Excess Labor

Back when historians actually cared about the behavior of real people, they looked at big-picture stuff like “labor mobility.” Ever wonder why all that cool shit Archimedes invented never went anywhere? The Romans had a primitive steam turbine. Why did it remain a clever party trick? Romans were fabulous engineers — these are the guys, you’ll recall, who just built a harbor in a convenient spot when they couldn’t find a good enough natural one. Surely their eminently practical brains could spot some use for these gizmos….?

The thing is — as old-school historians would tell you if any were still alive — technology is all about saving labor. Physical labor, mental labor, same deal. Consider the abacus, for instance. It’s a childishly simple device — it’s literally a child’s toy now — but think about actually doing math with it, when the only alternative is scratch paper. How much time do you save, not having to jot things down (remember where you put the jottings, etc.)?

I’m sure you see where this is going. The Romans did NOT lack for labor. They had, in fact, the exact opposite problem: Far, far too much labor. It’s almost a cliche to say that a particular group in the ancient world didn’t qualify as a “civilization” until they started putting up as ginormous a monument as they could figure out. They raised monuments for lots of reasons, of course, but not least among them was the excess-labor problem. What else are you supposed to do with the tribe you just conquered? Unless you want to wipe them out, to the last old man, woman, and child, slavery is the only humane solution.

If that’s true, then the opposite should also hold — technological innovation starts with a labor shortage. Survey says… yep. There’s a reason the Scientific Revolution dates to the Renaissance: The massive labor shortage following the Black Death. That this is also the start of the great age of exploration is also no accident. While the labor (over-)supply was fairly constant in the ancient world, once technological innovation really got going, the labor-supply pendulum started swinging wildly. The under-supply after the Black Death led to over-supply once technological work-arounds were discovered; that over-supply was exported to the colonies, which were grossly under-supplied, etc.

In short: If you want to know what kind of society you’re going to have, look at labor mobility.

This is not to say that slavery is the only answer. There are lots of ways to absorb excess labor. Ever gone shopping in the Third World? There’s one guy who greets you at the door. Another guy follows you around the store, helpfully suggesting items to buy. A third guy rings up your purchases, which are packed up by a fourth guy, and a fifth guy carries them out (or arranges delivery by a sixth guy). And none of those guys are actually the shopkeeper. They’re all his cousins and whatnot, fresh from the sticks, and all of them are working four jobs with four other uncles at different places in the city.

Nor is it just a Third World thing. Basic College Girls love that Downton Abbey show, so I’d use that to illustrate the point if BCGs were capable of comprehending metaphors. George Orwell wrote eloquently about growing up on the very ragged edge of “respectability” at the turn of the century. He knew all about servants, he said, and the elaborate codes of conduct in dealing with them, even though his family could afford only one part-time helper. Your real toffs, of course, had battalions of servants to do every conceivable job for them. What else is that, old bean, but an elegant solution to labor oversupply?

Note also, since I’m giving you very basic Marxist history here, that we’ve just discovered the foundations of Feminism. Though Karl Marx was — of course — a total asshole to both his wife and his domestic help (of course he had “help;” the tradition of using and abusing servants while bemoaning the plight of the proletariat comes straight from the Master himself), he realized that his theories had a hard time accounting for the very real economic effects of domestic labor. Hence Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the Statewhich proves that even lemon-faced termagants with three degrees and six cats pulling down $100K per year shrieking about Feminism are MOPEs. You can cut the labor supply in half by shackling single gals to the Kinder, Küche, Kirche treadmill.

At this point, old-school historians would point out that since the purpose of history is to connect stuff to other stuff, it’s obvious that Current Year America has a serious labor oversupply problem, and that none of the old-school solutions seem to be on the cards. Wuhan Flu has proven that a great deal of our “jobs” are nothing but make-work. What are we going to do, re-institute slavery? Get back to “the angel in the house” somehow, with our sub-replacement fertility rate? Mass human sacrifice? (Hey, it worked for the Aztecs, and if you told the Karens of the world it’d prevent COVID…). Even bringing back the Downton Abbey model is ludicrous, though I for one would love it if we all started suggesting that to Leftists — “The best thing for you to do to make sure Black Lives Matter is to give Black people the keys to your house and car. I’m sure Supercalufragalisticexpealadocious and he homeboys will make truly excellent butlers and footmen.”

There’s more to life than work, of course, but since all this stuff is just Marxism 101, it’s worth acknowledging that Marx was right about the fundamental problem of our age: Alienation. We’re so alienated from the products of our labor, as Marxists would put it, that “labor” is itself an all-but-meaningless concept. You might keep the masses tranquil, for a time, with bread and circuses… but find me a time when bread and circuses worked as a long-term solution. And by “long term” I mean “didn’t end in massive bloodshed within a few decades, max.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

There used to be a fundamental dignity to an honest day’s labor, even — make that especially — the “labor” of raising children in your home. Bringing that back would solve a great many of our problems.

 

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10 thoughts on “Excess Labor

  1. Southern Belle

    I’m leaning towards the human sacrifice option. Off the plantation? Line to the right. Out of the closet? Line to the left. That’ll do for starters. Then we can add human resources staff at Corporate offices, university crackpots, and oh just for the hell of it, let’s chuck in those government folks. This would greatly reduce excess labor and our stress levels.

    I can show you places in Atlanta where the Third World has already set up shop so you wouldn’t have to travel far to see that in action. Make a great field trip!

    And yes, women should raise their own children. That is something that should not be farmed out to someone who makes ten dollars an hour. Well, we can already see what that gets you. Then again I’m not sure women know how to do it these days. My mama had a switch to help us learn right from wrong. It didn’t take long at all.

  2. Clown World

    There’s an Asian country I have dealings with and there are some supermarkets which in the past at least, not sure about now, that would have two young girls not just per aisle but per section of the aisles; they’d be standing, around occasionally fiddling with stuff on the shelves. I don’t know the nitty gritty of it but I think a large part of it was the government leaning on bigger companies to employ a minimum number of people, in accordance with their size, or something.

    It’s also why said country loves foreign investment; they took this attitude: “if you want to keep doing business here you’re going to employ however many people we throw at you”.

  3. contrariandutchman

    I dont think technological progress is triggered by a labour shortage. The amount of available labour is irrelevant to technology, what labour there is will be used for the purposes of the rulers, regardless of the amount available.

    What matters for technological progress is having a social structure where enough people have both means and motivation to implement it. Also, you need a sufficiently large “smart fraction” in the population.

    The famed “industrial revoluton” started against a backfrop of an excess of labour if anything. Late 18th century Britain saw more efficient agriculture and rapid population growth combine to create a large labour surplus in the countryside. The rise of industry absorbed this excess.

    Compare also Europe and the US in the ninetheenth century, technological progress was rapid in both, even though the US had little labour relative to available land and Europe had much labour relative to land. This dis direct US inventions more toward labour saving devices while European engineers tended to focus more on saving raw materials and improving product quality. Of course, everybody would eventually copy ideas so they both got them all in due time.

    Russia has had severe labour shortages since its beginning, yet it was technologically very backward until around 1900, never fully catching up with the West to this day. A Russian serf developed a steam locomotive in the early 1830’s https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yefim_and_Miron_Cherepanov but it was more or less forgotten instead of putting Russia at the forefront of railway development.And this in the country that would benefit more from railways then any other.

    Roman natural philosophers had interesting toys, and they remained that, toys. (experiments with watermills got serious in the late empire though). Compare China where several important inventions were made before they were made in Europe yet China never managed to develop these further. You would think gunpowder is highly relevant when you are regularly at war, regardless of labour supply, yet the Chinese never improved their early gunpowder and firearms. Compare Europe where gunpowder and cannons were both systematically improved from the moment they were known.

    Distribution of power, and distribution of profit, over many people, including lower nobles and commoners made Europe and its overseas colonies the leaders in technology. Marx was of course wrong as always.

    Of course, the decline of our societies demonstrates that our rulers are misdirecting the available labour. By all means, lets make raising your children higher status again then being a diversity officer.

  4. contrariandutchman

    I should add that technology is aninherently iterative process. You do not one day go to the beach and forge a microchip from the sand. Instead you start with simple tools and use them to make more complex tools and so forth. You cannot skip the steps along the way.

    The steam engine rapidly became extremely useful in late 18th century Britain because centuries of work on gearing systems, for water and windmills, and metallurgy, for cannons and church bells, allowed its potential power to be properly harnessed. Something the Romans couldn’t do.

  5. Pickle Rick

    It’s the cost, not the availability of labor that drives technical innovations, along with a prevalent cultural attitude towards the laboring class.

    Feudalism (really manorialism at the level of rural organization for agriculture) wasn’t primarily driven by economics but by culture and tradition of reciprocal relationships.

    1. contrariandutchman

      European feudalism saw rapid technological advance by the (somewhat dismal) standards of the times before and the rest of the world.

  6. Recusant

    Now your talking.

    On this side of the pond, it might do something towards making housing affordable again. Since real estate inevitably captures any gain, moving households to the two-income model inevitably just pushed the price of property up to the level where the second income was captured by the land and not the family.

    I explain all this in my sweetest and gentlest voice to my educated upper-middle class female friends and they act as if I have just loudly farted in their Bikram Yoga class. Pearls before swine, I tell you.

  7. MBlanc46

    The question of the oversupply of labor is a very important one, and one that is usually overlooked as most people are far more concerned about the great inequality of wealth. The “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” principle ought to provide the answer to our ability to produce abundance without sending every man to the pumps (at least if one ignores the population increase in Sub-Saharan Africa), however, it’s unclear how we could ever get there from here. It appears that our rulers are going to try the guaranteed basic income approach. That actually might work in a place such as Denmark or Norway. I gather that the Norwegians do something like that with their North Sea oil wealth. At least it’s got a good chance until they open the gates to hordes of Third Worlders. As we’ve already opened the gates to Third Worlders (beginning in 1619), it doesn’t have a chance here. I’d like to know what the ultimate answer is, although I believe that I’m just as happy that I shall have checked out before that comes to pass.

  8. contrariandutchman

    “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is Marx being a dangerous idiot, why produce anything when you are guaranteed your needs (defined how?)

    I hold that ther can never be a -structural- oversupply of labour as human wants are unlimited and available labour will be put to use meeting them. Over the short term, labour can be in oversupply due to various social factors that prevent its employment, such factors can never last though and dont.

    At this very moment there is no oversupply of labour, just a social structure that misdirects much labour into pointless pursuits while important things, the raising of children was mentioned, are left untended.

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