Egyptian Lingerie and the Robot Future

Panic over automation misses the real problem — that workers themselves are treated like machines.

A factory worker maintains spindles at the Tan Dong Quang Textile Company in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Eric Wolfe / Flickr

The current issue of the New Yorker has a story about the odd phenomenon of Chinese lingerie merchants in Egypt. These immigrant entrepreneurs are apparently ubiquitous throughout the poor, conservative districts of upper Egypt, where they dispense sexy garments to the region’s pious Muslim women.

The cultural and geopolitical details of the story are interesting for a number of reasons, but I was struck in particular by a resonance with some debates that have recently flared up again about labor and automation, for reasons I’ll get back to below.

“Robots will take all our jobs” is a hardy perennial of popular political economy. Typical of the latest crop is an article by Derek Thompson of the Atlantic, who speculates about a “World Without Work” in the wake of mass adoption of robotization and computerization. Paul Mason gives a more leftist and political rendition of similar themes.

As I’ve noted before, this kind of thing is not new, and is in fact an anxiety that recurs throughout the history of capitalism. Two decades ago, we had the likes of Jeremy Rifkin and Stanley Aronowitz musing about the “end of work” and the “jobless future.”

And these repeating waves of robo-futurism call into existence the same repeated insistence that robots are not, in fact, taking all the jobs. Doug Henwood was on this beat twenty years ago and remains on it today. Matthew Yglesias, likewise, calls fear of automation a “myth.”

One of the specific things that people like Henwood and Yglesias always cite is the productivity statistics. If we were seeing a wave of unprecedented automation, then we should be seeing rapid rises in measured labor productivity — that is, the amount of output that can be produced per hour of human labor. Instead, however, what we’ve seen is historically low productivity growth, compared to what happened in the middle and late twentieth century.

All of which leads commentators like Yglesias and Tyler Cowen to fret that the robots aren’t coming fast enough. Typical of most writers on this subject, Yglesias just worries vaguely that increases in productivity won’t happen for some unspecified reason.

I’ve argued a number of times for an explanation that connects the question of automation and productivity growth directly to wages and the general condition of labor. The basic idea is very simple. From the perspective of the boss, replacing a worker with a machine will be more appealing to the degree that the machine is (1) cheaper than the human worker and (2) more convenient and easier to control than the human worker.

This implies that if workers win higher wages and more control over their working conditions, their jobs are more likely to be automated. Indeed, arguments like this frequently crop up among critics of things like the Fight for 15 campaign, which demands higher wages for fast-food workers and other low-wage employees. Prototypes for automatic burger-making machines are cited in order to warn workers that their jobs are at risk of being automated away.

I regard such warnings not as arguments against higher wages, but arguments for them. Workers, in the course of fighting for their interests, drive the dialectic that forces capitalists to find less labor-intensive ways of producing. The next political task, then, is to make sure that the benefits of such innovation accrue to the masses, and not to a small class of robot owners.

What I fear most is not that all of our labor will be replaced with machines. Rather, like Yglesias, I worry that it won’t bebut for a slightly different reason. Again, bosses prefer workers to machines when they are cheaper and easier to control. Hence the truly dystopian prospect is that the worker herself is treated as if she were a machine, rather than being replaced by one.

Which brings us back, finally, to the Chinese lingerie merchants. The article’s author, Peter Hessler, speaks to one such merchant and asks him to comment on the biggest problem facing Egypt. To his surprise, his subject, Lin Xianfei, has a quick answer: gender inequality.

But Lin doesn’t turn out to be some sort of secret passionate feminist. Rather, his perspective turns on the exigencies of capital accumulation. For it turns out that while one kind of patriarchy is an impediment to business, another kind can be quite valuable to the shrewd businessman.

The problem, from Lin’s perspective, is that Egyptian women in his region don’t work in wage labor at all, or if they do they only do so for short periods of time, before marrying and retreating into the home. Even worse, local norms about proper female behavior preclude taking women out of their homes to live on site in massive dormitories, as might be done in China. Thus it becomes unfeasible to run factories on twenty-four-hour production cycles.

Hiring men, meanwhile, is out of the question — another man, Xu Xin, tells Hessler that Egyptian men are too lazy and undisciplined for manufacturing work. Hessler goes on to note that “at the start of the economic boom in China, bosses hired young women because they could be paid less and controlled more easily than men.”

He proceeds to comment that female Chinese workers turned out to be “more motivated,” as though he is identifying something distinct from their weaker power position relative to men. But it is really the same thing. “More motivated,” here, refers to the drive to work hard for the boss, for someone else’s profits and someone else’s riches. To behave, in other words, like obedient machines. The Chinese capitalist objects to the patriarchal structure of rural Egyptian society not because it is patriarchy, then, but because it is a form of patriarchy that is inconvenient to capital accumulation.

And sure enough, faced with recalcitrant humans, the textile magnates of Egypt turn to the same solution that the Chinese electronics firm Foxconn adopted in the wake of worker uprisings there. Wang Weiqiang echoes the other industrialists’ complaints about Egyptian labor: the men are lazy, the women “will work only during the daytime.” As a result, “he intends to introduce greater mechanization in hopes of maximizing the short workday.”

Greater mechanization and the maximization of a short work day might seem tragic to the capitalist, but it summarizes the short-term goal of the post-work socialist left. Ornery, demanding workers spur technological developments that further this goal.

And the socialist-feminist rendition of this project insists that we can prevent workers from being treated as machines not by shielding them with patriarchal and paternalistic morals, but rather by insisting that men and women alike can recognize their paid and unpaid labor in order to better refuse it.

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