Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - The Night Shift

Do Androids Dream of Surplus Value?

The Night Shift was a film made in 1979 starring Frank Windsor in which two men construct a diesel engine in an industrial hanger. As the film progresses we learn that the men are unemployed with their jobs taken over by computers and robotic machines. At the end of their shift another group of men arrive who then dismantle the engine only for it to be rebuilt again the following day.

Science fiction writers masquerading as economists and “futurologists” have, for many decades, suggested that computers and robotics will take over most of the work currently undertaken by human beings with even robotic repair serviced by self-replicating machines. Workers, like the two men in the film, will be left with nothing to do.

A recent paper by the academic, A. J. Kjosen asks the question “Do Androids dream of surplus value”? He points out, correctly, that robots, even sophisticated robots are, what Marx called, dead labour. Only exploited living labour generates surplus value. In a science fiction setting of a world of self-replicating robots doing all necessary work, you would not have the production of surplus value and you would not have capitalism. Political Economy and its Marxian critique remain unknown to most science fiction writers.

This has not prevented economists periodically stating that the working class is redundant and will increasingly be replaced by machines and robots. In March of 2013, four economics researchers from the New York Federal Reserve published a report on job "polarization" - the phenomenon of routine task work disappearing with only the highest and lowest skilled work still available. The authors wrote:

The indications are fairly stark. The work in routine occupations is trending toward zero. This fall lines up fairly well with the rise of automation of various kinds. For example, computer programs are doing the work of paralegals and x-ray technicians, and factory robots are displacing large numbers of automobile assembly line workers. There are applications that can write sports newspaper articles, based simply on the scoring history in the game (HUFFINGTON POST November 18th 2004).

Another group of futurologist, Pew Research Center and Elon University, published a paper AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs which canvassed the views of robotic experts on the future of work. The report gave a picture of a 2025 in which the majority of people would have no physical and mental capabilities to sell as a commodity to an employer (what Marx called labour power). Only a minority of workers would be needed to guide the “bot-based economy”. One of the authors, Stowe Boyd, believed:

An increasing proportion of the world's population will be outside of the world of work — either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle (

He asked the question: “what will people be for in a world that does not need their labour”. He had no answer; because it was the wrong question.

The Labour Process: Werewolves and Vampires

In the first volume of Capital in a discussion of the labour process under capitalism, Marx wrote:

…labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. He develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power…A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax…(p. 283, 284)

The labour process is common to all social systems, including a future socialist society, but it has a peculiarity under capitalism which the economists and futurologists ignore. Capitalism, employment and commodity production are all about the extraction of surplus value; the unpaid work of the working class. The objective of capitalism is not to meet human need, including creative work, but to accumulate capital for the sake of capital accumulation; to expand value as an anti-social objective and to make profit.

Marx uses the metaphors of Gothic horror to drive home the reality of capital, employment and the labour process under capitalism:

…capital has one sole driving force… to create surplus value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest amount of surplus labour. Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks … (CAPITAL VOLUME 1, p. 342)

So far, we have observed the drive toward the extension of the working day, and the werewolf-like hunger for surplus labour… (CAPITAL VOLUME 1, p. 353)

Marx goes on to show that capitalism has a tendency to introduce new technology to replace labour in order to increase productivity and the rate and extent of exploitation. Yet, although displaced workers feed into the “industrial reserve army” of the unemployed other industries open up requiring workers to exploit. One million industrial robots currently in operation, for example, have been directly responsible for close to three million jobs according to the international Federation of Robotics ( 2011).

The fantasy of world-wide mass entrenched unemployment expected by some economists and futurologists over the last seventy-five years has not materialised. And futurologists do not have a particularly good track record in their predictions of future unemployment. Here are a couple of examples of crystal ball gazing:

First, there was a statement made by Jack Peel, Director of Industrial Relations for the Common Market Commission, and formerly a trade union official who said:

Well before the end of the century less than 50% of the population of working age will be working (THE DAILY MAIL 16.7.73)

Mr Peel’s prediction was utterly wrong. In the final decade of the 20th century there were in Britain some 27.8 million in work out of a working population of about 35 million.

And second, a, Professor Stonier gave evidence in 1978 to the Government Central Policy Review Staff in which he said;

Within 30 years Britain will need no more than 10% of its labour force to supply all its material needs. (THE TIMES 13.11.78)

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 Stonier’s preposterous claims. If his forecast had been correct and if unemployment had been rising from the 6% of 1978 to the 90% as predicted by 2001, unemployment would now be over 8 million and rising fast. In fact, unemployment is currently falling.

Such groundless predictions are often uncritically repeated in the media by lazy journalists and newspapers only interested in a publishing a good story. However, these groundless claims are just that; groundless.

Architect or Bee?

For socialists the important question raised by the introduction of machines and robots into production is not the one asked by economists and futurologists. The important question is a political one; do we want to act as bees or as architects?

At the end of his flawed but useful book Architect or Bee? THE HUMAN PRICE OF TECHNOLOGY (1980) Mike Cooley wrote of the future:

The alternatives are stark. Either we shall have a future in which human beings are reduced to a sort of beelike behaviour, reacting to the systems and equipment specified for them, or we will have a future in which masses of people, conscious of their skills and abilities in both a political and technical sense, decide that they are going to be architects of a new form of technological development which will enhance human creativity and mean more freedom of choice and expression rather than less. The truth is, we shall have to make the profound political decision as to whether we intend to act as architects or behave like bees (p.180)

So the choice centres on politics and who own and control the means of production and distribution not the application of science, technology and robotics per se. Futurologists assume that the working class will remain passive and private property ownership of the means of life including robotic systems will remain unchallenged. They view society as a bee hive where social relationships are defined in terms of minority class power, privilege and wealth to the exclusion of the rest of society. Capitalism, employers and employed, markets, commodity production and exchange for profit are all taken for granted. Technology and science are not neutral but reflect the social system in which they are conditioned and develop.

However, socialists do not see social systems as static any more than we see social systems incapable of being changed. Power structures of society can be challenged and capitalism can be changed in a revolutionary way given a socialist majority understanding and desiring the establishment of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Within such an open and democratic framework human creativity will be a realised as a social need. A socialist society will not be Luddite with regards to technology and robotics. To free human beings to become creative and to fully take part in the democratic affairs of a socialist society; computing systems, robotics and other forms of technology would be used to enhance human life rather than to diminish it.

The Night Shift was a pessimistic film. It showed the working class as passive, incapable of taking control of their own lives and forced to become slaves to the machine and the profit system. This need not be the case. There is a socialist alternative.

In a socialist society no one will be forced to become a cog in a machine and a slave to time. Instead men and women, freed from the tyranny of capital, the misery of employment and the slavery of the wages system will become fully-rounded human beings opening up a world of possibilities currently denied to them by capitalism. As Marx suggested in an often misunderstood passage from the GERMAN IDEOLOGY:

In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic (THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY)”.

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