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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) - Article - Socialism, Robotics and Work

Surviving artificial Intelligence

Over the past few years there has been an increased interest in Paul Lafargue’s pamphlet, “THE RIGHT TO BE LAZY” (1883) www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1883/lazy/

One of the reasons why Lafargue’s pamphlet is so popular again is because of the number of books, recently being published, stating that we are fast approaching a society that will be freed from employment through the use of artificial intelligence and robotics. A typical book putting this point of view is SURVIVING AI: THE PROMISE AND PERIL OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2016) by Calum Chace. In his book he quotes a report, published in September 2013 by the Oxford Martin School, which estimated that 45% of US jobs would disappear in the next 20 years (p.51).

Not to be outdone, Moshe Vardi, professor of computational engineering department at Rice University in Houston, Texas claims that the pace at which robots and intelligent machines are able to take over the jobs traditionally performed by humans will result in more than half the population being unemployed within 30 years (INDEPENDENT, 13th February 2013). Apparently 99% of call centre jobs will be lost in the coming years to the introduction of new technologies. More recently the Governor of the Bank of England stated, in a lecture at Liverpool University, that 15 million jobs in the near-future will be automated (TIMES, 14th December 2016).

Futurologists, like economists, have a track record for being wrong.

There was a report by The DAILY MAIL (16.7.73) of a statement made by Jack Peel, Director of Industrial Relations for the Common Market Commission, and formerly a trade union official. Mr Peel said:

Well before the end of the century less than 50% of the population of working age will be working”.

His prediction was utterly wrong. In the final decade of the 20th century there were, in the United Kingdom, some 27.8 million in work out of a potential working population of about 35 million.

Not to be outdone, Professor Stonier was reported in The TIMES (13.11.78) as giving evidence to the Government Central Policy Review Staff regarding future employment in which he said;

Within 30 years Britain will need no more than 10% of its labour force to supply all its material needs.

In 1980, under the heading of “By 2001 only 1 in 10 may be working”, The EVENING STANDARD reviewed a book by Professor Stonier. No critical analysis was given by the newspaper to Professor Stoner’s preposterous claims. If the forecast had been correct and if unemployment had been rising from the 6% of 1978 to 90%, unemployment would now be 8 million and rising fast. It is in fact just under two million and has been falling for most months since the last economic depression.

However automation of factories is very real. More jobs in the US have been lost to automation than out-sourcing (Marshable.com, Jan. 19. 2017). Apple, for example, left the US and set up production in China because it cost $40 to produce an I-Phone in the United States and only $4 in China. Workers in China work 12-16 hour shifts for pay of $1 or less sleeping in dormitories with 15 beds in 12 x12 rooms (Business Insider, 22 January 2017).

Apple are now about to relocate production of I-Pads back to the US, not to employ workers though, but to set up a fully automated factory which will cost 40 cents to produce an i-Phone. Most of the job losses in the so-called “rust-belt” and other areas of the country were due to the introduction of automation, not corporations moving their factories abroad (Trump Can’t Deliver the Rust Belt Jobs He Promised Because Work Has Changed, WIRED, October 20th 2016).

The whole question of the future of employment of wage-labourers’ role in the production and distribution of commodities: - all this is now being questioned. But the issue of capitalism’s replacement by socialism is left unquestioned by the mainstream consensus. The debate about employment and robotics is therefore taking place only within the continued framework of commodity production and exchange for profit – capitalism - not a social system like socialism where production and distribution will be directly for social use.

The current benefit of automation, in the form of profit, goes to the owners of the means of production and distrubution, the capitalist class, not to society as a whole. The dystopian projection of a fully-automated society in which mass unemployment prevails takes place within a capitalist society not a socialist one.

Post-Capitalism?

One exception to the proliferation of capitalist dystopias around the future of employment over the past decade is the journalist, Paul Mason. In his book “POST-CAPITALISM: A GUIDE TO OUR FUTURE", Mason argues that capitalism is set to be replaced by ‘post-capitalism’ (not, we might add, by ‘socialism’).

Mason believes that capitalism is creating an abundance of information which will entail the collapse of many digitally-dependent markets sending prices to zero thereby leaving no profit. Mason believes that new technology will bring about the end of capitalism not a socialist revolution. Yet he offers no empirical evidence. Yet costs of production exist even in “fully automated” factories and so prices would not be zero. Fully automated factories have to be maintained, factories have to be built, maintained and there are also depreciation/replacement costs to consider along with transportation and distribution costs. If widgets are made by robots, by partly automated processes or by 100 per cent human labour, these other costs still need to be factored into the final ‘price’.

Mason believes this technological process is taking place now within capitalism, just as capitalism developed within feudalism but he has little grasp of the real historical process of capitalism’s genesis and initial political development which can be found in Marx’s CAPITAL. Mason’s book is a speculative and dystopian view of social change: a book of science fiction rather than science fact.

Outside the sharing of information, for example, production and distribution would still be owned by capitalists and directed for the purpose of making profit. Capitalism is not all about software and streaming information over the internet. Material things have to be made from raw resources, bits of natural material have to be formed to make buildings or cars and a pool of exploitable wage or salary workers has to be secured, educated and maintained to ensure this basic commodity production takes place. We do not live in a weightless electronic world but a natural one. Mason may believe he has found a route away from capitalism but it is in fact a dead-end.

Mason’s mis-reading of Marx’s GRUNDRISSE, especially the section “Fragment on Machines” should also be noted as does the fact that it was a series of notebooks written by Marx during the winter of 1857-8 and were never meant for publication. What Marx does say in the GRUNDRISSE with respect to the development of machines and disposable time is that as capitalism progresses:

…the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so,…, then, on the one side necessary time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though productive is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals” (GRUNDRISSE, Notebook VII, p.708,)

Marx believed this contradiction cannot be resolved in capitalism and will only become more and more pronounced. Only socialism will be able to strike the right balance between what voluntary time is needed to produce and distribute useful things and what time it does not have to call upon and which can be used for other purposes, for example taking part in the democratic day-to-day affairs of society. However, the politics of class consciousness and class struggle as well as the socialist party necessary for revolutionary change is totally absent from Mason’s technological and information-dependent dystopia.

Are Robots and Artificial Intelligence really a problem?

Technological progress through human history does not take place as a process in itself, as Marx was well aware. The change from feudalism to capitalism involved politics, revolution and civil war. Capitalism did not creep into history by softly-softly stealth, unnoticed until the first factories were constructed. Peasants were forced off the commons into the cities, slaves were sent to the plantations, and there were acts of rapacious greed, piracy, plunder and war. Capitalism, as Marx noted, came into being:

Dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt (CAPITAL, VOLUME 1, p. 926, 1990)

And capitalism does not introduce new machinery, robotics and artificial intelligence for the sake of it. Marx stressed in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO that capitalism was a “fetter” on the forces of production (including social and co-operative labour). Capitalist relations of production, prevent the forces of production from being developed to meet the needs of all society. Under capitalism, capitalists and workers relate to the means of production as owners and non-owners respectively. The fundemental relationship is for capitalists to exploit workers by using the means of production to produce commodities for profit.

Marx repeated this remark again in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859) when he wrote:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

The real question to be asked is not about robotics and artificial intelligence but about the limitations of capitalism, the historical redundancy of commodity production and exchange for profit, and the control that socialism will give men and women over all their “disposable time” and what they chose to do with this “disposable time” within an association of free and voluntary labour: an association, “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain, p. 81).

However this total control over their time requires a social revolution to free the “forces of production”: the means of production and distribution will not just fall into their laps. Only within socialism will all society be able to democratically determine what is produced, how it is produced, under what conditions it is produced and for whom. Only a socialist revolution can begin to free the productive forces, including free social and co-operative labour, from the constraints imposed by capitalism. And the only political force which can liberate men and women from the power of capital is a socialist majority taking conscious and political through a revolutionary political party with socialism and only socialism as its objective.

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