George Scialabba at Boston Review:
Aristotle and Marx may not have agreed on much else, but they agreed on the purpose of life. Aristotle defined the highest happiness as “the pursuit of excellence to the height of one’s capacities in a life affording them full scope.” For Marx, the mark of a rational, humane society is that free, creative labor has become “not only a means to life, but life’s prime want.” Not leisure, not entertainment, not consumption, but creative activity is what gives human beings their greatest satisfaction: so say both the sage of antiquity and the prophet of modernity.
How much creative activity does work life in the contemporary United States encourage or allow?
“Creative” is not a well-defined word, so no precise answer is possible. But it’s hardly controversial that the “de-skilling” of the workforce has been the goal of scientific management since the beginning of the industrial age, and is accelerating. In his invaluable Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans (2014), journalist Simon Head tracks the rapid spread of Computerized Business Systems (CBS): job-flow, business-process software designed to eliminate every vestige of initiative, judgment, and skill from the lives of workers and even middle managers. CBS, he writes, “are being used to marginalize employee knowledge and experience,” so that “employee autonomy is under siege from ever more intrusive forms of monitoring and control.” Head cites a 1995 report that “75–80 percent of America’s largest companies were engaged in Business Process Reengineering and would be increasing their commitment to it over the next few years,” and a 2001 estimate that 75 percent of all corporate investment in information technology that year went into CBS. They’re expensive, but they’re worth it: insecure, interchangeable workers mean lower labor costs.