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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Today's Random Wilde

I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with mental, moral, or physical dignity seems to me to be impossible. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by a machine.

And I have no doubt that it will be so. Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and, having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of much more importance, a great deal more than he really wants. Were that machine the property of all, every one would benefit by it. It would be an immense advantage to the community.

All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure which, and not labour, is the aim of man -- or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

10 comments:

Martin said...

This is quite possibly the greatest quote of all time.

Margaret said...

happy May Day


I enjoy your blog!

Anonymous said...

Amen!

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks, Margaret -- I just checked out some of your beautiful work available online, thank you for that! Happy May Day to you, too!

Antonin said...

Against Wilde's view, we now witness the forceful exportation and rigidification of property regimes in the very realm of intellectual labor that he inhabited. History remains deaf to all utopias.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't agree that Wilde's view (excerpted here from the longer Soul of Man Under Socialism, which has its strong points but also, to be sure, some weirdnesses on display) is entirely blind or indifferent to processes that find their current consummation in the ongoing enclosure of the creative and genomic commons, but even if he was, I have to say that declaring pre-emptive surrender to the neoliberal and neoconservative planetary bulldozer isn't exactly my idea of the best way either to testify to the criminality of the criminals among us or to resist their vile work. If you hear complacency or facile assimilation in any testament to hope haven't we lost more on our own accord even than they've already taken? I share your suspicion of utopian triumphalisms, that's for sure, but there are tradeoffs here.

AnneC said...

Hey, I actually kind of like manual labor. Repetitive physical and other tasks can have quite a meditative quality to them.

Though there's a massive difference between doing something because you find it fulfilling, and doing something while in an exploited position for the sake of someone else's profit margin.

...Which was probably more the point of the quote, I'm guessing.

Antonin said...

I mostly agree with what I believe this passage wants to convey in terms of social priorities, and no it is not my belief that ‘pre-emptive surrender’ or some such is in order.

However, we must recognize that, for all the advances (and setbacks) on the social front during the last century, not once was the mythology of human labour (which predates neocons by a long shot) even dented by any politico-economic discourse of some pre-eminence. The very idea that machines would one day replace workers and allow greater leisure, once a trope of long-term speculation in the West, has seemingly gone the way of other early sci-fi clichés, invalidated by the transhistorical persistence of the ol’ workaday. Except maybe in transhumanist circles...

I’d be curious to read Wilde’s anticipation of our current sacking of the commons. I’ll be sure to read this book on or offline if I get the chance.

Kakalina said...

Having spent some time in the strawberry fields in all kinds of weather, I can assure you that it is not the least bit dignified. On the other hand, I agree with AnneC that there are some manual tasks that I find to be rather enjoyable (in my case, cleaning the kitchen--much to my family's delight).

Greg in Portland said...

I don't know if Wilde could have imagined some of our "service sector" jobs though. Personally, if I had to chose between working in a call center and digging ditches, I would prefer the latter. Dirt doesn't talk back or require constant mentally taxing production of bullshit like you need in most office work. Whenever I had something really mindless to do I would detach my mind and think about some math puzzle or software design I had cooked up. When you have a bunch of corporate cubicle rats around you to deal with all the time you find they require just enough brainpower to keep you from thinking about something useful.

As for Antonin's comments, I don't think there's anything "transhistorical" about the workday, just the rollback of years of progress toward shorter workweeks and better wages by the decades of movement conservatism. Other nations haven't followed suit and the extent to which they have now is due to Anglo-American neoliberal pressure.

America has managed to avoid mass unemployment in the face of automation and improved efficiency largely by pursuing endless growth in consumption using its amazingly advanced advertising industry. So you get huge demand for McMansions, SUVS, Jet Skis, boats and mountains of other crap. Environmental concerns and peak oil will make this model of growth difficult to sustain and force even Americans with their stupid work-for-its-sake mentality to make some choices about reduced work hours vs. having legions of the unemployable roaming around. My guess - Murka will choose the latter and dissolve into a Mad Max movie at some point. There's plenty of crazy festering out there in Redstateland. A new depression would just be the spark to ignite it.