The Statues of Daedalus:
Contradictions of Abundance
[Excerpted from The Accidental Century,
published in 1965]
There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not
needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves. This condition
would be that each (inanimate) instrument could do its own work, at
the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues
of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which Homer relates
Of their own motion they
entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus as if a shuttle should weaw
of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing. -- Aristotle,
The Politics, 1253b
In the middle of the twentieth century, the statues of Daedalus, that
"cunning craftsman" of Greek legend, are beginning to dance
in the West.
Automation (i.e., self-correcting machines that feed back information
and adjust themselves) and cybernation (i.e., making the automated
machines capable of responding to a near infinity of contingencies by
hooking them up to computers) possess the scientific capacity to
accomplish the ancient myth.
As a result, the abolition of work, as Western man has defined the
term, has become a technological possibility.
Aristotle understood that such a development would have the most
profound consequences. His reference to the statues of Daedalus comes
in the course of a defense of slavery. He realized that their
discovery would shatter his own "natural" law: Managers
would no longer need subordinates, masters could dispense with slaves.
This is, happily, one of the options now open to technological man.
But there are other, more complex and disturbing, possibilities if the
statues of Daedalus are indeed coming to life in the twentieth
The modern West distinguished itself from other cultures by its
Faustian assault upon reality, its relentless ambition to remake the
very world. In the matter of a few hundred years, this drive created
an industrial civilization and a standard of living that became the
envy, and model, of the entire globe. It also deeply marked the ethic,
the religious values, the psychology, and social system of Europe and
America. If the statues of Daedalus have indeed been found, it is
clear that the moment signals the decadence of much that passed as
wisdom and morality for hundreds of years. Ironically, the triumph of
Faustian man could mean his suicide. For what will Faust do if, as
Paul Valery once suggested, the world is to become "finished"?
Or, to put the issue in American terms, if there are no more
Such a happening is clearly in the far distance, though not so far as
to be out of historical eyesight. Closer to the present, there are
even now less ultimate, but extremely profound, results of the fact
that work in the West is already being redefined.
The certitude that man must labor by the sweat of his brow was a
weary, but consoling, knowledge. The machines are now lifting this
burden from human shoulders and, in the doing, corrupting the central
Western ethic of work. The stern necessities that drove Europe and
America to secular greatness are disappearing. In their place, there
is a bewildering freedom. Thus, the machines are not simply a
technological fact but the stuff of a spiritual crisis as well.
Then, there is another effect upon the inner man of the West. As
Sigmund Freud understood it, work was essential both to society and to
the self. At his most pessimistic, in The Future of an Illusion
and Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud argued that
civilization itself was based upon the repression of instinctual
gratification, demanding that the individual sacrifice himself to the
discipline and needs of the collective, to a large extent through hard
labor. The majority, Freud said, were lazy and indolent. Without work
and its attendant coercion, society would fall apart.
More positively, Freud believed that work was a means of linking man
to reality and thus therapeutic. But taking either his dark or his
optimistic theory, the disappearance of work could be a social and
individual catastrophe, a psychological revolution.
Finally, that other recent Western giant, Karl Marx, argued that the
coming of automation would destroy the very rationality of the Western
capitalist system itself. Only, he said, in a society in which the
exploitation of labor was the essential element in creating
commodities could economic rewards and values be measured in terms of
how much productive work a man did. Once machines and the practical
application of science become the true source of wealth, he concluded,
capitalism is a dangerous, unworkable anachronism.
In each of these cases, and in many others, the same irony appears.
The West, which more than any other part of the globe learned to cope
with starvation and gradually to conquer it, faces the distinct
possibility that abundance - its long-dreamed Utopia, its Cockaigne -
will be the decadence of some of its most cherished values and that it
will take more ingenuity to live with freedom than it did to subsist
The contemporary statues of Daedalus can be described quite
prosaically. With so many apocalypses depending on their dance, it is
well to start
sotto voce, empirically, statistically.
In a series of American Government documents in 1964, and most
particularly in the Report of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment
and Manpower, some trends of automation and cybernation were noted.
Among them were changes in the increase of productivity per man-hour,
an important shift in the quality of manpower needs, and chronic, high
levels of unemployment.
Taken by themselves, these transformations were regarded as serious
enough by the Senate Subcommittee to merit the title of a "manpower
revolution." They demonstrate that at this very moment, without
too many people noticing, the nature of work is being redefined. The
figures do not yet show that work as it has been known is actually
being abolished, but they certainly suggest this possibility in the
middle historical distance.
The evidence presented here is exclusively American, There are
considerable differences between Europe and the United States in this
regard, most notably in the widespread acceptance of national planning
on the Continent. Yet, there is every reason to believe that the Old
World will soon experience the troubles of the New. The consumer boom
that took place in the United States right after the war did not occur
in Europe until the mid-fifties and is still in progress. That has
provided a favorable context for the new technology. Once this trend
plays itself out, there is no reason to believe that Europe can avoid
the revolutionary consequences of its technology. These figures
suggest, then, not simply the American, but the European, future and,
as industrialization proceeds around the globe, the fate of the world.
The American statues of Daedalus are visible in the prosaic
statistics on the increase in output per man-hour in the private
Between 1909 and 1962, American industry increased the worker's
output by 2.4 percent a year. But then, this five-decade trend
conceals a most significant shift. From 1909 to 1947, the productivity
gain was only 2 percent a year. But between 1958 and 1963,
productivity per manhour went up 3.1 percent a year, and between 1960
and 1963, 3.6 percent a year. And it was, of course, in this period of
accelerated productivity growth in the fifties and early sixties that
automation and cybernation began to emerge as an important factor in
the American economy.
Translate these gross quantities into some of their significant
details. In 1964, ten men could produce as many automobile motor
blocks as 400 men in 1954; two workers could make a thousand radios a
day, a job that required 200 a few years before; 14 operators were
tending the glass-blowing machines that manufactured 90 percent of all
the glass bulbs in the United States of America. During the fifties,
Bell Telephone increased its volume by 50 percent and its work force
by only 10 percent.
This same trend also illumines an economic paradox: the coexistence,
in the late fifties and early sixties, of prosperity and chronic
unemployment. More unskilled and semiskilled jobs in private
manufacture were destroyed than created, and joblessness persisted at
over 5 percent of the work force despite the prosperity (this
5-percent figure is an understatement; it does not count those driven
out of the labor market, possibly a million and a half workers, nor
the underemployed; a "true" estimate of involuntary idleness
would be in the neighborhood of 9 percent). At the same time, the
machines were the source of enormous profit, and thus there was a
deformed "prosperity," benign for corporations, malignant
for millions of workers.
Curiously enough, this process stands out in even starker relief in
American agriculture. There, productivity increases have recently hit
a prodigious 6 percent a year. One result -has been to cut the postwar
farming population from 14 percent of the population to 7 percent. And
even this statistic conceals the radical character of the change.
Farming supports a tremendous amount of underemployment and hidden
unemployment. A third of the American agricultural producers do not
market crops but merely eke out an impoverished, miserable subsistence
In short, less than 5 percent of the American people are able to
produce more food than they can profitably sell to the other 95
percent under the present system. In order to satisfy these
politically powerful farmers, the Government now pays them between $4
and $5 billion a year in subsidies. Here, then, is an anticipation of
one of the strange logics of abundance: that American agriculture is
so capable of plenty that nonproduction must be publicly supported.
(The extreme irrationality of rewarding the rich farmer and penalizing
the poor is not a deduction from technology but a conscious, and
reactionary, political choice; yet the fundamental problem is there in
In private manufacturing, the decline in jobs has not been as
spectacular as on the farm, but the trend is clearly present. Between
1957 and 1963, for instance, wage and salary employment in the
nonagricultural, goods-producing sector dropped by 300,000 jobs -
despite substantial increases in output, new products, and even new
industries. In the ten years before this period, from 1947 to 1957,
employment in the same sector had gone up at the rate of 250,000 new
jobs a year.
In short, American industry broke through a technological barrier
somewhere in the mid-fifties. Cybernation made it possible to expand
production and contract the work force. Less labor produced more
goods. Even so, the president of a corporation making automated
equipment, John Snyder, remarked that his equipment was only at a "primitive"
level, that an accentuation of the process was imminent.
At first, the new technology was most dramatically successful in
reducing unskilled and semiskilled industrial jobs. But as time went
on, other occupations began to be affected. In the financial services
industry, machines took over more and more office work; transportation
employment dropped; the increase in retail sales work slowed down (the
automated department store will soon appear in the United States:
machines will take orders, package goods, notify inventory of the
sale, and keep instantaneous financial accounts).
But employment did grow in this period. And the areas where growth
did take place indicate a significant change in the quality and
meaning of work.
The largest single increase in jobs took place on the public
payrolls, mainly through the hiring of teachers to handle the postwar
baby boom. This category alone accounted for one-third of the new jobs
in wage and salary employment, or 300,000 new places annually. Close
behind was the personal service industry -hospitals, private schools,
colleges and private social welfare organizations, hostelries - with
250,000 additional jobs each year. As The Wall Street Journal
noted in October, 1964, during the previous year there had been more
new jobs for school-teachers than for production workers.
So it was that in this time the most easily cybernated positions,
routine, repetitive factory functions, declined; that the simpler
office tasks declined or leveled off; that retail employment slowed
down; and that real increases were achieved in those areas, such as
teaching and hospitals, which required the human care of human beings.
Given the revolutionary character of American technology, this pattern
is likely to become even more accelerated in the immediate future.
Even menial, miserably paid work, like much of that of migrant field
hands, can be taken over by machines (and, with savage irony, probably
will, not out of compassion for those who bend and stoop in the
fields, but because those workers will finally enforce minimal
standards of decency for themselves and thus make it cheaper to
enslave a machine than a man).
The striking aspect of this new pattern is that the job increases are
in areas that are not "productive" in the lay sense of the
term. Teaching and nursing do not make manufactured goods, or even
help distribute them. The idea that the human care of human beings is
an economically significant undertaking is a fairly new one.
It was this significant change in American working life that led the
Senate Subcommittee to speak of a "manpower revolution."
All of this takes place as a process, not as a sudden, definitive
transformation. Millions of Americans still labor in fields and on
assembly lines. But, as one scholarly vocabulary puts it, the trend is
clearly away from primary employments like agriculture, to the
secondary functions of industry, to the tertiary of services, and now
to a fourth level of training and human care. At each point, work is
receding from the direct confrontation of man and nature. And, as time
goes on, it is possible to conceive the abolition of entire sectors of
economic activity, most obviously that of the factory worker.
Without even looking into the middle distance, however, these new
patterns have already posed some massive social problems in American
One of the effects of automation and cybernation is to increase the
skill "mix" in manufacturing. An airplane plant organized by
the United Automobile Workers during World War II had 85 percent of
its work force in organizable (blue-collar, generally speaking)
occupations. By the sixties, that figure had been reduced to 35
percent, and the rest of the plant was filled with highly trained
engineers and other management personnel. In a 1964 Department of
Labor study of 3,440 plants, n percent had progressed to advanced
stages of automation, and, of these, 84.1 percent had reported that
their skill requirements had risen.
Left to itself, this trend could create a large increase in
involuntary joblessness as a by-product of abundance.
In the decade of the 1960's, according to the Government, 26 million
new workers were entering the labor market. Of these, 7.6 million
would be without high-school diplomas, 2.3 million without a
grade-school education. At the same time, as Secretary of Labor Wirtz
remarked, machines were being built with automated skills beyond the
human reach of a high-school graduate. As a result, there were 730,000
youthful unemployed by October, 1963 (the figures neared a million in
1964), 350,000 young people were neither at school or work (and thus
not "in the labor market" and not certified in the
unemployment figures), and one million in the same age group were in
what the Administration called "dead-end" jobs. Indeed, in
the Selective Service examinations, fully a quarter of the young
American males were declared unfit for military service by virtue of
not being able to read up to seventh-grade levels.
For these young people - perhaps a third of their generation - the
advance of American ingenuity is a catastrophe. Given their lack of
skill and training, they are systematically misfitted for the economy
which they are entering. Their future holds out chronic unemployment
at worst, or at best laboring at tasks that are so menial they are
beneath the dignity and education of machines. Part of their plight is
already expressed in the explosive social conditions in the slums, the
rise of juvenile delinquency, adult crime, and aimless violence.
Yet, under the American corporate system there are limits to this
process. On the one hand, business can eliminate jobs in order to
cheapen cost and maximize profit; on the other hand, it cannot abolish
the consumer buying power needed to purchase the goods it produces,
and this is still largely guaranteed through employment. Such a
contradiction can, as will be seen, be resolved in many ways, not the
least of them the transformation of the system itself. At this point,
a few of the immediate American responses are relevant.
One answer, that of the Democratic Administrations of the sixties
(theoretically stated by the Council of Economic Advisers) was to hold
that technological unemployment was simply a temporary phenomenon. If
money could be pumped into the economy by a cut in taxes, that would
increase aggregate effective demand and make it profitable to put
people to work (the same tax cut, however, included a corporate bonus
that could well be utilized to cybernate). In addition, the patchwork
of American social insurance, welfare, and relief schemes was seen as
adequate to handle those who fell out of the economy altogether. As
the preceding analysis should make clear, this view simply does not
meet the radical character of contemporary technological change.
A second response was somewhat more profound, involving redefinitions
of work. In the discussion of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment
and Manpower, there were demands for an expansion of the public sector
in fulfilling the nation's unmet needs for housing, hospitals,
schools, and transportation systems. While clearly leaving the
corporate basis of the economy intact, this would amount to a modest
political allocation of economic resources on the basis of social
need. In addition, the Subcommittee urged the extension of universal
free public education to two years beyond high school and Government
support for those workers who were retired from the economy some years
before they were eligible for Social Security.
Behind these suggestions were the beginnings of new ideas. First,
they recognize that the public sector - where social personal services
must be provided - takes on a new significance. Secondly, there is the
emphasis on education and the recognition that it is probably no
longer possible to train a young person for a lifetime skill, but
necessary to give him a liberal education that would prepare him to
change his skill several times according to the demands of technology.
Thirdly, there is the advocacy of curtailing the working life of the
citizen: through a later entry into the work force after prolonged
education, and through an earlier exit by retirement. All of these
ideas involve the intimation of new social principles: the importance
of the public service sector of the economy; the recognition that
going to school is an economically productive function; the
realization that not working, for the young and the old, is becoming a
These are only some of the changes which the reality of American life
in the sixties has made into questions for discussion (there are also,
of course, proposals to shorten the workweek itself to thirty hours).
They indicate that a profound transformation in the character of work
is taking place even now.
But more than that, they point in the not-too-distant future to the
appearance of the statues of Daedalus. The almost totally cybernated
production of commodities and routine office services is not merely
technologically possible; it is now probable.
In all of this, traditional wisdoms are being turned topsy-turvy. In
a statement which would have been incomprehensible to the starving man
of the past, John R. Bunting, a vice-president of the Federal Reserve
Bank of Philadelphia, said in 1964, "I think on balance that the
American economic system is threatened more by abundance than by
And, well to the Left of Bunting on the political spectrum, the
British scholar, Richard M. Titmuss, an important adviser to the Labor
Party, wrote in the same year, "If the first phase of the
so-called (industrial) revolution was to force men to work, the phase
we are now entering may be to force many men not to work."
To a mankind which has been engaged in a grim struggle with hunger
since the beginning of time, the idea that men would be forced not to
work would, at first glance, seem a salvation. That could well be the
case - so long as it is understood that this salvation would
simultaneously portend the decadence of some of the most fundamental
economic, ethical, and even religious assumptions of Western life. It
would therefore require a tremendous burst of freedom and imagination
to fill up the void left by the disappearance of starvation.
The capitalist West was built, in R. H. Tawney's phrase, by "practical
This is to say that the West made hard labor into an ethical dictate,
a guarantee of personal worth and even a path to God. In 1900, as
remarked earlier, Henry Adams contrasted the Virgin, as the spiritual
principle of the medieval age, and the dynamo, the god of force
presiding over the new industrialism. Forty years later, in keeping
with Adams' own law of the acceleration of history, the dynamo, a
source of energy, was ceding its Olympian position to the computer and
its "intelligent anticipation." And just as the dynamo
counterposed its social philosophy to the Virgin's theology, so the
statues of Daedalus, the cybernated machines, mark the end of the
practicality of asceticism.
The thesis that work took on a metaphysical and even theological
significance under Western capitalism is, of course, most identified
with Max Weber's provocative study of the Protestant ethic. In
Puritanism, Weber wrote, "The premiums were placed upon 'proving'
oneself before God in the sense of attaining salvation - which is
found in all Puritan denominations - and 'proving' oneself before men
in the sense of socially holding one's own within the Puritan sects.
Both aspects were mutually supplementary and operated in the same
direction: they helped to deliver the 'spirit' of modern capitalism,
ethos: the ethos of the modern bourgeois middle classes."
Weber's analysis of the importance of the Calvinist idea of a "calling"
to the rise of capitalism has been widely disputed. Some economic
historians like Henri Plrenne have claimed to trace the capitalist
spirit well back into the Middle Ages before the Reformation (and Marx
once admitted in a letter to being puzzled as to why capitalism had
not developed in Rome at the time of Christ, all of its preconditions
having been fulfilled). Yet whatever the specific weight of the
Protestant ethic in determining the rise of capitalism, there
is little doubt that its distinctive spirit was part of the event. If
Puritanism was not godfather to capitalism, then it was godson. As
cause or effect, the ethical and religious importance of hard work
became a constituent principle of the capitalist West.
Indeed, in the past four or five centuries, it was precisely this
practical asceticism that drove the West to the most extraordinary
material achievement history has known. Where Eastern philosophy, for
instance, would accept reality as an illusion or a fate, and the
cycles of suffering and starvation as events to be ignored or endured,
the West was remaking the world. (Yeats understood this point when he
limited tragedy, "the heroic cry," to the West.) In the
mid-twentieth century, one of the great problems of the developing
nations, with their feudal and tribal heritages, is to find a cultural
basis for this Western attitude.
R. H. Tawney was a friendly critic of Weber's (some of their ideas
converged). He stated the theological aspect of the work ethic this
way: "For since conduct and action, though availing nothing to
attain the free gift of salvation, are a proof that the gift has been
accorded, what is rejected as means is resumed as a consequence and
the Puritan flings himself into practical activities with the daemonic
energy of one who, all doubts allayed, is conscious that he is a
sealed and chosen vessel. Called by God to labor in his vineyard, he
has within himself a principle at once of energy and order, which
makes him irresistible both in war and in the struggle of commerce."
Tawney was writing of the origins of capitalism. Over time, the
spirit which he described became less mystical, more secular, yet it
persisted. Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class is
primarily a description of the American nouveau riche of the
late nineteenth century. It chronicles an ethic of conspicuous
consumption that is almost the exact opposite of the Protestant
spirit. Yet even in this setting, he told of the continuing thrust of
the earlier idea.
"The substantial canons of the leisure class scheme of life,"
Veblen wrote, "are conspicuous waste of time and substance and a
withdrawal from the industrial process; while the particular aptitudes
here in question [essentially the Protestant ethic] assert themselves,
on the economic side, in a deprecation of waste and of a futile manner
of life, and in an impulse to participation or in identification with
the life process, whether it be on the economic side or in any other
of its phases or aspects."
Veblen's leisure class did exist (even if more complexly than he
imagined). In Europe, the aristocratic tradition of regarding work and
commerce as degrading persisted even under capitalism. And those who
actually did the back-breaking toil hardly regarded their daily toil
as a spiritual value. "Certainly the workers in Hogarth's Gin
Alley," Daniel Bell has written, "or the people whom
Melville's Redburn saw in the Liverpool slums, were little concerned
with the scourging hand of God. What drove them to work was hunger,
and much of the early movements of social protest can only be
understood with that fact in mind."
But then, Western capitalism has not been aristocratic, proletarian,
or leisured. It has been the bourgeois economic order. Without
reducing all of its complexity to a single historic strand, one can
say that it was dominated by the ethic, and even religion, of work. To
this day, the West believes that a man establishes his worth in the
eyes of his neighbor, and even before God, through industry and
drudgery and saving. In its most acutely American form, as the poet
William Carlos Williams once observed, this attitude asserts itself in
the conversational opening, "What do you do?" This question
follows immediately upon an exchange of names between strangers, it
establishes much of the substance of their talk, it is the quickest
means of identification. One Is, it implies, what one does. One is
What, then, would happen if technology rendered work and the work
Bread and circuses are an obvious, but hardly affirmative,
substitute. In a series of Italian films of Antonioni and Fellini,
there is a depiction of the empty, orgiastic lives of the leisure and
celebrity class. They are tormented by their free time. Significantly,
each of these movies contains a scene in which an anguished
protagonist looks longingly upon the vitality of working-class or
peasant life, admiring its muscularity or simplicity. These particular
cases are examples of what Empson defined as the "pastoral"
theme in literature and art (the romantic courtier sings of the rustic
swain; the middle-class novelist or movie director celebrates the
noble proletarian). But they could also be the intimation of a
possible nostalgia in the technological future. Will people then turn
back to yearn for the working present and the even more hardworking
Were it possible to build a society on the principles of bread and
circuses, the event would signify the decadence of central Western
values. But it is doubtful whether such a society could exist at all.
Here, Ortega's inaccurate charge against the twentieth century might
apply to the twenty-first. The very existence of technological
abundance presupposes a high level of science and skill, at least on
the part of the minority. A social order based upon orgy would destroy
its own effortless prosperity by failing to reproduce its
technological genius. (In terms of myth, Cockaigne, where there is
only consumption, is impossible; utopia, which recognizes some form of
work, is still conceivable.)
There is another possible principle of the society that has
eliminated work as it is now known: totalitarianism. In the past,
hunger has been at least as important for the maintenance of order as
for the fomenting of revolution. Out of necessity, millions "voluntarily"
chose brutal toil in order to survive. If this indirect discipline
were abolished, it might be replaced by the dictatorship of the
programmers, of those who decide what decisions the machines will
make. Indeed, a society split between the highly educated and
sophisticated few on the one side, and the passive, consuming mass on
the other, could hardly be democratic, since dialogue between the
rulers and ruled would be impossible. Were this to happen, it would
confirm the worst fears of sociologists like Weber and Mills that the
functional rationalization of life necessarily leads to the loss of
substantive rationality for the majority of individuals.
Some of the positive options of a cybernated culture will be
discussed shortly, others in the next chapter. For now, it is clear
that the West is already approaching the decadence of the work ethic.
Thomas Malthus said, "If our benevolence be indiscriminate ... we
shall raise the worthless above the worthy; we shall encourage
indolence and check industry; and in the most marked manner subtract
from the sum of human happiness. . . . The laws of nature say with
Saint Paul, 'If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.' "
That law of nature, so basic to the recent history of the West, is
now being abolished by machines. In 1964, the President of the United
States intimated the new era when, in announcing the enactment of a
cut in taxes, he urged Americans to spend and consume as a patriotic
duty. Paradoxically, this decadence of the Protestant ethic comes at
the very moment when it has finally conquered the world. As Sebastian
de Grazia has pointed out, the UNESCO Declaration of Human Rights
announces, "Everyone has the right to work."
So it is that at that point in history at which the Western work
ethic is finally in sight of subverting almost every remnant of
tribalism, feudalism, and aristocracy on the globe, it ceases to be a
practical guide for the culture that gave it birth.
Sigmund Freud made two basic arguments for the necessity of work.
With the coming of abundance, one of them will become obsolete and the
other will constitute the most fundamental challenge of the future.
Freud's first analysis of the need for work rests upon a conservative
view of the industrial masses and the assumption of scarcity as a
fundamental condition of human life. "The masses," he wrote
in The Future of an Illusion, "are lazy and
unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation and they
are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the
individuals composing them support one another in giving free rein to
their indiscipline. It is only through the influence of individuals
who can set an example and whom the masses recognize as their leaders
that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the
renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends. ...
"To put it briefly," Freud continues, "there are two
widespread characteristics which are responsible for the fact that the
regulation of civilization can only be maintained by a certain degree
of coercion - namely, that men are not spontaneously fond of work and
that arguments are of no avail against their passions."
Thus coercion, Freud makes clear, is essentially conservative in
character. It aims "not only at affecting a certain distribution
of wealth but at maintaining that distribution; indeed [it has] to
protect everything that contributes to the conquest of nature and the
production of wealth against men's hostile impulses." At the same
time, this fact revolutionizes the majority. "In such conditions,
an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed
people is not to be expected. On the contrary, they are not prepared
to acknowledge their prohibitions, they are bent on destroying the
culture itself, and possibly even on doing away with the postulates on
which it is based."
In part, this analysis is that of a conservative mind, and was wrong
on the day it was made. For Freud, it was the very nature of the
masses to shirk work. Yet, as he himself was to recognize in Civilization
and Its Discontents, the work to which these people were driven
was degrading and unfree. Under such circumstances, it is realism, and
not laziness, to detest work. When those same masses saw real choices,
they were anything but indolent. At great personal sacrifice, even of
life itself, they organized a mighty and disciplined labor and
socialist movement and contributed to the very reshaping of Western
With all his marvelous depth and a candor that shook a culture, Freud
never fully escaped from the prejudices of a Viennese bourgeois.
The second element in Freud's analysis is much less capricious. He
understood that culture had "not got beyond a point at which the
satisfaction of one portion of its participants depends upon the
suppression of another, and perhaps larger, portion . . ." Here,
his social psychology is based on understanding that economic scarcity
is a massive determinant of societal structure and the individual
self. His point is historical, and not rooted in any assumptions about
the "natural" habits of the mass.
But events are now destroying the historical conditions that gave
Freud his context. As noted before, there are already Government
proposals in the United States for contracting the individual's
working life through a late entry into, and early withdrawal from, the
labor force. And in a time of cybemating technology, the coercive
power of the Government under the neo-Keynesian ethic insists that the
masses gratify their desires. The consequences of such developments
for the Freudian perspective are momentous.
Insofar as Freud's deep pessimism (most poignantly put in Civilization
and Its Discontents) rests upon the assumption of economic
scarcity, then abundance makes a psychic liberation possible. Freud
had said that man becomes more neurotic as society becomes more
complex. The more sophisticated the collective life, he argued, the
more pervasive is the denial of instinctual gratification, for
increasing renunciation is required to maintain such a vast community.
In this tragic thesis, there is something pathological about progress.
But if onerous work would no longer be necessary to the collective,
then what function is there for coercion and repression? Under such
conditions, the recent socialist interpretations of Freud by Herbert
Marcuse and Norman Brown would become orthodox deductions from the
master's premises. However, the matter is complicated because Freud,
living through one world war, the rise of fascism, and the coming of
the Second World War, also located an aggressive instinct in man's
deepest self. If such a destructiveness is a "natural" human
condition, then the elimination of scarcity would not mean the end of
coercion but its irrational persistence. Then repression, having lost
its economic function, would not express historical necessity but a
basic human depravity. One hopes that Freud's dark thesis was an
overgeneralization of post-1914 Europe in all of its violence. The
possibility remains that it was not.
In any case, Freud's social psychology of work will be rendered
obsolete if abundance, as threatened, does indeed come. Given the
decadence of some of the basic assumptions of the Western psyche, the
question will then be, what forms of repression or liberation will
follow upon the event?
And it is here that Freud's second, and positive, argument on work
becomes extremely relevant. "Laying stress upon the importance of
work," he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, "has
a greater effect than any other technique of living in the direction
of binding the individual more closely to reality; in his work, he is
at least attached to a part of reality, the human community. Work is
no less valuable for the opportunity it and the human relations
connected with it provide for a very considerable discharge of
libidinal component impulses, narcissistic, aggressive and even
erotic, than because it is indispensable for subsistence and justifies
existence in society. The daily work of earning a livelihood affords
particular satisfaction when it has been selected by free choice, i.e.
when through sublimation it enables use to be made of existing
inclinations, of instinctual impulses that have retained their
strength, or are more intense than usual for constitutional reasons.
And yet as a path to happiness, work is not valued very highly by men.
They do not run after it as they do after other opportunities of
gratification. The great majority work only when forced by necessity,
and this natural human aversion to work gives rise to the most
difficult social problems."
In the last few sentences on the "natural human aversion to
work," Freud is once again the Viennese bourgeois. His own
definition of therapeutic, i.e., freely chosen, work has been denied
the overwhelming majority of men in history. The only kind of work
they have known is that imposed upon them in a struggle for survival.
Abundance could completely change this situation. If all routine and
repetitive chores can be done by machines, man can be freed for
activity of his own choosing.
Freud's really profound point here is that such activity would still
be necessary, even if not for subsistence. Work, he says, does not
merely discharge narcissistic and aggressive impulses; it can, when
freely chosen, even be erotic, a "path to happiness." There
is, Freud would say with scientific rigor, a labor of love. In it, man
is united with reality and his fellowman, thus discovering some of his
deepest satisfactions. And conversely, a man without any work at all
would be shallow and sick and his narcissism, aggressiveness, and
erotic energy could express themselves in subhuman and antisocial
In this psychological analysis of the meaning of work, one glimpses
the extraordinary ambiguity of the present moment. Abundance could be
the prelude to bread and circuses. A degrading leisure would be
society's substitute for a degrading work. Some of these possibilities
have already been outlined. On the other hand, there could be a new
kind of leisure and a new kind of work, or more precisely, a range of
activities that would partake of the nature of both leisure and work.
This latter development will not simply happen. If the decision is
left to technology in its present context, then the first, and grim,
possibility is more likely. A society with a cybernated revolution and
a conservative mentality is not going to make new definitions of
leisure and work. It is much simpler, and in keeping with the current
wisdom, to vulgarize the neo-Keynesian ethic and to provide a market
for the products of machines by simply injecting quantities of money
into the economy, without any planning for the use of this
productivity. Such a course would be defended in the name of allowing
the individual freedom of choice. In reality, it would tend to
constrict that freedom to its basest and most commercial options.
But on the other side there are enormous possibilities. Activities
which are now regarded as hobbies, like photography, gardening, and
fishing, could be seen as important human occupations in a society
where machines did all the drudgery. So could the practice of the
arts, of scientific research, of politics and education. To the
Athenians, these latter employments were indeed the truly human work
of man. But the Greek ideal rested, as Aristotle made so clear in the
Politics, upon the degradation of the slaves. That fatal immorality of
the Aristotelian scheme is no longer necessary-as Aristotle himself
realized when he said that the appearance of the statues of Daedalus
would obviate the need for slaves. The machine slaves, the modern
statues of Daedalus, are now coming into existence. Their appearance
makes the Freudian notion of the labor of love a possible choice, not
simply for an elite, but for all mankind.
This variant requires the active and conscious intervention of man.
Such a radical departure from present certitudes will take an act of
the social imagination as fundamental as the one which, in the
Neolithic Revolution, established the basis for society itself. But
here again, in either case, some of the most obvious assumptions of
the contemporary psychology are turned into illusions.
And the ambiguity is, one does not yet know whether these
developments simply portend a decadence - or both a decadence and a
In some notes which he never fully expanded, Karl Marx predicted that
automation and cybernation would destroy the very basis of the
capitalist system itself.
The analysis appears in
The Outline of the Critique of Political Economy (Grundrisse Der
Kritik Der Politischen Oekonomie), some "rough notes"
dating from the late 1850*8 which have never been translated into
English. In later years, Marx refined the vocabulary and argument of
his outline but, to my knowledge, never returned to his remarkable
anticipation of the statues of Daedalus. The intimations of 1857 and
1858 became the more prosaic theories of the change in the organic
composition of capital (the substitution of machines for men) and the
consequent tendency for the rate of profit to fall. Neither of these
ideas is relevant here. The insights of the original notes, however,
are utterly contemporary in the age of cybernation which began
approximately one hundred years after Marx wrote.
These references are not made to document a historical curiosity, nor
even to vindicate Marx as a seer. They are put forth because his words
contain so much present truth.
Marx did not, of course, use terms like automation or cybernation,
both of recent coinage. Yet he was unmistakably talking about these
phenomena. "As large scale industry develops," he wrote, "the
creation of real wealth depends less and less upon labor time and the
quantity of labor expended, and more upon the might of the machines [Agentien]
set in motion during labor time. The powerful effectiveness of these
machines bears no relationship to the labor time which it cost to
produce them. Their power, rather, derives from the general level of
science and the progress of technology . . ."
Then Marx, in some remarkably prophetic phrases, notes how this
changes the very character of work. "Man's labor no longer
appears as incorporated in [eingeschlossen] the production
process. Rather, the worker relates himself to production as a
supervisor and regulator [Wachter und Regulator]'. . . He
watches over the production process rather than being its chief agent."
Clearly, Marx did not have mystical, advance knowledge of inventions
that were to take place after his death. But just as he derived the
tendency of capital to concentrate in larger and larger units from the
limited evidence on hand in the mid-nineteenth century, so also did he
understand the direction of large-scale production, science, and
Actually, the factory in which the worker became "supervisor and
regulator" was not built until 1939, when Standard Oil of New
Jersey and the M. W. Kellogg Company erected the first fluid-catalytic
crackers. Today, in such plants, the work cycle is leisurely (a man
repeats his routine only four times a day in one typical case, as
compared to the assembly line on which he might perform the same task
several times in the course of a minute). Since the complex system
does most of the work by itself, management is content to have the
workers "watch over the production process" and even loaf
openly. In such factories, the main function of the work force is to
be ready when the costly machines break down.
This development, Marx continues, means that the very basis of wealth
has been transformed. Now, "neither the actual labor expended by
man, nor the length of time during which he works, is the great pillar
of production and wealth. That pillar is now the appropriation of
man's own universal productivity." And, a little later Marx
comments that this demonstrates "the degree to which society's
general store of knowledge has become the main factor in increasing
For Marx, this eventuality does not simply transform the character of
work and the source of wealth. It reveals a basic contradiction of the
capitalist system itself.
In its earlier stages, Marx argues, capitalism was based upon the
fact that riches were derived from poverty. The labor - and suffering
- of the great mass was the source of surplus production (that is to
say, after the capitalist deducted from his output the cost of paying
his workers, that output, produced by those workers, was still much
larger than what they received, directly or indirectly, in pay). This
surplus constituted the profit of the few, and it was either
reinvested to begin the process anew or consumed in luxuries for the
few. There was thus a conflict between the demands of the people for
more consumer's goods and the money to buy them and those of the
entrepreneur for more producer's goods and profits (in another form,
this contradiction is constantly plaguing the developing countries of
the world today). But as production became more and more
sophisticated, as it depended less and less upon the exploitation of
brute labor and more upon the application of science to technology,
this conflict no longer was necessary. An ever larger part of
production can be devoted to new machines without sacrificing the
immediate enjoyment of the producers.
Up to this point, Marx's argument resembles Freud's analysis of the
way in which the collective represses the instinctual gratification of
the many in order to forward the common good as defined, and enjoyed,
by the few. It might even win the support of some of the more educated
celebrants of the corporation who would be willing to admit that
capitalism vastly increased the productive basis of society while
simultaneously raising the standard of living. But Marx, of course,
went well beyond this point.
"On the one hand," he says, "capital uses every power
of science and nature ... to make the creation of riches independent
of the labor time spent in production." The great stimulus to
replacing men with machines is to cheapen the cost of production and
to maximize profit. "But on the other hand," he continues, "capital
measures this growing and achieved social power of production in terms
of labor time . . ." As a producer, the capitalist wishes to
reduce the number of workers to cheapen costs; but as a seller, he
looks to an expanding work force as the source of a growing market
able to buy his goods. But once technology demonstrates itself capable
of restricting employment while creating abundance, the system breaks
In simplified terms, Marx's insight could be illustrated by a
(probably imaginary) conversation of the 1950*8 in America. Henry Ford
III was said to have shown Walter Reuther of the United Automobile
Workers a completely automated engine block plant. Pointing to the
assembly line, on which there were no workers, the corporate chief
taunted the trade unionist, "How will you organize workers here?"
To which Reuther is said to have replied, "And what workers here
will buy your cars?"
In a more complex case, Daniel Bell (who is a sympathetic, but
determined, critic of Marx) tells of how the new technology has
perhaps already outmoded the old labor-time system of production
accounting. "Most important perhaps, there may be an end, too, to
the measurement of work. Modem industry began not with the factory but
with the measurement of work. When the worth of the product was
defined in production units, the worth of the worker was similarly
gauged. Under the unit concept, the time-study engineers
calculated that a worker could produce more units for more money. This
was the assumption of the wage-incentive schemes (which actually are
output-incentive schemes) and the engineering morality of a 'fair
day's pay for a fair day's work.'
"But under automation, with continuous flow, a worker's
worth can no longer be evaluated in production units. Hence,
output-incentive plans, with their involved measurement techniques,
may vanish. In their place, as Adam Arbuzzi foretells, may arise a new
work morality. Work will be denned not in terms of a 'one best way,'
not by the slide rule and the stop-watch, not in terms of fractioned
time or units of production, but on the basis of planning and
organizing and the continuously smooth functioning of the operation"
Bell has an important point. In the cybernated factory where the
machine, whose production- and tending-cost stands in little relation
to its ability to produce goods, is the main source of wealth, how can
the worker's worth be evaluated in production units? When the amount
of human muscle expended in making an item was an essential element of
its value, both the muscle and the product could be computed in terms
of labor time (the wages of the muscle and the price of the product).
But if that is no longer the case, how can income, the right to
consume, be tied to a labor time that is less and less relevant?
As a result of this contradiction, Marx held, "the laboring mass
must consume its own surplus product." This consumption is not a
grudging necessity of diverting scarce resources to keeping the body
and soul of the work force together. It is a precondition of the
functioning of the economy, for the people must have the capacity to
consume what is made or else there will be overproduction and the
crisis of glut. In a moderate form, this notion has become a basic
principle of neo-Keynesian economics, recognized by the Western labor
movement and the welfare state governments of most of the advanced
countries. But it does not stop there.
Under such conditions, Marx concluded, "It is then no longer
labor time but disposable time which is the measure of wealth."
Now, precisely in order to expand productivity, there must be a vast
expansion of consumption. Leisure, which robbed society of resources
in a time of scarcity, goads society into activity in a time of
In short, from Marx's point of view, the decadence of the old
principles of scarcity would mark a decisive moment in the liberation
of man. Production would no longer rest upon the hard, sweaty labor of
the mass but rather upon free time and enjoyment. Where Malthus feared
that raising up the poor would degrade the worth and dignity of the
few, the modern technological economy of abundance must be frightened
of the exact opposite: that not abolishing poverty will destroy
Marx's description of the change in the nature of work is now
beginning to take place in the West. In the automated factory, the
worker is indeed one who "watches over" the production
process rather than being its chief agent. His theory that increasing
consumption would become an economic necessity has been modestly
recognized within the welfare state as a practical reform but not as a
revolutionary principle of a new life. As technology takes over more
and more occupations, as the working day, week, year, and life are
contracted, his ultimate prophecy could come true: that it is the
economic responsibility of the citizen to be free, leisured, to
develop his own individual bents and proclivities, to consume, not
simply manufactured goods, but freedom itself.
And yet, paradoxically, Marx did not realize one possible consequence
of his own vision of cybernation and automation. He had assumed that a
working-class revolution would transform the ownership of large-scale
industry before the process which he described had reached its
ultimate limits. The decadence of capitalism under conditions of
abundance was not simply a decadence, since the system had created the
historical agency for resolving its contradictions in a new way: trie
proletariat. The humane possibilities of the new development would be
made practical by a social class, by those who had learned how to live
joyously in the future out of the sufferings and miseries of the past.
But what if the working class in the Marxist sense is abolished
before, or simultaneously with, the emergence of the fatal capitalist
contradictions of abundance? That now seems quite possible.
When Aristotle imagined the statues of Daedalus, he drew one main
conclusion from their discovery: that there would no longer be any
necessity for slavery and subordination.
Here I suggest that the situation is more complex than the Greek
philosopher imagined. Abundance has not really yet arrived in the
West, but its possibility -and the abolition of work as it has
traditionally been defined in Europe and America - is within the range
of commonsensible speculation. Even within the most prosaic Government
statistics, one can note that the statues of Daedalus have begun to
dance in our midst.
The coming of abundance will unquestionably mean a decadence. Much of
the social wisdom of scarcity, that is to say much of man's history,
will become irrelevant to the future.
What will replace the conviction that it is through arduous, unfree
labor that man realizes himself? A void? Bread and circuses? The
dictatorship of the programmers? Or new definitions of freely chosen
work, work as creativity, the labor of love?
Will the ending of the economic compulsion to work allow each
individual to discover reality in his own way and thus obviate the
whole system of social discipline required by the struggle against
scarcity? Or will it simply strip away all the extraneous historical
guises from the innate destructiveness of man?
Will cybernation force the West to some kind of social humanity,
providing practical reasons for making social and personal development
the end of collective life? Or will the infinitely capable machines
create surplus products and surplus people?
The options are of an extreme range, more so than Aristotle thought.
Abundance could actually produce new slaveries, new subordinations.
Or, as John Maynard Keynes once said, under such conditions, ". .
. we shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral
principles which have hag-ridden us for 200 years, by which we have
exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the
position of the highest virtues."