Seattles Tom Skerritt performing the future of work as imagined in the 1979 movie Alien.
Seattle's Tom Skerritt performing the future of work as imagined in the 1979 movie Alien. 20th Century Fox

Alien is really two movies. The first is a drama about work, labor issues, contracts, company rules, and so on; the second is just a horror film. In fact, one can see the unresolved management/labor problems in the first part of the film as being transmogrified into a monster that destroys the spaceship factory (the Nostromo) in the second part. From a wider historical perspective, the '70s marked the end of an economic order that began at the end of the '40s and witnessed the rise of unionized labor in the US (this, in the film, is exemplified by the working-class characters on the spaceship factory—Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto, the hick and the negro). The '80s, on the other hand, marked the beginning of an economic order that transferred a massive amount of power to supermanagers. We have not left the '80s to this day.

As for the monster that caused so much destruction and loss of life on the Nostromo, it never became a reality. The management/labor conflicts in the US were resolved with one big interest-rate shock, the Volcker shock, that killed the leading economic concern of the Keynesian period, full employment, and replaced it with the leading concern of the neoliberal moment, low inflation. But still, in Alien, there were not only workers but also democratic space travel in the future pictured in 1979. The future was at that time still seen to be in space. But here we are deep in that future, 2015, and we are still on Earth, and workers are being replaced by machines. What happened?

Let’s begin by turning to the twilight of the Space Age. This is the '70s, and the general picture of the future is that space will be the place for the human race. We landed on the moon in the previous decade. We would colonize Mars in the next. The stars were in the reach of the next century. The technology to make these dreams a reality was, we were told again and again, right around the corner. Progress in electronics, computers, and information transmission was moving so fast that certain social theorists feared “future shock.” Orotund Orson Welles appeared on TV in 1972 and warned that “mankind” was not so much moving forward but that the future was colonizing the present at a mind-spinning rate. Our heads weren't at all ready for the way robotics, jet travel, and an increasing population of satellites were transforming time and space.

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But the '80s came, and everything went downhill. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the whole Space Age went with it. By the ’90s, it was becoming clear to the general public that space was mostly for telecommunication satellites. By the ’00s, all the talk was about billionaires paying a fortune to visit space for a dozen or so days. And as for machines that made life better? If they actually materialized, they tended to make life worse for workers. We now realize that the future is all about what economists are calling secular stagnation—low demographic growth coupled with a sharp reduction in great inventions. The famous economist Robert Gordon even argues that most of the important inventions, the ones that radically transformed society, were made before the 1930s. Ha Joon Chang, another famous economist, convincingly argued in the best seller 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism that in hard terms the washing machine, invented in the 19th century and electrified in the 1930s, had a greater impact on humankind than the internet, which was civilianized in the 1990s.

We find that the problem in the 21st century is not machines taking over our souls or the world, but workers finding it hard to survive when their jobs have been replaced by robots. The enemy turns out to be not the machines but their very human owners. Capitalists hate whatever job you are doing for them, hate paying you, hate seeing you lift this or move that with a body fed at their expense. The owners of the machines waste no time using all available technical innovations of the 21st century to eliminate you from the factory or the store. This would be fine if free time were not one of the most expensive things in the world. Being poor is not cheap, and having free time without a job to pay for it sucks. Indeed, is it even free time? And so the future that has arrived in 2015 does not have us orbiting distant stars or descending through the clouds of a mysterious moon, but instead packing our own groceries at self-service machines. The great invention of the age of great inventions is the washing machine; the defining invention of the age of stagnation is the self-checkout machine.

This is what we got out of the future.
This is what we got out of the future. Charles Mudede