This commonplace is dedicated to our comrades at Jacobin.
Karl Marx supposed that industrialized capitalism would eventually result in the elimination of labor, Brian Domitrovic explains. “Thanks to capitalism, machines could soon do all useful work.” Without the need to labor, the working class would overthrow the corrupt capitalist class and establish an economy where everyone’s modest needs would be met by technology.
Peter Lawler suggests that Marx’s vision is coming all too true—in a way. Technology—the robots—are taking over more and more of our jobs. The value of labor is in steep decline. More and more, the industrious working class is left with nothing to do. It is not even controversial now to observe that industrial capitalism is overripe and getting rotten. This is the point at which the proletariat was supposed to seize control of the means of production.
Unfortunately for Marx, they show no likelihood of doing so. Technological progress has given rise not to increased altruism and class consciousness, but to depravity and despair. The working class is demoralized. Instead, technology has become a means for the elite to dispense with the inconvenience of maintaining labor. The proletarian class now depends for its panem et circences upon our god-machines and the technological priesthood who lord it over them.
Meanwhile, the Left continues to place its faith in technology. We’ve beaten New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s horse carcass too many times to do it again here. It’s already been five years since he was nominated for Gawker’s prestigious “Douche of the Decade” award, only to be beaten by the guys responsible for American Apparel and “Girls Gone Wild.” (It must be the moustache.) We’re not sure why he hasn’t been arrested for public indecency yet. However, at least one person in America apparently continues to read his fawning odes to Silicon Valley: President Obama.
Obama is enamored of something called the “Maker movement,” which is a higher-tech version of the creative tinkering that everyone’s great-grandpa used to do in his garage and barn. Of course, America’s First Dad’s bumbling way of promoting this “movement” is to to hire someone to make robotic holiday decorations for the White House lawn, and organize middle-school girls to remote-program a Christmas light show. (We can all be grateful that the middle-school boys were left out.)
To be fair, Obama’s commitment to American invention goes a bit deeper than a fascination with gizmos. He genuinely believes that the Maker movement will more widely distribute the means of production and bring new life to America’s declining industrial sector. Hosting a White House “Maker Faire” this year, the President remarked:
And we’re going to rebuild our economy and restore our middle class, and give opportunities for people whose potential is not yet tapped. There are kids out there, there are adults out there right now who have a great idea. And they don’t have access to the capital they need. They don’t have the tools they need to put together a prototype. They don’t know how to link up with folks who could help refine those ideas. And what the Maker movement does, what technology does, what the information revolution does is it allows all those folks to suddenly be a part of this creative process. And what better place to do that than here in the United States of America?
But do you hear that? The middle class. Not the industrial proletariat. Even America’s left-est president has given up on the working class. In the same speech, he makes a faux-populist appeal for “Makers” to be established as the new cultural elite—as if they weren’t already.
. . . I hope every company, every college, every community, every citizen joins us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country. If we do, I know we’re going to be able to create more good jobs in the years to come. We’re going to create entire new industries that we can’t yet imagine . . .
“As we lift up makers and builders and doers.” The technological elite are the worshipful ones who will “create jobs” for the rest of us. Our leftish leader continues to look to Silicon Valley for progress and economic justice, although Silicon Valley continues to deliver an economy that is the opposite. Where is the need for labor, when a Maker can invent a robot to do it?
In recent years, progressive politics has been known for its pursuit of social change in the moral realm, with LGBTQ causes at the forefront of its crusade. But the poor have been left behind. In ironic fact, progressives have given up equality for the sake of also giving up virtue.
With old-fashioned virtue, there might be a chance at equality. But “progress” has been determined to consist in the final dismantling of all moral structures that once lent backbone to the demands of the virtuous poor. Without meaningful work, there can be no working class. Another way of saying this is that without the kind of work that imparts a working-class identity, the working class can have no class-consciousness.
People need work. The poor—and all of us—are made virtuous in part by the need to labor; to struggle, not with one another in the sense of “class struggle,” but with our bodies and within our souls; to practice the virtues of diligence and self-denial; to have something to show for ourselves. If the “virtuous poor” are virtuous, it is because work has made them so. Take away work, and you take away humanity. That goes for the elite, too.