Some Thoughts on "The Machine"

This summer, American culture was in love with Machines. Sometimes this was literal: the movie Ex-Machina is the most obvious example, and the most recent Terminator joined in, though there were plenty of other examples. Beyond film robots, autotune continued to increase the precision of the human voice and as even as gas prices fell, there were rumors of better batteries from Elon Musk. At the same time, a certain rejection of the Machine also grew. The “artisanal economy” continues to expand. Farmer’s markets are still booming. Etsy is full of people selling their handmade jewelry, greeting cards, and kitchen implements. It would seem that the more a post-industrial economy defines our daily reality and invades our pop culture, the more people are drawn to things that are touched by human hands. Perhaps, in the film world, this might be represented by the romantic pastoralism of Far from the Madding Crowd, lusciously shot to highlight the handmade textures of the late Victorian English countryside.

Miya Tokumitsu wrote an article this summer in Jacobin sharply critiquing this handmade economy, and singing the praises of our newest machines. She pointed out, as many others have before, that in a world dominated by mechanical production, manual production is a luxury good--the province only of the ruling classes (those who go to see Far From the Madding Crowd, for instance). Her fundamental argument is the old Marxist dream that (post)industrial production will be, or is, essentially liberating. It will allow the spread of egalitarian leisure. “We have the Machine,” she concludes, and thus “There’s hope for us yet.” The balance of the article mounts an attack on the persistent artisanal economy--here characterized as the sort of Portlandia farmer’s market lifestyle curation that is replete with handcrafted light bulbs and multiple flavors of homebrewed kombucha on tap.

Tokumitsu notes that ever since the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris, such nostalgia-based consumption has been the privilege of the elite. Here is the crucial moment of her argument:

Rather than lament the obsolescence of the handicraft ideal, we should embrace the fact there is no longer a need for fussy joining and tinkering. Indeed, the Machine could be instrumental in “saving the most precious thing in the world — human effort.”

So-called ethical living has become a luxury, and as long as it depends on consuming artisanal products, it will remain so, despite the glossary of terms devised to avoid that connotation. (italics added)

This is a common argument. It’s easy to throw stones at those “bougie hipsters” who are responsible for gentrifying neighborhoods and driving out the working class. This is a process that is ongoing and mostly unchecked from Brooklyn to right here in Lincoln. The argument runs that the ethics behind such "ethical living" are in fact self-contradictory--they support what appears to be an anti-consumerist philosophy by curating their own consumption. This is a similar argument to the one that rightly condemns “voluntourism.” When private colleges send students to build things in the global south certainly there are good outcomes. But the privileged few who assuage their class guilt by “helping” poor brown people often don’t recognize that they are doing it more for themselves than for those they presume to “save.” In a similar way, those who curate their consumption by buying groceries at Whole Foods don’t always recognize the position of power from which they are making this choice, nor the way in which the supposed morality of that choice perpetuates a conflation of wealth with a clear conscience.

But this argument misunderstands the basic premise of true artisan economy--which is not about consumption at all. It is about production. Artisanal craftsmanship is about the very nature of labor--it is about what the process of “fussy joining and tinkering” reveals about the world. Tokumitsu’s reliance on Frank Lloyd Wright (her source for the quoted words above) as a champion of egalitarian machines indicates that she follows him and the other modernists into this same error; an error itself brought on by accepting too much of the neoliberal story about labor, not too little. In what is essentially the modernist telling of the story, humans spend most of their time as drudges, toiling away at physically strenuous, dangerous, mind-numbing jobs for which they are not well-compensated. Their “human effort” is wasted. But which of these systems really “wastes” human effort?

To modernists, there are a number of subcategories to such wasteful enslavement: agricultural peasants, housewives, and of course those actually enslaved are the go-to examples which provide the plausibility of this argument. These classes of people, in the days before mechanization, performed routine and repetitive tasks for no pay--they existed within a system of coercion. They also performed difficult labor. This was undoubtedly hard. In my own life, I’ve done just enough of that type of hard labor (building barbed wire fences, digging trails, milking cows, roofing houses, hoeing beans) to form an appreciation for modern machinery. And I was getting paid to do it. But by limiting our conception of labor to the completion of the task, as Wendell Berry has often pointed out, the modernist understanding always reduces the human to a machine in advance. While a machine does turn these tasks into mindless monotony, humans never allow themselves to be so fully degraded. They fuss. They pay attention. They tell stories. They learn to work better, work slower, where to find enjoyment. Sociality, the non-essential experiences on the edge of the labor, and the human development of skill and innovation were always a part of the labor itself. We have work songs, poetry and art based on the workshop and field, and the invention of the machines themselves to prove this. While I am certainly not arguing that slaves were happy, I am also not arguing that their enslavers succeeded (as they claimed and assumed) in removing the humanity of the slaves. Rather, with Hegel, I might suggest that the one who labors and works finds herself embodied in the world--a freedom that the master of machines may never know.

But, if labor is “effort” that can be “wasted” when set to repetitive tasks that the possibility of automation saves, then the modernist-Marxist story insists that an artisanal system of production is crypto-reactionary, tending to reinforce inequality or even aristocracy. “The Machine” becomes a salvific force, which “properly used” can eliminate both inequality and the labor that flows from it. Even the orthography of this argument tends toward the grandiose: “The Machine” gets capitalized like some personified god. What is missing in this narrative is actually the archetypal Marxist question: who controls the means of production? And the answer, whenever machines (instead of simple tools) become involved and despite Marx’s hope otherwise, is that the powerful few control the large amounts of capital embodied by machines. The barriers to entry represented by machines are so great that the poor are effectively excluded from the processes of production, unless they place themselves under the power of that same capital in the form of institutional loans, or join the game by creating corporations. And it is precisely the rules of the game which favor corporations--those immense “people” who are fully private--that renders it so difficult to live in an artisanal life in a mechanical world, not some inherent inequitablity of artisanal production.

James C. Scott is one the best recent interpreters of this dark social side of the the Machine. In his books he investigates the reasons that states (whether totalitarian or nominally democratic) consistently prefer large Machines to the small tools--and it isn’t because they are more efficient or more democratic. Smallholders--the agrarians and fisherfolk, gypsies and indigenous hunter-gatherers--are all groups we would not in good faith categorize as either laboring drudges or the monied and powerful elite. Rather, they are marginal to the modern economy. They exist despite, instead of within, it. These groups are often the source of attempts to rescue the dignity of labor, the vocational fulfillment in work (such as the inspiring Via Campesina movement). They are resistant to the categories we are accustomed to use in post-industrial neoliberalism, and equally resistant to the aging modernist dream of mechanised emancipation from labor. For communities and cultures which are grounded in their “fussy” work and livelihood, the concept of labor as “wasted effort” may make little sense. It is only in a culture which denies the dignity and value of “nonproductive” experience and the human pleasures of hearth and home that wishes entirely to escape labor. But wishing for it, we still haven’t achieved any escape. Even with The Machine, as Tokumitsu admits, the promised leisure has yet to materialize. All we experience are speed-ups, further surveillance, and more intrusion of centralized power (though always in less explicit ways) into every aspect of our lives. There are no days off with email. This invasion of the private by the supposed “private sector” often takes the form of what Tokumistu is in part combatting: the pernicious lies of corporations which try to co-opt moral and humane work, repackage it, and peddle it for consumption. Perhaps we can call it “artisan-washing.”

Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, diagnosed this problem as a confusion between labor and work. For her labor consists in those never-ending activities that support our bodily well-being. They can be drudgery when undertaken to the exclusion of all else--and the role forced on the slaves of the classical world. Today we have in large part replaced slaves by enslaving ancient sunlight--and in doing so chained our world to vanishing and toxic fossil fuels. This doesn’t mean we should bring back slavery, but it also doesn’t mean we should congratulate ourselves in solving the problem of slavery prematurely. There is still coercion involved. Nor should we forget that even labor also has its own pleasures--the pleasure of bodily effort praised by Tolstoy or the communal joy of laboring together enjoyed by Ishmael aboard the Pequod.

But more important than labor for Arendt was work. Work for her meant the creation of a durable world; the making of those things which use does not use up (a table as opposed to a loaf of bread). And it is the unique relationship which learning the joinery of that human world provides which helps in turn to stabilize the world itself to humans. Being made by humans it is something we can truly and certainly know. In a world no longer made by humans, where humans only understand a small portion what is made, or in an abstract way--the experience of creation is lost. We are in a world no longer tied to the phenomenal earth, but to “information”--that which we have shaped in our minds.

And so, disconnected from both earth and the world, we have lost sight of the value of “the artisanal.” That value resides not in the consumption of its products by the duped lifestyle consumers sent up in Portlandia, but in the small craftspeople who resist and survive within the larger corporate reality which besets them. They don’t seek cultural capital, but self-sufficiency (never radical independence, as those who misread Thoreau and Emerson as anti-social would claim, but -reliance and -sufficiency). This self-sufficiency in turn provides dignity, a basic affirmation of humanity. Those who work, in the Arendtian sense, can literally craft lives in which they are able to love and grasp the world. I have known tradesmen and women--craftspeople with worldly skill--who had a confidence and self-assurance that comes only from intimately knowing the world in which they acted. It is exactly this self-assurance which is notably missing in much of our postmodern experience. Some people call this self assurance “authenticity.” I’m too wary of the history of such claims to go that far. But at the very least, it’s a desirable way to be in the world--a key part of “the good life.” So, even if artisans sell their productions to the wealthy (and not exclusively the “ultra wealthy"), they are doing so pragmatically. Much better than using infinite “leisure” for bodily indulgence while the robots replicate the same sterile big box world, a world designed to most efficiently create bigger and faster channels for the mad rush of money. While the money rushes past, I’m with the anarchists who saw wood, sow seeds, and still read books.

-Daniel Clausen

Image Credit: "Maskiner på Brede Værk 2" by Charlotte S H Jensen - Flickr: Maskiner på Brede Værk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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