Automation and the Future of Work

source : benanav_2020

tags : [[automation]] [[artificial intelligence]]

1. The Automation Discourse

  • The current mainstream discourse today is whether things like self-driving trucks will replace truckers

  • The main tenants of automation discourse are:

    1. Workers are already being displaced by ever more advanced machines, resulting in “technological unemployment”
    2. This displacement is a sign that we’re on the verge of living in a totally automated society, where work will be performed by machines and computers
    3. Since we live in a society where one must work to live, such automation would be a nightmare
    4. The only way to prevent the aforementioned nightmare would be to implement some kind of [[universal basic income]]
  • Those who believe that economic catastrophe as a result of automation is on its way don’t think [[capitalism]] is going away, just that it’s shedding its need for a labor market

  • Left-wing adherents to this worldview believe that automation could bring about [[fully automated luxury communism]]

  • the use of technology to fully substitute human labor, rather than merely augmenting its productive capacities

    • Automation destroys entire job classifications. There will never be switch board operators again, for example
  • Much of the existing debate surrounds whether or not present or near-future technologies are labor-substituting or labor-augmenting

    • Are self-checkout machines something that replace cashiers, or something that makes one cashier more productive?
    • In either case, the result can be unemployment
  • Many automation theorists tend to see capitalism as a transitory stage, as the bridge to full automation, which in turn will be an era where no further automation will take place

  • Ideas of full automation have been present since at least 1832

    Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures in 1832, John Adolphus Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labour in 1833, and Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures in 1835…

  • The appeal of the full automation argument is that modern capitalism is failing to provide enough jobs (and enough good jobs) for everyone to live comfortably

    • There has been a low demand for labor
    • The labor share of income has been falling in G7 countries for decades
  • Something strange has occurred within the economy, leading to a low demand for labor, but it has not been caused by technological development

  • Benanav says that automation theorists are the [[utopians]] of modern capitalism

  • Benanav will advance four counterarguments:

    1. The decline in the demand for labor was not due to a leap in technological innovation but economic stagnation
    2. This underdemand for labor has tended to manifest as persistent underemployment
    3. The world of poorly paid workers will continue to be accepted by those in power
      1. UBI would only prop up a world of inequality, not dismantle it
    4. Benanav will propose a path towards a world of abundance without the need for automation
  • The goal is a [[post-scarcity]] future, not necessarily a fully automated one

2. Labor’s Global [[Deindustrialization]]

  • The [[service sector]] employs about 52% of workers worldwide
  • Over the last 50 years much of the world has deindustrialized
  • “a decline in the share of manufacturing in total employment.”
  • It was assumed that the reason for deindustrialization was production moving offshore, i.e. steel production moving from the US to China
  • Manufacturing productivity has been slow to grow for decades as well
  • digitization has not lead to increased productivity, as was expected
    • US manufacturing growth-rate statistics are overinflated, as they count the production of computers with higher processing speeds as equivalent to production of more computers
  • Correcting US manufacturing statistics reveals that the US’s manufacturing productivity is about the same as Japan and Germany
    • Germany and Japan are ahead of the US in the field of industrial robotics as well
  • Productivity rates have gone from annual growth of ~5% in the post-war era to ~3% or less
  • Productivity growth rates have been high relative to the output of growth rates, hence why automation theorists believe productivity to be growing at a rapid pace
    • USA

      | Time Period | Output | Productivity | Employment | |-|--|--|| | 1950–73 | 4.4% | 3.1% | 1.2% | | 1974–2000 | 3.1% | 3.3% | -0.2% | | 2001–17 | 1.2% | 3.2% | -1.8% |

    • Germany

      | Time Period | Output | Productivity | Employment | |-|--|--|| | 1950–73 | 7.6% | 5.7% | 1.8% | | 1974–2000 | 1.3% | 2.5% | -1.1% | | 2001–17 | 2.0% | 2.2% | -0.2% |

    • Japan

      | Time Period | Output | Productivity | Employment | |-|--|--|| | 1950–73 | 14.9% | 10.1% | 4.3% | | 1974–2000 | 2.8% | 3.4% | -0.6% | | 2001–17 | 1.7% | 2.7% | -1.1% |

  • Deindustrialization on this scale caused solely by technological advancement is impossible
  • Worldwide rates of output growth have been declining since WWII
  • More is produced by fewer workers, but not because workers are more productive, but because output growth has been shrinking
  • Overcapacity produced after WWII led to a long downturn in manufacturing-output growth rates
  • US overcapacity began to falter once cheaper manufacturers, first from Europe, were able to penetrate the US domestic market, causing a decline in output growth
  • Other countries in the post-war era followed the pattern of the US by building up their manufacturing and adopting export-led growth strategies
  • Deindustrialization was passed off to poorer third world countries by depressing prices in global markets
  • Technological advancement was welcomed hand-in-hand with deindustrialization in an attempt to reduce prices, resulting in sector-wide job loss
  • Overcapacity explains why deindustrialization was accompanied by ongoing efforts to develop labor-saving technologies as well as the building out of massive labor-intensive supply chains
  • [[Globalization]] (the creation of international supply chains and spreading manufacturing across the globe) led to a [[centralization of capital]], where the world’s wealthiest companies retained manufacturing capacity
  • Countries that have achieved a high degree of automation are not the worst hit by deindustrialization, as high degrees of automation allow for a competitive edge
  • [[China]] has seen productivity and employment growth, but not because of automation, but because of a combination of advanced technology and low wages
  • Firms can only achieve high rates of growth by taking market share from their competitors in this modern environment

3. In the Shadow of Stagnation

  • Labor productivity and output have been slow to grow since about the 70s in advanced capitalist countries
    • Productivity has grown more slowly outside of manufacturing than in it
  • “Manufacturing was a unique engine of economic growth”
  • “Low rates of industrial productivity are the result of a slower pace of expansion rather than the reverse”
  • As deindustrialization has occurred, workers have pooled in less productive sectors
  • Deindustrialization has been paired with financialized capital (i.e. “chasing returns to the ownership of relatively liquid assets rather than investing long-term in new fixed capital”)
  • balance sheet stagnation. A process whereby asset bubbles create a “wealth effect” for richer households, “since their assets appear to be saving money for them”. Said bubbles pop, and those households withdraw from their assets to pay down debts. Named after Japanese bubble pop in 1991
  • Deindustrialization has been paired with such bubbles. The biggest was the real estate bubble that nearly brought down the Japanese economy and the [[US economy in 2008]]
  • The markets that were created by industry have not been replaced by anything else for poorer countries
  • Growth rates prior to the first world war were more comparable to growth rates today
    • That said much of the world was not industrialized
    • Much of the world market today requires people to enter into labor markets to live, unlike prior to WWI
  • [[Pandemics]] are followed by long-lasting declines in GDP rather than booms
  • Automation theorists believe that technological development is linear and occurs along a set path, leading to the belief in the upcoming [[singularity]]
  • Technological development is highly resource intensive, and researchers prioritize the most profitable research
    • There is little research into how technology may make line workers more productive, but lots of research in how to spy on line workers
  • Agriculture was difficult to automate until the 1940s, but once it came farms started to resemble “open-air factories”
    • And once it happened, the industry shed workers unlike any other industry before

4. A Low Demand for Labor

  • We are headed towards a “good job”-less future rather than a “job”-less one

  • In the 1970s governments began scaling back unemployment benefits to try and coax the unemployed back to work, as these welfare programs had not been designed for long-term high rates of unemployment

  • Higher rates of unemployment meant that employers could more easily break the strength of labor by hiring cheaper

  • Comparatively, it’s unusual that in the United States, even highly paid workers are just as vulnerable as their low-paid counterparts to potential job loss. This is due to at-will employment

  • Postwar and postcolonial development states sometimes had stronger labor protections than their European counterparts

  • In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, nonstandard employment became a major problem as early as the 1950s

  • This is the problem with the term “nonstandard employment”: it reveals the dream of global full-employment that never came to pass

  • The world’s underemployed are mostly working in the service sector

  • The service sector has a difficult time automating, because they do not experience dynamic patterns of expansion. Expansion in the service economy occurs by simply hiring more employees

  • Services form a stagnant economic sector: they do not contribute to economic growth

  • The activities that remain services today are those that cannot be easily automated

  • The service sector cannot rely on price effects for expansion demand, i.e. rising productivity does not lead to falling prices and therefore increased demand, so the service sector will likely grow slowly over time

  • As underemployment rises, inequality will intensify

  • As time goes on, immiserating employment growth becomes self-reinforcing, where sectors of the economy expand by taking advantage of the underemployed and then come to depend on their continued availability

    Over time, immiserating employment growth becomes self-reinforcing. Sectors of the economy expand by taking advantage of pools of underemployed labor and then come to depend on their continued availability. As thoughtfully depicted in Bong Joon-ho’s award-winning 2019 film Parasite, it begins to make sense for high-net-worth and managerial households to hire working-class households to perform more of the tasks they would otherwise do for themselves—as tutors, domestic servants, drivers, childminders, and personal assistants—simply due to large differences in the prices of their respective labors.

  • As inequality has risen social mobility has fallen

  • The poor won’t get poorer as time goes on, but the poor will have less opportunity to leave poverty

  • The following sure sounds like the capitalism of Marx’s time:

    These trends suggest that the apocalyptic crisis of labor market dysfunction anticipated by automation theorists will not take place. Instead, unemployment will continue to spike during downturns—as we are seeing happen once again, and on a truly massive scale, in the present COVID-19 recession. Then, in the course of the tepid boom periods that follow, this unemployment will slowly but surely resolve itself into higher levels of underemployment and rising inequality. In Rise of the Robots, futurist Martin Ford says that his worst nightmare would be if the “economic system eventually manages to adapt to the new reality” of labor displacement. But in truth, it has. As Mike Davis put it, the “late-capitalist triage of humanity” has “already taken place.”48 Unless halted by concerted political action, the coming decades are likely to see more of the same: overcapacity in international markets for agricultural and industrial products will continue to push workers out of those sectors and into services, which will see their share of global employment climb from 50 percent today to 70 or 80 percent by mid century. Since overall rates of economic growth are set to remain low, the service sector will absorb job losers and new labor market entrants only by increasing income inequality, leading us further and further into the postindustrial doldrums.

5. Silver Bullets?

  • Automation theorists believe that [[Keynesianism]] may solve the issue of a low demand for labor

  • Rapid post-war industrial expansion generated a high demand for labor on its own

    Instead, as I have argued in previous chapters, rapid postwar industrial expansion generated a consistently high and stable demand for labor largely on its own. Public spending on education, healthcare and infrastructural development did not stimulate private investment; the former could barely keep up with the latter’s needs. More productive capacity came online after the end of World War II than ever before in world history. But precisely for that reason, international markets for manufactures quickly began to suffer from overcapacity, issuing in a reduced pace of capital accumulation and falling rates of output growth. The replication of technical capacities across the world undermined the conditions for further rapid expansion. The result was wave after wave of deindustrialization and a persistently low labor demand.

  • Debt-driven spending failed to stimulate high rates of economic growth, contra Keynes

  • Keynes believed it would make more sense, under conditions of economic maturity, to shrink the labor supply rather than stimulate labor demand

  • Capital throughout the postwar period had one tactical advantage to get its way: the [[capital strike]]

  • [[You can’t fight capital with public spending]] in a [[New Deal]]-like manner. You must existentially threaten the existence of these firms with full socialization

  • Some other automation theorists as well as radical Keynesians argue for the implementation of [[UBI]], which, they say, would eliminate poverty and create a world of luxury where labor is absolute

    • UBI is a technocratic solution, however, which will do far from what it intends
  • [[UBI]] has its origins in the thought of [[Thomas Paine]], who believed that all adults should receive a lump sum of money at some time in their life

    UBI proposals long predate the advent of the automation discourse. Some trace their origin to Thomas Paine, who suggested as early as 1797 that a lump-sum payment should be distributed to all individuals on reaching the age of majority.28 Paine justified this coming-of-age grant along classically Lockean lines, arguing that all land had originally been held in common but had since been divided up into parcels of private property. Rising generations were therefore unable to access their fair shares of humanity’s inheritance. For Paine, coming-of-age grants could serve as the cash equivalent of each person’s share in the common stock of the earth—and thus enable everyone to participate in the world of private property. In his proposal, which anticipates the concept of basic income, payments are not a way to create a post-scarcity world, but rather to secure the moral foundations of a private-ownership society.

  • [[Neoliberal]] economists such as [[Friedrich Hayek]] and [[Milton Friedman]] advocated for [[UBI]]

  • UBI is very heavily invested in by [[Silicon Valley]] as well as right-wing thinkers, who want to do away with [[public welfare]]

  • It is unlikely that a state and socio-economic system that wishes to preserve itself would ever provide a UBI so generous that it would undermine its existence

  • For UBI to work it would need rising productivity levels, as automation theorists already erroneously claim to be true

  • “UBI would empower workers without disempowering capital.”

6. Necessity and Freedom

  • Although the automation theorists are wrong, they at least have a vision for the future

  • Automation theorists do themselves a disservice by focusing on technological progress rather than the conquest of production

  • [[it is important for socialists to have a vision of the alternative]]

  • Marx et. al. believed that a [[post-scarcity]] world was possible through the active reorganization of social life, not through some weird trick

  • An influence on [[Marx]] was [[Étienne Cabet]], an early utopian writer

  • “Abundance is a social relationship”

    For a post-scarcity society to come into being, a literal cornucopia is not required. It is only necessary that scarcity and its accompanying mentality be overcome, so people can live, as More said, “with a joyful and tranquil frame of mind, with no worries about making a living.”23 According to this perspective, abundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed. Instead, abundance is a social relationship, based on the principle that the means of one’s existence will never be at stake in any of one’s relationships. The steadfast security that such a principle implies is what allows all people to ask “What am I going to do with the time I am alive?” rather than “How am I going to keep living?”24 Some will choose to follow a single idea to its end, others to periodically reinvent themselves. The main choice people will have to make is how to “balance the goal of bettering oneself against the injunction to better humanity” (as Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise tells a financial mogul, who had been cryogenically frozen in the twenty-first century only to be revived, to his horror, in a post-scarcity world).25

    In such a world, there could still be sanctions to ensure that necessary work is actually undertaken. However, inducements to work would not take the form of threats of starvation, but invitations to cooperate. Economists have long recognized that hunger and homelessness are not the best motivators. Even in Kropotkin’s time, economists admitted that “the best situation for man is when he produces in freedom, has choice in his occupations, has no overseer to impede him, and when he sees his work bring a profit to himself and others like him.”26 A bestselling writer on motivation recently rediscovered these same ideas: feelings of autonomy, mastery, and purpose are what generate the best work, not higher levels of monetary reward.27

    The successful organization of a post-scarcity world would require that its denizens solve, to their satisfaction, the problems posed by the twentieth century’s socialist calculation debates. They would do so with the tools of the twenty-first century: utilizing digital technologies to coordinate their needs and activities by designing algorithms—which process data and present alternatives—and protocols—which structure decisions about alternatives—that could be further modified and adapted over time in light of experience. Individuals would have to be able to use digital applications to articulate their needs and to transmit these to associations, while associations, in turn, would need to be able both to allocate resources among themselves and to figure out how to make do with the resources they are able to acquire, in a way that was fair and rational. Efficiency would no longer be an overriding goal of production, but producers would still have to be able to make reasonable choices among production techniques, based on the ease with which they can access different sorts of supplies. It would have to be possible, as well, to hold producers accountable were they to fail to meet democratically determined social standards. Again, there is likely to be no single best way to deal with these crucial problems.28

  • “Of course, the realm of freedom is about having time for both socializing and solitude, for engaging in hobbies and doing nothing at all—“/rien faire comme une bête/, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky.”30 Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s phrase is suggestive of a world in which material dispossession and the existential insecurity to which it gives rise have been universally abolished.”

  • “Without a clear vision of this coming world, it is easy to get lost along the way.”


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