The Socialist Case for Automating Our Jobs Away

Let robots do the drudge work. Give workers a basic income.

Credit: imaginima/E+/Getty

FFor decades, you’ve been told to fear automation. Robots are stealing factory jobs; self-checkouts are gutting the service sector; artificial intelligence will replace even the most skilled laborers with whip-smart algorithms. The economy will grow, but you’ll be out of work.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks it doesn’t have to be that way. “We should be excited about automation,” Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist and one of the sponsors of the Green New Deal, told an audience at the South by Southwest conference in March. “The reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem.”

Ocasio-Cortez represents a growing number of socialists bucking the conventional wisdom — crystallized in a bevy of new books predicting a robot takeover — that automation should be feared. For these thinkers, sometimes united under the slogan “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” automation need not kick workers to the curb. In a world where people do not need to work to live, mechanization could actually prove a boon to workers, relieving them from toil, and freeing them up for more satisfying tasks.

But for automation to live up to such promises, it must accompany a transition away from the current model of waged work — a model that squeezes workers out of well-paying jobs, makes work precarious, and condemns the unemployed to poverty, anxiety, and death.

Enter socialism.

Socialist proposals, including a Universal Basic Income (UBI), ultimately aim at replacing the wage system with a more humane economic arrangement geared towards maximizing social well-being instead of profit. Such an arrangement would enlist machines to produce the goods people need, while guaranteeing those without work the means to live decently.

Utopian? Perhaps. But not new. Writing in the 19th century, Karl Marx observed that employers tend to replace laborers with machines that work faster and for less. When British manufacturers installed power looms in their factories, workers lost their jobs, and the unemployed masses, desperate for work, dragged down wages for everyone. Those who remained, produced more in less time, earning greater profits for their bosses even as wages slipped. Mechanization simply meant workers spent a greater fraction of their day producing value for someone else. While technology has made U.S. factories safer and produced some extremely useful things (like MRI devices and iPhones, say), bolting machines to the factory floor has often been a bid to juice profits.

In response, labor has mostly raged against the machines. Two centuries ago, Luddites destroyed mechanical looms to protest automation in the textile industry, fighting to return to factories William Blake called “Satanic mills.” And through the 1970s, unions in the U.S., fearing layoffs and deskilling, made controlling automation a key feature of collective bargaining agreements.

Marx thought automation could be good for workers, but only if laborers were able to take the extra time they were working for bosses and spend it working for themselves. While automation tends to increase exploitation, Marx wrote, “this tendency creates the conditions for labor emancipation by opening the possibility of increased leisure time.”

In a world where people do not need to work to live, mechanization could prove a boon to workers, relieving them from toil, and freeing them up for more satisfying tasks.

Some Marxists now see “the possibility of increased leisure time” as the great promise of automation, and the best case for socialism in the U.S. Kathi Weeks argues in The Problem with Work that automation creates the conditions for a “post-work society” where machines produce basic goods, and anyone whose labor isn’t needed receives a “sufficient, unconditional, and continuous” basic income that frees them up for more fulfilling activities. For Aaron Bastani, and other proponents of “fully automated luxury communism,” the post-work society is already here. Even when official unemployment is low, the number of people in low-wage, Uber-type jobs remains persistently high (a third of U.S. college grads are underemployed). Let machines do the drudge work, Bastani proposes, and give workers a UBI.

Beyond giving cash to workers, UBI has another advantage: It decouples income from work, limiting bosses’ power to compel people to labor for a wage. The less workers depend on employers to live, the more they can bargain over pay, conditions, and hours. While not “revolutionary,” robust welfare policies, like UBI and universal healthcare, are steps toward socialized production, where people, empowered to work on their own terms, can redirect the economy towards new goals: promoting human health and well-being, building rich social and cultural lives, and guaranteeing environmental sustainability.

There are hang-ups, of course. Not least among them is how workers might make such ambitious proposals a reality. Strategies abound, and socialist policies are gaining favor in the U.S. But the best road map for automated socialism remains the simplest: worker organizing. The more power people have in their workplaces, the more power they have to make automation work for them.

Then there’s the inevitable question: Who will do the work that can’t be automated? “Much of the socially necessary labor consists of reproductive activities,” like caring for the sick and elderly, writes Silvia Federici, a Marxist writer and professor emerita at Hofstra University. “This work has proven not to be easily replaced by mechanization.” Care work will continue to fall to underpaid women and people of color (nearly 90% of care workers are women, and their wages are declining) until it commands social respect, and compensation, commensurate with its value. For jobs too unpleasant or dangerous to attract volunteers, Sam Gindin, a labor organizer and researcher, has proposed an inverted incentive structure: the worse the job, the more you make.

Fossil fuels, too, pose a problem. Machines require energy, and accelerating automation will require more fossil fuel, barring a rapid transition to renewables. To avoid destroying the planet, socialism cannot accommodate every “automated luxury” of the fossil-fueled world, according to eco-socialists like John Bellamy Foster. It will require planners to rethink production altogether, and prioritize decarbonization along with human welfare.

Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg also back UBI as a response to automation. But unlike these billionaires, socialists locate the problem not in the rapid clip of technological development, but in the ceaseless hunt for profit, and make the latter their target.

Machines don’t replace workers; bosses do. And bosses don’t just swap workers for machines. Immigrants, women, people of color — and an Uberized workforce made up of all three — have all been enlisted to slash wages, break unions, and make companies more flexible. The social problems arrayed under the banner of automation have less to do with natural laws of technological advancement, and more to do with our economic system’s drive to whip up greater profits by paying less for labor.

Mechanization isn’t inevitable, nor is it driven by technological development in the abstract. The key questions surrounding automation — how, where, why, and for whom it works — are up for people to debate.

Casey Williams is a freelance writer covering climate, environment, and labor politics. He has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, VICE and more.

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