The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Roots of Unemployment:
Robots or Capitalism?

Mar 28, 2017

The following article is taken from Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle), the magazine of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the Trotskyist organization active in France.

French Socialist Party presidential candidate Benoît Hamon justified his proposal for a universal guaranteed income by citing the “inevitable disappearance of work.” Referencing the growing role of digital technology and robots, which he believes are going to cause the destruction “of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Western economies,” he also proposed to create a tax on robots. The deputies of the European Parliament, for their part, debated last January about the need to require businesses to “publish the extent and the share of the contributions of robotics … to their financial outcomes, for the purposes of taxation and determining the amount of their social security contributions” (Les Échos, January 13, 2017). The idea that human labor will be replaced by machines and robots, and that we are heading toward the inevitable end of work, has recently come into fashion. Does this reflect reality or the ranting of pseudo-experts, good news for humanity or the chronicle of a catastrophe foretold? All of the discussions around this question make no sense if the heart of the matter is not taken into consideration: all of the means of production, which are set in motion in a social and collective manner through a vast international division of labor, remain the private property of a tiny minority of capitalists.

In order to justify their propositions, Hamon and the European deputies rely on a range of studies, such as one made by the think tank France Stratégie, according to which 3.4 million jobs in France are in danger of disappearing over the next ten years. In 2013, two researchers at the University of Oxford, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, maintained that 47% of U.S. jobs are at “high risk,” meaning that they “could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.” They base their arguments on the progress that has apparently been achieved in the fields of robotics and machine learning, which would allow machines to carry out less routine tasks that had previously been reserved for the human mind. This robotization would extend to the jobs of personal caregivers and healthcare providers in retirement communities. The elderly would be left in the good care of robots!

Bernard Stiegler, a philosopher and member of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation and various other think tanks, takes up the same arguments. He published Jobs Are Dead, Long Live Work!, in which he writes: “As a result of total and generalized automation … wage workers will become a sort of residue from a past epoch. Certainly, there will still be jobs, since, in certain sectors, we will continue to need a proletarianized human workforce, but this will become an exception.” Stiegler’s conclusion is that all workers will become temporary employees, that the link between jobs and income must be severed in order to distribute “allocations of resources” or “contributive income,” by compensating activities that are useful to the community but which are today unpaid or poorly paid.

Fantasy Studies and Pointed Conclusions

These analyses of the so-called future are contested. For example, a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published in 2016 states: “We find that in the U.S., only 9% of jobs rather than 47%, as proposed by Frey and Osborne, face likely robotization.” Jean Gadret, a university researcher associated with the journal Alternatives Économiques, notes that, “the labor that machines may replace in one area may be more than compensated for by new activities.” He reminds us, with a note of irony, that such predictions foretelling “the end of work” are nothing new. They have particularly tended to flourish at times when the capitalist economy plunged millions of workers into mass unemployment.

In 1978, Alain Minc and Simon Nora, who were inspectors of public finances at the time, published a report sensationalizing the digitalization of society, in which they predicted, “a 30% decline in the number of service sector jobs as a result of enormous gains in productivity,” especially in banking, insurance, Social Security, the Postal Service, and secretarial office work. But although the digitalization of these sectors did lead to a massive destruction of jobs, it also created new ones. Today in France, the proportion of service sector jobs in the labor market is higher than 70%. In banking and insurance, despite regular waves of layoffs, the number of jobs has increased since the 2000s.

In 1995, the U.S. “futurist” Jeremy Rifkin also announced “the end of work” with great fanfare. This was the period when economists announced that the “new economy” of computers and the Internet, by revolutionizing productivity across industry as a whole, would provide capitalism with a new phase of expansion. But then—bang!—the speculative bubble that built up around this digital economy burst in 2001. The “new economy” could not escape the contradictions of capitalism any better than the old one could. Not discouraged, today Rifkin goes before heads of state and big bosses from all over the world and promises a “revolution” based on information technology and the use of renewable energy distributed by means of the Internet, which he calls the “third industrial revolution.” According to Rifkin, all objects will be produced locally, on demand, by 3-D printers before being exchanged or repaired. He too predicts the disappearance of wage-workers.

Besides the more or less fantasy-based nature of their conclusions, these supposed experts hide the main issue at stake. The major cause of the loss of jobs is not robotization but the aggravation of exploitation in a capitalist economy in crisis that has reached the limits of its development.

Capitalism and Machines

The introduction of machines—and robots are just perfected machines—which allow for more rapid and larger-scale production in order to lower the production time required for each good, and therefore eventually its price, is as old as capitalism itself. It is even an inherent part of it. Mechanization ruined artisans, causing revolts even at a very early stage, such as that of the Luddites in Great Britain in 1812. It eliminated jobs in the sectors where it was introduced. At the same time, capitalism expanded in both breadth and scope. In order to be profitable and make up for the cost of increasingly heavy investments, the introduction of new machines required greater production at a larger scale, pushing capitalists to push their competitors out of the market. The extension of mechanization brought new sectors of production into being, requiring more raw materials and supplies and submitting new parts of the economy to the capitalist market. Capitalist production, by imposing itself on new sectors and new regions of the world, turned new contingents of peasants and artisans into proletarians. The total number of wage workers grew at the same time that the productive forces increased.

The suffering of workers always accompanied these transformations. Machines were never introduced with the goal of improving the harsh conditions of labor, but of increasing the capitalists’ profits. It was rarely the workers who lost their jobs in a sector that had become obsolete that were the ones to find jobs in new industries. As Marx wrote in the chapter of Capital dealing with relative surplus value: “The laborers, when driven out of the workshop by the machinery, are thrown upon the labor market, and there add to the number of workmen at the disposal of the capitalists.” He added: “So soon as machinery sets free a part of the workmen employed in a given branch of industry, the reserve men are also diverted into new channels of employment, and become absorbed in other branches; meanwhile the original victims, during the period of transition, for the most part starve and perish.”

As for those who are hired to work on the new means of production, they are even more exploited. Since human labor is the only form of labor that creates additional wealth, the capitalists try to intensify labor by all means possible, to lengthen the workday and to lower wages. They try to get the most use out of the expensive machines that they want to have paid off before they become obsolete. As Marx wrote in Capital: “Thus we see, that machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation.”

For all this, it is not the machine itself that causes the misfortune of the workers, but the fact that it is in the hands of the capitalists. Marx already noted: “It is an undoubted fact that machinery, as such, is not responsible for ‘setting free’ the workman from the means of subsistence. It cheapens and increases production in that branch which it seizes on, and at first makes no change in the mass of the means of subsistence produced in other branches. Hence, after its introduction, the society possesses as much, if not more, of the necessaries of life than before, for the laborers thrown out of work; and that quite apart from the enormous share of the annual produce wasted by the non-workers.” Machines are not installed to eliminate difficult and repetitive tasks, nor to lower the time that workers as a whole spend to produce the goods necessary to satisfy the needs of society in general, but to increases the profits of the capitalists.

Mass Unemployment, Stagnation, and the Aggravation of Exploitation

Since capitalism has finished extending its hold over all the sectors of the economy and all the countries of the world, and since it has pushed the concentration of capital to a level that had never before been achieved, forming powerful monopolies dominated by an excessively enlarged financial sector, these tendencies and contradictions have become even more aggravated.

Capitalism is faced with a slowdown in the gains from the productivity of labor. This short-term setback is compounded by a more fundamental contradiction: the limits of a solvent market that is unable to absorb all the goods that the productive apparatus can create. This is not because robots produce everything without having any kind of buying power. It is because the buying power of workers is stagnating or even declining, while the capitalists themselves have considerably reduced their productive investment, directing their capital into the financial sector. The capitalist class is extracting its profits to a greater extent than ever by aggravating the exploitation of workers.

The example of the automobile industry says a great deal. One fourth as many workers are needed to produce one car today than at the beginning of the 1980s. Of course, technological innovations like automation and robotization of certain production processes are partially responsible for these gains in productivity. But those who only see the robots, whether through ignorance or class prejudice, mask the aggravation of the exploitation of the workers. The gains in productivity were achieved thanks to the introduction of just-in-time production, lean manufacturing, ergonomic calculations made on each task in order to wring precious seconds out of each motion, the reduction of break time, the lengthening of labor time, and the lowering of wages, to which must be added the massive recourse to subcontracting and spin-offs, which have allowed capitalists to increase the rate of profit in this sector. Although there are ultra-perfected robots at certain stages of the production process, how many particularly difficult jobs are held by temporary workers or sub-contracted out to underpaid suppliers? Capitalism has always consisted of the marriage of extraordinary technological achievement with the worst exploitation of humanity.

At the same time that the means of production at humanity’s disposal have increased to a considerable extent, capitalism has shut hundreds of millions of women and men out of collective and organized productive activity. This includes all of the workers thrust into unemployment all over the world, as well as the millions of others who survive on odd jobs, salvage work, or picking through waste. The recent drama that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where 82 people died after the collapse of a mountain of garbage in the landfill where they lived, night and day, in order to scavenge for food and items they could sell, is an illustration of this. Across Latin America, Asia, and Africa, tens of millions of women and men live from scavenging through public waste, from taking apart boats filled with asbestos or electronic devices made with various poisons in order to find scrap metal, or from other work that makes up the “informal economy.”

This rejection from the productive sphere, or at least from the most developed and industrialized part of it, is not a consequence of robotization, but of the unequal and contradictory development of capitalism. It is as old as capitalism itself. The increase in mass unemployment in the most developed countries is pushing new contingents of workers into this informal economy. Those who have a job are more and more exploited and worn out, while millions more are forced to make do in order to survive without a regular job. Those who predict the end of work or the end of wage labor under the impact of robotization are doing nothing more than theorizing and ultimately justifying this state of affairs.

Patrick Braouezec, a former deputy of the French Communist Party until 2010, who has recently rallied to the cause of French president Emmanuel Macron, made a big media announcement about how he has put in place Bernard Stiegler’s “contributive income” within the territory of Plaine-Commune, which groups together nine municipalities in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis and where he is president. What does this mean in reality? “Out of the 30,000 sports coaches who work regularly with youth in amateur soccer clubs, only a little more than 3,000 of them are paid. And yet these coaches provide public and socially useful labor.… There are also informal activities that ought to be recognized—I’m thinking of street food, or street mechanics, who are not in competition with restaurants or garages,” Braouezec declared in an interview with the newspaper Libération. What a discovery! The alternative to mass unemployment, according to Braouezec, is to provide a small income to the thousands of people who make up for the lack of funding for athletic associations with their personal devotion or to all those who try to survive by fixing cars on the sidewalk. And who is to finance such an income? “This remains to be seen … but to this end, it is a good thing that Orange [French telecommunications multinational] and Dassault Systèmes [French software multinational] support our project,” Braouezec continued. Although there is no doubt that Braouezec ever really considered fighting capitalism, today he has resorted to begging for a few crumbs from [French capitalist] Serge Dassault to pay for his contributive income.

Braouezec’s contributive income and Hamon’s universal guaranteed income are of the same nature. What they actually mean is to siphon off a few crumbs, preferably from the state budget which is already devoted to unemployment and health insurance or to other so-called “solidarity” spending, in order to give charity to all those who have been definitively excluded from the labor market. The capitalists are perfectly capable of accommodating themselves to an income of this type, which allows them to hire workers according to industry’s productive needs while only paying a minimal wage, as a supplement to the basic or “universal” income.

A Necessary Social Revolution

In Capital, Marx already noted “the condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, as a means of enriching the individual capitalists.” Mass unemployment is as old as capitalism itself.

For Marx and Engels, the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist economy is that production becomes a social act, placing millions of producers in relation with each other, even across borders, while ownership of the means of production, like the goods produced, remains private. They noted the “unheard-of development of productive forces, the excess of supply over demand,” resulting in “over-production, the glutting of markets, crises … excess here, of means of production and products; excess there, of laborers, without employment and without means of existence.”

For the founders of scientific socialism, the only way to resolve the contradiction was to transform these means of production into collective property. This implies a political and social revolution, in the course of which, “the proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialized means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property.” The proletarian revolution therefore makes possible “socialized production upon a predetermined plan.… In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the State dies out. Man, at last the master of his own form of social organization, becomes at the same time the lord over Nature, his own master—free.”

The freedom that Engels evokes is that of no longer being enslaved by alienating labor that one is forced to endure, nor by unemployment or forced idleness, nor by hunger or poverty. Producing “socially, upon a predetermined plan” is the only way to satisfy the needs of everyone without destroying humans and nature, without draining natural resources, all while putting to use the best of technology, including robots. This means allowing each human being to make their contribution to the functioning of society, all while reducing the time spent on these tasks to a minimum. It means allowing humanity as a whole to collectively decide which tasks it can delegate to machines or robots, and which tasks humans should continue to carry out, such as those of caring for the most vulnerable parts of the population. Contrary to the prejudices espoused by certain environmentalist or anti-growth circles, who are opposed to robotization out of a rejection of technology, the founders of scientific socialism were not focused on increasing production at all costs.

The future is to divide the socially necessary labor among everyone, so as to reduce it to a minimum level and to allow each human being, no matter their age or abilities, to find their place in this process. As Marx formulated in Capital: “Freedom in this field can only consist in socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

This division of labor which is necessary to the functioning of society stands in contrast with the anarchy and the law of the jungle that govern all social relations in capitalist society. However, for Marx, we are still far from the “realm of freedom.” He continues: “But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite.”

The development of productive forces, the automation and robotization of multiple tasks, whether these are tiresome for humans or better accomplished by robots, such as certain delicate surgical operations, already make it possible to shorten the workday. But none of this can be put into practice unless control over the means of production as a whole is taken out of the hands of the ruling bourgeoisie.