As evidenced in my recent Apeirogon post An Era of Mass Automation, there is strong reason to believe that automation will displace a large section of the global workforce in the next two decades.
The unprecedented nature of this challenge requires an acute political response. In this column I consider proposals from the modern left in dealing with this potentially devastating crisis of technological unemployment and inequality.
The Modern Left
The response of the modern left to the crises of automation remains fractured between those who look to medicate the symptoms of inequality within the framework of capitalism, and those who follow Marx in seeking to replace the money-motive and move to an era of postcapitalism.
One prominent advocate of the former is French economist and intellectual, Thomas Piketty. Piketty advocates ‘a progressive annual tax on capital’, as a mechanism for artificially redistributing wealth and maintaining a consumer base. This, he argues, will conserve the incentive structure of capitalism, which is a vital outlet for the agency of human individualism. As Keynes puts it in his General Theory ‘it is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens’.
These practical coping mechanisms for the subsidence of capitalism are becoming increasingly popular in our public discourse. A recent report from PWC recommended ‘enhancing social safety nets’, whilst each solution-focused report considered in my Apeirogon discusses the possibility of Universal Basic Income as a means of dealing with growing inequality. The growing support for left-wing politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and Bernie Sanders in the US, can be seen as the political outlet for growing popularity around the process of medicating capitalism.
Those more radical Marxists on the far left, look beyond these short-term coping mechanisms. David Harvey’s book, The Enigma of Capital, notes that the essence of capital is amorality, and thus even to talk of ‘ethical capitalism’ is a dangerous oxymoron. Our society must reclaim technology, and do away with its infatuation for ‘change and the certainty of economic progress’. These ideas are not confined to Marxism. Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren emphasised that capital’s love of money was a ‘disgusting morbidity’ and that we should not ‘overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance’.
These thinkers have used the boundless potential inherent in advancing technology to look beyond capitalism and utilise the notion of ‘post-scarcity’. For Keynes this meant a ‘destination of economic bliss’ in which ‘those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes’. This is transposed into modern Marxist rhetoric under the guise of ‘fully automated luxury Communism’. This describes the ambition of the contemporary left to utilise automated machinery to reap the rewards of new technologies, and distribute these amongst the community. Under this vision, the traditional social relationship between wage-labour and capital is abandoned, replaced by a class of communal owners, now liberated from the alienation of labour under capital, and free to pursue their individual life goals using a share of the resulting resources.
The practical institution of ‘fully automated luxury Communism’ is one which Marxists today find harder to pinpoint. Srnicek and Williams’ 2015 book Inventing the Future Postcapitalism sets out its own ‘manifesto for the end of capitalism’. They propose the introduction of automated technology into the means of production wherever possible, a reduction in the hours of wage-labour, and the provision of basic income for all. In achieving this they hope to break the hold of the ‘work ethic’ over modern society, and do away with the central ideology that supports capitalism, that ‘remuneration must be tied to suffering’.
A similar practical transition is set out by Paul Mason in his book Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future. Mason states we must use the capabilities of new technology, in particular big data, to model and test ideas for social change. In doing so we may create a society with ‘abundant socially produced goods’ rather than ‘a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information’. Mason also emphasises the need for ecological sustainability, as well as the importance of finding humanistic solutions to global issues. The commonality between these thinkers is their focus on the appropriation of technology for new ends, rather than the notion of watered-down socially acceptable capitalism.
Automation as the Agent of Change
Though the desire for communal ownership of the means of the production remains as strong on the far left now as it did in the writings of Karl Marx, the vagaries surrounding the agent of change between capitalism and the next phase of historical materialism are as blurry as ever.
Most Marxists agree that a transformation of the societal narrative must come at a crisis point in capitalism, a financial or political catastrophe which exposes the inherent absurdities within the system of profit. I believe that an era of automation could provide such a crisis. Put simply, the resulting mass unemployment will expose the limitations of capitalism, and make necessary a new organisation of the material means of production. In this way, automation provides the catalyst for a shift into an era of postcapitalism.
This is not to say that Communism will come to fruition under the auspices of the automation era. Marx himself understood that a system is determined not by technology, but by human agency. As such, automation will not determine our new society, people will. The limit is set by human imagination. The historical polarisation of ideas between the right and left, theories of Communism and Capitalism, have for a long while sterilised this imagination. It is my hope that the mid-century unemployment crisis of capital will free us of this binary debate, and we may use our freedom from capital’s vested interest to enable a reasoned public discourse as to the future organisation of our society’s resources. As Keynes states in the final line of his General Theory: ‘soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil’.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Keynes, J. M. General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936).
Marx, K and Engels, F. Wage-Labour and Capital (1849) eds. Anderson, T (2017).
Marx, K. Capital, Vol. 3. (1867).
Piketty, T. Capital in the 21st Century (2013).
Srnicek, N and Williams, A. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015).
Mason, Paul. Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (2015).
Harvey, D. The Enigma of Capital (2010).
Harvey, D. Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason. (2017).