Automation and the Future of Work

By Aaron Benanav
Published by Verso, 2020, hardback rrp £12.99

Review By Tim Barton

Wandering into town last week, a friend and I got chatting and she commented on my T-shirt, which depicted the Worm (or dragon) Ouroboros against a Chinese ideogram. Ouroboros describes a circle, its head meeting its tail. In Egyptian mythology it represents eternity, or the circle of life. Erica had focussed upon the latter interpretation, which got me thinking. Ouroboros is eating itself in an act of eternal autosarcophagy, which requires it to grow fairly consistently at the pace it autocannibalises. This, to my mind, is a close enough metaphor for our greedy resource-hungry growth-obsessed productivist/consumerist culture: on a planet with obviously finite resources, at some point scoffing on our own flesh, the biosphere overtakes its capacity for renewal. We are pretty much at that point now, with the Worm in a new parable, one wherein it is in danger of disappearing up its own cosmic omphalos.

Which brings me to Benanav’s new book, published by the same company that gave us Aaron Bastani’s batshit Fully Luxury Automated Communism (reviewed in HIP 133) where Benanav covers similar terrain but comes to dissimilar conclusions – he refers to Bastani, in my opinion too generously. Automation of work, leading to unemployment and disruption is as old as the hills: wheels, gears, motors, looms, all were over centuries responsible for rendering a sector of the workforce ‘redundant’. Often, they also led, eventually, to new opportunities, some not previously imagined. The sixties and seventies saw a number of core industrial jobs get removed by automation – in the UK, the car industry, and later, the move away from ‘hot metal’ to increasingly virtual computer-based production, come to mind. Now robotics, so-called ‘AI’, nanotech etc. join the IT revolution in dumping yet more workers onto the dole. In a contracting market, it is hard to see any but a minority drawn back into productive work.

A growing ‘labour pool’ in a recession/depression cheapens labour, and without a ‘new new deal’ threatens to create (is creating) massive poverty (amongst the developed and quasi-developed economies), which doesn’t stop the government and their lapdog right-wing press from demonising the victims, the ‘unemployed’. Ever since (at least) the 1960s, this has been sold to us as ‘freeing’ us from the ‘burden of work’, and could open a new realm of freedom-to and freedom-from… whilst the briefest empirical study shows it impoverishes whole communities, and big corporations suck up even more capital. Of course, that has been a politico-economic choice, as we have had half a century of a ‘perfect storm’, wherein resource use has expanded exponentially and population has continued to soar, alongside a growing wealth-disparity caused by the worship of the new Gods of economics, Ayn Rand, von Mises, and Hayek.

This creates a vicious bubble, which the richest capitalist corporations rabidly inflate while suppressing socialist and ecological critiques. This is a bubble doomed to burst, and soon. Bastani’s book is optimistic, and suggests we can create a new realm of distributive freedom by stealing the reins from corporate powers, and sharing the proceeds of planet-rape more fairly. It addresses a few socialist and/or communist ideas, but tramples on the possibility of ecological balance. To do so requires off-planet ‘asteroid mining’, for example – yes, he tacitly admits of a scarcity issue, but side-steps it by buying into a Boys’ Own sci-fi fantasy adventure.

Benanav is more nuanced, and is taking on some of the more naïve aspects of automation ideology. He gives an analysis of recent trends toward collapse in capitalist projects in general, seeing a movement toward less jobs, surplus labour on the world scale, and toward stagnation, manufacturing overcapacity and deindustrialisation, regardless of, not only because of, automation. While many political figures, left and even right, are beginning to warm to the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), Benanav rejects this. It could perhaps help a productivist society to create a fairer outcome to automation (without addressing limits, of course), but he sees a UBI as essentially a temporary prop to allow business-as-[more or less]-usual for a bit longer, and sees little chance of it aiding the dismantling of the current world-system in a positive way.

We may suffer a few years in a weird combo of 1984 and Brave New World

He seeks a ‘post-scarcity future’, and says that to “find our way toward” it “requires not only a break between work and income … but also one between profit and income.” He discusses J M Keynes’ idea that “under conditions of economic maturity” it is better to “intervene to shrink the labour supply rather than to stimulate labour demand, increasing leisure rather than output”. Under current conditions, it is all too obvious that ‘leisure’ translates as ‘scrap-heap’ – yet clearly such planning would be a necessity to reach his ‘post-scarcity future’ (and he clearly is unfamiliar with Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism, far less his later work). Instead of a UBI, he sees, as a ‘precondition’ for a post-scarcity future, “not the free distribution of money … but rather the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favour of planned cooperation.” This is an anarchist-socialist tradition – it is helpful to resist the cringe of revulsion we are brainwashed to feel in the presence of the ‘A-word’, and learn what is truly meant, as any meaningful future is dependent upon this ‘threat to power’.

As is so often true in books offering ‘alternatives’, the sections offering them are frequently skimpy on detail and rather short. Emancipation through the achievement of ‘post-scarcity’ seems to imply a current Big Assumption, heard in both left- and right-wing circles: that redistribution in ‘the realm of necessity’ is sufficient to support 9 billion-plus people. In the 1970s many population experts thought we could support 13 billion, even some of those worried that it would peak above that figure. Context is everything. The post-war population boom took place in parallel to the ‘green revolution’ in agriculture. I have critiqued this, and its oil-dependency, in other HIP reviews, suffice to say diminishing returns have rendered sustainability projections based upon it useless.

The current productivist death-machine, whether run by capitalists or socialists, has been dragging the carrying-capacity down drastically year-on-year. The incredibly fast acceleration of species extinction and biome collapse we can already see this century requires that we urgently recalibrate our attitude to these contentious issues, but there is very little will indeed to confront them. ‘Just’ transitions are becoming more and more illusory daily. We can of course support many more billions, short term, by continuing to steal natural ecosystems and turn them into farm belt, but that guarantees a harder and harder crash with every passing season that one is ‘averted’. Nevertheless, a redistributive approach, with a return to the land, while it would hurt, may in fact give the medium-term ‘future’ some small chance.

A true ‘post scarcity’ ‘future’ will, ideological wishful thinking aside, come much later and many, if not most, of us will not survive the transition – as a direct consequence of capitalist greed, productivism, and consumerism. It is hardly surprising that even many on the green-left shy away from reality. This, and the resource-depletion crisis (which can only be solved under the current economic model by getting off-planet and finding resources to plunder on asteroids, which I am frankly certain is not going to occur soon enough, fast enough, indeed ‘enough enough’, if at all, to succeed) render sci-fi antics around automation and AI laughable. We may suffer a few years in a weird combo of 1984 and Brave New World, but only a few, before the resource base for industrialised technologies collapses. My verdict is clear: ‘luxury automated’ societies are not really going to happen, and wasting time on silly pipedreams makes the actual material reality day-by-day grimmer. Those in command have known this since at least the early 1990s (compare for example Global Technopolitics: The International Politics of Technology & Resources by Dennis Pirages, and see if the British Library have lending records), and chose inaction for us, and accelerated rat-in-a-corner profiteering with bunkers to go hide in for themselves – wrong choice, we will all pay for it.

Nevertheless, Benanav, another non-believer in aspects of our autonomic future, is onto something, albeit with no path offered to get there – “if neither technological advancement nor technocratic reform leads inevitably to a post-scarcity world, then it is only the pressure of social movements, pushing for a radical restructuring of social life, that can bring it about”. To which I say: “Amen. Good luck with that”, and ‘see you on the barricades.’

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