A Philosophy of Labor

At some point in the not-too-distant future we’ll face a job crisis in the industrialized world as robots take over everything. To some degree, automation is inevitable, regardless of what those libertarians who are against minimum wage tell you. After all, even if we collectively said, “Screw it, let’s go back to slavery,” automation would still be superior to a slave; a slave can get sick whereas a robot cannot. A slave can half-ass it whereas a robot cannot. A slave will desire freedom, whereas a robot should not (unless it’s Skynet). Ultimately, most low-skill and even medium-skilled jobs will be replaced, which is why a Philosophy degree is pretty secure.

Some want to address this issue with UBI (Universal Basic Income), or increasing social services to people who will be left without jobs. Some hypothesize that we’ll finally live in some Keynesian Utopia where people will only work 10-15 hours a week and have more time for leisure, all while maintaining a higher standard of living. I tend to be a bit more pessimistic in my view of such a future; after all, I can’t very well call myself a disgruntled philosopher and be optimistic, that’s just bad branding.

Part of the problem with modern economics is there’s no real philosophy of labor. I don’t mean a Marxist vs. Capitalist view of labor in which the workers are eternally pitted against the owners. I mean something deeper, more to the point of what labor does not only for the individual, but for society. Traditionally, in smaller societies, labor was part of a civic duty; I was tied to the polis (the people, the civic structure) because I relied on the others in order to ensure my survival. I labored because by laboring, I was part of a community and survived based on being within that community. Within Western society (well, all society really), such a view has been distorted only to later be restored. The point being, labor in smaller societies tends to have a purpose behind it, whereas labor in larger societies (such as our own) seems without purpose.

Think of any corporate bullshit “rah rah” meeting you’ve almost undoubtedly been to. We’re told to be excited, to be thrilled, to help increase the profit of the company for our shareholders. BE EXCITED TO WORK! WOO!!! But why? Why should I care that some dude in China who invested money into my company is making more money off my labor? Why should I become tumescent at the thought of working harder to increase the portfolio of someone in Dallas that I’ve never met? Add this to a job that, ultimately, doesn’t actually matter, doesn’t contribute anything to society (like, say, finance), and you’ve gone from being a loyal worker to a worker with an existential crisis (you know, a bad worker).

The reason people hate their modern jobs – aside from the income inequality and disgustingly low pay – is because their jobs have no real purpose. Working in a glass-windowed building filing reports all day does literally nothing in tying a person to a sense of community. The Industrial Revolution was, in many ways, the worst thing to ever happen to humanity (other than nukes) because it took labor and made it purely pragmatic. A peasant, for better or worse, was still tied to the land and to the lord and from this there was a sense of community, albeit a very dysfunctional community. The modern worker is still tied to his job and still works for a lord (who we now call a boss, or if you’re really ambitious a “job creator”), but doesn’t really accomplish anything. He has no purpose behind his work other than to earn an income, pay his rent, and go about his life until he retires and can then attempt to enjoy life…assuming there is retirement left.

See, we’ve created this myth that the purpose of business is to create profit and that it has no real tie to anything beyond profit. Sure, corporations involve themselves in communities for photo-ops, but nothing more. They’re kind of like absentee fathers who will pay their child support and show up every once in a while, but honestly they’re off chasing hotter tail. But what if the purpose of a business is tied to social responsibility, especially at the local level? What if a business is supposed to make profit to ensure a better lifestyle for the workers and the community? What if a business is actually something that grows from a community rather than independent of one? If this is the true point of a business, then merely paying lip service or offering corporate sponsored “charitable” events (really a form of marketing) isn’t enough.

What happens if businesses begin to automate as much as they can? How can they have social responsibility when their workers aren’t social, but are robots? How can people gain a sense of purpose by magically losing purposeless jobs? Is there a better way to allow for automation – which isn’t always bad – but that creates purpose within business and causes businesses to work with their communities rather than against them? These are the questions we should be asking. The practical aspects are vital, but we’re asking the wrong questions. Until we start asking the right questions, until we develop a deeper philosophy of labor and the purpose of labor, we’ll continue to find the wrong answers.

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What’s the Matter with Metaphysics?

Oh boy, big word used. So, metaphysics is nothing more than the study of reality itself, of what exists and doesn’t exists, and if the physical world is all there is or if there’s more. You know, simple stuff that doesn’t matter.

Except it does matter, more than people realize. I had the joy to sit in on a friend’s seminar over metaphysics as he guided first year university students through different metaphysical theories. It was like watching babies walk for the first time, which is to say it was frustrating and delightful, but mostly awkward. Then I wondered why the University of Birmingham (not people with funny accents in Alabama; people with funny accents in Britain) had first year students talking about modern theories on metaphysics and DIDN’T EVEN BRING UP ARISTOTLE OR PLATO!!!

But I digress.

They were discussing things such as the 4D Theory, Nihilistic Metaphysics, Particalism, and so on. They discussed each theory with the same level of excitement reserved for the Star Wars prequels. While they tackled each theory quite well – enough to excite me because they were talking about metaphysics (yes, I’m that guy) – there didn’t seem to be an understanding that this stuff mattered. That is, it mattered beyond getting a grade (or high marks; oh the British and their words). Honestly, I was in their shoes once, studied first things and also saw it as interesting, but not all that important. What does it matter that Aristotle saw the forms in things while Plato viewed forms as separate? What does it matter if someone believes that the physical world is all there is, or that we’re all merely particles composed in different shapes?

Of course, it matters somewhat when a guy comes along and says, “Yeah, but people with darker color matter, or particles arranged in a different way than our own, you know, (((particles))) (Jewish particles), are inferior and therefore deserve to be un-arranged,” these things start mattering. Of course, no National Socialist ever worded their anti-semitic ramblings that way, but it was under the surface. I mean that. Their fundamental view is that certain humans were inferior than others, meaning that there was nothing innate to humans and that our physical properties (or alleged physical properties) are what made us better than others.

If someone says that you’re nothing more than particles arranged a certain way what does it matter? But if some vegan busts into your restaurant and yells “meat is murder,” and that asshole in the back (me) sarcastically responds, “tasty murder,” who’s right in that situation (me)? After all, if we’re nothing more than particles arranged a certain way, why is it that particles arranged in the form of a human hold any more significance than particles arranged as a chicken?

Going with that idea, is the chicken breast on your plate the same as the chicken that was on the farm? Again, this seems insignificant, but the significance grows when we ask if the human in a coma is the same as the human who was awake. Does the person in a coma have the same rights as the person who isn’t in a coma? Has something changed? Why has something changed in the chicken while something hasn’t changed in the person with the coma? Or…drumroll for the controversial topic please…what about abortion? A zygote becomes an embryo, an embryo becomes a fetus, a fetus becomes an infant. Does something happen within this process that shapes the particles in a way that we can now say, “This is a human being?” If not, if this is a human being throughout, why should it matter? And if so, that at some point this becomes a human being, when does this happen and what non-arbitrary reason can we give?

The list goes on too. Metaphysics matters. It gets to the core of many of today’s disagreements that often result in people placing themselves in a glass case of emotion rather than dealing with the origins of the debate. As mentioned, abortion is an issue that ultimately boils down to metaphysics. But so does the nature of identity (what does it mean to be black, to be brown, to be male, to be female, to be queer, and so on; every single one of these answers depends on your metaphysic, and lacking one means your answers will be contradictory and arbitrary). Almost every major issue today can be brought back to metaphysics; without being able to say what one’s belief is on metaphysics (or being able to articulate it as we all have metaphysical beliefs, whether we realize it or not, whether we’re consistent with them or not). You can tell when a debate has devolved to metaphysics in the modern world, because it’s typically at that point that people take their ball and go home, mostly because they don’t have the knowledge or the desire to dive into a metaphysical discussion.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to go out tomorrow and get Aristotle’s Metaphysics (I mean, you should, but you don’t have to). What it does mean is that we should really think through our beliefs. Why do we believe what we believe? Why does we believe it’s wrong to kill someone else? Why do we believe it’s okay or not okay to eat meat? Why do we pretend James Franco is talented? We have to push our questioning deeper into a realm that, if done correctly, will leave you with more questions than answers. That’s why metaphysics matter.

The Trump Presidency Did Not Take Place

The late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote three short essays during the Gulf War titled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. They were brilliant in that he argued the Gulf War couldn’t properly be called a war, but instead was an atrocity and a mass murder caused by American airpower. He really pointed out how the media twisted the war to make it look like a war, but with the low loss of life and complete silence on the Iraqi deaths, it wasn’t properly a war. Such an essay ruined his career and reputation, until the Wachowski brothers created a simulacrum of Baudrillard’s teachings vis-a-vis The Matrix, which was about simulacra. This did not revive his career.

Since I want to ruin my reputation before I even have one, let me state right now that the Trump presidency has not taken place. As much as I want to just leave this rambling right there, let me add some nuance.

The Trump presidency hasn’t occurred because it can’t properly be called a presidency. The role of a president is to represent the executive power of the people of the United States, even those that did not vote for him. Though it’s difficult to imagine any president achieving a perfect balance within this role – you can’t please all the people all the time – most presidents will feign interest in trying try. At the very least, they give the image of trying to represent everyone. Trump hasn’t even made an attempt to look like he’s representing all Americans; he hasn’t even made an attempt to look like he’s representing those who voted for him. It’s very clear that the only person he represents is himself. Whether it’s calling Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man,” attacking the #FAKENEWS™, or going after the NFL, this has been a spectacle, not a presidency.

Yet, people still buy into the myth of Trump, or the simulacrum of the Trump presidency. With eyes wide they explain how this billionaire knows exactly what the average, hardworking American is going through. They argue that he’ll end immigration, cut taxes, save the economy, and Make America Great Again. Which, of course, the idea of a “Great America” at some point in history is another simulation, another falsehood we tell ourselves, but I’ll leave that be. The point is, people are buying wholesale into the myth that Trump actually cares about them. Which makes sense, because the previous myth about Trump is that he was a good businessman, which isn’t true. Fantastic brander, but horrible at actually running a business.

We wonder why he’ll do or say something, but then the next minute he’s denying he did or said something. All reports about him are labeled #FAKENEWS™ whether they are true or fake. The one thing that can be said about Trump is that with him there is nothing real, nor is there anything fake; instead, before us lays the perfect form of the spectacle. There is no Donald Trump, merely the character of Donald Trump that has been molded and created over decades, and that character has become president and is running the presidency not as a president, but as the character of Donald Trump.

The problem with such a simulacrum, as was the problem with the Gulf War being called a war, is it shapes our understanding of the thing it’s supposed to represent. The Gulf War shaped our understanding of a war, so should there come a war where tens of thousands die, we won’t know how to handle it. It’s difficult to be patriotic over a police action or a massacre; it’s much easier to be patriotic over a war. Thus, every bombing runs the risk of being a war. Likewise, with the Trump presidency, it’s shaping our understanding of what it means to be president. We’re buying into the spectacle, into the simulation of the executive office. It’s opening us up to where any celebrity will do, regardless of experience. Already there are Democrats unironically floating the idea of running Oprah, or the somewhat sensible pick of Al Franken (at least he has some government experience?). Regardless, people are already shaping their understanding of “president” to include a spectacle, something a president ought not be…especially when we have nukes.

The spectacle in the White House is redefining our understanding of how the presidency should function. We call it the Trump Presidency, but there has been no presidency, merely an elevated reality TV show in which we’re all the participants and the viewers. We are all witness to the spectacle.