Thursday, December 14, 2006

Look here, Karl

I'm really fed up with utopian theories that want to magic workers away by mechanizing all labor. I'm all about utopian societies, but this part is too ridiculous. I laughed at Valerie Solanas when she wrote that women's liberation depended on mechanizing and abolishing work. I laughed when a friend suggested the same thing (though his aim was to liberate everyone, not just women). Today in class I learned that this was Marx's solution to noncreative work from which people were alienated - simply automate it all - and it made me furious.

This is always people's objection to educating everyone well - "But someone needs to clean the bathrooms!" (Somehow this is never said by people who actually clean bathrooms for a living. It's always said by people who are glad they will never have to clean a bathroom and don't want to change that system.) Yes, someone does need to do the dirty work. To mechanize a lot of the drudgery people do - scrubbing toilets, busing tables, changing diapers, loading dishwashers - isn't very feasible. And when it is, it's not always pretty - imagine a world where all the telephone systems were fully automated and you could never get a real person who would actually answer your question.

I spent a good portion of last summer at Pendle Hill vacuuming floors and scrubbing toilets, and it wasn't pleasant work. But I didn't mind, because there was a culture that honored manual labor there. The director washed dishes next to you. At dinner the man who fixed the plumbing sat with the woman who taught religion, and both talked about their lives and thoughts. No one was degraded for the work they did, and everyone had the same access to music and art and books and discussion.

Don't erase the person who cleans the bathrooms. Honor her for the work she does, honor her as a human being, and let her talk with other people about what she does at work. Pay her well, at least as well as people who do pleasanter jobs. Let the nursing home worker and the taxi driver and the fieldhand be able to sit down at the table with the lawyer and professor and artist. Let them all have good educations - not so they will feel themselves too good to mop the floor, but so that their world extends beyond the mop. Liberal arts educations aren't job training - the point is to be well-rounded. Why shouldn't the janitor also be well-rounded? The accountant isn't a better accountant because he can read poetry. Why should a trash collector be worse at what he does because he can also read poetry on his lunch break?

If we can mechanize more labor and then distribute the resulting leisure, everyone could have more time to be human. Instead of working a second shift at the restaraunt, people could be reading to their kids or taking a walk or learning something new. That distribution of leisure (and thus of resources) is where things get really tricky, and I don't have good answers as to how to do that. But without redoing the economy we can at least redo our social interactions.

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