Marxism and Robots

Aug 19

Today’s New York Times has a front page story on the accelerating advancement of robotics and the prospect that these advanced robots will very soon replaces millions of low-skilled workers around the world.  No doubt, workers look at this possibility with trepidation: as these robots become cheaper and more efficient, low-skilled workers will face the prospect of either accepting lower wages in return for keeping their jobs, or find something else to do.  Yet, it was not so long ago when we did not view technological progress as the zero-sum game depicted in this article: many people assumed that as technology became more productive, human beings would be liberated from the drudgery of production and enjoy ever increasing amounts of leisure to engage in, well, whatever they wanted: fish in the morning and engage in literary criticism in the afternoon, for example.  Karl Marx, of course, attempted to lay out a theory for why such a future was inevitable: as the contradictions between the capacity for the rational deployment of capital to banish scarcity and the relative impoverishment of the working classes become more and more apparent, the system of unlimited private accumulation of capital would become unsustainable, and a social revolution would inevitably ensue.  A new world would come into being in which the irrationality of unlimited private accumulation would be replaced by a system that deployed capital for the social benefit of all.  Marx’s view of history has turned out to be either hopelessly naive, or too far ahead of its time, depending on one’s point of view, but when one reads about the ever-increasing capabilities of automated production, one really must begin to re-think radically the future possibilities of human life: why should the gains derived from these incredible gains in productivity be monopolized by the owners of private capital?  Wouldn’t we in fact live in a better world if we encouraged the development of technologies that liberated humans from the back-breaking drudgery of berry-picking, for example, rather than the next iteration of the iPhone?  If we agree that humans are capable of a lot more than simply doing repetitive tasks all day long, 40-hours a week (or however long the relevant work week is), shouldn’t we welcome these developments and seek to replace human labor with machine labor at every turn?  The answer is obviously yes, but with one very important caveat: we must abandon the logic of perpetual and unlimited accumulation of private capital and, instead of thinking of what new drudgery can be invented to replace the old, we should think of how these productivity gains could be used to allow individuals to pursue their own goals, rather than those of private capital.

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