Letter: If Robots Take Over
In your October edition you published an article entitled ‘Robots of the World – you have nothing to lose but your blockchains’.
Although it was highly amusing it only superficially dealt with a problem in economics that intrigues me. At the moment automation (robots) are merely advanced tools (constant capital) where the profit is made by the labour manufacturing the programming and fabrication (variable capital). What happens when the robots become ‘self-programming’ and able to build themselves? Does the ‘organic composition of capital’ become such that the variable part is so negligible that profits plunge? Will profit levels be held up by the monopolistic ownership of these robots and the increased productivity they represent? Surely the capitalists not within that particular industry would object on free market grounds?
Andrew Westley, Cambridge
Reply: The answer is that, in the fully automated production system that you are asking about where robots would do everything, building themselves from scratch, supplying their own power and maintaining themselves, as there would be no human labour input there would be no value produced and so no prices, no wages and no profits either.
Such an economy is only a theoretical construct; in fact the theoretical limit to capitalism, as Marx pointed out in the ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse. This is the only place where Marx uses the word ‘collapse’ in relation to capitalism which he said would happen at the point where productivity was so high that the prices of units of commodity would be virtually zero and so would have been given away free. Obviously capitalism could not function on that basis.
But this point is a (very) long way off and in practice will never be reached, if only because political action would have put an end to capitalism, and its production for sale on a market with a view to profit, long before.
Mechanization, automation, robotization are all manifestations of the same trend under capitalism where, under the lash of competition, capitalist firms are driven to constantly strive to reduce the cost of production of what they are producing for sale, i.e. to increase productivity. But productivity does not proceed at the rate that some people sometimes mistakenly assume that it does because they take into account only the last stage of production.
What has to be taken into account is the labour that has gone into the production of a commodity from start to finish. So robots introduced at just one stage of the whole process will only have an impact at that stage. Which is why the increase in productivity in the economy as a whole has been at a rate of only about 2 percent a year, a rate that the capitalist economy can absorb.