Capitalism: “An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
Automation: “the use or introduction of automatic equipment in a manufacturing or other process”
Capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system in which progress and innovation are designed for profit, instead of the improvement of people’s lives. This is exactly why the world must be careful about how exactly automation is implemented.
Automation is destined to amplify unemployment rates by destroying entire industries and leaving waves of workers out of pocket. This isn’t fantasy, this isn’t the far future, this is already happening in the single largest industry there is – transport. According to SelectUSA.Gov: transport makes up 8% of the US GDP, so for the corporation owners, it would be logical to make this more cost-effective, right? For the workers, perhaps not. The trucking industry alone employs 10 million people – trucking being at the forefront of transport automation with Uber’s Otto truck which has already made its first delivery for Budweiser. If these drivers are made redundant due to self-driving truck implementation, and innovation to automate every job continues with no certain plan on how to handle it, then you have come to the first, and largest contradiction of capitalism itself.
“The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
Capitalism is built on the foundation of constant and unlimited growth and innovation via the cheapest, lowest risk route possible. Automation fits perfectly in this capitalist mantra – paying a one time fee for a robotic slave that requires no wage, little maintenance, no work benefits, pensions, or days off. For the employer, it is the perfect worker. So what happens to the wage labouring humans who have been replaced? Where does their money come from? The worker has no money to buy products or services. The foundation of capitalism is therefore contraindicated. If nobody has any income except the elite rich CEOs and heads of companies. What need is there for the creation of products, if there is no one with any money to buy them? The contradiction of capitalism is itself – if nobody has a wage, nobody can buy your goods.
Let’s circle back round to the mantra of capitalism itself: the idea of unlimited growth and innovation. This is the second contradiction. It’s a pretty prospect; however, this idea only works in a hypothetical world of unlimited resources and consumers. For example, if I want to keep making iron tools forever one day eventually I would run out of iron, if want to keep a fire going I will run out of wood, the same is true for capitalism. According to The Guardian, the human population has 50 years to colonize another planet before we run out of resources. The world is running out of oil and other fossil fuels, soon to we will run out of precious metals. Automation is only set to make this issue worse.
What do robots require to work? Electricity. Where does that come from? Massive power stations. What are they built from? Precious metals. A specific example would be the Rare earth minerals used in energy technologies: they are made up of 17 elements and 30% (International Business Times, 2011) of the world’s deposits are found in China. They are also the largest exporters of such minerals – producing 97% of the world’s rare earth metals (The Guardian, 2010). Automation under a capitalist regime would not only potentially destroy people’s livelihoods, but it also runs the risk of decimating the planet’s resources and natural beauty, too. We already know life as we live it is unsustainable as I said earlier but this kind of drive for profit and lack of foresight is what has caused this issue. Little to no change has been made to ensure the environment survives – Just look at the US president pulling out of the Paris climate talks.
Many argue a solution to automation in a capitalist system is Universal Basic Income, or UBI, in which everyone is given the same amount of money each month regardless of their income. This, in theory, makes people equal; but it does not improve equality. A CEO would be getting the same amount (2,500 Swiss francs per month) of UBI as someone living on the breadline. Rather than solving income inequality, UBI would not make a difference to wealth disparity. 77% of voters in Switzerland opposed UBI in a referendum last June. UBI is so unpopular there that not a single political party came out in support of it during the referendum period.
“…it could push us towards the next step of capitalism – ensuring the rich stay rich…”
Automation, contrary to futurist beliefs, will not take us to the next step of human existence (freedom from work). Rather, it could push us towards the next step of capitalism– ensuring the rich stay rich, able to live without a working wage, and the poor stay poor. The Bourgeoisie would be reaping the rewards of being one of the final companies to exist, in a world devoid of workers to pay. Meanwhile, the rest of the population, the workers of old will be surviving on what little UBI they end up receiving, or what little benefits/welfare they get. All automation (under a capitalist system) ensures is the concentration of economic power and the further growth of a class divide.
With all this in mind – the innovation of the first world, what happens to those most affected by capitalism, the sweatshop workers? Those affected most by automation, the foreign labourers kept in work by companies such as Apple and Nike. That’s 168 million people without a way to bring their families food and housing. This would, in turn, destabilize countries like Vietnam, and Bangladesh that rely upon the tax of huge corporate sweatshops. As a result, this could cause these developing countries to be starved of income– and the workers are often the worst hit by national recession and hardships.
I don’t propose we scrap the notion of automation, I suggest we only implement it under a socialist society. A society where a company that maximises profit does not exist and the state can finally be for the people. A society where renewable energy is a norm, not a middle-class fashion statement. But, how do we get around everyone’s jobs disappearing? The implementation of regulations such as the 8 hour week to ensure workers are protected. Where a worker can co-exist alongside robots, making sure they are correctly and safely completing the task and hand. A model like that which has been proposed in India (in which automation will only be implemented in areas that will not affect employment) could be a way of curbing the advancement of an extreme capitalist model of automation. However, this is not a long-term plan and the Indian model still retains the status quo and is by far not an ideal worker’s paradise.
Make sure to read our other articles on Automation.