On the Death of Labor?

Published by costrike on

SPOILER ALERT: If you were thinking of reading H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” and do not want to ruin the plot (and haven’t found time in the 117 years since it’s release), read no further!


I read “The Time Machine” last weekend with an eye towards gaining a better understanding of the story’s bifurcated human race.  I can’t recall where I learned of the story (probably an adaptation for children), but I knew it was about a time traveler who witnessed two species descended from the human race.  Elois inhabited the seemingly gilded surface while Morlocks toiled in subterranean lairs.  I’ve posted a passage towards the end of this post which struck me as both poignant and prophetic.

I don’t often allow myself to read fiction these days for fear of losing precious time for learning, but this one reminded me that good fiction can offer the author’s perspective on humanity.  Wells’ thoughts were surely worth the time invested.

A couple of related tweets today brought the book back to mind.  (The connection may not immediately avail itself, but if you stick with me to the end, I think (hope?) you’ll find it worth your time.)

Noah Smith, economist and author of the Noahpinion blog, shared a link to new BLS numbers which show the continued crashing out of U.S. labor participation.

Matt Bruenig passed on a ThinkProgress article which shared his graph of the corresponding decline in dispute related work absences.


Bruenig’s Graph

And now a bit of the story of Morlocks and Eloi.  I hope it pulls at you the way I felt it.  For me it was pure social commentary dressed up as fiction.  See what you think.  (Btw, you’re getting a bit of the milk here, but the cow’s still well worth it.  The book’s in the public domain, so Kindle and presumably other versions can be had for free.)

A passage from Ch. 5.  (Emphasis mine. Or is it?)

Here was the new view. Plainly, this second species of Man was subterranean. There were three circumstances in particular which made me think that its rare emergence above ground was the outcome of a long-continued underground habit. In the first place, there was the bleached look common in most animals that live largely in the dark – the white fish of the Kentucky caves, for instance. Then, those large eyes, with that capacity for reflecting light, are common features of nocturnal things – witness the owl and the cat. And last of all, that evident confusion in the sunshine, that hasty yet fumbling awkward flight towards dark shadow, and that peculiar carriage of the head while in the light – all reinforced the theory of an extreme sensitiveness of the retina.


Beneath my feet, then, the earth must be tunnelled enormously, and these tunnellings were the habitat of the new race. The presence of ventilating shafts and wells along the hill slopes – everywhere, in fact except along the river valley – showed how universal were its ramifications. What so natural, then, as to assume that it was in this artificial Underworld that such work as was necessary to the comfort of the daylight race was done? The notion was so plausible that I at once accepted it, and went on to assume the how of this splitting of the human species. I dare say you will anticipate the shape of my theory; though, for myself, I very soon felt that it fell far short of the truth.

At first, proceeding from the problems of our own age, it seemed clear as daylight to me that the gradual widening of the present merely temporary and social difference between the Capitalist and the Labourer, was the key to the whole position. No doubt it will seem grotesque enough to you – and wildly incredible! – and yet even now there are existing circumstances to point that way. There is a tendency to utilize underground space for the less ornamental purposes of civilization; there is the Metropolitan Railway in London, for instance, there are new electric railways, there are subways, there are underground workrooms and restaurants, and they increase and multiply. Evidently, I thought, this tendency had increased till Industry had gradually lost its birthright in the sky. I mean that it had gone deeper and deeper into larger and ever larger underground factories, spending a still-increasing amount of its time therein, till, in the end – ! Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?

Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people – due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor – is already leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land. About London, for instance, perhaps half the prettier country is shut in against intrusion. And this same widening gulf – which is due to the length and expense of the higher educational process and the increased facilities for and temptations towards refined habits on the part of the rich – will make that exchange between class and class, that promotion by intermarriage which at present retards the splitting of our species along lines of social stratification, less and less frequent. So, in the end, above ground you must have the Haves, pursuing pleasure and comfort and beauty, and below ground the Have-nots, the Workers getting continually adapted to the conditions of their labour. Once they were there, they would no doubt have to pay rent, and not a little of it, for the ventilation of their caverns; and if they refused, they would starve or be suffocated for arrears. Such of them as were so constituted as to be miserable and rebellious would die; and, in the end, the balance being permanent, the survivors would become as well adapted to the conditions of underground life, and as happy in their way, as the Upper-world people were to theirs. As it seemed to me, the refined beauty and the etiolated pallor followed naturally enough.

The great triumph of Humanity I had dreamed of took a different shape in my mind. It had been no such triumph of moral education and general co-operation as I had imagined. Instead, I saw a real aristocracy, armed with a perfected science and working to a logical conclusion the industrial system of today. Its triumph had not been simply a triumph over Nature, but a triumph over Nature and the fellow-man.

-H.G. Wells from “The Time Machine” 1895

The middle class was born of unions and it’s dying with them.  The only question that remains is whether there are enough of the “miserable and rebellious” left to make a difference, or is this all foregone?