Pathfinders: Fully automated luxury… capitalism

This issue looks at some models of post-capitalist society that might sound futuristic – until you realise how fast capitalism is already moving. From extraction to manufacturing, distribution and retail, changes are taking place at a startling rate as industry, sensor technology and artificial intelligence converge in a process that’s become known as the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0.

Let’s start at the outlets, where people shop. That’s probably where you’ll have noticed a difference. If you’re still adjusting to the novelty of contactless card payments, you might not be quite ready for Asda’s new ‘Scan and Go’ hand scanners. You use these to scan barcodes yourself as you go along, automatically totting up your basket items and your spend and saving you time at the check-out queue. This is part of a huge global trend towards cashless and cashierless retail, but hand scanners are just the clunky overture to the main performance. Walmart and Microsoft are working on ‘Grab and Go’ stores similar to Amazon Go ‘Just walk out’ stores where you just pick up stuff and leave, the whole transaction worked out invisibly by a combination of tech that might include smartphone, QR codes, RFID tags, or (in China anyway) face recognition. One company is developing a ‘nanostore’, which is a container-sized walk-in 24/7 retail pod which unlocks when you flash your phone, uses shelf sensors to register what groceries you pick up, and automatically debits your account before locking up on exit, no doubt having invited you by name to have a nice evening and to call again soon.

Smart retail is still at an early stage, but the cost and time savings to business owners hardly need to be laboured. Amazon Go has plans to open 3,000 stores in the next few years, and sector investment has tripled since 2017. The convenience to consumers, however, is more nuanced. 24/7 accessibility sounds impressive, but not many people are likely to want to buy bread, socks or rawl-plugs at 4 am. Meanwhile, people who enjoy some human interaction in their day and don’t like to be railroaded won’t necessarily appreciate cashierless retail, which is essentially about the speed of throughput. Perhaps the appeal is more psychological. Smart retail emulates the socialist obliteration of the money transaction. It feels like it’s free, even though you know it isn’t. Perhaps in turn that helps you feel like you’re free, even though you know you aren’t. With a feel-good rush of dopamine and no price labels in sight, you’ll be keen to keep spending. You’ll be what capitalism wants you to be – a consumer junkie.

So what’s happening at the back-end, to supply the junkies with their junk? To begin with, the traditional capital and labour-intensive extractive industries are getting an AI makeover. Seismic surveying using delicate sensor equipment allows firms to zero in on likely deposits in a fraction of the time, cost and labour of older methods, while computerised drilling operations keep accuracy and efficiency optimal while increasing yield and reducing health and safety risks. Advances in robotics and autonomous ‘intelligent’ machines are widely expected to develop extraction methodology to planet-plundering perfection.

Meanwhile, the factory production line is being refitted for 5G as sensors are placed on every physical component to report on its condition and failure potential. The aggregation of this mass of data creates a ‘digital twin’ of the entire plant so that a human, or perhaps an AI, can oversee the entire production flow and anticipate weaknesses or failures before they even occur, maintaining throughput and cutting expensive downtime and service interventions. It can also run virtual tests and experiments on alternative process configurations without incurring real costs or risking damage. Where spare parts are needed they can often be 3D-printed on site or close by, further reducing costs. Smart manufacturing also involves engineering flexibility into the productive system to achieve ‘mass customisation’, i.e. goods personalised for the customer but at mass-production standards of cost and reliability.

At the same time, distribution is being revolutionised by autonomous road transport vehicles and also by ‘last-mile delivery’ technology which includes delivery robots, drones and even smart front doors, which open a panel to accept packages.

It goes without saying that none of this matters if you don’t have money to spend and you don’t constitute ‘effective demand’. But it does show how capitalism is using technology to engineer the inefficiencies (including the people) out of the productive process. It is fully automated luxury capitalism – driven by profit, of course, but entirely amenable to full-scale socialist adoption.

Meanwhile, what happens to the workers displaced by machines? According to the World Economic Forum, 50 per cent of workplace jobs will be done by machines by 2025, up from 29 per cent today. All the low-end, low-skilled jobs are disappearing, and future employability is likely to involve running faster and faster just to stand still. The WEF says that workers will on average need 101 days of retraining by 2022 ( Workers know which way the wind is blowing, and are desperate to get this training, even if it means paying for it themselves. A 2016 survey of 19,000 young workers across 25 countries showed that 95 per cent would be willing to pay for their own up-skilling ( This must be music to the ears of bosses, of course.

To make money, capitalism panders to the needs and desires of the paying customer, ignoring as far as inhumanly possible various externalities including the needs and desires of the working employee. The paradox is at that customer and employee are frequently the same person. Thus the peculiar dualistic experience of modern workers, pampered at the weekend and punished in the week. The more stressed and desperate we become, the more we need our booze and bling and big TVs. We are locked in a cycle of abuse and excess, addicted to our luxury fixes and paying for them with poverty and slavery.

Technology is just a tool. We can let capitalism use it against us and in total disregard for the environment, or we can take it away from its elite owners and start using it democratically and sustainably across the world. We don’t have to fully automate socialism if we don’t want to, because too much leisure might become stultifying, but it’s good to know we have technological options.