Much anxiety of late over machine learning, artificial intelligence and the robot advent. Some of it is fevered Skynet-style paranoia, but the increased use of these prostheses in human lives does raise important questions about a society driven by robo-capitalism, which I define as information being used to replace human workers wherever the owners of capital deem it profitable to do so. (For this essay, I am conflating all these terms into the word “robots” until I abandon the term for “information.”)
Replacing workers with machines is not new in capitalist practice – advances in productivity came about in great measure because owners of capital wanted to find ways not to deal with troublesome human beings. And I believe that the owners will continue to do this because, given the logic of the system to which they’ve tied their fortunes, they have no choice. Workers are a drag on profits, and all drags on profit must be whittled away.
Extending this logic of replacing human workers with robots, however, could end up destroying the other half of the capitalist equation, which is that profits come from sales, and sales must be made to people who need/want things. If the income to buy stuff is tied to work, but work for humans is eliminated, then there is no income to buy stuff and the humans become superfluous to the system. It’s the dilemma Henry Ford faced: if he didn’t pay a decent wage to his workers, who would buy the cars his workers made?
The rich can’t make up the difference, and since much of their income comes through rents, they will find that without humans with incomes, their rents will also suffer.
The coming of the robots forces to the surface those ever-present subterranean contradictions in capitalism where a system premised on growth is also whipsawed by the discipline of price, but it does it in a wholly new way: what is important about the robots is not the machinery but the information that powers them, and if there is one truth about the current market system, it does not know how to price information, as Paul Mason points out in his excellent book Postcapitalism.
This is because market allocation systems are based on scarcity, but information is not scarce at all, and oftentimes is free for the taking, as in the open-source software and hardware communities.
This gives capitalism a hard nut to crack. If it reduces purchasing power by eliminating human jobs, how will it generate profits? Some sectors could generate a gig economy, putting the onus of salary-making on “independent contractors,” but that isn’t a sustainable model for growth. Studies already show that the gig economy is an economy of impoverishment for its workers. It could, as it usually does, move pieces around the chessboard: offshore that, telecommute this, bring that other thing back on shore, and so on.
But at some point (probably not that far into the future), these avoidances will become like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Without conflict between labor and capital because labor has been eliminated, a falling rate of profit because there aren’t enough people with money to buy stuff, a marketplace that can’t price the value of information, and where greed is no longer a strong enough incentive, what do we have?
We have Trouble, right here in River City, because the whole intellectual underpinning for this system crumbles, without any other vision with enough moxie to take its place (though I wouldn’t give up on communism just yet).
If I were king of the forest, I’d bring on the information machines so that wage work can be eliminated as quickly as possible, and I’d institute a universal basic income as a bridging measure while using the historical rupture to formulate an economic practice that might allow the planet to survive its humans.
All disagreements to this duly noted, but there is no option of muddling through this time. And how dispiriting is that phrase, “muddle through.” Human brains have an immense inventive capacity which can be magnified by the information and neuroscience technologies the human brain is inventing. The crude and exploitative economic system in which humans have mired themselves is certainly not the acme of human development, and perhaps for the first time in the history of their species, humans have the tools and fuel to build themselves out of the trap they’ve built themselves into rather than muddle through from one crisis to the next.
Our post-post-post-modern distrust of grand narratives and idealistic visions is well founded – much slaughter has been done in their names. But one of their benefits was to lift the human gaze above the horizon and enlarge the field of view. We must engage with any grand vision carefully because a grand vision is both a beast and a blessing, but nevertheless we must engage or else risk just inching through our days until we don’t have any days or inches left.