Dishwashers and Freedom

4 mins read

By Joen Marklund

We read about it all the time: jobs disappearing through automation and technological development. At first thought to be restricted to low-tier jobs, this tendency is starting to creep in to the middle class as well. I remember attending a panel discussion on the subject recently. One Liberal confidently denied the problem: “Some jobs will disappear, yes, but new ones will replace them—just imagine how many today who are working as yoga instructors and app developers, jobs no one thought of 20 years ago!” A Social Democrat proposed New Deal-inspired projects to get people to work: let’s build bridges and roads! What united them all was the fact that automation and technological development was understood as problems that needed solutions—preferably making people work in new sectors. 

Why is it that the replacement of men by machines in exhausting industry-jobs is conceived of as a problem in the first place? If AI were to replace mind-numbing paperwork, would that really be a bad thing? The prospect of disappearing jobs may indeed appear daunting if the alternative would be to rearrange motorized scooters thrown in ditches by drunk students in an ever-increasing precarious labor-market, given our slim chances to succeed as app developers or yoga-instructors. However, what if we instead understood automation and technological development not as problems, but as possibilities of liberation and freedom? That’s the analysis of Swedish Yale-philosopher Martin Hägglund, who recently published his new book This Life – Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

By virtue of the decreasing need of human labor power in the job-market, automation harbors a liberating force that could lead to more free time for us to live our lives according to our commitments—unfortunately, such a development is not to be expected in our current economic system. Why? The short answer is capitalism; the longer answer is capitalism’s measure of value. When developing Karl Marx’s notion of the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom, Hägglund helps us see why. 

Imagine a situation where a household would have to spend two hours each day doing dishes by hand. Then, a dishwasher is installed in the apartment, which immensely reduces the time required to do the dishes: from two hours to twenty minutes. Thus, time would be created for the household’s members to do other things: gardening, study philosophy and care for each other in a more profound way, with more energy and less fatigue than before. This household has undoubtedly become richer, by the virtue of the new possibilities of its members to engage in other activities than doing the dishes by hand, which was previously a question of pure necessity. That is not to say that doing dishes by hand is an inherently bad activity. For example, I can recognize the therapeutic effect of doing dishes by hand a Sunday afternoon. With a dishwasher, however, choosing to do the dishes by hand would be a choice that I make. This puts me squarely in the realm of freedom, since I see the activity as an end in itself.  Most often, though, the parent of six children would probably experience the hours doing dishes by hand not as an activity valuable in itself. Rather, the parent would probably see it at something that needs to be done in order to maintain a functioning household. In contrast, it becomes an activity of the realm of necessity since it is done as a means to an end: a functioning and clean household. A dishwasher would thus increase his or her realm of freedom, by reducing the time needed to do the dishes. 

Imagine, then, a dishwasher-factory. After having been required to work 10 hour-shifts, new technology is developed which reduces the time a group of colleagues are needed at work to two hours each day. Such a development ought to be desirable by virtue of creating more time for us to live according to our commitments: we could care for our community, family and friends. This society would arguably be a richer one, since we would have more time to pursue activities we see as ends in themselves—the realm of freedom—rather than activities we see as means to an end—the realm of necessity. Yet the capitalist measure of wealth would forces us to believe otherwise; in fact, this society would under our current measure of value be much poorer, since those once employed in the process of constructing dishwashers would be unemployed, thusly being unable to buy new products—something which is needed to further economic growth under capitalism. 

So, on the one hand, the automatization of the dishwasher-production makes us richer in a qualitative and quantitative sense by increasing our realm of freedom. On the other hand, it would appear that this has made us poorer—a lot of people now are unemployed and unable to consume. Engaging with this contradiction, Hägglund proposes a revaluation of the values undergirding our economy. In the same way as the dishwasher increases the realm of freedom in the household, the economy as a whole should also be organized in order to increase the realm of freedom—not in order to increase growth generated by wage labor. Consequently, the economy could finally recognize that the automatization of production makes us richer by liberating us from work, not poorer by replacing us: “To be wealthy is to be able to engage the question of what to do on Monday morning rather than being forced to go to work in order to survive.”So instead of artificially creating new jobs we don’t want in order to buy what we don’t need, Hägglund encourages us to recognize the possibility of freedom in automation and technological development. As the seas are rising and forests burning, we could really use those extra hours to pose ourselves some urgent questions: What kind of society do we want to live in? What does consumer choice mean in the light of the upcoming environmental disaster? The very time of our lives is at stake in this book, and we have a world to win.

Illustration: Emilia Velazquez

Joen Marklund is interested in the politics of the Anthropocene, literature and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the BBC. After recently having finished How I Met Your Mother, admittedly a bit late, a friend recommended him Friends. However, he remains very reluctant, as he also was, in fact, before watching How I Met Your Mother—a show he came to love. When asked why, though, he can’t give a straight answer.

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