When machines suck humanity out of the economy
Vacuum work was the slogan on the truck. Do construction work with a vacuum cleaner. The noise was colossal and the trench long as this vast machine sucked up rocks, plate-sized concrete slabs, and all the sand and gravel under the sidewalk. He left a clean trench, one meter deep by thirty meters under our kitchen window, made and dusted on the morning of the last working day in July and with only three people there.
My first paid job was digging in rock and clay in a valley in Chiltern. The flints refused to give way under my pickaxe. The skill of swinging it so that the point fell with the greatest possible force just where I wanted it, took several days of training by the guys from Connemara.
They were recognized for miles by the cut of their hair, their tweed jackets and the sustained allure of the bodies whose assigned function in the economy of the time was to dig the earth, whether it was peat from their homeland or hoggin from the Thames basin. Between them, the conversation took place in a sweet and singing language which switched to English when I learned to prepare or rather to prepare their tea.
It was as strong as their arms. Two half-pound packets of loose Indian from the local co-op, two pounds of sugar and a quart of milk thrown into a bucket of water simmering over a gas boiler their ganger had brought by the bus and the Galway boat. As they dipped their cups, I kept the bucket full of water, extra sugar, milk, and tea leaves so the taste never lost its bite.
We knew our names before we lifted our first shovelful. The camaraderie and generosity to each other and to me was as warm as the language directed at their employer. Their lives, however, were hard and short, their last years lonely with a pint of Guinness at the bar and no board to speak of in their pocket. Britain moved on the roads they built and lived in the houses they erected, but returned little as a thank you.
In 1960, on the outskirts of London, as now outside the building merchants in Paris, they and their ilk waited and waited by the side of the road for someone in need of a ready hand to do a good job for as little money as the market can demand. Vacuum work is as much a threat to their limited livelihoods as the automation of engineering factories or bureaucratic labor is to those who thought their work would be a lifelong career.[i]
Where we stayed part of this summer was a book in praise of Yquem,[ii] on the most expensive wine money can buy. Naturally, it was a song of praise to Alexandre de Lur Saluces because the Bordeaux Sauternes vineyard had been in the hands of his aristocratic family for centuries. Today, it is majority owned by the luxury empire of France’s richest businessman Bernard Arnault and his LVMH, the company that dresses Brigitte Macron for free.
By a unique coincidence of the soil around the chateau and the way it is drained, Yquem apparently acquires its unmatched quality as the vineyard is particularly welcoming to an infection that turns the grapes into a withered, fungal mass. Generations of skilled workers, mostly living in linked dwellings, have made these grapes what the author claims to be “a symbol of perfection.” We learn what they did, the skills they developed, the equipment they used, the price that the fruit of their labor might demand, even the luxurious meals that it should accompany.
The right to the name is only granted to one of them, if it is spiced with sexist condescension:
“Although uninhabited, the castle is maintained and the count often receives. Meals are usually prepared by one of the chefs in Bordeaux. For simpler occasions, a member of staff, a woman who knows how to roast a roast mutton to perfection, is in the kitchen (and) it is Thérèse, one of the ‘winemakers of the estate‘who also cleans the house, who serves the wine, always at the perfect temperature, discreetly, with style and quiet pride.
On page 82, two horses are represented and named: Popaul and Pompon. The human being who leads them out of their stables is left without anyone in the midst of this glorification of a drink for the privileged.
In the 1990s, the work of caring for the vines still used old technology: perhaps it does today. Bernard Arnault however has a solid experience in outsourcing, offshoring or quite simply the automation of absent jobs. Vacuum work is the name of his game. It helps to understand why, of all the names that were never carved on a tombstone when capitalism and its industrial revolution took center stage, that of Ned Ludd, the breaker machines, is the only one we seem to ever remember.
To remind you why we do it, go taste the crackling anger and sardonic irony of Lord Byron’s prose and poetry of 1812 when the then parliament voted to hang the Machine Breakers: / Show how trade, how freedom thrives.
[i] You can find the machines on the website of their manufacturer, the French company Rivard at the address https://www.rivard-international.com/fr/produits/aspiratrice-excavatrice/. Rivard has been part of the American group Alamo for more than a decade.
[ii] Richard Olney, Yquem, Flammarion, second edition, 1997
This article was originally published in the September edition of Splinters.