The Conservative Leftist and the Radical Longshoreman

September 29th, 2011  |  Published in Political Economy, Politics, Work,  |  12 Comments

Via Yglesias, I find to my dismay that some alleged progressives at Lawyers, Guns, and Money are exulting in the failure of supermarkets to replace human checkers with automatic checking machines. Like Yglesias, I don’t think bemoaning automation in this way is helpful. He gives the empirical argument that slow productivity growth hasn’t historically been good for workers, and that too-low wages are probably one of the things impeding the adoption of productivity-enhancing technology. The second is an argument that I made before, specifically using the supermarket checkout machine as an example. But now I want to make a broader ideological point about this.

These two posts, the one from Erik Loomis and especially the follow up by “DJW”, contain two distinct arguments for the anti-machine position. To take the second and less compelling one first, there’s the claim that maybe being a supermarket checker isn’t so alienating and menial after all:

Secondly, this line of thinking makes some assumptions that I’m sympathetic to, but can’t entirely get on board with. First, the assumption that we can theorize about jobs in this concrete and certain way and determine that supermarket checker (and I assume many much worse jobs) are ‘menial’ and we should hope for a world in which humans don’t do that sort of thing. I like my early Marx, too, but I can’t get on board with this. I simply don’t think we have the tools to do this kind of universal theorizing about the essential nature and value of this or that job. People have long found meaning and dignity in all manner of repetitive and uncreative work. Others have approached the world of work with indifference; they work to pay the bills and finding meaning and value in other aspects of their lives. Marx, of course, chalked this sort of thing up to alienation and false consciousness and the like, but I’m more of pluralist about what a dignified and fully human life looks like. At a minimum, I don’t have all the answers, and have a healthy distrust of letting my own tastes and proclivities get in the way of respecting other’s ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms.

This is reminiscent of my exchange with Reihan Salam from a couple of months ago, and I don’t find this argument any more compelling from the left than I did from the right. I’ll just note that by framing the issue in this way, DJW totally effaces the real nature of work in a capitalist society. To pretend that the existence of many people who work as supermarket checkers reflects their “ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms” is to ignore the reality that for the worker without independent wealth, the only “choice” is between obtaining the wage they need to get by, or starving in the streets. You don’t see a lot of trust-fund kids or lottery winners working as supermarket checkers.

Moreover, there’s no principled rationale here. If the menial jobs we have are good, then why wouldn’t more would be better? we could solve the jobs deficit through a campaign against technology throughout the economy. This would also have the effect of lowering our material standard of living, but to this way of thinking that’s presumably a good thing.

I doubt the LGM bloggers really endorse such a program, though. As I said, I don’t think the argument is based on an ideological principle at all; rather, it’s the result of a pragmatic calculation:

First, let’s be clear that this is some deeply utopian stuff. This makes third party advocates seem downright practical. We’ve had a modern capitalist economy for quite some time now, in many different countries, and I can’t think of any that have come anywhere close to this, or made it a meaningful priority. Of course some unpleasant and meaningful jobs have been largely eliminated, and more probably will be in the future, but when this does occur it is almost always with indifference or actual malice toward the eliminated worker, rather than compassion. And while the overall mix of jobs in a society may improve for the better over time, it’s virtually never the case that workers in eliminated fields end up better off. If the elimination takes place in a moment of robust employment they may be OK, but for the most part those who lose the jobs are going to be worse off for a good long while. Even in the most robust and humane welfare states the modern world has developed, unemployment is generally associated with a decline in living standards, sense of self-worth, and so on.

Leave aside for a moment that this argument sort of implies that no-one should ever lose their job, which is inconsistent with the assumption of a capitalist economy; I’m willing to chalk that up to a sloppy formulation. The general principle being expressed here isn’t unreasonable or irrational: sometimes it’s better to help a few workers here and now than to run off after utopian pie in the sky, and we should be wary of the slippery logic that it’s OK to impose hardship on a few workers for the sake of the greater good. This is the same thinking that’s at work in defenses of licensing cartels that protect some workers at the expense of consumers and excluded laborers, and in attacks on investments in urban infrastructure that may have the effect of pricing some people out of their neighborhoods. These aren’t silly things to be worried about–if you can’t achieve anything positive, you should at least do no harm. And as the left has gotten weaker and weaker, such arguments have gotten more and more plausible. But we’ve reached a point where some people seem to be opposed to any policy at all that imposes a burden on any group of workers.

It’s an attitude that bespeaks an intensely conservative and defensive politics, and one which has internalized the great right-wing motif of the past several decades: there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. To Loomis and DJW, the possibility of a historically novel progressive alternative is literally unthinkable. For them, the only choices are a) an intensification of neoliberalism’s logic of inequality and joblessness; or b) a desperate struggle to hold on to the remnants of the 20th century Keynesian social compromise. Given those options, I’d take the second choice as well.

But I don’t think those are the only options, and moreover I don’t think that in the long run this position is really as pragmatic as it seems. It commits the left to an endlessly reactive, defensive struggle over a shrinking commons, while leaving us bereft of any compelling vision to offer people. And trying to fight off automation won’t be a matter of a few rear-guard skirmishes, but of all-out societal-scale war: see Farhad Manjoo’s ongoing series on the pervasive effect of robotization throughout all sectors of the economy.

That isn’t to say that I’m always opposed to defensive struggles–sometimes that’s the best you can do, and sometimes winning a small human-scale victory is worth compromising our broader vision a bit. But the LGM authors go a good deal farther than this: Erik Loomis’s original post didn’t say that de-automation was a good second best outcome, he said that he was “very glad” to see the self-checkout machines disappear, because they are “a calculated plan by grocery stores to employ less people.” DJW, meanwhile, straightforwardly embraces Luddism. I’m taken aback by a worldview that would make such defensiveness and conservatism central to its ideology. That’s not what the left has been about at its best–and as Corey Robin explains, it’s not even what right-wing “conservatism” was ever about.

Left out of consideration in these anti-technology arguments is any conception that increased productivity could be used to benefit the masses rather than the elite. The decoupling of rising productivity from rising fortunes for workers is, after all, only a phenomenon of the past 30 years. In the period prior to that, rising productivity went with rising wages: this was the heart of the postwar Keynesian social compact. And in the period prior to that, rising productivity went along with a shortening of the working day, through a long series of bitter struggles. It’s odd, and a bit sad, to see the LGM bloggers ahistorically naturalizing the left’s weakness, especially given that at least one of the authors I’m discussing is a college professor. I thought it was the professors who were supposed remind us of history, and to cling to impractical utopianism. But to find an antidote to the timid conservatism of the professor, we have to turn to the harebrained utopian dreaming of….dockworkers.

Containerization and automation have drastically decreased the need for human labor in America’s ports, as anyone who’s watched Season 2 of The Wire knows. But among some longeshoreman the response wasn’t to resist the machines, but to accept them–with conditions:

In modern times, far more than other unions, the longshoreman have used technological change to their advantage. In 1960, the West Coast longshoremen agreed to far-reaching automation that replaced inefficient break-bulk cargo, which relied on hooks to move the cargo, with containerized cargo, which relies on cranes. In accepting automation, the union recognized that productivity would soar and the number of longshoremen needed would plunge; there are now 10,500 West Coast longshoremen, down from 100,000 in the 1950’s.

In exchange, the union received an unusual promise: port operators pledged to share the fruits of the new automation. Management promised all longshoremen a guaranteed level of pay, even if there was not work for everyone. Management also promised to share the wealth.

Bill DiFazio wrote a book about some longshoremen like this in New York, and he makes a case against the view that without wage labor, our lives will lose meanings and we will drift into dissipation. He found instead that the lives of the longshoremen were greatly enriched, as they were freed from dangerous labor and became more deeply involved with their neighborhoods and their families.

Basically, I think this is the deal we need to strike throughout the economy: automation (and relatedly, free trade) in exchange for compensating the displaced. However, the longshoremen were only able to achieve this victory because they occupy an unusual strategic choke-point in the economy. Shutting down the ports can cripple wide swaths of business, and this gives dockworkers a kind of negotiating leverage that isn’t available to, say, supermarket checkers. Which is why I think that the demand to compensate workers for technological change now has to be fought out politically and electorally, at the level of the state, rather than in the individual workplace. That’s the essence of my argument for the Basic Income: just like the dockworkers’ agreement, it ensures a level of pay whether or not there is work for everyone, only it generalizes the principle to encompass the whole economy.

You can dismiss that as utopianism if you like. Certainly the call for work reduction and the decoupling of income from employment has been made many times through the generations, from Paul LaFargue to André Gorz to Stanley Aronowitz. But the left does itself no favors by remaining in a defensive crouch, clinging to nostalgia for a political order that was rooted in a very different political economy–and which wasn’t even all that great to begin with. Despite what William F. Buckley once said, the right didn’t win by “standing athwart history yelling ‘stop!'”–and on issues where they did do that, like racial segregation and gay marriage, they have lost or are losing. The modern right provided an offensive strategy and a grand vision of what was wrong with the society that existed and what had to be done to turn it into something better: one market under god.

Their dream of unrestrained capitalism, of course, turned out to be a nightmarish fraud. But that’s all the more reason to demand something new and better, rather than merely clinging to what’s left of the old.


  1. Rob says:

    September 29th, 2011 at 1:49 pm (#)

    glad to see you reply to this — thought that you might — I’m happy to see self-serve machines go as part of my pyrrhic anti-convenience agenda but I tend to think about convenience as a question of social interactions, as a social relation, rather than productivity/efficiency with regard to some nonsocial productive task (because all production is social blah blah blah) — not even sure that makes sense, but want to see the war on menial jobs not spill over into a war against human interaction generally; no one explicitly wants that, but it appears to be collateral damage in the capitalist drive for efficiency

    think the lesson to draw from failure of checkout machines was that self-serve was ultimately not more productive, not enough, at least, to make up for the depreciation of the retail experience being marketed — the original AP story quotes a marketing consultant making the point that the composition of shoppers determines the profitability of these machines — i.e. some shoppers like “human touch” or client-servant relationship as part of what they pay for; others believe convenience is a service the retailers provide

  2. I Was that Trust-Fund Kid Working as a Supermarket Checker | emptywheel says:

    September 29th, 2011 at 1:51 pm (#)

    […] is why I find this pompous Peter Frase discussion, responding to these posts (and seconding Yglesias), about the relative value of grocery […]

  3. Peter Frase says:

    September 29th, 2011 at 1:59 pm (#)

    Rob, I agree with a lot of what you said. And I’m starting to wish I had discussed a different example, since the supermarket checker situation has a lot of complications that distract from my main point. In the service sector, as Ursula Huws has argued, a lot of what you see is that labor is not so much replaced by machines as it is transferred from the paid staff to the consumer. Even on those terms I’m not sure this is so horrible–and I personally prefer the auto-checkout machines–but it’s an important dynamic to keep in mind.

    My main issue is that under present conditions, it’s literally impossible to disentangle all the issues you’re bringing up–about how we ultimately want to structure our interactions with each other–from the issue of compulsory wage labor. That’s why I’m always hammering the point about de-commodifying labor, creating a meaningful right of exit from the workforce, etc.

  4. Sandwichman says:

    September 29th, 2011 at 4:58 pm (#)

    94011 organic bananas… 94060 organic broccoli… 4664 non-organic vine red tomatoes…

    The Coase theorem… J.M. Clark’s economics of overhead costs… Chapman’s theory of the hours of labor…

    As you can see, I know my produce codes. I also know my labor economics, history of economic thought and labor history. My beef (grass-fed, non-medicated) is not with being a grocery store clerk but with being “ONLY” a clerk. Meanwhile Lawrence Katz of Harvard and David Autor of MIT can ad lib policy speculations about the future on the basis of ideologically-tinged textbook hearsay. Ignorance is not just bliss, it’s tenured!

    The dirty secret is that the cushiness of the cushier jobs is sustained only by insurmountable and utterly arbitrary barriers to entry. It would be far more cost-effective to install the social equivalent of “automatic checking machines” in corporate executive suites and hospital and university administration buildings than at the supermarket. But the culture of meritocracy insists that there must be some folks whose time and effort (scratching each others’ backs) is worth so, so, so much more than anyone else’s.

    The less meaningful the differences in education, knowledge and skill become, the more important it is to maintain the differential — and the larger that differential becomes.

    I work with “technology” every day that makes me chuckle. Bar codes. You’d think that someone would figure out that machine-readable bar codes have to be… well, machine-readable. Not always. Here’s where the difference in development between “the forces and relations of production” become manifest. The people currently making decisions about implementing labor-saving technology are precisely the ones whose “labor” of social domination is most redundant. There’s only so much hierarchy to go ’round.

  5. The “Conservative Leftist” responds : Lawyers, Guns & Money says:

    October 1st, 2011 at 6:46 pm (#)

    […] Frase takes a long look at this “DJW” character, and is deeply dismayed by what he […]

  6. Higher Education and Technological Futurism : Lawyers, Guns & Money says:

    October 3rd, 2011 at 9:27 pm (#)

    […] specifically in the longer posts people wrote on their own sites. Yglesias weighed in, inspiring Peter Frase’s piece of technological utopianism that djw responded to in length the other day. Frase, and I think to a lesser extent Yglesias, […]

  7. Mark Gisleson says:

    January 2nd, 2012 at 11:58 am (#)

    The problems with our grocery stores run much deeper than automated cashiers. The more big grocers are forced into penny pinching, the more Big Food wraps them around their little finger with monopolistic shelving and pricing strategies.

    Cheap food has always been a scam big money uses to divide working people. Good wages and reasonably priced food would benefit us much more than this race to the bottom on prices. Low prices translate to low wages when the only thing the oligarchy holds sacred are top wages and dividends.

  8. Ralph Haygood says:

    September 20th, 2013 at 3:03 am (#)

    “I don’t have all the answers, and have a healthy distrust of letting my own tastes and proclivities get in the way of respecting other’s ability to determine what they value about their lives on their own terms.” Well, DJW, instead of succumbing to solipsism, you could maybe try actually finding out how, say, many supermarket checkers feel about their jobs. A little Googling yields, for example, “Job satisfaction in the United States” (, a 2007 report from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which reports that of 198 occupations, cashiers rank eighth lowest in job satisfaction on the average – in other words, 190 occupations average higher, and only seven average lower. There’s plenty more where that came from. Job satisfaction isn’t some theoretical imponderable. People like DJW who discuss it as if it were shouldn’t be taken seriously.

  9. R. G. Price says:

    December 30th, 2013 at 1:19 pm (#)

    Hey, I know this is an old post, but it’s a good one and one that I agree with. Thanks. As far as solutions, I’ve come up with something I call the National Individual Investment Program, which you can read about in my article here:

    Basically, this is a program that would compensate workers with total market shares based on the number of hours worked, with additional provisions for the disabled, etc. With the way that the taxation system for this would work, basically its effect would be to relatively evenly distribute capital ownership in America.

    This then would give everyone significant shares of capital, from which they would draw income. I think this better than a simple guaranteed income for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that IMO anything that leaves ownership of capital concentrated will face unending pressure by capital owners to undermine it.

    The only way to really secure equity is to distribute capital ownership. As long as capital ownership is left in the hands of a minority of the population, whether those people be private citizens of government entities, the power of that capital ownership will ensure abuse and efforts to undermine any redistribution from capital owners.

    The solution has to be distributing ownership of capital to all individuals. Once capital is widely distributed, then there is no power based of owners who can abuse the power or redirect the income.

  10. The End of Work | Talking Union says:

    March 27th, 2014 at 11:13 am (#)

    […] the blaming are sometimes correct, as when supermarkets move to automatic checkout or ports move to automated cargo hauling. And yet the story of the Mechanical Turkers is a good cautionary tale for those who assume that […]

  11. ¿El fin del trabajo? - Iniciativa Debate Público says:

    March 30th, 2014 at 1:52 pm (#)

    […] a veces tienen razón, como cuando los supermercados implantan sistemas de autopago o los puertos automatizan la carga del transporte. Y sin embargo, la historia de los “turcos mecánicos” es una buena advertencia para aquellos […]

  12. ¿El fin del trabajo? says:

    September 30th, 2014 at 1:32 pm (#)

    […] a veces tienen razón, como cuando los supermercados implantan sistemas de autopago o los puertosautomatizan la carga del transporte. Y sin embargo, la historia de los “turcos mecánicos” es una buena advertencia para aquellos […]

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