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Cautiously Toward Utopia: Automation and the Absurdity of Capitalism
Benjamin Abbott   Apr 4, 2013   Ethical Technology  

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.

Segal, Howard P. Technological Utopianism in American Culture: Twentieth Anniversary Edition.

Solanas, Valerie. S.C.U.M. Manifesto.

Benjamin Abbot is a genderqueer, transgender PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico.


Look at how trapped in the past America is:

this is your best article so far; nothing of substance to add save one piece of good news is Pistono might be correct only on the last of these:

“[c]ivil unrest, riots, police brutality, and general distress of the population”;

the first three may not be realised; violence is increasingly perceived as the old way of doing things. Notice how the entire time of Occupy (which was many months) few acts of violence were committed by either side. The entire decade of the post 9-11 wars—2001 to 2011—saw much anger at the Rove-Cheney administration, yet also little violence. However Pistono’s #4, “general distress of the population”, of course has been real since the end of the ‘90s and has continued to this day unabated. Massive dislocation and the related concentration of wealth.

Things are so complicated now I’ve no idea of what to do, otherwise would write a piece. The left-of-center opposition has to change, though; anarchism, socialism, etc., are not outdated nevertheless the public wont accept them, seeing them as both outmoded and at the same time too radical. It may be true the public is moving towards the center yet, frankly, in the context of a predatory world. In other words a velvet glove covering the mailed fist:

‘we will let you do what you want in your private lives… legalise marijuana, have gay marriage legalised, and so on… as long as you keep us at the top of the foodchain, work like dogs and pay taxes even if you cannot afford to pay taxes [the Right seldom mentions how the poor need every cent to do more than merely survive]’

Outside America, I’m not aware of what is transpiring, one really has to live in a nation years/decades, to have a comprehensive grasp. But in America, we can say for sure: we should keep in mind at all times our political framework was first constructed in 1789 whereas W. Europe by contrast was renovated after WWII. In a palpable sense we are stuck not only in Reagan’s America; LBJ’s America; but also as far back as James Madison’s America. The Midwest and South are further back in time, and not merely politically, than the rest of the country.

Not being being a scientist, I can’t write anything on the biosphere but do know we shouldn’t attempt to be all things to everyone, we can’t pretend we respect the Amish and Native Americans; etc… at any rate they’ll see through us as ‘bleeding hearts’, ‘suck-ups’. We find them exotic, poignant, quaint, we want to visit them albeit we wouldn’t want to live with them because their old thinking and many of their modes of living are the very thinking and modus operandi, in different form, of the rubes who Rule. The Amish are less 21st century than David Duke and his white nationalist leagues, which is no bad reflection on the 21st century- only on David Duke and the WNs.

SHaGGGz can write a better comment on this topic; in the meantime here is an article that might fill in a few pieces of the puzzle of why it is the interior of America is so advanced materially- but backwards in every other way; politically, socially, the courts, prisons, all of it. Plus as you know, the remainder of the country is not much better.. perhaps 15 percent. And to throw out a number, the best place in the world, Scandinavia, may be only 10 percent better overall than the US. Thus the best region in the world might only be 25 percent more civilised than Middle America:

‘Thus the best region in the world might only be 25 percent more civilised than Middle America:’

Yet remember Intomorrow, there are people in this world who would give their right arm (and maybe their left) to be the lowest in either society. As I said to a socialist friend of mine once, maybe we should concentrate on trying to get to a half-decent world for as many people as we can. When we get that, maybe then we can think about getting to ‘Utopia’, bearing in mind that one man’s Utopia may be another man’s hell.

“Yet remember Intomorrow, there are people in this world who would give their right arm (and maybe their left) to be the lowest in either society.”

No disagreeent with anything you write in this comment or in any other. What you write above may be a reflection of how we are not civilised that many (probably the majority would not mind relocating to Scandic nations) would give their arms to emigrate.

..not clear enough:
by ‘we’ I mean the world as a whole is not civilised enough so that many/most would ‘give both their arms’ to immigrate to N. America and Scandinavia? And is America contributing to the violence by its often heavy-handed nationalism?
You tell us, you know as much about the subject as anyone.

I am referring to the many who live in great poverty, very often because their thug/incompetent/corrupt governments ensure that there is little hope of their countries’ economies rising or their lives improving. The natural way of the world is to be uncivilized with certain ruthless and cunning ultra-alpha males rising to the top and dominating wealth and opportunity. You only need to look at the world a few hundred years ago to see that. Very few people tried to move to other countries even if they could because they would not improve their lives if they did. There was also the dearth of information.

To simplify: Over time of course certain people (alpha males of the poorer classes?) due to the utter misery of their communities were able to get enough of their people together to force the more privileged classes in certain places to enact reforms. These reforms were just enough to improve things that those places improved enough along with influences from science, technology, religion, and progressive writers, thinkers and activists that well, we ended up with the world we have today.

The West, owing to a somewhat less stick-in-the-mud, traditional, conservative mindset, got to the best position first. Enough of the technology first developed by the West has transferred to other countries that people in lesser developed countries know about and want to live in, better places. Consequently, there is what I call a kind of cultural osmosis whereby many immigrants have come to the West and many more would if they could.

As I once said to some Indian friends, the West is no paradise. However, the conditions in so many places are so bad people still try to come. However, once conditions improve in their own countries only a few adventurous souls want to uproot and live in other countries. There are few Japanese emigrants to the West these days and I think the economic improvements in China have tended to lessen the flow of Chinese significantly. My main point is that that 15 to 25% difference can mean an enormous difference to many people living in desperate circumstances.

I could analyze this situation at great length but I’ll conclude this part by simply saying fortunately there are some brave, very brave individuals who are trying against the odds to take on their despicable governments. If they succeed (and it is strange and heartening how sheer stubborn courage over time often wins through) then there will be a great lessening of immigration to the West (‘Waddya mean the burger costs $20?’). Hopefully by then Ben’s automation and robots will come through to keep prices down or there will screams, possibly by the same people who decry the level of immigration now.

I have a very busy week right now and I have to go to work so I can’t comment on American aggression/dynamism right now. I will walk into that minefield in due course.

Now as regards America’s effect upon the world, the fact is that the US is still the world’s only real superpower, debt levels be damned. To a large extent, it has always been a reluctant superpower and isolationism has always been a strong current in the American psyche. I am told many Americans have never held passports and up to the event of the Internet, American newspapers international news was thin. However, as one of the most successful countries and being so large, it was impossible to disengage from the world at least in the 20th century when the country truly began its rise.

Then of course, the other dominant aspect of American ideology is competition (somewhat contradictory to the idea of isolation but there you go). Added to the general tendency to get mixed up with European and world affairs I can’t see how the US could ever have been a gigantic Switzerland.

But what America has done, which may save humanity in the end, was promote the idea of change as good. Before the West but most strongly America rose, all societies were wedded to tradition and utterly conservative. Unfortunately the Earth is ever-changing and coming up with new events that blindside humanity as we saw in a small way in Russia in February. Irrespective of whether Gods exist or not, one reason for the development of religions has surely been mankind’s desperate insecurity. Equally unfortunately much of human culture tends to conservatism, leaving us open to disasters with no remedies in sight.

America, in its promotion of science, technology and innovation has changed that and started something that is unlikely to be stopped (though ironically the anti-science forces in America are the strongest anywhere. But like all of us they have to use technological means to spread their message ...) and this is sending us in the direction outlined in the article.

Could things have been done better? I suppose it’s always possible but we are descended from animals who had to struggle to survive. Original sin, the Christians call it and other religions know full well we are desperately imperfect. Trouble is moral perfection and survival are hard to reconcile and if we ever come across intelligent aliens the likelihood is that even if they are now wonderfully nice people, their history will be as appalling as ours (not just the Americans). My present hope is that Steven Pinker has got it right, the tendency towards less aggression will continue and that technological innovation will bring us to a good place (utopia is hard to reach).

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