The longstanding and growing concern over structural unemployment caused by automation highlights the absurdity of capitalism. Like homelessness caused by too many houses, poverty from mechanization looks perverse and nonsensical from a system-optimization standpoint. This article briefly sketches the history of both fears and hopes surrounding automated labor in order to argue against economic status quo of coercion, inequality, and inefficiency. I recommend distributing and/or socializing the twenty-first-century’s increasingly robotic means of production while simultaneously troubling sanguine post-scarcity dreams through attention to uncertainty, ecology, and pluralism.
Solid analyses of the present automation conundrum abound, ranging from Marshall Brain's classic treatment to recent pieces here at IEET by Brian Merchant and Federico Pistono. Contesting the many economists who insist that the market will adapt, Brain and company articulate the straightforward thesis that replacement of human workers by robots will lead to unemployment, particularly for so-called unskilled workers. I find this interpretation broadly convincing, though I'll grant economists the possibility that service-sector expansion could at least partially compensate for the further losses in manufacturing. As Jaron Lanier writes, if artificial general intelligence remains elusive and software resource use continues to bloat, the need for technical support could keep employment high. Additionally, while developments like Foxconn's announced shift to robots point to a massive reduction in human factory laborers over the next few decades, these programs could conceivably flounder. With those caveats, I do consider waxing unemployment precipitated in part by automation an extremely likely near-term future scenario.
Contemplating contemporary circumstances alongside earlier thought on and experience with mechanization yields insight about the dynamics involved. In rough strokes, the story of machines displacing and immiserating skilled workers reiterates the very genesis of capitalist modernity. The (in)famous Luddite rebellion of artisans against capitalists serves an iconic indicator of this process. In contrast with the Neo-Luddites of today, the nineteenth-century Luddites expressed no desire to terminate civilization but instead fiercely defended their economic interests against capitalist competition that would reduce them dependent wage labor. Throughout this great century of worker mobilization, unions opposed machines that threatened their livelihood and bosses at times specifically used mechanization to defeat organized skilled workers. Cyrus McCormick II's use of pneumatic molding machines to break the Nation Union of Iron Molders stands out as a noteworthy example, given that the machines produced an inferior product at higher cost – their appeal was requiring less skill to operate.
While resistance to automation can come as part of a myopic approach, strategic opposition to machines facilitates radical struggles to claim them all for the working class; the Industrial Workers of the World's practice of sabotage fits into this category. Countless anarchist, communist, and syndicalist revolutionaries look(ed) toward a world in which everyone collectively and collaboratively operated the factories for the common good. Despite the lack of even basic computers – much less artificial intelligence – some radicals in the nineteenth century already proposed that necessary labor could be reduced to a few hours per day. The later Technocracy movement made automation the core of their analysis, argued it would cause mass unemployment, and promoted a society of equally distributed abundance managed by technical experts. Jumping forward to the 1960s, many on the Left saw automation as a basis for the new economic system they sought; socialist-feminist Shulamith Firestone's cybernetic communism and Valerie Solanas's plan to “institute complete automation” stand out in this regard.
As concise distillation of the desires described above, the following passage for Oscar Wilde's “The Soul of Man under Socialism” poetically proclaims a techno-utopian position years before the dawn of twentieth century:
The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends. And when scientific men are no longer called upon to go down to a depressing East End and distribute bad cocoa and worse blankets to starving people, they will have delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else. There will be great storages of force for every city, and for every house if required, and this force man will convert into heat, light, or motion, according to his needs. Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.
Looking at this corpus of radical discourse on automation and how mechanization has already displaced and impoverished workers provides context for today's debate. The contradictions of capitalism now critiqued – authoritarianism, dehumanization, inefficiency, instability, etc – aren't new but variations on an established score. Thus far, capitalism has managed to reinvent itself and weather numerous crises. Prophesies that automation would result in total economic collapse and dreams that it could create a post-scarcity paradise to date remain unrealized. Even manufacturing still requires vast human labor at the moment. Living and working conditions for many twenty-first-century factory workers aren't meaningfully better than over a hundred years ago. State-socialist attempts at rationally planned industrial development have had dubious material benefits while inflicting intense environmental damage and human suffering.
Here in 2013, we negotiate established social problems within the matrix of novel technical capacities. Our current circumstances suggest automation of at least basic physical tasks will keep advancing; lights-out factories already exist. The prospect of robots replacing humans at the majority of present-day jobs appears genuinely plausible if far from certain. This allows us to imagine the scenario that folks like the Technocrats were ahead of their time, that the robotization of workforce will lead to long-structural unemployment as it becomes cheaper buy and maintain a robot than pay a human employee. If this comes to pass, widespread poverty seems inevitable without significant changes to actually existing capitalism. As Pistono writes, increasing “[c]ivil unrest, riots, police brutality, and general distress of the population” would at least initially define such a future. I see welfare capitalism, old-fashioned dictatorship, corporate feudalism, state socialism, fascism, and/or anarchism emerging from the ashes.
I favor the latter. Popular distribution of the means of production potentially allows for freedom, equality, and plenty. Social relations would become profoundly altered if – consistent with Wilde's utopian vision – each individual had independent access to basic necessities and comforts without having to toil. Speculative projections in nanotechnology and/or artificial intelligence make this arrangement distantly plausible assuming humanity could navigate the tremendous risks involved, as nanofactories and robots would presumably possess the capacity to destroy as well as create. Here I find some uneasy common ground with Enlightenment individualism: self-sufficiency appeals to me as the ideal basis from which to enter into truly voluntary relationships. When it comes to post-scarcity, the differences between libertarians and anarchists like myself blur.
However, self-sufficiency alone – itself a troubled concept – constitutes a monumental technical problem. Dependency characterizes industrial capitalism. So few procure all the basics strictly through personal effort. Instead, the comfortable customarily live off the commodified and exchanged sweat of the less privileged. Barring nanotech genies who grant unlimited wishes, I assess community control of the means of production as my desired arrangement. With proper political mobilization, robotization may allow for prosperous self-sufficient or largely self-sufficient communities. Whatever labor machines could not perform could be divided amongst the populace. Given the magical and alien quality of complete automation – a world without drudgery – the conservative communal scenario akin to nineteenth-century radical utopias intuitively feels more creditable to me. But I know better – or worse – than to always trust intuition.
The mere existence of economical robots functionally equivalent to unskilled human laborers calls to mind disturbing possibilities. Across known history, bosses structurally need workers. Although the life of any single worker means little or nothing to them, they cannot annihilate the working class without doing the same to their own privilege. Robots change this. Human obsolescence could spell doom for the masses. If structural dynamics drive behavior, a powerful enough group of elites might simply liquidate the unruly hordes of no-longer-need labors. More believably, the rich could withdraw to their own well-guarded estates – whether terrestrial, orbital, or beyond – and live decadently off the fruits of their robotic slaves. Those of us without capital would then be at the mercy of automation's aristocracy for our daily survival. This scenario conflicts with dominant notions of modern morality, but I'd rather have class organization on my side than rely on the sentiments of the oppressors.
Regardless of technology, I support community and individual autonomy. Totalizing visions of post-scarcity society leave no space for other modes of existence and assume we can resolve the contradiction between mass manufacturing and environmental stability. While it makes sense theoretically, we've scant precedent for egalitarian, free, or sustainable industry. I want to give automated utopia an honest try, but I also desire fertile landbases for my primitivist comrades. As personally enamored as I am with the transhumanist path, I encourage and endeavor to practice a revolutionary pluralism that respects meaningful diversity.
In closing, I counsel analysts of accelerating automation to familiarize themselves with the socialist techno-utopian tradition and employ it as inspiration and context. I additionally attempt to unsettle any certainty calcifying around the technical details of future robotization. We don't know what it will look like or what the environmental implications will be. The prospect of robots functionally equivalent to human workers warrants enthusiasm, serious examination, and skepticism in approximately equal measure.
For Further Reading
Brain, Marshall. “Robotic Nation.”
Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex.
Jones, Steven E. Against Technology: From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism.
Solanas, Valerie. S.C.U.M. Manifesto.