What a 19th-century rebellion against automation can teach us about the coming war in the job market

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2017/01/10/what-a-19th-century-rebellion.html


Won’t someone think of the poor buggy-whip makers?

Maybe the textile workers shouldn’t have been throwing their weight around so much. Perhaps then the merchants wouldn’t have been so inclined to find replacements for them. They probably still would have, though.

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But at least the lower classes could have the decency to be docile. Maybe then some real wealth will trickle down.


The point is that it’s a bad idea to pull the economic rug from underneath competent and proud but stubborn workers who’ve gotten used to a comfortable lifestyle given their pay. If corporations and the state are narrowly focused on cutting costs and creatively destructive “disruption” to the exclusion of all else they leave those workers with a hard landing.

That’s a bad thing because, as we’ve seen with the offshoring of American manufacturing, it provides a ready-made support base for populist demagogues who can claim to be the voice of those left behind (even if said demagogue is a soft-handed grifter who was staked to the tune of millions by his father).

If we think the current result is bad, watch what happens over the next decade or two; that’s when you’ll see one of the most common jobs available in America (esp. to people with a high school diploma or less) gradually but relentlessly wiped away by self-driving vehicles. The article’s description of “croppers” is applicable in many ways to today’s long-haul truckers.

Some people are thinking seriously about giving them a soft landing. That’s why the once-taboo idea of a universal basic income has suddenly hit the mainstream press in the past couple of years.


War? Really?

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War? Really?

Slaughter perhaps then?

Although I personally think the automation scare has been on that 20 year horizon since the 80s, about like fusion power plants. In terms of shipping automation, I think it is much more likely to phase in than simply replace drivers out right.



Replying with gifs never gets old. Truly, the height of discourse.


Sabotage, with its roots in the destruction of an employer’s capital equipment, is indeed a weapon of war. There are conflicts in markets all the time (e.g. the Harlan County War, the Colorado Labour Wars. Or, more generically, “bidding wars” – perhaps a term to which you also object).

[before you crab some more, I’m well aware of @doctorow’s stylistic bent toward hyperbole and call it out when it comes into conflict with the facts. This is not one of those times.]



Maybe the textile workers should have thanked the merchants for the boot on their necks!


Are you new here? Does the use of gifs on Boingboing…disappoint you?


I am disappoint



cough…and that’s perfectly understandable, since this is a frauenfelder post…cough (Do I need a winky here too? It seems they still come out big even when placed inside “small” tags…)


There is actually a much closer historical parallel that I’m afraid may show how we will actually respond. Look at the steel industry in the Great Lakes. Sure, we generally talk about the role of foreign competition, but in all honesty a lot of those jobs were lost to automation. Same deal in the auto industry. We threw a little bit of money into retraining, but just basically accepted that a huge swath of the country would be economically devastated. If we don’t make an honest effort to face the changes we are facing, we can expect a nation of Detroits and Clevelands.


In other words, we’ve already shown that we learned nothing from the upheaval of the 19th century pretty recently.


Yeah if I had to guess we will see more Baron Haussman approaches, treating the symptoms of the coming unrest than plans to alleviate the causes.


That’s some terrible boot on their necks. I’d be happy to have that going on.

Now, imagine for a moment that the story was written from the point of view of the merchants. The merchants contract with textile makers to make hosiery or whatever, and those damn textile makers are working 3 days a week and getting drunk all the time. So being the innovative scamps they are, they devise steam powered machines to replace the lazy workers.

I’ll bet you be saying, “Wow, those guys are smart. Removing inefficiencies and creating inventions all at the same time. Truly, progress.”

Won’t someone PLEASE think of the rich people!!! Oh wait, Trumps on that!