In his February 18 essay appearing in The Guardian, ‘How I Became an Erratic Marxist’, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis cites his intermittent mentor, Karl Marx:
“If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery, how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!”
This smugly circular quote exposing capital’s counter-intuitive enslavement to labor is taken from the 1847 essay “Wage Labour and Capital”, a twenty-year precursor and prefiguring of Das Capital; it speaks to the awkward and venerable slow-dance between Labor and Capital, specifically the latter’s unswerving determination to exploit surplus value until it ends in the annihilation of all parties.
One wants to say, ‘silly communist, no capitalist is that stupid as to denude the market of consumers by annihilating them at their workstations. What’s a consumer after all but a worker on his day off?’ And indeed most factory owners are no doubt singular and rational actors. However, being left to oneself makes a vacuum not a market as historical processes enjoy expressing themselves in aggregates. The macroeconomics of unimpeded capitalism betrays all the collective wisdom of a bovine stampede. So yes, capitalism is that self-destructive. Nonetheless we’ve devised remedies to help shave the wrenching peaks and valleys. Take for instance the swimmingly successful ZIRP monetary policy or Paul Krugman’s favorite cardiovascular exercise, Keynesian string-pushing. Moving on.
Soon, we will be stared in the face by the ultimate Marxian annihilator (of Hollywood Terminator complexion and proportion), a game-changing machine that promises to obliterate the age-old division between Labor and Capital. May we survive the healing of the breach, though it’s not clear how exactly. This machine will arrive courtesy of transhumanism which, if its proponents are to be believed, will combine the best of Man and Machine (sure sounds like the end of Man to me.) Whether this is a marriage made in heaven or at the end of a shotgun depends on which man or woman you happen to ask.
What the transhumanists are implying, in not nearly enough words, (and absent human referenda) is that the central crisis of capitalism, overproduction, will be mitigated in the final analysis, not by socialized amelioration of the subsistence wage, but by the elimination of wages, which is to say, by the elimination of labor itself. By now any worker bee worth his pollen should be abuzz with anxiety.
Like the bridge species preceding us (the existentially amphibious lungfish) Man is poised to pass the baton to a precocious bucket of sentient bolts, after which the former will duteously wither away. What, they haven’t spelled out the withering away part to you? Shame on those breathless transhumanist cheerleaders. Obsolescence and maladaptation are hallmarks of the evolutionary record. We could ask a Dodo bird. But that’s sort of the point. There are no longer any Dodo birds to ask.
Our incipient witherings are encountered daily on the telephone. In recent months, who hasn’t found themselves questioning whether the voice on the other end is man or machine? Sometimes it’s a man resembling a machine. Other times it’s a cleverly solicitous oncoming locomotive headed for the Keatsian soul. Please don’t attempt this at home, but I’ve devised my own Turing Test, saying things like ‘man, your wife’s a real hottie’ just to test my phone partner’s reaction. If I’m greeted with a chaste and polite ‘thank you, could you repeat that request please’, I know I’m the sole monkey over a barrel.
The sudden bumper crop of sociopaths is an evolutionary vanguard set out to emulate machine-implacability. Prospective employers of the future will use the Reverse Turing Test to ensure our compatibility with digital colleagues (‘cause you wouldn’t want to offend an overly sensitive microprocessor.) Soul slows the work-line. Empathy is gunk between the wheels. The blithest de-humanizees in our midst are converging, with Darwinian purposefulness, on their tin-can overlords in order to win for themselves a brief stay of euthanasia. The most soulful in our midst revolt at this whole prospect and, one way or another, beg off. We’ve been losing a lot of free spirits lately.
Heidegger was among the first to express a paranoia that’s since become the dystopian staple of books and movies. Technology is an enabling, up-close assassin that only feigns service to Man, the better to take our measure and cement our fatal dependency. It’s really its own weird thing whose demon is Azazel, sidling up to us on the way to certain defeat in a final epic battle. That traitor in our midst, transhumanist Hugo de Garis, has admitted as much. Is anybody still inviting him to weekend cook-outs?
“ I believe that humanity will split into two major ideological camps, one in favor of building artilects (the “Cosmists”) and those opposed (the “Terrans”). I believe that the ideological disagreements between these two groups on this issue will be so strong, that a major “artilect” war, killing billions of people, will be almost inevitable before the end of the 21st century.”
Who’s kidding whom? Technology’s barely concealed telos has always lain beyond us, in the post-human (the term ‘transhuman’ is both disingenuous gloss and euphemistic misdirection). Of course technology needed us—we, this great masochistic army of Sorcerer’s Apprentices—to attain its promontory. Unfailingly solicitous, it worked hard at bestowing upon us what Jack Nicholson’s Joker called a bevy of wonderful toys, mechanized entreaties that curried to an ancient line of character defects: (laziness) efficiency; (sloth) leisure; (avarice) productivity, (greed/pride) prosperity. On occasion, some bright Isaiah would point out technology’s troubling shadow-forms: acid rain, greenhouse gases. Invariably the coddled masses, drunk on their need for speed, would steer recalcitrant seers back to 0-50 mph in six seconds. The wind in our hair was pure seduction.
De Garis reminds us how, though we marvel at the aerodynamic miracle of mosquitos and that their feats still resist replication in the human laboratory, we routinely swat them from our arms nonetheless. Should we expect some sentimental forbearance from the coming Artilects simply because they borrowed our shoulders, as we, in our turn, stood on the striving gills of daredevil fish? It risks chauvinism, but we are a singularly remarkable species. Yet should our aggravation (or superfluity) factor grow to exceed our ability to elicit awe, creaturely fear or banal Chia Pet sentimentality in our clever little Frankensteins-to-come, who’s to say the swatter won’t be turned against us?
So we are perilously beyond quaint Marxian-isms such as equitable allocations of surplus value between human classes. Oh the humanity! Airborne drones will monitor billions of aimless human drones for a while. Yet the Panopticon is almost certainly pondering a post-surveillance phase for all this surplus labor. Anyone for Soylent Green?
Protean deflationary forces have been loosed all across the globe signaling a marked and profound disinterest in labor at any price. The capital-intensive means of production in this information age aren’t very intensive anymore. Industries can be replicated on desktops. Of course we’ve been instructed to cheer these productivity gains while refraining from the obvious question: if labor’s services are no longer required, even at the subsistence wage, then surely the non-existence wage lies dead ahead.
Labor is poking up like a sore thumb. Whether the whack comes through benign or malign neglect remains to be seen. However it’s not a stretch to envision neo-feudalistic city-states with Hobbsian badlands lurking just beyond patrician moats for the ‘extraneous’ 95% of the planet. Just ask Morgan Stanley’s Jamie Dimon. A canny algorithm is worth a hundred factories of sweating bodies. Math never sleeps. Even better, it requires no bathroom breaks.
We’re not in the grip of a cyclical downturn, nor even a secular collapse. We are converging on the cessation of mass economic activity as generations have known it. All that jostling inter-human, auction-value and price signaling stuff is being curtailed. Varoufakis has noted the extraordinary nature of the predicament too: “Europe’s current posture poses a threat to civilisation as we know it.” So great is his concern in fact that he’s abandoning Marxist leanings of a lifetime just to help hold the continent together.
Transhumanism’s heralded Era of Endless Bounty and Leisure (a wonderful entreaty worthy of bumper sticker memorialization) will not be broadly shared. The hyper-exceptionalist predilections of the elite simply won’t allow such magnanimity, even it were technically and economically feasible. Next year, the top 1% will own more than 50% of the world’s wealth. This wealth will never trickle back down. Rather it will evaporate, relinquishing its use-value to become little more than a gilded invitation to access some gated enclave on Earth. Wealth was but an interim ladder, a scorekeeping unit of measure to be retracted up the wall of the City-State at the worst possible moment. We badlanders will be left to make do in the world beyond Leviathan’s gates.