Years ago I went with a group of mostly french friends to see a performance of Charles Aznavour, a French crooner of Armenian extraction who is best described as the French Frank Sinatra. One of the guys with us that night was from the Armenian consulate and when Aznavour announced he was going to sing about his homeland, our Armenian friend stood and with the other Armenians in the audience, went wild. Not to be out done, when Aznavour introduced a song about Paris my expat Parisian friend, and the other displaced Parisians filling the hall, stood and sent up a great cheer. A little while later Aznavour explained that his next song was about "the love that dare not speak its name" - and a gay couple in our row stood and loudly cheered. Everyone smiled. Finally Aznavour announced that he would sing his song La Bohème about struggling artists, and I stood, all alone and cheered. My friends, the gay guys, and everyone around us looked at me like I was a little nuts. Which was just about right. We have always been a marginal group at best, but as we look forward to the "end of work" - or as it is more recently been dubbed, "the end of jobs" - the Bohème may become a force for change - not as a heroic avant-guard leading the Proletariat to violent revolution against their Capitalist overlords, but something more akin to the growth of the Petite Bourgeoisie consumer class - aka the middle class - during the Post War years.
The "Proletariat" and "Bourgeoisie" (Petite or otherwise) are terms for class distinctions borrowed from the 19th Century thinker, Karl Marx - and they are therefore loaded. Marx believed class conflict would inevitably lead to revolution, that the lines would be drawn by property. Marx, who started his career, as what we might call now, a war correspondent, watched the American Civil War with great interest, because he saw it as a violent class conflict. According to Kevin Peraino, Marx "thought that if the Bourgeois union could defeat the Southern aristocracy, then that was one step closer to the proletariat triumphing over both." Marx's ideas would frame the pitched struggle between Capitalists and Labor that followed the US Civil War and came to a head in the first waning years of the 19th Century, not with violent revolution, but with waves of democratically enacted reforms - the first of which were passed when the century was still new, during the Progressive Era.
Proletariat - Progressive Ara - 1902 & 1920
Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.Unlike the Lumpenproletariat - who did not directly contribute to industrial production - the Proletariat was the class Marx felt would rebel and remake the world. In Marx's conception, the Proletariat - wage earners, who worked in factories, in direct contact with the Capitalist overlords - were the New Man. Understandably, that point of social contact appeared, in Marx's time and well into the 20th Century, as highly combustable. The Bourgeoisie Capitalists who won the Civil War, had they gotten their way, wouldn't have been much better than the slave owning aristocrats they defeated on the battlefield. Even after owning humans outright as property was outlawed in the US, any and all regulation on property was deemed an outrage. This meant that while tenement owners didn't own the families that lived and worked in inhuman conditions throughout New York's Lower East Side they may as well have.
The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for -- not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.Baer's statement was lampooned as the "Divine Right of Plutocrats" - but it gives some sense of where the world was even 20 years after Marx's death. Marx could not have predicted Theodore Roosevelt however. In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt explained:
Very much the most important action I took as regards labor had nothing to do with legislation, and represented executive action which was not required by the Constitution. It illustrated as well as anything that I did the theory which I have called the Jackson-Lincoln theory of the Presidency; that is, that occasionally great national crises arise which call for immediate and vigorous executive action, and that in such cases it is the duty of the President to act upon the theory that he is the steward of the people, and that the proper attitude for him to take is that he is bound to assume that he has the legal right to do whatever the needs of the people demand, unless the Constitution or the laws explicitly forbid him to do it.Roosevelt felt entitled - even required - to step in where he was told he had no constitutional power to intervene. To place the presidency between property owners and their employees - between Capital and Labor - was unprecedented under US law at the time. But what is most interesting about Roosevelt's action was on whose behalf he felt himself to have acted and from whom he took his authority to act:
Roosevelt opened the meeting with a graceful statement, acknowledging the existence of three parties effected by the situation in the Anthracite trade; the operators, the miners, and the general public. He spoke, he assured them, for neither for the operators, nor the miners, but for the general public.Unlike Marx who saw two players and one possible outcome, reformers like Roosevelt had begun to conceive of a third class of interested players, those who had no hand in the Production process that Marx valued so highly, but instead, whose interest and authority was founded on their roles as consumers. Theodore's "Square Deal", would be followed by FDR's "New Deal", and LBJ's "Great Society." Three great waves of progressive reform almost a century after Marx died, our robots were still Marxist.
Lumpenproletariat vs the robotic Proletariat - 1968
Like HAL, C-3PO was an intellectual worker - a "protocol droid" famously "fluent in over six million forms of communication." His faithful companion, R2-D2, was an "astromech droid" or mechanic. And also like HAL and all earlier robots the droids are, socially, lowest of the low. But unlike HAL and other cinematic robots, in Star Wars, the droids are not Proletarian, they have no place within the order of production, instead they are Lumpenproletarian. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers... That's a pretty good description of the world of the Droids. Moisture farmers, hermits, smugglers. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. And at the bottom of the social heap are the droids themselves: "We don't serve their kind here!" barks the publican.
Remarkably however, the droids are the center of our attention, they are the characters that the movie's plot follows. Lucas says he got the idea for this inversion from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 historical drama The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa’s film follows the misadventures of Tahei and Matashichi, two peasants who have tried and failed to become soldiers. Representatives of Marx's indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither. When the film opens the duo are fleeing their own army after being mistaken for enemy soldiers and forced to bury the dead. They are the lowest of the low, dressed in rags and stinking of carrion.
Kurosawa’s bumbling pair are clowns, thieves, whiners, and deeply submissive. They are peasants the way peasants are pictured by their social superiors. The droids are porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars - as they might picture themselves: not particularly strong, or bold, but deeply self-interested. While they are often bumbling, they are also two of the wiliest characters in the film. C-3P0, who introduces himself by means of his abilities, is perfectly bourgeois - neurotic, clearly incapable of making anything, and often cowardly (although I would call C-3P0's cowardice reasonably self-preserving). He is the robotic version of Francis Fukuyama's "Men without Chests":
Men with modern educations are content to sit at home, congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism. As Nietzsche's Zarathustra says of them, "For thus you speak 'Real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition.' Thus you stick out your chests - but alas they are hollow!"But fictional robots remain the greatest possible monument to the enduring power of Marx's conviction that workers and owners must come to into violent conflict. While there have been some memorable fictional robots, like Wall-e, that have built on the example of Lucas' chest-less droids, the norm remains solidly Marxist. Whether it is the milk-filled androids of Ridley Scott's imagination or the robotic squids and Agent Smiths of the Wachowski sibling's Matrix films, the anxiety remains, of workers and owners coming to a historically inevitable and violent conflict.
Lumpenproletariat - 1849 & 1977
The anthropologist and cultural critic David Graeber argues most of that work that the consumerist economy has produced is meaningless. "Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul." But even if Graeber is right, the "bullshit jobs" he rails against are disappearing. And due to automation, the skilled productive jobs in heath care and production that Graeber feels we under-value, those are going to start disappearing to.
What kind of economy are we left with if there are no jobs, bullshit or otherwise? One possible answer is to do what the Swiss are now debating doing: to pay every citizen an Unconditional Basic Income of $2800.00 a month. There are a lot of ideas about whether or not this is a good idea, or a very bad one. What is undeniable is that it would be a very different economy. One very unlike the vulgar petite bourgeoisie of consumerism. Nor would it be a worker's paradise the like followers of Marx imagined (and attempted to build). Instead it would be an economy dominated by decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters - whole nations of the Bohème.
NOTE: My friend Dru pointed out over Twitter that this essay ended abruptly. I cut six paragraphs off the end of this post. I've restored two of them in order to give the intro more of a conclusion. I had also written originally an addendum to this post that I cut, and will replace as well: I am not a Marxist (maybe an anti-anti-communist) in exactly the same sense that I am not a Feminist. Which is to say, I don't feel like I have a strong enough grasp on Marxism to judge or speak on it with any final authority. If anyone reading this with a stronger grasp on Marx takes issue with any of the assertions I've made (or important ideas I might have missed), I'd appreciate hearing about it. - That said, it is important to point out Marx is a towering figure and space is limited, and that I am constructing an 8-bit history of robots, not Marxism.