Theses Doctoral

The Misanthropic Sublime: Automation and the Meaning of Work in the Postwar United States

Resnikoff, Jason Zachary

In the United States of America after World War II, Americans from across the political spectrum adopted the technological optimism of the postwar period to resolve one of the central contradictions of industrial society—the opposition between work and freedom. Although classical American liberalism held that freedom for citizens meant owning property they worked for themselves, many Americans in the postwar period believed that work had come to mean the act of maintaining mere survival. The broad acceptance of this degraded meaning of work found expression in a word coined by managers in the immediate postwar period: “automation.” Between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, the word “automation” stood for a revolutionary development, even though few could agree as to precisely what kind of technology it described. Rather than a specific technology, however, this dissertation argues that “automation” was a discourse that defined work as mere biological survival and saw the end of human labor as the the inevitable result of technological progress. In premising liberation on the end of work, those who subscribed to the automation discourse made political freedom contingent not on the distribution of power, but on escape from the limits of the human body itself. Abandoning the workplace as a site of political contest, managers in the postwar period sped up workers, broke unions, and sent jobs where non-unionized labor could be had more cheaply—all of which managers, lawmakers, and even union officials called “progress.”

While existing scholarship on “automation” presumes that the word describes a clear-cut technology or industrial process, this dissertation returns the concept to its ideological roots. What most called “automation” often created more human labor or intensified labor already present—in particular in the automobile and computer industries where the word was coined. The accounts of workers in these industries show that “automation” often meant the intensification of labor. The dissertation considers how different constituencies deployed the automation discourse to advance a reformist or even radical politics that sought the abolition of work. It shows how under the sign of the automation discourse “leisure” became a synonym for liberation. It explores how “automation” and the meaning of work it conveyed influenced the development of the welfare programs of the Great Society, as well as the politics of the New Left and black liberation. The automation discourse likewise influenced the postwar conception of reproductive labor and the development of second wave feminism. The dissertation ends in the mid-1970s when a national, militant, rank-and-file workers’ movement coincided with increasing distrust of industrial society, leading unions, managers, and lawmakers—after decades of calling for the abolition of human labor—to demand the “humanization” of work.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blake, Casey N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 29, 2019