Friday, March 03, 2017

The Robots are coming (2)

Our earlier post on the impact of automation has resulted in a contribution by another member who links to this 2014 article which to is well worth quoting sections of.

 The future really doesn't look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world's jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.

Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn't necessary.

 But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn't do much good.

The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn't even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that's been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.

According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:
The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.”

Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:
Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”
In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what's called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren't the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.
Once robots take over society's productive forces, people will have more free time than ever before, which will "redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation," Marx wrote. Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, will develop new means of social thought and cooperation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism. In short, Marx claimed that automation would bring about the end of capitalism.

 No idiom captures the spirit of capitalism better than "time is money".

If machines ostensibly create more free time for humans by doing more work, capitalists must create new forms of work to make that time productive in order to continue capturing surplus value for themselves. As Marx wrote (forgive my reprinting of his problematic language):
The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools [...] But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital... employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.”

"Not immediately productive" is the key phrase here. Just think of all the forms of work that have popped up since automation began to really take hold during the Industrial Revolution: service sector work, online work, part-time and otherwise low-paid work. You're not producing anything while working haphazard hours as a cashier at Walmart, but you are creating value by selling what has already been built, often by machines. In the automated world, precarious labour reigns. Jobs that offer no stability, no satisfaction, no acceptable standard of living, and seem to take up all of our time by occupying so many scattered parcels of it are the norm.

It's likely that we'll be working more, and at shitty jobs. The question is: what kind of work, and exactly how shitty?

...being anti-robot or anti-technology is not a very helpful position to take. There's no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what's needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order...

...At a time when so many of us are looking towards the future, one particular possibility is continually ignored: a future without capitalism. Work without capitalism, free time without capitalism, and, yes, even robots without capitalism. Perhaps only then could we build the foundations of a future world where technology works for all of us, and not just the privileged few.



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