Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapter 6)

Nick’s Notes: Sorry about the lack of posts lately! I’ve just been absolutely exhausted from pet sitting and needed to take the last few days (or so) off from writing. I meant to write this yesterday, but I left Autopilot at the pet sitting place.

So I’m posting this today instead!


Revolution or Suicide

A Chinese company that helps produce Apple products, famous for abuse of workers.

Chapter 6 leads with a powerful comparison between state-capitalism and state-communism:

Soviet farm collectivization in the 1930s and the agricultural development of the American colonies were attempts to impose structure onto groups of humans from the top down for the benefit of those in power. A small cadre of powerful people in each society desired either symbolic or economic power, and so they implemented a system of authoritarian order on the society in order to achieve their goals. (p. 87)

Throughout this book I’m impressed that Smart fairly consistently opposes authoritarianism whether it takes the form of communism or capitalism. That’s a part of the discourse that is sometimes missing from leftists in their arguments against authoritarians. Of course, Stalin and his collectivization is a bit of a historical low-hanging fruit to some extent, but it’s still nice to see the parallels between the genocide of Russians (intentional or not) and Native Americans (mostly intentional though some things, like illnesses, was not).

Whether it comes from authoritarians who call you “comrade” or “consumer” there are ways in which those on top are benefiting from our exploitation. And whether that exploitation goes to benefit a cabal of bureaucrats or a group of rich managers and capitalists who think they just “naturally” deserve it, it’s still exploitation.

More of this discourse, please.

Even cooler than that, Smart mentions a really great anthropologist named James C. Scott:

…Scott describes the rise of scientific forestry in his influential book Seeing Like a State. The scientific foresters replaced the complex ecosystems in the natural forests with simplified “scientific” forests for maximizing yields of certain types of timber.

They planed the forests to resemble an Excel spreadsheet: row upon row of neatly-ordered trees all of the same type. A monoculture. In the first generation, this all worked marvelously well: yields were up, the timber was easy to harvest, and the bureaucrats could effectively count the trees… (p. 88)

As you might expect, this didn’t go so well in the long-term.

The yields eventually went down and went down enough for the Germans to create a word for “forest death”: Waldsterben. True to the name and at least in some cases the entire forest died due to this process. This process, unsurprisingly is also what some modern-day timber companies do to forests they have cut down.

I remember watching If a Tree Falls (great documentary, by the way) and the timber company was saying that they reseed whenever they cut the trees. But the protesters countered in the next frame that they replace the diverse ecosystem of nature with a monoculture that is easy for capitalist exploitation, not for the benefit of nature.

This point has stuck with me for a long time and it’s one worth keeping in mind when capitalists tell us that their system is somehow “ecologically sound”. If it really was, they’d probably try to keep the forests as diverse as possible, not as easily accessible as possible for their machinery.

If you want to read more about Seeing Like a State, I recommend Scott Alexander’s review of it.

The next passage I wanna highlight still holds to this theme of forests but mixes in the previous chapter’s insights about self-organizing systems into a very compelling metaphor:

But whether we are talking about forests or human beings, the scientific fact about these systems is that they are self-organized, and therefore an external agent cannot control them. Forcing them to suppress their natural fluctuations and complexities in the name of productivity will always lead to revolution, crisis, or collapse. In the case of forests, you get Waldsterben. For human beings, you may get suicide. (pp 89-90)

To nitpick slightly, it isn’t so much they these things cannot be controlled but that they can’t be effectively controlled in the way that other people want. Just like forests, we human beings are a resourceful bunch up to the point where we get desperate and feel the tightening of economic forces around our necks. At that point our behavior becomes erratic and often self-destructive in either quiet compliance, open defiance or some sort of mix of the two.

The reference to suicide is talking about Apple and Foxconn, a company in China that helps make Apple products. The conditions there are so terrible that it’s been widely reported that many workers have killed themselves rather than work there. And while many (especially those on the left) would claim that Foxconn is just the logical result of a lack of regulations or some such nonsense, Smart does a much better criticism:

…I would argue that it is the fundamental nature of the work that drives people to suicide. Working at Foxconn is the logical extreme of time management. Management schedules washing, eating, and sleeping to coincide with production timelines and in order to maximize the efficiency of shift rotation.

(p. 91)

It’s not hard to see the parallels between this and the phenomenon of folks having a lot less time to slack off. It’s not difficult to see the reality of Foxconn workers and see the truth in what Smart has already told us about human beings work, how our brains operate and how all of that intermingles with authority (poorly).

All of that is what makes this chapter perhaps easily one of the best in the book. Smart makes his points one after the other and they logically and intuitively follow from each other. You don’t need to know a lot of neuroscience (or indeed, even the bits of neuroscience Smart has already discussed) to grasp Smart’s point and see the truth in them.

Another great point Smart makes is about the blurring of work and life:

While our understanding of “the biological nature of man” is constantly being updated, Einstein was correct in realizing that our brains have limits. Though our lives are easier, we exist on the same spectrum as a Chinese laborer. The price of achievement is the same price. Increasingly information companies are trying to have “flat” organizations.

However, the less explicit the hierarchy is at a job, the more responsibility each worker is typically expected to take. The line between life and work is blurred as the endless lists of tasks becomes distributed to everyone. (p. 94)

I’ve made this point a handful of times throughout my blog’s history. This kind of blurring is especially popular (from what I’ve seen) in Silicon Valley where workers are encouraged to live at their jobs. They can eat there, use the restrooms and even sleep there so that they can spend all of their days typing away.

And while some folks (especially liberals) may think this is a positive development, as Smart points out, it’s anything but clear that it necessarily is. Instead, it strikes him (and myself) as a way to always keep people working for whatever corporation they’ve decided to be under the luxurious boot of. There’s less time for friends, socializing, keeping to ones self, slacking off, thinking about something other than work, etc.

In addition to the reference to Kropotkin in the previous chapter, Smart makes a reference to collectivist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and his quote about “the freedom of all” being essential to his own freedom. Smart applies this (p. 95) to the conditions of Chinese workers and their plight being interconnected in important ways with our own.

Unfortunately the greatness of this chapter is cut a little short by the last page:

People with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) feel like they are constantly on vigil; they can never relax for fear of something violent happening to them again. Therefore, their hearts are constantly on alert, which reduces the variability in its rhythm. Constant overwork can be thought of as a mild form of PTSD. (p. 97)

I get where Smart is trying to with this, but he’s a neuroscientist, not a psychologist or licensed therapist. And as someone who has dealt with mild PTSD before from a long-term mutually (emotionally) abusive relationship, when I’m overworked (as I was very recently, actually) I felt way too exhausted to be in a constant vigilance.

I’m sure everyone’s experiences are different and Smart does qualify his claim by saying a mild form of PTSD, but I’m still unsure of this metaphor. It’s perhaps possible to think of PTSD as a type of systemic disruption with regards to the brain’s default network, but so can many other things. I’m not up to date on all of my neuroscience like I presume Smart is, so perhaps he knows something here that he isn’t sharing to make his argument stronger.

But as it stands, I find this to be a pretty shaky link and one steeped much more in ideological rhetorical flourishing then actual neuroscience. Which is fine, but Smart isn’t clear about that distinction and seems to be implying that this metaphor is more of the latter, than the former.

Lastly, Smart claims that “everyone hates” working for someone else but I’m not so sure this is true. I think it’s true that many people dislike it, though I’m not even convinced they hate it. But sure, it’s culturally popular to dislike working under someone as opposed to working with them. But I’m not sure this distaste alone is enough to justify worker self-management, even if I ultimately agree that’s the direction we should be trying to take.


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