If I begin today with reference to a famous, though now neglected Czech play from 1921 and appear to be lecturing you on it, please bear with me a minute as I try to build a little essay on a seminal issue of our national life. I promise to keep it brief.
The play is RUR-- meaning “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by playwright Karel Capek. It’s about how a futurist mega-industry develops a “race” of robots, slave-like workers for its immense industrial complex. Capek invented the word “robot “ from an ancient Slavic root meaning enslaving, or holding in bondage. The word caught on immediately and was swept up into the world’s languages.
Back to RUR: the play’s robots appear to be nicely undifferentiated creatures, massed and safely under strict control-- until, that is, one day something goes wrong. Something strange happens to two of the robots-- they seem to have become different somehow, each from the other, and they get this strange feeling for one another. You can guess what it is. They become a sort of adam and eve and like labor organizers who have caught a vision of the possibility for full human life and love. They urge their vision upon their suppressed companion robots on the shop floors. They propose to lead them in open revolt against the masters.
And of course, what these two lover-leaders feel for each other and for their followers will lead to the “manufacture” of an entirely different culture, the culture of Sophocles, of Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, Mozart , Thomas Mann and Tennessee Williams-- the traditions and resources of all Western, liberal democracies. It will be the culture that defines, guarantees and protects genuine human liberty of mind and heart-- not the right-wing model of freedom as the unregulated accumulation of private wealth-- and its protection.
Recently, a mega-industrialist American CEO was interviewed on network TV about America’s future among the nations. Can we hold our accustomed place of supremacy in this new century? He thought it doubtful-- for two reasons. First : corporate taxes are too high for innovation and development to take place. And second: we must educate kids better and more strictly in science and math.
Of course he is right as far as it goes. His companies have to make a profit in order to grow, and they need “workers” with the right skills to develop and make their stuff.
But, I suggest that, given the times in which we live, his appeal to profits and especially to education is not innocent: it covers a dark hidden agenda. His appeal is not for enriching liberal education, but for training an adequate supply of adaptable workers who, along with minimal taxation, will increase corporate profits.
In order to get the workers he needs, he is willing to throw money into their education--training in science and math-- to get workers who, with single minds, will not tend to collective actions.
Science and Math-- Math and Science
That’s already the mantra of our day, bidding us risk our natural welfare to its “neoliberal” blandishments.
Could it be that we are to have our own American RUR? Call it: USM : “Universal Science and Math”
In the face of this social engineering, might we perhaps expect to see these tremendously productive and super-dependable workers, fed richly on science and math, somehow once again turning the tables on their history, their cells somehow dividing once again into powerful gender. Perhaps, once again, a couple of them, lonely and frightened, a new man and a new woman, with only the discovery of their love to guide them, might, in their turn, renew a culture in which all are fully human and flourish in their freedom.
Extravagant of me to talk like this, you say…. ?
Or does the Devil get his due yet again and profits go on leaping higher and higher, dancing to His market-tuned pipe?
While battalions of skilled and standardized workers scramble for crumbs fallen from the master’s table?