The hype about robots taking jobs is an attempt to discipline labour – behave, or R2D2 will get your job.
There’s been a lot of hype recently about the rise of the machines, and the consequent threat to jobs. In an address to the TUC yesterday, Andy Haldane, the chief economist for the Bank of England, ramped up the doomsday scenario by saying that almost a half of UK jobs were threatened by a “third machine age”.
This is expected to increase inequality: the rich will live lives of luxury, serviced by machines. Highly skilled workers will build, maintain and develop machines – but there won’t be much left for anyone else.
— Heather Stewart (@heatherstewart3) November 12, 2015
Haldane makes some good points. Certainly, the increasing use of automation will dramatically change the workplace and the labour market over the coming decades.
To some extent, the hype about robots taking jobs is an attempt to discipline labour – behave, or R2D2 will get your job.
This was certainly the case when San Francisco voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 last year: as part of a wave of worker activism around the Fight for $15 movement, a number of US cities raised the minimum wage.
The San Francisco business community, and its friends in the media, fought back by claiming minimum wage jobs would be replaced by machines. It didn’t convince people, who voted to raise the wage. There is also no evidence that raising the wage has cost jobs – because the extra cost to business is offset by increased spending power in people’s pockets.
Automation has already changed the workplace, and it will continue to. Technological development has always threatened jobs – but also changed the economy in unseen ways, often creating new jobs and raising prosperity for everyone. From the Luddites onwards, working people and their unions have generally resisted technological change because of lost jobs. But would we really be better off now if we had stuck with 19th century technology to save the jobs of hand weavers?
The challenge for the labour movement is not to resist technological change, but to make sure that the productivity gained by automation is shared by all. This is currently not the case: productivity has increased dramatically since the 1970s, but wages have stagnated.
Value is added by humans
The is a famous anecdote told by Walther Reuther, the president of the US union federation the CIO, who was being shown around a Ford auto plant in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1950s. As management showed off the new, mechanised production process, one of them pointed to the machines and asked gleefully:
“How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?”’
Reuther replied: “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”
This cuts to the chase: one company’s workers is the next company’s customers. Ultimately, value is added by humans. And who is going to buy all the products made by robots if no one is employed? Business makes profit by taking raw materials and adding human labour. With increased automation, the cost of more and more things tends towards zero, and profit collapses.
This is the fundamental problem that the rise of machines poses for capitalism: a successful economy needs people to buy goods and service. It’s a question Paul Mason covers in great detail in his prescient book PostCapitalism, arguing that capitalism has created a crisis it can’t resolve.
Unions in an automated world
Automation increases productivity – the amount of value created per worker. Unions need to demand that workers get their share of the extra value created, either through increased wages or shorter working hours. If jobs are lost, then shorter working hours and a citizens’ wage need to be a core demand of unions.
But there will always be a need for human workers in key areas. This will drastically increase the power of unions in these areas. Right now, for example, the small but militant RMT union punches far above its weight because it is really well organised in the London Underground. A few thousand RMT members can bring the capital city grinding to a halt, and wipe the smirks off the faces of the financial elite who like to pretend they live in a frictionless utopia with no connection to the real world. It is precisely for this reason that Mayor Boris Johnson keeps threatening driverless trains.
In the same way, in a future labour market with fewer jobs, a handful of workers will have the power to shut down entire sections of the economy, while many more of us will potentially have a lot more free time to spend on other projects.
We need to be smart about what’s coming, but there is no point despairing. With the right approach, we can win a world with more time for leisure – and political organising!
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