While on the job the other day I overheard this piece on local radio station KCRW entitled The vanishing American dream and the moral responsibility of tech companies (which was an episode done by broadcast journalist Madeleine Brand on her show “Press Play”). You’ll have to just listen to the show to get a better sense of what this post is about, but to sum it up: Just as W.E.B. Du Bois famously stated in the opening of his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk that, “…the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line“, I think it’s no stretch to say that, in my opinion, the problem of the 21st century will be the problem of work. Don’t get me wrong now. I ain’t say that we somehow done with racism or any of the other problems in the world today. But what I find very interesting here is the connection to what I remember reading in the book, The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook by James Boggs (husband of Grace Lee Boggs). I can’t imagine Jimmy was the only person to be thinking in this way, but I do think he provides some eloquent insight into the topic which Brand explores on her show. Take note that Jimmy wrote this book over half-a-century ago in 1963. Here’s a quote from Chapter 4:
Many people in the United States are aware that, with automation, enough could be easily produced in this country so that there would be no need for the majority of Americans to work. But the right to live has always been so tied up with the necessity to produce that it is hard for the average person to visualize a workless society. The result is that when people face the perspective of their jobs being eliminated by automation, all they can think of is learning a new trade or a new profession, hoping that in this way they can maintain their right to live.
As long as this country was in the situation that most underdeveloped countries are in today, it was natural to tie together the right to live with the ability to produce. But when a country reaches the stage that this country has now reached, productivity can no longer be the measure of an individual’s right to life. When you travel around this country and see new automated plants springing up in one area after another, it becomes apparent that the era when man had to earn his right to live through work is rapidly drawing to a close. Within a few years, man as a productive force will be as obsolete as the mule.
Talk about being prescient. Goddamn Jimmy! If only you knew how it’s all coming together right now…driver-less cars and trucks, drones, cashier-less grocery stores…if only you knew! It’s mind-blowing. Now, I’m not going to get into all of the implications here because, well, I’m not really that well-versed on the issue. But I do feel very passionately that this question of work in our world today is still stuck in the “…18th-century philosophy that man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow…” as Jimmy says (pg. 49). Politicians and the public are still clamoring for more “jobs, jobs, jobs” and not really thinking very deeply about the changes that are and have already taken place (which is very evident in a place like Detroit). One of the main reasons I went to Detroit in the first place was because I had a sense that this was the future. That my security wasn’t going to be found in making sure I had a career and financial independence, but rather, in taking up the task of re-imagining our understanding of what it will mean to live and work in the 21st century. Now I know that might sound insanely naïve, but yeah dude, the “Call to Adventure” can’t happen if the hero isn’t naïve enough to answer it! I didn’t know that “changing the world” actually meant changing myself, i.e. my psychological orientation to life. I didn’t know that this was less a journey of “politics” than it was about “individuation”, about “spirit” and “soul”. I mean, I knew that I wasn’t going there to be no activist (and no, I’m not dissing activism). But I knew that I wanted to be a part of this “change” that Grace Lee Boggs captured my imagination with. I knew that something profound was happening in our world and I was gonna be damned if I didn’t go out there and participate in the solutions!
Hahaha. But here I am. Back where I started. As it should be I suppose. But what the fuck am I talkin’ about? This post wasn’t supposed to be how I pity myself. Fuck that shit. As the man say, “you cannot afford to pity yourself“. This post was about connecting what James Boggs wrote in 1963 and what Madeleine Brand was just talking about on her show in 2016. The “key question” is, as he says:
What is to be done with the men and women who are being made obsolete by the new stage of production?…Obviously no ordinary solution is possible. This is the social dilemma of our time. (pg. 48)
Damn right it is.