Schirvar on Resnikoff, 'Labor's End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work'
Jason Resnikoff. Labor's End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work. Working Class in American History Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. viii + 251 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08629-8; $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04425-0; $14.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-252-05321-4.
Reviewed by Sam Schirvar (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (May, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57669
Labor’s End is “about the meaning of work in the United States after World War II,” which Jason Resnikoff traces through the “automation discourse” among leaders of labor and management, government officials, activists, workers, and intellectuals from the late 1940s through the 1970s (p. 1). The book offers an intellectual history grounded in labor history. Resnikoff tracks the automation discourse through the ideas of familiar twentieth-century thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt and Betty Friedan, but his key concern is how this discourse both was shaped by and shaped transformations in workplace politics.
Resnikoff shows that postwar automation, in practice, meant using machines to intensify human labor, not merely to replace it. While midcentury automation boosters such as John Diebold promised the imminent and inevitable abolition of work through technological progress, many workers saw automation as an older foe: the mechanized speedup. In the following decades, most US manufacturing workers did not lose their jobs to machines, as many had thought. Capital flight accelerated in pursuit of cheap labor, and they lost their jobs to other workers. Resnikoff convincingly argues that the origins of the automation discourse were “not primarily technical” but “ideological” (p. 2). “Automation” did not eliminate work as its boosters had promised in the mid-twentieth century. Rather, the automation discourse obscured rising human exploitation.
Chapters 1 and 2 contrast the promises of automation with its practices in automobile manufacturing and clerical labor. The term “automation” was first used by management in the automobile industry to describe the “introduction of transfer machines to stamp metal and machine engines” (p. 17). These were not new technologies, but management believed they offered a new possibility: making human labor obsolete. By purging the shopfloor of humans, managers imagined they could eliminate the political problems of workplace struggle. As in the automobile factory, computers in the office expanded rather than eliminated clerical labor while obscuring the mental and physical toil of women office workers.
Beginning with chapters 3 and 4, Resnikoff shows that the automation discourse involved a fundamental change in the meaning of work and freedom for US Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. Classical American liberalism had held that freedom meant owning and using one’s property productively. However, industrialization narrowed this possibility. The discourse of automation claimed to resolve the resulting contradiction between wage labor and freedom within industrial capitalism by eliminating labor. Rather than asking how dignity and autonomy could be restored to all workers, the automation discourse argued that the drudgery of work was a biological necessity that should be eliminated with machinery. This perspective was even embraced on the New Left. For example, Herbert Marcuse believed that true freedom was impossible until humans were freed from biological necessity through “the highest possible degree of mechanization” (p. 76). As Resnikoff notes, this belief surprisingly resonated with nineteenth-century slaveowners’ Aristotelian defense of slavery. Resnikoff’s approach to intellectual history occasionally introduces such provocative arguments that leave the reader wanting further explanation.
Chapters 5 and 6 study the automation discourse through the ideas of political and labor organizers, countercultural figures, and feminist thinkers during the 1960s and 1970s. Resnikoff argues that the New Left’s acceptance of the automation discourse informed their declining interest in the workplace as a site of revolutionary struggle. James Boggs, an autoworker and activist, accepted automation as inevitable technological progress. Boggs thought that the revolutionary struggle within the US would not be led by white workers organizing against automation but by the Black workers who had been exiled from industrial production. Murray Bookchin, with his advocacy of “post-scarcity anarchism,” translated “the terms of the automation discourse from capitalist fantasy into socialist utopian program” (p. 125). According to Resnikoff, similar ideas took hold in feminist thought as well. For example, Shulamith Firestone believed that biological reproduction was an obstacle to women’s freedom that should be overcome with “cybernation” (p. 151). Resnikoff contrasts Firestone with Sylvia Federici. Rather than emphasizing a technological fix, Federici focused on the household as a site of labor struggle through the Wages for Housework campaigns.
Resnikoff shows in chapter 7 that by the 1970s, it became clearer to many that automation’s promises were empty. New rank-and-file labor organizations, buoyed by the civil rights, feminist, antiwar, and environmental movements, challenged both management and traditional union leadership. The 1972 Lordstown strike became a powerful symbol of the rejection of automation. At Lordstown, workers were paid well, the workforce was integrated, and the factory was highly automated, but striking workers found their employment degrading and meaningless. Discourse shifted in response. Government officials, management academics, and countercultural figures more often identified the need for “humanization” rather than “automation” (p. 163).
Many of this book’s arguments will sound familiar to historians of technology schooled in the work of Harry Braverman, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, and David F. Noble. Resnikoff emphasizes the technological determinism at the heart of the automation discourse. At the same time, historians of technology may take issue with how Resnikoff mostly eschews discussions of technological change. For example, when Resnikoff says, “Managers invested in machines that disorganized workers, obscured the logic of the overall labor process, and physically prevented workers for coming together,” historians of technology may want to know more about what these machines were or how their designers were able to guarantee such labor-disciplining effects to managers (p. 30). But this is not the book's aim. Resnikoff explains that narrowly focusing on the technologies of automation leads us to miss broader discursive transformations. However, as Salem Elzway shows, there can be a middle ground between these approaches. Future historians studying the techniques of automation will benefit enormously from Resnikoff’s study of its discourse.
Labor’s End is a valuable and lucid contribution to scholarship on automation and the history of technology and work in the postwar US. The book’s incorporation and extension of key insights from the history of technology has been sorely needed; this is what today’s scholarship on “automation” often lacks. Labor’s End not only shows how the automation discourse was and is mystifying but also demonstrates the political consequences of its adoption on the Right and the Left. There is no technological fix for the political problems of work, Resnikoff reminds us. With the discourse of “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic and successful independent union movements growing at Amazon and Starbucks, it seems to many that the politics of the workplace are returning in force. Labor’s End will be seen by future historians as a book that freshly reinterpreted the past to inform the politics of the present.
. Salem Elzway, “Arms of the State: A History of the Industrial Robot in Postwar America” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, forthcoming).
Citation: Sam Schirvar. Review of Resnikoff, Jason, Labor's End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. May, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57669This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.