By Mike Treen, Unite National Director
There seem to be two contrasting approaches to the possibility of robots displacing more and more jobs in the future.
One is that this is an inevitable outcome and we must prepare for a dystopian future like that portrayed in the film Elysium. There the 1% have created a space planet in a protective enclosure where they can live a life of luxury based on robotic production on earth. A robotic security system is used to keep out the declassed mass of poor scavenging an existence on earth.
Professor Stephen Hawking joined the debate last week. “If machines produce everything we need,” Hawking wrote in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, “everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared – or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”
The other view is that robots will inevitably become more productive and useful and take over all the drudgery of meaningless work. This will in turn free people to live full lives of leisure and creativity.
However, both sides ignore the nature of the social system we live under today.
Capitalism is a system of generalised commodity production. Commodities are produced to be sold at a profit. The purpose is to make money not useful goods. Capitalists succeed if they are able to get at least the average rate of profit as a consequence of producing and selling their commodities. Competition drives the capitalists to increase the productiveness of their capital through the intensification of the exploitation of labour and nature. The introduction of new technology often aids that process by making labour more productive. But it is introduced only if it makes labour more profitable, that is if it produces goods more cheaply and those goods can be sold at prices that returns the average rate of profit or better.
But production is limited by sale. I discussed why there are limits of the market under capitalism last week. However, all capitalist economic theories assume an unlimited ability to increase production. That is why pro-capitalist economic theorists and commentators are forever surprised when generalised crises of overproduction emerge in the system again and again.
Elysium can’t actually be a capitalist society. Who would buy the commodities being produced? The elite consumption of the 1% can’t be enough on its own to replace the consumption of billions of people who would have no means of purchasing the commodities.
It would be a type of technocratic slave or feudal economy that simply fed the serfs or slaves and appropriated the surplus. But why bother feeding them if the robots made robots and made the luxury items needed by the rulers? No society like that could tolerate for long. Society would have broken up through economic and social crises and class struggle long before such a horror could be established.
The 2008 international recession was the most recent generalised crisis of overproduction. Paul Mason, the economics editor of Channel 4 in the UK and a Guardian columnist, noted its impact: “The 2008 crash wiped 13% off global production and 20% off global trade. Global growth became negative – on a scale where anything below +3% is counted as a recession. It produced, in the west, a depression phase longer than in 1929-33, and even now, amid a pallid recovery, has left mainstream economists terrified about the prospect of long-term stagnation. The aftershocks in Europe are tearing the continent apart.”
Paul Mason believes that this crisis was the beginning of a deeper and more profound period of crisis in the system of capitalism. His article is headed “The end of capitalism has begun.”
A book by Mason exploring the themes of this article in more depth is called “Post Capitalism”. In it he writes: “The 2008 crisis was just the tremor in advance of the earthquake”. To salvage the fortresses of international capitalism, central bankers around the world pumped an incredible $12 trillion into the system, primarily through the form of quantitative easing (p.13).
I agree with Mason on the depth of the crisis and the need for an alternative. The capitalist system was thrown into reverse on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The recovery from that crises has been weak. There is a real possibility that a new a greater crises will hit the system as part of a new world downturn over the next few years. None of the usual mechanisms the capitalists have used in the past to drive a recovery seems to be producing the results they were hoping for.
A new downturn will mean that capitalism has few tools left to fight it. Essentially the capitalist rulers threw money at the problem. Government’s printed money, ran budget deficits, maintained low interest rates and so on. But if the economy turns down again – as seems to be happening – they can’t just repeat the previous trick without collapsing the value of the US dollar and destroying its role as the world currency. That would simply deepen the crises into one of a severity likely to be greater than the 1930s.
Robots can’t change that reality. In fact, although robots may increase the productiveness of an individual capitalist and his or her chance of survival, ultimately new technology undermines the system itself by accentuating and reproducing the periodic overproduction crises.
Paul Mason’s book on Post Capitalism argues the information revolution which is an important aspect of the new technology will inevitably lead to a “post-capitalist” society. His arguments are summarised in the Guardian article that is worth studying.
Mason argues that “information”, once it has been produced, is essentially costless to reproduce and, therefore, can’t be made to fit a capitalist model. This allows for a post-capitalist mode of production based on free ownership and cooperation to emerge and replace capitalism.
In my view, Mason overestimates the importance of information technology and its potential to change society on its own which clouds his judgement from the beginning.
The thesis that information is becoming abundant is not new. Marx wrote in 1863 that it was one of the many contradictions that exists under capitalism. “The product of mental labour – science – always stands far below its value because the labour-time needed to reproduce it bears no relation at all to the labour-time required for its original production. For example, a schoolboy can learn the binomial theorem in an hour.” (Theories of Surplus Value Volume I, p.353)
Capitalism uses every mechanism possible to turn information into a commodity to sell. That has been much of the reason for the prolonged negotiations around so-called trade agreement. These agreements are not actually much about trade which has few restrictions on it anymore. The capitalists have instead been using these agreements to beef up intellectual property laws, patents and copyright to protect their monopoly control. In addition, usually “information” is locked up in material commodities and cannot be separated easily.
These laws are then backed up by the legal, political and military might of the greatest powers on the globe. Kim Dot Com is discovering this to his discomfort despite his personal wealth.
Some industries may ultimately disappear. The production of music CD’s could be displaced by digital downloads and streaming. Maybe the LP stages a comeback for genuine quality music. But when some industries decline, others have grown in their place. One area of recent expansion in capitalism has been the fast food industry. McDonald’s NZ has 10,000 staff and is one of the biggest companies in the country.
According to Mason the key features of this new post-capitalist system are: “First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.”
It is not at all obvious that the system we live under has reduced the need for work. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the world waged working class hit 1.6 billion in 2013 and exceeded non-waged labour for the first time in human history. Average work weeks in advanced capitalist countries remain largely unchanged. But under capitalism overwork for some and under work for others remains a constant feature.
And Mason’s caveat that “The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences…. “ undermines his whole thesis.
Technology can eliminate labour from the productive process. But the current “social infrastructure” i.e. capitalism, based on production for profit, is the barrier to progress.
As Juliet Schor explains in her article entitled “Debating the Sharing Economy”:
“…these new technologies of peer-to-peer economic activity are potentially powerful tools for building a social movement centered on genuine practices of sharing and cooperation in the production and consumption of goods and services. But achieving that potential will require democratizing the ownership and governance of the platforms.
“The sharing economy has been propelled by exciting new technologies. The ease with which individuals, even strangers, can now connect, exchange, share information, and cooperate is truly transformative. That’s the promise of the sharing platforms about which virtually everyone agrees. But technologies are only as good as the political and social context in which they are employed. Software, crowdsourcing, and the information commons give us powerful tools for building social solidarity, democracy, and sustainability. Now our task is to build a movement to harness that power.”
We can agree with Mason that capitalism needs replacing. But what with?
Mason also says, “it will need the state to create the framework” for the changes needed.
What does he want this state to do?
He wants a universal basic income. He demands that the state stop privatisations. He wants companies to act more responsibly through “law and regulation.” He would “suppress or socialise” monopolies. He wants “public provision of water, energy, housing, transport, healthcare, telecoms infrastructure and education.” He would also “socialise the financial system.”
This all very worthy and sounds very familiar. It is a programme to try and make capitalism work through fundamental reforms to weaken the power and control of big business over the economy. It is a revived form of what was promised in the past by traditional social democratic or labour parties.
The problem has been that big business controls the state that Mason wants to use to introduce these changes and does everything to ensure it controls any party that wants to govern a capitalist country.
If a party wants to challenge capitalist control and carry out the type of reform programme outlined by Mason in his book it will require a massive confrontation with the 1% who run the show today.
The programme of privatisation, deregulation, and commodification of essential services was not some weird aberration in Thatcher’s Britain that can be turned around by a few wise heads getting together on the net. It was a global class programme to benefit the 1%. It has been enormously successful. That 1% is now more powerful than ever before. It will be harder than ever to achieve a fundamental change of course from those now in power. Every aspect of the existing state apparatus has been transformed to ensure it only hears the voices of the class that owns the means of production and exchange.
It will require a social and political movement based on alternative power in society to challenge that control, transform the state where it can be and build a new one serving the interests of the majority where needed. The only class with the numbers and social cohesion to be able to provide that power that has no interest in maintaining capitalism is the working class.
Paul Mason seems to have been demoralised by what he sees as the defeat of the left and working class movement. He writes that “over the past 25 years it has been the left’s project that has collapsed. The market destroyed the plan; individualism replaced collectivism and solidarity; the hugely expanded workforce of the world looks like a “proletariat”, but no longer thinks or behaves as it once did.”
He is looking for a new agency of change in the “networked individual”. But under capitalism the networked individual may be a Bill Gates or a factory worker in China. Who is the more likely agent of change in this system?
Mason often seems to miss the bigger picture. For example, he notes that “In 2014, 30,000 shoeworkers at the Yue Yen factory in Shanzhou staged the first big strike to use group messaging and microblogging as organisational tools.” He seems more impressed with the messaging than with the strike.
The left project has not collapsed all over the world in the last 25 years. That was true for many advanced capitalist countries – especially in the Anglo-Saxon world Mason is part of.
But the working class is mobilising in their millions in China, India and Latin America. In Latin America, there are political alternatives developing that pose the need for a “socialism for the 21st Century”. That is the road we should be following rather than the dead end of appeals to the existing state structure or middle-class techno-libertarians to save us through a utopian “post capitalism” devoid of social content.
“Post capitalism” already has a name – socialism. We need to rediscover socialism’s original attachment to radical change that seeks to put democracy at the centre of economic and political decision making. The technological changes that are happening, including those allowing a more democratic means for people to collaborating politically and economically through solidarity social networks, makes socialism more possible today than ever before.
Technology can give us new levers, but the working class, not the 1%, needs to take control of those levers to restructure society in such a way that economy works for the big majority.
John Lanchester made this point very well in a wonderful book review in the London Review of Books headed “The robots are Coming”:
It’s also worth noting what isn’t being said about this robotified future. The scenario we’re given – the one being made to feel inevitable – is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there’s no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.)
There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants. This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines. It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership.
The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable. This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour. Except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.
Despite my disagreements with some of his arguments Mason’s conclusion in his Guardian article still rings true except I would count his proposals as among the utopian dreams:
“We need more than just a bunch of utopian dreams and small-scale horizontal projects. We need a project based on reason, evidence and testable designs, that cuts with the grain of history and is sustainable by the planet. And we need to get on with it.”
We need socialism!