Robotic automation is a subject we rarely hear mentioned in all the talk about the economy, jobs, climate change, and other elements of our growing global crisis.
Why? Because the 1% dare not address an issue that shakes our system to its foundations.
The bipartisan perspective of our current leadership is that our problems are just another, mysteriously huge, business cycle; that “any day now” things will turn around and “we” must tighten our belts until then; and that with enough reforms we can restore economic balance and avert global climate disaster.
The truth is that the continued existence of capitalism is incompatible with the positive potential of robotic automation.
To understand why, we need to look at what drives our social and economic system, and our ruling class: the billionaire owners of the giant corporations and banks.
Any society has at its foundation a system for producing and circulating the things we need to live and thrive; in other words, an economy. Ours is capitalist, based on corporate-owned production of commodities for sale on a market.
From around 1800 into the mid-1970s, industrial technology required many people to manufacture goods and provide services. It's how the cycle of capitalism works: enough people must earn enough money from employment to consume what is produced.
However, computerized robotic technology now dominates all levels of manufacturing, service and communications. This domination is spreading rapidly, worldwide. Any manufacturer has at least a portion of their plant that runs "lights-out," with few or no workers; many have entire factories operating this way 24/7.
Further, offshoring of jobs and manufacturing expresses the drive to reduce the one great variable of capitalist production: human labor cost (how much they have to pay you to work). Likewise, re-shoring manufacturing back to the U.S. means fleeing rising labor costs in China and reducing labor costs here. The final outcome is robotic automation, here and abroad.
This heightened level of technology permanently ruptures the capitalist economic cycle. Capitalism functions according to systemic laws; here are four of those laws, and how they are disrupted by robotic automation:
- Capitalism is based on buying and selling in the marketplace. Everything is for sale, including your ability to work. If a robot does the work more cheaply, you have to sell for less or not at all.
- The value of a commodity for exchange in the marketplace is based on how much human labor is required to produce and bring it to market. Exchange value of all commodities, including the value of human labor itself, is undercut as labor is drastically reduced by automation.
- Capitalists must constantly reduce the cost of human labor in two basic ways: lower wages or reduce human labor. There are fewer jobs now, and jobs pay less. If workers can't buy, owners can't sell. We’ve crossed a line where there are no longer enough people working or earning enough to consume the goods and services produced. Selling subprime mortgages was a strategy to prop up a housing and construction market that would have collapsed several years earlier.
- Capitalist companies must seek maximum profit at all times. Since profits come out of the value of a commodity, the rate of profit tends to fall as human labor is reduced. Marketing, monopoly and political influence also affect profits, but labor is the key. Rates of profit in production have dropped 70% since 1965 (Deloitte Shift Index).
As a class, capitalists have little or no choice in these matters, and herein lies the roots of the current, growing class tensions.
Because the process we’re describing is irreversible: companies must automate to compete. The system can recover from a simple excess of goods (our cycles of recession and recovery), but it cannot recover from the destruction of its foundation: exchange value.
Consequently, there will be no real "recovery" to this system. Put another way, recovery no longer means a recovery of jobs. Unlike the boom and bust business cycles of old, this rupture does not have an upswing. From here on, all the 1% can offer the 99% is austerity, telling us to “get along with less in this new reality”. Thus, corporations and the rich are not “job creators.” They are job destroyers.
What we have now are investors driven to find new sources of highest profit, leading to massive dominance of speculative investment over productive investment, the drive to turn everything public into a source of taxpayer-funded profit, and wanton destruction of the planet.
Public education, for example, is being reorganized to more directly serve capital and educate fewer people. Those they cannot employ they will ignore, exclude, and ultimately control via the growing police state. Further, every attempt to slow and reverse global climate change is stalled by the power and propaganda of corporations and the governments that represent them.
The challenge facing the American people is to connect the dots so we can chart our course forward, independent of the avalanche of corporate-generated propaganda which is designed to limit our thinking.
It is tempting to think we can change laws and make these corporations behave, but they are now interwoven into our government and control it. We’ll find no safety in trying to "return to the old days"; we need to step forward in a new direction. If the above arguments are correct, there is no common ground between the people and the corporations. Either the people will take over the corporations, or the corporations will take over the world and destroy it.
One might think I am suggesting automation is the cause of these problems; however, the problem is not the technology but the necessity of the capitalist system to use technology for profit. Only by ending the corporate market system can the 99% create a new system based on use-value -- value for actual human needs -- and enable us to use the full capabilities of technology to sustain human life.
This all sounds dire, and it is, but there is reason for hope. We need a new Vision, independent of the corporate agenda for America. However, knowing we need a revolution is not enough; calling for one is just an abstraction. People fight for reforms to hang on to what they’ve got, but reforms do not become a revolution.
Political revolution begins when people seize on a new idea. Revolutionaries grow out of reform struggles as they confront a system that doesn't allow them to survive. They, in turn, speak to the needs of all people, much as Thomas Paine did in the first American Revolution. In this case, the new idea is that we need a new way of living.
A non-corporate world is now possible, one in which all share freely the resources which increasingly can no longer be sold. Production without human labor implies circulating goods without money; a "gift" economy based on true democracy, cooperation, care for the planet, and trust.
You and Bill Gates and I can each contribute our unique abilities to our global community, our gift to the world; we can each go down to the corner store and get what we need to live and thrive, our community’s gift to us. Your house is yours forever, but Microsoft is a public resource; its operation is for the good of humanity, not profits.
To achieve this, every level of government must be held accountable to defend the public, not the corporations. Every issue must be used to challenge the right of capitalists to rule. Every action, every strategy, must help the 99% form itself into a new kind of political force that can become a government embodying every strand of a new way of living.
We can begin creating that vision now.
Peter Brown teaches Manufacturing Technology at Laney College in Oakland.