My job is about to be partially automated, with the strong likelihood of a large proportion of the workforce being made literally redundant in the near future. The current crisis generated by greedy banker bastards, is in part due to the spread of new technology, in that over the past few decades it has, along with the exploitation of cheap labour abroad, produced a vast surplus of profit, none of which was re-invested in society, but which went into creating the huge credit bubble through property loans, bonds and complex credit arrangements, to make more money, from money. It strikes me that within my lifetime I have seen the steady increase of the use of new technology to reduce labour costs for the bosses: from manufacturing , ATMs, ticket machines and machine-barriers in the Underground, ticket machines for buses, self-service machines in supermarkets, post-office sorting, railway signalling, automated warehouses, street-sweeping, sewer cleaning, to baggage-handling…
New technology has also eliminated many jobs through the digitisation of clerical and administrative work- no more filing clerks, typists, accountants, draughtsmen or switchboard operators, with automated telephone enquiries, translation and bill paying, mailing machines, and a host of other jobs -no more car-park attendants, dishwashers, passport photographers or airport check-in clerks…
…all the way to mechanised mass farming and mining methods. Pre-manufactured modular building techniques means quicker builds in the construction industry. Retail is also shrinking due to the growth of internet shopping- supermarkets employ one worker to supervise self-service machines doing the work of six shop assistants… Decades ago, young men were employed to pump fuel at petrol stations; these jobs all vanished as self-service fuelling became the norm. Now the future promises automated pharmacies and porters in hospitals, warehouses, probation officers and jobcentre services, driverless trucks and tube-trains, robotic surgeons and online education. Already the financial sector is increasingly dominated by automated, algorhythmic, ‘High Frequency’ stock market trading…
The next industrial revolution, according to many financial investors and economic analysts and pundits, is set to be a boom in automation and robotisation, (or more widely, ‘GNR’ Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics) and this is not mere speculation or idle science-fiction fantasy; it’s already happening. Technologies with even bigger impacts on workers are just around the corner. Two of the biggest dreams of the information age – robotics and artificial intelligence(AI) – appear close to a stage where mass deployment is no longer a fantasy. All these techs have been moving slowly so far, but are now beginning to advance exponentially just as computing does. For example, Sandia National Laboratories in the US has developed a new robot hand that is not only delicate enough to disarm a bomb, rather than detonating it, but is relatively inexpensive and can even mend itself and is therefore able to replace a worker whose manual dexterity was previously necessary for the manufacture of complex electronic goods, like those made by Foxconn in China. China’s manual labour force is rapidly declining as the population ages and more people go to school. That trend, (and as the cheap rural labour dries up), is pushing up wages. In order to remain competitive and profitable, Chinese industry is forced to automate. However, that will leave many workers without the means to live- a job
Terry Gou, the head of Foxconn, who make all the consumer iShit for Apple and others, the largest contract manufacturer in the world, had this to say at a recent meeting with his senior managers:
” Foxconn has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” – adding that he wants to learn from Chin Shih-chien, director of Taipei Zoo, regarding how animals should be managed…
FoxConn is now working to reduce labour costs by replacing a portion of their workforce with robots, with a goal of having one million robots in place in their factories within three years. Right now, the company only uses about 10,000 robots in its factories, but aims to have 300,000 on the factory floor next year. Foxconn has good reason to pursue a robotic path. Replacing labour with capital allows the company to overcome one of its biggest problems- the high cost of labour and the fact that in late March 2012, Apple and Foxconn, signed an agreement to improve working hours, pay, union representation and health and safety conditions for the 1.2m workers at the Chinese assembly plants that churn out iPhones, iPads and other products ( and not as some financial sources have it for the benevolent reason of ending the exposure of workers to mind-numbingly repetitive work routines at a very high pace- which in the past has lead to a cluster of suicides, protests , and more recently, riots, which is, I grant you, commercially bad publicity).
A factory filled with robots can operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year, so long as the raw materials keep flowing into the factory. Robots don’t go on strike or riot, don’t take breaks, don’t make mistakes or grumble, don’t call in sick, don’t take vacations, don’t require expensive health insurance or pensions, and they don’t get paid. Robots move far faster than the people they replace. A fully automated robotic manufacturing facility might require only 100 workers, while a traditional assembly line facility might utilize 3,000 workers. For years, low wages meant automation was simply not worth the expense. A company didn’t need to buy a packaging machine when it was cheaper to hire a room full of workers to do the same thing. But steady cost rises are tilting the balance in favour of machines. 128 robot arms at a Philips Electronics factory in Drachten, The Netherlands, can do the same work as hundreds of workers in China assembling electric shavers.
A new wave of robots, facilitated by the increase in computing speeds, the power of Artificial Intelligence and further miniaturisation, with improved vision and touch technologies, are far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, and are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution.
Not only are the new robots being designed for industry, but also for domestic and security use – the South Korean government aims to put a robot in every household by 2020, and are already planning to have a fully armed autonomous robot police force in their cities, having already introduced robotic prison guards, and installed machine gun-toting border robots.
Manufacturing itself is set to change dramatically with the new technologies like 3-D printing, Graphene fabrication and nanotechnology. Low-cost production techniques could soon become so advanced and so cheap that even the tiniest salaries in Africa will not make it worthwhile to employ human beings at all. In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labour and productivity savings.
China, as workshop of the world, is now pushing ahead with a massive growth of industrial automation, and is leading the world in modernizing its factories, and there is talk of the US bringing their previously out-sourced manufacturing ‘back home’-the manufacturing, but not the actual jobs, since they too would seek to automate to compete with China, this is because automation would eliminate the expense of transportation on top of virtually wage-free operating costs. The US government meanwhile, is pushing to robotise its military in a very big way, with UAV drones being just the beginning, to remotely project US ‘hard power’ across the world to protect its economic interests, including countering China’s growing influence, and to make war more politically acceptable to the US public.
Since America’s economic and military-industrial policies complement one another, to the point of being indistinguishable (as was seen in the aftermath of the Iraqi occupation) it seems likely that the development of a military robotics industry will create spin-off technologies for civilian commercial use. For instance the Pentagon has given $1.2 million to a Georgia Tech spinoff company to manufacture robot sewing machines that can beat Chinese costs of cheap labour.
This technology cannot be stopped, and neither can the drive to cut costs by cutting what can be cut, labour. What all this calls into question is the entire debt-based-consumerist model of “growth” and employment. Widespread automation will drive structural unemployment, leading to lower disposable incomes and weaker consumption, and the illusion of a boom created by employing people to build robots would soon be dispelled by the inexorable logic of profit and technology. Ultimately we are looking at a world dominated by a machine-to-machine economy, where most things are done by intelligent technology, leaving only highly skilled people with the lion’s share of the limited jobs. This would lead to further inequality.Low-paid workers would stand to lose out the most in this case, initially in developing countries and then across the western world.
The trend towards automation is sky-rocketing, particularly in China and Netherlands, where companies such as Philips and Foxconn are planning to utilize the new wave of robots in its factories.Why hire workers, when you can use skilled robots that are more efficient and productive? It may appear to be a capitalist utopia- a world without workers, but if human labour gives way to a ‘robot army’ workforce across the world, then what will people do? Who will have the money to buy the factories’ products? How will the bosses make a profit? Who will production ultimately benefit anymore?
Ever since the introduction of the factory system and mass production and the advent of the modern industrial manufacturing era, the question of whether technology will liberate or enslave humanity has been asked- even before that, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) speculated on whether ‘every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it…then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master worker or of slaves for the lords’- and it just so happens that the word robot is derived from the Czech word, ‘robota’, or slave…
The fear of technology has been expressed since the dawn of the first industrial revolution, with Ned Ludd’s smashing of weaving looms in the 1800s, all the way up to Henry Ford’s Taylorist’ assembly lines in the 1920s- when films such as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ articulated people’s ambivalence towards ‘The Machine’, where the technology of automation has been seen as containing both positive or negative possibilities; Either enslaving workers as servants of the machines, or freeing them from degrading, exhausting and alienating work.
According to the theories of the communist philosopher Karl Marx, when factory mechanization and automation is increased, workers are in less demand and therefore get lower wages. This leads to society being polarised –with the capitalists who own the factories with the machines, and the proletarians, who own nothing, becoming poorer and poorer. Eventually the proletarians become so poor that they have nothing to lose by inciting a revolution, and so the system breaks down. Stating what is now the obvious. Marx described the automatic factory, as production “in its most perfect form”. He believed that:-
“The hypothetical final result … of capitalism would be full automation of the production process, in which case labour-costs would be near-zero. This is argued to herald the end of capitalism’s functioning as both a profit generating economic system for capitalists, and as a social system, among other things because the capitalist system does not contain a means for distributing incomes other than that based on labour-effort…”
Since unemployment is now rampant across the world, with entire communities of working class people consigned to poverty, whether in Cairo, Detroit, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Athens or Madrid, it would seem that Marx’s predictions are indeed coming true. Almost 40% of the world’s population are now living as impoverished urban slum-dwellers, a truly global proletariat that has indeed been totally abandoned by the capitalist class. Increasing numbers of workers are set to be made completely obsolete by emerging technologies, pushed into marginal or illegal economic roles -In Sao Paulo, Brazil, 50,000 people are killed every year by poverty fuelled violence, and in Soweto, SA, the murder rate is one of the highest in the world- life is cheap, close to worthless. The unemployment across the world now is not only due to the ongoing slump, but has a lot to with jobs being permanently eliminated by technology over the last 30yrs. The ranks of the unemployed will continue to swell along with increasing social resistance as impoverishment becomes the fate of more and more of us. The rich will ask why they pay what little tax they do to the state, to support a fundamentally ‘purposeless’ mass of unwaged workers, who neither work nor consume…
The option to automate and robotise all manufacturing is certainly more attractive to the boss class than the old human methods of factory production, which have since been out-sourced by the west to developing nations, taking all their inherent class-conflict with them; where workers are concentrated, unified, organised by the very same production methods and whose militancy grows out of a directly shared experience of mass exploitation. The industrial militancy emerging in China, Bangladesh, and South Korea mirror the industrial unrest in factories across Europe and the USA- Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, international auto-manufacturers such as GM, Ford, Fiat and Renault experienced radical revolts against the oppressive assembly line and a growing critique of capitalist production itself.
In a world with a growing population of ‘unproductive labour units’ which capitalism has nothing to offer, the rich can only seek to use yet more technology to suppress revolt, through the widespread use by the new ‘securitocracy’ of sophisticated, automated, GPS enabled, surveillance of social networks and digital communications, new supposedly ‘non-lethal’ weapons and other technologies –
– Within the next three years, in the US the police are to use unmanned surveillance drones to circle working class neighbourhoods for up to 24hrs a day. They are also being trialled in the UK.
– The Intellistreets system, talking surveillance cameras that bark orders at passers-by and can also record conversations, are now being installed in major U.S. cities (Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh). The high tech street lights with “homeland security applications” can be equipped with a variety of cameras and sensors to ensure real-time 24/7-security coverage.
-The Active Denial System (ADS) a direct-energy, microwave weapon, LRAD or ‘heat ray’ developed by the US Army, is increasingly being used by police around the world to control crowds.
Capitalism is left with the dilemma of creating a world virtually without workers or consumers- where the production processes are capable of turning out an endless stream of products (resources permitting) but risking being left with the problems of mass unemployment, over-production and under-consumption, workers are rendered redundant or have their potential power in the work process reduced to an absolute minimum.
In the face of an economic depression brought about by a credit bubble based on economies which are largely service-based, inaugurating a ‘brave new world’ of technology will be politically problematic but ultimately necessary in order to compete in the global market. Capital is incapable of radically restructuring to allow the fruits of technology to liberate workers from the tyranny of time, the empty rhythm of work and the working week- we could have shorter hours, multiple job-sharing and increased wages, which would mean spreading the work around (especially important, since we are all inconveniently ‘living longer’ in the west) but that would negate the economic function of unemployment- to ensure a passive workforce threatened with joblessness. Of-course, it may take a war to lift production, like the First and Second World Wars, to then create a technological revolution, it will be a war which will re-balance the problem of the supply and demand of labour and products for the bosses, but one which will substantially reduce the ranks of our class through organised mass-murder. In a world where production processes are dominated by complex large-scale production, an international division of labour and piecework, what happens to the ‘Holy grail’ of revolution, workers self-management? As you sit there reading this, you are doubtless surrounded by objects in your home, all of which have been manufactured by hundreds of thousands of people and machines from around the world, inter-connected, yet profoundly separated… When the modes of production become ever-more automated how will proletarians gain control of the ‘means of production’ and initiate real communism, as they are pushed further from it than ever before?
Perhaps, in the age of real-time communication, automated translation and the potentialities of social networks, these obstacles can be overcome- What we have seen ,is that in history, almost anything is possible-the abolition of feudalism, the end of trans-Atlantic slavery, the destruction of the divine right of Kings and the breaking of the church’s hold on the state, the struggle for the women’s equality, the end of child labour, the advent of democracy , the massive reductions of the working hours and the creation of free at the point of delivery healthcare. All of these historical examples point the way to the possibility that ‘human nature’ is indeed subject to self -willed change- and that in future, either humanity will overcome technology rather than be rendered obsolete by it, and by Capitalism’s false utopia based on an increasingly ‘inhuman science’…
“To the extent that automation and cybernetics foreshadow the massive replacement of workers by mechanical slaves, forced labour is revealed as belonging purely to the barbaric practices needed to maintain order. Thus power manufactures the dose of fatigue necessary for the passive assimilation of its televised diktats. What carrot is worth working for, after this? The game is up; there is nothing to lose anymore, not even an illusion. The organization of work and the organization of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs. One day, will we see strikers, demanding automation and a ten-hour week, choosing, instead of picketing, to make love in the factories, the offices and the culture centres? Only the planners, the managers, the union bosses and the sociologists would be surprised and worried. Not without reason; after all, their skin is at stake. “
Vaneigem- ‘The Revolution of Everyday Life’.
THE RICH ARE OUR MISFORTUNE.