Work in Crisis: Part 2
In Memoriam Mike Cooley
(You may read Part 1 here)
Will the final plunder of human creativity result in the limitless enrichment of the few and the final marginalisation of the many, or has the human race still enough spirit to reclaim its birthright and humanity from the would-be neo-colonisers?
Mike Cooley was a lifelong Marxist. The title of his first book, Architect or Bee?, published in 1980, is a phrase from Das Kapital (1867), which defines the options open to humanity in its incorporation of work practices and technology.
A bee, in the construction of its cells, Marx noted, ‘puts to shame’ the architect, but what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees that the architect ‘raises the structure in imagination before it is erected in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.’
Machines are not tools, or even similar to tools. Although ‘experts in mechanics,’ as Karl Marx also pointed out, often confuse the two concepts, calling ‘tools simple machines and machines complex tools’, there is an important and crucial difference between the two. He elaborated: ‘The machine is a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did with similar tools.’
A tool augments the worker’s capacities and strengths; a machine takes his place. This is the core understanding at the heart of Luddism, the workers’ revolt of early 19th century England, preceding the publication of Das Kapital by half a century. Textile weavers immediately understood that automatic weaving machines were not instruments to be used by human agents in their work but as a direct threat to and supplanter of the human worker.
It is important that those of us who are sceptical of Marxism, and for good reasons, acknowledge that there is a great deal of sense and wisdom in Marx’s writings. What is problematic about Marxism is not the content per se, but its emphasis on revolution and the improvability of human nature. There are those who will respond that revolution is the essence of Marxism, which may well be true. But that is not the full story. As Thomas Sowell, a former Marxist, has pointed out, Marxism is an attractive philosophy due to its idealism and theoretical good intentions; the problem is that it doesn’t work.
It is also the case that, for more than a century, Marx’s theories have been applied to immensely destructive projects by fanatical zealots seduced beyond insanity by their utopianism. You might say that where Marxism has fallen apart has been in the manner of its execution — not to say the executions (‘liquidation’ being the preferred euphemism) — of its enemies. The graves of tens of millions of people bear witness to these dangers.
And yet, Marxism remains the yin to the yang of Western capitalism — yin referring, as in Eastern mythology, to the shady side of the stream, yang to the sunny side. No moral distinction is necessarily implied: both are essential to the achievement of balance. In this sense, just as I regarded Mike Cooley as a good man — nay, a great man — I regard his interpretations of Marx — and those of others also, though not everyone’s — as an essential corrective on the drifts of capitalism towards monopoly and hegemony.
Perhaps the problem is that we have — on both sides and for different reasons — sought to conceal this potentially constructive understanding from ourselves, and thus have left the way open for dangerous mutations of Marxism to erupt by virtue of our refusal to take it seriously as a set of dissociated but in some ways useful ideas. Francis Fukuyama, for example, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, sought to write off the entire history of Marxism by announcing the flowering of the final liberal-capitalist age. On the contrary, three decades later we find that capitalism is drowning under an ocean of self-created debt, while communism is trundling down the road from the east. Fukuyama was correct, but only in a strictly theoretical sense: Marx’s economic thesis had failed as a functional alternative. The seeming collapse of the socialist option seemed at the time to reduce the field of play to a single side, but what happened was the evolution of a form of Marxism that had been incubating for many decades, at least since the 1930s: Marxism of the personal and intimate realms. This mutation created a new 'game', which is now reaching its culmination. Marxism is no longer of the Cooley, or even the Marx kind but an ideology sculpted from a hammer to a pick, which finds its ways into the narrowest crevices of human life and intimate relationships, where it does unspeakable damage without necessarily involving literal violence.
Mike Cooley comes in a line of fine writers and thinkers — mostly, though not all, Marxists — who sought to describe the emerging patterns and sound the alarm. In Part 1, we explored the thinking of a most unlikely ally of Marx, Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (‘On Human Work’) which is concerned with the nature and purpose of human working. This encyclical was published in the 90th anniversary of another — Rerum Novarum (‘revolutionary change’), subtitled ‘Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’) — the great ‘social encyclical’ of Pope Leo XIII. Both documents remain seminal statements on the essential nature of the human engagement with the world using the hands and head to ‘subdue the earth’.
A key figure who followed directly in the footsteps of Marx was Harry Braverman, who in 1974, published his classic work Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century.
In his introduction to a new edition of this book in 1998, John Bellamy Foster noted how ‘mysterious’ work had become even in the quarter-century since Braverman’s book had been published: ‘No other realm of social existence is so obscured in mist, so zealously concealed from view (“no admittance except on business”) by the prevailing ideology.’ In pop culture and advertising, consumption had taken over from work as the material of story-telling, whereas work had receded into the background, seldom depicted other than in romanticised forms. This reluctance, he hazarded, was because the nature of work had become so tedious and stultifying, latterly involving ‘endless conformity to boring machine-regulated routines’ with workers ‘divorced from their own creative potential’ — in the name of efficiency and profit. At the same time, economics and sociology were steering clear of talking about the organisation of work and production, in favour of a studied market focus.
It’s an engaging point, and remains true. The work most people do nowadays is so painfully unthinkable as to invite a glazed expression once job titles have been exchanged. Little wonder that everyone is so easily led into defining their identity otherwise.
Braverman is widely regarded as one of the greatest social scientists of the last century, having mined his own hands-on experience and observations to create a unique picture of what may be regarded as the greatest mass theft of knowledge in human history. He came from New York, where he was born in 1920. The son of a shoe worker, he left education early to become apprenticed as a coppersmith at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. He subsequently worked at pipefitting and sheetmetal working, A socialist from his teens, in the 1950s he co-founded an independent magazine, The American Socialist, from where he moved to a career in publishing, where he was able to test among the sedentary classes the ideas he had forged in the blue-collar zone. These experiences placed him in a unique situation to document the story of American labour.
His book is essentially a study of the capitalist labour processes in a system and market dominated by mammoth corporations. His focus is managerialism, the siphoning off of worker skills and knowledge and its installation in machines and scientific processes and systems for the benefit of those who controlled such arrangements and to the detriment of those cast by the wayside in the process.
Braverman identified a contradiction at the heart of modern work practices: on the one hand, the requirements of employers for increased levels of education and training of their workforces due to automation and the scientific-technical revolution; on the other the sheer banality of modern work. Work, he observed, ‘has become increasingly subdivided into petty operations that fail to sustain the interest or engage the capacities of humans . . .[so] that the modern trend of work by its “mindlessness” and “bureaucratization” is “alienating” ever larger sections of the working population.’
Braverman developed Marx’s ideas concerning the ‘degradation of the industrial worker’, chiefly through his ‘alienation’ from the processes of his own labour. He was the first scientist to systematically reopen Marx’s theories and apply them to new methods and functions thrown up by technological progress since Das Kapital was written. The processes of work having become ‘owned’ by others, the worker was forced to surrender his interest in both process and outcome. These had not been entirely original ideas: the sub-division of work processes had been explored by Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, a century before Marx, valorising the increase of efficiency afforded by machines but also warning that these new processes, by eliminating the necessity for the worker to employ his creativity and inventiveness, cause him to become ‘as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.’ Braverman, who emphasised the ‘destruction of craftsmanship’ as the primary issue, was to refine this point, which had been subject to pooh-poohing from the expensive seats. He stressed that the concern was not that the content of labour process would fail to become more sophisticated, nor that the sum of knowledge available to society would not increase — his fear was that this knowledge would become more polarised, becoming vested in managers and engineers, while the processes became more and more opaque to those actually carrying them out. The point was the general tendency towards deskilling in the workplace. And this, he agreed with Smith, led to increasing stupidity. As the great American philosopher Matthew Crawford put it: ‘[T]he degradation of work is ultimately a cognitive matter, rooted in the separation of thinking from doing.’
At the level of intentions, though, it had to do first and foremost with profit, though also ownership and control, essentially, in Marx’s phrase, ‘the accumulation of capital’. The objective was to distil down the process of skilled work so that it could be done by unskilled men, women and even children.
Braverman writes: [T]he more labor is governed by classified motions which extend across the boundaries of trades and occupations, the more it dissolves its concrete forms into the general types of work motions. This mechanical exercise of human faculties according to motion types which are studied independently of the particular kind of work being done, brings to life the Marxist conception of “abstract labor”. The clearest example of abstract labor is thus the assembly line. The activity of self-directed labor, conducted by the worker, is dissolved or abstracted into parts and then reconstituted as a process controlled by management — a labor sausage.’
Both Harry Braverman and Mike Cooley in their work targeted ‘Taylorism’, the methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor, inventor of ‘time and motion’ studies and other scientific-management techniques — in effect plotting the ‘deskilling’ of workforces in preparation for automation. Taylor’s invention, ‘scientific management’, might more accurately be described as ‘managerial science’, the difference being that he used science as a cloak to represent the interests of management and owners, rather than to create a system of maximum efficiency benefitting all stakeholders. To this end, he developed a number of ideas directed at extracting skills from their human creators and vesting them in machines and systems. They included: the dissociation of process from workers, the simplification of process to enable its installation into systems and machines, the separation of conception from execution to create a monopoly of knowledge, and the vesting of this monopoly in the owners and controllers of the systems.
Taylor described his own process as the assumption by managers of ‘the burden of gathering together all the traditional knowledge which in the past has been possessed by the workmen and then of classifying, tabulating, and reducing this knowledge to rules, laws, and formulae.’
Matthew Crawford, in his magnificent book Shop Class as Soulcraft described the Taylorist method:
‘Scattered craft knowledge is concentrated in the hands of the employer, then doled out again to workers in the form of minute instructions needed to perform some part of what is now a work process. This process replaces what was previously an integral activity, rooted in craft tradition and experience, animated by the worker's own mental image of, and intention toward, the finished product. Thus, according to Taylor, “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying-out department . . .” lt is a mistake to suppose that the primary purpose of this partition is to render the work process more efficient. It may or may not result in extracting more value from a given unit of labor time. The concern is rather with labor cost. Once the cognitive aspects of the job are located in a separate management class, or better yet in a process that, once designed, requires no ongoing judgment or deliberation, skilled workers can be replaced with unskilled workers at a lower rate of pay.’
Harry Braverman, though an avowed Marxist to the end, was not blind to the misuses to which Marxism had been put. He reminded readers that Lenin — like Stalin after him, a fan of ‘Taylorism’ — had repeatedly urged his followers to study Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ techniques for use in Soviet industry. He cited Lenin’s own words, describing Taylorism as ‘a combination of the refined brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of the greatest scientific achievements in the field of analyzing mechanical motions during work, the elimination of superfluous and awkward motions, the elaboration of correct methods of work, the introduction of the best system of accounting and control, etc. The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field. The possibility of building socialism depends exactly on our success in combining the Soviet power and the Soviet Organization of administration with the up-to-date achievements of capitalism. We must organize in Russia the study and teaching of the Taylor system and systematically try it out and adapt it to our ends.’ Thus, Braverman declared, Marxism lost pace with the rapid process of change, the Soviet working class ended up bearing ‘all the stigmata of the Western working classes’, and Marx’s theories became outmoded, losing their primary cutting edge — exalting the dignity of labour — in the context of technological change. Thus, he argued, Marxism ‘became weakest at the very point where it had originally been strongest’ and the bankruptcy of Soviet Communism became inevitable.
On the other hand, Braverman was acutely aware of similar flaws infecting capitalism. He saw the 1960s wave of revolutions in the West as having arisen not from a failure of the processes of capitalism but from ‘the appalling effects of those processes at their most “successful”. It is not, he added, ‘that the pressures of poverty, unemployment, and want have been eliminated — far from it — but rather that these have been supplemented by a discontent which cannot be touched by providing more prosperity and jobs because these are the things that produced the discontent in the first place.’ The Taylorist efficiency of the workplace was bringing the discontent to its tipping point. Braverman’s bottom line seemed to be that neither capitalist freedoms nor theoretical ownership of the means of production was sufficient on its own.
But there were, he insisted, other modes of thinking and doing. Neither of these outcomes — Soviet or Western — was inevitable. The breaking down of industrial men into the managers and the managed was not an ineluctable destination. To believe otherwise was to present ourselves with ‘not only a “determinism” but a despotism of the machine.’
Marx had warned of ‘men in search of formulas,’ the great bane of the scientific era. He was not, his enthusiasts claim, a determinist: That, as with Freud, crept into his thinking afterwards through the deficiencies of followers. Nor was he, Braverman insisted, seeking to ‘master history by means of violent simplifications.’
Technology, Braverman argued, is not a discrete cultural phenomenon, but emerges in an evolutionary continuum comprising also social, cultural and political developments. Steam power begat the industrial capitalist; industrial capitalism begat electric power and the internal combustion engine. Technology does not follow solely a self-created path. Marxism holds that technological development arises from social relations, not the other way around. A capitalism focused on accumulation (perhaps a tautology) therefore begets a technology that places profit before people. The nature of our labour processes, therefore, arises in the context of a specific historical evolution, which is what suggest them as ‘natural’, ‘inevitable’ and ‘eternal’. Socialist modes of production do not grow organically in the manner of the capitalist model, but must be ‘brought into being’.
Braverman frequently stressed that he was not averse to technology, and was never a Luddite. He believed that labour processes must inevitably change in response to technology. The problem lay with how science and technology were used as ‘weapons of domination in the creation, perpetuation, and deepening of a gulf between classes in society.’ This affronted him, as a tradesman and human being.
The problem is that our ideological view of technology implies that such a direction was inevitable, being implicit in the very nature of technology. Braverman and Cooley say no: There have been choices all along the way, in the kinds of technology being utilised, the manner of its programming and, above all, the spirit in which the entire exercise is seen and pursued. Even more crucial is the fundamental question posed by John Paul II: Is man for work or is work for man?
The problem is not technology, or even particular forms of technology, but the governing ethic which automatically vests ownership of the processes in those who invest their money as opposed to their skills and time and do not understand, nor wish to understand, what the process feels like to the worker. The logic of this position spreads like a strain to infect the entire world of business and labour, defining things according to the viewpoint of those who do not carry out the work but profit from it, who care little for anything except the bottom line, and who therefore become quite puzzled by the idea that the purpose of human activity might be the betterment of generalised human existence.
Harry Braverman and Mike Cooley both argued that it was possible to combine machines and process with an elevated creativity and craftsmanship among workmen. This suggests itself as especially valid in the era of the computer screen, on which a craftsman, freed of all the tedious aspects of the production process, might be enabled to become the architect of Cooley’s title.
Nor was Braverman convinced by claims that ‘alienation’ is simply a necessary element of social co-existence: the corporate view that workers do boring jobs because they are paid to do them, and that is overall to the good of society; people have varying boredom thresholds, the logic goes, and some (less ‘educated’) people do not so much mind being bored. This thinking, Braverman argued, had trapped us in the same moment for much longer than we needed to remain there. Moreover, there were all kinds of consequences — for human health, happiness, absenteeism, family stability, community cohesion — and all kinds of negative symptoms — addiction, crime, violence — that rendered this a far from hermetically sealed issue. Even the capitalist controllers, he argued, might well benefit from an different approach, had they the vision to perceive this.
In the nearly half-century since Braverman’s book, society has if anything doubled down along the same path as before. The Taylorist processes road-tested on the assembly lines of the Ford Motor Company have now been applied not merely to the industrial treadmill but to the full range of white collar activities. Barbara Garson, in The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factories of the Past, described Taylorism applied to pen-pushing:
‘[T]he time-and-motion study has become a time-and-thought study. . . To build an expert system, a living expert is debriefed and then cloned by a knowledge engineer. That is to say an expert is interviewed, typically for weeks or months. The knowledge engineer watches the expert work on sample problems and asks exactly what factors the expert considered in making his apparently intuitive decisions. Eventually hundreds or thousands of rules of thumb are fed into the computer. The result is a program that can “make decisions" or “draw conclusions” heuristically instead of merely calculating with equations. Like a real expert a sophisticated expert system should be able to draw inferences from “iffy’ or incomplete data that seems to suggest or tends to rule out. In other words, it uses (or replaces) judgement.’ What this is leading to, Matthew Crawford concluded, is not ‘a rising sea of pure mentation that lifts all boats’, but ‘a rising sea of clerkdom’.
And so we come to the end of the line. Or the beginning of the last battle, if there is going to be one. The personnel have changed. Someone called Bill Gates is standing where Henry Ford stood 100-odd years ago, the representative of those seeking the benefits of the Taylorist method for himself and his accomplices in a model of business that would have left Frederick Taylor appalled by its ruthlessness.
Bill is ‘The Man’ of 1960s’ folk legend. Marx is damaged goods and past his sell-by. Braverman and Cooley are gone. No one, of whatever passion or eloquence, has managed to turn the tide. The processes that Marx diagnosed and Braverman translated for a different century, and Cooley parsed so passionately into the third millennium, have after a third century of prevarication reached their apotheosis or denouement. For all the changes at the technological level, the nature of the human function remains as fragile as ever, with the demands of the controllers and managers trumping those of workers every time.
The sovereign human being of whom Matthew Crawford speaks — the autonomous rather than the automated working person — has been subjected to a slo-mo palace coup. It had been going on for a long time, but always moving the same direction. Turns out nobody had really thought it through to its final destination. But now the terminus looms.
It wasn’t just the mode of production, or its ownership. There was also the way the whole thing was set up: the alienation, yes; the boredom, obviously; the limitations on creativity, for sure. Man had not simply been alienated: he’d also been pampered in that alienation — fed with baubles and leisure and diversion and nonsense. But, before that he’d been rendered capable of only limited forms of thought, because that was the way both the work and the ‘education’ to prepare him for the work had been set up. In a word he had been enslaved, but in a way that looked like something else, something like its opposite. The process of his extended mugging had been constructed to reduce both his chances of tumbling to the scam and his capacity to admit he’d been scammed all his life. In fact, he thought himself quite clever, and he had paperwork to prove it. Doctor of Computing, it said, and was signed by Bill or one of his mates. But all the computers belonged to Bill and his mates and the worker thought himself lucky to be able to afford one.
To the extent that he was aware, man imagined that all this was simply naturally evolving reality. But in his unintelligence he was not qualified to say. His enslavement had to do not just with the usurping of his skills and time, but also with his reduction from his own potential, all in such a way that the fingerprints of the Combine had been erased from the scene of the crime, just as man’s memory of these events, or at lest his understanding of their meaning, had been erased from his reducing brain. All this so that he would continue to represent no threat to The Man, who now held his worker-slaves’ fates in his hands and had a funny faraway look in his eye.
The Man, using a cunning trick, has been skimming off the skills and wisdom of his slaves for a long time. The trick was that the slaves were conned into thinking that work was participation, cooperation, a little bit of that equality thing people like Bill and Klaus and Mark always liked to talk about. Bill might be a gazillion times richer than the slave but he knew his first name and would pause to slap him on the back and maybe ask where he bought that cool T-shirt. But all the while Bill and his mates were working towards a different goal. The stuff the slaves had that Bill wanted was not some kind of friendship, not the cool T-shirt, not even money, although the slaves buying his hardware, not to mention his software, kept him ticking over while the main game was ticking nicely towards its final denouement. Henry Ford, after all, made a point of making sure that his own workers could afford one of the cars they had done something to help build, and that seemed to make him more human or something, whereas really it was all just good business.
Hence, the slaves got the mad idea that it was all a two-way thing. Bill liked the lucre, and the slaves were cool with that, but they imagined they had other things that Bill and his mates still needed, and that would never change, so all was cool. But, deeper down, the trick was in duping the sucker at the table into thinking that he was there on equal terms, that he was engaged in a fair and transparent exchange, in which he sold something to The Man that The Man desperately needed and The Man respected him for having the skills he himself had need for but did not have. Haha, said Bill, maybe throwing in an extra dollar for that aspect of things, just to cover his conscience — not that he had much of a conscience.
Now, the hour of the denouement is upon us, Bill would be obliged if the slaves would just tap the stuff they know that he may need, you know, into one of his Surface Pro 7s, and then clear their desks, not forgetting that their security codes won’t work if they try to get back into the building. Bill tried his best to make it as easy as possible: Wish you good luck, hope you get fixed up someplace else — by the way, where’d you got those cool runners? Half an hour later, Bill is driving out the gate in his Porsche Taycan and can’t quite put his tongue on any of their names. (They had often heard talk about this thing called ‘built-in obsolescence’, but always presumed Bill was talking laptops.)
Thus, we stumble towards the dark centre of the most ominous moment Western civilisation has experienced for at least the 75 years since the end of World War II. That moment we are facing is, essentially, the final and irreversible looting by the Combine of the resources of the world’s workplace, in the sense that the purpose is to appropriate the benefits of the creative capacities of the working populace, to ensconce all remaining humanly-developed skills in technology so that they will in future belong to the Combine of which Bill is a leading representative and shareholder, thus disinheriting and disenfranchising the world’s working population of any claim to a dividend of the fruits of the onset of what is called the Era of Artificial Intelligence (AI), or what Klaus Schwab calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As we have seen, a preliminary equivalent of this moment occurred about a century ago, when Frederick Taylor published his book Principles of Scientific Management, in which, as described, he set out how such looting might best be conducted. The moment we are now approaching is radically more significant, a terminal moment, though not for Bill: the clearing out of the creative reservoirs of the human imagination and the transfer of the contents to the data banks of the Combine. Once that process is complete, most of the human race will become surplus to requirements, and will be, to begin with at least, consigned to a new kind of reservation, perhaps (if we take our cue from Klaus) to tiny cubicle apartments in ‘smart’ cities, where the bodies of the humans will be harnessed biometrically for their physical and mental energies, and the slaves will be fed a small dribble of funds to keep body and soul together (universal basic income), but otherwise deemed obsolete and kept in check using methods honed for half a century by the Chinese Communist Party. For here is what might in other circumstances seem like a delicious irony: Bill and his mates have constructed a trap that borrows from Marx while he and his mates play out a scenario in which they are at the same time the capitalist villains. And you thought he didn't have a sense of humour? And the final, most delicious irony of all (for Bill) is that the lefties who might have been expected to take up the cudgels on behalf of the slaves are playing on Bill’s team. Politics, as usual, has gone with the big money — locking the slaves down in case they get any funny ideas.
This, of course, is just the first phase. What happens afterwards is anyone’s guess, but on the logic that has taken us this far, the prognosis for a happy ending is not so good.
Bill, for example, already thinks there might be too many of us, and that was before he became the Uncrowned King of the World. For decades, Bill had been experimenting with computer viruses and developing anti-viral software to sell to the suckers at the table so he could claw back the money he paid them for manning his production lines. (Bill has a penchant for this: His ‘charity’ ‘donations’, for example, earn him 95 cents on the dollar over five years, which means that it costs him just five cents on the dollar to get called a ‘philanthropist’ every time he’s mentioned on the BBC.) Now, Bill has flipped his business model and has started working on anti-virals for the soon-to-be-obsolescent human quotient of his production lines. And most of them will be happy to pay for these also.
Just over decade ago, in a speech titled, ‘Innovating to Zero!’, delivered to an invitation-only Long Beach, California TED2010 Conference, Bill declared: ‘First we got population. The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.’
It makes sense. If humans have outlived their usefulness, why should they expect to hang around here stuffing their faces and watching Netflix? What’s the moral difference, after all, between this and an earlier form of ‘redundancy’? Having implicitly agreed that the point of our existence was to sell our labour to the Combine on their terms, and it has been decided that we are no longer necessary, can we really complain? Having willingly accepted the baubles and diversions, is it not a little late to be saying that, actually, we’d like to reopen the discussion about the purpose and meaning of work?
Now we have arrived at the final Act, Bill wants to make it as painless as possible. Hence the ‘pandemic’. While Bill is fixing things so that things go as smoothly as possible for his mate Klaus's Great Reset, the people who might otherwise be disposed to say WTF or something, are otherwise engaged being terrified out of their skins, bullied out of their democratic presumptions, hounded back into their houses, busily counting what’s left of their cash, under more or less constant surveillance, cocooned, gagged, tagged, ragged, burlesqued, gaslighted, and — far from seeking out their fellows to ask WTF might Bill be up to — are so scared of their own shadows that they actually jump nigh under the wheels of buses as an alternative to greeting a neighbour with a hearty ‘Good morning, Comrade!’
Everything in the story converges upon this moment: the reduction of human intelligence wrought by repetitive work practices, the mutation of Marxism arising from the ‘proletariat’’s refusal of the role of dictators in favour of more baubles, leisure and diversion; the acclimatisation through addiction of the workers to precisely the kinds of technologies that would suck their lives away. Et cetera.
Though it be late in the day, there is a way back. It is as outlined by Matthew Crawford in his first book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, published in America in 2009, and subsequently on this side of the Atlantic as The Case for Working With Your Hands, Or Why Office Work is Bad for You and Fixing Things Feels Good. I write at length about Crawford in my 2018 book, Give Us Back the Bad Roads.
Crawford, aside from being a philosopher is also . . . a motorcycle mechanic — who writes an exhilarating mix of personal experience and philosophical theory. His chief theme is the idea that human freedom and reason ideally repose in a ‘situated self’ — that full human realisation occurs in interaction with the world, with the specificity of objects and contexts, through the medium of skills such as mechanics, carpentry, sculpting, dressmaking, etc. Something fundamental, indispensable and non-supplantable, he says, has been lost by virtue of the decline of skilled working with the hands. A more recent book of his, The World Beyond Your Head, places these ideas in the context of the dissociation of post-Enlightenment thought, exposing that the loss of reason in our times is rooted precisely in the detachment from reality of the greater part of human work, a disconnection from the senses, particularly that of touch. The point is something like: By denying himself a physical, tactile engagement with reality, man becomes more and more alienated, yes, but — much worse — in his thinking becomes disconnected from real, concrete things. His thoughts become abstract, built not on solid ground, but on other thoughts, none of them his own. He ceases to pursue the path, began in babyhood, of exploring the world with his senses.
Crawford writes brilliantly about the unity with reality that becomes possible not just in fixing his bike but also in riding it. The skill with which you take a corner, for example, depends on your knowledge of how the bike handles at high speed, and how this knowledge becomes imbued in your body as a set of instincts. Like all great thinkers and critics, Crawford takes the view that there is more to the ‘obvious’ than meets the eye. He is alert at all times for the repetitive rattle in reality that indicates a problem of timing or understeer or the possibility of a looseness in the universal joint. He needs to know not merely what is to be known, but what it means to know and how this knowledge relates to the texture and shape of real things, their true purpose, their mode of operation, the way they may communicate a slippage from full functionality. This is fundamentally a moral endeavour.
Crawford looks, too, at how the Big Ideas of the Enlightenment may have trickled down and become cultural reflexes that nobody really thinks about, perhaps because they no longer really think and therefore have in some ways ceased to be. We have gone up into our heads, withdrawing our attention from the world, and so removing ourselves from the evidence of things and other people, convinced that truth and understanding are subjective phenomena which erupt willy nilly in our heads. Au contraire, as Sam Beckett once said to a Parisian taxi-driver who asked him if he were English.
The question is not one to be understood philosophically, or even metaphysically. It is a concrete problem, with its origins, very possibly, in the absence of concreteness. The Enlightenment caused a dissociation of thought from the senses, from hearing and seeing and touching and tasting and smelling — the ‘tools’ we use to apprehend reality, which to a high degree have atrophied through misuse or non use. We have invented sensations to distract the senses, and stopped using them to work and engage. In a sense, we use our senses in reality only by a series of accidents, or at least unaware of what it is we do. For our grandparents, the senses were vital not just to their daily physical engagement with reality but also to their thoughts, to which this engagement was constant and vital. For us, this is no longer true, which means our thoughts make less and less sense. We have been rendered remote from reality, receiving our understandings third or fourth hand. Technology gives us the illusion of manipulating reality, but it is an increasingly remote manipulation, in which the senses are rapidly becoming atrophied and our knowledge is literally no longer ‘of this world’.
Tools were invented by man, often with remarkable ingenuity, to extend his reach into the world. Technology of the modern types is not the same thing at all. A problem here is that in order to assert autonomy in a world which becomes more and more incomprehensible, human beings seek to become part of the technologies they avail of. In other words, they agree to become enslaved to that which is promoted as their liberation, and this enslavement has become entangled with the work kind.
We have left ourselves exposed by these tendencies and inclinations to a possibly terminal situation. The present moment — the Covid moment — has the potential to be either a wake-up call or the final acceleration of our undoing.
This has been the point of the concern by such men as Mike Cooley to create human-centred systems: technologies which will preserve and enhance human nature as the core of progress. The kinds of computers and other systems we tend to create are fast, reliable, but non-creative. The human being, on the other hand is, in systems terms, ‘slow’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘unreliable’. The fact that man is also highly creative is undervalued, and this tiny fact has been overlooked in the recent dazzle of new technology and the overuse of the word ‘smart’.
What we have been doing is perceiving our own path of development as a species purely in terms of the One Best Way dictated by the developing machine whose destiny is planned and fashioned by people who do not have the best interests of their species at heart. These machines, you might say, are Taylormade for the jettisoning of by far the greater part of humanity.
Mike Cooley defined the process described by Marx as a form of colonisation of the human in his very innermost capacities. But he believed that, even in extremis — precisely because the mechanistic view was so alien to him and would eventually awaken him to his own alienation — the human being had the capacity to fight back.
‘The notion of colonisation,’ he told me in one of our interviews in the 1990s, ‘is something that is rooted in power relationships and historical senses of how it takes place. But you can never succeed in fully colonising something, unless ultimately you destroy it. Because there will always be part of it that will remain outside your control. The American Indians could not understand how we Europeans thought we could buy the land. In the great letter from Chief Seattle to the President he said, “How can you buy the ripple on a stream? How can you buy the whisper of the wind in the trees?” What he was saying was that there is always a part of any process or activity which is outside our colonising abilities. And I see that in a cultural sense. You see, they cannot quite get at the gold in people's minds. They cannot get at the imagination and the consciousness that is unique to every human being. They will be able to get to part of it, which is the codified written part. But they can't get to the other part, and since they can't get control of it, they tend to organise things, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy it. It's a kind of cultural scorched-earth policy.
‘As a scientist and an engineer, l've always found that the things you can state explicitly constitute only a tiny part of that which is the human experience. How do you state explicitly: love? How do you state explicitly: fear? How do you state explicitly: affinity? Such things are processes as well as definitions. And therefore they are things which we have to possess. To really describe love for something or somebody, we must demonstrate it rather than simply define it, and they haven't found any way of doing that. So what they tend to say is that if you can't state something explicitly, it isn't real knowledge in the modern sense.’
What Bill may find, therefore, is that his computer without its human architect is just a mess of chips and wires and processors that dates not because of its technical elements but because it no longer has access to the human creativity that made it possible in the first place. Bill believes that, having plundered the rest of humanity, he has cleared the way for his ilk to benefit from their inheritance of an Earth uncluttered by humanity and unconstrained by the irritating proclivities of other men. From here, Bill wants to go it alone. Just Bill.
The problem — for Bill — is that, in jettisoning the architect, he is pulling the ladder up on the future not just of the species but also of himself and his mates.
‘I think,’ Mike Cooley told me once, ‘the reason the idea of the One Best Way is so rooted in our psyche goes back to the Tower of Babel. People had the arrogance to believe that they could build something right up into heaven. And, as a way of punishing them, all this diversity was imposed on them. So they began to speak with diverse tongues. And this was seen as an awesome thing to do to people. Whereas, in fact, in nature and in biology it is this tremendous diversity which is so important. Yet, right from our species’ origins we have been intimidated by the idea that this is a terrible disability.’
By eliminating human creativity from the processes of industry, The Man thought he could turn his slaves into consumers and banish them to reservations. But the Law of Diminishing Returns has kicked in, and soon he will discover that nothing is as he thought. It is a bad idea to see human beings as simply employees, or consumers, or tourists. These, ironically, are the descriptions that work best when you want to sell them stuff, but they are not even the beginning of the true human story.
Perhaps that story may now be just about to begin. In the throes of the calamity of our own self-misunderstanding, we may seek a cure within the reserves of the human soul. Our thought processes, though squeezed into a shrinking space, may just become more capable as the threat of extinction increases. And soon, freed from the tyrannies of repetition and tedium, we may rediscover ourselves. Bill may be doing us the greatest favour in the history of the world.
The human being is a funny breed. He can imitate a machine if the money is right, but equally can imitate an angel like the one that the young Mike Cooley watched emerge from the stonemason’s slab all those years ago in Tuam. ‘If you think of knowledge as consisting of a core of fact,’ the Professor outlined in what I believe was to be our final conversation, ‘around which are the fuzzy reasoning, the imagination, the intentionality . . . one person sees a sunset and that sparks a certain thing; another sees a little skeletal spiderlike child on a television set that hasn't even got the strength to take a fly from its eyes. And these things move us, in spite of everything.’ And, being moved, we begin to move in a new way.