O Robot Where Art Thou?


Some believe ceaseless automation, endemic to capitalism, will decimate employment, forcing a post-capitalist transition. But barely breathing productivity figures indicate that capitalism is not as transformative as once claimed. Technology still seems something to be dreaded, its liberatory potential buried beneath an irrational economic system.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared in The Communist Manifesto. To Marx, capitalism was oppressive, immiserating and dehumanizing but, in the final analysis, progressive because the technological leaps it entailed paved the way for a rational, socialist society.

Nearly a hundred years later another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, made a very similar point, but this time from a pro-capitalist perspective. He referred to the “gale of creative destruction … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one and incessantly creating a new one”.

But will such ceaseless churn be capitalism’s ultimate undoing? That’s the intuition of the sociologist Randall Collins who predicts the demise of capitalism in the next 30 to 50 years. In the 2013 book Does Capitalism Have a Future?  he claims that automation, which has already ravaged skilled working class manufacturing jobs, is set to scythe through the bastions of middle class employment – communicative labour – in the coming decades. The result will be structural unemployment of 50 or even 70%, a ‘deep depression’, and, most likely, post-capitalist transition by mid-century.   

Short of jettisoning capitalism, this looming confrontation cannot be averted. “There is no intrinsic end to this process of replacing humans with computers and other machines,” Collins writes. “The displacement of human work will go on not just for the next twenty years but the next hundred, even the next thousand years – unless something extrinsic happens to change the underlying mechanism driving technological displacement of work: capitalist competition.”

An oppressive stillness

However, there is one problem with this scenario. Far from steaming ahead, as it theoretically should be in a competitive capitalist environment, technological advancement is crawling along. Productivity measures output per worker and were automation to be busily rewiring the entire economy, productivity would be soaring – machines (if they are ready to be utilised in the economy) being far more efficient than the average human. In fact the opposite is the case. Productivity growth in advanced economies is currently a risible 0.3% a year, compared to 1% before the 2008 crisis, which in turn pales next to the 5% attained in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the UK, productivity fell by 0.5% in the first three months of 2017. And the productivity enigma is not limited to advanced economies – regions like Latin America show similar inertia.

Capital investment, often the precursor to productivity growth, is likewise feeble. It collapsed after 2008 and has been falling steadily for the past three decades in any case. The gale of creative destruction has turned into an oppressive stillness.

Equally, unemployment shows scant signs of the robot revolution. If robots were stealing all the jobs, thousands of people would find themselves surplus to requirements. The official unemployment rate is 4.8% in the UK and 4.7% in the US. Assuredly, these figures need to be read in the light of the millions who have given up looking for work or are economically inactive, but they do not appear to mask steadily rising structural unemployment caused by technological displacement.

And the jobs being ‘created’ are not ones entailing the supervision of machines; they are menial. The number of hand car washes in Britain now stands at 20,000 while their mechanised equivalent, the rollover cash wash, has halved in number in ten years. In the words of one commentator, this is “a kind of reverse industrialisation”.

Collins himself notes that the “biggest area of job growth in rich countries has been low-skilled service jobs, where it is cheaper to hire human labour than to automate.” In the US, he says, one of the most impressive employment growth areas is (as of 2013 when he was writing) tattoo parlours.

This is not to claim that new technologies are not being conceived or realised. Most people, by now, have heard of 3-D printing, self-driving cars and nano-technology. But they are not being utilised in the economy. This is not a new development, though perhaps it is new for capitalism. The steam engine was invented during the Roman Empire but was not commercially exploited until the 18th century.

David Graeber attributes part of the reason for technological stagnation to the corporate form. In Marx’s London, says Graeber, scientific and technological innovation was the order of the day because individual capitalists, rather than conglomerates, dominated. But in the 20th century, corporations gradually extended their iron grip and creativity declined.

There is something to be said for this. The point of a corporation is not to encourage competition but stamp it out – to achieve monopoly and restrict entry to the market to other firms. Once market dominance has been achieved, you then aim to maximise take-up of your products (two or three of the same gadget for everyone) and to restrict labour costs (by moving your production to China for example). But technological innovation brought by a rival company breathing down your neck is less desirable.

The rise of the zombies

However, I don’t think this tells the whole story. The really glaring declines in productivity have occurred after the 2008 financial crisis. The official story is that government stepped to make sure credit continued to flow through the system and to set the private economy back on the virtuous path of self-regulation. But in reality what emerged was the simulacrum of a competitive system, and one particularly ill-suited to technological innovation. The priority was to preserve the system, and that overriding aim sacrificed what technological dynamism there was.

It’s undisputed that what characterised the world economic system before 2008 was overwhelming debt – debt miring banks, corporations and subsequently governments, debt asphyxiating consumers as wages failed to grow. But far from falling after the crisis, debt has continued to mount. In 2015 it was revealed that global debt had risen by over 40% since 2008, climbing to $57 trillion. Ultra-low interest rates throughout the world have made that debt manageable (by minimising interest payments) even while it continues to mount.

But this ‘preservationism’ has facilitated the after-life of a growing number of ‘zombie’ companies – firms so much in debt that their income only covers the interest payments they have to make. According to the OECD, across nine European economies (including the UK), between 5 and 20% of the total sum of private capital is sunk in zombie companies. It is estimated that there are between 108,000 and 160,000 such undead companies in the UK. And there are presumably many more near zombies. It no accident that genuine technological innovation is the preserve of a few mega corporations, such as Apple, who are awash with cash. Most companies don’t want to risk investment in untried technology.

“The fundamental tenet of capitalism, which holds that some bad companies need to fail to make way for new and better ones, is being rewritten,” says one management consultant. Farewell Joseph Schumpeter.

This might explain the growth of menial, low paid, temporary work rather than robotic technology. Such work guarantees profit but requires minimal capital investment in new equipment. According to Adair Turner, the former head of the UK’s Low Pay Commission, “there is something about the economy which – left to itself – will proliferate very, very low paid jobs.” But, of course, the economy has not been ‘left to itself’ – its financial system has been subject to a multi-trillion dollar bail-out and central banks across the world are still in the process of ‘tapering down’ a Quantitative Easing programme that has created $12.3 trillion out of thin air.

This economic settlement also indicates that the scenario painted by Randall Collins – one where capitalist competition ordains the rapid robotization of the economy, throwing 50 or 70% of people out of work by the middle of the century – will take much longer to come to pass, if it does at all. A new and deeper financial crisis will almost certainly get their first.

Can technology liberate?

However, there is, at root, something strange about dreading technological progress – desultory or transformative. Collins’ nightmarish near-future – where a tiny elite owns all the automated businesses and computer equipment and the vast majority of people fight over the scant number of jobs serving them – is peculiar to a very particular kind of social structure. One in which a person’s livelihood is dependent on whether they can make themselves useful to the ‘productive apparatus’. In these circumstances, being displaced by a machine is clearly very threatening.

But automation loses its menace if people’s income is divorced from work; if the income they receive to live on has nothing to do with their ability to sell themselves to an employer, or the capacity of a machine to perform a task more efficiently than a human can. Once this practical and conceptual breakthrough has been made, far from being something to be dreaded, technology acquires a very different complexion. It becomes something to be welcomed.

The thinker who most embodied this leap in understanding was Murray Bookchin. Back in 1965 (its five decades old lineage revealing in itself) he wrote an essay entitled Toward a Liberatory Technology that belied contemporary attitudes of ‘deep pessimism’ and fatalism towards the effects of technology. “After thousands of years of tortuous development,” Bookchin wrote, “the countries of the Western world (and potentially all countries) are confronted by the possibility of a materially abundant, almost workless era in which most of the means of life can be provided by machines.”

The real issue to Bookchin was not whether this technically transformed economy could eliminate repetitive and thankless toil, “but whether it can help to humanize society”. Technology, he claimed, did not have to enslave humanity or result in legions of passive automatons ensnared by gadgets. It could just easily facilitate a revival of craftsmanship, generating products that people can personalise themselves or freeing them to pursue ‘unproductive’ activities.

But the primary liberatory potential of technology lay in the fact that it could give people the free time and energy to manage society themselves. Past revolutions, such as the French or the Russian, had shown tantalising glimpses of this possibility. The Parisian sections of 1789 or the Petrograd soviets (councils) of 1917 were democratic assemblies which everyone could attend and participate in the hitherto privileged act of ‘policy making’. However, the brute fact that these societies were mired in conditions of material scarcity meant, said Bookchin, that the mass of people had to return to the role of mute wage slaves reproducing the means of subsistence, while “the reins of power fell into the hands of political ‘professionals’”.

Future society – and specifically the robotized society predicted by Collins – has no such restraints. It only the outcome of a perverse social structure that, in a material environment where robots and computers carry out the vast majority of work, people fight among themselves for the right to serve the elite. Nor is it inevitable that, as Collins predicts, that post-capitalist society oscillates between the bureaucratic oppression of central planning and market capitalism. Fully automated luxury communism can not only facilitate a self-managed society but also satisfy myriad wants far better than the Stalinist planned economies of the post-war years. “From the moment toil is reduced to the barest possible minimum or disappears entirely,” said Bookchin, “the problems of survival pass into the problems of life, and technology itself passes from being the servant of man’s immediate needs to being the partner of his (sic) creativity.”

I think three things are becoming increasingly clear: Firstly, automation determined by capitalist competition will magnify even further current extreme inequalities of wealth and power, leading to a dystopian future. Secondly, far from revolutionizing the ‘productive forces’, the corporate, debt-riddled, state-reliant economy that has emerged from the 2008 global financial crisis is proving conspicuously bad at instituting technological innovation, preferring old-fashioned exploitation of human labour. Lastly, a post-capitalist society, founded on a universal guaranteed income, can choose which technologies to expedite, without any concern about the consequences of throwing people out of work. It can also facilitate enduring democratic self-management for the first time in history. Given the first two scenarios are not remotely desirable and will likely precipitate huge conflict and war, getting to the third, however difficult, is the only rational course of action.