by Phil Geusz
©2008 Phil Geusz
The relationship between management and labor is an ancient and stormy one. Indeed, it is likely that only the eternal war between the sexes has been fought longer or prosecuted with more vigor. Its a simple but unfortunate truth that whats good for the investor is not at all the same thing thats good for the laborer, at least in the short term, and both sides seem to have figured this out fairly early in the game. Its not unreasonable to suppose that any ancient Pharaohs engineers expended much time and energy cursing their lazy pyramid-builders, while at the same time, said workers were complaining of abbreviated break times and miserly wages. Of all humanitys eternal conflicts, this one has proven to be one of the most irresolvable. And, sadly, its also proven to be one of our most deadly. While its easy to grin at the image of a proto-shop steward organizing a work slowdown among medieval serfsHelp! Help! Im being oppressed!our smiles fade when we recall that the Cold War and all the horrors that went with it were ultimately rooted in this same intractable economic dilemma. Our innate inability to equitably share the fruits of our labor has brought us the Siberian gulags, the killing fields of Cambodia, the engineered Ukrainian famines of the 1920s, the nineteenth-century industrial hellholes, and todays Asian sweatshops. Indeed, it was ultimately the issue of economic fairness and the proper relationship between labor and capital that brought us nuclear brinksmanship and thereby threatened the continued existence of our entire species. Not even the conflict between the sexes can make that claim!
Another pestilence brought about by our perennial inability to strike a fair economic balance is slavery. Untold numbers of human beings have been bought and sold over the ages, from Germanic tribesmen who were compelled to labor against their will in Imperial Rome to Native Americans forced to mine precious metals for the conquering Spaniards to Africans shipped across the stormy seas to work the sugar and cotton plantations in the New World. While we like to reassure ourselves today that slavery is merely a relic of the distant past, this simply is not true. The slave trade is alive and well in many of the less-developed regions of the Third World. Most ominously of all, there doesnt seem to be a lot of popular outrage against this ongoing abuse of humanity.
Animals have it even worse, historically speaking. No one objects when horses, for example, are bought and sold and worked for the benefit of their owners. Even more to the point, cattle and pigs and certain other livestock are raised for no other purpose than to be slaughtered in their prime and eaten. These creatures are every bit as economically exploited as any slave ever was, and arguably even more so. They have no rights, earn no wages, and have no future. They are the perfect, ultimate, unfreeable slaves, complete and total victims of humanitys greed. Their very nature has been altered through hundreds of generations of selective breeding so as to render them docile and more profitable. Best of all from the owners point of view, hardly anyone sees this as being in any way unjust. The profits have been flowing in for thousands of years of now, and the money-river isnt going to dry up anytime soon.
Given Mans callous history in dealing with human slaves, and his even more brutal and calculating one in dealing with those of other species, its fair to wonder about what might happen if animals capable of doing more productive labor than horses and mules were to suddenly appear on the scene. The stakes could prove to be enormous, as labor expenses remain in many industries the investors single largest outlay. While a lot of jobs, particularly those in factories, appear idiot-simple to humans, industrial robots have proven to be major disappointments in many applications. Despite billions of dollars of investment, for example, and sometimes desperate efforts that now span over many decades, automobiles are still largely produced by hand. I could train a chimpanzee to do that! many an engineer has lamented, gazing sadly at a crumpled, broken robot that cost millions and was designed to replace an even-more-expensive human worker performing a simple, repetitive task. But, so far, in most cases the machine simply cant cut the mustard. For most applications, the robots arent smart enough yetand therefore the workers job remains safe.
But what if a chimpanzee could be trained to do the job? Or, say, a genetically engineered, semi-sentient cat or dog or rabbit? After all, weve pretty much established that even semi-sentient animals dont have rights. Chimps speak quite intelligibly using hand-signs, after all, yet we still use them as lab animals. Weve also been breeding dogs to become steadily more intelligent and humanlike for millennia now, and at least some experts are of the opinion that a very bright dog is roughly as intelligent and sentient as a young human child. Yet, we euthanize thousands of healthy but unwanted canines every week at shelters world-wide and dont lose a minute of sleep over it. A lot of people find the idea of a new era of industrial slavery to be unthinkable in these enlightened times. But if our scientists were suddenly to offer the worlds industrial leaders a viable new source of low-cost labor, can anyone seriously suggest that they would not jump on it quicker than you can say outsourcing? And, so long as the prices of the resulting products remained low and affordable, past experience argues that only a few cranks and bleeding hearts would speak out against the practicejust as only a handful speak out today against the human slavery that is still very much part of our world. So long as the products keep flowing and theres prosperity for those empowered to vote, no one really cares much about the worker.
During the closing days of the American Civil War, the Confederacy found itself desperately short of manufactured goods. Where there is a demand, a supply will be found. In this case, entrepreneurial slave-owners built factories manned and operated entirely by slaves, so that there were no wage costs whatsoever. While these establishments were utterly immoral and unethical, nevertheless they were highly successful in strictly economic terms. It is perhaps one of historys greatest mercies that this practice wasnt explored before the war began. If it had been, the result might well have been the re-adoption of slavery by the North. After all, factory-servitude, unlike plantations, wouldve made perfect economic sense there. Other industrial nations might in turn have been forced to do the same in order to compete, and, well Todays reality, warts and all, looks like a paradise in contrast to what might have been.
Will we ever see anthropomorphic animals slaving away in our factories, furiously building cars and microwaves and GPS units for us at bargain-basement prices while whips crack over their heads? Perhaps not. Such a future is hardly inevitable. But I wouldnt dismiss the possibility out of hand, eithercertainly not so long as humans are kept as slaves in places like Sudan and Pakistan, and little children in Malaysia stitch our jeans for us when in any reasonable world theyd be spending their days playing in the sun and learning to read and write. We humans arent nearly such nice creatures as we might like to imagine that we are.
Or, at least, were not so nice while were fighting the eternal, unresolvable war, trying to strike a fair balance between the rights of capital and the needs of labor.