“Robots Could Take Over 38% of U.S. Jobs Within About 15 years,” headlined a Los Angeles Times article. While Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman wrote in an article titled “Who Owns the Robots Rules the World,” predicting, “In the not-so-distant future: your job may no longer be performed by a human. The software will be in charge.”
However, the idea that robotization can replace human labor or solve the crisis of capitalism is “a reactionary fantasy,” explains a resolution adopted by the 1988 Socialist Workers Party convention reprinted in New International no. 10.
“Large-scale ‘robotization’ of industry under capitalism could only occur as a product of a devastating onslaught by the employers on the conditions of the working class,” the resolution states. “It would serve not to lessen the overwork of the toilers but to intensify exploitation to the greatest possible degree. Living labor alone creates the mass of surplus value from which profits are derived, and the capitalists seek to use every advance in science and technology to extract more and more labor time from the brain and muscle of the producers.
“Moreover, there is an irresolvable contradiction between enormous chronic unemployment and devastated living standards of the working population that must inevitably accompany ‘robotization’ under capitalism,” it says, “and the exploiters’ inability to realize profits unless they can find buyers for the massively expanded quantities of commodities that automated production would entail.”
And the cost of robots and their maintenance increases the bosses’ spending on constant capital, which, “without an increase in productive capacity and, above all, without the hiring of more workers to produce more surplus value — ends up reinforcing the falling rate of profit.”
“Productivity-enhancing machines will not enhance productivity if they are not given to workers to use,” the Financial Times wrote recently.
As capitalist production, trade and employment have been falling for years during today’s ongoing capitalist crisis, the boss class is stepping up attempts to stanch their crisis through deepening attacks on wages and social benefits won by working people. Part of this has been increased use of robots.
But profit rates continue to decline, as they’ve been doing for decades. And the ruling capitalist families have held back from investing in new factories and capacity-expanding equipment to increase employment. Instead, they’ve turned their profit-seeking investments into speculation on stocks, bonds, derivatives and a massive array of other forms of commercial paper in search of higher returns.
At the same time the capitalists are driving hard against those employed in industry. Manufacturing employment has declined by 5 million since 2000 — 30 percent of the workforce — while the capitalists have accomplished a doubling of output per worker through speedup and disregard for safety. Real wages for production workers haven’t risen in over 40 years.
Still, productive stagnation has meant millions of workers have dropped out of the labor market. The active working class has shrunk.
The working class faces a disaster from the bosses’ crisis and resulting attacks. Life expectancy is down, marriages and birth rates are down, and opioid addiction — and resulting overdoses and deaths — are spiraling up.
The large meritocratic liberal layer in bourgeois society despises the working class. To them robotization along with accompanying social ills rooted in the crisis of capitalism that shrinks the numbers of workers is progress. They dream of a day when all transportation is driverless, factories and restaurants robotified. But for these layers, it’s taking too long. They fear the workers responding to the deepening crisis with deepening class struggle, posing a deadly danger for the ruling class and its educated elite.
But this pipedream of eliminating the working class through robots is also a reactionary fantasy. There is widespread discussion among working people about the causes of the capitalist crisis and the indifference of Democrats and Republicans alike to the carnage it wreaks. And the Socialist Workers Party is getting the best response on workers’ doorsteps in decades.
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