What Time Is It?
We need to talk. Do you know what time it is? We have just been through a wrenching election in which many questions were raised about the times we are in, and about the direction we need to go, from going back to making big changes going forward.
These are the kinds of questions that show us that time is more than clock time, more than the tick-tock of a known quantity of time. Some describe our times as a time of “paradigm shifts,” like the “shifting of tectonic plates,” as a time in which a gigantic leap is taking place; others of a faith persuasion even talk about this being the “End Time.”
Time does not take place in a vacuum. Time is really about the motion of an object or process in space. Clock time is the measured motion of the earth rotating on its axis, or revolving around the sun. And we know that the tick-tock of time is not experienced just as “one damn thing after another,” “Time flies when you’re having fun.”
Or, we kissed – “and time stood still.” Now that is an unforgettable moment! Everything changes in that moment. That is time experienced as a new quality.
We also think of time as past, present and future. That suggests that time has a direction, that we have come from somewhere and that we are going somewhere. William Faulkner understood: “The past is never dead. It is never even past.” In the elections of 2016, we saw a battleground in which old ideas from a past era fought it out with a new era struggling to emerge.
The motion of human beings or human societies through space and time is history. And the trajectory of human history does not proceed as a mere chronology of time, but moves forward in jumps and starts, in the leap from one stage to another. The time we are talking about here, including the content of our own time, is epochal time. William Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage. Every epoch is a new stage of human history, and each time the players are different.
In the beginning, the main players were hunters and gatherers. Then, with the discovery of fire, with the ability to produce new tools fashioned from iron, a whole new epoch of human history was unleashed. The revolution in agriculture forced the reorganization of society on a new stage, where the new players were kings and slaves. An epoch of early communism was replaced by an epoch in which private property dominated.
Some thousands of years later, a new kind of tool was introduced, the machine, powered by steam, and then by fossil fuels and electricity. A whole new mode of production, from production based on human muscle power to mass production with machines, required the leap from one kind of society to another. A new epoch of revolution ensued. The world of kings and slaves was overthrown, replaced by new players – capitalists and workers.
The American revolution itself was a by-product of an epoch of revolution, and the Civil War saw the consolidation of that revolution with the ascendency of industrial capital and the abolition of slavery. In more recent times, the introduction of the mechanical cotton-picker into the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta wiped out the Southern sharecropping system almost overnight.
Our time is no different. As with previous epochs, a new tool, a new technology, has been introduced that is putting an end to the previous epoch of the reign of capital. We are in the middle of a giant historical leap from an old historical period to a new stage. Capitalism is broken, and the society upon which it is built is undergoing a period of instability. Destruction and the fight for new ideas reflect that new foundation. Nowhere was this more evident than in the intense struggle and debate that characterized the elections.
What is that new tool? It is the robot. As with previous epochs, its introduction changes everything. And this time, it represents a new technology that is unlike any other in human history.
How is this so? For the first time, the robot is a kind of tool that requires no human labor. Every previous epoch of human history has required a different form of labor, from hunter-gatherer to slave to serf to wage-laborer. This time, human labor is no longer necessary at all. Yet at the same time, it represents a tremendous leap in the forces of production; with the robot we can produce an unheard of abundance.
We can see this all around us. Everywhere factories are dominated by robotics – walk into increasing numbers of factories and you will find a place where human beings are almost nowhere to be found. This is really what the Rust Belt is all about. Thousands of factories were shuttered and millions of workers lost their jobs as new factories employing more robotics and fewer human workers were replacing them on a global scale.
This is also what the elections were all about. The whole debate about jobs was trying to get at the real cause of the crisis that is gripping America. An economic system based on wage-labor and capital is being destroyed by the new technology. People who are seeing their lives wrecked are desperate to have something done about it. The politicians have no answers. They can only pose old ideas and suggest going back to a bygone era. That is an illusion. Tired old formulas of the past blame it on the immigrants, or on one group or another. That only pits us against one another. Before you can pose real solutions that can solve the crisis, you have to understand the real cause.
Who Are You?
Those who are of the evangelical persuasion speak of being “born again,” in which, in an instant, a qualitative transformation takes place that changes you forever. You are the same person, yet you are not the same. You are something new. Epochal change is like that. It all comes down to a change of relations. Different relations change who you are.
For example, when you meet someone new, one of the first things you ask is “What do you do?” We identify ourselves in all sorts of ways, by gender, nationality, religion, color – but fundamentally we all are defined by our work, or how we relate to the whole process of how society produces what it needs. In a society based on capitalist relations you are either an owner of the means of production, of capitalist property, or you are a worker. You may be a factory worker or you may work in retail, or sell insurance, or maybe you are a teacher or a nurse, but we are all workers.
In this new epoch into which we are now entering, we are defined by our relation to the robot. It is a new relation, and it makes you a new person. You are still a worker, but now you are in the process of having your job permanently eliminated. You may be in transition from full-time work to being a contingent, part-time or seasonal worker, or you may have lost everything, with no work, no home, no family, having to scrap for the very necessities of life. All of us are headed in that direction.
But wait. We know that the night is darkest before the dawn. A new day is dawning. Remember, you are new: we, this new class of workers created by robotics, are in the position to move history forward. We are the solution. We have a great work to do. It is our task to complete the leap to a whole new epoch of human history, in which all of the long-held dreams of humankind may at last be achieved.
Where are We Going?
During the elections there was a lot of talk about direction. Many thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and that a course change was necessary. All of history is really about direction. The trajectory of human history shows the development of society through its various stages, and our time is no exception. Like ascending an historical spiral staircase, we are now poised to take the next step. Where are we going? Which way?
The elections themselves were a battleground over direction. Trump himself has promised to “knock the rust off the Rust Belt” and create jobs by ushering in a new industrial revolution. This simply cannot happen. Automated laborless production prevents it. What the ruling class is really about is protecting their riches and their private property, no matter that it means sacrificing democracy in the process. The question for them is how to contain us, whom the ruling class has deemed to no longer be of any value to them. In their eyes, they are the superior class; we are the “deplorable” ones, the wretched of the earth.
These are critical, dangerous times. In the depths of job loss, the loss of a secure livelihood, even the loss of what it takes just to live, one of the things that many workers have expressed is their sense of their loss of dignity. Sure, we want jobs, but tied up with that is the dignity of work, of contributing, of a sense that we are not worthless.
Our dignity lies in the understanding that we are that new quality, that new class that can alone move history forward. There is no higher dignity than that. There is a next step, there is a leap to the next stage, but it is by no means automatic. We have to take that step. We determine the direction we must go.
There was a saying during the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the reconstruction of the South: Bottom rail on top. You and our new class brothers and sisters are in the position to flip the scale of history and build a new future in terms that are in the interest of our class and all of humanity.
What is the solution to the crisis of our time? We are. This is our time. Seize it.
January/February 2017. Vol27.Ed1
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011