We’ve Only Just Begun

On work, Late Capitalism, and the last thing you have to sell

You better smile.

(This is a lay attempt to define the particular cause of dehumanization in Late Capitalism characterized by a persistent feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness no matter one’s employment situation.)

In our present moment, the factory-based systems of the industrial revolution have become increasing supplanted by robots that can perform mechanized labor at a lower cost; so pernicious is this phenomenon, that warehouse or factory jobs that still rely on people seek to push their behavior to greater and greater (supervised) robotic precision. Outside of the factory or warehouse environment, most low wage employment or medium wage employment could now be classified as the commodification of human experience. See: check-out people (instead of check-out machines), wait staff, administrative assistants, teachers, etc.

In such service-based jobs, individuals are required to offer a version of their humanity — a simulacrum of themselves — as a commodity to be bought by the employer-consumer for consumption-use. In this way, very little service work can be distinguished from sex work, except that it is performed without a taboo on its public existence.

High wages are increasingly only held by those who have the skills to program the robots or who own the robots themselves (whether through company stock or direct ownership). In the future, any mechanistic skill that can be supplanted by a robot will be. In Late Capitalism, rather than exchanging one’s labor for money to produce a good that can be consumed, people are required to exchange themselves as a good that can be consumed for money.

This is dehumanizing both in the extreme and by definition. Not only does our current system require participation in this exchange to survive, it seeks to characterize this dehumanization as a substitute for community-based belonging. It is already evident in how employment is offered in service professions and many creative industries. Prospective employees must be a good “culture fit,” must be a good “team player,” must buy into the philosophy of the organization they are joining. In Late Capitalism, it is not enough to have a skill that is valuable, workers must align their personalities and values to their employers’ expectations and whims.

If society does not move beyond a wage-based model in which wages are directly tied to some form of labor, then this dehumanization will escalate until robots are able to supplant human interaction as well. However, there is no need to wait until that uncanny valley is breached. We need to begin implementing new wage and economic systems now, lest we become, even more, the de facto slaves of the robots we live with and the few who own them.