When Labor Becomes Obsolete

I’ve long supported the social justice that would result from a large increase in the minimum wage.  The Fight for 15 campaign, for example, has set a lofty but completely historically rational goal of a fifteen dollar minimum hourly wage.  The neoliberal talking points against this are all pretty obvious and tired by now, so I won’t recap, but there is one that I hear every time and I’ve never had the time or patience to fully address it.  So let’s do that, shall we?

The argument goes like this:

When you artificially drive wages higher, business owners will instead invest in more automation to avoid the increased labor costs.  The automation will result in massive layoffs and this will hurt the workers because they need to earn a paycheck to survive.

The logic regarding investment in automation to avoid labor costs is sound.  (Well, mostly.  Let’s not ignore the reality that if this automation technology were already available, business owners wouldn’t be waiting on a minimum wage increase to utilize it.)  Increases in efficiency are always exploited by business owners, and rightfully so in most cases.  Doing more with less is the name of the game when the ultimate goal is financial success.

Any capitalistic armchair economist will claim (accurately) that efficiency decreases the need for labor and contributes to less work.  At issue is whether this is a good or a bad thing for the working class.  The corporate media will spin “increased unemployment” as a sign of a weak economy instead of a surge in innovation.  The conservative movement will decry the increasing number of people “on the dole” instead of acknowledging that this newfound efficiency has the power to give back time to the workers.  The liberal movement will suggest “creating more jobs” instead of celebrating the obsolescence of the forty hour week.  Nearly everyone seems to view these developments from a work fetish point of view.

What does it mean to fetishize work?  To fetishize something is to have an irrational commitment to that thing.  A century ago, the media spoke of how workers “won” the forty hour week in hard-fought labor battles.  Nobody in the media panicked that the reduced working hours provided by the Adamson Act in 1916 would increase poverty and unemployment.  It was a victory because it gave workers some of their lives back.  Today, we’re led to believe that workers are losing out to automation instead of winning more freedom because we’re culturally stuck on the idea of “working for a living.”

If we streamline, computerize, automate, and innovate fifty percent of all work that is performed by labor in the United States over the next five years, our current culture would decry the half of the country that is being “lazy” and not “contributing.”  We truly believe that trading forty hours of labor for your paycheck every week is an untouchable cornerstone of American society.  It’s a backwards and mind-numbing flaw in our society and it needs to be killed off.

It’s pretty simple:  If we eliminate fifty percent of the labor demand through innovation, these gains should benefit everyone in society.  The factory workers put in twenty hours a week instead of forty but output and profit for the factory remain the same, so the pay for the workers would logically remain the same as well.  And check the math… their annual income would remain the same, but it would basically double their hourly wage… which would put those minimum wage workers at nearly fifteen dollars an hour.

And you know what it does to corporate profits?

Nothing.  Because, as mentioned several times, their output and profit would remain consistent… it just wouldn’t take as much work.

And yet there are some reading this blog who are still, even after taking it all into consideration, a little aggravated that I’m suggesting that being lazy and not working forty hours a week is an acceptable lifestyle.  That’s what it means to fetishize work, but when (not if, but when) labor becomes obsolete, they will have no choice but to accept that there can be more to life than work.

Leave your thoughts in the comments.