Workers all over the developed world are terrified of robots taking their jobs. I know when I struggled with the question of “Which job is a robot least likely to take away?” I determined that writing was a pretty solid gig because people will always need distraction, and robots can’t ever be thought-provoking on their own, can they?
Fast food companies are waiting for an excuse to replace their workers with computers. Why wouldn’t they be? And besides, who wants to work at a fast food restaurant and be paid a slave wage? It makes much more sense to have robot slaves who will never be late, complain or be rude.
The automation of manufacturing labor is inevitable. Humans just have too many problems. So, why are there people vainly trying to obstruct the inevitable decline of manufacturing jobs in America instead of working to improve social security and health care for those too old or poorly educated to compete in this economy?
“We honor the dignity of work,” said Donald Trump speaking at the Values Voter Summit to rigorous applause.
Trump’s frequently praises hardworking Americans and has often claimed to be a work-a-holic. He says he has “never had a drop of alcohol” and brags about how he gets four to five hours of sleep each night because he works so hard. To men like Trump, working hard is not just a means to an end, it’s a religious conviction.
Men all across America are in a crisis. Tough, gritty work is becoming a thing of the past. The “dignity” of being a self-preserving individual is becoming more and more difficult as jobs becomes corporatized. And regardless of Trump’s extravagant lifestyle, his hard-working, shall I say, aesthetic of a “blue-collar billionaire” appeals to these men, many of whom don’t typically have a glass of beer or wine with dinner and have never traveled outside the U.S. or even have passports. To them, Trump is a self-made man whose contempt for governing institutions means that he isn’t part of the system they believe is keeping them down.
And it is the shipping of their jobs oversees that has created for them an existential crisis. Many of them have turned to heroin or prescription opiates to ameliorate their suffering. But to thinkers who lived a century ago, technology wasn’t supposed to cause any of this.
Bertrand Russell once claimed “to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization.” Sociologists in the 1960s predicted that by the end of the twentieth century, man would live in an age of leisure, with technology providing all his basic needs. Hard work would have become obsolete. European countries have become more and more unionized as technology continues to put people out of work, almost taking an optimistic view of automation. And automation should make us optimistic. More robots means more efficiency and fewer workplace injuries. Self-driving cars may put taxi and truck drivers out of business, but it will also mean far fewer car accidents.
But there is another huge factor in play that often isn’t discussed: China.
Many of these manufacturing jobs are going oversees to China which is on track to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. And it would make sense, wouldn’t it? 20 percent of the world’s population lives in China compared to the five percent living in America. China’s middle class only keeps growing while America’s keeps shrinking.
The American work ethic can probably be placed somewhere between that of Europe and East Asia. In Japan and South Korea, hard work is more than a virtue: it’s a complete and utter obligation. People often drop dead from overclocking and lack of sleep. And withing the cult of Trump, the rise of Asia is a grave concern.
“China has been a Confucian, mercantilist society for 4000 years,” said Steve Bannon at the summit. “They know what they’re doing.”
And Steve Bannon knows what he is doing. He knows that the growing power of Asia may one day threaten western economic hegemony. And he knows that his message of “economic nationalism” appeals to many in the white working class, who don’t want to see America sink below number one. The tide is turning hard against labor reform in America. “Right to work” legislation is on the rise in previously union states.
It is important to realize that it is more than ignorance that drives economic frustration, it’s also attitude: the idea that work is freedom and brings about dignity in and of itself. As America becomes less Protestant, the Protestant work ethic may die with it. The browning of America’s workforce may mean that Hispanic Americans are less likely to buy into economic nationalism.
America’s economy is not in decline, by any measure. The stock market is in fact at an all time high. There is reason to be optimistic with all the new, less dangerous jobs that emerge with technology. I think we are moving towards an age of leisure. It’s just one that the rest of the world will get to participate in too.