On his website, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang claims that “In the next 12 years, 1 out of 3 American workers is at risk of losing their jobs to new technologies—and unlike with previous waves of automation, this time new jobs will not appear quickly enough in large enough numbers to make up for it.” (Yang, 2019) Andrew Yang is running on a proposal to provide $1000 a month to every U.S. citizen as a means to reduce poverty, which may increase due to an increase in unemployment caused by automation. In a future marked by rapid technological change, what will happen to our society?
Automation appears to have a contradictory nature. New technology in itself increases labor productivity, but lately, wages have barely increased. Corporate productivity has risen 72% since 1973, but American wages are up only 9% (Garret & McBride, 2017). Taken by itself, new technology decreases the amount of labor required for production, yet on average, prime-age adults worked 7.8 percent more hours per year in 2016 than in 1979 (Wilson & Jones, 2018). In his book ‘Capital’, 19th century economist Karl Marx writes that new technology “in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital, makes them paupers.” (Marx, Mandel, Fowkes, & Fernbach, 1976, p. 569)
Below, I interrogate the following questions: What is the relationship between labor and new technology? What is the relationship between new technology and profit? Why aren’t we already working 15-hour work weeks like Keynes predicted nearly a century ago?
One of the remarkable features of the information era is how fast innovation is taking place. The tech industry constantly boasts about the “sustained exponential improvement in most aspects of computing,” (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2016, p. 90) which show no sign of stopping. “Moore’s Law–which states that the number of transistors on a given chip can be doubled every two years” (Kanellos, 2003) has held true since Moore first formulated the famous dictum half a century ago in 1965. Of the various causes for this increased pace of innovation, perhaps the most significant, is the communications revolution. With the advent of the internet, people are more connected than ever and knowledge has never been more accessible than it is today. The information era will be characterized by “billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world.” (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2016, p. 96)
As we move further into the 21st century, “digitization continues to spread and accelerate,” (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2016, p. 66) creating an explosion of readily accessible data as the web encompasses a greater part of our lives. Such data is essential for scientists, providing the raw numbers with which we may test and reformulate our theories. It has also fueled great strides in the field of artificial intelligence, generating enormous stores of data utilized in machine learning. In their book ‘The Second Machine Age’, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee state that artificial intelligence is one of “the most important one-time events in our history.” (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2016, p. 90) For the first time in human history, “our digital machines have escaped their narrow confines and started to demonstrate broad abilities in pattern recognition, complex communication, and other domains that used to be exclusively human.”(Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2016, p. 91) They state that this innovation will “fundamentally change our growth prospects,” (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2016, p. 90) as artificial intelligence can theoretically be implemented to substitute labor in a wide variety of occupations.
Projected outcomes of automation
In a report published on January 2019 by the Brookings Institution, titled ‘Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How Machines Affect People and Places’, researchers found that “automation will affect tasks in virtually all occupational groups in the future” (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 29)
Researchers at Brookings Institution found that “routine, predictable physical and cognitive tasks will be the most vulnerable to automation in the coming years.” (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 5) In his book ‘The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment’, “futurist” Martin Ford states that this group will only grow larger “as the technological frontier advances, many jobs that we would today consider nonroutine, will eventually be pulled into the routine and predictable category.” (Ford, 2016, p. 61) Andrew Yang believes occupations such as “doctors, lawyers, accountants, wealth advisors, traders, journalists, and even artists and psychologists who perform routine activities will be threatened by automation technologies.” (Yang, 2019, p. 50)
The risks of technological unemployment vary across regions but it’ll be most “disruptive in the Heartland states—the same region hit hardest by IT era changes.” (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 37) This is due, in part, to the adoption of self-driving trucks. Researchers at Brookings Institution found that truck drivers have a 78% probability to be replaced by automation (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 30). Many local communities in the midwest depend on human truck drivers. Andrew Yang states, “Driving a truck is the most popular job in 29 states—there are 3.5 million truck drivers nationwide.” (Yang, 2019, p. 43) Yang believes that if truck drivers lose their jobs, it will have rippling effects throughout the economy. He remarks, “It is impossible to overstate the importance of truck drivers to regional economies around the country. As many as 7.2 million workers serve the needs of truck drivers at truck stops, diners, motels, and other businesses around the country. Over 2,000 truck stops around the country serve as dedicated hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and entertainment hubs for truckers every day. If one assumes that each trucker spends only $5K a year on consumption on the road (about $100 per week), that’s a $17.5 billion economic hit in communities around the country.” (Yang, 2019, p. 45)
Researchers at Brookings Institution also found that automation does not necessarily increase unemployment:
Automation can increase demand, creating jobs. Machine substitution for labor improves productivity and quality and reduces the cost of goods and services. This may—though not always, and not forever—have the impact of increasing employment in these same sectors. This is because the automation-driven cost and quality improvements can increase demand for these goods and services to a degree that offsets any would-be job losses from automation. Similarly, the productivity and wage gains brought by automation can result in workers having more disposable income, which increases consumption and hence employment in other industries. (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 14)
Researchers at Brookings Institution also clarify that there is a divergence between the potential of automation and the reality of automation:
To see this consider that McKinsey & Company estimates that the U.S. currently achieve just 18 percent of its ‘digital potential.’ More broadly, there are many reasons why technological adoption falls short of potential, including: technical feasibility, deployment challenges, labor competition, regulatory and social barriers, and institutional factors, among others. (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 15)
Andrew Yang believes that one of the reasons we may not be seeing automation substituting labor just yet is because “we’re in an environment where employers are faced with low incentives to innovate because people are quite cheap to hire.” (Yang, 2019, p. 80) Any worker who is displaced by automation “would have to keep working in order to feed themselves, and so would take any job in sight, thus depressing wages” (Yang, 2019, p. 80) and keeping the incentive to automate low.
Researchers at Brookings Institution explain that speculation about the future of the economy can be inadequate because “the economy is a dynamic system that will evolve, expand into new areas, and reallocate among existing activities. These factors make it impossible to predict how the economy will reshape itself over the coming decades.” (Muro, Maxim, Whiton, & Hathaway, 2019, p. 21) The fate of many workers livelihood will be decided by this dynamic system. In his book ‘Anti-Dühring’, Philosopher Friedrich Engels wrote that in in our current society “men are dominated by the economic conditions created by themselves, by the means of production which they themselves have produced, as if by an alien force.” (Engels & Burns, 1878, p. 199)
Andrew Yang believes that we are already experiencing the effects of automation, remarking that,
More than 5 million manufacturing workers lost their jobs after 2000. More than 80 percent of the jobs lost‒or 4 million jobs‒were due to automation… One Department of Labor survey in 2012 found that 41 percent of displaced manufacturing workers were still unemployed. (Yang, 2019, pp. 41-42)
Yang is concerned that automation may leave many workers without a job, which he fears is a problem the country isn’t prepared for.
Amazon has been introducing robots into its distribution warehouses not to substitute labor, but to complement it. It has deployed 45,000 Kiva robots in 2016, up from 30,000 in 2015 (Kessler, 2017) ; while simultaneously employing 341,400 part and full-time workers at the end of 2016, a 50% increase from 2015 (Kessler, 2017). The robots move items around the warehouse and the workers use their motor skills to package and store items. Sarah Kessler states, “warehouse robots may also have helped Amazon reduce the price of shipping… which in turn increased demand for delivery, which in turn created greater demand for workers in warehouses,” (Kessler, 2017) causing an increase in employment at Amazon.
The World Economic Forum published a report on February 16th, 2017, about the productivity of a robot workforce which has the potential to threaten the existence of human employment. They state, “the latest evidence comes out of a Chinese factory in Dongguan City. The factory recently replaced 90 percent of its human workforce with machines, and it led to a staggering 250 percent increase in productivity and a significant 80 percent drop in defects.” (Javelosa & Houser, 2017) However, the World Economic Forum states that this innovation comes at a price, as it may put many people out of jobs. They cite a study from Oxford University claiming that “about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk” (Frey & Osborne, 2017) of being automated. There also seems to be no limit on the type of job that can be replaced by automation, as improving AI will be able to replace even the more high-paying jobs. They emphasize the need to come up with solutions in the case of widespread unemployment due to automation.
Such prophetic claims about jobless futures may be an overstatement however, as they have been made in the past several times.
In a recent article published by The Brooklyn Rail, titled, ‘Nowhere to go: Automation, then and now’, Jason E. Smith investigates the role automation has had in the past. In the middle of the strikes of the 1950s, autoworker James Bogg warned that automation would begin replacing workers, and those workers would then have nowhere to go. Jason Smith writes, “It was precisely this threat of substitution that, Bogg concludes, was decisive in the quashing of the strike movement in the middle of the 1950s.” (Smith, 2017) Jason Smith notes that the fear of automation has been held ever since the inception of the capitalist mode of production.
The first revolts of workers’ movement produced the myths of General Ludd and Captain Swing, and the insurrectionary forays of the canuts of Lyon… Yet the development of the productive forces, and the implementation of large-scale machinery in capitalist factories, never quite made workers purely and simply redundant. To the contrary, over the course of more than a century, the demand for labor had grown exponentially, even as millions of peasants poured into cities, and entered into the wages system and the urban cash nexus. (Smith, 2017)
James Bogg believed that automation in the 50s was different, “Automation replaces men. This is of course nothing new. What is new is that now, unlike most earlier periods, the displaced men have nowhere to go.” (Smith, 2017) Many began to speculate about how a ‘cybernetic’ world may look after machines had fully replaced labor, worrying about the implications of mass unemployment. Smith, looking back, remarks that,
Within a decade, however, by the late 1960s, many of these same commentators would herald a coming post-industrial society and its rapidly expanding service sector, which would quickly soak up the vast majority of those Boggs claimed would have “nowhere to go”. (Smith, 2017)
19th century economist Jean Charles Léonard de Sismondi looks back even further to the application of machinery within feudal society in order to prove that the contradictory nature of machinery arises not from the machinery itself, but from the organization of society based off the exploitation of the proletariat, workers who have no property. In feudal society, industrial production was localized and monopolized by guilds. Within these guilds, it was possible for workers to ascend from apprenticeship, to journeyman, and then master; acquiring a workshop of his own. According to Sismondi, the medieval guildsman is not threatened by new technology, “If some discovery in mechanics can be useful in his trade, he profits by it; he does not run the risk of being superseded by a machine.” (Sismondi, 1847, p. 205) He has no fear of being replaced, because he owns his means of productions.
Once capitalism became the dominant mode of production, things changed for the worker. Sismondi writes, “We are… in a situation which is entirely new for society… we are striving to separate every kind of property from every kind of labour” (Sismondi, 1827, p. 434). They can be replaced at any moment, competing against machines and the unemployed. Manufacturers are in competition with other manufacturers. Production becomes for profit rather than use.
A scientific analysis of the effects of automation on the economy is possible “only if we can grasp the inner nature of capital, just as the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies are intelligible only to someone who is acquainted with their real motions, which are not perceptible to the senses” (Marx, Mandel, Fowkes, & Fernbach, 1976, p. 433)
The substitution of labor with machine is an issue that has been analyzed through a variety of perspectives since the Industrial Revolution. John Maynard Keynes claimed in his 1930 essay, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, that technological unemployment was the cause for the Great Depression, stating, “The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption.” (Keynes, 1930) Despite this, Keynes had optimism that technological advancements would increase the standard of living in the far future, reducing the work week. John Stuart Mill writes in his ‘Principles of Political Economy’, “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” (Mill & Ashley, 1848, p. 751)
What both economists miss is that “the aim of the application of machinery under capitalism” (Marx, Mandel, Fowkes, & Fernbach, 1976, p. 492) isn’t to improve the quality of life, or to reduce the work week, but “the pursuit of surplus value, the development of production is a by-product.” (Foley, 1986, p. 57-58)
Duncan K. Foley in his ‘Understanding Capital’, explains the role technical progress has on the economy as follows:
“Technical change under capitalism is motivated by the individual capitalists’ attempts to lower their costs of production. Any particular capitalist who succeeds in discovering a method of lowering costs of production benefits by appropriating a ‘super-profit,’ because his commodities continue to sell for the same market price as those of other capitalists but his cost of production are smaller… This super profit inevitably declines over time as other capitalists discover the same or even more effective techniques for lowering costs.” (Foley, 1986, p. 54)
This process may include displacing workers by substituting labor with machinery. Technological unemployment also creates a floating reserve army of labor, which decreases the value of human labor. This can impede “the use of machinery in other branches,” (Marx, Mandel, Fowkes, & Fernbach, 1976, p. 516) as replacing labor with machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist. No capitalist ever introduces new machinery unless by doing so he can increase his profit.
Capitalist production has a tendency to introduces new machinery in an “attempt to reduce the use of human labor to a minimum.” (Foley, 1986, p. 140) This however backfires, as “machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value.” (Marx, Mandel, Fowkes, & Fernbach, 1976, p. 509) Only human labor creates surplus value (Foley, 1986, p. 140). Thus, automation is beneficial to the individual capitalist, but collectively it results in a lower rate of profit.
George Caffentzis explains that this falling tendency of the rate of profit is then met by “counteracting causes” to keep up profits.
These counteracting causes either increase the mass of surplus value (e.g., raising the intensity and duration of the working day), or decrease the mass of variable capital (e.g., depress wages below their value, expand foreign trade). (Caffentzis, 2013, p. 72)
To understand the role automation will have in our current bourgeois society it’s imperative to understand that capitalist production is for profit, not for use. Workers seldomly see benefits from new technology because our current bourgeois society is based off the exploitation of the workers.
Philosopher Friedrich Engels in the ‘Preface to the English Edition’ of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’ describes the contradictory nature of technological progress under capitalism as follows, “While the productive power increase in a geometric ratio, the extension of markets proceeds at best in arithmetic one.” (Engels & Marx, 1889) In ‘Capital’, Marx remarks that “Modern Industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary.”(Marx, Mandel, Fowkes, & Fernbach, 1976, p. 617) Capitalism lends itself to the “perfecting of machinery, made by competition compulsory for each individual manufacturer, and complemented by a constantly growing displacement of laborers.” (Engels & Lafarague, 1880, p. 45) These displaced workers flood the labor market and depress wages, impeding the implementation of new machinery in the process. Only by “taking possession of all the means of production and using them on a planned basis” (Engels & Burns, 1878, p. 200) can these contradictions be resolved.
In a pamphlet published in 1956 titled simply ‘Automation’, socialist Michael Kidron writes about the liberating potential of automation:
Automation offers tremendous possibilities to humanity. It can free man from slavery to the machine. It can free us from the double degradation of giving one class all the work – uncreative, boring and stultifying – and another class all the leisure – just as uncreative, just as boring and just as stultifying. It can end the artificial dichotomy between neurotic city life and idiotic country life; between workers by hand and workers by brain.
But Capitalism cannot give us full automation. It can only use the new techniques to bring new terrors to this world – the terrors of unemployment or war. Automation can only benefit humanity if it is controlled. There is only one guarantee of its human use – workers control of automation, workers control of production, the only meaning of Socialism. (Kidron, 1956)
What Michael Kidron wrote about automation more than 60 years ago is just as true now.
It may be true that rapid technological change has the possibility to free man from “the bondage in which they are now held by these means of production” (Engels & Burns, 1878, p. 200), but the realization of this requires a social act. Capitalism can not accomplish this act of universal emancipation, as its existence rests on the exploitation of human labor. There is only one guarantee of this emancipation: Socialism.
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