Self-service is a disservice

The predominance of so-called ‘self-service’ machines in supermarkets should worry those concerned by the depredations of the market. The ‘self-service’ machines turn us into unpaid employees for a Tesco, or a Morrison’s, or a Sainsbury’s, and even a wholesome Waitrose. The fact of the matter is that it is a service to Tesco, not ourselves, for the most part, to man the till in the place of a paid worker. It is another way in which the rinsing of people, as workers and consumers, to amass huge profits – and it means worse and worse working conditions and job prospects for vast numbers of people. With all that said, it is unavoidable given the pace at which you have to live, that you are going to avoid queuing for longer (unless you have a tobacco habit), and you can’t find an exit point in waiting longer. Notice that the fetish of ‘free-choice’ actually offers little in the way of quality, and even less in the way of consultation.

Before we go any further I ought to do some throat-clearing: the kind of jobs available to people in supermarkets should not be romanticised, they are not examples of fulfilling work by and large. Nevertheless, it has to be said that once such opportunies are closed off there will be a section of people left behind. There are people who have little other immediate option to working in a supermarket. The innovation of ‘self-service’ machines really allow businesses to discard labour in the endless attempt to pull in enough labour to squeeze dry, but not too much to encumber the maximalisation of profits. Important aside: profits are by definition what is leftover after the cost of labour is taken into account, before that point its just revenue. The contradiction faced by businesses is in the need to scrap labour to save money, while at the same time drag in even more of it to keep up productivity. The workers are a burden, but at the same time they are invaluable to the economy, they are a cost to be cut, and the source of mountainous revenue.

It is not the case that the prices of food have fallen since this innovation of the marketplace. Yet the liberal accounts of technological progress would have us believe that the betterment of life overall will come out of the liberating capacities of technology. Its a convenient viewpoint, for a liberal or even a Fabian, there is no need for radical change as the evolution of technology will gradually perfect us and perfect our society. If the ‘self-service’ machines are to be installed then the goods should be cheaper, and if not, then the employees of the supermarket should have a higher wage. Neither is the case. Not only do they take our money for over-priced products they make extra money by not hiring the staff to man the tills. It’s yet another instance of the rationality of the market really amounting to irrationality. The business can depend on human beings to act against their own interests, to work for free, to buy over-priced garbage, and ultimately to contribute to the further enrichment of those layabouts convinced of their own brilliance – the crust of wealth hoarders.

Only under particular conditions would self-service actually be conducive to social betterment. The companies could probably be cooperatised, we could each be hired and have a slice of the profits if we are to be pulled into the work process. The right to work has to be enforced if there is to be full employment and equitable standards of living enabling each person to lead fulfilling lives instead of living to fulfill the lives of a tiny few. Under conditions of universality and mutuality these machines would be of better social use. It might actually free people from a mind dulling role standing by counters, leaving them to more authentic pursuits, and not just tossing them on the wayside to rot. Otherwise the machine is a bloody con, for consumers, and for workers. In the meantime one can hope that the managers will soon be replaced by ‘advice’ robots. Now that would be progress!

About JT White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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