Hard Labor

Sep 1, 2014

For most American families Labor Day is not about the history of the American Trade Union movement, but that’s what it was about for a hundred years. Labor Day is supposed to celebrate the dignity of labor, but how that tradition has faded.  For several years the traditional Labor Day march in New York was canceled due to security concerns or lack of interest. It has been revived as a shadow of its former self, but more like an all-purpose carnival. Only about one in ten Americans now belongs to a union. Who needs them anymore, when we have almost arrived in the automated future, when all the work of the world will be done by non-unionized machines?

But we’re not quite there yet. For years it seems we’ve been hearing reports of the golden age when computers will relieve us of all life’s drudgery. For example, one report predicted that we will have fully automated kitchens, so that we can call home from work and order our evening meal to be prepared by smart machines.

But, wait a minute, what's this about calling home from work? If  machines are so smart, why aren't they working, instead of fooling about in the kitchen? Computers and automation were supposed to create the leisure society. In fact the opposite has happened. Now we shop from work, as plenty of office workers do, visit the library and do research from work, carry on our personal relationships from work, and even order up house cleaning and gardening from work. Presumably we shall soon be able to take care of our children and cats from work, and even enjoy our vacations at work. There will be no need ever to leave the office. If we do make the mistake of coming home the new technology allows us to continue working from there, and never ever to be disconnected from the demands of our masters. The Duke of Marlborough once said: "As for living, our servants can do that for us." If he were around today he might say: "Our computers can do that for us."

The irony is that we have the power already in our hands to abolish or enormously reduce most routine work. The professions - which, let's face it, are mostly just mystification, repetition and sleight of hand - could easily be automated out of existence with today's technology. Banking and finance, most aspects of law and medicine and education, and all administration and politics could be managed much better by computers than by human beings, however highly paid.

At the beginning of the last century, when trade unions were flourishing, optimism about technology was at its height. Edward Bellamy's best-selling novel, Looking Backwards, published in 1887, predicted what life would be life in the twenty-first century. Top of the list of dramatic changes was: no work. People in our century, Bellamy predicted, would spend their lives in cultural and creative pursuits, and live joyfully with their families 24/7. Karl Marx predicted much the same thing. Even as late as the 1950s, science fiction writers were portraying a future age of leisure. Now, it seems, we are heading for an age of no leisure at all. So much for human prophecy. A computer could have made a much better guess.

Happy Labor Day.

Copyright: David Bouchier