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The Time Machine: A Historical Perspective on Automation

Fast food servers, car manufacturers, and taxi drivers are set, according to Oxford University researchers, to be amongst the most likely to become obsolete as a result of automated industry in the next twenty years. The ‘Fight for $15’, in which thousands of McDonald’s employees have been unionising and striking for better wages, has seen public opinion split over whether or not these workers should accept un-liveable pay or push for a living wage. The latter response, of course, runs them the risk of simply being replaced.

“…companies such as McDonald’s flaunt the replaceability of its low-wage workers.”

The response? Developments in fast food automation have struck fear into the hearts of employees as management-level spokespeople have suggested that machines and computers could do the job for cheaper than a human. McDonald’s has shown that when workers become more hassle than profitable, automation can be used as a direct threat.

This is the reality for more and more people across the entire world, particularly in the West where companies such as McDonald’s flaunt the replaceability of its low-wage workers.

Automation’s threat is becoming less of an abstract concept. It is increasingly clear, to the workers of the technologically advancing world, that their jobs are at risk should the current model of automation continue; those who profit from it are prepared to prioritise profit margins over people’s jobs, with no alternative given to the workers by the beneficiaries. This issue is symptomatic of an extreme-capitalist belief that business innovation and convenience is paramount, and that the welfare of the worker is secondary.

Historically, workers pushed into obsolescence have only ever suffered. Parallels can be observed between the current state of automation, and mechanisation at the dawn of capitalism. Our current transitional period of driverless cars, automated cashiers, and computerised factories putting jobs at risk is not dissimilar to the changes which happened when mercantilism and feudalism came to a close.

“Historically, workers pushed into obsolescence have only ever suffered.”

Automation of an industry such as fast food, something which is looking increasingly imminent, would place many without a job. ‘But more jobs will be created’, I hear you say. Unfortunately, as the aforementioned Oxford University Researchers identified there is little evidence to suggest the workers put out of work will have the skills— immediately, at least— to fill said jobs. Workers become, effectively, a superfluous mass governed by their ability to fit into the new industrial order— just like they did during the jarring initial changes of western economies into Capitalism.

Increasing degrees of land enclosure within late medieval England was one of the initial signs of a new developing economic system, something historian Kenneth Pomeranz described as the consolidation of private land. When this occurred, and when these consolidated estates started to industrialise at the dawn of the nineteenth century, they became less about a mutually beneficial one between lord and farmer— and into the more capitalist idea of productivity per worker. The result of this was an exodus from the country and into the city where standards of living became that of what is sometimes (albeit oft exaggerated) referred to as the Dickensian nightmare of Victorian urban centres.

Of course, arguing that this transit of labour was a markedly bad thing can be interpreted as a defence of feudalism. Far from that: what this historical parallel suggests is that when efficiency becomes the prime objective of an economic ruling class, in either system, feudal or capitalist, the subservient worker (be they eighteenth century farmer or McDonald’s fry cook) loses. Mechanisation and automation can be forces for increased standards of living, and convenience is not an evil force. What they both have yet to do, however, is offer an alternative to those who do in fact lose out from the advancement of industrial technology.

“not every worker can go into R&D for Tesla when their job is replaced by a robot…”

In addition, a further historical parallel can be drawn between potential future worker obsolescence and horses. Bare with me…

In a paper by the Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company (1982), the population of horses since the mid-twentieth century has drastically decreased as a result of the ‘rapid technical development in farm mechanization’. The paper found that the population of horses went down to below 30% in several countries, and decreased in every one of the twenty measured between 1963 and 1978.

Are, crucially, human workers the same as work horses? No. However, it’s food for thought that when no longer needed within a working environment the number of horses simply plummeted. There was no alternative industry for them: not every horse was able to go into racing or dressage— just as not every worker can go into R&D for Tesla when their job is replaced by a robot which can do their job for nothing above running costs.

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At the risk of sounding like a doom-sayer, the worker faces becoming a dying breed if automation is done wrong. An automated future in which robots and machines have taken care of all minimum-wage service jobs would, indeed, provide convenience and could be a mechanism for liberation. Left to its own devices, a capitalist process of automation would be no more than an exacerbated version of our current system. Trusting an invisible hand to not simply pull up the rich, and push the poor to the ground, could leave entire industries with millions out of a job with little compensation.

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