Q&A With Jason Resnikoff, Author of Labor’s End

The book cover for "Labor's End" shows an old-fashioned painting of assembly line workers building cars in the 1920s.

Jason Resnikoff, author of Labor’s End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work, answers questions on his scholarly influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways from his book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

There were several reasons. First, in the years following the 2008 Recession there was something of a renaissance in the public discussion of “automation”—articles in the New York Times, New Yorker profiles, that kind of thing. My father, who had worked as a computing specialist from 1966 to 2014, would call me on the phone to talk about it. He was born during the Second World War, and throughout much of my childhood he seemed basically to be waiting for the 1960s to happen again. I grew up with a taste for what, in his twenties, my father experienced as a quasi-utopian moment. The culture was opening up and a new world seemed to be floating on the horizon. With this in mind and in light of recent discussion of “automation”, I took a look back at some cultural artefacts of the postwar period—in this case, Ray Bradbury (whom I always read in the summer)—and suddenly I saw “automation” was everywhere in the postwar period.

This piqued my interest. Whatever “automation” technically was, therefore, clearly it also performed some kind of ideological work, in the present and definitely in the past. Neither the historical scholarship nor the current reporting acknowledged this. That writing was, instead, vague, highly speculative, breathless. Much of it seemed to be taking its cue directly from the PR departments of big tech companies and management consultants, even pieces that considered themselves critical. I wanted to know what machines specifically were supposedly replacing workers and how, and yet that information was always the hardest to pin down. Instead, “automation” seemed to refer to some general historical force that described a wide array of different kinds of machines and technics, as though the specific tools and mechanisms were really just examples of some giant historical demiurge. That seemed a little suspicious to me. And while there was a great deal of boosterism coming from business, there was also a certain excitement about “automation” on the left, a school of thought that more recently has been dubbed “accelerationism,” which is actually an old Marxian trope that argues in a very technologically determinist way that industrial capitalist development should be sped-up so that we might hasten the coming of the proletarian revolution—as though technological development is a straight shot through several clearly delineated “stages” of history. All this sounded way too pre-determined to me. It contradicted much of what I understood history to be: something people collectively make for themselves, perhaps not exactly as they might wish, but also not something that simply happens to them.

At the same time I was thinking about all this, I became a labor organizer, which was one of the pivotal experiences of my intellectual and political life. For two years I was the campus organizer at Columbia University’s medical campus for UAW Local 2110. When you’re a labor organizer you’re actually trying to bring about a historical event, albeit a very small one: you’re trying to transform a hierarchical society (a workplace) into a more democratic one. The experience was a revelation: the way things are, I learned, is not necessarily the way they need to be. So very many conditions of our lives are actually quite contingent; we can decide to change them, although that decision is the outcome of a political contest, a struggle over power. I hadn’t really appreciated this before. As I was going from lab to lab helping to organize researchers, it became clear to me that the technical arrangements of a workplace are just as contingent as its politics. In fact, they’re the same thing. I suppose all this gave me a certain critical edge when I went into the archive. Practically the entire public discussion of “automation”—past and present—took the perspective of management, or maybe, sometimes, the consumer, but pretty much never working people. It turns out that this is in fact one of the functions of the automation discourse, to persuade everyone to look at the means of production as though they own them, as though they are a billionaire and will be the ones to reap the profits, rather than what most of us are: working people.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

There are several historians whose work I’ve read and greatly admire, but my greatest influences have been my teachers. I studied with Barbara J. Fields first as an undergraduate and later as a doctoral candidate and she’s made a very deep impression on me. I have basically lifted from her wholesale the way I understand the role of ideology in history. Her work largely revolves around the demystification of American racism, and that work is simply stupendous. She shows how materials and ideas work together to give ideologies their power. Her influence is all over this book, right down to its main argument. Alice Kessler-Harris has likewise had a large influence on my development as a historian. One of her many contributions was to show how, in her words, “women have always worked.” That’s to say, she showed how something that was ubiquitous was also rendered invisible—in this case, women workers. The task of a social historian, she taught me, is to dig deep into the record to recover the experience of marginalized actors, not only because it is their due, but because the story of ‘what happened’ radically changes once you bring them in. Finally, I’ve taken a great deal from my doctoral advisor, Casey Blake, in particular a certain sympathy for Liberation Theology (although I’m not Christian or, frankly, in any way religious). I hadn’t thought I’d imbibed it so deeply, but as I was re-reading the manuscript before publication I was pleasantly surprised to see its central place in my analysis. Besides the standard Marxist solution to the alienating aspects of industrial-capitalism—workers’ control—I drew on certain aspects of the Social Gospel, especially as understood by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thomas Merton. I am quite sympathetic to the Marxist desire to overcome the alienation of the individual, but I also think it’s necessary to round that out with a way of being in the world that honors collective social life—to welcome the stranger, to love one’s neighbor. This isn’t entirely absent in Marxism, but it sometimes gets lost. Liberation cannot be an escape pod built for one, even if everyone could have their own, individual, personalized escape pod.

Jason Resnikoff is a lecturer in the Department of History at Columbia University.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

I was especially surprised to see how often the changes to the labor process held up in the postwar period as “automation” often did not reduce the amount of human labor required, but actually intensified it. Sometimes this meant that a few people were fired and those who remained on the job had to work harder, but often it actually meant that more people were doing a job. The example I think of is the introduction of the electronic digital computer into American business in the postwar period. There was a lot of talk at that time about how the “electronic brain” would abolish clerical work, but actually the introduction of the computer required more, not fewer clerical workers. And yet bosses and journalists, even some union officials, called this “automation.” Along these lines, another interesting discovery was that computer manufacturers persuaded businesses to buy this newfangled contraption called the computer specifically on the basis that it would reduce human labor. In other words, the computer became a widespread tool in the second half of the twentieth century in part because of the automation discourse.

Another surprise was discovering the postwar defense of the institution of slavery, not only from the political right, but also certain elements of the center and left. According to the automation discourse, free people did not work; work was a curse imposed on people by the natural world. Now that industrial civilization had the power to overcome the natural world, or so the discourse’s adherents believed, people no longer needed to work and, so, could be free. In this mindset, I found postwar progressives arguing that slavery had been necessary in the past because humanity had lacked modern machinery. That was wild. Certainly no one in the abolitionist movement of the mid-nineteenth century would have conceded that. Ever. Slavery was the result, they claimed, not of biological need, but immoral and criminal decisions on the part of slave owners. There was nothing inherent to agriculture that required slaves do it for masters. But with the naturalization of the idea of “work” in the automation discourse, it was only a short leap to the naturalization of the politics surrounding work. This defense of the principle of slavery, and from those who said they wanted to bring forth an equal and humane society, underlined for me the pitfalls of the automation discourse.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

I hope that the book dispels the myth that “automation” is a clear-cut technical process. It isn’t that and never was. Hopefully, by showing its ideological origins and subsequent career, the book will help people see that the technical organization of production and work are just as open to politics as questions over citizenship and voting. Industrialization has not been an automatic process. People have made and are making decisions about what machines we should use and why, including about what people should do and what our machines should be developed to do—it’s just that those decisions are usually made in private by the relatively few people who own the means of production. “Automation” is not a historical force, nor is it simply “happening.” Rather than wonder what the future might bring, we’d be better off asking ourselves what we want to happen right now with current real power, rather than fantastical future powers. Rather than wonder what a machine might do, we should ask ourselves, What do we need to do right now to make all jobs good jobs? Or, how can we democratically design job-holding and work—that is, the meeting of social necessity–along lines that are, in fact, consistent with freedom and human dignity, and do so right now, without the invention of some magic contraption? The problem isn’t our technics; it’s our politics.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

I do hope that readers finish the book and no longer feel comfortable using the word “automation” except in scare quotes. The most important idea to take away, I would say, is that even something that seems as objective and non-negotiable as industrial civilization itself is in fact extremely contingent. We can choose to live differently. “Automation” has been, above all, an argument, not a technology. That argument is: work and freedom oppose one another, and human beings are no longer necessary to the modern economy. Neither, I believe I show, is true. So along those lines, I would be enormously happy if people put down the book seeing how if we make the workplace a democratic place, one where even changes to the means of production are decided collectively, that there’s no reason why “work” should be inherently opposed to “freedom” as it often currently is under the steeply hierarchical conditions that characterize the modern workplace.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I’m a classical pianist, and I always seem to be working on a Beethoven sonata and some prelude or other by Bach, although lately I’ve been playing more Schumann and Mompou, both of whom I’m finally, at long last, beginning to understand. I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler, so recently I’ve been getting into the Harlem Detective novels of Chester Himes. Himes and Chandler have a lot in common. Their voices are both stark and, counterintuitively, melodramatic, sarcastic, and often really quite funny. Because I’ve never recovered from my early love of Hemingway (I’ve tried), I’m generally drawn toward writers whose voices are spare and direct. Likewise, I’m always looking for something fabulist—Calvino, Millhauser, Saramago, Kafka. I read Carlos Fuentes Aura for the first time this summer and am still trying to make sense of it. Also, I read all kinds of sci-fi, most of it not good.

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