The modern economy: in freedom or in servitude?

We are often told by apologists of modern civilization that we are now living in a wealthier and more educated society than was the case at the beginning of the 20th century. The material condition of the contemporary average worker is indeed more enviable than that of the Industrial-era worker: his labor is both physically easier and less tiring, while he is more educated (a college degreee is necessary to perform the very modern tasks of, say, accounting, managing human or material resources, or graphic design), without mentionning his greater material prosperity (home- and car-owning, hobbies, etc.). In fact, in all industrialized societies, the working class as it has traditionnally been understood has significantly shrunk while the middle class has expanded in dramatic ways. This narrative of material progress is, however, only half the picture.

If we now move on to consider the second half of the picture, what seems to have been a (material) progress in fact hides merely a change in skills and activities necessitated by a move from an industry-based economy to a service-based economy. While the blue collar worker, best illustrated by the automobile factory worker repeating over and over again the same gesture on a Ford assembly line, was the basic unit of the industrial economy, the white collar office worker is his contemporary counterpart, lying at the very bottom of the service-based economy. In their function in the wider economic system, as the basic units of production, the blue collar of old and the white collar of today occupy the same position. The blue collar worker produced individual pieces through an automated assembly line, which pieces were then assembled together to create another object (a car for example), the goal of which being the feeding of this gigantic economic machine through economic output, relayed by consumption. Today, the white collar sitting at his desk has the duty to develop and create new ideas and products which will then be combined into a larger “finished” product (a phone, a travel plan, etc.), only to be instantly thrown onto the market to be consumed and feed the economic system.  As this economic system has qualitatively transformed itself over the past 100 years, so have its constituent parts. The structure, however, remains unchanged. It is this gargantuan economic machine that needs our labor. Only today, it has become even more complex and “efficient” through its computerization. The only goal is to keep this gigantic machine running (its performance is measured by various indexes such as the GDP), and it is a necessity for the worker to adapt to the needs and pace of this machine. It is clear here that the general computerization of our century has only increased the speed, the interconnectivity, and the complexity of this system, making it less and less fit to welcome human beings.

The mechanization and computerization of the economy entail various consequences. Individually, both the factory worker and the office worker are not only deprived of their labor, but also of what constituted the joy of labor, i.e. the possibility to create, since their products are immediately destroyed through consumption. They loose the sense of telos of their work. Their own contribution is drowned under an unknown number of other contributions, all of which becoming the means to an unknown or vaguely known end (do we work for our products to be consummed, to generate profits which we will most likely never see, or for something else?). Modern labor is meaningless.

Second, there is a social consequence: the expansion of the middle class has been negatively proportional to its degradation into the condition of the former working class. The borderline between these two classes has become more and more blurred. This degradation explains why we are now witnessing across Europe the obsolescence (and end?) of traditionnal socialist and communist parties, which have remained stuck in an early-20th century conception  of class struggle. As we have just seen, the main issue lies with the technically-driven nature of our economy, not with who owns the means of production, and it is not affecting the lower classes only, but all.

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