Man as machine


As mainstream discourse again shifts towards a discussion of automation, @Aut_Omnia examines its mechanics, human cost and utopian potential.

Man as Machine.

“The man of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys:
Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate'er it touches, and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame,
A mechanised automaton.”1

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab.

It is that old nightmare. Deep in dreaming, the subject wakes to find their face encased within an iron mask. Rust fills their mouth, spikes torment their eyes, but for all their frenzied efforts the mask cannot be removed. The post-fordist subject has a different dream, a brave new nightmare for a dysphoric age. In this, the dreamer awakes but finds no mask upon their face. Instead, with rising horror they discover that gleaming pistons rest where once were legs and cold lenses spin in the place of eyes. In their chest beats not a heart, but an engine, fevered and hungry. That which was human has been ripped from them and replaced with steel and wire. That which was alive has become that which is automated.

We slumbered whilst the war took place, the grand offensive against free time, free expression, free thought. The onslaught was waged in the name of growth and productivity, but in the pursuit of what is dead they stole what is living. Now mankind must work like the machines it used to fear. The mechanization of the factory has become the mechanization of the school, the hall, the home.

History is the misery of the worker, but the manifestation of that misery is always changing. In the agricultural economy of feudal England, work was characterized by fiscal constraints but technical autonomy. Every serf had to survive, but how they survived was largely their own business. A degree of independence was granted as long as the lord's corn was harvested and his deer were not. In fact, the medieval peasant enjoyed spells of extraordinary freedom. By the middle of the 14th century, the peasant class was averaging a working year of around 120 days, or 1440 hours (by contrast the average American worker receives just 8 days holiday a year2).3 After the ravages of the Black Death, labour was in such chronic shortage that labourers all but dictated their conditions. Yet even before the pandemic, records show 13th century peasant families working as little as 150 days a year.4 These statistics are extraordinary, and absolutely unheard. The capitalist myth of liberation by industrialisation has burnt the history of the world that preceded it.

In the industrial economy of Victorian Britain, work became typified by control. The production line and proto-Fordism created the possibility of the workforce under watch. Any mill or foundry was deemed worthy of patrol and discipline, the serf’s fear of the wrath of God became the machinist's fear of the overseer. Despite this offensive, free time remained largely unmonitored, as London, Birmingham and Liverpool testify. The night was prone to a thousand crimes, carnages and cavorts, over which the Peeler struggled to maintain the barest semblance of control. Attempts to impose authority were repulsed, sometimes bloodily, and the refuge of the street and the pub was preserved.5

Thus it is only the post-fordist world which suffers the surveillance and control of both work and not-work. “Not-work” is the right word, for “leisure” seems unfitted to time defined by depression, exhaustion and insomnia. The call centre is the modern mill, and its people the machines.6 They cannot be true automatons, for the "caller hears a smile"7 and in their moment of distress only human voices will do. Despite the fact its existence depends on the façade of humanity, the call-centre does everything it can to strip the worker of any human dignity. Days are ten hours, with a brief unpaid lunch break in which a few seconds of unprocessed air and natural light may be gifted. The disgust of the company at the feeble physical needs of their workers is manifested in those facilities where the staff are prohibited from using a toilet.8 In most of these buildings the windows don't open more than a centimetre. Even the freedom to end ones suffering has been withdrawn. The contradiction is clear, the capitalist wants machines, but the customer wants a human. The compromise is the human is treated as a machine. The myriad complexities of identity are stripped away, leaving only the ability to perform a task.

The step out of the workplace does not stop the discipline, the surveillance or the control. Closed circuit cameras jostle with flashing ad panels.9 Cops with electric weapons look for trouble and find it in the colour of your skin. Running for a train is suspicious, meeting your friends is suspicious, taking a picture is suspicious. Any political activity is discouraged, only consumption and all-consuming depression are permitted. Should you transgress the norms and laws, your job, benefits and home are repossessed. If this knowledge frightens you, take another pill. In fact, the decision to medicate may not even be your own, if you dissent, your cries may be stifled by a mouth crammed full of chemicals.10 The dystopia is not the preserve of the cinema or the future, but here, right now. You can only not see it because you’re drowning in it.

“Consideration has not been given… to this big distinction as to how far men work through machines or as machines”11

Under capital there has always been a degree of the machine around man. The duress of "work to live" is fundamental to capitalism, whilst the necessity of production divides the workforce into machine-like specialism. Marx observed in the 1844 manuscripts that “the division of labour renders [the worker] ever more one-sided and dependent bringing with it the competition not only of men but of machines...the worker has sunk to the levels of machines”.12 Marx also realises the idiocy of the liberal faith in the machine liberating workers under capital, he quotes Mill “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the days toil of any human being”, then observes “That is, however, by no means the aim of the capitalistic application of machinery… it is a means for producing surplus-value”.13

It is of course a historical process, however, of late the mechanization has accelerated. The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the organic composition of capital, the relationship between that which is living and that which is dead. Fixed capital is the capitalist’s favoured solution to the conundrum of labour. Wherever they can, they will automate, for “there is always a difference of labour saved in favour of the machine”14, and machines will work for a century and never break once for a strike. It is well understood that the workers wish to liberate themselves from their bosses, but less so that the bosses wish to liberate themselves from their workers.

The desire of the capitalist to free himself from the worker is, however, frustrated. Fixed capital is sometimes too expensive, or simply beyond the technological reach of mankind. A clear example is in the slow uptake of the power loom in 19th century Britain. The gradual realisation of the Jacquard principle hampered the development of power looms, whilst the “very cheapness and superfluity of hand-loom labour retarded mechanical invention and the application of capital in weaving”.15 Variable capital thus fulfils the tasks fixed capital cannot. Yet, as a consequence of the need for ever greater returns and the competition from those who have found fixed capital solutions, the influence of the machines cannot be escaped, and the worker must work harder, for longer, for less.16 In short, they must work more like machines.

As our work becomes more unpleasant and unnatural to us, ever greater forms of control are needed to ensure that we do it. As machines take over our labour, forces need to be employed to see that idleness does not give way to mischief. Discipline is employed with sadistic readiness, in ever more complex and powerful ways. The obvious power in the batons of the police is matched by the subtle power contained in the stamp of the benefits adviser. The state which we believe to protect us is actually our captor and master. The worker has developed Stockholm syndrome.

Let us return to the nightmare. In it, the worker finds themself to be a machine, to have been changed by powers beyond their control. Those powers however, though manipulated by the capitalist class, did not originate from them. Neither did they stem from the machines themselves, for ultimately machines are but human tools. The horror of the situation resides in the realisation that the workers have brutalised themselves. The forced mechanisation of the working class is the product of the class itself. It is the Copernican inversion Tronti recognised, that; “It is the specific, present, political situation of the working class that both necessitates and directs the given forms of capital’s development”.17 The old Marxist interpretation of a working class condemned to a purely reactive relationship with capital needs upending, for in reality capital is always reacting to the struggle of the working class.

This is not to say that the workers therefore can determine the direction of capital, for every movement cannot perceive the effects it will have on the future. The endeavour of workers to free themselves from the most oppressive elements of capital often merely changes the form of misery they suffer. The agitation of linen workers for better rights made mechanisation attractive to the capitalist. The agitation of the Fiat workers made the super-mechanisation of the factory desirable. Every demand from variable capital increases the allure of the fixed capital solution. Marx realised this, he notes that the passing of the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which prevented women and children from working under ground, forced capitalists to invest in machinery.18 The worker and the capitalist exist like boxers in a ring. One punch from the worker leaves them vulnerable to a counterpunch from the capitalist.

If nothing else, this demonstrates the uselessness of compromise. Anything we win can turn to dust in a second. We are locked in a war of attrition with capital, where any moments rest can cost us all of the ground we won. The realisation of this is spreading, it resides in the slow death of the union movement and the crisis of the centre left. None of the old forms can save us from a fate worse than death, that of working forever without a moment to live. All of existence will be subsumed into the mechanical struggle for survival, of either trying to survive in work, or outside it.

This is the dystopia which deepens around us. There is only one means of escape. We must use that which created the current system to destroy it. We must struggle afresh, and struggle incessantly. Every concession must be treated only as a sign of the enemy’s weakness, and spur us to fight ever harder. The parties must be imaginary, the committees invisible. The only union with any worth will be the one that is willing to slay the antagonist which defines it, and thus destroy itself. The insurrection will not be controlled or led by any other than the masses at the barricades. And what of the machines? What of the mechanisms whose effect on our lives was disastrous enough that we should risk it all? We shall take them and make them work for us. “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.”19 Without capitalism to twist its purpose, the machine shall cease to be the automaton of oppression, and instead enable us to be truly free. Within each machine resides nothing less than the promise of the total liberation of humankind.20

Posted By

Oct 9 2013 22:20


  • All of existence will be subsumed into the mechanical struggle for survival, of either trying to survive in work, or outside it.

Attached files


Oct 27 2013 16:47

Only just got round to reading this, thanks it is excellent.