For a variety of reasons, this has been a complicated week. I won’t go into most of it, but needless to say, it is often during times of confusion when something clicks. I’m currently teaching a number of sections of History 11 (the first half of US History, to 1877). The lectures, this week, among other things have included the early industrial revolution, urbanization, and immigration (mostly Irish, Chinese, and German/Eastern European). No, this isn’t going to be a discussion of Donald Trump and his xenophobic rants in relation to the anti-immigrant rants of the so-called Native Americans (nativists, not Indians) of the early 19th (20th, and 21st) Century. Really, what really struck me, actually right in the middle of lecture, was the current systematic, systemic economic and social changes that, in some ways, parallel and complete the processes that happened between 1820-1860: a fundamental paradigm shift from one sort of economy to another. As I explained the transition from the self-sufficient farm and the workshops of crafts people and artisans; the; shift to factory timetables and pay packets; and the creation of a market economy, I began to look at my students and wonder.
I described to my students that when I was just a tad younger than most of them, I had never pumped my own gas. I described pulling into a full service (the only kind) gas station and, following the unforgettable “ding ding” of the bell, being greeted by a man in a uniform who checked my fluids and belts, tire pressure, pumped the gas, and wiped the windshield (“Wipe the Windows. Check the Oil. Dollar Gas. A Live Collection” Allman Brothers Band). I explained that by the end of the seventies, all those jobs went away (and never returned). I then pointed out that in 1820, most middle class families had one or more servants — but, they’re no longer needed since we have vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, and a whole host of mod-cons that eliminate those jobs. I suggested that every time they opt to use the “self-serve” check out at the supermarket or DIY store, they’re eliminating someone else’s job. I suggested that every ATM replaced another bank teller. I talked about when I was in radio, from the last seventies to the early nineties, it took dozens of people to properly keep a radio station on the air — now, automation, satellite radio, and consultants make most of those jobs redundant. I proclaimed my love-hate relationship with Amazon.com. I love the fact that I can get ANYTHING from the comfort of my home. I hate the fact that robots in the warehouse (just like all the robots making cars, appliances and other robots) eliminate thousands of workers who should be finding work in retail, but who are not needed because of the one-stop-shop of Amazon.
I recalled that when I was in high school, we were told that we all needed hobbies because automation, computers, and mechanization would all improve productivity so much that by the 21st Century we’d all be working 15 hours a week and producing more. We got the productivity gains, but most of us are not working 15 hours a week, because all the gains of that productivity went to the shareholders and management — not the workers.
I also mentioned a film I show in my California History Class, called Why Braceros (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=in4wXocVgUQ) in which the California Farmers Association flatly states that they wish to see the guest worker program extended (the film was made in 1959) until such time that all so-called stoop labour can be replaced by machines. I pointed out all the signs up and down Highway 99 and Interstate 5 proclaiming “NO WATER! NO JOBS!” paid for by conservative farmers throughout the state. I pointed out that many of these same farmers are currently in the process of plowing under crops that actually required human labor and, in the middle of the worst drought in at least 1000 years, planting thousands of acres of the water-intensive almonds. Instead of needing semi-skilled and skilled laborers to pick tomatoes, lettuce, or other crops that require hand picking, they’re planting a crop that a single crew of three (one driving the shaker and three with rakes) can harvest an entire crop. The farmers don’t give one hoot about anyone’s job — they care (like all good capitalists) only about the profits.
I told my students that the world they are preparing for — a world where everyone is a worker, dependent upon a paycheck for basics like housing and food — was created in the first half of the 19th Century and (with a few hiccoughs served us well for much of the 20th) may not be there when they leave the safety of the college and university. I pointed out that there had been numerous demonstrations against McDonald’s because of their reliance on very low pay for (mostly) part-time workers, many of whom have to work 2-3 jobs (60-80 hours/week) just to be able to afford an occasional Big Mac and medium fries. As one student pointed out, McDonald’s has agreed to raise the minimum to $15 sometime in the next year, however, what none of them had heard about was McDonald’s announcement that within the next few months, they will be installing in more than 200 stores self-serve kiosks that will allow (sic force) customers to place their orders, themselves, eliminating the need for cashiers. Fire half the workforce, and give the others a raise — problem solved. Wages increased with no loss to profits. According to this article, it’s not just Mickey D’s: http://www.businessinsider.com/what-self-serve-kiosks-at-mcdonalds-mean-for-cashiers-2015-8.
I tried to challenge my students to wrap their heads around the potentialities. Are we going to be sending them out into a world where there really aren’t traditional jobs. The rise of capitalism and industrialization are linked. Both require a workforce that doubles as consumers and employers that provide the capital to produce the goods that the consumers (who are, in turn, workers) consume. Without even taking outsourcing and the migration of jobs overseas into account, the sheer number of jobs being replaced by automation should create alarm. Taking all three into account, should create panic. Perhaps, we are, like the farm girls who went to work for wages in the mills of Lowell, at the beginning of a new paradigm? The shift from artisan to manufacturer (under the putting out system) to factory worker created a new middle class and expectations that, for those willing to work, a future could be secured. But, how will these young adults fare in a world where work is not available for most of them. In Japan, today, they’re conducting research on human-like androids that can do everything from man a perfume counter or function as a life-like sexual partner. If even the oldest profession is being threatened by automation, what jobs are safe.
I remember, in 1979, having a long discussion with someone that I could never be replaced (in radio) by automation — my skills and knowledge couldn’t be replicated by machines. I’ve eaten those words many times.
My dear son is just 20. He’s still trying to decide who he wants to be when he grows up (like most of my students). But, I’m beginning to wonder what his world (in 40 years) will look like. Will the Capitalist model that we’ve used for the last two centuries still function, or will it collapse back in on top of itself. If Capitalism does fail, does it do so quietly, like the 19th Century transition that ushered it into prominence, or will the death-throws of Capitalism plunge us into war and social collapse.