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May 1, 2018

Rage against the machine


May 1, 2018

“I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans”, said Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, in an interview to Omni Magazine in 1987. From Alan Turing to Stephen Hawking, many renowned scientists and thinkers have shared a similar concern. But at this juncture of history, automation is helping a few powerful individuals to see humans as pets.

Whether machines will be able to take control of humans in the future is debatable. But these bots are definitely eating up our jobs. In the oil and gas sector alone, profits have risen tenfold in the last ten years while employment has gone down at the same rate. A plant that would once have required 100 people for its smooth functioning now does not require more than 10 individuals.

Unemployment is surging right now, bringing forth new waves of uprisings like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Instead of addressing the phenomena, the issue is being misrepresented by power players. Temporary and part-time workers are categorised as ‘employed’ while amateur entrepreneurs, who are destined to fail in a crumbling capitalist system, are classified as ‘self-employed’.

Since the collusion of the housing market with the financial market, the economy has turned into a giant Ponzi scheme in which the same product, without addition of any value, keeps changing hands. The bubble of its prize keeps inflating and, like a musical chair, those who are carrying the load of this bosh get eliminated from the market when this balloon of deception is burst.

The subsequent crisis throws us back from the plastic economy into the real world and we realise that real jobs are hard to find, while the real prices of commodities are much less than projected on the TV screens. Circulation experiences a halt as real production – whether that of a physical product or a service – is limited by real consumption.

In the real economy, automation is rapidly decreasing the production time, which calls for a decrease in either labour time or the number of employees. The former benefits the workers as it would allow them to work for lesser hours. Unsurprisingly, the latter is chosen – since it enables business owners to mint more profit out of the same number of laborers.

Protagonists of the marginal theory of value would argue that the lower cost of production would compel a business owner to lower the prices and produce more, and hence retain the workers or at least not get rid of them in direct proportion to the level of automation. For some time, this happens. But soon competitors also start employing the same sophistication of machinery and everything falls back to the balance except two irreversible changes.

First, a certain number of workers is permanently disposed of due to increased productivity. The second change occurs in the prices of the product, which, after going through reiterations, are lowered due to the reduction in cost (less amount of socially necessary labour time required for the production) and its competitive effect on the market.

There is also the argument that although a huge number of workers have lost their jobs – particularly in the manufacturing sector – due to automation, new fields have also been introduced that have created new jobs. And, while new fields are constantly being introduced, they are unable to create jobs what with growing unemployment in other fields and an ever-increasing population.

The absence of jobs is the reason we are experiencing a rapid increase in the number of temporary, contractual, part-time employees, who live in permanent insecurity despite ‘perks’ such as job flexibility. This is also why there are self-employed individuals running after the neoliberal dream of creative entrepreneurship, and young entrants getting tired of applying for jobs to no avail.

Furthermore, even new fields like recruitment agencies are becoming automated on a very rapid scale. It would also not be incorrect to say that the rate of automation is far greater than that of the creation of new fields and jobs. Another failure of the prevalent economy is the utilisation of labour in unproductive activities to artificially increase its price. For example, branding and advertisement add no real value to the product but do help maximise profits.

It is not a surprise that the latest automation and IT revolution coincided with the emergence of neoliberal economic policies and the subsequent weakening of labour politics and trade unions. Automation works as a double-edged sword, decreasing the number of labourers in the production process on the one hand and diminishing bargaining power via a continuous increment of surplus population on the other. This begets a decrease in real wages.

The core bargaining power of labourers lies in the fact that without them there can be no production and, subsequently, no profit. But with a large force of unutilised surplus population, augmented with less sophistication of work due to automation, businesses get the edge of replacing protesting workers. This began in the 1980s and enabled neoliberalism to conquer the world on the horse of automation.

Unfortunately, due to a necessary culture of self-criticism in leftist organisations, their investigations ignored the role of automation in the fall of labour politics, triumph of neoliberalism and emergence of a white-collar proletariat. They, instead, remained more focused on self-critique. This despite the fact that Karl Marx had laid the foundation work for the analysis of the role of automation in the fourth and fifth parts of Capital Vol I.

It is true that, until now, automation has helped further the exploitation of workers. However, if we take a leaf from Marx’s method of inquiry and analyse the dialectics within automation, we can see that even though it may allow a business owner to reduce the number of labourers, in essence any increase in productivity of labour decreases the socially necessary labour time. Therefore, to fight modern capitalism, one needs to initiate the struggle with the demand for shorter working hours and full employment. Robots are being employed to exploit us; maybe it’s time we exploited them.

The writer is an educationist andformer central organiser of theNational Students Federation (NSF).

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