Automation is Capitalism's great new prize and its most potent challenge. At once, it breaks the back of organised labour but puts into disarray the carefully constructed social system that we call Capitalism. It is Capital - that's what machines, robots and know-how are - becoming supremely productive and utterly meaningless at the same time. It is the realisation of an utopia, but also a moment of reality. It would potentially expand supply infinitely, as finite Human time will no longer be required, at the same time as perversely limiting demand, as nothing that is produced could be bought.
The last bit is indeed the classic Marxist argument, but from the vantage point of 21st century, we see something that Marx did not. First, though Marx made some very insightful predictions, the empire was still only taking shape and at the time of Marx's death, the integration of global economy was still in its infancy. Also, for Marx, the nineteenth century capitalism was a relentless pursuit of efficiency. It was about converting every scrap of human life into productive work, with just as much rewards for workers as is needed to preserve the scrap of human life they were allowed to live; the rest went to the owner of Capital. And, finally, Capital in Marx's world was a finite commodity: Remember this was the time of Gold Standard!
These are the three things we know now. First, Capitalism has defied Marx's prediction of imminent demise by progressively expanding into the farthest reaches of the globe and bringing new consumers in its fold who would slave away their time to get a piece, if only a crumb, of the cake. Further, Marx did not see Capitalism's unique tendency to create meaningless jobs - jobs which has no other productive use other than hooking people to the elaborate system of signs and desires - which gave it a 'viral' character. The system did not generate surplus through squeezing out productive efficiency; it rather created surplus by creating useless demand. This indeed wouldn't have been possible in Marx's world of sound money, but it was long gone as the Gold Standard, and its successor, Gold Exchange Standard, were conveniently binned, and an intricate but dubious system of fictitious capital was constructed to monetise the future.
Capitalism survived and well. It advanced breaking down traditional communities, ways of living and methods of transaction; it encompassed the globe and monetised every living moment. It created layers and layers of useless jobs: Jobs like reality TV stars, models and celebrities, whose job is to create allure and keep us hooked; all those Consultants, who recycle received wisdom and specialise in making slide decks; all those myriad middlemen and sales people, who sell fictitious financial products of dubious value to each other, so on and so forth. And, all this was paid for with credit, created out of thin air by modern financial system, predicated on people slaving away their future time in the pursuit of more.
And, what if they don't? We may be at that moment when the delusion of Capitalist sign-making reached its pinnacle and self-deluded itself; fooled itself in the business of making fools; signs became so all encompassing that the reality has been erased. As machine step into the workplace and take away jobs, it is not only that the semblance of shared prosperity vanishes, but it takes away the possibility of all those labour time on whose basis the credit was built. Among all the slickness of Robot-produced future, the debts that built Capitalism have to be reset, as there would be no-one, or at least not enough people, to pay for it.
The Robotic future is therefore as calamitous to Labour power as to the current form of Capitalism. It is no straight road to Marx's "Hunt in the morning, Philosophise in the evening" utopia (a passage which he took out after he wrote it, apparently out of embarrassment) but rather a scary challenge to all those plotting the future: If Robots do all the work, who pays for the Debt? And, if we are to reset all credit, can Robots be at all there?
Indeed, one knows the answer: We will find a way - we always find a way! And, indeed, we will. But all things that have a beginning will have an end. We are perhaps living in end times when our ability to exploit the frontier and mine the future to create a system of illusory jobs and fictitious capital comes to a close. Surprisingly a system's greatest triumph also looks like its end; that is usually how History plays out.
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