Automation: the republican perspective

This is the second part of our series on automation. In part 1 we discussed the social and economic consequences of automation. This post will discuss automation from a political perspective and will present a moral case for automation.

In her 1958 book The Human Condition Hannah Arendt wrote about modern society:

It is a society of laborers which about to liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. (Arendt 1998 [1958], p.5)

In the text immediately before this quote Arendt describe what we could call the paradox of modern society. On one hand automation offers to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity” (Arendt 1998 [1958], p.4). Whilst on the other hand modern society is a laboring society, due to its glorification of labor (Arendt 1998 [1958], p.4).

Arendt contrasts our modern society with that of ancient Greece, and that Athens in particular. Unlike contemporary society the ancient Greeks did not glorify labor. To them labor was an activity which people undertook to provide themselves the necessities of life, the sole purpose of labor was survival. Laboring was considered a slavish activity, and hence the being bound to labor was the essence of enslavement (Arendt 1998 [1958], p. 83-84).

Those preoccupied with their own survival are deprived of the opportunity to pursue the higher and more noble ways of life. Freedom – in the eyes of the ancient Greeks – implied to be free from labor and necessity, and was the primary condition for higher development. This was, however, the privilege of the few, who needed to force others (i.e. slaves) to labor for them.

In this view slavery is not primarily a legal institution, in which one man is reduced to be the property of another. This is slavery in a narrow sense, more accurately referred to as chattel slavery. From a formal legalistic perspective it is hard to understand the term wage slavery to describe modern employment contracts.

The common objection as classifying modern employment contracts as wage slavery, is the argument that being an employee is voluntary and hence employees are free and not slaves. But an ancient Greek would probably reply that the employees of contemporary society, are only free in the sense they can choose their masters. Both the master/slave and the employer/employee relation are hierarchical in that the master/employer exerts authority over his/her slaves/employees. More importantly an ancient Greek would argue that employees are not free, because most people have no choice but to seek employment since the alternative would be starvation.

Another counter argument to the use of the term wage slavery, is that modern employees are subject much less harsh conditions than slaves. It is hard to take such line of reasoning serious, as labor conditions in many parts are still deplorable. And ironically in the US southern slave-holders used the opposite argument to justify slavery, their slaves were actually better off than northern “free” laborers! [1]

Of course, laws regarding workplace conditions – and more importantly the enforcement of such laws – has done much for the advancement of labor conditions.

In the broader ancient understanding of slavery, the term wage slavery makes perfect sense. Though an employee is not owned by his employer, he is still obliged work for and to obey his employer. As observed by David Ellerman an employment contract is essentially a rental contract [2] in which one men rents the labor of another. Ellerman rightly remarks that there is only a gradual distinction between renting and owning human labor, and he uses the term human rentals to describe the employment contract.

Ironically Ellerman wonders why we do not allow people to sell themselves into (chattel) slavery as we do allow them to rent out their labor? If both contracts are voluntary, then “voluntariness” is not the decisive criterion, as it would only prohibit involuntary labor arrangements. No, according to him slavery is not wrong because it is involuntary – that would be no argument against voluntary slavery – but because it is at odds with a fundamental democratic principal the equivalence of humans [3]. Slavery is wrong because, in Ellermans’s view, because its hierarchical nature, whilst democratic freedom can only exists among equals, as argued by Aristotle. But argued Ellerman, this is also true for the employment contract and hence it should also be wrong.

Since Ellerman favors a democratic society, he has no choice but to oppose employment contracts and to call for the abolition of human rentals. Consequently he makes a case for replacing employment contracts with worker cooperatives. Instead of becoming employees, laborers should join worker cooperatives.

Worker cooperatives are (democratically) run by their member-workers. Because of this, such labor arrangement is non-hierarchical and additionally the cooperative still maintains the benefits of dividing labor and economies of scale.

Self-employment, whether it is as an independent contractor or as member of a worker cooperative, is more in line with the republican ideal of self-governance than the modern employment contract. Though being an improvement, self-employment does not free men from providing the necessities of life.

An ancient Greek could argue that makes little difference whether one performs labor as employee or as entrepreneur. In both cases one is bound to the necessities of life, too busy with survival to be able to pursue the higher ways of life. A more radical development is required if we want the higher ways of life to be accessible for everyone and not just a happy few.

Mechanization does not only ease the toil of labor, but it multiplies the productivity of one’s labor. Hence the result of mechanization would be that fewer people would be required to produce the same amount of goods. Basically there are two ways how man could take advantage of this: restricting labor to a smaller portion of the population and the reduction of work hours.

In agricultural mechanization has made it possible that many people could move to the city and pursue jobs in manufacturing and service industries. And in developed countries 60-hour work weeks were once common, but have been to 48-hour to 40-hour  or even less hours work weeks. Keynes once predicted at some point in the future 15-hour work weeks would be sufficient to maintain the economy.

That mechanization is not only a positive development, is illustrated by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Before the cotton gin, cotton production was such labor intensive that it was hardly profitable even with cheap slave labor. At the time slavery was in decline in the entire United States, even in the South, because the then traditional plantation crops were not profitable either [4]. This changed with the introduction of the cotton gin, as this machine hugely increased the productivity of an individual laborer. As a result cotton became profitable and increased the demand for slaves.

It is often suggested that without the cotton gin slavery would have disappeared in the US without fight. In this context the cotton gin is sometimes referred to as the “ultimate cause” of the American Civil War, we will leave that to historians to handle that debate.

Though mechanization has reduce the amount of time man has to spend on labor and hence has made the higher ways of life accessible to the masses, there are still some issues which remain unresolved. Mechanization still require human involvement in the labor process, and has made labor even more monotone and even more dangerous than it had been in the past.

Automation is the ultimate stage in the process of mechanization, at least in a conceptual sense. It entails the complete removal of man from the labor process. Where slavery only liberates a few from the burden of labor, automation liberates all. Logically the goal of the abolitionist movement requires to embrace automation.

Once automation has made human labor obsolete, man will be able to pursue higher ways of life and not only by the few. Arendt points out that according to Aristotle there are three types of life one would choose freely. Free in the sense of not being prepossessed with mere survival (Arendt p. 12, 1998 [1958]).

These free life-styles are:

  1. The life of the consumer, centered around the consumption of bodily pleasures;
  2. Political life, i.e. the devotion to the public cause (res public);
  3. Vita contemplativa or the life of the philosopher (Arendt p. 13, 1998 [1958]).

The first way of life predominates modern society, which is not without reason referred to as a consumers’ society. Consumerism is heavily criticized by Arendt, but we will cover that in a later post. The second way of life is currently limited to a small portion of society, and unfortunately by those who are more focuses with their own interests – or that of their patrons – than with the public good.

Classical republicanism favors self-governing communities, such as the Ancient Greek polis or the city-states of Renaissance Italy, and the active participation of citizens in politics. However, people who are preoccupied with their own survival do not have the time to devote to the public cause. Also those are vulnerable to being dependent of others for their survival, and hence gives food for clientelism.

Clientelism was widespread in the Roman Republic (509 BC – 27 BC) and referred to the relation between poor citizens (the clients) and a wealthy citizen (the patron). In exchange for material support from their patron, the clients were obliged to vote for their patron in elections. It is not hard to see the corrupt nature of this system, and I would dare to state that clientelism has been a major factor in the downfall of the Roman Republic and its subsequent replacement with the Roman Empire.

A society in which every citizen is a robot-owner, could eliminate this evil of clientelism as every citizen would be capable to supply himself with the necessities of life without having to submit himself to the slavish activity of labor. Rather than having jobs, the citizens of such a society will have hobbies, i.e. activities pursued for one’s personal satisfaction instead of survival.

A free society which seeks to promote human flourishing should fully embrace automation as the ultimate remedy to eliminate human dependence on denigrating labor.


Notes

[1] Slave-owners have a strong selfish incentive to treat their slaves well, as a slave has monetary value for its master. This has, however, little to do with compassion for slaves.

[2] For instance the 1838 Dutch Civil Code covered the labor contract under its provisions regarding rental contracts. It was not until the early years of the 20th century  that employment was covered by its own provisions.

[3] I intentionally use “equivalence” rather than “equality”, because the latter term would suggest that humans would equal in all possible aspects – which is factually untrue. Equivalence, however, stresses that all humans have an equal moral worth, regardless of their specific characteristics.

[4] Not only in the USA slavery lost its profitability, also in other slave societies in the Americas slave-owners faced economic troubles. For instance the discovery of sugar beets meant that European demand for sugar could be met by domestic production and hence the demand for sugar cane went down. At the time slavery was abolished in Suriname, many slave-owners had heavy debts and used the compensation they got to pay off these debts.


References

Arendt, Hannah 1998 [1958]. The Human Condition, second edition. Chicago University Press, Chicago.

Ellerman, David. The Great Debate on Abolish Human Rentals at http://www.abolishhumanrentals.org/human-rentals/the-great-debate/ (visited at November 5, 2014).

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