Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Post Post Work Post

"Automation may mean a post-work society but we shouldn't be afraid," writes Paul Mason at the Guardian. Mason writes, "to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day."

Don't get me wrong. The Sandwichman is all for aggressive reduction of working time. But not because magical robots are going to usher in a Utopian (or dystopian) post-work society.

Let me tell you a secret: although machines are used to produce things, they are not about producing things. They are about power -- the power of one human being with a will over other human beings with wills. Exchange value is a manifestation of this power relationship.

Twenty years ago, George Caffentzis explained "Why Machines Cannot Create Value." His essay began, "Thirty years ago... generation was told by economists, sociologists, and futurologists to expect a society in which machines had taken over most repetitive and stressful tasks and the working day would be so reduced by mechanization that our existential problem would not be how to suffer through the working day but rather how to fill our leisure time.
Twenty years plus thirty years makes fifty years. It might as well be a hundred years or a hundred and fifty. Perhaps fifty years from now some thinker will be predicting that some as yet unheard of technology is about to usher in a post-work society. Don't believe it.

And no, it's not because supply creates its own demand or because technology creates more jobs than it destroys.
Why did the most sophisticated analysts of the last generation go wrong and why is there a still continual stream of texts to this day like Rifkin’s The End of Work, which see in technological innovations the promise of a new era of workerless production?
Caffentzis asked in his essay.

And why twenty years later does Paul Mason regurgitate the Rifkinesque fantasy? Caffentzis answers his own question with an examination and defense of "Marx's original claim that machines cannot produce value" and an update of that claim from the perspective of the late twentieth century. The essay is reprinted in In Letters of Blood and Fire, a 2013 anthology of Caffentzis's essays.

Caffentzis's explanation is erudite and probably redundant. Those who have misinterpreted Marx's argument by viewing it through an economistic lens, will presumably do the same to Caffentzis's defence of Marx.

That is, when someone insists that wealth refers to a vault full of gold coins and/or a warehouse full of useful stuff, that person will no doubt presume that a labor theory of value refers to some sort of ratio between the coins and the stuff. Thus the critics attribute to Marx the position that Marx fundamentally critiqued. Kill the messenger.

Set aside the coins and the stuff, please. Wealth refers to, on the one hand, disposable time and on the other hand, command over the labor of other people. That is to say wealth expresses a power relationship between people -- always a precarious balance between autonomy and coercion. Precarious because "total power" over the other terminates the relationship by murdering the other.

Robots do what they do without autonomy or coercion. They do not desire time off from work "to seek recreation... to enjoy life... to improve the mind." That which they do not possess -- and do not want to possess -- cannot be taken from them. Robots are already dead. Thus they cannot create value in the sense of giving up a portion of their autonomy.

This perspective is difficult to grasp not because of any inherent complexity but because it lies outside the distorting frame in which wealth and value are conventionally viewed. But it bears repeating:

Machines cannot creates value because they are already dead.


Thornton Hall said...

When did wealth come into existence? Did it exist before humans? Is the alpha male in a wolf pack wealthy?

Consider the sentence:
The alpha male in a wolf pack is wealthy.

Something is hard to grasp, right? Is a distorting frame to blame?

Or is it the case that the ontology of wolf society does not contain this thing called "wealth"?

Marx believes that we construct our reality. But what is the evidence that we have constructed it out of the parts that he says we have? A self sealing ontology of social reality is not the same as, for example, a theory of physics that contains black holes and observes gravitational waves.

Sandwichman said...

"Or is it the case that the ontology of wolf society does not contain this thing called 'wealth'?"

It is the case that wolf society does not contain the concept of wealth. Wealth is an abstraction from the relationships that confer wealth. Wolf society lives in the immediacy of dominance and submission. There is no transcendental "meaning" attributed to being the alpha male supplementary to the immediate performance of dominating. There is no supplementary cult that arises out of the archives of alpha males past.

If you find Marx unconvincing, you are welcome to try your hand at your own synthesis. Throwing spitballs and non-sequiturs doesn't win you any points.

You want evidence that Marx was right? Go read Paul Mason, come back and tell me about how much evidence you find that elevate Mason's post-work musings above the Marx.

State you thesis, Thornton. Cavilling is not critique.

Anonymous said...

Was Marx right about wealth? I don't think that it is a question of right or wrong, but one of perspective. Here is a different perspective:

"He is rich who knows how much is enough."
-- Tao Teh Ching


Sandwichman said...


I agree that the definition of wealth depends on the perspective. I would go further and say that some perspectives lend themselves to a more coherent analysis than others.

Thornton Hall said...

My thesis is that Marx and the the political economists with whom he disagrees are both wrong for the same reason.
My hypothesis is that the reason is a set of assumptions about human social organization is embedded in the language (both verbal and mathematical) used by all sides of the debate. And further, that those assumptions amount to a grand assumption that Newton-Cartesianism is a good metaphor for human social behavior. And finally, that these assumptions are imagined to be rock bottom reality because of a general failure among most people, but especially the media-academic complex, to realize how thoroughly Darwin superceded the Enlightenment.

The evidence for the thesis is that no other field has gone 200 years with a mismatch between theory and reality. This, I believe, could only happen if all the popular critiques contain the same flaw as the conventional and the mainstream. Thus, I lash out at critics who imagine that the see reality but are only offering the same ideas that have failed to bring down this amazing edifice of wrongness for these two centuries.

Sandwichman said...

"This, I believe, could only happen if all the popular critiques contain the same flaw as the conventional and the mainstream."

I see your point, Thornton. I agree they do contain some of the same flaws but not to the same degree. Unlike other "fields," economics/political economy is crucial for sustaining a ruling ideology. The academy does not play fair with the substance of critiques. Does your criticism assume that there is a free marketplace of ideas in which those that better match reality will prevail?

A said...

I don't understand. Why does it matter whether you have power over a machine instead of over a human? If you can get a machine/robot to do what you want, why isn't that as good as getting a human to do what you want?

Thornton Hall said...

I definitely do not believe in a free market of ideas. But presumably the ruling elites like Freud, but he was wrong and it only took about 50 years to see it. Dietary fat and cholesterol have nothing to do with heart health--again, wrong for 50 years--but your point about the ruling elite applies to that one.

But my strongest rejoinder is that the existence of "a ruling ideology" begs the question. It assumes the truth of Marxism as a response to a criticism (or doubt of) Marxism.

The reason I mention wolves is that complex economies exist precisely because we co-evolved with wolves. See:

The bigger point I was making is that we have knowledge of the power relationships between wolves because we have spent a bunch of time simply watching wolves interact. It's possible that such a systematic study of human social behavior might reveal it to behave as described by a 19th Century continental philosopher building on Hegel... But it seems unlikely.

Sandwichman said...

"But my strongest rejoinder is that the existence of "a ruling ideology" begs the question. It assumes the truth of Marxism as a response to a criticism (or doubt of) Marxism."

No, the existence of a ruling ideology doesn't assume the truth of Marxism any more than drowning assumes the toxicity of water. If that is your "strongest rejoinder" I rest my case on your self-inflicted straw man.

Sandwichman said...

"Why does it matter whether you have power over a machine instead of over a human? If you can get a machine/robot to do what you want, why isn't that as good as getting a human to do what you want?"

The question is: "as good" in terms of what criteria? If the criteria is how big a heap of useful things can be produced with a given input of fuel, then the machine may be as good (or better). If the criteria covertly has to do with social hierarchies, then all the heap of useful things can do is transfer units of value, not create them.

Think of value units not as dollars or their commodity equivalents but as increments of "legitimate" coercion. If I acquire so many more units, relative to you, I obtain the right to tell you to do X (as a condition of your subsistence) and you have the duty to do it. Translated into money and things, if I own the building your apartment is in, I can charge you rent for living there. The apartment and the rent money don't do this themselves, the legally-enforced social relations of property ownership and non-ownership do.

Thornton Hall said...

I'd call that circular reasoning, but it never gets where it's going.

Thornton Hall said...

We are all hypocrites, but spending your free time berating famous peoples' lack of intellectual honesty and then claiming, with a straight face, that assuming the existence of "a ruling ideology" does not beg the question of the existence of Marxism? That is Hall of Fame material, that is.

Sandwichman said...

Let us now praise famous men, Thornton.

Sandwichman said...

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.

Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:

Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:

Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:

Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:

All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

Sandwichman said...

Those wacky Marxists with their time-traveling machine sure pulled a fast one on old King James!

Magpie said...

A plead to the Sandwichman and Thornton,

Every so often in this kind of discussions one side or the other is bound to use the "circular reasoning" card.

This has me puzzled, for this seldom if ever seems to make sense (at least from my perspective).

Any comments? Hints?

Sandwichman said...


"Circular reasoning is not a formal logical fallacy but a pragmatic defect in an argument whereby the premises are just as much in need of proof or evidence as the conclusion, and as a consequence the argument fails to persuade. Other ways to express this are that there is no reason to accept the premises unless one already believes the conclusion, or that the premises provide no independent ground or evidence for the conclusion. Begging the question is closely related to circular reasoning, and in modern usage the two generally refer to the same thing."

Magpie said...

Thanks Sandwichman

The thing is that often when "circular reasoning" is invoked, it doesn't really seem to fit that definition.

One example is the gravitation/mass equivalence. To say that Jupiter, for instance, is more massive than Saturn, is to say it has a strong gravitational field.

Then someone asks: "And how do you know?"

Me: "Well, because it is more massive."

Someone: "Ooops. Circular reasoning".

Me: "It's an equivalence. What do you expect?"

F = G*M*m/d^2

That's Newton's gravitation law. Say M is a planet's mass. Ceteris paribus, the more massive the planet (i.e. the larger M), the larger the gravitation.

A larger F? Ceteris paribus, a larger M.

Why isn't that persuasive?

It seems to me that when people say "circular reasoning" what would fit best is "I am not convinced", or "I don't accept your argument". Now, to say I'm not convinced entails an explanation: I'm not convinced because of...

It's more economical to say "circular reasoning". And then it's no longer their problem: it's one's fault.

Sandwichman said...


See my quote from Walmsley about elenchus on What will humans do?

The ancient way of arguing is to challenge the opponent's proposition for fallacy or contradiction. Some people think that if they can find -- or even allege -- any flaw in their opponent's argument it invalidates that argument and vindicates their own position. This is of course a nonsense that ultimately leads to the Monty Python argument clinic sketch:

"Yes I did."

"No, you didn't."


"I'm sorry, your five minutes is up."

People can disagree about what counts as evidence and what the evidence shows without one of them being wrong and the other right. Claims of circular reasoning, self-contradiction or fallacy! are as much in need of validation as any other premise or conclusion. So, in principle, an argument can go on forever unless all participants "commit themselves to the pursuit of truth" rather than simply winning arguments or arguing for argument's sake.

Magpie said...


"See my quote from Walmsley about elenchus on What will humans do?"

I did, now.

Points taken. Food for thought.


By the by, in my experience -- for what it is worth -- the "circular argument" thing works in a similar way and is closely associated to "you assume your conclusion": the idea is that

(1) one must argue one's premises (implicitly, to the other side's satisfaction: the question of how persuasive one's argument is), but
(2) the other side tacitly exempts itself from such burden.

Calgacus said...

And finally, that these assumptions are imagined to be rock bottom reality because of a general failure among most people, but especially the media-academic complex, to realize how thoroughly Darwin superceded the Enlightenment.

Although it has become commonly enough seen, this is a very odd criticism of Marxism, especially after mentioning Hegel. It used to be a truism that Darwinian thinking & Hegel / Marx fit hand in glove. Because it is & was very true.

[Aside: I agree with the comments on the overusage of "circular reasoning". In my experience, this criticism usually means: "Your concepts and statements are internally consistent!". So I'm always happy when I find myself reasoning circularly. :-)]

The evidence for the thesis is that no other field has gone 200 years with a mismatch between theory and reality. Marx noted that the wealthy wolves had hired "prizefighter" economists. But there are lot of theories. As long as books don't get burnt or lost, as long as people, even the prizefighters, keep working & thinking, there's progress.

In economics, what happens is that the ideas of the wealthy wolves and their hired prizefighters sometimes become bestsellers, seem to hold the field. The honest seekers after truth usually respond by writing more obscurely, hiding in secret meetings and indulging in internecine squabbling. But they get together to complain about how nobody listens to them.

But not always, not everywhere, and it seems to me that the prizefighters are very clearly now, in a slow-seeming-to-the-impatient, but permanent and final way, losing out in the real world, in "the free marketplace of ideas". A terrible metaphor, the usage of which points to the problem. Ideas don't whore themselves in the marketplace. Ideas are slippery fellows [not unlike wolves :-)] who fight with knives and then sit themselves down to the dinner table as if nothing had happened!

Longtooth said...

As near as I can tell, Sandwichman is simply saying its a dog eat dog world in the colloquial sense. Transferring this to a world where robots do the work of creating stuff we need and use doesn't change is relationship among humans though. Robots simply become the means by which the a bigger, meaner dog extracts their greater leisure and power over the other dogs.... they just own and control the robots that produce the goods the other dogs need and desire.

Turning this into medium of exchange conditions then the other dogs need something they can exchange for the goods produced by the robots... something the big dog wants. But the big dog can't retain his use of robots if the other dogs have nothing to exchange so what happens?

First, with all those idle dogs out there, they become very much more willing to give the big dog what he wants.... which is their labor for less than it costs the big dog to retain and use his robots.

This falls apart only if all the other dogs get together and decide to change the rules by massing their power to "take" what they need and desire from the big dog's robots... giving the big dog enough to cover the costs of maintaining his robots in the capacity to keep producing what the other dogs need and desire.

So it actually comes down to whether the masses are able to obtain the power they need to put the big dog in his place.... to do this they need unity. History to date shows that the big dog has been able to keep that unity at bay. The only question is why the other dogs have let him.

Calgacus said...

Yes, that's the gist. Caffentzis's essay & book are here:George Caffentzis- In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Well worth reading.

Basically the dogs can just decide to not be idle & to realize that the big dog only has what it has because the other dogs have given it to him. It's more a case of understanding and applying the rules consistently than changing them, of seizing what you already have than taking anything. In particular, the other dogs doing nothing just because the big one says "Be idle!" is just as much their (collective) fault. For they can simply stop listening to his nonsense. That is what really scares the big dog.