Cooking the Books 1 – From Marx to Musk

In his interview with Rishi Sunak on 2 November Elon Musk speculated that the widespread application of AI would usher in an ‘age of abundance where any goods and services that you want, you can have’. People would only need work for ’personal satisfaction’.

Clearly, this wouldn’t be capitalism. It couldn’t be as it would mean the end of working for wages and producing goods and services to be sold. This was understood by, of all people, Jeremy Clarkson in a surprisingly perspicacious passage in his column in the Sun the following day:

‘The fact is, then, that if machines are doing all the jobs, there will be no economy. You won’t be able to buy anything because you won’t be earning anything. And there’s no point going to the government for help because that won’t have any money either. Because machines don’t pay taxes. They just spend all day making stuff. That no one can afford to buy. This means we will need a whole new economy. A whole new system where there’s no such thing as money. And that is the biggest worry of them all because no one has a clue what that might be’.

The last bit is not true. Socialists have long understood that the answer would be a society where productive resources including machines would be commonly owned and democratically controlled and used to produce wealth to directly satisfy people’s needs instead of, as now, to be sold on a market with a view to profit. In such a society there would indeed be no such thing as money.

Clarkson may not have known it but he was describing what has recently been called ‘fully automated luxury communism’. But we don’t have to wait for ‘full’ automation to bring about a society of common ownership, democratic control and production directly for use. The productive forces are already sufficiently developed for this. Making the change is now only a question of political will.

As a matter of fact years ago Marx had anticipated the points made by Musk. Writing in the late 1850s he speculated what would happen if the application of science and machinery to production led to such a high level of productivity that not only the value added by direct human labour to each unit produced was reduced to an insignificant proportion, but so was that transferred to these units from the fixed capital deployed:

‘As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. (…) With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis (‘Contradiction between the foundation of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development. Machines etc.’, Grundrisse, chapter 14).

In other words, goods and services would be so cheap — each unit would contain so little labour, both new and that transferred by machinery, etc — that the huge amount of them that could be produced could not be priced but might as well be given away or provided free.

Marx did not expect this point to be reached — he expected that the working class would have put an end to capitalism long before — but he realised that, if it were to be, it would mean the end of capitalism. Production for sale would no longer make any sense.

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