Robots might free you from work, but then what reason would you have to live?
It's a common enough trope that we are witnessing the increasing automation of labour – tasks which human beings were once required to perform can now be done instead by machines. Automation is, of course, something that has always gone hand-in-hand with industrialisation: early power looms, for instance, automated a good deal of the process of weaving. But these machines still required a human being to operate them. What we are seeing now is the end of the need even for a labourer to work the machine. Facebook dreams (however ineffectually) of generating all of its news with a totally self-regulating algorithm; Uber has designs on replacing its drivers with a fleet of self-driving cars. Where does this shiny, techno-utopia leave ordinary workers?
During the Industrial Revolution, the response of workers to the automation of their labour – hence, the loss of their livelihood – was understandably resentful and often violent: think of the Luddites, who opposed the imposition of power looms in the textile industry by forming militia groups to break the machines and burn down the mills. Nowadays, however, it is far more common for the left to talk about automation in optimistic, even utopian tones.
For prominent leftist writers such as Paul Mason, who last year published Postcapitalism: A Guide to our Future, and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, co-authors of the much-discussed Inventing the Future (also 2015), the automation of labour is a good thing because it promises to liberate us from work. Work, as we all know, is hard and unpleasant, and it gets in the way of our doing what we want. The more of it that we can palm off on the machines, the more spare time we will have to pursue leisure and creative activities, right? So, rather than resisting automation we should, according to accelerationists such as Srnicek and Williams at least, demand that it be pushed to its furthest extent. This is part of a general manifesto in which "Full automation of as much work as possible" sits alongside other labour-diminishing demands such as "The provision of an unconditional and generous income for all citizens" and "The diminishment of the work ethic."
In an article for VICE, Aaron Bastani wrote that the robots taking our jobs heralds the era of "Fully Automated Luxury Communism" where, liberated from the need to work a full week, "you [will be able to] look after your nan a lot more, spend more time in bed with your partner and ride a driverless tesla motorcycle while listening to music that you don't pay for and has no adverts," bedecked all the while in expensive watches and designer clothes.
The vision has even gained some purchase amongst the current Labour leadership – John McDonnell has spoken, seemingly in response to it, of "socialism with an iPad" – the iPad here representing not just luxury tech, but also the tools of self-employed gig economy worker. Meahwhile Jeremy Corbyn's digital launch on Tuesday, though certainly more about democratising the internet than accelerating its grip on us, helps play up this association of democratic socialism with digital modernism.
But there is a problem with the "left-accelerationist" line. On the one hand: it seems odd to think about automation as something we should ever have to demand. Automation is inflicted on us just whenever it is cheaper for the powers that be to so inflict it; when it happens, automation presents itself as a matter of necessity (Srnicek & Williams et al often talk about technological progress as if capitalism holds it back, but it is more accurate to say that capitalism holds technological progress back up until the moment it becomes profitable; for most automating technologies, this moment is probably inevitable) . For another: however much populist leftist politicians like Corbyn and McDonnell might be receptive, we simply do not exist in a world where the people who hold real power seem likely to listen to anything to we demand at all. And the reasons for this have a lot to do with the automation of labour itself.
It used to be that us poor workers could demand things of our rulers because really, they needed us. The owner of a Victorian factory might well have attempted to replace as many workers with machines as he could, and remunerate what remained of the workforce as stingily as possible. But at least a significant portion of the workforce would have remained stubbornly necessary for the factory to run. Hence this remainder was able to bargain for better pay and conditions; a bargain which might well be seen by the factory owner to pay for itself – after all, a healthier, happier workforce is likely to be more productive. Perhaps for similar reasons, the ruling classes remained, in the decades immediately following World War II, largely committed to the ideal of the welfare state.
But with growing automation, it is no longer the case that the working class is even needed. Once our labour has been automated, we turn from being an essential part of the process of capitalist production to being an entirely superfluous one. Why manufacture a car by paying workers to run an expensive factory when the consumer can simply 3D-print it as a flatpack in their home? Why satisfy the demands of the transport worker's union when you can have computers steer the trains instead?
And after our function in the process has been, in this way, eliminated, what reason does the state have for keeping us around at all? In order to think that they were obliged to do so our rulers would, I suppose, need to genuinely and robustly value human life as something good in itself – even if that life is unemployed. But there is little if any indication that they are at all capable of doing this. For instance, the state utterly fails to treat claimants of unemployment benefit as human beings who might, say, have capacities which could be usefully applied beyond the context of waged work. The unemployed are treated merely as a problem for public policy, like sufferers from an illness which needs to be cured; Jobseeker's Allowance itself continues to exist seemingly as a (soul-sappingly minor) incentive for attending the government's obligatory CV workshops, back-to-work programmes and other sanitising therapy sessions.
It is therefore a fantasy to think that automation might be used to bring about widespread prosperity: to the worker, it means only instability. This is not just economic; it is existential – to be a member of the "precariat" is to know that it is a matter of utter indifference whether you live or die – to know that the universe is, for people like you, utterly cold, incapable of listening to your demands. The only reason why the government has yet to round the likes of all of us up, to process us for meat, is that they continue to value us as sources of rent money, and possibly also – through our internet search history and the trackings of our movement on Pokémon Go – as productive nodes for market research.
Srnicek, Williams et al say that the left needs to re-claim the idea of the future, in order to "invent" a new one. But, as the VICE journalist Sam Kriss has pointed out elsewhere, the vision of the future they in fact give us is one that is already here. And, what's more, we already know that this future is a very bad thing: we're living in it now. Ask a striking Deliveroo rider what they think of the exciting potential of "the future" and you'll see what I mean.
I'm skeptical of the claim that any of us have any power to "invent" a future that could gain enough purchase to transform prevailing conditions at all. It's likely our inventions will be useless, flimsy things, quickly thrown in the bin like the cardboard and sellotape "inventions" I used to present to my mother every day after playgroup when I was four. That, or they will turn out to be reverse-engineered versions of the technologies that are already being used by our bosses; utterly hostile to our existence. Rather than inventing, we should be resisting.
Resist the future: because in the future, we're all dead.
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