SMOKEY WAS KILLED by a malfunctioning car-painting robot. One of his coworkers locked him in the room where the painting robot worked. That nameless coworker then purposefully parked a forklift to block the door. On the busy shop floor, Smokey’s screams couldn’t be heard over the noises made by the other machines, and by the time he broke through the small window in the door to let fresh air into the room where he was locked, it was too late: he had already asphyxiated. Smokey’s death is awful to watch. He is covered in blue paint, coughing, trying to protect himself with a meager rag. He had been duped into the situation by a coworker, entering it without awareness of the possibility that he would soon be dead; it was just a banal part of his daily work until the robot is unresponsive to his attempts to turn it off. And then it’s horrific. The tools of his trade turn against him, his coworkers have turned against him, and when his bosses find out about his death, they shrug it off as a workplace accident. Smokey’s death is a figuration of the death of the American industrial worker at the hand of automation as forecast in the 1970s, but with the complicit actions of coworkers and managers. The robots are coming, but they won’t be science-fictional androids with consciousness. Instead, they’ll be mundane, everyday robots that are extensions of the interests of the humans who made them; they’ll be intensifications of the desires built into their programming. Their behaviors are predictable, even when they go awry. And the robots both make a change in society inevitable and impossible. Inevitable in that humans will slowly be decentered from the means that they have been given, by those in power, to find meaning in their lives through value-producing labor. Impossible in that they will obscure the power relations that exist between workers in a class system that make this way of life—of finding meaning through producing capitalist value—seem hegemonic. Robots make the necessary revolution impossible—and yet automation itself becomes a site of resistance, obscuring the systems that robots embody.
Smokey’s death is a narrative pivot in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), a film that follows three workers, Smokey, Jerry, and Zeke, as they hatch an ill-conceived plan to rob their union’s office, stealing the dues payments of their fellow union workers to pay their mounting bills. Living in Detroit at the tail end of the 1970s, Smokey and his friends benefit from the widespread availability of blue-collar jobs, which provide them with steady middle-class incomes. But they find that those incomes aren’t enough when raising children, owning a home, and trying to have a little fun on their nights off. Jerry’s teenage daughter needs expensive braces, Zeke has been caught in a tax fraud scheme of his own making, and Smokey has a lifestyle to maintain, with fancy furniture and cocaine. They could have just stuck to their jobs, taken out bank loans, and cut their family spending, but the union office seemed like such easy prey. It’s only when they break in that they realize there’s little cash on hand. Instead, they find accounting books that point to the union’s involvement with organized crime. One unwise, desperate scheme hatches another, as Zeke decides to blackmail the union leaders. Jerry and Smokey dissent from the plan, leading to Smokey’s death and Jerry turning to the state for protection. Zeke, meanwhile, is paid off by the union by being given a promotion to shop foreman, ensuring that he will stay silent now that he also benefits from the collusion among the union, organized crime, and the corporation itself. Such is the death of solidarity among workers, as Schrader imagines it: murder, rejection, resignation, and cooption are the paths available to labor, and none of them lead to a revolutionary politics that will fundamentally change how labor is organized or how people find meaning in their lives.
Schrader’s canny use of a benign, killer robot captures American fears about automation and how it will disrupt the suburban, middle-class idyll that widespread industrial jobs provided for many American workers in the twentieth century. Today, Smokey’s death would be at the hands of his smartphone, brought about by a malignant but clueless algorithm based on his Amazon purchases. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age (2014) captures the same fear, but in the present. They see the inevitability of human workers being replaced by automatons of all sorts, from manufacturing jobs where robots will take over most repetitive tasks to artificial intelligences that will be able to analyze medical scans and create media content. No one is safe from automation in the Second Machine Age, just as no one was actually safe during the First Machine Age. After all, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels then warned that “entire sections of the ruling classes are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat” (Marx and Engels 1998, 47). Industry, by its very nature, makes larger and larger swathes of human labor redundant. The transition to automated workforces depends both on a mechanistic understanding of human labor, from manual, repetitive blue-collar work, to creative, intellectual white-collar work. It also recognizes that labor that depends on the refinement of the senses—from a radiologist reading an x-ray to a sommelier recommending wine—can all be programmed into machines. Even economic analysis and the writing of books is subject to the powers of automation, as artificial intelligences grow “smarter” through adaptive learning (Heckman 2008), the amassing of already-existing media, and the possibilities to act in unforeseen and creative ways. What will we do when the robots take our jobs? In the Second Machine Age, Brynjolfsson and McAfee recommend, first, that we educate ourselves and our future generations to ensure that they work in jobs that are resilient to automation; beyond that, they recommend that we levy taxes on those corporations who would seek to automate labor, ensuring that individuals either keep their jobs—being cheaper than robots and their attendant taxes—or that a basic income is provided to all those workers that are made redundant by robot labor. But the problem they see is an old one: humans find meaning through their labor, and the transition to an automated workforce will be a difficult for them precisely because of this dependence on labor to craft their subjectivities. The loss of labor will be deflating, creating a listless class of robot resenters who would more likely revolt against their robot replacements than the corporations who installed the robots in the first place. Such a failure of imagination! Why is it so difficult to imagine a Second Machine Age that once and for all liberates us from the toils of work, from the necessity of finding meaning through the corporations that control the means of production in modern life?
At the heart of Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano (2006) is precisely this question. Vonnegut’s speculative novel follows Paul Proteus, an engineer who oversees the automated production of a factory in a fictional city in upstate New York. Paul is torn: at once he finds his job rewarding, but he feels alienated—in the classic Marxist sense. His work has divorced him from nature, and he seeks to establish a balance with a more natural, less automated life. He moves his wife from their secure, upper-middle-class home in the suburbs of Ilium to a country home where they experiment with making butter in a churn and live without the conveniences of modern life as they know it. This leads to marital strife and an eventual divorce, but Paul is undeterred. Instead, he falls in with a revolutionary movement—a group of former workers who live listless lives now that they have been displaced from their jobs by full automation. In their uprising against the machines, with a riot that leads them into the factories where they once worked, they smash the robots that have replaced them; they also riot throughout the city, destroying every robot they find, from innocuous food-vending machines to telephones. Paul and the other leaders of the Ghost Shirt Society decide that “they would make the ruins a laboratory, a demonstration of how well and happily men could live with virtually no machines. . . . ‘All right, so we’ll heat our water and cook our food and light and warm our homes with wood fires’. . . . ‘And walk wherever we’re going’. . . . ‘And read books instead of watching television’” (Vonnegut 2006, 336). Their Luddite victory is short lived, however. As they pick their way through the city, they stumble into the train station where a group of people is standing around an Orange-O drink dispenser. There they find two men working to rehabilitate the Orange-O machine and a line of interested people waiting for their drinks. Paul recognizes one of the men working on the machine, a “tall, middle-aged, ruddy-faced man who’d fixed Paul’s car with the sweatband of his hat long ago. The man had been desperately unhappy then. Now he was proud and smiling because his hands were busy doing what they liked to do best, Paul supposed—replacing men like himself with machines” (338). What Paul recognizes in this mechanic is a will to tinker, a desire to engineer, which will mean that all of the smashed machines will be repaired in time, new machines will be fashioned, and the fantasy of a technology-free life will be unattainable. The revolution fails, precisely because it doesn’t destroy the system in its entirety; it simply inverts who is in power, from the elite engineers to the out-of-work proletariat. But once the proletariat assumes power, they just become engineers. The system persists, and there’s no displacing it. As one of Paul’s co-conspirators remarks, “This isn’t the end, you know . . . Nothing ever is, nothing ever will be—not even Judgment Day” (341). History repeats and the revolution will happen again and again, but the system will remain in place. The system is dependent, and formed from, the tinkering spirit, that will to make life more comfortable with machines, even though the outcome will be dissatisfaction with a life freed from labor.
The problem—for Zeke in Blue Collar, for the workers in Ilium, for Brynjolfsson and McAfee, is that they cannot conceive of life outside of this system, which depends on domination of workers through their labor, and that is supported by the institutions that compose industrial, and postindustrial, society. Like Marx and Engels argue, the problem with capitalism is that, eventually, everyone is out of a job. But this is only an actual problem to the extent that working is a necessity for being able to live. If needs could be met through automation taxes and other governmental attempts to ensure the livelihood of those who have been displaced from the workforce, then there is the possibility of labor being separable from living. This is a speculative reality that William Morris elaborated in his socialist utopia News from Nowhere (1993), first published in 1890 and imagining the world of 2090. The intervening centuries have seen a total social revolution, stemming from the inadequacies of industrial capitalism to meet the needs of individuals, foremost among them the need for rest. Central to the lifestyles of our successors is the harnessing of technologies that automate “irksome” work. As Morris’s utopian historian explains to the protagonist visiting from Morris’s time period,
All work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without. There is no difficulty in finding work which suits the special turn of mind of everybody; so that no man is sacrificed to the wants of another. From time to time, when we found out that some piece of work was too disagreeable or troublesome, we have given it up and done altogether without the thing produced by it. Now, surely you can see that under these circumstances all the work that we do is an exercise of the mind and body more or less pleasant to be done: so that instead of avoiding work everybody seeks it. (Morris 1993, 127)
Morris changes the problem from a threat of automation taking all jobs to automation freeing individuals from undesirable work, allowing them to invest their time in labor that they find pleasurable. This leads to a resurgence of the arts and sciences, as they no longer exist solely in the context of capitalist production and exchange and can be pursued by everyone equally. Work becomes a challenge, not a chore, and even for those who desire to make salable goods, the drive toward durable, aesthetically pleasing objects entails a move away from alienating mass production and toward an attention to the careful production of goods. As Morris’s historian explains, “Again, as more and more pleasure is imported into work, I think we shall take up kinds of work which produce desirable wares, but which we gave up because we could not carry them on pleasantly” (128). Morris’s future is regressive, finding a return to pre-industrial social forms preferable to a more technologized one, but the technologies that he allows, discrete as they are, free people from meaningless labor.
Morris’s historian singles out the United States as particularly devastated as a result of industrial capitalism, noting that
Especially the northern parts of America, suffered so terribly from the full force of the last days of civilization, and became such horrible places to live in, that they are now very backward in all that makes life pleasant. . . . the people of the northern parts of America have been engaged in gradually making a dwelling-place out of a stinking dust-heap; and there is still a great deal to do, especially as the country is so big. (128)
Morris’s description of what’s left of the United States, a postapocalyptic landscape brought about by industrialization, a country “so big,” calls for a revolution of a different sort. What’s often missing in Morris’s sociological imagination—despite trenchant critiques of British imperialism—is attention to race in the making and sustenance of the capitalist system of domination through labor. Here, then, Malcolm X might provide a theory of the necessary revolution, one that depends equally on capitalist exploitation and the use of race in intra- and interclass antagonisms. In his founding lecture to the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X argues, “It’s the system that is rotten; we have a rotten system. It’s a system of exploitation, a political and economic system of exploitation, of outright humiliation, degradation, discrimination—all of the negative things that you can run into, you have run into under this system that disguises itself as a democracy” (X 1970, 73–74). Malcolm X’s theory of revolutionary politics is different from Morris’s—and, by extension, from that of many theorists in the Marxian tradition, which would not be a return to a precapitalist form of life but an overturning of the system altogether. He theorizes that “a revolution changes the system, it destroys the system and replaces it with a better one. It’s like a forest fire . . . it burns everything in its path. And the only way to stop a forest fire from burning down your house is to ignite a fire that you control and use it against the fire that is burning out of control” (X 1970, 34–35). Those in power already understand the hydraulic nature of politics, he suggests, having successfully thwarted the revolution that should be happening in Malcolm X’s moment, and, again, in our own. Infighting and misrecognition help to ensure that the revolution never gets off the ground, it never truly alights, leaving the system in place, and, potentially, creating the fantasy of the possibility of a return to a pre-industrial state where there is no danger of automation, and where labor retains its capitalist-derived meaning.
Blue Collar is a film about Detroit, and, in so being, about labor as a function of the industrial capitalist system on the eve of automation. Its central relationship, between three working-class men, two black, one white, stages the counterrevolutionary politics that Malcolm X so perfectly captures in the metaphor of a fire set to counteract the potential of a revolution in the making. Zeke, Smokey, and Jerry have seized the means to revolutionize labor—they have the possibility to expose the union for the corrupt organization that it is, as well as the negligence at the heart of American corporate social forms. Admittedly, it’s unlikely that the information they’ve collected from the union office will be enough to overturn the entire capitalist system as they know it, but, as a token of a possible revolutionary politics, their story exposes how counterrevolutionary tactics rely on racial and class situations in the United States to ensure that the revolution never occurs. Each of the men becomes convinced that the others are threats to their well-being, and rather than articulate a politics of their collective interests, which might lie in the revolutionary overthrow of a corrupt organization, they each seek their own personal gain. In so doing, they keep the system in place, ensuring that its “humiliation, degradation, [and] discrimination” favors thinking of oneself, and personal gain remains the basis for worker subjectivity. In Player Piano, rather than relying on the interpersonal to thwart revolutionary politics, robots serve to deflect critique, while also serving as a screen for human desires. A return to work, with all of its “irksome” labor, is seemingly preferable to a life where all necessities are met, precisely because people haven’t been prepared for a life without work. Automation seems to be the problem, but the real problem is that capitalism has depended on a system of “humiliation, degradation, [and] discrimination” that leaves the out-of-work individual listless and unable to imagine a “pleasant” form of labor—like Morris’s appeal to a more participatory art and science, or even the aesthetic production of goods. The problem that Malcolm X identifies is the systemic nature of the problem; no one part can change and result in a more equitable society. Without the total transformation of the system, it will persist. The future never comes; it is merely the intensification of the past, relying on already-existing relationships and fears. The system remains. Until it burns down.