Going nowhere: on Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

Jason Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work (Reaktion Books, 2020) provides us with a renewed cartography of the labor transformations in the wake of automation and the cybernetic revolution, which has ultimately created a “vast service sector” (9). Although at first sight Smith’s book seems to be preoccupied with questions of technology innovation in the post-fordist epoch, the central vortex of the book sheds light on the notion of “servant economy” that has become the fast-evolving segment of today’s job-market. Smith notes that the expansion of the servant economy propelled by automation “poses special obstacles to organization and action in a fragmented workforce. The rise of the “servant economy”, increasingly forces workers into smaller, spatially dispersed workplaces, where they carry out labor-intensified production processes…. deemed low-skill occupations and therefore poorly paid” (14). The new region of the service economy is an effect of the exceptionality of capital form self-abdication where unemployment becomes an existential problem for the social fabric. 

The nuanced analysis undertaken by Smith shows how the fragmented spatialization of labor has become the byproduct of the automation in which control, optimization, and feedback ensemble a new regime of total calculation. Already in 1956, Friedrich Pollock warned of a potential “totalitarian government” that could lead to mass unemployment. Pollock’s Cold War predicament was not off target: the fear of totalitarian unemployment (Habermas would call it crisis of legitimation) was answered with a total (service) economy that compensated for the paradox of stagnation of profit growth. The encompassing force of real subsumption through compartmentalization of services rendered effective James Boggs’ “nowhere to go” in the final dispensation of historical capitalism.

The phase of stagnation announces the “productivity paradox”. Smith writes glossing Mason: “If ours is an age defined by monopolies, cheap credit, rent-seeking and asset bubbles, it is not due to the concerted efforts of elites keen to forestall or smother in the cradle a new, sustained period of productivity gains….despite claims to the contrary, the weather of stagnation and drift that has settle over the advanced capitalist economies since the 1970s, and special since the turn of the century is attributable in no small part technological inertia” (41). The boom of “diversionary gadgets” are on the side of unproductiveness; and, as Ure argues, “do nothing towards the supply of the physical necessities of society” (43). But perhaps diversion usage accounts for the mobilization of the medium of the new phase of automated capitalism. In other words, precisely because traditional form of political legitimacy has crumbled, zero value technology becomes the compensatory psychic equilibrium within the process of abstraction of profit. The subjective dimension of the “medium” in the new phase of automation operates to drive dynamism in the “historic low” of labor productivity growth and the disjointed structural relation between economic growth and rise in wages (64, 69).

One of the conclusions that one can derive from Smith’s rich political economy empirical analysis is that the expansion of the service economy is fundamentally an anti-institutional phenomenon, both at the level of social forms (unions, movements, legal grounds for disputes) as well as in terms of mediations of exchange (intellectual labor, shadow-work, spatial relations to urban centers, etc.). In this sense, the absolutization of the regional “service economy” is the reallocation of reduced labor. In the same way that all ‘originary accumulation’ is an ‘onging accumulation’; the “crisis” of the economy is always already the recurrent stagnation of growth. But Smith notes with precision: “services therefore appear to obscure more than it clarifies” (80). This new process of rationalization mobilizes the valorization of the outside, that is, of every non-market sphere. This process draws a specific ordo rationality: “The true “advances” such as they are, have been in the domination of the labor process by employers: their ability to coerce more labor out of a given hour by means of refinement in supervision, oversight, and workplace discipline” (112). 

Mirroring the optimal logistics of cybernetic and automation processes, one could claim that the expansion of the service economy initiates a regime of governmentality that allows for the attenuation and cost-benefit management of flows. Now I think one can clearly see that “service” is not just an avatar to formal processes of value, but also, as Ivan Illich showed, a secularized theological concept of the Christian notion of hospitality. According to Illich, hospitality was transformed into a use of power and money to provide services and needs [1]. For the ex-Catholic priest, this meant nothing less than the corruption of human freedom, which became tied to the logistics of equivalence. This is why, more than an economic theory, neoliberalism needs to defend an ever-expanding freedom of the subject. In the context of deep social atomization, the service economy self-legitimizes itself as absolute freedom in the social (141). 

At the end of the book, Smith notes that in the wake of automation the relation between political struggles and the new economic composition begin to diverge. There is on one side the model of the teachers and that of the expendables (146-147). In a sense, the “nowhere land” registered by Boggs in the 60s has only intensified, as modern politics forms no longer seem up to the task in the face of total extraction and exclusion. If we think of arguably the most successful leftist political strategy in the last decade or so (the strongest cases have been in Latin America and Spain), the left populism rooted in the theory of hegemony; it becomes clear that after the empirical analysis of Smart Machines, any set of ‘equivalential demands’ is already a demand for exploitation within the regime of the service economy. During this months of pandemic the right has been calling for the immediate reintegration into the economy, bring to bear the internal production at the heart of the project of hegemony. Rather than thinking about a new multitude or unified subject of class, the expendables that Smith situates at the outskirts of the metropolis (the ‘hinterland’), constitute perhaps a new experiential texture of life that is no longer moved by representation but rather expression; it is no longer defined by class, but consumption; it is not interested in negation, but rather in “discovery” (148). Indeed, the new marginalized surplus population does not constitute a new “subject”, but an energy that seeks an exodus from the ruins of the political given the collapse of the whole framework of leftist hegemony [2]. It seem reasonable to think that it is precisely in the threshold of Boggs’ call for a “discovery” (a movement of anabasis), devoid of place and time, where the unfathomable stagnation of our epoch is defied.




1. Ivan Illich. The Rivers North of the Future (Anansis, 2005). 

2. “Onwards Barbarians”, Endnotes, December 2020: https://endnotes.org.uk/other_texts/en/endnotes-onward-barbarians

Fratribus nostris absentibus: sobre la discreción. por Gerardo Muñoz

En una epístola póstuma que consulté hace algunos años en los fondos de Penn State University, fechada en 1989 y dirigida a una comunidad de monjas benedictinas de la abadía de Regina Laudis, el ex-sacerdote Iván Illich avisa de la pérdida del sentido de la caritas ya no solo ante los vivos sino también ante los muertos. Illich le recordaba a la Madre Jerónima que su carta no pretendía establecer un “secreto”, sino un sentido de discreción (discretio); una virtud que la Iglesia había irremediablemente abandonado en su caída al mal.

La discretio – decía Illich siguiendo las recomendaciones de San Benedicto – era la madre de las virtudes, ya que nos hace distinguir la singularidad de cada situación sin que esto suponga una obediencia ciega ante lo predecible. Obviamente, desde la discretio se introducía el problema de la muerte, siempre singular y pasiva, e imposible de homologar a ninguna otra. En realidad, Illich llevaba este procedimiento a un plano experiencial, ya que hablaba de una amiga y de su “final” al que describe como un estado de “inusitada serenidad”.

Illich le decía a las monjas benedictinas: “Lo que quiero compartir con ustedes no es una opinión, sino una angustia que conmemora a los muertos que se escapa del alcance de la forma ordinaria de la caridad”. ¿Pero qué puede significar atender a ese momento oscuro que es sombra de la vida fuera de la vida? Para Illich este era el único momento de una fidelium animae que tanto la medicina como el sistema productivo del Welfare state ya no podían recoger. Desde la experiencia inasible de la muerte de su amiga (quien permanecía innombrable, como toda amistad verdadera), Illich extraía lo que llamó la sistemática “guerra contra la muerte” en Occidente, carente de sentido de “lugar” o de “tierra”. Por eso Illich la describía como una caída hacia la atopia, desentendida del atrium mortis.

Illich se encomendaba al fragmento benedictino: Fratribus nostris absentibus. Pero esa máxima monástica aparecía en un sentido transfigurado; a saber, lo “divino” (como también supo ver Erik Peterson sobre los modos de vestir) es el umbral donde la vida y la muerte se dan en un recorrido ex-corpore. Escribía Illich: “La fe termina cuando la visión de lo eterno está por llegar”. No hay transcendencia ni redención ni salvación compensatoria, solo un sentido especular por lo velado.

¿Por qué recordar todo esto hoy? Porque la crisis pandémica ha puesto de relieve que ninguna de las metrópolis en Occidente y sus guardianes de la “vida” han estado en condiciones de recoger el sentido de Fratribus nostris absentibus. Una década antes, en una serie de conferencias en el Seminario Teológico de Princeton, Illich notó la oscura transformación médica en los Estados Unidos en cuanto al pasaje del “asistir a la muerte” a la administración del “delivery of death“. La “guerra contra la muerte” continua en nuestros días ya sea desde la retórica de la protección de la vida o bien en defensa de la economía. Por eso, hoy más que nunca, la tarea del pensar exige la destitución de lo que llamamos metrópoli.



*Imagen: retrato de Iván Illich de niño en Austria, 1936. Del film “Three Boys House” (1936).