One of my former students, a frequent commentator on my blog, commented on my last post about my disillusionment and the nature of capital. She asked two questions in particular that I will address in this post:
“Do you see hope for mankind’s survival after workers are replaced by robots and machines and software? If so, do you have an idea of how we humans will be able to sustain ourselves once traditional “jobs” have disappeared?”
These are both good questions. To answer the first one, I’ll say right off that I’m no utopian. I leave the musings about future worlds to the utopians, dystopians, novelists and science fiction writers. There are enough Star Wars and Star Treks to go around. Still, there are some things I can say about the future that are science-based and predictable. However, it’s necessary to first think about what ‘mankind’s survival’ means.
The word survival needs some consideration. Ultimately, none of us, nor any of our marvellous creations survive or ‘live beyond’. Science, especially palaeontology, archaeology and related disciplines, have made it clear that our planet has only been around for a few billion years and we, as a species, have only evolved in that last few million. Us modern humans are a very recent addition to the planet and as with everything else, we’re still evolving and will continue to do so until we go out of existence, and that’s a sure thing. I used to challenge my students to come up with an example of anything that was amenable to perception via our senses that had not or would not come into existence at some point and go out of existence at a later point. Everything comes and goes. Life is a process, not a thing. Of course, I’m sure you can come up with a lot of “what if’s” here as in what if we blow ourselves to bits with nuclear weapons before we get a chance to evolve more or less peacefully out of existence? That may happen. We may try to commit species suicide, but it’s highly unlikely that every human on the planet would be eliminated by nuclear war. I’ll let the dystopians speculate on that one.
Besides, species don’t always disappear completely. They often evolve into other species over long periods of time. So, ultimately, survival is not an option for us, nor is it for any other species. It’s not even an option for mountain ranges and continents, or the universe, according to some scientists. Nothing ever stays the same. Our limited sensual and perceptual abilities and weak sense of time often prevent us from fully appreciating that.
That said, and moving on, mankind will easily survive the advent of robots and extreme mechanization. I think my student’s question was more in line with the question: “what are we going to do when robots do everything for us?” I really don’t know. Probably some of the things we do now. Work will still need to be done. It is on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (Do you think people get paid on the Enterprise? What would they spend their money on, especially when you can order an Earl Grey tea, hot, at the replicator anytime you want without putting a toonie in a slot?)
Marx actually speculated on a post-capitalist world in one of his books, The German Ideology, but lived to regret it because he was afterwards forever branded a wide-eyed utopian. Later in his life he focussed almost entirely on writing Das Kapital, a basically scientific venture. By then he had abandoned his youthful idealistic philosophizing and political pamphlet writing. But I digress.
What I argued in my last post was that employment would come to an end, not work. I should have made that more clear. Employment is a way work gets organized. Working for wages is only one of many ways work can get organized. Slavery is another way. Work can get done too by volunteers. The point is that employment will disappear but work won’t. To take this one step further: Marx concluded (not specifically in these words) that communism will come when we are all unemployed. Now, that’s not strictly true. Markets existed in ancient Egypt, they just weren’t the dominant means of creating wealth. In the future, if things continue as they are, some employment may still exist, but it won’t be the dominant social relation of production.
The truth is, businesses are rapidly eliminating employees in a number of critical large scale industries. Machines have been eliminating, at an accelerating pace, a lot of the more onerous and dangerous tasks we used to perform as a matter or course. Who would have thunk that lawyering could be automated. It can be and already is to some extent. There are research algorithms that can do away with a lot of the work previously done by junior lawyers and minions in law firms. Lawyers will still be with us for some time, of course, but they don’t have any long term immunity from elimination. Same goes for physicians and surgeons. Very few activities we now take for granted have a guaranteed future. That idea seems impossible at the moment, but could a person living when the Gutenberg press was invented have been able to foresee the use of computerized printing, freeways and skyscrapers?
The point here is that the historical trajectory we are on suggests that capital is replacing labour at a greater pace than ever before in the execution of work. The mechanism by which this occurs is the constantly shrinking margins of profit and the inability of the whole capitalist world (not necessarily individual capitalists) to exploit workers.* In practical terms, if a large scale fast-food chain manages to eliminate most of its workforce, it will have a harder and harder time making money. This is partly because in eliminating its workforce it would also be eliminating a major market for its products. Obviously, there is no direct equivalence between workers and their ability or not to buy hamburgers, but if enough businesses eliminate a significant part of their labour force, there is obviously less and less in the way of aggregate wages to buy commodities. It’s true that fast-food workers could go work elsewhere, but if most other large employers are also doing the same thing, there will soon be nowhere to go. Meet a huge number of American workers. That’s exactly the situation they’re in. Some may ‘choose’ to become self-employed, but that’s just another way of surreptitiously eliminating employment.
Employment will not be eliminated next week, or next month or next year. Probably not in the next 100 years. But it will be. If that’s true, how will we then sustain ourselves? With no wages, what would we do to buy things? Well, the trick here is to avoid thinking about the future in terms of the present. That’s tough. We have stores full of stuff for us to buy. What would they do? Change drastically, that’s what. Can you imagine a ‘store’ where you walk in, take what you need and leave (legally, that is)? Hoarding? Why would anyone hoard if they can get whatever they need anytime they need it? Besides, we have to ask ourselves why we need all the ‘stuff’ we buy. Do we really need it to be happy, to be fulfilled? As I already noted, we can’t think about a future world by simply imposing our current institutions on it.
Wow, is this a utopia I promised not to get into? I don’t think so. The logical conclusion of the elimination of employment is the elimination of employer/employee relations, wages, salaries and the need for any kind of benefits. Some countries are already moving toward a guaranteed income for everyone out of the pool of income produced nationally by way of industrial production and business profits. Their education and health services are already paid for by the state.
Earned salaries and wages will no longer exist. Won’t that do away with human initiative? Yes, as we know it. But following the logic of the falling rate of profit to its conclusion suggests a number of consequences we cannot predict at this time. What will people do in a world without employment? Lots of things. Like I said, work will not be eliminated and may be more popular than ever. Most jobs will be eliminated however and, frankly, that looks like a good thing from where I sit right now. Many women who for a long time have not been paid for domestic work might also approve. If they don’t get paid for what they do, then why should the rest of us? Seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s no more fantastical than the creation of employment in the first place. Jobs have not always existed, that category of labour was created in Europe starting around the 11th century, but work has always been necessary because things need to get done. What may come of all of this is a much more equal distribution of the fruits of social production. How that would unfold politically I have no idea except to say that it would have to be a global affair. It may not come peacefully either.
As fodder for a future blog post, one thing I’ve always found fascinating is our love affair with our jobs. Maybe a topic for another post. It’s funny, though, why we seem to crave vacations and get lots of congratulations upon our retirement. Maybe we don’t love our working lives so much after all because we seem happiest when we don’t have working lives or when we ‘vacate’ them.
As a bit of an aside, but a point still relevant to make here, some of us were (in my case as a retiree) and are quite happy with the work we did or do. We were/are the fortunate ones. I loved teaching, but I didn’t particularly love my job. I liked the pay too, of course, but a paycheque is only one way that’s possible to reward a person for doing work. I’ll save this for another blog post too.
*This statement itself requires much more elaboration, but I’ll save that for another post.