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Does automation spell the end of capitalism?

Capitalism will not 'automatically' morph into some 'postcapitalist' or socialist system due to technology replacing the human workforce. As the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains, ending capitalism will require a conscious, collective action on the part of 'the many' — the working class

AUTOMATION — defined as the introduction of a technology whereby a process (physical or informational) can be accomplished with significantly reduced human agency — has deep historic roots.

Two millennia ago Heron of Alexandria invented a combustion engine to open temple doors so that onlookers would believe the gods were moving them without human agency. But fire power was not used for any productive purpose — why bother to automate when you have slaves to do the work?

Under capitalism, by contrast, the displacement or routinisation of human labour in search of profit has been a prime driver of innovation. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels emphasised the dynamism of technology within capitalism.

Constant “revolutionising [of] the instruments of production” leads to changes in the relations of production destabilising everything. Relations of production, institutions, even ideas that had appeared to be fixed are shown to be mutable. As they poetically put it: “All that is solid melts into air.”

In his notebooks written in preparation for his monumental work, Capital, Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean, declaring “The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, … The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realisation of this tendency.”

Marx was thinking primarily of physical machinery producing, in factories (with a little help from the “hands” of course), commodities that had previously been produced literally “by hand,” often in cottage industries.

But as the former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney observed: “If you substitute platforms for textile mills, machine learning for steam engines, Twitter for the telegraphy, you have exactly the same dynamics as existed 150 years ago — when Karl Marx was scribbling the Communist Manifesto in the reading room of the British Libraries.”

Marx himself argued that within capitalism, technology would culminate in an automatic system of machinery […] set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself […] so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.” He continued:

“Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself […] As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure. […] Capitalism thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.”

Many have taken the first part of this quote to be an extraordinary prediction of the coming of AI and the second, an analysis of its consequences; how can we talk about a labour theory of value when humans have been replaced by machines and human labour approaches zero?

Or, more apocalyptically: when people have been replaced by machines, who will be left (or where will they get the wages) to buy the goods and services that the machines produce? There would be what “orthodox” economists today call a “deficiency of effective demand” — a crisis of underconsumption.

Let’s hear Carney again: his quote, above, continued: “If this world of surplus labour comes to pass, Marx and Engels may again become relevant.”

Carney of course is no Marxist. But he and others clearly understand something of what Marx and Engels wrote about automation and the contradictions it manifests within capitalism.

Carney’s proposed solution is for companies, universities and governments to study the likely impact of technology, for employers and prepare their workers for the changes to come and for workers to prepare for jobs that require a “higher emotional intelligence” — in sectors such as leisure and care, as well as practical employment creation schemes in bespoke services and products.

But Carney left unsaid how this shift might be secured. Earlier answers have argued that the shift to a service economy in capital’s metropolitan heartlands — the supposed “postindustrial” society — has been secured on the back of the financialisation of the global economy and a shift of physical production to low-wage economies in the so-called “developing” world. This process was anticipated by Lenin (in particular) more than a century ago, but has hugely accelerated since the mid-1970s.

Moreover, as Marx insisted, there is nothing “inevitable” about the collapse of capitalism or about the applications of technology or their consequences. All involve choices; and wherever there is a choice there are alternatives.

Marx saw technology, within capitalism, not just a means of increasing profits but also about control — control over the work process and, by displacing the worker, controlling the work process directly, from robot welding and harvesting through supermarket self-service checkouts and online ordering to accountancy and financial services.

Marx declared: “But machinery does not just act as a superior competitor to the worker, always on the point of making him superfluous. It is a power inimical to him and capital proclaims this fact loudly and deliberately, as well as making use of it. For Marx it was “the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital.”

Today, technology is also about controlling the consumer, from credit cards to predictive advertising based on past buying habits. And it is also about a wider programme of social control.

What some of the current debates over the latest developments in AI have done is to highlight the contrasts between what is and what could be. Marx argued that within socialism, technology would “redound to the benefit of emancipated labour and is the condition of its emancipation.”

Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, would develop new means of social thought and co-operation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism.

Increasingly the questions are asked: given the immense potential of AI to replace boring, repetitive and dangerous work and to make what were previously specialised intellectual and physical tasks more accessible, why is it that leisure has not grown and the boundaries between it and “work” are as hard as ever?

Why, despite the tremendous increases in productivity, has the pension age been increased? Why is inequality and poverty increasing? Why does the liberatory potential of IT contrast with the reality of covert surveillance and the harvesting of data for profit by Google, Facebook and the like towards a dystopia of control?

The real threat of AI and machine learning is not the displacement of jobs by robots, but the consolidation of corporate power. The challenge to the left is to develop appropriate strategies to meet this challenge.

Popular debate over the implications of AI and automation tends to be couched in terms of utopias or dystopias. Policy debate tends by contrast to focus on responses — generally focused on education, reskilling, the need to remain competitive by removing barriers to the adoption of AI and more vague exhortations that “we” need to make sure that the potential benefits are realised (sometimes “and shared” is virtuously added).

The reality is that IT and automation are at the heart of the contradictions of capitalism today. They raise fundamental issues about the structural changes within global capitalism and the necessary left and labour movement response.

Neither Marx nor Engels ever argued any more than Marxists today believe that capitalism will collapse “automatically” or transform itself into some less exploitative form. Capitalism has always shown a remarkable ability to accommodate challenges, albeit always at the expense of working people.

The challenge of IT — old and new — is not to anticipate a utopia nor to avoid a dystopia, though both have their limited place. Dystopian and utopian alternatives provide a useful focus for debate and speculation but should not divert from the more familiar and pressing struggles to build a force for socialism within workplaces and communities — and, of course, in Parliament.

Change will come when enough people see it as in their interests to secure it. Automation, particularly AI, exacerbates the contradictions within capitalism — and makes its replacement even more urgent.

It makes socialism necessary and communism possible.

This Saturday December 5 sees a major online conference: Socialism, Work, Technology and the Struggle for Jobs organised by the Communist Party. Details on www.communistparty.org.uk.

A list of previous Full Marx answers (this is number 76) can be found on https://tinyurl.com/FullMarxQA.

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