George Walford: The End of Work (4)

In IC15 (December 1984) there appeared an article under the above title suggesting that the orthodox view, that people generally need work if they are to lead satisfactory lives, was mistaken. The article put forward reasons for believing that there is a large group (it may even be a majority) that would be happier without it. If this is so, then the tendency for advancing technology to render human labour (physical and mental) redundant, leading to structural unemployment, far from being a sign of trouble ahead, begins to look like the first sign of a coming dawn. What follows here is evidence bearing on the issue; if you have not seen the original article, and would like a copy, please write.

It is not only the unskilled who are being displaced by advancing technology. The magazine Moneycare, issued by the National Westminster Bank, reports a tendency for firms to cut down on the number of “middle managers” employed, and the reason given for 36% of these displacements is “technology.” One manager is quoted as saying that there swingeing cuts in personnel will mean redundancy ceasing to be a sign of failure and becoming an accepted part of life.

If IC is right in holding that the largest single ideological group (the protostatic) does not need work in order to enjoy life, and technological development is coming to mean that society no longer needs their labour, then only one comment seems called for: Why should it be thought necessary that people generally should have to work, whether they want to or not, before coming to enjoy their redundancy?

(In our original article on this subject it was pointed out that the poverty now suffered by most of the unemployed has been deliberately arranged, and what has been arranged can be altered; redundancy does not have to mean a drop in living standards).

In The Writer and the Word Processor (Coronet Books 19S4) Ray Hammond remarks the effect on the typesetting trade of the growing tendency for writers to submit their work on disks which have only to be slipped into the typesetting machine and a button pressed for the ready-set type to come out. He agrees that it’s not working too well yet, but is sure the method will soon take over from the present systems of composing type, making typesetters and compositors unnecessary. The new methods are already used by American newspapers and Hammond is confident the British unions will cot long be able to stand out against them. As he comments, an entire trade may be rendered redundant in half a decade.

As we write this, the newspapers report that Eddie Shah is arranging to publish a national newspaper using the new technology; Hamm [illegible] iction seems about to be realised.

One tends to think – and IC has been speaking rather in this way – as if the supersession of human labour by machines was a development of the last decade or two, a consequence of the popularisation of computers. But one of the biggest steps in this direction – perhaps the biggest – was taken between about 1890 and 1930, when the vacuum cleaner, together with gas and electric heating and cooking, a trend toward smaller houses, and other advances in domestic equipment, displaced the huge numbers who had been engaged in domestic service.

Arthur C. Clarke mentions a parliamentary commission, set up in about 1880, to enquire into possible uses of the telephone. The Chief Engineer of the Post Office gave evidence. Asked whether the new device would be of use in Britain, he replied that it would not. The Americans might have a need for it, but we had plenty of messenger boys. (The View from Serendip, Pan Books, 1977 p. 97). We had not previously recognised the telephone as a cause of unemployment among young people.

Clarke is highly thought of as one alive to the implications of technology for our future, but even he holds to the orthodox view of work: “Most people are bored to death without work, even work they don’t like.” (Ibid p. 225). There is a mass of evidence to show that the need for work is acquired, not natural. Few travellers among uncivilised people fail to comment on the amount of leisure they enjoy, and always, as the frontier of civilisation encountered fresh peoples the contact brought complaints about their idleness. They had been accustomed to live without working and it was difficult to train them to the burdens and restrictions of civilisation.

Even among ourselves, after centuries of exposure to vigorous enforcement of the work ethic, it is still found necessary to offer rewards for working and penalties for avoiding it, there is not the eager demand for work for its own sake that Clarke’s remark would lead us to expect. The inclination away from work is still powerful, and with technology displacing more and more workers it is time we accepted this and made use of it.

The unemployment of the 1930s began to disappear as the factories got to work on armaments for the Second World War, and after that conflict full employment continued while the world made up for the years of destruction. Large numbers now are employed in the manufacture of armaments and in the armed forces. Should we ever achieve a peaceful world all these, too, will be out of work and it will be even more important than now to come to terms with the question whether people generally need work if they are to live satisfactory lives.

The present attitude, that to have a job is ipso facto a good thing, is one of the pressures which result in the manufacture of armaments, and the more armaments there are, the more disastrous their use is likely to be.

from Ideological Commentary 18, June 1985.