Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day

September 4, 1882 Thomas Edison turned on the world's first commercial electric power plant, lighting one square mile of Lower Manhattan. The following morning would mark the first observation of Labor Day in the United States.

From peasant uprisings, through strikes and political lobbying, labor disputes have been part of the fabric of civilization since its inception. But from the industrial revolution onwards they took a different tone. Work took a different tone. Man could now wield power external to his body.

Animals and fire served that role first, but the introduction of water wheels and the mastery of steam power greatly bolstered the force with which man could reshape his surroundings. Edison's electric station turned the electron to man's bidding, one more ally in reshaping the universe.

One of the defining questions of civilization is 'how should things be shared when want exceeds supply?' In a sense, this is the foundational question in politics and in economics. The basic answer we seem to always return to is: you deserve reward proportional to your contribution to the process of obtaining it.

But with mastery of the elements, and the introduction of repeatable, predictable, automatable processes, the balance of labor shifted. Within a factory, the ability of a man to produce was magnified immensely. Suddenly, measuring contribution becomes difficult.

Does the man toiling in a field not yet touched by automation suddenly deserve a much smaller portion of the society's goods? And what of the machinery's contribution? Does the man working the machine deserve the riches of the machine, or does the machine's inventor? Or the man who arranged to have the machine built?

The industrial revolution was a liquid period in human civilization. The rules were changing, new forces were at play. The labor movement was a series of physical battles fought between people to set the new rules of society. As the heat of change cooled, society started recrystallizing, new social norms in place for how to manage an economy in a world with electricity.

The story of the labor movement is filled with victories: the weekend, the slowly shortening workweek, rights for workers and comfortable wages. But in a sense, the entrepreneurs and investors won. They were the ones seen setting in motion progress. Society weighed down in favor of the idea that wealth mostly belongs to the inventor, to the machine owner, to the one organizing work.

Thirty-four years before Edison's factory opened, before Labor Day was observed, Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto. Marx believed workers would unite and claim ownership of the fruits of labor, destroying social strata and autocratic economic governance. That hasn't happened. Karl Marx's mistake, I'd argue, was believing that the 'crystallization' of society would keep proceeding at the rate it was during his life. That soon man would have invented what he was going to invent, that life would settle into pastoral routine of early ages, when each generation relived their parents' lives. Perhaps it will someday, and he was just early. But change is innate to complex organisms like a society. Technology can greatly disrupt established orders, but we manage to do so on our own even without it.

What Marx saw coming was a day when each generation looked exceedingly similar to the one before it. What would business be in such an environment? Each adult would have his role: keeping this machine functioning, seeing that coal was delivered from this mine to these factories. Businesses would not rise and fall, but plod along with predictable returns each year. In such an environment, of what use is the entrepreneur, of the investor, of the executives? The system today elevates them, treasures there ability to navigate in changing times, but that role is lost in a predictable environment.

His call for the workers of the world to unite never happened. Communist states appeared, but the brotherhood of the worker never overcame the social force of national identity. There was no need to question why grandchildren of businessmen deserved such power because technology kept everything changing, new inventions created new wealth. If anything change has been accelerating.

Labor Day celebrates the efforts of men and women in ensuring the quality of life of the worker, the right of the worker to exist as a powerful political and social entity. It's a story of struggle, requiring an antagonist, filled sometimes-fairly, sometimes-not by the executive. What's ahead in labor relations? I don't expect the struggle to ever end, really. Incredibly intelligent AI might achieve peace in labor relations, ending man's need to worry about such things. We may create a Matrix for ourselves, a simulation of world' without scarcity, man made gardens of Eden. But more strongly I suspect that our civilization will stretch out through the stars, and each passing millenia will see new battlefields for Labor Day remembrances.


  1. Wow. That's a pretty glaring historical inaccuracy. Blogs should come with a built in copy editor. Fix'd.