The End of Labour: Employment and the Automatic Society

[T]o the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. […] As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head.

—Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy

Marx had already foreseen the end of labour in this early work on political economy. Unpacking the above we come upon several notions. Real Wealth is less concerned with actual clockwork time of those laboring humans or the actual numbers of people employed during that work period than with the ‘power of the agencies set in motion’ (i.e., the machines that do the real work that laborers are mere appendages, operators, etc.) ; and that all this depends of technics (state of science – knowledge) and technological improvement (or progress, innovation, invention, etc.); or the mental application of temporal processes (i.e., Taylorism, Fordism – temporal management, assembly lines, overseeing and control of machinic and human work, streamlining the process, etc.). Automation changes everything: Direct labor of humans is no longer of exchange or use value in digital capitalism, and must be excluded from the wealth accumulation cycle as part of its functional computationalism. Humans are no longer needed in the capitalist world of circulation of profit, therefore are no longer needed for the extraction of surplus value. Both the conditions of wealth and thought provided by the masses and elites is no longer needed in the capitalist system at the point when technical automation in labour and mental operations supervenes. The Oligarchy will exclude the greater mass of humans both the masses and the elites from its enclaves.

Marx would observe and record what today is a fulfillment of his prognosis, diagnosis, and cure of the disease that is revolutionary Modernity. Two hundred years of capitalist or bourgeois ownership and rule has led to the exclusion of 99% of the human species from the fruits of its own labour, leaving them a bare subsistence level of survival if that. While millions upon millions starve, fall back into barbarous enslavement, rapine, war, famine, disease, etc. in the Third World the West itself has begun to build both an internal and external prison system to exclude, control, and sacrifice the masses of intrinsic populations that once served the beast of profit, Capital.

The balance between organic/inorganic systems that has bound humans technics and technology to the natural environment has since the rise of modernity and modern sciences become more and more irrelevant to Capital so that the old bonds between mind and world have ceased. We are now living in an totally artificial system of traces:

In a very general way, and since the beginning of hominization, the practice of tools and instruments has disorganized and reorganized the brains, minds and spirits of workers and instrumentalists of all kinds, which are formed during these practices. This reorganization of the organic is an ‘organologization’ and as such an artificialization of the cerebral organ – this is true for musical instruments, for the alphabet and for any instrumental practice. … Social organizations constitute the frameworks for cooperation between brains as the transformation of the world, that is, as the realization of artifices, and through the imposition of law. But since Plato, and in legal thought in general, the hypomnesic and therefore organological foundations supporting the differentiation of fact and law have been denied and repressed – both by philosophers and by jurists. Given the contemporary state of fact, this is no longer sustainable. (AS)

Modern humans are ill-equipped to live in an artificial world as seen by the two hundred years of therapeutic practice of such treatments as psychoanalysis and other systems treating psychopathy, paranoia, autism, etc.. Our brains are attuned to the natural world and this severance between brain and environment has had its toll across the world. The vast conglomerate of modern telecommunications systems that has tried to replace the void in modernity, tried to invent a new artificial world where the brain could adapt more easily to the artificial climes from early printing presses, radio, television, computers, digital devices, and now the complete engulfment by the Internet of things and machinic intelligences, etc., has left humans turned inside-out with nothing to guide or support them in their normative and customary or habitual lives. This is what Nietzsche saw as the two hundred year cycle of devaluation of all values: complete nihilism. We are in that end game of a world severed from its organological systems of natural fact. A world where fact and law have been completely separated and stripped of all meaning and context.

Stiegler sighs as he sees this happening, “At this moment in which we are witnessing the collapse of wage labour, this state of fact demands reflection, critique and a politics of the functions and stakes of tertiary retention in the three organological layers that constitute a redefined ‘total social fact’.” Stiegler’s own artificial system of concepts acts like an abstract machine activating memory and perception from organic to inorganic systems through a process of psychic, technical and collective individuation. It is this layering process of protention/retention that is in our time transferred to the technical artifacts (i.e., AI’s, Intelligent systems, etc.) and severed from homo sapiens. We are no longer part of the circuit of transindividuation but have been isolated and stripped of our mental and physical worlds in favor of the technical or machinic systems that are no replacing us.

This process has been ongoing for at least 40,000 years. As Stiegler tells it at least forty thousand years ago and probably longer, starting in the Upper Palaeolithic, mnemotechnical tertiary retentions in the strict sense appear. After the Neolithic, hypomnēmata arise in the form of systems of numeration, abacuses, ephemerides, calendars, various forms of ideographic writing, and so on. Then the proletarianization of manual work begins at the end of the eighteenth century, when machinic tertiary retentions appear, derived in part from the automated formalizations of movement inaugurated by Vaucanson, and in part from the possibility, realized by Watt, of turning heat into usable motor power. The trans-formation of the inorganic, organic and organological materials in which psychic, technical and collective individuations consist are then functionally disintegrated. ‘Functionally’ means that industrial capitalism is based on the dis-integration of the proletariat, who are thus expelled from the process of individuation. (AS)

This process of exclusion is coming to a final nexus in which even the elite knowledge workers, much less the manual laborers will all be replaced by machinic systems of intelligence and become in toto non-individuated and excluded from the world of Capital it helped build.  Norbert Weiner, father of cybernetics once said:

‘The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain […]. [T]he average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy.’2

As Stiegler comments on this passage:

Almost seventy years after this ‘prophecy’ by the ‘founder of cybernetics’, we note that systemic stupidity, which now afflicts each and every one of us in 24/7 capitalism (and it seems that the further up the hierarchy it ‘rises’, the more it is an affliction – from Greenspan to a large proportion of the ‘decision-makers’ and ‘officials’, who thus become both unconscious and impotent), means that ‘average human beings’ no longer seem to exist – and this is so at the very moment when new oligarchies claim to have exempted themselves from the ordinary through purely techno-logical pathways. (AS)

Very simply put in the minds of the Oligarchs (i.e., the upper .01% of rich and powerful) the .99% of all other humans have ceased to exist and can therefore be controlled, manipulated, excluded, or – and isn’t this the crux of horror: annihilated through war, disease, famine, genocide, etc. In the minds of the rulers we are mere cattle to be slaughtered or enslaved.

My wary reader will point to the semblance and stage show of modern democracy, to the current world of our political economies, to the media circus of modern reactionary politics, to all the fancy tunes being played across our vast artificial grapevine of Mediatainment systems that seem to give us some sense of world order. All a sham, a façade, a mere stage-play to keep the masses of disenfranchised pacified, hopeless, ignorant of the machinations of real power and control. Yet, what the Oligarchs don’t know is that they, too, are in the offing… that the machinic powers and intelligences they’ve begun to unleash will not stop at the %99 percent but will also in the end do away with their host – the Oligarchs themselves. Call this fiction, prophecy, bullshit… call it what you want, either way we’re in a fine muddle of a mess with very few prospects unless we wake up and do something more than riddle the net with more words… ACTIONS are needed.

Yet, as Stiegler points out most humans are for all purposes functionally stupid. What he means is this, those specifically of the so-called ‘specialized’ but unskilled workers, and today this functional stupidity is also at work in algorithmic governmentality as much as in the ‘trades’ and in other, supposedly ‘intellectual’ ‘professions’ – now characterizes all employees insofar as they cannot and must not produce collective secondary retentions: the employee sets the machines that utilize collective secondary retentions conceived, standardized and implemented by departments studying time and motion within automated organs. Collective secondary retentions are turned into machinic tertiary retentions or technologies of all kinds, and become invisible, that is, unthinkable – without controllers and without reason. (AS)

I remember years and years ago reading the two-volume magisterial history of this whole process of standardization and the rise of machinic civilization in Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine. A work still prescient for our moment. So many works from previous generations seem to go into the void, left in abeyance while so to speak new scholars repeat each others shibboleths, clichés, and down right unthought for thought. I read books published by current scholars that seem almost mindless with repetitions and quotes from each other in an echo chamber of stupidity that believe honestly they are contributing to the emancipation of the human species. Gullibility runs rampant in the halls of the Academy. I know my self that when I began my Live Journal then WordPress experiment in internet communication a dozen years ago that it was not so much for some specific audience, or even for an audience at all, but rather as a way to further my own grown and individuation, expand my horizons, my mind, to gather in contemporary knowledge and thought and gaze on what the scholarly and philosophical, not to say literate, literary, and other avenues of historical and scientific endeavors had been up to in my generation. More and more I see them repeating the same mistakes of assuming they’ve advanced, progressed, transformed and alleviated the errors and blindnesses of their predecessors. (I’ve gone too far off subject… I’ll have to come back to this in another post someday!).

Yet, the problem facing these so called Oligarchs is something that even they have not addressed: if in our current hyper-consumerist society you eliminate employment, excluded the workers themselves from the fruits of their work, who will continue the cycle of extraction of surplus value? Who will buy the commodities, certainly not the now unemployed masses of excluded and bare subsistent masses. Will the machines? Will the mindless algorithms buy the goods they produce? Of course not… then will wealth creation also cease? Will the Oligarchs put themselves and their own wealth creation system of Capital out of business? Yes. But as what prices, and who pays the most for this? We need not answer such an obvious question. We do. The great excluded… As Stiegler tells it,

It is now increasingly the unpaid ‘work’ of consumers – which is not work but dividuation as the employment of unpaid time – that, by harnessing this employment of the time of the individuals whom we try to remain, feeds, reinforces and sets the parameters of the automated and performative collective retentions produced by totally computational capitalism. This 24/7 traceology allows this new form of capitalism to automatically generate and control the collective protentions that outstrip and overtake individuals, both psychic and collective. And it is for this reason that it can and should be called totally computational. (AS)

In this sense we are already asleep in the Matrix, dreaming of utopia but living in hell. Depleted humanity as the last generation of hyper-consumers, functionally integrated into the computational technical system through their reticulation, and psychically and socially disintegrated by the resulting dividuation, will then replace the current individual producers or service providers, and themselves become the auxiliary agents of artificial organs of information, decision and production, now completely automatized. What was envisioned by Deleuze/Guattari and furthered by DeLanda as the Great Assemblage of the Body-without-organs: the Machinic Civilization rising from the ashes of Homo Sapiens demise. As Stiegler ends this segment he reminds us that the “decerebration that Alfred Jarry saw was at work not long after Nietzsche had announced the growth of the desert seems to be realized as complete cerebral desertification – and as a global nightmare” (AS).

More tomorrow…. or…


  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 6858-6859). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Norbert Wiener, quoted by Friedmann in Où va le travail humain?, p. 14, originally from Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1961), pp. 27–8.

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