As little as our desires will ever be satisfied in a capitalist economy, the demand for work will never cease. They are both intrinsically linked to the same phenomenon: a society built on the expansion of capital.
“If you think about the economy, it is — the foundation of the economy is labor. Capital equipment is distilled labor. So what happens if you don’t actually have a labor shortage? I’m not sure what an economy even means at that point, said Elon Musk when he presented the fourth quarter earnings of 2021 and told media that Tesla’s attention now would be the development of a humanoid robot. I am no certainly no muskist, on the contrary. He probably wanted to sidetrack those wondering where the Cybertruck and budget Teslas are. And I think he is wrong in his assumption that robots would eliminate labor shortage. But his question what a capitalist economy would even mean if robots were endless in supply is to the point.
But why do we work in the first place?
In the outskirts of the Russian city of Vladimir, the excavation of a 30 000 year old grave revealed two children which were placed head-to-head. They were adorned with elaborate goods including more than 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, more than 20 armbands, about 300 pierced fox teeth and 16 ivory mammoth spears. One estimate is that it would have taken 10 000 hours to produce the beads alone. Did those making this consider that all that effort to be work, leisure or artistry? I guess they wouldn’t even understand the question or that we would understand their response.
It is presently well established that foraging societies (hunter and gatherers) could satisfy their basic needs by working rather few hours and they still had an energy surplus. This was a result of their skills in making tools, cooking that allowed them to utilize foods more efficiently and their social organization. In Work: A History of How We Spend our Time, anthropologist James Suzman, explains the adornments of the grave in Vladimir with the energy surplus of their economy. This energy surplus has to be spent one way or the other. To become obese is certainly not a winning strategy for a mobile hunter or a marathon walking gatherer. Instead people spent their energy on gossiping, developing mythologies, language and art as well as ritual (rarely fatal) combats with neighbors. So humans are bound to work, to spend energy as a result of her efficient capturing of resources.
Work as a distinct category of occupation develops with settlement, agriculture and hierarchies. Agriculture, especially in very seasonal climates requires planning over years, storage of food, feed and seeds. An even bigger step was the introduction of salaried work, which is strongly linked to the emergence of cities, money and market as well as a more unequal and hierarchical society. Those agrarian civilizations could capture a much bigger share of the solar energy from a given area compared to foragers. But they also needed to work harder. Not only did farmers have to work more than foragers for their own food needs, they also had to produce surpluses for a growing number of professionals, rulers, priests and servants in the city. The increased work enabled by increasing energy resources was also channeled into the construction of palaces, temples and other monuments. According to Suzman, war was also a way both to spend energy, protect the energy resources or increase them. While agrarian civilizations had access to more energy they were also threatened by failed harvests, natural disasters and attacks from competing civilizations. This induced them to prepare for scarcity e.g. by having central granaries for food storage.
The next huge step in the development of work was the industrial revolution, which turned the majority of the populations into paid workers. The industrial revolution was largely driven by the increased use of fossil fuels, first coal, later oil and gas. With machinery driven by fossil fuels, one person could produce a lot more than before, but still they worked as much or even more than before.* Suzman’s theory of surplus energy as a driver of the restless occupation of humans doesn’t really explain why this to such a large extent is directed towards paid work and less to leisure activities, rituals or art. Why doesn’t anybody spend years of their lives adorning their children’s graves? For an understanding of that we need to match the increase of energy resources with the emergence of capitalism. Here I leave Suzman’s narrative.
Even if it is called the industrial revolution its biggest accomplishment was a revolution of the productivity in agriculture. One might believe that the greatest changes in in farming was the introduction of new methods and fertilizers and pesticides. But the impact of mechanization dwarfs those other innovations. The increase in labor productivity in grain farming is mind-boggling. In the 18th century it took an average farm worker in Sweden 30 days to cut, dry and thresh one ton of grain such as oats, rye, barley or wheat. Today a normal combine harvester do that job in less than five minutes, and the latest John Deere X9 1100 combine have a capacity of up to 100 tons of wheat per hour. Of course this dramatic increase of productivity is the result of the use of fossil fuels. A full time agriculture worker in the US uses energy equal to around 70 barrels of oil per year, and a lot more in highly mechanized grain production.
One would assume that this enormous increase of productivity in agriculture would lead to a dramatic decrease in hours worked. But most people that were made redundant in agriculture went to factories or services where they worked even longer hour. As populations increased in parallel with the industrial revolution the total hours worked increased tremendously because the work that was to be done increased simultaneously in a magic way. The mass unemployment that has been feared with each new wave of industrialization and automation has so far not materialized, on the contrary. There is actually a positive correlation (don’t ask me to clarify causation though) between use of energy per capita and employment; countries with high energy usage are countries with have high levels of employment and they are also wealthy countries. The whole industrial epoch is characterized by increased use of energy and other natural resources, increased work as well as increased consumption. In that sense Musk is wrong to assume that manual labor will be made redundant by robots.
Simultaneously, capital also increases at a rapid rate. The link between capital and labor was clarified by John Stuart Mill already: “capital is the accumulated product of past labor destined for the production of future wealth”. Which is basically what both Musk and Marx say. Capital can increase through the extraction of more surplus value per work hour or by increasing the number of hours worked. The use of machines driven by external energy sources, primarily fossil fuels, made it more convenient to increase productivity per hour worked than to increase hours worked even more. To overwork people is mostly inefficient even from a pure exploitative perspective.*
But while production per worker can increase tremendously, the capacity of material consumption has limits and so do natural resources. There are limits to how much food we can consume and how many technological gadgets we want to buy. In addition, the more productive a sector becomes and the more “mature” a market is, the less it will generate any profit (again, look at farming). Capital, therefore, constantly need new arenas for its growth, which after all is an imperative in a capitalist market economy. Business becomes more complex in a globalized world and companies need lawyers, interpreters, asset managers, tax consultants, spin doctors and all sorts of paper pushers. The service sector grows and jobs are created for private occupations formerly mostly being not salaried work. Things like health care and education expands dramatically, whether they are privatized or not. Every stage of consumption and leisure are exploited. Even unemployment can become a lucrative business for unemployment insurers, employment agencies, job coaches and CV stylists. It is this mechanism that Musk misses and that his robots in no way will change.
Our wants will never be satisfied in a capitalist economy, and the demand for work will never cease. They are both prerequisites for and results of the expansion of capital.
* In the early phase of the industrial revolution working hours were long, probably longer, and certainly harder, than in the agrarian society proceeding it. Through the activities of trade unions and political movements working hours have been reduced substantially throughout the last centuries, but the last fifty years little has happened in the advanced economies.
Teaser photo credit: By McKay Savage from London, UK – Women from the Mbini Self-Help Group showing off the fields, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11892353