The Socialist Case for Automating Our Jobs Away
Let robots do the drudge work. Give workers a basic income.
For 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.
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…