Now, full automation and a UBI are not new ideas. These things, or at the very least full automation, have been floating around since before James Watt significantly improved the power and efficiency of steam engines. In so doing, Watt demonstrated – right before our (or rather, ‘their’) very eyes - how automation was happening and could be put to use on an industrial level. The imagination of authors, artists, and working people generally did not have to labour too hard to envisage a future free from drudgery and forced (that is, necessary) toil. Rather than turning up to a job done purely because one’s well-being is entirely dependent on the wage it produces, people started to imagine an existence where necessary (and, eventually, luxury) goods and services would be provided by machines. Some began to speculate not only that this could happen, but rather, that this must happen…
People of all sorts and from all backgrounds marvelled at the technology developing under, and seemingly as a consequence of, the economic system that drove this revolution: capitalism. Capitalism has created technology, it is building on this technology to make even more incredible advances, it is going to solve all our problems (eventually). All solutions are now business solutions. Business is competitive. Competition breeds innovation which produces technology.
Indeed, Marx himself noted that the inherently competitive nature of capitalism was a driving force of innovation as technology as it was integral to the (necessary) strategy of reducing the price of/increasing the volume (quantity) of production. Given a consumer market is finite and bounded (there are only so many people in a given population), and given that other producers might be wanting to increase their market share (at the cost of your market share), capitalists must invest in cost-saving – or production-increasing – technology. Innovate to obliterate : Compete or die:
We see how in this way the mode of production and the means of production are continually transformed, revolutionised, how the division of labour is necessarily followed by greater division of labour, the application of machinery by still greater application of machinery, work on a large scale by work on a still larger scale.
That is the law which again and again throws bourgeois production out of its old course and which compels capital to intensify the productive forces of labour, because it has intensified them, it, the law which gives capital no rest and continually whispers in its ear: “Go on! Go on!”
(Wage Labour and Capital, Pg. 213)
Marx notes in the above (and elsewhere) not only the economic necessity of technological innovation and de-skilling (translate as ‘wage suppression’), but also the colossal market-generated pressure on factory owners and other bourgeois capitalists to innovate and produce. Marx speaks of capitalists (the owners of the means of production – i.e. those with ‘capital’) being ‘compelled’ to exploit pre-existing means of production, and being ‘made’ to constantly ascertain new productive technologies lest they themselves be
[…] hurled down into its [the proletariat’s] ranks and have nothing better to do than urgently stretch out their arms alongside those of the workers. Thus the forest of uplifted arms demanding work becomes ever thicker, while the arms themselves become ever thinner.
(Wage Labour and Capital, Pg. 216)
Poor them. Actually, poor everyone:
Let us sum up: The more productive capital grows, the more the division of labour and the application of machinery expands. The more the division of labour and the application of machinery expands, the more competition among the workers expands and the more their wages contract.
(Wage Labour and Capital, Pg. 217)
The worker tries to keep up the amount of his wages by working more, whether by working longer hours or by producing more in one hour. Driven by want, therefore, he still further increases the evil effects of the division of labour. The result is that the more he works the less wages he receives, and for the simple reason that he competes with himself, with himself as a member of the working class.
(Wage Labour and Capital, Pg. 215)
Capitalist innovation, despite contributing to the material impoverishment of workers, and the spiritual impoverishment of the bourgeoisie, is not without its (undoubtedly unintended) positive consequences: it has given us the necessary means to sustain a fully automated communist economy which, given the internal dialectical contradictions of capitalism, must also be necessary.
So, given all of this, where’s my fucking jetpack? Come on! I was promised relief from reliance on my wage!
It’s an open question, and one asked most notably by the Frankfurt School philosophers, sociologists, media analysts, etc, as to why the communist revolution didn’t occur despite the favourable material conditions peri-WWII. One such answer to this question, certainly the one I find the most plausible, is that Marx overlooked the sheer de-humanizing and degrading de-valuation workers would have forced upon them. In a discussion concerning the establishing of wage-rates, Marx offers the following example:
The manufacturer in calculating his cost of production and, accordingly, the price of the products takes into account the wear and tear of the instruments of labour. If, for example, a machine costs him 1,000 marks and wears out in ten years, he adds 100 marks annually to the price of the commodities so as to be able to replace the worn-out machine by a new one at the end of ten years. In the same way, in calculating the cost of production of simple labour power, there must be included the cost of reproduction, whereby the race of workers is enabled to multiply and to replace worn-out workers by new ones. Thus the depreciation of the worker is taken into account in the same way as the depreciation of the machine.
The cost of production of simple labour power, therefore, amounts to the cost of existence and reproduction of the worker.
(Wage Labour and Capital, Pg. 206)
If the cost of ‘buying’ labour from a worker exceeds the cost of buying labour from a machine in the median term (investing in machines for the short term would be costly, but the capitalist cannot make long term investments given the sheer speed at which technology advances) then the capitalist will have no reason to keep a person in their employ. Given the ruthless, dispassionate, ‘efficient’, nature of capitalism – and given the fact that this [worker-replacement] hasn’t happened – we must conclude that it is still cheaper to employ a (de-skilled) person (again, in the median term) than it is to buy a machine. This problem, the problem of wage suppression, is compounded further by capitalism when we realize that if there isn’t a market (or, at least, a ‘non-hungry’ market) for the emergent innovative technology, then innovation slows down. Capital investment in technology slows down in tech heavy capitalist economies. This slowing-down of technology does not lead to complete stagnation in virtue of tech projects being funded by the state. Famously, the algorithm Google uses was developed by state-funded projects, which makes their aggressive tax avoidance all the more offensive.
So, wages are suppressed to mere subsistence level – the worker makes products which she is then forced to buy at a higher price than she is paid for their (individual) production. The worker cannot opt out of paid employment or she will perish. She is thus enslaved by her wage – she is beholden to it. Except she is not even a slave. A slave is owned. A worker is rented and the rights to terminate the contract is held – in the greatest part – by the employer . This instability, this threat, hangs over the worker and makes her fearful when complaining about her working conditions, makes her fearful when asking for a wage rise, makes her fearful when she enters any long-term contracts. This instability is another means of suppressing wages.
Eventually, wages are suppressed to such a degree that one cannot afford to buy the means of their subsistence. Workers cease being wage slaves and become debt-slaves. This exponentially multiplies the [workers’] anxiety and, knowing themselves to be in a weaker bargaining position, makes them more willing to take employment with abhorrent terms. Thus emerges the gig economy.
Why is the gig economy only emerging now? Well, consumers need cheap goods (because they all work in the gig economy) and having a low paid workforce is one way to keep costs down. Historically, the price of goods was set by the business owners (not the consumer market directly). If the price of a ‘necessity’ rose sharply a riot would ensue (this is especially true, it seems, for basic commodities – for example, bread). Political mechanisms (tax reduction on imports, for example) were introduced to relieve tensions and bring the riot to a conclusion. Riots (not just ‘protests’, or ‘public declarations of disapproval’ – actual riots) are, or were, instrumental to setting the price of goods (see, for example, the famous 'Bread Riots' and this article on the price of bread as a predictor for the Arab Spring). Given the complex economic conditions in price formation (capitalists don’t (usually) just throw a dart at a board of possible prices and hope for the best), if there are reasons to set the price of basic commodities high (e.g. an increase in the price of salt will normally inflate the cost of products containing salt) then savings have to be made elsewhere if growth and profits are to be maintained. This would normally be attempted by putting pressure on the workforce and driving down wages. Of course trade unions emerged and organised collective action made wage suppression difficult (but obviously not impossible). Frequent strikes were called and capitalists often had to back down. So, if riots form the price of goods, strikes form the cost of labour.
One of the problems with the newly emerged gig economy (or at least, one among many) is the near impossibility of organising collective direct action, the sort which had been used previously to guarantee decent(ish) working conditions. This is not an accident, but a design feature of the gig economy. Not only are workers unable to form labour unions under these sorts employment terms, but even if they could they wouldn’t in virtue of the fear generated by such economic conditions (most obviously, economic instability, vague and minimal contracts, the constant threat of being replaced by one of the many people who would ‘kill for a job’ &c). People are told to be grateful that they have any job at all (even if that job degrades you, pays minimum wage, treats you with contempt, and doesn’t recognise your human rights – which are supposed to be protected, but the associated laws frequently aren’t enforced), even if that job is at Sports Direct. Leaving the E.U. (again, well done, U.K. – you have, once again, shot yourselves in your flaccid, infected phallus of a country) which guaranteed a number of workers’ rights (and human rights generally), and not having a powerful body of trade unions, I fear the situation shall only worsen. Wages will fall further below subsistence and credit will only pick up the slack for so long…
Being the optimist that I am, I feel that not all is lost; this this trajectory cannot continue indefinitely for no fewer than two reasons:
- Fluctuations in the credit-debt ratio will accelerate and intensify given the instability of the debtors’ situation. Gig economies are, in their very nature, de-stabilizing and (therefore) bad for those corporations who rely on the repayment of debt – which nearly all of them do (especially if mass bankruptcy occurs).
- While technology is developing at a slower rate, it is still developing. In time you could replace the human workforce with machines, but then without wages how will people buy your product? Eventually no-one will have the means to buy your product except for the other capitalists. Competition becomes more aggressive (similar amount of companies chasing shrinking markets) and companies seek to grow their market share, thus becoming more hostile. Weaker businesses go bust and their owners join the ranks of the wageless. Wealth circulates and spirals upwards. Markets are held by fewer and fewer people each effectively selling to each other until, eventually, one corporation owns everything and find no-one to sell to. Collapse. This is the ‘Accumulation Problem’, and it was previously solved (temporarily) by imperialism (i.e., by expanding the market) for those of you who are interested…
Wait… this is supposed to be the optimistic bit…
Here are two plausible scenarios as to how this can play out:
Scenario 1. Stagnation and [possible] Collapse
- Partial automation : partial employment : low wages (the current situation)
- Non-investment in future [technology] from private or public sector : no further automation AT ALL : human labour power remains cheaper than automation.
- Low-wage gig economy : economic instability : economic decline
- Stagnation (at best).
Scenario 2. Fully-Automated Luxury Communism
- Partial automation : partial employment : low wages (the current situation)
- State provides incentive for tech investment : automated labour price falls and becomes cheaper than ‘human’ labour power in the median term.
- Mass unemployment : pressure on capital : poor take-up of goods and services.
- Introduction of Universal Basic Income (initially paid for by the state entirely and conditions are given to employers) : Capital re-energized (spending is stimulated) : further investment in technology by businesses (one condition the state demands in exchange for offering a UBI).
- Introduction of Universal Basic Income (paid for by the increased tax revenue generated by 4).
- Full automation of production and distribution of goods and services : near full unemployment.
- State appropriate (seize) the means of production.
- Abolition of Universal Basic Income (as superfluous)
- Fully-automated luxury communism
People are liberated from their complete reliance on the wages they have exchanged for their labour power and become free to participate in projects of their choosing. Freed from their reliance on paid work, the person obtains the luxury of time that once belonged to the capitalist.
This is emancipation proper; the abolition of wages (and, by necessity, debt) is the abolition of a system of enslavement and dehumanization.