Given Hegel’s conception of labour as a human and socially-inclined manifestation of reason, how can machine operations be regarded as a form of labour? They appear instead as a form of dumb, unreflective functioning. The machine, for instance, can have no coherent sense of denying its immediate or particular needs in pursuit of some greater goal. It simply performs whatever task it is given without any scope for self-awareness – for the integral self-consciousness that would provide a basis for the anticipation of alternative possibilities.

There are two problems with this anthropomorphic conception of labour. Firstly, it neglects that labour already, at the outset, represents a form of alienation. It introduces a gap between the immediate fulfillment of needs and longer term, more abstractly conceived, interests. In Hegel’s terms this gap is shaped by the impulse towards rational endeavour. It is clear, however, that, while a defining characteristic of the human, reason also indicates a splitting away from the state of immediate, animal being. The human is precisely constituted by this necessary separation. Labour – human labour – in its dimension of stoic self-abnegation is a manifestation of this split. In this sense the separation of the machine – the dull, dead, spiritually vacuous motion of its instrumental functioning – is merely an exacerbation or materialisation of a tendency that will always have been ‘intrinsically human’. In this sense, the alienation of the machine is implicit within the conception of rational labour. The second problem with restricting labour to a narrowly conceived field of rational human agency is that it neglects the unreflective dimension of labour, or, more precisely, the intimate dialogue between systems of abstraction, human patterns of action and modes of unreflective mechanical agency. The rhythms, cycles and algorithmic patterns of labour broach relations that extend beyond the human as such.

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