Robots entering the workplace isn’t even really about robots; it's about capitalism.
Image: Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia
You've seen the headlines by now: The robots are coming, and they're going to take our jobs. The future really doesn't look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world's jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.
Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn't necessary. But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn't do much good.
The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn't even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that's been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.
The best way to understand how this all works and where it will go is to refer to the writings of the person who understood capitalism best—Karl Marx. In particular, to a little-known journal fragment published in his manuscript The Grundrisse called "The Fragment on Machines."
Whether you love him, hate him, or just avoid him completely, Marx dedicated his life to understanding how capitalism works. He was obsessed with it. In "The Fragment," Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean for the worker in the future.
According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:
The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.
Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:
Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.
In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what's called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren't the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.
Once robots take over society's productive forces, people will have more free time than ever before, which will "redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation," Marx wrote. Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, will develop new means of social thought and cooperation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism. In short, Marx claimed that automation would bring about the end of capitalism.
In the automated world, precarious labour reigns.
It's a familiar sentiment that has gained new traction in recent years thanks to robots being in vogue, but we only have to look to the recent past to know that things didn't exactly work out that way. Capitalism is very much alive and well, despite automation's steady march towards ascendancy over the centuries. The reason is this: automation doesn't disrupt capitalism. It's an integral part of the system.
What we understand as "work" has morphed to accommodate its advancement. There is no reason to assume that this will change just because automation is ramping up to sci-fi speed.
To paraphrase John Tomlinson in his analysis of technology, speed, and capitalism in The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, no idiom captures the spirit of capitalism better than "time is money". If machines ostensibly create more free time for humans by doing more work, capitalists must create new forms of work to make that time productive in order to continue capturing surplus value for themselves. As Marx wrote (forgive my reprinting of his problematic language):
The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools [...] But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital... employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.
"Not immediately productive" is the key phrase here. Just think of all the forms of work that have popped up since automation began to really take hold during the Industrial Revolution: service sector work, online work, part-time and otherwise low-paid work. You're not producing anything while working haphazard hours as a cashier at Walmart, but you are creating value by selling what has already been built, often by machines.
In the automated world, precarious labour reigns. Jobs that offer no stability, no satisfaction, no acceptable standard of living, and seem to take up all of our time by occupying so many scattered parcels of it are the norm. Franco "Bifo" Berardi, a philosopher of labour and technology, explained it thusly in his book Precarious Rhapsody, referring to the legions of over worked part-time or no-timers as the "precariat":
The word 'precariat' generally stands for the area of work that is no longer definable by fixed rules relative to the labor relation, to salary and to the length of the working day [...] Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers [...] The time of work is fractalized, that is, reduced to minimal fragments that can be reassembled, and the fractalization makes it possible for capital to constantly find the conditions of minimum salary.
Online labour is especially applicable to this description of the new definition of work. For example, work that increasingly depends on emails, instant correspondence across time zones, and devices that otherwise bring work home from the office in any number of ways, creates a mental environment where time is no longer marked into firm blocks.
Indeed, the "work day" is all day, every day, and time is now a far more fluid concept than before. Amazon's Mechanical Turk platform, on which low-income workers sell their time performing menial creative tasks for pennies per hour, is a particularly dystopic example of this.
A radically different form of work is that of providing personal data for profit. This online data work is particularly insidious for two main reasons. First, because it is often not recognized as work at all. You might not think that messaging a pal about your new pair of headphones is work, but labour theorists like Maurizio Lazzarato disagree. Second, because workers are completely cut out of the data profit loop, although that may be changing.
These points, taken together, paint a pretty dismal picture of the future of humans living with robotic labour under capitalism. It's likely that we'll be working more, and at shitty jobs. The question is: what kind of work, and exactly how shitty?
In my opinion, being anti-robot or anti-technology is not a very helpful position to take. There's no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what's needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order.
Some people are already working toward this. The basic income movement, which calls for a minimum salary to be paid out to every living human regardless of employment status, is a good start, because it implies a significant departure from the purely economic language of austerity in political thought and argues for a basic income for the salient reason that we're human and we deserve to live. However, if we really want to change the way things are headed, more will be needed.
At a time when so many of us are looking towards the future, one particular possibility is continually ignored: a future without capitalism. Work without capitalism, free time without capitalism, and, yes, even robots without capitalism. Perhaps only then could we build the foundations of a future world where technology works for all of us, and not just the privileged few.