The Economy of Abundance #2

The Purpose of Machines: Less Work for Labor or Less Labor for Employers?

Or: Which jobs have you created lately? Copyright 2012, John Manimas Medeiros


Our purpose is to replace the stale, old capitalist economics, designed for the 18th and 19th centuries, with an economics for the 21st century. We have the 20th century as our best evidence, and this is what we have learned -- or what we should have learned.

First, let's ask a meaningful basic question: What is the original purpose of machines? And, to be sure we get this right, let's remind ourselves that machines are tools, and every tool has a purpose. So, we are asking at the same time: What is the original purpose of machine tools? We use tools to do things. Right?

The rational way to answer this question accurately is to make a quick but meaningful comparison between the few ancient machines with the most basic of our modern machines. The first reality in this comparison to be noticed is the kind of power captured or harnessed by ancient machines: human muscle power, animal muscle power, wind, water. The use was to drive some working device through a simple arrangement of tools: wooden paddles or rungs, wheels, ropes, and rods, and primitive gears. The earliest uses were to drive a water pump, provide power for a wood lathe or potter's wheel, a grain grinding mill, to drive a fishing boat or merchant's ship across water. So these three types of natural energy: muscle, wind, water, were used to perform a few basic types of work. Water wheels, and wheels driven by human legs -- climbing or walking a circular treadmill -- were sometimes used to pump water for irrigation. The ancient Greeks understood that a screw turning within a cylinder could function as a water pump.

During the mechanical revolution that was an essential part of the Renaissance, best represented by the genius and drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, we begin to see the evolution of modern mechanical engineering, the development of complex gear connections, and the inventions of elaborate metal machines that could harness not only the power of horses, but also the power of a steam engine. The steam engine is itself a machine of course. With the rise of science comes the electrical generator and electric motor, and then the various electrical transmission devices. Then comes the internal combustion engine, the industrial processing furnaces and power plants. As this process moved forward, we constantly added new machines to perform more specific and more intricate parts of human labor. The most dramatic social and economic changes resulted from replacing the home farm labor of men with agricultural machines and replacing the home farm labor of women with industrial textile manufacturing. Before 1800 most clothing was made by wives and mothers and grandmothers at home. With the rise of machines that spun and wove thread, the cloth was made in factories but still sewn into clothing at home. Later, with the development of industrial sewing machines and clothing shops, we made a fairly rapid transition, in the 19th century, from making clothing at home to most clothing being made in factories and sold in stores. As the complexity of farm machinery increased, the capacity of a few men operating farm machines increased the productive outcome of their time and labor astronomically. What was happening from 1800 through 1900 was a very rapid replacement of human labor with machines. The constant economic process was the evolution of the success of the industrial revolution; the labor of hundreds or thousands of human hands would be replaced by the use of a machine. And a machine would perform the work more uniformly than humans, who had a tendency to produce small variations in each operation they performed with artistic and creative human hands. The machine tool was perfect for creating interchangeable parts, because each part it created was exactly the same. However, even a machine will begin to create a slightly different dimension, if it cuts metal or wood or stamps metal or wood, as the cutting or stamping surface wears down. So, machines required constant maintenance, replacement of cutting edges and repairs of worn or broken wheels, gears, levers, bearings, pistons, and so on. Therefore, as many jobs were eliminated, a few new jobs were created, because the more we used machines, the more we needed mechanics and engineers to design, build, set up, and repair and maintain them. Unskilled labor could operate a machine, but highly skilled labor was and still is required to build and maintain our machines.

Here is the place to take a quick but close look back at the perceived meaning of machines at the beginning of our scientific age: scientists understood the scientific method and the development of medicine and machines as a new blessing for humankind. Medicines and greater biological knowledge would make us healthier, able to win our battles with disease and injuries. Machines would reduce the need for hard human labor. Men and women would still need to work, but could perform primarily the light work of operating machines, and the hardest part of the work would be performed by the machine driven by steam, coal, oil, and electric power. Following the ability to electrify our towns and cities, came plentiful lights at night and the long list of home appliances that turned women from child-bearing workhorses into the modern "trophy wife." Washing clothes, cleaning floors, washing dishes, ironing, even entertaining all became work or services performed by machines. This replacement of a woman's hands with machines for household chores went so far, that after women participated in the industrial labor of World War II, they went back to homes where they seemed to be no longer needed. The new television advertised all the new home appliances their husbands could buy for them, so that they would have little or nothing to do. They did not like having little or nothing to do. This industrial-social process injected new energy into the religious and social controversies over the relationships between men and women, family structure, the role of the family, the rise of divorce, family size, feminism and gender equality, and the ongoing moral and legal conflict over who owns a fetus in the body of a woman. All this because of machines.

So with machines seeming to be the cause of so much change, what was the original purpose of the machines anyway? Again, looking back, the original purpose of machines, to the scientists and to the mechanics designing and building them, was to reduce the need for human labor. Our machines were originally intended to be liberating, to accomplish a meaningful liberation of the common human from the discouraging burden of harsh and debilitating labor. The early promise of machines was that we could produce more food, more building materials, more clothing, more of everything that we needed, faster and with less hard labor. This was a promise of religious significance. To reduce the need for hard labor meant that human life would be more enjoyable for everyone. We could go for decades without a famine or without hordes of poor people freezing during a harsh winter. We could provide special protections for people who were recovering from injury or disease. We could travel faster and communicate faster, with less human labor. All machines, again and again, were intended to make life easier, physically, and provide us with an abundance of what we needed and wanted. Through mechanized industry we would have more food stored safely over the cold winters and hot summers, canned foods, dried foods, bottled foods, and later even frozen foods. The promise of machines was to make life easier for all of us, for human civilization. This seems rather obvious, when the rise of the machines is viewed as a phenomenon of science and history. But along the way machines came to be assigned another purpose: to save money and increase profits -- by eliminating human employees.

Enter the capitalist and the investor, who saw machines in a more narrow view: machines are tools for making money. The purpose of a machine is not to liberate a laborer, but to liberate an employer from the need to hire many employees. To an industrial engineer or investor, the financial or economic purpose of a machine tool is not to liberate human society from hard labor, but to reduce the costs of production. The machine with a few employees to operate it always shows on the accountant's ledgers for production costs as costing far less than the many employees that would be required to produce the same quantity -- and quality -- without the machine. Industrial machines therefore have as their purpose, to industrial managers, owners, investors and stockholders, the logical strategy of reducing the need for human labor. In other words, the practical purpose of using machines has the immediate effect of eliminating jobs. We can see, of course, that the process of industrial progress does not only eliminate jobs. New jobs are created also, not by the industry that uses the machine, but by the society in general. Specialized labor is needed to maintain the machines we depend on to provide us with our new level of material abundance (hence the "economy of abundance") and we need a host of new employees to manage our new and elaborate distribution systems and financial systems to manage our material abundance. It takes a lot more accounting, shipping, maintaining and repairing of virtually everything, because we now have machines everywhere, including in our homes and garages, including our array of vehicles. Thus around the middle of the 20th century we invent the phrase "service economy," meaning an economic system that is "post industrial" and where a very large percentage of the workforce is employed in providing some form of "service" rather than making things. Instead of making shoes or clothing or cans of beef, we are painting houses, repairing home appliances, repairing electronic devices, providing facial and hair cosmetic services, mowing lawns, maintaining vehicles, preparing tax returns, teaching, training, conducting research, recycling the enormous quantities of old products that the naturally occurring bacteria cannot consume fast enough to keep up with our new material abundance. On and on it goes.

We do invent new jobs as the old jobs are eliminated. But it is clear that machines, and the corporations that use them, do not create jobs. The ongoing materialism of our civilization, the constant use of new machines, enables us to produce all of our material needs faster with less labor. We seem to then turn to our less material and more spiritual needs: our need for meaning, for entertainment, for stimulation, for calming, for encouragement, for things to do as we need to work less and less. Then again, we seem to be so well designed for work, many of us fill our leisure time with a second job, because we want more money and more of the products of industry. We see then, that one of the things that happens in an economy of abundance is that we become so enthralled with our capacity to make practically anything that we use our industrial capacity to make toys, things to play with, everything from all terrain vehicles to electronic games, the Internet, space stations. We tell ourselves that we are going to explore the universe, while at the same time we are vaguely aware that we do not yet have certainty as to who and what we are. Maybe by exploring the universe we will find ourselves, and maybe not. Maybe we need to explore right here, using movies, music and cell phones, to see who and what we are. But we should keep in mind, that whether we search for ourselves in outer space, or here on Earth, we are using machines to do so, because we absent mindedly have concluded that machines can do everything better than humans can. But, we also have indications, from our own scientific studies, that the human brain is a thinking machine that is unequalled in the universe and is not likely to be duplicated for a long time to come, if ever. We would be wiser then, to examine ourselves with this machine, with our own analytical brains, before we surrender the power to define us to a computer chip.

So we see that there are two conflicting concepts of what is the purpose of machines. One is that we make machines to make life easier for everyone, and the second is that capitalists make machines to reduce the need for paid labor and to thereby increase profits. A machine can serve both purposes, of course, but which purpose we emphasize and focus upon determines how we view our society and how we conceive of our rights and power to control the society in which we live. If the primary purpose of machines is to liberate us all from hard labor, then the use of machines is a social one, something that is in the service of the entire society. But, if the primary purpose of machines is to function as an industrial and financial tool of capitalists and investors, to reduce the need for human employees, then the use of the machines is strictly a business use and accounting use, something that corporations do to eliminate jobs and increase profits.

Notice the all-important reality that the corporations cannot, and will not, increase their profits unless the people sustain the demand for their products (or services) by wanting them and having the ability to buy them. So, the replacement of employees with machines also has an automatically self-defeating effect for the capitalists and the investors. While eliminating jobs they have to watch carefully that somehow the market is not also eliminated. The market would be eliminated if there were no customers to buy, or if there were potential consumers who did not have the money to buy. Therefore, even when we conceive of the use of machines as strictly business, it cannot possibly be strictly business, because the corporations will collapse if purchasing power collapses. The corporations are faced, therefore, with a conundrum: they can eliminate employees, but they cannot eliminate consumers. This leads us to the cosmic economic question: if corporations continue to perfect their ability to eliminate employees, how will society continue to provide an adequate supply of consumers? If the individual must work in order to have money, and the fantastic industrial and intellectual power of corporations is devoted to eliminating paid employment, how will the consumers get the money they need to buy the things that will keep the corporations in business? Does an economy of abundance require, then, that society invent a new reason to give people money -- even though their labor is not needed? If a large percentage of participants in the society are not working, and cannot have money according to the rules, they cannot buy and the corporations will have no consumers making purchases. This situation brings the market to a clattering close. No consumers means no market, and business cannot meet its financial obligations. The value of the corporate stock falls rapidly, and the business is ruined. All because the machines eliminated employees faster than society could invent new jobs, or a new reason to give people money to spend. Can our society make such a transition, from having work serve as the only valid basis for being paid -- being given money to spend -- to having some other behavioral performance serve as a valid basis for being given money? This may sound like an odd question, but it is the key question, the cosmic question, that evolves directly from the success of the industrial or machine revolution. If we have been successful in the process of using machines to eliminate the need for human labor, how can we take the position that the dismissed employee is simply eliminated from the economic life of society? He or she was not dismissed due to any fault of their own, but because we all wanted to be liberated from hard labor by modern science and the ongoing evolution of machines.

In Das Kapital (1867), Karl Marx wrote that capitalists use their control of machines, or the means of production, to control society, regardless of whether there is a real or illusory system of democratic government. Marx's work can be construed to be an intensive study of the economic impact of machines, a successful use of science to predict the future social and political outcomes of the industrial revolution. Although his work is controversial and complex, Marx showed that the private ownership of capital (buildings and machine tools) had at least one destructive outcome: it enabled capitalists to unfairly exploit workers (labor) and raised many questions as to who has added value to the goods produced and who should be benefiting from the profits of the industrial enterprise. Marx's work, though presented as "political economy" is precisely a focus on whether the purpose of machines -- the means of production -- is to benefit all of society, or are strictly a financial tool for capitalists.

There are closely related processes here that are believed by many to be both beneficial and extremely harmful: advertising and excessive materialism or excessive consumption. This problem is most visible where we are concerned with food and nutrition and the evidence the too much food is as harmful as food scarcity. The 19th and 20th centuries gave us the rise of modern advertising. This process began with pictures of a product in a newspaper or magazine accompanied by text that made ambitious or wildly exaggerated claims regarding how many diseases a medicine will cure, or how beautiful a woman will look with the new corset, or how elegant and durable is the latest design for a one-horse carriage. Radio and television we all know gave rise to the modern advertising standards of fast talking and urgent tone, the startling sale that ends within minutes, the new product that will make the customer stronger, wiser, sexier, richer, healthier or just more up to date than anyone else could possibly be. The issues around the problem of unfair or false claims made for products has brought us to the point in the 21st century where ads on television are mini-movie productions that include strangely threatening warnings regarding the possible side effects of a medicine (including death) or the safety precautions required to use a dangerous product that everyone should buy anyway. Television ads present us with a constant barrage of a variety of psychological approaches: demanding, urgent, rushing, entertaining, deliberately comical, but always suggesting that only an idiot would fail to buy this product. As advertising has advanced to the point of being a fairly constant and unpleasant intrusion, most of the time, there is the sound psychological argument that the general populace is becoming deaf and blind to advertising, and we buy only what we would have purchased anyway. There is reason to believe that however contrived or dramatically creative advertisements may be, the only productive purpose they serve in any case is to inform the potential customer that the product is available. And, the advertisement plants a name and information in the brain of the target, the prospective customer. There is also the disturbing argument that advertising persuades people to buy things that they do not need, or that are harmful to them and to society. Whatever can be said about advertising, it does increase buying, and that means it increases materialism or consumption. Advertising causes all of us to buy more and have more things in our homes. When we no longer have use for a product, we have to either store it or get rid of it. If we think we might want it again some day, we store it. Thus, the modern household uses an attic and possibly also a basement and possibly also a garage and possibly also a "self-storage" unit, a kind of home warehouse, to store the material things that we are not currently using but will throw away. Tag sales, yard sales, trading and flea markets help us recycle and exchange. What was in your garage for three years is now in my attic, or maybe it has become part of a sculpture in my garden. We still need landfills and recycling centers in our always inadequate efforts to prevent our excessive consumption from killing the environment. How strange is this practice of the landfill: "land" plus "fill." Fill the land. Dig a hole and dump everything into it. Why were we surprised when we discovered that our mountains of trash did not flush away down some cosmic toilet pipe? It leaked toxic liquids and gases. It includes our wonder materials, toxic plastics and manufactured chemicals, that will not decay for decades, or centuries, or maybe even for millennia. So, the scientists we look to for guidance on how to deal with our trash and junk really gave us an idea that we could have gotten from an uneducated farmer of the 17th century: make a pile and cover it with dirt. Did we pay someone to implement this plan?

While we have buried ourselves in our material abundance, we are slowly discovering how this kind of industrial success creates new and challenging problems for us. We are currently arguing with ourselves -- at the beginning of the 21st century -- about who creates jobs, or how jobs are created, and who should create jobs and who should not create jobs and what does it mean, really, to create a job, a real job and not a fake job. And during this discussion we have not yet heard anyone bring up the new reality that I have here: Why should we create jobs in the first place? If our original purpose was to reduce the need for human labor, why stop at the concept of the forty-hour week. Why don't we reduce the work week to thirty-five hours, then thirty, then twenty five, then twenty? Why are we fixed on the idea that people have to work hard and long hours in order to have money to spend? If we set out centuries ago to reduce the need for human labor, why don't we conduct a scientific study of just how much human labor is really needed now? Further, we need to accurately assess the failure side of the industrial and chemical revolution, which has filled the land with toxic chemicals, in the air, soil and water. We are faced with the discouraging reality that sound scientific studies demonstrate that our better living chemicals are actually killing chemicals, chemicals that cause cancer, disrupt the regulatory hormones and fetal development of animals and human beings, and poison plants, insects, and the micro-organisms that sustain life on Earth both on land and in the rivers and seas. Environmental protection certainly could create a lot of new jobs, new work for highly educated people. But we do not know if we will respond to this information scientifically or irrationally. Many of our citizens talk about environmental damage and evidence of human-generated climate change as though it is a political opinion rather than scientific information. All this has come about through the process of our seeking to liberate ourselves from hard labor by inventing machines and manufacturing chemicals. We want to solve every problem by spraying something on it, or by washing it away. Today, candidates for public office talk about the problem of poor people as though they really believe that the right thing to do with poor people is to wash them away. Possibly they do have ideas, privately, that we could eliminate unwanted people by spraying something on them. This is not a new idea, having been done in Europe during World War I and World War II, and more recently by Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Many of our science fiction films are driven by plots that show humans engaged in overwhelming battles with smart and powerful and amoral machines. The machines or robots are motivated only to dominate, control, reproduce, and endure. There is no higher purpose, no conscience or soul. This theme appears over and over again in literature and film. Does this not reveal to us that we have this deeply felt fear that machines, originally intended to liberate us, will devour us and bring our species to a bitter end? What must we do in order to assure that the machines will continue to be tools controlled by us for our own benefit rather than tools used to enslave us? It all revolves around our answer to the questions: What is the original purpose of machines? and What is the purpose of machines now?

As for the concept of creating a job, public demand for a product or service is the event that creates a new job. New demands for new products or services create the new job regardless of whether the new position will be hired by an old corporation or a new corporation. New jobs for old is the ongoing process that accompanies our industrial and technological revolution. But we still have with us the argument that human society has a purpose other than just to accumulate material. Abundant material does not guarantee happiness or accurate self-knowledge. However we address the medical, social and economic problems that come with abundance, we still need to know who we are, what we are, and what is our higher purpose. If we treat machines as a means for capitalists to control the means of production, and thereby control society, we are turned away from any pursuit of self-identification and a higher purpose because our final and restricted purpose becomes to live to work and consume until death. We work to produce and we consume to keep the corporation alive. We serve the system, and Marx's predictions have come true: capitalism leads us to self-destruction. But all we have to do to intercept ourselves on our path to self-destruction, is to insist that the purpose of machines and science and technology is to serve humankind, liberate us all, not just a few.

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