Automated Exploitation vs. Liberated Labor

Pictured: Cathy Reisenwitz (Don’t tell Cathy I said as much, but she’s OK.)

If y’all couldn’t have guessed, I was a philosophy major in college.

Well, for the one year I went to college anyhow.

The point being, while people are arguing one thing is or isn’t X and giving all of these reasons for it, I’m looking at (or for) their premises. Why is this or isn’t this X in their mind? What makes them think like that? What does X even mean and how can we best work against or support it? These are a lot of the questions I often think about when people don’t define their terms.

Granted. if everyone defined their terms all of the time and in every potential situation that could use clarification, the English language would probably lose whatever utility it has left in itself these days and die. So that’s no good.

And especially when you have columnists who are often limited by word-counts (unlike me) I often understand why everything can’t be spelled out for the reader. And saying it like that I realize that part of me wanting things to be so explicit to the reader is me being autistic and preferring direct communication.

To me, there’s nothing better than communication that is open and honest. It’s the foundation of my relations with just about anyone (except maybe the government and my bosses). It’s the basis for how I conduct myself in romantic relationships and close friendships in particular. I recently told a friend I wanted to express that I loved them and I thought it was helped to clarify that “I love you” in the context I meant was (paraphrasing): “I care so much about you it’s hard to verbalize.”

My therapist thought that was a pretty good move, so I’m feeling solid about it.

And they did too, which was even better.

My point being (and this is why people have word limits!) it’d be wonderful if everyone thought philosophically about these things, but people don’t, so here I am, ruffling some feathers some folks may not even think need ruffling. But I’m going to do it anyways because otherwise what kind of anarchist would I be?

To start then, Cathy Reisenwitz is one of my favorite current writers. She’s also a dear friend and someone whom I respect tremendously. That’s my “content warning” for extreme amounts of bias out of the way, just so y’all know.

Reisenwitz (I will learn how to fluently spell your last name before this post is over, Cathy) has a great post up on (of all things) The Foundation of Economic Education about, wait for it, overthrowing capitalism and abolishing jobs through machine learning and automation.

If that sounds weird to you, well that’s Cathy.

Here’s Cathy too:

Of course, all paid labor is exploitative, not in the Marxian sense, but simply because the owners of the means of production depend on the value workers bring to the task, in return for which they are paid based on agreed-upon terms. This will be the case so long as scarcity exists. Unfortunately, scarcity means the best we can do is keep training algorithms until the cost of goods and services falls to near-zero.

You remember, during my book tour (ironically the day after I had seen Cathy in person around DC) I wrote a post about exploitation and how I said there was more to say?

Let’s do it.

First off, a bit of a refresher, I’m defining exploitation as person A taking an unfair advantage of person B. This is a fairly broad and (I think) intuitive conception of what it means to be exploited and within that conception we can have examples where people are exploited in mutually advantageous ways.

So, for example, think of a person in a desert who has to give up their life savings for a bottle of water. They do it “voluntarily” and they’re surely benefiting (now they won’t die) but it’s also clear that they’re being taken unfair advantage of by someone in a better position of autonomy and power than them.

Ultimately, exploitation for me is much more a question of power than wages.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being paid a wage for jobs. And also, just because something is exploitative doesn’t mean it’s not something people can’t get benefits out of, agree to or make some sort of alternative arrangements for.

Unfortunately, as I think Reisenwitz and I both agree, capitalism doesn’t make that process  very easily. I’d rather make a little more money at my job, I’d like to be able to read The Picture of Dorian Gray at my leisure when there isn’t anything pressing I need to do, etc.

But I can’t adequately bargain for any of these things from my position of authority. And I think I can safely chalk that up to the fact that the company I work for is a huge corporation with managers who have a much bigger claim to the means of production than I do. And all of this seems to be what the real issue is, not my wages.

If I was able to fire my bosses and collectively own the means of production with my co-workers, own my own means of production or whatever other options actually freed markets might have, then I don’t find the fact that I’d still get wages an exploitative part of that.

So when we’re talking about automation and machine learning, as Reisenwitz is in her article (in case you haven’t read it by now, please do), I don’t think the issue of scarcity cuts to the root of the problem as much as Reisenwitz may believe. I think it’s true that scarcity is a part of the issue but I don’t think it’s the central one.

Even if we had a society in which we (somehow) abolished scarcity through technology I can still imagine those who have better access to non-scarce resources to dominate those who don’t have those same abilities. We could still see an upper class form and solidify on the basis of better understanding of technology or stronger forearms or finding certain particularly lucrative combinations of technology first.

There may be a society where everything is abundant but only The Few know how to make use of it and rest of us are kept stifled in ignorance through their superior knowledge, will-power, access, etc.

I don’t say any of this to sound pessimistic about a technologically advanced world but to highlight that even in non-scarce economies I think we can imagine hellish societies that rely on forms of domination we as anarchists would want to oppose.

So therefore I think there’s more going on with today’s society than just that information isn’t as free as it could be thanks to copyright law, for example. Eliminating that and opening up the means of production, having things like mutual banks, lowering the barriers to entry in Big Data by making technology more accessible, etc. These are all super important things we can do and should do, particularly through bottom-up activism.

But in the end, hierarchical relations undermine freedom in ways that even in non-scarce situations, could prove disastrous for a free society. One that doesn’t need jobs, capitalism or governments needs to have a nuanced picture of exploitation as well as an understanding that eliminating scarcity can’t be the only reason labor is exploitative.

Besides that, I don’t have much to say about Reisenwitz’s article. In fact, is it too formal to call her by her last name? Geez, ain’t like I don’t know her. Anyways, Reisenwitz’s article is mostly good and I don’t have many nitpicks besides this one. I could just lavish this article with praise but that sounds boring and I’d rather call out my friends for their faults.

As I tweeted at Reisenwitz on the topic of awkward flirting a few days ago:


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Tomorrow is the day Trump is inaugurated and Cathy is more optimistic than me.

Unfortunately all I have is irony and am pretty much out of optimism, be prepared.

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