BOOK ONE
II - QUEST FOR LEISURE

 

2. THE RISE AND FALL OF BIOMACHINES

It became possible to offer leisure to all human beings, when it was realized that everything that could be construed as work could be imposed on animals or, more efficiently, on bipeds of other tribes who would lose their status as members in good standing of the Mankind Club; freedom became a prize to be fought for. Losers, their own drive towards automation having been curbed in battle, became "biomachines" and did all the work while Men, the winners, could indulge in the first conspicuous consumption in history: the consumption of leisure.

The child of leisure

Slavery was the first attempt at automation. With it, some human beings, at least, were freed at last from the "burden of toil"; as a direct consequence, civilization was born, which is the child of leisure. Those who did not have to "work" anymore, who did not have to apply all their ingenuity and efforts to the solution of immediate problems for obtaining an immediate result... began to think and to apply at least part of their brains to abstract thought, long-term problem solving, cultural and philosophical considerations, etc. Not only was it more interesting to deal in abstract thoughts, but it soon became evident that, globally, it was also more efficient: new ways were discovered to hunt, to sow, to weave and to "make things". Mankind had discovered production, and wealth increased for everybody; for everybody, that is, who was a "human being"...

The system was a little bit rough on biomachines, but this, at the time, did not worry much anybody, and least of all the "philosophers", a new breed of "non-workers" who had just taken advantage of leisure to blossom into existence. The primary concern of social philosophers then, was to design stronger chains of command and better reinforcement techniques. Their best effort, by far, was Justice.

Primitive leaders could say and do what they liked. A few thousand years of "leisure" - and thus of civilization - later on, though, if the King of Babylon wanted his will to be done at thirty-days walk from the city, his subjects had to know what he wished... and what to expect if they did not behave properly. For sound management of complex societies, kings may remain all-powerful and temperamental but they must renounce in part to their unpredictability. They use justice and edict laws.

From laws is born the feeling that one has rights as well as duties, a feeling which is the best of positive reinforcement, the carrot worth a thousand sticks. From then on, philosophers may say that it is "right" and "good" to obey the King and the Law. Power, which until that day had rested merely on promises or threats, suddenly could become endowed with moral value and rest on Authority .

With authority and cheap labour, power can really go places. The planners of raids became the great conquerors; the shamans became High Priests; forecasters of crops became soothsayers, a step forward on the path that would lead, some day, to the emergence of real "far-seeing economists". The tribes of berry-pickers and pack-hunters became Egypt, Athens, China, Rome. Rome, it seemed, really had authority and a lot of cheap labour; yet.., it failed.

First try

There are no lack of explanations for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and they are of no concern to us. On the other hand, the rise and fall of biomachines, of slavery, is of great interest. Why? Because slavery may be seen as the first large-scale experiment in automation and our own civilization, the civilization of Western Industrial Nations, as the second such experiment. It is important for our purpose to find out what went wrong - not what was wrong (an ethical question to which there is an easy answer!), but what went wrong - with slavery; this is a technical question that begs an answer.

First of all, we may discard the hypothesis that it failed because the slaves themselves objected to it. True, there were slave revolts in Rome (Do you remember Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus"?) but the Roman legions could take care of that very efficiently; slavery went on and prospered in the Empire at least three centuries after the most serious revolts had been crushed.

We cannot believe either that it failed because Rome became Christian, otherwise, we would be at a loss to explain slavery in Nineteenth Century America. Better to admit that successful religions usually condone business practices that work well and condemn the others, and we may safely guess that the Christian message brought the slaves' emancipation after - and not before - they had become obsolete equipment.

The real reason slavery, as a large scale automation system, practically disappeared at the end of the Roman Empire, was that Roman society was thrown into the absurd and hopeless situation where men, free men, were made to compete against biomachines.

How did it happen? The early Roman Empire was a period of growth and expansion, and in between the rich and the slaves stood the Roman citizens-soldiers, an upwardly mobile middle class with dreams of owning land, a booming market of potential biomachines users in an ever growing rural environment. Then, conquests, wealth, urban life, concentration of wealth and population in the City, more and more slaves pampering the rich rather than producing food, boredom, Angst, Limit to Growth ... Sounds familiar? Anyway, peace replaced war, and the citizens-soldiers of Rome came back en masse, to become citizens-workers, thousands upon thousands of them, and to work. Of course, there was no work for the citizens-workers of Rome: work was for slaves.

The ex-soldiery became an unemployed "lower middle class", marooned in an urban environment without access to any means of production that would let it earn a living and survive. This situation put a tremendous pressure on this new lower middle class to compete with the slaves, and to provide whatever work and services were required at a price that buyers of work and services would find attractive. This would be possible only if they could do the work at a price lower than what the slave-owner had to spend to keep his slaves alive and working, that is if the free worker's productivity would be much higher, if he could work much faster, much better than the dumb chattel...

All slaves were not dumb, of course, but they certainly suffered from a great lack of motivation. If ever there was a plain case of positive-vs-negative reinforcement, that was it. In all fairness, it must be said that the management of biomachines was in a deplorable state. In the beginning, in the tribal days and until the Romans would begin to eat quiche I presume, the necessary amount of toil was exacted from the slaves under the supervision of armed warriors, and in an environment of total alertness: anybody in the tribe would be ready to take extreme punitive measures against any slave who would not behave properly. It was possible, in this context, to obtain enough work from the slave to justify the operational costs - food for the slave and supervision - and still to turn a profit.

But what with second-generation, third-generation and even fourth-generation slaves? How much immediate, supervision do you need to watch a slave, in a society that has turned "soft", and in which nobody but you cares whether your slaves work or not, whether they stay or go? How can a Roman gentleman get real leisure and enjoy it, if he has to remain in a state of "total alertness?" How practical is it, anyway, to apply punitive measures to a slave whom you want to use as a physician, a philosopher, a cook or a teacher to your child?

In time, the slaves - and mainly those working close to the household - were treated with increasing kindness and came to enjoy most of the amenities of free citizens, although they could not, of course, be granted rights lest they ceased to be slaves at all. So, slaves could be treated like free men, except that they did not have rights, least of all the right to be ambitious. Without ambition, who will break his back to work and produce? So, free workers did manage to compete and to sell their services.

To meet the challenge of free labour, slave-owners could revert to negative reinforcement: crack the whip, increase supervision. This, however would lengthen the chain of command and raise costs, and chances were that the 1-h.p. biomachine would then produce little more than what would be required to pay for the increased supervision. The slave-owner could also go on feeding the slave and being pleasant to him, but then, having security without ambition, chances were that the slave would produce less than his free counterpart driven by hunger and anxiety. This dilemma led to all kinds of plans to increase the slave's motivations, all based on the same "Toil Now, Freedom Later" approach. It soon became obvious, however, that nothing was working quite as well as Freedom Now. Biomachines could not compete with men.

This created another dilemma, for slave-owners as a class. Should they, or should they not, stoop so low as to hire free workers, an alternative that was now proving daily to be more efficient than using slave-labour? If he used slaves, the slave-owner, as an entrepreneur, could not compete with free labour and would not stay in business... but if he chose to use free labour and admitted that it was cheaper to use free labour than to take care of the basic needs of the slaves who could do the same work, than slaves - as a capital investment - would not be worth their weight in flesh, except as house pets, since the value of a piece of equipment is nothing more than a factor of the profit that one expects from what can be produced with this piece of equipment. The value of his investment in slaves would depreciate more and more, until its value became nil, negative even, if he did not get rid of them fast.

It was worse if he tried to escape the dilemma by freing only some of the slaves, since every time he freed one he would increase the number of free workers competing against slaves in the labour market and increase also the drive of each free man to work harder still! He would thus reduce even more the value of all biomachines still in operation, including his own. It is about that time that the Roman State began wheat distribution on a large scale, and embarked on a huge recreational program with an eye to keeping free men out of the labour market. It was useless, as it was useless, of course, to try and feed part of the surplus manpower to the lions to keep the rest amused.

It failed, so the rich embraced stoicism and retired from it all... while upper and lower middle-classes turned Christian, allowing philosophers to declare that slaves had a soul, after all. Having a human soul, they should be recognized as fellow human beings and allowed to become a "lowest middle-class"... after which they could begin to steal, fight, or scavenge for food like everybody else... or quietly disappear.

In the end, slaves did just that; they disappeared. Rome was not unbuilt in one day, but its population declined from l.5 million in its prime to 40,000 in the Middle-Ages. Most everything else also disappeared, and first of all civilization. It was back to square one after the failure of the first large-scale experiment in automation. There are three lessons to be drawn from the Roman Biomachine Experiment, in addition to the obvious point that slavery is a dead alley and that 1-h.p. biomachines are simply not efficient enough to produce, without the help of another source of energy, sufficient goods and services to maintain a significant percentage of the population in civilized leisure.

The first is that negative reinforcement is not very effective. The second is that leniency with slaves will not help, because security without ambition will lead to the lowest possible productivity. It is important for us to remember this lesson, because although slavery as such may not be with us anymore, the same rule will apply in any reinforcement system, if the rewards are not sufficient to stimulate ambition. The third lesson is the most important and may have ominous overtones when we compare their system to ours. It is that wealth invested in biomachines - or any type of machines, for that matter - is totally dependent for its value on the demand for what these machines can produce. Let the demand decrease, and so will the value of the capital until it has absolutely no value at all. None.



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