2000s >> 2009 >> no-1260-august-2009

Capital, Science Fiction and Labour

Can we rely on technology to bring down capitalism?

 Near-future science fiction frequently explores the possibilities of imminent technologies  – gadgets that haven’t been designed yet, but could be given recent real advances in technology and design. Whilst its track record on such predictions – such as us getting to Mars by 1977 and everyone having rocket cars by 2002 – have been a bit wide of the mark, others have been much closer and in fact actively conservative compared to the real historical record.

 Authors such as Charles Stross in his Halting State or Ken Macleod in his Night Sessions explore a future where mobile phone technology linked up to glasses which display information to the wearer can link up with technology like google Earth and GPS systems to tell them, just by looking, who lives in a house and what criminal records they have and other known details. They explore the expanding pace of technology, as the machine intelligence of computers begins to exceed that of the living human beings. Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels explores the after-effects of that process, where humans served by loyal robots live in a post-scarcity, anarcho-communist, space-faring society.

 A tool enables a human to do a job, while a machine effectively replaces human labour. A robot is a sort of machine. The word itself is Czech, coming from a play about automatons, and it means worker, but with connotations of slavery. The international standards organisation defines a robot as: “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.” In other words, a type of machine.

 Robots do not have to be physical, and many expert systems can be described as a robot of sorts. When your word-processor corrects your spelling, that is a type of robot.

 Futurists talk of a “singularity”. This represents an “event horizon” in the predictability of human technological development past which present models of the future cease to give reliable or accurate answers, following the creation of strong artificial intelligence or the amplification of human intelligence. Futurists predict that after the Singularity, humans as they exist presently will cease to be the dominating force in scientific and technological progress, replaced with posthumans, strong Artificial Intelligence, or both, and therefore all models of change based on past trends in human behaviour will be obsolete.

 The technological singularity refers to a situation in which technological advancement begins to accelerate to the point where new designs are produced, basically, before old ones are implemented: where super-intelligence exists. More prosaically, when the robots begin to be able to do our thinking for us. Proponents of such an eventuality point to growth of computer processing power and the growth of communications and transport technology. They mark how the time taken for products to reach ubiquity and obsolescence is falling – it took 70 years for telephones to become ubiquitous, the iPod has managed it in about 8, for example.

 Already 3D printers have been developed that can make models and parts out of silicon and plastic – and that will lead to faster development of prototypes. Those 3D printers can also produce 60 percent of their own parts. If they get to 100 percent we’d have multipurpose machines that could reproduce themselves, and maybe even adapt for different tasks.

Drastic effect

 Machines making machines. That would have drastic effects on the labour market. Robin Hanson writes in the on-line magazine IEEE Spectrum:

“The relative advantages of humans and machines vary from one task to the next. Imagine a chart resembling a topographic cross section, with the tasks that are ”most human” forming a human advantage curve on the higher ground. Here you find chores best done by humans, like gourmet cooking or elite hairdressing. Then there is a ”shore” consisting of tasks that humans and machines are equally able to perform and, beyond them an ”ocean” of tasks best done by machines. When machines get cheaper or smarter or both, the water level rises, as it were, and the shore moves inland.” (“Economics Of The Singularity”)

 Depending on how these contours actually lie, this could mean mass displacement for millions of workers: redundancy on a grand scale. From shop staff to clerks, essentially human posts could be done away with by “simple” intelligences or machine expertise.

Of course, this trend has been continuing since capitalism began. As Hanson notes:

“The (…) proliferation of machine-assembled cars raised the value of related human tasks, such as designing those cars, because the financial stakes were now much higher. Sure enough, automobiles raised the wages of machinists and designers.”

 Throughout history, the labour market has had winners and losers, swings as well as roundabouts. New workers have always been recruited to replace those thrown on the scrapheap; but in this scenario, new workers can be designed, trained up and introduced faster through machinery than it would take to breed and train a new generation of humans.

 The suggestion throughout discussion of a technological singularity is that productivity would soar. In essence, it would herald an abundance economy. For some radical “transhumanists”  – those who foresee the human body being merged with machines – this would mean the end of capitalism.

 The capitalist mode of production carries with it a strong impulse for this sort of increasing productivity:

“The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities depends, caeteris paribus, on the productiveness of labour, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller. It will further be remembered that, with the development of the capitalist mode of production, there is an increase in the minimum amount of individual capital necessary to carry on a business under its normal conditions.”

 The result of which is the fact that:

“…the growing extent of the means of production, as compared with the labour-power incorporated with them, is an expression of the growing productiveness of labour. The increase of the latter appears, therefore, in the diminution of the mass of labour in proportion to the mass of means of production moved by it, or in the diminution of the subjective factor of the labour-process as compared with the objective factor.
The additional capitals formed in the normal course of accumulation serve particularly as vehicles for the exploitation of new inventions and discoveries, and industrial improvements in general. But in time the old capital also reaches the moment of renewal from top to toe, when it sheds its skin and is reborn like the others in a perfected technical form, in which a smaller quantity of labour will suffice to set in motion a larger quantity of machinery and raw materials.”  (Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Chapter 25)

In a bind

 Capitalism is in a bind – it wants to use as much labour as it can as little as possible. That is, while it, on the one hand, sets its production goals as limitless, an infinity of riches and products, it wants to spare the precious labour that gives it an edge in the competitive battle. This is what the shackles of capital mean to labour – that goals and activities that are within the practical bounds of human endeavour are left unsurmounted because it is not capitalistically efficient to do so. Capitalism prefers the increasing refinement of the productive process to the actual attainment of any specific outcomes or goods.

 This brings us to an important factor. As E. P. Thompson noted in his The Making of the English Working Class – the working class made themselves. Workers, and their demands for waged labour as compared with the previous forms of bonded labour, were in the forefront of promoting market relations. Professor Robert Allen of Nuffield College, Oxford, an economic historian, goes so far as to suggest that a significant contributing factor to the Industrial Revolution occurring in Britain was the relatively high (at that time and in the world) real wages of the workers here. Particularly, they were high relative to fuel costs and capital costs. The importance of this is that it incentivised innovation and mechanisation. Similar features have been attributed to American industrialisation. The high costs of labour, and capitalism’s drive to spare labour if at all possible is a key motor of capital accumulation.

 This, then, presents us with a bind. Capitalism spares labour, cuts labour and labour costs, while it grows. Further, as we’ve seen above, whilst it accumulates, it cheapens the products of industry. This presents us with a situation in which fewer people are employed in production, and in which the cost of employing productive labour actually falls. The mass of use values they can command may well increase, but the value of their pay declines. We can see this in the recent history of the United States “Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20 percent of households” – that’s from the CIA’s 2005 factbook on the US economy.

Emancipating Labour

 Hanson sees a situation in which we would all have to become capitalists, living off interest, because labour would no longer pay, but if what has been suggested above comes to pass, then we simply wouldn’t have that option, and a form of labour feudalism could emerge.

 In response to a questionnaire, when Marx was asked what were his goals, he simply replied “The emancipation of labour.” This brings us to the crux of the matter – technology emancipates us from labour, but so long as a vast swathe of humanity depends on the sale of its ability to work labour will be in the chains of capital. Socialism, the emancipation of labour, would see a situation in which rather than try at all costs to spare labour, we will freely chuck it at problems because we would be working towards definite ends, rather than an ever increasing size of profit.

 It would be nice to think that technological progress would simply evolve capitalism away. If we believed that, we could shut up shop and simply become cheer-leaders for advancing bleeding-edge technology. The dangers of the alternative, a kind of stagnant capitalism based on cheap super abundant labour unable to fight back, is quite terrifying. We’ve seen how capitalism does have a drive to advance technology, but one that may be undercut by its dependence on waged labour. Waged labour has not been the passive tool of capital, but an active and essential participant in driving capitalism onwards. We as workers cannot sit by and hope that a magic bullet will solve our social problems, and our active organisation remains essential to attaining socialism.

 Productive forces encompass more than technological capacity, and include the organisational and mental capacities required for a given form of society. The friction between capital and labour was a source of technological innovation, that friction was a productive force. Socialism will free up labour, irrespective of technological capacity, to use whatever technological powers are available. Socialism is not a by-product of technology but of social consciousness.


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