Review: Automation and the Future of Work

By Ben Prostine

In a sixteenth century vision of utopia, Thomas More could imagine a six-hour work day. Over three hundred years later, Paul Lafargue – astute reader of the writings on surplus by his father-in-law, Karl Marx – authored a manifesto advocating a three-hour work day and the “right to be lazy.” In the twentieth century, the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas on public investment formed the framework of the New Deal, realized profit rates would decline under what he called “economic maturity” and suggested dropping the work week to fifteen hours – increasing leisure rather than production.  Now, in the twentieth century, automation thinkers foresee a brave new world without any work, an inevitable result of technological innovation. 

But we do not live in an agrarian commonwealth, as imagined by More, nor a slick and shiny world of factories run by robots. “Our present reality,” writes Aaron Benanav in Automation and the Future of Work, “is better described by near-future science fiction dystopias than by standard economic analysis; ours is a hot planet, with micro-drones flying over the heads of street hawkers and rickshaw pullers, where the rich live in guarded climate-controlled communities while the rest of us while away our time in dead-end jobs…”  Widen the context to include government austerity, job wrecking global pandemics, stagnant wages and gilded age inequalities, and the crisis of labor becomes undeniable. 

With Automation and the Future of Work, Benanav offers a clear analysis of what’s driving this crisis of work – one reinforced by global data on employment and declining profit rates – and a much needed salvaging from the depths of the utopian tradition. This is a utopian outlook not of technocratic fixes, but structural transformation. Neither More’s six hour work day in an agrarian economy nor Lafargue’s three hour work day following the industrial revolution should be considered fantastical. Both imagined labor in what Benanav calls the “realm of necessity.” The realm of labor today, however, is the realm of capitalism, and the logic of capital does not lead to the satisfaction of social needs, but the pursuit of profit and endless growth. For centuries now, we’ve lived in a world of abundance and poverty, of bumper crops and famines. As Benanav writes, “We need to slip out of this timeline and into another.”  

Manufacturing’s “Employment Apocalypse” 

Benanav analyzes the global deindustrialization of labor over the last fifty years and the resulting stagnation of wages and low demands for workers. Readers may associate deindustrialization with trade policies and the offshoring of production to countries with lax environmental and labor regulations. In the US, this narrative is manipulated to feed the nationalist turn in electoral politics and the “America first” sloganeering that accompanies it. 

But deindustrialization, Benanav argues, is better explained not by offshoring or technological advance (like automation theorists argue), but rather, declining profit rates. As technologies spread across the globe following WWII, in part as a means to ensure US hegemony during the Cold War, the old crisis of capitalism re-emerged: overproduction. From overproduction depressed prices soon followed, then declining investments by firms and economic downturns. And since the economic growth that capitalism depends on slowed to a creep, so, too, did the creation of new jobs. “Decades of industrial overcapacity killed the manufacturing growth engine,” writes Benanav, “and no alternative to it has been found.”

Out of the ruins of industry, and the enormous dispossessions of farmers and peasants around the world, we observe the rise of finance and the so-called service sector. But neither the vast accumulations of financial capital nor the profusion of fast food, hospitality, and groundskeeper jobs have been able to fill the voids left by manufacturing and agriculture.

With declining profit rates, firms do not expand production or reinvest in infrastructure and research and development; instead they chase bubbles, cannibalize their own shares, pay out dividends, and pursue mergers and acquisitions and the other acts that make up the drama of the stock exchange. Members of the ruling class may salivate over surges in the stock market, but the stock market is a poor measurement for the realities of workers: at the beginning of 2020, the richest 10% of Americans owned 84% of the market

Another means for employers to eke out a sliver of profits and remain competitive on the global market is to suppress wages. Workers not just in the US, but around the world, “find themselves exposed to the ebbs and flows of the demand for labor,” forced to accept “stagnant wages and poor working conditions,” and diminishing prospects of finding a new job if they lose whatever they have “because there are already so many workers just like them.” This may not be the result of capitalism’s “creative destruction,” as apologists maintain, but rather its decay. And without drastic shifts in state policy, Benanav writes, “the COVID-19 recession will only intensify these trends in the years to come.” 

Twenty-first Century Reserve Army of Labor 

The decade after the financial crisis of 2008 included the rise of hegemonic tech companies – but it also included, in the US, “the lowest rates of capital accumulation and productivity growth in the postwar era.” And these meager gains did not result from a fleet of robots and artificial intelligence, but by cutting the number of workers and “speeding up the pace of work” for whoever remained. Technological advancements, such as artificial intelligence and “smart” machines, do not occur in a social vacuum, but a world driven by profits. Amazon, for example, does not develop technology that could augment worker productivity, but instead invests in surveillance technology to ensure higher productivity from warehouse workers.

Out of this slow economic growth, the weak demand for labor emerges not so much as unemployment, but what Benanav calls “chronic underemployment.” For workers today, a wage is the means of accessing the necessities of life – and lacking any kind of savings, workers turn to whatever they can find.

In the US, with some of the worst unemployment and social relief programs among wealthy nations, the experience of precarity is diffuse. If manufacturing produced the massive surpluses that drove post-war economic growth, its decline has now produced a surplus of the underemployed, the overworked and underpaid, and the 2.2 million who fill the cells of one of the few “growth industries” in the last fifty years, the U.S. prison-industrial complex.

Which Way to Utopia? 

While some automation thinkers see technological change as the pathway to utopia where the necessities for a dignified human life are accessible by all, Benanav proposes we reverse the thought experiment, beginning with “a world of generalized human dignity” instead. Even if full automation were technologically feasible, locked within a mode of production driven by profit, it is by no means inevitable. 

To look forward, Benanav also looks back – into the early stirrings of the utopian tradition. In 1516, Thomas More was the first to use the word utopia in his fictional novel, a word derived from the Greek which can literally mean “no where.”  More’s fictional utopia had its contradictions, but half a millennium later, his basic vision – and the tradition that grew out of it – is still relevant for imagining a society beyond senile capital and ecological catastrophe. “[A]s long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things,” More wrote, “I cannot think of a nation that can be governed either justly or happily: not justly because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.” The utopian impulse becomes necessary because the kind of society that could resist and reverse the crises of climate and work is, indeed, “no where” to be found. 

Benanav’s concluding remarks on “a new mode of social existence” – one beyond private property and wages and grounded, instead, in the realms of freedom and necessity — are brief, welcoming critical questions concerning strategy and implementation. Reading Benanav’s book from farm country, for example, we can ponder how a post-scarcity future might look on the land where “progress” has meant ecological destruction and a mass exodus from the countryside. More generally, we might ask how the “realm of necessity” will change under the increasing pressures of climate change. And, if the “pressure of social movements, pushing for a radical restructuring of life” is the means to bring in a post-scarcity future, as Benanav suggests, what might serve as our tactics? 

Benanav is critical of such “silver bullets” as Keynesian public investments (such as a jobs guarantee program) or universal basic income (UBI); as long as the structural conditions of our life under capital persist – private property, rent, debt, and all the exploitations those entail – Benanav suggests such programs will run into serious limitations. Out of a defeated social movement, UBI may be the “best we will get,” but such reforms should not be our aim.  

As Benanav’s detailed analysis of the structural economic conditions driving the crisis of work suggest, no deus ex machina will save us. Or, to put it another way: robots will not perform our politics for us. We will need social movements with emancipatory horizons. 

Top image: An electronics factory in Shenzhen, China. Steve Jurvetson/CC BY 2.0. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua

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