Labor's End

How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work

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Pub Date 18 Jan 2022 | Archive Date 09 Feb 2022

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Description

Seeing automation as an ideology instead of a technology

Labor's End traces the discourse around automation from its origins in the factory to its wide-ranging implications in political and social life. As Jason Resnikoff shows, the term automation expressed the conviction that industrial progress meant the inevitable abolition of manual labor from industry. But the real substance of the term reflected industry's desire to hide an intensification of human work--and labor's loss of power and protection--behind magnificent machinery and a starry-eyed faith in technological revolution. The rhetorical power of the automation ideology revealed and perpetuated a belief that the idea of freedom was incompatible with the activity of work. From there, political actors ruled out the workplace as a site of politics while some of labor's staunchest allies dismissed sped-up tasks, expanded workloads, and incipient deindustrialization in the name of technological progress.

A forceful intellectual history, Labor's End challenges entrenched assumptions about automation's transformation of the American workplace.

Jason Resnikoff is a lecturer in the Department of History at Columbia University.

Seeing automation as an ideology instead of a technology

Labor's End traces the discourse around automation from its origins in the factory to its wide-ranging implications in political and social...


Advance Praise

"Resnikoff's forceful and coherent argument reveals that automation was not a technological process but an ideology which equated freedom with freedom from work and downplayed the workplace as a site of politics. As he convincingly shows, automation largely did not lead to a reduction in labor but rather to speedup, work intensification, and the degradation of labor, creating a huge chasm between the grandiose claims made about an automated future and the lived reality of workers."--Joshua Freeman, author of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World

"Resnikoff's forceful and coherent argument reveals that automation was not a technological process but an ideology which equated freedom with freedom from work and downplayed the workplace as a site...


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ISBN 9780252086298
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Featured Reviews

Labour’s End demystifies automation; the promise of release from toil through time-saving automatic systems and processes of work. Resnikoff does this in a number of ways. He defines what we mean by automation, a task that can be difficult when a term becomes usefully amorphous for historians and takes on a life of its own. Resnikoff also discusses automation ideologically and linguistically, charting how it was used and co-opted. The thrust of Resnikoff’s work that will likely be most significant to readers, however, is the examination of the ways in which automation degraded and concentrated work, rather than relieving it. All of this is given an air of unstoppable power as the autonomous freight train crashes through the post-war period. Along the way we pass through much familiar territory that is still feeling the aftershocks of degraded work, such as the decrepit collapsed automobile industry.
The book, in places, reads like a manifesto, but its foundation of research is so clear, and the case so well made, that one doesn’t feel Resnikoff’s professional standards are compromised. The weakness of organised labour, the outsourcing of labour to other parts of the world, and the crowding out of automation from much of the contemporary political landscape all come in for criticism. Indeed, whilst many of the hopes for automation have faded from view, we do not always know from whence this historical fog has rolled. Resnikoff provides many answers to this question. Ultimately, in demonstrating the hand of the employer and the politician in the exploitation of labour through automation, historians can no longer abstract the term into the mechanical at the expense of flesh and blood.

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