Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Dressmaker

An interesting fact about the world we live in is that, for all the talk about robots replacing human labor, every item of clothing you own was made by a human being sitting at a sewing machine. In fact, you could argue that the whole idea of a robot revolution is, like most science fiction fantasies, simply a literalization of a current social fact -- in this case, the disappearance of manual workers from the social world of rich Westerners. Everyone who writes about the Star Trek future works in a building where living people empty the trash cans and scrub the toilets; but since they are never required to treat those people as human beings, they might as well be robots. In some cases I would go a step further, and say the robot revolution expresses a wish: The wish that the people whose bodies create the conditions for our existence could be dismissed from humanity once and for all.

Robot fantasies are everywhere. Much rarer is work that reveals the human hands behind the commodities. I'm a big fan of David Redmon's Mardi Gras: Made in China. Especially striking in that movie is the contrast between the way the American importer of mardis gras beads talks about the Chinese workers who produce them, and the way the factory manager in China does. In the imagination of the importer, the Chinese workers are antlike automatons, with no desire except for labor. The factory has a high fence around it, he explains, in order to keep out all the eager workers who would otherwise sneak in to join the assembly line. For the manager, on the other hand, discipline is the overriding problem. He says he only hires young women because they are more obedient, but even so they are constantly refusing to comply with his orders, distracted by friendships and love affairs, sneaking out of their dormitories. They must be punished often and harshly, he says, otherwise they won't work. The change in perspective once you pass that sign that says "No admittance except on business" is no different than 150 years ago.

I don't know of any similar tracing of the path of an ordinary piece of clothing from the shopfloor to the display racks, though there must be some. But I just read a nice piece by Roberto Saviano on the origins of one extraordinary piece of clothing, in a sweatshop in southern Italy. Here's an excerpt -- it's a bit long but worth reading.

From Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano:

The workers, men and women, came up to toast the new contract. They faced a grueling schedule: first shift from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an hour’s break to eat, second shift from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The women were wearing makeup and earrings, and aprons to protect their clothes from the glue, dust, and machine grease. Like Superman, who takes off his shirt and reveals his blue costume underneath, they were ready to go out to dinner as soon as they removed their aprons. The men were sloppier, in sweatshirts and work pants. ...

One of the winning contractor’s workers was particularly skilled: Pasquale. A lanky figure, tall, slim, and a bit hunchbacked; his frame curved behind his neck onto his shoulders, a bit like a hook. The stylists sent designs directly to him, articles intended for his hands only. His salary didn’t fluctuate, but his tasks varied, and he some how conveyed an air of satisfaction. I liked him immediately, the moment I caught sight of his big nose. Even though he was still young, Pasquale had the face of an old man. A face that was constantly buried in fabric, fingertips that ran along seams. Pasquale was one of the only workers who could buy fabric direct. Some brandname houses even trusted him to order materials directly from China and inspect the quality himself. ...

Pasquale and I became close. He was like a prophet when he spoke about fabric and was overly fastidious in clothing stores; it was impossible even to go for a stroll with him because he’d plant himself in front of every shop window and criticize the cut of a jacket or feel ashamed for the tailor who’d designed such a skirt. He could predict the longevity of a particular style of pants, jacket, or dress, and the exact number of washings before the fabric would start to sag. Pasquale initiated me into the complicated world of textiles. I even started going to his home. His family—his wife and three children—made me happy. They were always busy without ever being frenetic.

That evening the smaller children were running around the house barefoot as usual, but without making a racket. Pasquale had turned on the television and was flipping channels, but all of a sudden he froze. He squinted at the screen, as if he were nearsighted, though he could see perfectly well. No one was talking, but the silence became more intense. His wife, Luisa, must have sensed something because she went over to “the television and clasped her hand over her mouth, as if she’d just witnessed something terrible and were holding back a scream. On TV Angelina Jolie was treading the red carpet at the Oscars, dressed in a gorgeous garment. One of those custom-made outfits that Italian designers fall over each other to offer to the stars. An outfit that Pasquale had made in an underground factory in Arzano. All they’d said to him was “This one’s going to America.” Pasquale had worked on hundreds of outfits going to America, but that white suit was something else. He still remembered all the measurements. The cut of the neck, the circumference of the wrists. And the pants. He’d run his hands inside the legs and could still picture the naked body that every tailor forms in his mind—not an erotic figure but one defined by the curves of muscles, the ceramics of bones. A body to dress, a meditation of muscle, bone, and bearing. Pasquale still remembered the day he’d gone to the port to pick up the fabric. They’d commissioned three suits from him, without saying anything else. They knew whom they were for, but no one had told Pasquale.

In Japan the tailor of the bride to the heir to the throne had had a state reception given in his honor. A Berlin newspaper had dedicated six pages to the tailor of Germany’s first woman chancellor, pages that spoke of craftsmanship, imagination, and elegance. Pasquale was filled with rage, a rage that it’s impossible to express. And yet satisfaction is a right, and merit deserves recognition. Deep in his gut he knew he’d done a superb job and he wanted to be able to say so. He knew he deserved something more. But no one had said a word to him. He’d discovered it by accident, by mistake. His rage was an end in itself, justified but pointless. He couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t even whisper as he sat looking at the newspaper the next morning. He couldn’t say, “I made that suit.” No one would have believed that Angelina Jolie would go to the Academy Awards wearing an outfit made in Arzano, by Pasquale. The best and the worst. Millions of dollars and 600 euros a month. Neither Angelina Jolie nor the designer could have known. When everything possible has been done, when talent, skill, ability, and commitment are fused in a single act, when all this isn’t enough to change anything, then you just want to lie down, stretch out on nothing, in nothing. To vanish slowly, let the minutes wash over you, sink into them as if they were quicksand. To do nothing but breathe. Besides, nothing will change things, not even an outfit for Angelina Jolie at the Oscars.

Pasquale left the house without even bothering to shut the door. Luisa knew where he was going; she knew he was headed to Secondigliano and whom he was going to see. She threw herself on the couch and buried her face in a pillow like a child. I don’t know why, but when Luisa started to cry, it made me think of a poem by Vittorio Bodini. Lines that tell of the strategies southern Italian peasants used to keep from becoming soldiers, to avoid going off to fill the trenches of World War I in defense of borders they knew nothing of.

At the time of the other war, 
peasants and smugglers
put tobacco leaves under their arms
to make themselves ill.
The artificial fevers, the supposed malaria
that made their bodies tremble and their teeth rattle
were their verdict
on governments and history.

That’s how Luisa’s weeping seemed to me—a verdict on government and history. Not a lament for a satisfaction that went uncelebrated. It seemed to me an amended chapter of Marx’s Capital, a paragraph added to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a new sentence in John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, a note in Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A page added or removed, a forgotten page that never got written or that perhaps was written many times over but never recorded on paper. Not a desperate act but an analysis. Severe, detailed, precise, reasoned. I imagined Pasquale in the street, stomping his feet as if knocking snow from his “boots. Like a child who is surprised to discover that life has to be so painful. He’d managed up till then. Managed to hold himself back, to do his job, to want to do it. And do it better than anyone else. But the minute he saw that outfit, saw that body moving inside the very fabric he’d caressed, he felt alone, all alone. Because when you know something only within the confines of your own flesh and blood, it’s as if you don’t really know it. And when work is only about staying afloat, surviving, when it’s merely an end in itself, it becomes the worst kind of loneliness.

I saw Pasquale two months later. They’d put him on truck detail. He hauled all sorts of stuff—legal and illegal—for the Licciardi family businesses. Or at least that’s what they said. The best tailor in the world was driving trucks for the Camorra, back and forth between Secondigliano and Lago di Garda. He asked me to lunch and gave me a ride in his enormous vehicle. His hands were red, his knuckles split. As with every truck driver who grips a steering wheel for hours, his hands freeze up and his circulation is bad. His expression was troubled; he’d chosen the job out of spite, out of spite for his destiny, a kick in the ass of his life. But you can’t tolerate things indefinitely, even if walking away means you’re worse off. During lunch he got up to go say hello to some of his accomplices, leaving his wallet on the table. A folded-up page from a newspaper fell out. I opened it. It was a photograph, a cover shot of Angelina Jolie dressed in white. She was wearing the suit Pasquale had made, the jacket caressing her bare skin. You need talent to dress skin without hiding it; the fabric has to follow the body, has to be designed to trace its movements.

I’m sure that every once in a while, when he’s alone, maybe when he’s finished eating, when the children have fallen asleep on the couch, worn-out from playing, while his wife is talking on the phone with her mother before starting on the dishes, right at that moment Pasquale opens his wallet and stares at that newspaper photo.


  1. "The robot revolution expresses a wish: The wish that the people whose bodies create the conditions for our existence could be dismissed from humanity once and for all."

    Right. And that wish will come true. Pasquale will soon be replaced by a robot, just as Angelina Jolie was. The capitalists and their mechanical men--stronger, smarter, nicer than human workers--will inherit the earth.

    1. @Will Boisvert
      "The capitalists and their mechanical men--stronger, smarter, nicer than human workers--will inherit the earth."

      And to whom will the capitalists sell their products?
      The problem of the "rise of the robots" argument is that if total productivity increases thanks to the robots, total consumption also has to increase.

      There are three possibilities:
      1) the capitalists consume a larger quantity of stuff; eventually they consume everything. But this wouldn't be "capitalism" anymore, as people wouldn't sell in order to make a profit.
      2) Wages increase to buy all the production.
      3) Robots become useless because nobody buys their products, and the economy is locked in a "low tech" trap. Or maybe in an "underconsumption" trap.

      P.S.: I don't think that a "rise of the robots" is a realistic scenario, it's more that many people cannot see that economic relationships are social relationships mediated by money, and thus they don't see the "guy/gal behind the robot".

    2. Also:

      Ehy If robots reproduce themselves without a market mechanism, not only we don't need workers anymore, we don't need capitalists either!

      Soviets + Electricity + Replicators = Socialism!

    3. If robots reproduce themselves without a market mechanism, not only we don't need workers anymore, we don't need capitalists either

      That's right. I'm skeptical about the rise of the robots -- I don't think it's an extrapolation from historical trends, but rather postulates a radical departure from them. And I think it misunderstands the nature of "work," which is not fundamentally about the production requirements of useful stuff. But even setting that aside, it's never been clear to me why robots are supposed to be better substitutes for labor than for existing capital goods. Why isn't the result of the robot revolution that capital becomes too cheap to meter?

  2. Robots replace labor, not capital inputs like land and raw materals, or capital goods. Robotization doesn't substitute for trucks with androids that run faster than trucks, it substitutes for the driver with computers/sensors/telecom links that drive the truck. That's what Google is working on now.

    Labor is about the production requirements of useful (to someone) stuff and services. Automation will increasingly replace human labor, which cannot be shifted fungibly to more intellectual tasks (especially since computers will increasingly do intellectual tasks better than humans.) That spells the end of the proletariat. Then where's your class struggle?

  3. Well, first of all, it's not that I expecially desire "class struggle", it's more that I think that the class war is already happening, but one of the sides has been bamboozled in thinking that it isn't happening.

    Second, robots will not replace trucks because trucks are already robots, at least for the purpose of the "rise of the robots" argument. In fact, the main problem of the rise of the robots argument is that it already happened between the 19th and the 20th century, so it isn't obvious why increased mechanisation should create more unemployment; actually it caused just a fall in the relative price of stuff (or a rise in real wages, that is the same thing).
    In terms of unemployment, when you think that in Marx's times most women didn't work, I think that the empoloyment/population ratio actually rose.

    Third, the problem isn't wheter robots substitute trucks, but wether trucks can be automatically produced without workers - if robots can produce other robots without human help.
    If this happens, there are two possibilities:
    a) the production of material goods isn't costrained by scarcity anymore. This makes a "market economy" meaningless;
    b) the production of material goods is constrained by limited natural resources, or maybe by legal constraints (such as patents).

    In the situation (b), either we have few very big landlords owning all natural resources, say the Emire of XY own all energy sources of the planet so he can boss everybody around (but this would be more a sort of feudalism than capitalism), or somehow the resources are managed in common, say by the state, in which case we would have something like a sovietic system (or maybe a fascist system, hey everyone in Star Treck is a military!).
    What is unlikely is that natural resources will be owned in small quantities by everyone, because in a short time the most succesfull owners would buy other people's shares and control all the resources.
    Incidentally, I think that this last point (big landlords that rule on everyone) was evident in all known preindustrial societies, excluded early USA, probably because land was abundant relative to population, because european colonisers came with an already advanced agricultural technology. This absence of very big landlords (also noted by Piketty, Marx, Locke and others) IMHO explains in a big part the great trust in the market system of americans.

    1. This is right. The idea that technology will render human labor abundant lacks content until you specify what exactly will still be scarce.

  4. Automation will increasingly replace human labor, which cannot be shifted fungibly to more intellectual tasks

    Do you mean that the kind of people who do physical work cannot become the kind of people who do intellectual work? Or do you mean that there is a ceiling on the amount of intellectual work to be done?

    1. Automation will be taking over intellectual tasks of greater and greater sophistication. It's already doing things like intelligent scientific literature searches and medical diagnosis. And soon, driving a truck, which is no mean intellectual task.

      There's a fantasy that as computers take over more and more intellectual tasks that everyone can just eternally step up to even more rarefied intellectual tasks--every man a PhD scientist or a philosophy prof or an avant-garde composer. That's just not realistic. Most people aren't cut out to be PhD researchers, including most of the people who do PhD research today, almost all of which is inconsequential. And on the distant but not outlandish horizon, artificial intelligence may in a few decades be smarter than even competent PhD scientists.

      Nor will rarefied "emotional" labor provide steady source of mass employment because engineers are hard at work making computers companionate and empathetic and expressive and lilting. (And they will always be more patient than humans.)

      It's true that automation in the past led to higher employment along with higher output. That's because human brains were still necessary to plan and direct and supervise mindless machine power. But now machines are getting as smart as humans. They are beginning to operate autonomously. The last preserve of human labor in controlling machine labor is eroding. Crossing that barrier marks a rupture with the prior history of automation. The past is no longer a guide.

      Do this thought experiment. Suppose we build mechanical men that are not only stronger, faster and more dexterous, but also smarter and more patient and ingratiating than humans. Add to that, cheaper than human workers. Why then would businesses hire a human worker instead of buying or leasing a robot? They would not. So there must be some point in the process of automation where human labor is finally made obsolete, some point where the old dynamic that more automation spelled more employment runs into a discontinuity.

    2. At some point I would like to explore this question seriously. My usual response is that most (in rich countries, almost all) of the utility of commodities comes from the social relationships they are bundled with, not the physical properties. Why do you buy food in a restaurant, go to hear live music, etc.? So the fact that certain production processes can be carried out more efficiently by machines is not really importnat.

      However, I wonder if we also exaggerate the capacities of robots. It seems to me that most of the gains in physical productivity since the industrial revolution are tightly connected to standardizing output and especially inputs. Where production has to be carried out under uncontrolled natural conditions it remains quite labor-intensive -- just look at construction, where labor productivity is practically flat. (Yes in principle production conditions can be standardized in construction by doing more prefab, but that's irrelevant to the larger point.) I think the advantages of flexibility, adaptability and resilience of human labor is really underappreciated. But this isn't an area I've really read much about.

    3. "Suppose we build mechanical men that are not only stronger, faster and more dexterous, but also smarter and more patient and ingratiating than humans. Add to that, cheaper than human workers. Why then would businesses hire a human worker instead of buying or leasing a robot?"

      Well, first of all, stronger, faster, etc. are physical attributes, but cheaper isn't. You need some additional theory, about how robot-prices and wages are determined.

      The more fundamental point is that this thought experiment could have been (and was!) posed hundreds or thousands of years ago. What has to be demonstrated is that this is a reasonable description of near-term trends. I see no evidence that it is, and lots of evidence that it isn't. In general, technology doesn't just replace human beings in the same tasks, it involves a wholesale reorganization of the production process.

  5. "Why then would businesses hire a human worker instead of buying or leasing a robot?"

    Sorry but I have problems with this.

    Let's take the case where all labor becomes obsolete.

    Enterpreneur A buys or leases robots (presumably from enterpreneur B) to produce goods and services to sell to customer C.
    First - why does B sells or lends robots to A (thus forfeiting parts of the profits), instead than selling the goods directly to C? If robots can substitute all human capacities, they will also substitute enterpreneurial capacities, so B will just create a robot-manager and skip A completely.
    Second - where does C get the money to purchase products? Is there an UBI of sorts (socialism!!)? Or maybe C is also an enterpreneur? But then why does he buy stuff from B instead than producing it with his own robots? What's the point of trade specialisation without labor? This doesn't sound like "capitalism" to me.

    Let's take the case where some trades are completely automatised, where others for some reason are not.
    Then any given robot will have a price, and will be employed only when its price will be lower or equal than the price of human labourers (total wages) that would be needed to do the same work.
    Thus by definition an economy that uses many robots is an economy where wages are high relative to the price of the robots.
    But the price of the consumption goods basically depends on the price of the robots, so the price of the goods will fall relative to wages.

    Note that both in case of human production and in the case of robot production owners/enterpreneurs will mark up the price of the produced goods in order to make some profit, but this is true both in the case of workers (profit share/wage share) and of robots (as robot producers will mark up the price of the robots).

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