Friday, November 29, 2013

2H2K - May 2050 - Decayed Roués Robots: An Introduction

Lumpenproletariat according to Akira Kurosawa and The Economist
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 

No doubt, Marx's prediction that class conflict was inevitable, was part of what drove those reformers to action. If peace and prosperity were the carrot, the dread of violence and chaos was the Big Stick. Robots, from their earliest inception in the Czech play R.U.R. appearing in 1920, just as the Progressive Era was winding to a close, right up to their most recent portrayals in the Terminator and Matrix films, have been shadowed by a dread of Marxist revolution. While I am invoking class, I am not pointing to a class that Marx felt had much (if any) revolutionary potential. Marx would have dismissed me, and my fellow artists, among what he called the "Lumpenproletariat":
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.

In her book, The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes George Frederick Baer, the spokesman for the owners during the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, publicly defending the actions of mine owners:
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 

In his film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick's fictional robot, HAL, made the leap from physical labor to intellectual labor. But like earlier fictional robots, Kubrick's never abandoned the dread of an inevitable clash of Labor against Capital; Marx's thesis and antithesis that has accompanied robots from their inception. So while many commentators felt that the disembodied HAL in was suspiciously fey, even Kubrick's "slightly fag robot" [see Oct 17th] turned out to be physically intimidating and effectively murderous when push came to shove. HAL remained a creature of Marx's worldview, a stand-in for the dangerous social threat of dispossessed masses (but, always, no matter how good the intentions, these Marxist robots are an image of the disposed masses as seen from above). The "droids" in George Lucas' original Star Wars film were the first robots break with that traditional dread. C-3PO and R2-D2 the first robots cast as ruined and adventurous vagabonds.

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

To imagine robots that are untarnished by Marxist revolution it is necessary to imagine an economy that is not neither Proletariat or Bourgeois. Robots are to Marx's "means of production", what iPhones are to the room filling "super-computers" of the 1960s. What do you call a Robot with a toolbox? A factory. What do you call an economy in which a factory costs as little as car? Not consumerism.

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.


  1. Upon further reflection, I'm not sure the droids are lumpen at all. Certainly R2 as a mechanic, is solidly proletarian, albeit without revolutionary consciousness. C3P0 -- it's also not clear if he's lumpen according to the criteria that made the lumpenproletariat untrustworthy according to Marx. He's more of a mixed case. Yes, he'd presumably still have a role after the revolution, but OTOH, because of his direct relationship with the ruling elite, he's more likely to identify with them. His class consciousness is more that of a butler. And R2 suffers from the same quality to some extent -- he's more of a personal assistant than a mechanic, in terms of his actual tasks.

    But despite their proximity to the elite, I'd say their integral to the productive processes in the society they're in. Their privileged access make them less class-conscious, but their labour is very much being exploited -- restraining bolts FTW.

    One dynamic I thought was interesting on reviewing is the lateral violence subplot in Empire. Towards the beginning, C3P0 gets unrelentingly abused by Han Solo, but by the end, he has turned his obvious anger about this abuse on Chewbacca, who is -- ironically -- saving his life. It's quite a dramatization of Chewbacca's class solidarity and C3P0's attempt to assert personal dignity within the two-class paradigm, which only doesn't backfire because of Chewbacca's resolute kindness and solidarity.

    The revolutionary subjects Marx would have identified are probably in the bar at Mos Eisley, though, having a drink after pulling a double shift on Star Destroyer hull reconstruction (no danger pay, and Vader force-strangled the last union organizer who came through).

    Those are the ones who are alienated from their labour, and without which the whole system would shut down. For now, they're putting their hopes in a vanguard party who will seize the reigns, but I think that (realistically) they're going to find themselves behind Leia and Luke's iron curtain, as it were, as centralized control becomes its own destiny.

    1. I think Marx is a bad fit to Star Wars. The social strife that Lucas grew up with was Civil Rights, Anti-War and feminist protests - none are an easy fit to the dialectic of Labor vs Capital. [Hippies and Yippies are the portrait of lumpenproletariat revolutionaries -like the punks that would follow them, they were unemployed and unemployable by design.]

      If anything, the Hegelian master/slave dialectic works better. Obi-wan Kenobi's refusal to either defend himself against or be subservient to Vader is the first great moment of punctum in the trilogy. Losing his hand in his battle against Vader in Ep V is the next, and cutting off Vader's hand in Ep VI is the last. But it is that first moment of seeing Old Ben evaporate like the Wicked Witch that haunts and shapes Luke, and sets us up for the shocks to follow. If Vader was the one who would bring balance to the Force (by resurrecting the long missing Sith Antithesis to counter the ruling Jedi Thesis), Luke, in his moment of refusing to kill his father, is the one who brings Synthesis.

      But again I would direct you back to the "Robots are Marxist" post. C-3PO and R2-D2 are most remarkable in how they differ from the robots that preceded them. One is a neurotic weakling, the other, inarticulate (in having neither words or hands) and emotive. Both lack the sexual charge and physical threat of roots like Gort and Maria, or even poor HAL.