The Value of Labor-Saving Devices

Written 4/20/2016

Using technology to reduce unpleasant work and to increase opportunity within the framework of Earth’s living systems.

A few times we’ve had this discussion about how in a utopia “everything” could be automated…at one’s fingertip. Our views are very similar, but not quite identical. My critique hovers around 2 main points:

  1. the psychological health and ability of the utopia to perpetuate itself from generation to generation when life is, quite frankly, “too easy” – when “everything” is gotten without significant effort.
  2. the impracticality of “everything” being easy as the goal, when we live on a finite planet, and, therefore, growth of all sorts and types is limited – it must fit within the overall systems of the earth, or we grow at peril of our own demise.

Your point seems to be:

  • it is unjust to require/demand people to exert more effort than is actually required or that must be.

And, my quandary has been that I actually agree with your point, but somehow need to reconcile it with my two points.

So my epiphany is a way to do just that.

It is my observation that currently, the majority of human innovation seems to be to produce “labor saving devices”. Now, this would seem like a good thing. And on many levels it is. However, we are currently existing within the framework of a Capitalistic economy. The purpose of such an economy is for the few, the Capitalists to gather as much wealth to themselves as they can. So, for the Capitalist, the razon d’etre (French for ‘reason of being’) of a labor-saving device is not to spare the worker, rather it is to replace the worker, as, generally, machines and software cost the capitalist less than human labor.

In an “Anarcho-Socialist Utopia”, there is no need to “put people out of work.” Rather, everyone is expected to do the work they please, as well as contribute time and effort to whatever labor is required to sustain the community, including unpleasant labor, if any is required. In such a utopia then, the impetus would not be on “labor-saving devices”, but rather, it would be on “devices that replace or reduce unpleasant labor.”

So, for example, take music players – radio, CD players, MP3s, Youtube, etc. What is their purpose? Why, to be able to listen to the music that pleases one without having to do the effort of creating it oneself, nor of asking anyone else to create the music live, in that moment. In Capitalism, it also serves the purpose of putting musicians out of work. Paying musicians a living wage is expensive — using technology to play recorded music is cheap. However, in an Anarcho-Socialist economic system, if one preferred live music at one’s party, one could simply ask some musicians to perform (musicians tend to love performing in public, it has something to do with why they bothered to become skilled in performing music in the first place)…if none are available, then one could resort to recorded music. There would be no “out of work” musicians created by the technology of music recording in the Anarcho-Socialist economy.

So I would state the goal to be: Using technology to reduce unpleasant work and to increase opportunity within the framework of Earth’s living systems.

I like that because the redeemable part of the “Protestant Work Ethic” is this idea that through work, through effort, we find personal fulfillment. And, as long as the work is pleasant in some fashion, the idea is true. I think that it is important in the world we want to create that people understand that work, in and of itself, is not something to be avoided, but is an integral part of a healthy, fulfilling life. And that we understand that the goal is the reduction of unpleasant work across the board.

Leisure and pleasure are also integral parts of life — leisure, pleasure, work — they need to be in balance. And, in some cases, they can even merge — work can be a leisure activity, work can be pleasurable. But some work is neither a pleasure nor leisure. It still needs to be done, but in the most equitable way possible. I would even suppose that unpleasant work can be a component of a fulfilling life as long as it is strongly outweighed by the pleasant things of life. Kind of like how all relationships have some negative aspects, but it seems that in the best quality, enduring relationships that the positive highly outweighs the negative.

Another epiphany…
Was just listening to Richard Wolff talk about how whenever there is evidence of great wealth in history it is an example of the expropriation of someone else’s surplus. Mentioned were the beautiful cathedrals and chateaus in Germany. He was comparing slaver, feudalism, and capitalism, noting that in each one the relationship was very similar: the slaveowner/lord/capitalist has the slave/serf/employee work for him, and at the end of the day much of what the slave/serf/employee has created belongs to the slaveowner/lord/capitalist – the surplus remains at the place of work.

So, if we are going to have our anarcho-socialist economic order, then the surplus must either (a) stay with the worker (like a sole-proprietorship or small partnership), and/or (b) be apportioned out in a democratic fashion to the workers and/or community.

In the more distant past (let’s say: pre-industrial revolution), there wasn’t that much wealth to go around, and a few would collect it and have a great life while the rest were more or less miserable. There were also some more egalitarian societies (indigenous) where no one accumulated great wealth, or much of anything at all. With the advent of the industrial revolution, suddenly wealth was able to be amassed (by harnessing the power of the sun from the distant past, using first coal, then oil and natural gas, and even nuclear power), so much wealth that it was feasible for ALL humans to have access to a measure of wealth. However, the dominant economic order encouraged the wealth to gather into few hands, not for it to be dispersed out. The potential is still here, to harness the power of the sun (but probably through solar or wind or tidal, etc.) and collect wealth and spread it through all humanity. And that is what we’ve been talking about……

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