Today is Labor Day in the US, a holiday we evidently borrowed from Canada, and ultimately from Australia. In the linked post I talked about working in space. Here, as you might guess from the title, we'll consider the future of work, whatever planet it is performed on, including none.
The past is prologue: For most of the last ten thousand years, extending to the origins of Labor Day in the century before last, work was largely synonymous with agricultural labor. And, all too largely, work was associated with more or less naked forms of exploitation - sharecropping, rack-rent, serfdom, and so on down to outright chattel slavery.
Agrarian Age exploitation had effects beyond the purely economic: Think of medieval villeinage (a form of serfdom) and the etymology of 'villain.'
Exploitation was often less intensive in environments where agriculture was so marginal that not much could be squeezed out of the peasants. Thus mountainous uplands and other rugged environments were often associated with both poverty (even the lords were poor) and freedom. Montani Semper Liberi, goes the motto of West Virginia: Mountaineers are always free. Much of the Western conception of freedom is rooted in this tradition. Thomas Jefferson might be a plantation slaveowner, but his ideas were built around independent small farmers.
Cities, with their more complex market-based economies, fostered a different sort of freedom. In the medieval German usage, Stadtluft macht Frei: City air makes one free. Urban freedom had much less to do with economic equality, and much more to do with a dynamic balance of power between money and labor interests.
Markets in themselves are inherently oligarchic: one florin, one vote. But an alliance of quasi-monarchical state interest and a populist interest can push back against the oligarchs. Machiavelli was the first to notice that the 'conflict of the orders,' so long as it did not get out of hand, could be a positive basis for freedom.
His ideas - with his name filed off - contributed more than Jefferson's to the theory of the US Constitution: Compare its strong federal government with the weak central institutions of the Articles of Confederacy.
In the Agrarian Age, both mountain freedom and urban freedom were special cases. Exploitation was the norm, embodied in latifundia, manor, and plantation. In the industrial age - which is essentially urban - mountain freedom is even more marginalized, but urban freedom has become widespread. Indeed it has become rather normative, even if often honored in the breach.
Well, that turned out to be a rather lengthy prologue. Now, what of work in the future?
One possibility, which has sometimes come up in comment threads here, is that technology will lead us to a post-scarcity future. Economists will say there can be no such a thing, because human desires are limitless. But we still come from the primate house, with some basic physical needs and comforts. Once we have ample food, we don't want more of it - we want instead some combination of tastier, more convenient, and more appealing to our vanity.
The higher the productivity level, the more things come down to vanity. Whether or not it is technologically feasible, we can at least imagine a world where basic physical comforts are so readily provided as to be nearly free. But in this same world there is almost no demand for productive labor, and it is not quite clear how this nearly free stuff gets distributed - let alone any high level of pleasures.
This post-scarcity economy is often imagined as hobby-driven, with people 'working' for the sake of self-satisfaction, the way I write this blog.
But the economy could equally well be a crass, somewhat creepy mix of celebrity culture and Thorstein Veblen. A world where those in a position to do so hire everyone else, at nominal wages, as personal servants - not to do any work that even cheaper robots couldn't do just as well, but for the sheer ego gratification of showing off how many servants they have. This too is primate-house behavior.
Or the post-scarcity economy could be a mix of both.
But a post-scarcity economy is, alas, scarcely a given. Technological progress tends to come in leaps, followed by longer periods of maturity with only gradual, even glacial progress. So another possibility, at least for the midfuture, is a decelerando, a technological world that stabilizes at a level somewhat higher than today's, but only somewhat.
Such a world has some rather sobering implications. It will not be a world without work, because a robot capable of doing, say, restaurant kitchen work (and doing it more cheaply than Latino immigrants) is a doubtful proposition. But it may be a world without very much high-paying 'good' work, especially if the oligarchic tendency of markets is unchecked by political 'countervailing power.'
In such conditions, the upward concentration of wealth means that investors will have plenty of money. But given a low rate of innovation, due to largely mature technology, they will struggle to find profitable places to invest it.
Their desperate search for high rates of return will fuel asset bubbles, from Impressionist artwork to real estate. And the financial shocks from successive popping of these bubbles will leave the economy sputtering, performing below even its constrained technological potential.
If this world sounds rather familiar, it should - it is arguably the world that has been emerging, at least for the already-industrialized economies, in the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. We still have plenty of innovation in some industries - especially 'tech' in the sense of computer-related - but unlike mid-century tech progress it is not creating all that many jobs.
If the decelerando scenario is correct, this will become more and more the case.
All of which, in an urbanized, post-industrial future, could be fuel for a new 'conflict of the orders.' Which could take catastrophic forms. Or, channeled into political rather than violent conflict, might well take the positive, freedom-generating form outlined by Old Nick Machiavelli.
The image of Carolingian peasants comes from a blog about the history of cooking and food.