Robots, Step Aside: The Gravediggers of Capitalism are Still Flesh and Blood Workers
This first appeared on Skewed News.
When they’re not terrifyingly militarized Terminator-style, robots are marketed as amazing and cool, even cute and cuddly. The prevailing myth was that they’d perform tasks and chores we don’t enjoy while we’d sit by the pool sipping margaritas. But what no one told us was that our lives of leisure would be spent without any money to pay the rent, and a pronounced absence of fancy frozen drinks.
First they came for the factory workers. Then they came for grocery cashiers. Now airline pilots and even sports writers are looking nervously over their shoulders, spotting LCD screens looming in the rearview mirror, flashing pixelated hearts from their creepy fake eyes as they come to steal our jobs.
RT America discussed a new report by Forrester Research called “The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side with Robots” (which I didn’t read, since the thing costs $499, damn!) that says 16% of US jobs could be automated by 2025. The RT article includes videos of robots making and serving food, and assisting retail customers.
A 2013 Oxford University report by was even more dire, predicting that 47% of US jobs may be lost to automation within ten or twenty years. Advances are being made to automate even work generally resistant to automation, like garment manufacturing.
Many leftists (who nowadays are usually not workers themselves) are citing automation and other global shifts in production to construct theories of the disappearance of the working class and the denial of workers’ historical role as capitalism’s destroyers. There has been a widespread shift of the locus of struggle away from the working class to cross-class social issues, and a dangerous populist insistence on “the people vs. the rich” or “the 99% vs. the 1%” to displace the fundamental contradiction specific to capitalism: labor vs. capital.
The working class may indeed be on the ropes—dispersed, atomized, ideologically led astray, difficult to organize. But spite of all projections, predictions, and exaggerated reports of our death, WE ARE STILL HERE.
Capitalists invest in automation for real economic benefits, but these are fleeting. Technological advances bring greater relative productivity (and thus profits) to individual first adaptors only temporarily. If Lowe’s automates its customer service personnel, saving in both variable costs (wages) and hassles (labor strife), they may win the big box store profit race for one or two quarters. But if it works, Home Depot’s automation won’t be far behind, and profits will equalize again across the sector, making further innovation necessary to stay ahead in the game.
For capitalists, value is not produced by machines; it is produced by workers using machines to transform raw materials into commodities. Without the exploitation of living labor power, profit is reduced to zero. Noting this fact, some leftists argue that automation will inevitably lead to the demise of capitalism. Whether that’s true or not (personally I can’t imagine that capitalists will give up so easily), the problem is when they use that logic as an excuse to sit out the struggle. It is a terribly elitist position to take, given how intolerable life is for the majority today, and how quickly capitalism is destroying the habitability of our planet. Waiting for salvation through automation is unacceptable; we all need to put our shoulders to the task of overthrowing it ASAP.
Capitalism still rests on the foundation of the production of surplus value through the exploitation of workers. Their economy depends on this, as well as on the ability of workers and others to buy goods. Capitalists aren’t self-hating; they’re not going to willingly relinquish their power to accumulate and reproduce themselves. Once automation stops being a competitive advantage and starts eating into their profits, they’ll restructure the economy yet again, in whatever way is to their collective benefit.
The global economy runs on the sweat of the working class. Robots aside, there are roughly 223 million workers worldwide. That’s just counting those in the productive sectors: agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, manufacturing, and construction. Some may argue that a class making up .32% of a global population of 7.3 billion is too small a minority to rise up and take over. But if the capitalist class, a much more miniscule minority, managed to do so, then so can we.
Class struggle (not technological development) is still the motor of society, as it has been throughout history, pushing it forward. Despite the urge of some to deny our historical role, workers (not robots) are the agents of social transformation in the capitalist era. As long as we still exist, it is the working class alone who has the power to unify and lead the popular masses to overcome this mode of production and construct a different future.