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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