Capitalism and Automation: Progress Perverted

We discuss two recent books on the effects of automation under capitalism.

The significant number of books published in recent years offering serious critiques of modern capitalism tend to have one thing in common. While usually describing themselves as ‘anti-capitalist’, in the solutions to the problems they point to in the capitalist system they almost always end up with recommendations not on how to end the system but on how to improve it, how to make it run more ‘caringly’, more ‘fairly’, more ‘equitably’. Lacking a vision of a wholly different kind of world than the current one based on buying and selling, money and wages, and profit, these books advocate action to achieve various reforms, for example – in the most recent popular thinking among authors and activists – what is usually called Universal Basic Income. This idea has been discussed in this journal on a number of occasions and rejected for its inability to bring about any qualitative change in social organisation and for constituting at best a way of redistributing poverty and at worst a sure-fire way of exerting downward pressure on wages and salaries.

Now, however, we have a book that does something different. Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work (Verso) not only offers an original and thoroughgoing critique of the current social system, but to the never-ending problems it throws up it proposes a truly radical solution: the abolition of the wages system and a ‘post-scarcity’ society of abundance. Readers of this journal will of course know that this is the very non-market-based remedy advocated by socialists such as Marx and William Morris towards the end of the 19th century and which the Socialist Standard has kept alive uninterruptedly since 1904. The author of this book recognises this idea’s pedigree in stating that the ‘vision of post-scarcity was what “socialism” and “communism” had come to mean before later identification with Stalinist central planning and breakneck industrialisation’, and, in his final chapter, entitled ‘Necessity and Freedom’, he describes it variously as, ‘the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation’, ‘a world of fully capacitated individuals … in which every single person could look forward to developing their interests and abilities with full social support’, ‘a world in which democratic associations of women and men replaced the rule of the market with competitive production – and taking advantage of capitalist technologies – reduced the common labors of necessity to expand a realm of individual freedom’, ‘a new form of life that does not organize itself around wage work and monetary exchange’, a society in which ‘everyone can go to the social storehouses and service centers to get what they need’, and finally ‘for most people (…) the first time in their lives that they could enter truly voluntary agreements – without the gun to their heads of a pervasive material insecurity’. In such a society ‘dis-alienating community life – by taking that life under democratic control and collective care – becomes the way to ensure that individual freedom is shared by all’.

While consistently advocating just such arrangements, the Socialist Party has never sought to put forward detailed plans of how the new society of free access will be organised, since we would not seek to dictate now to the majority of socialist-minded workers at the time how to put into practice the plans they will have previously worked out about how to organise production and distribution cooperatively and democratically. Benanav, while not proposing detailed plans either, does, however, have some interesting insights as to how this could be organised or, as he puts it, ‘how the pieces of this defunct world can be reassembled into a new mode of social existence’. For example: ‘We would divide up responsibilities while taking into account individual aptitudes and proclivities. Some tasks would need to be performed locally, but many could be planned on a regional or global scale, using advanced computer technologies.’ Further: ‘The realm of freedom would be the one giving rise to all manner of dynamism: that is where human beings would invent new tools, instruments, and methods of accounting, as well as new games and gadgets, rapidly reallocating resources over time and space to suit changing human tastes (…). The world would then be composed of overlapping partial plans, with interrelated necessary and free activities, rather than a single central plan.’ He concludes, nevertheless, in a way that echoes closely the approach the Socialist Standard has taken in dealing with this subject over the years, by saying: ‘But these issues, as well as the related question of what counts as necessity and what as freedom, would be matters for a free humanity to resolve for itself, politically.’

Much of this follows from the ‘Future of Work’ element in the book’s title. Benanav’s argument about work in capitalism is that the ‘rise of the robots’ discourse common to those he terms ‘automation theorists’ is overblown and that the reason why workers of all kinds, whether in countries of advanced capitalist production or in less developed ones, are seeing increasing pressure on pay, job security and work conditions is not principally that the work is being done by automation (so-called ‘long-run technological unemployment’) but that capitalism in recent decades has experienced ‘deindustrialisation’, that is the number of jobs in the service sector consistently outstripping those in manufacturing side by side with global industrial over-capacity, ongoing wage stagnation, rising inequality and a proliferation of ‘bad jobs’. He sees this, together with the ‘angry ethnonationalisms’ it tends to bring with it, as an inevitable feature of the system’s trajectory leading to increasingly worse conditions for workers at all levels, incapable of remedy by vogue ideas such as Universal Basic Income and only capable of resolution by a movement of new social consciousness uniting ‘around a new emancipatory social project’ to bring in the kind of non-market post-scarcity society outlined above.

Theories of capitalist decay are of course debatable. Capitalism in its history has gone through numerous phases and crises and on the whole has managed, even if in an extremely uneven and irregular way, to improve living standards and conditions for large numbers of its wage slaves. What is not debatable, however, is that, under the current system, as the author puts it, ‘even in the richest countries most people are so atomized, materially insecure and alienated from their collective capacities that their horizons are stunted’ and that the kind of society he recommends to replace capitalism would be far superior to anything that has so far existed or that capitalism could promise in the future. In addition, though it would be, unlike capitalism and as socialists have always maintained, a society of abundance, it would not be – and would not need to be – a society of super-abundance, and this is something that Benanav captures effectively by stating that ‘a literal cornucopia is not required’. He goes on to explain that ‘it is only necessary that scarcity and its accompanying mentality be overcome’ and how ‘abundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed’ but ‘a social relationship, based on the principle that the means of one’s existence will never be at stake in any of one’s relationships’.

The sources drawn upon by Benanav in writing this book are wide and diverse with a good number of charts, graphs and tables and almost 40 pages of extensive documentation. Yet none of this weighs heavily on the reader, since both the thrust and the details of his arguments are laid out in a clear, engaging fashion making them easy, indeed pleasurable, to follow and take in, and causing the whole to hang together in a way that makes it a highly satisfying and persuasive read both for socialists and for anyone open to radical ideas about social development.

Why no abundance or more free time?

One thing that has puzzled academic economists is why, given the spread in recent years of IT, AI and automation generally, productivity has hardly gone up. In Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation (Reaktion Books) Jason E. Smith offers an explanation which also challenges those like Paul Mason who see a society of abundance and leisure as in the process of gradually evolving.

Productivity should mean physical output divided by the amount of labour-time required to produce it. Thus, if output increases while the amount of labour-time remain the same or if output remains the same while the amount of labour-time falls, then productivity goes up. This works for a particular factory or industry producing the same product but can’t work for the economy as a whole because what is produced is so different. To get round this, economists measure productivity by dividing the money value of total production by the total number of hours worked. For them, productivity at this level is GDP divided by the hours worked by all workers; which is a pretty meaningless figure, not least because it does not distinguish between hours worked to produce the output and hours worked by workers paid out of the output. It is, however, how ‘productivity’ is defined in this context.

Smith’s explanation as to why the increase in productivity in this sense has been so sluggish in recent decades is that, while productivity has gone up in the sector of the economy producing material goods, it has not gone up by anything like the same amount in the service sector which now accounts for as much as 80 percent of economic activity in the advanced capitalist parts of the world. Most services are labour-intensive and involve personal attention and inter-personal skills that can’t be replicated by machines. In addition, many of these jobs are low-paid, which reduces the incentive for employers to automate them.

Automation since the 1960s, or ‘cybernation’ as it was called, led neither to the mass unemployment nor to the leisure society that was variously predicted but, says Smith, to the growth of the service sector, many of whose jobs are unskilled and low-paid. Smith expects this to continue to be the trend despite all the hype about AI.

That increased productivity in the sense of physical output per hours of productive labour worked should result in the growth of low-paid service jobs is a perverse outcome. Marx had already noted this in the 1860s as, in a passage, Smith quotes from chapter 15 of Volume I of Capital:

‘[T]he extraordinary increase in the productivity of large-scale industry, accompanied as it is by both a more intensive and a more extensive exploitation of labour-power in all other spheres of productions, permits a larger and larger part of the working class to be employed unproductively. Hence it is possible to reproduce the ancient domestic slaves, on a constantly extending scale, under the name of a servant class’.

Today the ‘servant class’ is composed not of domestic servants (these still exists and their number is growing) but of those employed by the state – the appropriately called ‘civil servants’ and others – some of whom are engaged in very socially useful work such as teaching and health care but who are nevertheless still paid out of taxes levied on the output of the productive sector of the economy.

Taking less and less time to produce material things and the means to produce them does open up the possibility of a world of plenty, better and more extensive public services and amenities, and free time for people to develop their talents or pursue what interests them. However, this is not achievable on the basis of the present-day class ownership of the means of life and their use to produce wealth for sale with a view to profit. It requires what Smith calls ‘a non- or post-capitalist society’ (and we call ‘socialism’) in which production is directly geared to satisfying people’s needs on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of society’s productive resources.

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