Don’t be sidetracked by automation

The 20-year-old word Automation, which was designed to describe automatic processes involving electronic devices but is how being loosely applied to any replacement of human labour by machinery, is being used to divert workers’ attention from the matters that ought to concern them. What matters to the workers of all countries, and ought to receive their undivided attention, is not what kinds of machines are used to turn out goods but who owns the machines and who owns the goods. If we lived in a system of society based upon common ownership of the means of production and distribution nobody would have cause to fear the introduction of more efficient methods. No individual would suffer hardship through the abolition of his job and all people would gain through the greater production of wealth. But all countries in the world operate Capitalism and it is Capitalism not the machines that creates the problems and hardships for the men and women who work the machines. This aspect is entirely ignored by all except Socialists.

Many defenders of Capitalism, worried by the resistance organised workers are showing to the new production methods, are trying to counter it by stories of the better times that will come after the hardships. The Daily Mail in an editorial (3 May, 1956), had the following about what it calls the spirit of “anti-automation”: –

“It results from fear of the robot—the thought that men skilled and unskilled alike, will become redundant when their work can be done by the press-button and the electronic brain. We must all sympathise with this feeling.
“In the long run automation will mean a stupendous rise in standards of living.”

There is no evidence whatever to justify this promise of a stupendous rise in standards of living for the workers. In the first place there is no evidence that automation will do more than increase somewhat the past small annual increase of powers of production—a point that will be dealt with further. But even if automation did vastly increase the efficiency of production that would not give any guarantee that the workers would benefit, for the products do not belong to the workers who produce them, but to the Capitalists who own the plant and factories.

What if anything the workers get out of increased production depends on their ability to back up their demands with effective struggle. Employers will not in the future, any more than in the past, give higher wages merely because output and profits are rising.

In this country the bait is held out that automation will enable the manufacturers to produce more cheaply and sell more cheaply and thus gain new or widened markets for British goods. But every other country is developing the new methods too, and in each country the workers are being told the same story. Cheaper British cars will meet in the world market the competition of cheaper cars from U.SA, Germany, France, Russia, and all the other producers, so automation if it led to all-round cheapening would solve no problem and alter nothing. In actual fact it is by no means certain that it will lead to cheaper cars but cheapness is not all. Another of its purposes is to enlarge the output and quicken production—which is not necessarily the same thing as to cheapen it. But it is of vital importance to manufacturers to get their new models on the market with minimum delay and thus get the cream of the market ahead of competitors. A contributor to the Financial Times (10/5/56) describing the £4,000,000 new tractor plant of Standard Motors says, “it does not follow that the new tractor will be relatively cheaper,” for against some expected saving of labour in the works has to be set the great cost of the new plant.

In the motor industry, battles for supremacy and survival are being fought inside America and Britain, and internationally with other competitors. Automation is a weapon in the struggle, but the struggle is a typical feature of the way Capitalism operated long before this latest of the technical developments. It should not be forgotten that the tens of thousands of unsold cars that led to workers being put on short time in Britain, and the 900,000 unsold cars that have had similar consequences in U.S.A, were not to any extent the consequence of automation: they were the normal results of over-production in face of a falling demand.

On the experience America has already had with automation an article in the Economist (5 May, 1956) has some interesting things to say. In chemicals automation has led to real economies of production and “here automation pays already; and pays well.” The same is true of the steel industry, “but in most cases, particularly in the automobile and electrical industries, automation means that machines have become bigger and more expensive and that there are more of them.”

The article goes on:—

“In the newer production industries, automation has come to stay and probably to predominate. This is not at all the same thing as saying that automation has begun to pay. When the giant machines and automatic transfer devices arrive in one plant, its competitors feel compelled to get them as well to secure the same increases in the pace and capacity of their output. But the suspicion is growing in Detroit and Pittsburgh and Cleveland that, in spite of its speed, automation is very expensive.”
“Automation does reduce direct labour costs but not always proportionately, since the remaining operators have to be more highly-skilled. In addition, most firms are finding that the ‘automated’ lines require large numbers of maintenance men, who must be first-class technicians.”

The writer in the Economist adds one wry comment about the attitude of the trade unions:—

“If any net saving in labour costs remains, the trade unions have made it clear that they expect this gain to be paid out as higher wages to the remaining workers. In some cases, therefore, the savings anticipated when the machinery was ordered may prove illusory.”

We can say that that trade union attitude is more sensible than passively accepting whatever the employers want to dictate but it is not at all sensible in relation to the real need of our age, that of getting rid of this cut-throat, wasteful and war-producing system of society so that greater powers of production will harm no-one and will benefit all.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, June 1956)

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