The schizophrenic debate over the impact of automation

by Jehu

It looks like jobs should be going away, but the impact of automation may be overestimated, says this 2 part series, Nowhere to Go: Automation, Then and Now. Instead of seeing robots replace human labor, we may be witnessing machines progressively marginalizing human beings to menial, low paid labor in sectors characterized by stubbornly low productivity.

In the sixties, communists like James Boggs predicted that industrial labor was destined for abolition. Automation had already crushed the resistance of the working class and would rapidly set them free of productive employment altogether — much as it has already reduced agricultural labor to a negligible expenditure of the social labor day. The industrial proletariat would be left with no place to sell their labor power and nowhere else to go.

However, the writer explains, instead of automation gradually abolishing wage labor as Boggs and many of his contemporaries predicted:

“Today the children and grandchildren of these surplus people remain trapped in collapsing cities, far-flung suburbs, and rural ruins. They scrape by on part-time precarious work and tenuous lines of extortionate credit, commuting to and from work an hour each way, surveilled by heavily armed cops as they make their way home from the bus stop. Some run rackets and hustles, while others sink into depression, or drugs. For many, prison is always near.”

The nightmare of a world without employment — or, alternately, the promise of communism — has been deferred, according to the author:

“perennial fears of mass unemployment have … been refuted by the facts, as wealthy, complex economies such as the U.S. and the U.K. continue to add jobs to the payroll.”

In most cases the employment that grew up in the aftermath of the catastrophic collapse of industrial employment has added little to the productive power of society and mostly consists of jobs that “can truly be called abject.” Industrial labor has been replaced by labor that resists replacement by machines, but, despite this, the employment of labor power in production continues to expand despite all predictions to the contrary.

Abolition of labor, or abolition of paid labor?

The debate over the eventual impact of automation, not just by abolishing particular types of wage labor, but by abolishing wage labor itself, has a certain schizophrenic quality about it among writers. Some declare wage labor has no future in words that are at once both ominous and optimistic. While others declare, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that the reports of the imminent demise of wage labor have been greatly exaggerated.

I have to admit to this sort of schizophrenic analysis in my own posts on the subject: sometimes perhaps prematurely celebrating the victory of capital over wage labor, while other times pointing out that it was Keynes, not Marx who predicted the need for labor would decline so drastically, jobs would literally have to be rationed.

I think it helps to realize that there are in fact, two contradictory forces at work within the capitalist mode of production: the first force is the drive to always diminish the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities. The second force is the drive for every increasing employment of living labor in production. The drive toward reduction of socially necessary labor time contradicts the drive toward expansion of aggregate labor time.

These contradictory drives result because capitalism is production for profit: On the one hand, the capitalist seek to minimize the labor time expended on production of a commodity; yet, on the other hand, the capitalist seeks to increase the amount of labor time spent on production. The result is that automation is introduced not to decrease aggregate labor time of society, but only to reduce the paid portion of aggregate labor time.

While automation is typically posed as a threat to work, it is, in first place, a threat to paid work only. The real threat that automation poses to the wage worker is not that automation replaces her living labor with machines, but that automation replaces her paid labor with machines — a far more pernicious threat to the wage worker than mere abolition of wage work itself. It implies an ever lengthening social labor day — more workers working longer hours for more years — side by side with an ever diminishing wage.

Productivity? Can you define this term?

In this regard, it is not at all clear what the author means by declining productivity. Capitalism is production of use values and exchange values. Productivity can also be defined in ways that have different implications: a reduction of the socially necessary labor time required for production of commodities has different implications than an increase in quantity of commodities produced with a given quantity of labor. Thus, an economy can be highly productive or have a relatively low level of productivity and this productivity can be expressed in either increased production of commodities or in reduced labor time. Finally, increased output and reduced labor time can be measured in either use values or exchange values.

The statement that there has been a change in the rate of growth of productivity since 2007 is thus highly ambiguous. It is almost impossible to know what the author of this essay means by such a statement. When, for instance, the author calls the service sector, ” resistant to technological innovation and perennially registering  minimal growth in labor productivity”, is he discussing the increase in the quantity of use values per hour of labor or aggregate exchange value per unit of wages; and is he referring to the growth of aggregate exchange values or the diminution of labor time?

The definition of productivity employed in analysis of the capitalist mode of production is important because capital is only concerned with the production of surplus value, not the production of use values. The complaint that the service sector is resistant to an increase in productivity actually comes down to a complaint that the capitalists are having great difficulty increasing the rate of profit in the service sector.

As the writer suggests, the solution to a falling rate of profit in a capital-intensive economy is two-fold: first,  “rich countries like the U.S. and Britain, can generate higher output  solely by longer working days, or the hiring of more workers.” Second, “We would have to turn much of what we currently do for free, socially, into paid work.” Much of the significance of these two solutions is lost because the writer is very ambiguous about what he means by the term, “growth of productivity.”

We are, in fact, only talking about the growth of unpaid labor time, of surplus value, of profit, not about the increase in production of commodities in general. The two solution thus comes down to two ways to increase profit: extend the social labor day either by increasing individual hours of labor or by increasing total wage employment; and by converting labor we presently do into labor that produces profit.

Personal care for wages or prisons for profit?

This last point is critical because it is not limited to things we do for free, but also includes labor we perform today that generates no profits. The distinction I’m making with regards to the second solution is that it implies not just commodifying a lot of private labor, like caring for family members,  but also “privatizing” a considerable swathe of public services.

When the writer speaks of the drive toward, “the mass commercialization of ordinary human life [that would] push commercialism into the deep pores of everyday life”, he really means that the public functions now performed by the state would be increasingly out-sourced to private capitals. The state sector is a ready source of additional surplus value that could, in theory, be converted into profit, since it already involves labor paid for by the appropriation of surplus value. If, for instance, a prison or certain functions of the IRS can be spun off to private firms, a huge mass of already produced  surplus value could be realized as private profits.

And how much better if, in addition to spinning off the state sector, you shift the costs of these service from taxes to deficit spending. In this case, you can:

  1. reduce taxes on capital;
  2. borrow this capital back from the capitalists to fund your now out-sourced services to private capitals; and thus,
  3. pay interest to the very capitalists whose taxes you just cut.
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