Saturday, September 13, 2014

Robots of the World, Unite!

In the previous issue of Socialist Action is a fascinating article by Danny Haiphong, entitled Capitalist Automation in the 21st Century. The interesting thing is that Mr. Haiphong gets the facts mostly right, but his interpretation of them is mistaken. It's worth trying to take it apart. The article is short and hard to excerpt, so you may want to read the whole thing.

Mr. Haiphong reports on a hero of the workers' cause with whom I was previously unacquainted. "James Boggs was a revolutionary Black autoworker in the Post World War II era, a period where technology boomed from the vast expansion of “war-time” industries. He broke from the racist leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to help organize the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the early ’60s."

In 1968, Mr. Boggs pretty clearly laid out the rap sheet against automation that Marxists make to this very day. In Mr. Haiphong's words:
In The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook, Boggs examines the impact of capitalist automation. During the industrial period of U.S. capitalism, advanced technology was implemented to speed-up, or automate productive factories. This development grinded away at traditional labor union structures, displacing “skilled” workers and pressuring labor unions to bargain for defensive protections of “bread and butter” gains instead of offensive campaigns for workplace power. Boggs asserted that the only effective counter offensive to automation’s assault on labor would be for workers to make “politics” instead of ”things.” Automation paved the way for deindustrialization and precipitated a decline in conditions for all workers that could not be remedied under the U.S. capitalist system.
That's pretty prescient! Only the last sentence seems wrong. There is no way that conditions for all workers are declining. By any measure our standard of living has gone up--and not just for rich people. Even poor people are vastly better off than they were fifty years ago.

Indeed, it is rather perverse to say that automation is an "assault" on labor. Is labor better off digging ditches with a pick and shovel rather than using a backhoe? Were women really happier working at the deadly tedious job of telephone operator, instead of relying on automatic switches? The over-the-road truck driver may be a romantic job, but it is a grindingly enervating occupation. Driverless trucks (coming soon) will render that job mostly obsolete. Surely, machines are better at boringly endless jobs than people are.

As if channeling Mr. Boggs, Seth Galinsky pens an article in this week's Militant about union efforts to organize fast workers. He quotes a Burger King employee:
“Conditions are bad,” Luz Meza, who works at Burger King, said at the Houston rally. “The equipment doesn’t work and the ventilation is no good. I got burned and the boss said to put mustard on it. One worker got cut and there were no Band-Aids. There’s no sick, vacation or holiday pay.”
Why would anybody want a job like that? Fortunately, such jobs may not exist much longer.
Momentum Machines of San Francisco has invented a fully-automated contraption that can grind meat, slice tomatoes, grill patties, wrap fully cooked burgers and do pretty much anything else human fast-food workers can do. The machine is capable of cranking out 360 burgers per hour, ...
So the Burger King of the (near) future will have three employees per shift--one to greet customers and hand them their food at the counter, another to do likewise at the drive-thru window, and a third responsible for cleaning and minor maintenance. (This assumes that ordering and payment are done by mobile phone and voice-recognition software.) That's ten or more people who won't be doing meaningless, smelly, dangerous jobs at Burger King. What's there not to like?

The unions won't like it. With only three employees there's nothing left to organize at fast food. (And in a pinch the store could function even without those three.) That looks to be Mr. Haiphong's objection to automation. It grinds away at "labor union structures," rendering them irrelevant. The SEIU is half-heartedly trying to organize fast food workers because they see photogenic victims of capitalist plunder. If they succeed (which they won't--and they know it) then automation comes down all that much faster. There's no way that any food service job earns $15/hour when up against the machine.

It's a Marxist truism that automation "hurts" the working class, but Mr. Haiphong goes beyond this analysis.
Automation has produced a decline in the total rate of profit alongside heightened insecurity for workers. Capitalist profit derives from the amount of labor time unpaid, or simply put, from capitalists paying workers less than their output produced over time. This is the basis of labor exploitation. Technology creates a decrease in the total rate of profit because it is a past product of labor exploitation. Thus, technology is a cost for capitalist enterprises. And under capitalism, costs to profits means consequences for workers.
This perceptive paragraph is unusual in the Marxist press, and it's not entirely untrue. But I'm going to quibble with Mr. Haiphong's phrase "decrease in the total rate of profit." In his usage the concept is undefined and meaningless. But if he means that prices go down as a result of automation, he's absolutely correct. The capitalist cannot charge for the labor of employees that don't work there anymore. And in the long run, once the capital expense has been amortized, the cost declines to the price of raw materials and electricity to run the machine. Mr. Haiphong is correct--this is bad for capitalists as it reduces everything to a commodity.

But he never gets to the next step. Prices go down, and therefore consumers get richer. And that explains the paradox that Mr. Haiphong apparently can't get his head around. How is it that workers can be so seriously mistreated, but at the same time society is getting richer and richer and richer? The answer is that even as wages decline, prices are going down even faster. Our standard of living goes up.

Or put another way, higher productivity is a good thing. 360 hamburgers per hour with no labor expense is vastly better than putting people through hell working in a Burger King joint. Mr. Haiphong calls it speed-up, but it is precisely not that. It is radically changing the way we work and making us infinitely richer in the process.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

  1. Do your consumers work for a living? What happens when they lose their jobs. If they have no income what use then are cheaper goods? Only the people doing highly specialized work will benefit, until one day their job is mechanized too. And sure mechanization create does new jobs like that of computer programmers and engineers, but as those fields get saturated their wages will stagnate and their value will decrease, quite likely an Indian or Chinese will take their job. At the end of the day as mechanization increases you will have to turn to the principle of "from each according to the their ability, to each according to their needs". Society will have to become as it is in Ian M Bank's Culture Series.