Mike Mulligan and the labor theory of value

Dictaphone transcribresses, 1920s, via NARA ARC#1633507

Dictaphone transcribresses, 1920s, via NARA ARC#1633507

The labor theory of value came in for a hiding in the Times at the hands of @michaelrstain of the American Enterprise Institute the other day a long time ago now, and it was pretty funny and some of us laughed at all the morans out there because for real my son has a better grasp of industrial capitalism from reading Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel than this dude has from umpty-ump years reading and writing polemics on behalf of the Wool Council or whatever.

Maybe go read the NYT Room for Debate on Marx, maybe not. The left is outnumbered 4-to-1. The fellah from Berkeley who talks about the grim future in which all workers do IT piecework, harnessed to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk nevertheless gets a weird hed about Marx discounting Capital’s ability to innovate, or something.

Maybe go read Mike Mulligan instead. You can borrow my copy. In it, a plucky lady steam shovel and her man, Mike, are forced out of work by the advent of new kinds of shovels. However, they find a tiny rural enclave where their services are still valued — even an antiquated steam shovel still digs “as much in a day as a hundred men can dig in a week” — and they dig the cellar of the new town hall. Cheered on by the townsfolk, they dig so hard and so fast that they forget to dig a ramp out. The cellar is effectively their grave. The townsfolk then decide to convert Mary Anne into a furnace, and to employ Mike Mulligan as the town hall’s janitor, where they live forever after. This is a deeply sad story and I read it to my son all the time.

Now, also this happened:

On the one hand, the managerial layer of archives believes that implementing technological solutions — just forgive me for using all three of those words in sequence, it’s horrid — does what Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne did to hand-digging, and what the new Diesel motor shovels do to Mike and Mary Anne. Managerialists believe that once a proper implementation is in place — once we’re all shoveling with Diesel, or once we have one six-year-old running a whole floor full of looms, or whathaveyou — labor’s contribution to value approaches zero, even if it never really hits it, and Marx is refuted. Why, look at the gains in efficiency created by using a word processor instead of a typewriter: in 1985 the University of Idaho dropped their per-foot processing time to 25 hours (PDF, SAA members) I mean dropped from what they don’t say or can’t know, but the machine made life easier.

On the other hand, each implementation tethers a kind of worker to it. Dictaphone recordings endeavored to make stenographers obsolete; portable recordings could be transferred to text in massive type-banks, where transcribresses like those pictured above would convert audio to text. It seems likely to me — and here I’m just parroting the ideology of the day, incorporating the language of the oppressor into my own speech, usw, and I don’t care — that Dictaphone’s economies of scale allowed it to sell dictation-as-a-service to subscribers for far less than the cost of hiring individual stenographers, typists, and secretaries. And the scale of the operation and Dictaphone’s ability to use workers who were not trained stenographers or secretaries — though they had to be awrsome typpists — surely reduced labor’s share of the value added to the product, namely, meeting minutes and suchlike.

But where the cost of error was serious, like in the judicial system — man, again, I’m just making this up, so apply grains of salt dear reader — the stenographer stayed tethered to her tools — shorthand, and later those funky steno-keyboards — while the whole new layer of technological efficiency tethered the transcribress to her tools — Dictaphone, headphones, typewriter. The labor applied to create value doesn’t disappear, rather it’s condensed or bundled such that the wages paid for it can be shorted. It’s not that the labor theory of value is wrong on its face, it’s that the managerial class can and largely has arbitraged it into apparent obsolescence.

Same deal with the AEI guy’s dumb example — Bruce Springsteen can write a song in fifteen minutes that’s better than the song I would take 15 years to write: well, of course, but that only makes sense if you don’t count Clarence’s work, and Max’s work, and the lifetime of work of the whole E Street Band, and the lifetime of thinking about songs that preceded that one “15-minute” spark of genius — and the same deal with Brad’s piecework EAD cleanup. Productivity gains only exist when you refuse — out of motives that are basically ideological– to account for labor’s value, when you dissolve everything solid into air.

Let us uncouple “technological” from “revolution”. The University of Idaho should be able to minimally process its archival holdings at a pace of I dunno six or eight hours per cubic foot instead of their 1985 pace of 25 hours per foot because we think about processing differently, because our ideas have changed, because the disciplinary regimes we create have changed, not necessarily because the tools have transformed us. And so long as we have some control over how we think about our tools we can avoid digging so fast and so hard with them that we forget to dig a way back out.

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