which had sustained them for nearly two centuries, was made unnecessary by a ratcheting up of the power of machinery. Almost all the goods previously dug out of the ground or manufactured with assembly lines could now be produced by ever more intelligent machines, so that again one person could do the work of hundreds. The dramatic closing of the factories and mines in the 1970’s in Britain, and the rust belts of America, are the effects of the death of the blue-collar worker in the West.
For a while these blue-collar workers were partially replaced by similar, cheaper, workers in the East. But they too will soon be replaced. A machine can make most things that a human being can manufacture, at a fraction of the cost, and with far less friction in terms of labour relations. Future advances such as three-dimensional printers, which can manufacture, as they are needed, most items, from house and car parts to artificial human limbs, is just one of the current advances which will take this process even further. The day of the blue-collar worker is almost over.
The next group is those who work in ‘offices’, whether in centralised or distributed locations. They do not work principally with their bodies and hands (except transmitting ideas through a pen or keyboard) so they can wear white collars without fear of spoiling them. At one level they are the clerks, secretaries and lower administrators and bureaucrats of various kinds. Yet they also include the professional middle class, the doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, clergy, librarians and many other professional groups.
Hitherto this white-collar group has been protected by the fact that while it was not too difficult to invent tools for cutting hay or weaving cloth or fitting a wheel to a car, it seemed much more difficult to make tools with enough ‘intelligence’ to take the kind of decisions which white-collar workers had to make. This is all ending with the advent of increasingly powerful computers.
The computer is an ‘analytical engine’, as it was originally called, ‘it computes’ or works out solutions to questions. It can solve many kind of repetitive decision-making problem when fed with appropriate data and good programs. So the extraordinary rapid development of computing over the last half-century, which leads currently to a doubling in power of ‘thinking machines’ every nine months or so, means that computers can already probably do as well as humans in over three quarters of the tasks traditionally associated with white-collar work. Computers can diagnose illness, decide legal disputes, teach students to a reasonably high level, play the stock exchange, even drive cars and beat the best chess and ‘Go’ players in the world.
It seems obvious that people will look back on the first half of the twenty-first century as the period when almost all of the white-collar class were eliminated. One teacher, one lawyer, one doctor, plus machines will be able to do what one hundred do now.
All that will be left are those in some of the creative and service industries. Waiters, actors, musicians, painters and sportsmen will survive. As will what we may call the ‘striped shirt’ class. These are the very rich top executives in various bodies — the managers of universities, banks, hospitals — who are paid enormous amounts already and oversee increasingly few people and many machines.
All this will happen first in the ‘advanced economies’ of the United States, Japan and Europe. Yet China, India and other larger countries will join in the process very soon indeed.
So Marx’s prophecy is likely to be fulfilled after all. Much manual and even intellectual work will be eliminated and done by machines. This will be in a world where there is a vast preponderance of young people coming into the labour force, and a world population of 7.4 billion which is still rapidly growing. What will happen in a world of ten billion, of whom 90% have no productive role?
THERE WILL BE innumerable consequences, but here I will look at just three of them — the question of earning a living, the question of filling time, and the question of changing family relations.
During much of the recent past, particularly in market economies, but also in peasant societies, for most people wealth was derived from work. You grew crops, kept animals, worked in shop or factory, and either used or sold what you produced, or earned wages working for others. So the whole modern system of allocation of wealth is derived from an economy which has been built up on the idea that in some sort of way, what you receive in cash or kind reflects your abilities and your labour. If this is undermined by the fact that human labour is hardly needed, except at the margins, what is to replace this system of allocation?
With unemployment running at ten or even twenty per cent, the Welfare State could hand out Social Security. But if unemployment is at ninety per cent, what then? Clearly this will not affect certain groups — the star footballers and entertainers, the top executives and bankers, who may continue to draw ever more gargantuan rewards. Nor will it affect some of the service sector. But what about the rest? How will the billions of young people in the future who have no job live, or even survive?
We have hardly begun to think about this, but there are a few experiments just starting. One is to separate work from income — as is done with Social Security — but on a universal basis. In other words to think of ‘entitlements’, not unlike the idea applied by Amartya Sen in relation to preventing famines. It would then be the ‘entitlement’ of every person living in a society, a human right if you like, not only to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ but also to enough income to make those things possible — guaranteed by the state.
Just as there is free healthcare and (mostly) free roads, there would be a certain minimum benefit or entitlement for everyone. There are currently experiments, both with Social Security and in the more ambitious schemes to cover all citizens, envisage a ‘living entitlement’, set like a ‘living wage’, to make it possible for each adult and child to live a reasonable life — with enough food, clothing, housing, leisure spending.
This might, for example, in current circumstances, mean, depending on age, and the general state of the economy that each person received a guaranteed £2000 per month. The idea would be to set this level in order to make a reasonable living possible. Yet it would allow space, if a person wanted more, for them to have bi-occupations — to grow their own vegetables, keep chickens, set up a small service business, become an artist, writer, teacher, musician or professional sportsman, all of which would boost their income.
There are, no doubt, other and better ways to deal with a world where almost everyone, except those in the service industries and the top executives and sports persons, has no work. What is important, is that we need a radical rethink of the whole structure which has grown up over thousands of years of human labour.
We have to move, as Marx advised, beyond the capitalist model. Yet one thing we do know is that the experiment which Marx advocated as a solution, the abolition of private property and the state, fine as it might sound in theory, leads to disaster, to the horrors of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and now North Korea. That is not the solution — yet we need quickly to work out an alternative. ‘Earning a living’, in the sense that term was used in my earlier years, is almost dead.
THE SECOND CONSEQUENCE worth considering is — what will people do with their time? Through most of history, apart from the early years of infancy and education and a short retirement perhaps, most people’s lives have been filled with work, interspersed with short periods of rest. Terrible though the toll has been, it did fill the days and sometimes the nights. Not only will that work be absent for most people, but with rapidly increasing longevity it will not just be a matter of filling the years to sixty or retirement, but to ninety or more.
If we use the distinction between work and leisure, then we are facing the problems foreseen by Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). We are moving to a world where the lifestyles of country gentleman, Roman aristocrats, Russian nobleman, the tiny fraction of the wealthy and privileged in many societies is, in varying degrees, the life for all. This being so we can see part of the answer to the problem of filling time.
If we look at the lifestyle of those tiny elites in history who have not had to work, we find that they have often been able to fill their time with activities which gave their life enough pleasure and meaning. These can vary from creative and intellectual activities — arts, music, writing — to sports — hunting, shooting, fishing — to games of various kinds and to innumerable hobbies and interests.
All this could be encouraged and stimulated by an educational system which helps prepare people for a life of leisure. My own schooling, preparing me for a white-collar existence with a good deal of leisure, seemed to recognise this as did my university experience. Universities for centuries had taught the mind, but also how to appreciate leisure. Both at school and Oxford, I was encouraged to develop hobbies, interests, to write, enjoy poetry, paint, make things, participate in many sports and games.
My main emotional and social life was outside the formal ‘work’ training environment of the classroom. It was in the playground, the playing fields, the dormitories, on the stage and in the art room that my imagination and skills were most actively trained. My schooling and university training was about being taught skills and aesthetic tastes in order to enjoy nature, art, philosophy, and to learn the joys of creativity and the boundless enjoyment of working within my imagination. In other words our learning was about ‘play’ in the wider sense in which John Huizinga speaks in his book Homo Ludens (1938), arguing that the play instinct is one of our strongest drives.
If we are equipped with the knowledge and tools to explore our world in an imaginative, creative and playful way, there is more than enough to fill a life. The arrival of ever more powerful tools of leisure — television, computers, smartphones, alongside a world of virtual reality and online gaming, is already filling many peoples lives.
This can be observed in the massive expansion of the leisure activities of that new phenomenon, namely the ‘third’ and ‘fourth’ ages of man, stretching from retirement to the 90s. A large portion of the society in advanced countries is now aged over sixty. They are travelling, engaging in clubs and sports, teaching each other, filling up their time. As one friend joked to me on the point of retirement, envisaging the exhausting round of activities ahead, ‘retirement is for a younger man’. It should not be beyond our abilities to plan for a world of leisure and play, once we recognise the vast change that is occurring.
THERE ARE NUMEROUS OTHER consequences of the erosion or complete disappearance of conventional work, but here I will deal with only one more — namely the effect on family life.
The conventional life cycle in the Anglosphere was for the children to leave home either young, or at least at the end of formal education, and to go out to earn their own living in the wider society and economy. They could keep their own wages or set up their own business or work on their own farms, independent of their parents.
In the other type of family system to be found in the rest of the world, some at least of the children, probably the sons, would stay within the domestic unit, working with their family and, towards the end of their lives, supporting them. So they would work on the family farm or in the family firm and contribute to a joint stock of a kind — from which their sisters might draw their dowry and join another ‘family firm’.
Both types of organisation are undermined if there is no traditional work to be done. How can children leave home to work for others and set up their own businesses or even buy a separate house if there is nothing to be done? If there are no jobs, they can only fall back on the one group who will probably feed and house them — their natal family. This is clearly happening on a large scale and means that for the first time in the Anglosphere, children are staying on at home into their late 20s and 30s.
We seem to be morphing into the kind of ‘extended household’ system which has never existed before in the Anglosphere. This goes against the whole tenor of the individualistic, equal, separate identity which has been built up over the last thousand years. Its consequences are hardly being discussed. How can a household have several, closely related, adults living together, particularly if the children are heavily dependent on their parents and grandparents to supplement their meagre or absent wages?
In the other world pattern, namely the domestic mode of production where the family acts together and stays together on the farm or the firm, the problem is different but just as great. There is no ‘mode of production’, domestic or otherwise, nothing for the children to contribute to. The unit becomes only one of consumption and perhaps some kind of joint ownership of the house property. Again this will put new strains and completely alter the nature of the family system.
At present in much of the Third World the loss of farming work has led to a huge wave of labour migration to the cities so that, for example in China, the children and grandparents are left in the villages. But this is again a temporary phase, for the very idea of ‘labour migration’ will vanish when the great factories of the east coast of China no longer need labour.
Here we do not have solutions. The best we can do at present is to be aware of the tendencies and trends, and to see if we can use our ingenuity to make new arrangements for this changing world. If we understand what is happening and is likely to happen, we can plan a little. Humans have adapted to the move from hunter-gatherer to tribal to peasant to capitalist. We should be able to construct a meaningful and fairer world without work for most. But we will only do so if we face the reality of what is happening. The problems that are looming have little to do with human evil, Chinese or Indian cheap labour, though those may be factors. They are largely to do with the replacement of human power by applied knowledge in the form of machinery.
Alan Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for the Fortnightly.