The two decades following World War 2 is popularly considered as the “golden age” of modern human civilization. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of legendary economic prosperity, when most of what we know today as the “modern way of life” was established, including the present-day world political and consumerist economic order, the (American) middle class and its associated myths of upward social mobility, capitalistic virtue and “trickle down” fantasy. It is an era that has taken its place in history as the time when life was actually good. This is why whenever a crisis brews in our civilization people immediately look back at that era for solutions.
One such crisis is in full blow today. The post-war economic prosperity over the decades mutated into globalised capitalism. And this “globalisation” or globalised manufacturing is today facing a heavy backlash across the Western world, most poignantly visible in racist YouTube comments where people solemnly swear not to purchase BMWs made in China to populist politicians coming to power across the Western world. People are pissed believing that jobs that are rightfully theirs have been shipped abroad by unpatriotic capitalists supported by corrupt politicians and a decadent elite. A lot of right-wing populist movements around the world today swearing great vengeance and furious anger at various bogeymen they think have robbed them of their dreams of a prosperous future have their origin in this angst of globalisation. Manufacturing remains a favorite poll plank for politicians the world over, promising to either “bring back” manufacturing jobs or to make their countries hubs of manufacturing. At first look, solving prosperity problems through mass-employment solutions like factories and sweatshops would seem to be a no-brainer. They would employ millions, increasing prosperity, growing the economy and making everyone happy like in a 90s sitcom. However, this is unfortunately mostly misplaced optimism.
Yes, the great economic prosperity of the post-WW2 era was all driven by manufacturing industries. The massive manufacturing machine the USA had become during the war seamlessly switched over to peacetime, creating so much stuff from household equipment, consumer goods, industrial material and vehicles, aircraft and huge highways and airports, providing great employment to the silent generation and veterans returning from war fronts in Europe and Japan. Many American towns and cities got at least one factory or facility that manufactured something or the other and flourished. But later, with policy changes of the Reagan era (1980s onwards), manufacturers found that they could make much more money by building and assembling items all over the world and then selling the finished product to Americans. Manufacturing jobs started shipping overseas to China, Japan and Taiwan and others, and “factory towns” all over the USA fell into rot and gloom as factories closed, jobs were lost by the thousands and youngsters left looking for better pastures in cities. The middle class built on manufacturing dwindled, suburbs started declining and ghost towns once again littered the American map.
It is understandable why people would want manufacturing jobs back. However, anyone who believes building new factories or reopening old ones will will put an end to their miseries and bring back prosperity to their old-timely towns are missing the point. The manufacturing industry and the life it created, that idyllic, rusty ideal of the 1960s America of clean eight-hour shifts on an assembly line for the pay of an “honest day’s work” followed by beers at the pub with the guys and dinner with Betty and the kids in a suburban family home with a car and long drives out in the countryside on Sundays, can simply not exist in that form today. No, even if President Trump manages to persuade or force American companies to stop outsourcing and “return home” to build stuff in America by Americans for Americans, those long-gone jobs and days still will not come back. This is because things have changed. Manufacturing is no longer a mass-employment phenomenon. We as a society had traded our souls of humanity and a secure life for unchecked materialism a long ago. This Bogeyman now controls us, promising unlimited economic growth forever, and for this to happen, production needed to be given over to machines.
The Automation Bogeyman
The image most people have of manufacturing still comes from propaganda videos of the last century, showing lines of technicians or workers standing along assembly lines fixing parts onto cars or gadgets or picking things off moving conveyor belts. If you were to walk into a modern factory expecting all that, you will be in for a surprise. Forget people manning the assembly line, the only people you will find in the factory will probably be some support and maintenance staff, and security. Most factories and processes within them today are largely automated, no matter what it is producing. Most processes are automatically done by robots as per pre-programmed procedure, overseen by computers. It is not just the cutting and welding but also things like logistics supply of parts have been automated. This has made processes much faster, efficient and error-free than what a set of humans could ever do. Check these videos below.
Here are cars being manufactured at a Mercedes factory
Motherboards being assembled in Taiwan
Washing Machines Being Made in Germany
Granted, you can still see some humans around, but it is a no-brainer that that polishing/guiding/pulling/straping/fixing will also be automated sooner or later. Even then, the number of humans working on the assembly line is only a small fraction of what such a line would’ve employed in the 80s. Despite Elon Musk’s misadventures, we still are on the way to mostly 100% mechanically automated factories everywhere. A large vehicle-producing facility might require not more than 100 people to produce 10000 cars a week. Manufacturing does not employ people anymore, all that work is done by machines, whose work is monitored by other machines. Today, the most number of jobs that a manufacturing project may create is probably during the construction of the building.
When today’s naive minds hear “technology has progressed“, they are often programmed to think mobile phone! Do you know what technology has really progressed since the 1960s? Automation. It is not a recent phenomenon but has been in process for much longer than people would like to believe, sretching back to the beginning of human civilisation. Automation is technology itself. It is industry’s evolution, it’s Darwin, a natural process that cannot be stopped, the greatest engine to drive better efficiencies and growth. Automation need not be some large machine or complicated algorithm. All through history, any of what we call “advancement in technology” basically took place when existing methods of doing work (through mostly human effort) was supplanted or enhanced or replaced or eliminated through a tool or device or process resulting in increase in quality, quantity and efficiency of output. This is automation. The wheel was the first automation project. A spade, a book, a road, a crane, an elevator, a railway is automation. A ceiling fan is automation. The Boeing 747 is automation. This blog is automation. When you take a picture with your digital camera, you just automated an entire process chain starting from film manufacture to darkroom developing and printing. A kitchen stove automated centuries-old practices from gathering firewood to constantly monitoring the fire. The smartphone automated almost half of all technologies that existed a decade ago. Automation is but industry in itself. It would be incredibly naive to believe that automation would stop at computers and programming.
Jobs are better done by machines
Manufacturing jobs constitute of a series of monotonous, repetitive but precise processes. And humans suck at these jobs. Humans are unpredictable, fragile, slow, inconsistent, physically limited and make mistakes; they work only fixed hours and have to be paid, trained and given benefits; they will get tired, bored, fall sick, take days off, leave and cause other such disruptions unconducive to business. As long as humans worked the assembly line, efficiency, product quality and output numbers suffered greatly. This is why manufacturers invested in automation many more times what they did in product design or development. The machine will work every hour of the day without getting tired or bored; it will not take breaks for lunch or loo, it will not demand family or medical benefits or career paths, it will not stop and go home after eight hours, it does not need transportation or arrive late because it was stuck in a traffic jam, it is not limited in ability or precision and can be trained by a software update. It will never take a holiday or quit the company or fall sick or die; it can go on forever. Just imagine how terribly profitable automation is, and why it also is the most rapidly growing technological front. A robot can punch the same 15 holes in sheet metal with micromillimeter accuracy all day, for which a human worker will not even be a match. Automation took away more jobs from Americans than outsourcing ever did.
If we have to have factories to go back to employing people, we would also have to enter into another global pact to slow down everything, a reverse of the present one. We should settle for lesser technology, fewer and lower quality products and buy less, sell less, consume less, live the idyllic life of the 1960s (wouldn’t be such a bad idea, though). We would have to drastically slow down our economies, and be content living in a Black Domain. where everything slows down. Though it might seem fun looking at it one way, this is when we realise that we cannot really go back to factories employing 25,000 people. Without automated factories, everything you see around would simply not exist or be five times as expensive.
A lot of people think that the hype over automation is unnecessary fearmongering. There is a much popular opinion that some other means of employment will arise because without people being able to buy the goods and services it produces, economies will stop running. It could, it could not be, but it is readily possible that there will be no more mass-employment avenues ever, anymore, because there are no more “forces” that do our “work” left because various industrial revolutions have replaced them with machines, or, automated them over the last few millennia. It started when our own muscle was replaced by the wheel and domesticated animals (I call it the 0th industrial revolution); the first industrial revolution replaced the forces of nature (animal muscle, wind, water, fire) with steam, the second one replaced steam with oil and gas, creating the manufacturing boom and currently the third industrial revolution is underway, digitising anything that is left. The final remaining vestige or force we use to do work is our mind; our cognitive abilities, which will be replaced by artificial intelligence in the fourth industrial revolution. What will happen then? We don’t know. What will humans do after that? We don’t know.
COCCYX: We should stop moaning about the dearth of manufacturing jobs being the reason for Indian unemployment. Those ships sailed a long time ago, first during the 1970s that created the ASEAN tigers and then during the 1990s enabling the rise of China. Indian manufacturing and software (IT) industries draw interesting parallels. Both were early mass employers, created great prosperity for the middle class, spawned ancillary industries, witnessed heavy automation in later stages and stopped requiring large workforces. Today, they are still wrongly considered mass employers by their constituents though having turned into highly automated operations requiring only fewer, specialized workers. If at all we are trying to bring manufacturing activity into the country, it should only be with the intent of exporting finished goods, pocketing tariffs and gaining knowledge.