The Trouble with Humans: Why is labour special and especially targeted at a time of crisis- Part A

09/04/2011 by

In an earlier post I argued that we need to examine carefully how labour is turned into a ritualistic scapegoat in response to an economic crisis that has nothing whatsoever to do with high wages and over-generous conditions. Today I begin a series of posts that try to shed light on the deeper causes; on causes that go beyond the obvious trade-off between wages and profits. My posts on the matter are edited extracts from two chapters of a book that Routledge is bringing out, as Iwrite this, in London and New York. It is co-authored by myself, Joseph Halevi and Nicholas Theocarakis. Its title: MODERN POLITICAL ECONOMICS: Making sense of the post-2008 world. Hope you enjoy the argument which, in these posts, turns on The Matrix – yes, the sci-fi movie…

The red pill

It took Thomas Anderson about five seconds to choose the red rather than the blue pill, and a few more to swallow it. In a triumph of reckless curiosity over the lure of simple pleasures, he turned down the prospect of blissful ignorance offered by the blue pill, opting instead for the cruel reality promised by the red one. But then again, without that heroic choice, The Matrix would not have been the box office hit that it was on its release back in 1999. Larry and Andy Wachowski, the film’s makers, invite us to witness the reality that Thomas Anderson’s choice revealed in all its horror and to follow his subsequent heroics, as well as inner struggle, to alter it.

Upon taking the red pill, Anderson (aka Neo) is confronted with the realisation that the world was not as it seemed. His whole life had hitherto been a computer generated illusion whose only purpose was to cloak the unbearable truth. In the reality that the red pill unveiled, the world had been taken over by machines of our own making decades ago. As in folk tales or works of science fiction past, ranging from the Brothers Grimm ”sweet porridge”, Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Jewish Golem tales   and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to films like Blade Runner and The Terminator series,[ii] we lost control of our own creations and, when we decided to push the ‘off’ button, we realised that it was too late: The artefacts had taken over, with an iron will of their own, turning against their creators. Hubris met its nemesis.

What is, however, unique in The Matrix is that, in it, our artefacts’ rebellion was not just a simple case of creator-cide. Unlike Frankenstein’s Thing, which attacks humans irrationally out of its sheer existentialist angst, or The Terminator series’ machines, which just want to exterminate all humans in order to consolidate their future dominance on the planet, in The Matrix the emergent empire of machines is keen to preserve human life for its own ends; to keep us alive as a primary resource. Homo sapiens, notwithstanding that it invented human slavery, and despite our unparalleled track record of inflicting unspeakable horrors on our brethren, could not have even imagined the despicable role that the machines would assign it in The Matrix: Having achieved dominance over humanity through unleashing the usual nuclear holocaust,[iii] the machines soon ended up with a Pyrrhic victory in their robotic hands. While the surviving humans were decimated, and no longer a serious threat to their plans for domination, the nuclear explosions darkened the skies and thus precluded the use of solar power as a source of energy for the triumphant machines. Fossil fuels having already been depleted by the Earth’s previous tormenters (i.e. humanity), the machines turned to the surviving human bodies as a source of energy. Initially, they just plugged us, kicking and screaming, into power generators which converted our biological heat into electricity. Strapped onto contraptions that immobilised us to save energy, they force-fed us with a blend of nauseating nutrients suitable for maximum heat generation.

However, the machines were soon to discover that humans do not last long when their spirit is broken and their freedom utterly deprived. Our curious need for liberty was, thus, threatening the efficacy of their human-driven power plants. So, the machines obliged us. They forced not only nutrients into our bodies but also illusions that our spirit craved into our minds. Ingeniously, they attached electrodes to our skulls with which they fed, directly into our brain, a virtual, yet utterly realistic, life that as humans we could cope with. While our bodies were still brutally plugged into their power generators, feeding them with electricity sourced from our body heat, the machines’ computer program known as The Matrix filled our minds with an imaginary, illusory yet very ‘real’ ‘normal’ life. That way our bodies, oblivious to reality, could live for decades, to the great satisfaction of the machines responsible for generating enough power to sustain their new world. Human oblivion proved a crucial factor of production in the Matrix Economy.

The Matrix, being a true blue Hollywood flick, devotes most of its time to some spectacular fighting scenes between the few humans that had escaped to form the Resistance and machines specialising in hunting them down in order to return them to the power generating plants. It does not ask the question that political economics would be compelled to ask: What kind of economy did these machines build on the basis of human-generated energy? That they created an economy, there is no doubt. From the few glimpses afforded by the directors, it is clear that the machines erect impressive edifices, produce all the components that they need to address their own wear and tear, build power generating plants, fashion the Matrix hardware and software technology necessary for producing imaginary lives in the mind of their human-slaves and, above all else, have a capacity to reproduce by manufacturing other machines as advanced as (and sometimes more advanced than) themselves. Surplus generation is a feature of their fully industrialised economy, as is division of labour, technological innovation and, intriguingly, accumulation.

Humanity’s resistance to utopia: In the words of a machine

In a dialogue between the hero, Neo (as Thomas Anderson renamed himself following his rebellion), and Agent Smith, an algorithm sent to liquidate him, the latter explains why the illusions they fed the humans were not those of a perfect world but rather resembled the often frustrating experiences humans had prior to the Rise of the Machines: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where no one suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: [1999,] the peak of your civilisation.” [iv]

The Matrix Economy

Adam Smith would have marvelled at its division of labour, technological innovation and productive capabilities. David Ricardo would have sought ways to conceptualise its self-reproducing machines as the basic commodity (confining corn to the list of ‘also run’ inputs). However, it is the 18th century precursors of economics, the French Physiocrats, that should have felt most vindicated by The Matrix. Just as in their fledgling input-output model labour used the land to produce surpluses in order to maintain farm workers and artisans, so do the Matrix Economy‘s machines draw on a scarce natural resource (human bodies as opposed to the Physiocrats’ land) in order to sustain economic activity in at least two sectors. On the one hand, the machines seem keen: (a) to reproduce themselves by filling the world with a multitude of smarter, more powerful replicas of themselves, and (b) to maintain the actual Matrix; the complex system which keeps inert humans alive by means of hardware which keeps their bodies plugged into the Economy‘s power generators and software that creates and carefully manages the interactive illusions which are essential inputs in the reproduction of the human resource.

Today’s economists would love to try their hand on devising models that capture the function of the Matrix Economy. Magnificent mathematical models, computer simulations, statistical tables, they would all be employed in a frenzy of analysis whose purpose is to capture the Matrix Economy‘s essence. And extremely useful it would all, undoubtedly, be. But, and this is the great big but, one thing would be missing from their analysis. One thing that, naturally, can easily and costlessly be missing from the analysis of the Matrix Economy – but which cannot be missing from one of our human economy without serious analytical and political repercussions: Free human labour!

Come to think of it: Today’s economics would be no different to the Matrix Economy economics just described. Our economics, the economics that supposedly throws light on the early 21st century human economies is bereft of anything resembling free human labour. Anyone who has ever studied conventional labour economics will have noticed that labour is modelled no differently to electricity: a measurable, quantifiable input that is bought and sold just like the output of an electricity generator is. The simple point here, and the reason for invoking The Matrix as an allegory, is that something important goes missing when our economics models labour as if it is just another input-commodity.

The value of freedom

Our foray into science fiction has a serious purpose: To offer us a handle on the question of economic value and its intimate relationship with free labour. Do the machines in the Matrix Economy produce value? That each machine plays a role in sustaining a growing economy, and that its output is an indispensible component of the world of machinery it belongs to, there is no doubt. But value?

Quite clearly, this is a philosophical question. Nevertheless, it is a question which economists cannot sidestep if they are genuinely interested in understanding the special challenges that a human economy poses for our intellect. My modest claim here is that to grasp the capitalist economy one needs to seize on the analytical differences between, on the one hand, an economy where humans work with machines and, on the other, a fully automated system like that in The Matrix. To explain this claim, consider these equivalent questions: Do the miniaturised springs and cogs inside an old mechanical watch produce value when there is no human to look at the time the watch displays? Would the earthworm’s gene which allows it to digest soil at an incredible rate produce value if human life on the planet were extinct? Does the sophisticated software inside some computer create value in a world where there is no human to use, or benefit from, the computer?[v] More generally, in a world without humans (or a world where humans have lost control of their mind completely and utterly, as in The Matrix), could we speak meaningfully of value creation?

Noting that these are an ontological sort of question akin to ‘Do thermostats think?’, and that there is no definitive answer to such ontological questions, nonetheless we cannot eschew answering them if we are serious about understanding human economies. The reason we are compelled to take philosophical sides is that our economic theory, whichever we end up espousing, will depend crucially on the answer we shall give, consciously or unconsciously, to this type of question. And since it is always better to choose one’s premises, rather than to stumble into a set of premises that one does not even know one has adopted, we shall now state a basic assumption: Thermostats do not possess what it takes to think (but only simulate thinking). For similar reasons, we suggest that, in a world devoid of free minds, the cogs and wheels of a mechanical watch, the earthworm’s genes, a piece of software, etc., do not produce value.

My position on this is,  I trust, philosophically moderate and in accordance with Ockham’s Razor: Why invoke the ‘difficult’ notion of value in the context of systems that feature no humans when the word function will do nicely? When watchmakers discuss the wheels, cogs and springs of their object of study, they speak of their function. When computer engineers discuss some fully automated system, they have no use for a term like value to describe the role or output of the system’s component. They too speak of functions, outputs, inputs etc.[vi] Value, in that context, would have been a superfluous and unnecessarily confusing term.

Recall that in The Matrix humans and their minds were not only present but also essential for that economy’s reproduction and growth. However, there was no free thinking. Humans’ minds were sustained by computer generated illusions so that their body heat could be ‘harvested’ by other machines. From an economic viewpoint, the analysis proceeded as if there were no actual humans inhabiting the system. Indeed, if the machines developed an alternative source of energy, e.g. one using tulips, nothing would change in terms of the economics. In this sense, human intelligence is not enough to make a difference, as long as it is wholly under the control of the Matrix.

What would have made a difference to the economics is the possibility that some of the economic agents can make free choices on the basis of free thinking; that is, choices not already pre-programmed into the actors’ software or phenotype. To stay with the science fiction genre, and repel any accusation of anthropocentricity, let us imagine that the machines in the Matrix Economy were to develop, at some point, a capacity to think freely, just as they did in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Then, the subject of value would rise to the surface not only as a series of issues that a theory attempting to understand this emergent economy might potentially address but, in fact, as issues that it must speak to.

In short value is only meaningful in the presence of agents capable of (a) free thinking and (b) a modicum of freedom of action. Freedom, in this sense, seems a precondition for a meaningful theory of economic value. The bee and the spider build edifices of immense complexity. But they do not create value. Nor do machines that are just as pre-programmed as the bee and the spider. In contrast, even an inept human architect (see Marx’s point at the end of this section below), because of her fascinating capacity to transcend her own ‘programming’ (even if only very occasionally) has the capacity to be creative; to churn out value.

Whether non-human freedom is possible or not is a fascinating question which, happily, does not affect our inquiry. Perhaps future machines will develop a capacity for free will; an ability, that is, to contribute autonomously to the writing of their life’s script. For the time being, and until androids can develop consciousness and predestinarian theologians, our concern is with economies in which value, labour and technical change remain under the power of exasperatingly quirky, aka free, agents.

The architect and bee

“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I,

Freedom’s lair

When it comes to human society, what is it that breathes fire into the equations depicting economic variables? I just argued that the answer is: freedom of thought and action. Taking an historical attitude, it is worth going back to The Enclosures. To the moment the peasants in England and Scotland were expelled from the ancestral lands. That very moment when they became free to choose, free to devise newfangled means of survival, free to roam unimpeded. Freedom of movement and action was no longer the privilege of the few. However, at the same moment in history, the multitude became free to starve; free to struggle for subsistence in a mean world which prevented them from combining their own labour with the land. In short, they became, in one sharp swoop, free to choose and free to lose everything. It is one of history’s great moments when the masses’ loss of access to the land made them ‘free’ to become merchants of their own ‘liberated’ labour.[vii]

That moment in history gave birth to a new society; a market society where labour could be seen as a sort of commodity with a value that fluctuated in response to the same economic forces that determined the value of the other commodities. It was this dual and contradictory freedom which, I believe, injects ‘spirit’ into the equations of a human market economy. Prior to the mass creation of free labour, there was no need for economics as we know it. An organic flow chart, similar to the circuit diagrams of engineers, showing the dependencies between different sectors of production would do for Ancient Athens, the Roman Empire, the fiefdoms of China and medieval Europe alike. Just like there is no sense in discussing the production and distribution of value in some futuristic Matrix Economy, similarly there was no place for such talk in the slave or feudal economies of yesteryear. This thought is confirmed by the fact that economics did not get off the ground until after the emergence of a market society powered by free labour. My hunch is that, were the machines to take over in some awful future, one thing they will have no need for is… economics. Engineering will suffice.

To establish further the significance of freedom from a purely economic perspective, consider an oil fired electricity generator and compare it to a human hiring out her labour. The generator converts an input (oil in this case) into an output (electrical power). Its capacity can, with some technical skill, be captured by a well defined mathematical function which describes with great accuracy the precise mapping from input to output (i.e. kilowatts generated for different quantities of oil burnt). Is the human worker amenable to similar analysis? Seen as a potential bio-energy generator, which is how humans were treated in The Matrix, such a mathematical function is easily imaginable. Indeed, biologists can readily tell us how much energy, e.g. heat, the human body generates given certain inputs (nutrients and water).

But the moment the human animal is seen as one that transforms input into output by a force that involves not only biological processes but also mental ones, the situation changes radically. A function converting inputs (such as nutrient and other consumption goods) into a human output can seldom (if ever) be well defined when the said output is not heat or the energy produced by our bodies but, rather, the artefacts of human endeavour. While humans too, just like electricity generators and horses, convert inputs into some sort of output, the mapping from one to the other is hardly ever well defined (or, as the mathematicians would say, a one-to-one and onto mapping). In layperson’s terms, when mental and psychological powers mediate human labour, many different outputs correspond to the same inputs and, thus, no mathematical function can describe the relationship between a certain level of input and a precise level of output.

A happy worker, for instance, may produce more output for given input than a grumpier colleague. An engineer fearing dismissal may concentrate her mind a lot better, or indeed a lot worse, when designing an electricity generator (for the same pay and conditions). A disgruntled miner may cause significant damage. An inspired software designer may, like a poet on a good day, produce immense value. The whiff of foreign belligerence may stimulate a worker’s creativity in some patriotic burst of moral outrage. Freedom of Will and the mysteries of the human psyche throw a spanner in the works of any technical, or mathematical, depiction of the relation between input and human output. A good blues song sung in unison may be as important for the productivity of a group of farm workers as the tools they are using or the prospect of a pay rise. Machines cannot even begin to wrap their software-driven thoughts around this peculiarity of human labourers. Unfortunately, economics has the same difficulty.

To investigate this peculiarity a little more deeply, suppose that a worker’s limbs, eyes and ears are surgically replaced sequentially by bionic devices that enhance her sight, hearing and dexterity. At which stage will she have become a machine? Would such interventions into human bodies bring about the Matrix Economy if extended to the whole population? The answer is negative as long as the mental processes remain human; that is, quirky, unpredictable, capable of creativity that transcends algorithmic ‘thinking’, and constantly threatening to subvert the laws which supposedly govern them. So, which part of us needs to be replaced before our labour ceases to be free and some mathematical function can be declared capable of mapping from inputs (into our persons) to our work’s output? The answer is: the core of our free spirit, wherever that may be located.[viii]

Our freedom’s lair is, hence, what needs to be invaded and evacuated of all unpredictability, creative thinking and subversiveness before human work can be modelled by the same technical means as that of an electricity generator. In yet another science fiction film entitled The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, circa 1953, this is exactly what happens: The alien force does not attack us head on. Instead, humans are taken over from within, until nothing is left of their human spirit and emotions. Their bodies are all that remains as shells that used to contain a human free will. If that task is ever accomplished, and all humanity is taken out of our minds, then and only then will some Matrix-like economy become agreeable to a mathematical depiction similar to that of the analysis in Box 4.6. But then again, if that calamity ever hits us, the resulting ‘economy’ will not be producing any value. All that would be coming out is more and more self-replicating automata that populate an expanding system that is radically free of conflict, unemployment or, indeed, laughter, irony and, of course, value. In Kipling’s memorable words: “When everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before.”[ix]

[ii] We are referring toThe Terminator series of movies that gave Arnold Schwarzenegger memorable lines such as “I will be back” and the public persona which helped him become Governor of the State of California. The first of the series, The Terminator, was released in 1984, followed by Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 (both directed by John Cameron) and Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines in 2003 (dir. Jonathan Mostow). The 4th installment in 2009 was without Schwarzenegger was by then Governor. The Blade Runner was released in 1982 and it was directed by Ridley Scott.  Its script was loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do androids dream of electric sheep? [Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1968].

[iii] We say ‘usual’ because the idea of machines unleashing nuclear rockets in order to destroy their human ‘masters’ is a common ploy science fiction uses as a precursor to the post-apocalypse world where its narratives unfold. E.g. The Terminator movies.

[iv] [Larry and Andy Wachowski,  The Matrix, Numbered Shooting Script, March 29, 1998, available from http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/the_matrix.pdf (retrieved June 2010), #140, p. 91.

[v] A somewhat different criticism of the Ricardian labour theory of value was raised by proto-marginalist economists like Nassau W. Senior, who asked whether “wine in a cellar, or oak in its progress from a sapling to a tree” were also creating value [An Outline of the Science of Political Economy, London, W. Clowes & Sons, 1836, p.152]. Indeed, the whole discussion about “natural agents” that led to the definition of “factors of production” was inspired by an attempt to dethrone labour and ascribe value creating properties to “natural agents”. But as Marx wrote:  “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is… [But] to the extent that man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the first source of all means and subjects of labour, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labour becomes the source of use values, and also of wealth’ Kritik des Gothaer Programms, 1875, vol. 19 in Karl Marx – Friedrich Engels Werke, edited by the Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, Dietz Verlag, Berlin (DDR), p. 15, original emphasis See Theocarakis “Metamorphoses: The Concept of Labour in the History of Political Economy“ forthcoming in Economic and Labour Relations Review. So natural processes in themselves do not create value.

[vi] When astronomers are speculating regarding some distant planet where a kind of murky atmosphere may be maintained by bacteria and other relatively simple organisms, by the ebb and flow of gamma rays emitted from its sun and by various other organic and inorganic forces, they too speak of the function that each of these life forms and inorganic factors play. Nothing would be added to their analysis by bringing into the discussion the concept of value.

[vii] In chess the German term Zugzwang applies to situations, where a player would be at a disadvantage when it is her turn to move. In some cases a move is forced. In checkmate you just lose. In Ken Loach’s The Navigators (released in 2001) Gerry a British Rail (former) employee plays chess against himself. When Fiona asks him “who’s winning?” he replies “Checkmate”. Fiona asks again: “Checkmate, what’s that mean?” to get the reply “What ever move you make, you lose.” Fiona then chuckles and says “Story of my life”.

[viii] “Life has been integrated into the market as easily as could be imagined because it has been a progressive process. It started with something that was symbolically far removed from mankind, the vegetable domain; from there it passed to the micro-organism, then to the most rudimentary forms of animal life like the oyster. The whole of the animal kingdom is now targeted and we are on the verge of the human, weighed down with precedents which ensure the closure of the system and make any resistance difficult. The work of man, which must be remunerated, claims repayment from the whole realm of nature which has traditionally been free of any property claims.” Bernard Edelman in “Entre personne humaine et matériau humain: le sujet de droit”,  in Bernard Edelman and Marie-Angèle Hermitte (eds.), L’Homme, la nature et le droit, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1988, p. 42, translated in John Frow, Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, p. 197.

[ix] Kim, London: Penguin Classics, 1987, p. 270. [Original edition Macmillan 1901]

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