Does technology advance capitalism or does capitalism advance technology? And how Utopian is a society without work which operates to the benefit of working class people? Stella Rooney says it’s not Utopian for wealthy people who already live such a lifestyle. She argues the left must advance an economic strategy which acknowledges the potentials of technology and how we can use it, but that this must be decoupled from the capitalist framework…
Since its creation, the capitalist orthodoxy of profit has driven continuous innovation of the means of production. It's no coincidence the advancement of capitalism and rapid increase of new technologies in the processes of production are concurrent. This is central to the idea of entrepreneurialism itself: capitalists must find new ways to better exploit our natural resources and workforce but also the very tools of production to maximum capacity. The idea of a transient means is actualised within modern industrial history. As Friedrich Engels writes:
“Modern industry with its big factories and mills, where hundreds of workers supervise complicated machines driven by steam, has superseded the small workshops of the separate producers; the carriages and wagons of the highways have been replaced by railway trains, just as the small schooners and sailing feluccas have been by steamboats.”
Applied to today’s workforce, this analysis is pertinent. In the 1980s, the British economy shifted its focus from traditional industries, just as information technology was on the rise. Just as technologies such as computers and mobile phones have progressed the digital industry, the service industry, much of which is dependent on these new technologies, has rapidly expanded. There are other factors which can be attributed to this shift, but it does pose the question: does technological change advance capitalism? Or does capitalism advance technological change?
The answer is the latter. That's not to say technology is inherently capitalist, but capitalist societies have always used technology to advance capitalism. The investment and the funding for these new technologies are situated within a capitalist economy, and the new innovations are selected on the basis that they are beneficial to capital. When these new and exclusive technologies are introduced to society, or more aptly, ‘put on the market’, there's almost always a large price tag involved, which means the rich are the first to become technologically literate.
The ruling class enjoy these technologies purely in the retention of cultural capital, but they're also, arguably by design, tools to expand exploitation of the labour force. The expansion of the so called gig economy is a perfect illustration of this. The gig economy functions on online platforms where workers sell their labour to the faceless boss of their mobile or computer screen. Platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, which employ couriers to deliver takeaway food, are the most notable examples of this phenomenon, but a surprising number of self-employed academics and professionals are turning to gig work, whether to supplement an existing wage or as full-time employment.
Most of these workers are technically self-employed – in the case of Deliveroo workers, that means providing their own bikes and maintaining them, and they receive no sick pay or compensation from the employer if they're injured at work. This is an example of a particularly intelligent mode of capitalist production in that it allows workers to be partners in the elimination of their own terms and conditions. The progress of technological advancement, and mass distribution of mobile phones, has been subverted by the capitalist class to renege on hard-won workers’ rights legislation. The process of ordering food through an app removes the human aspect of food production from the mindset of the consumer. The customer no longer experiences the social interaction involved when ordering in a restaurant; even the conversations of ordering over the phone are removed.
Karl Marx said in his text Das Kapital that “a spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells.” The labouring of all beings is a necessary and natural condition of survival. The crucial difference between a bee and an architect is that although, like bees, humans need shelter and sustainable homes for survival, as an advanced society we have control over production relations which the bee obviously doesn't. The bee will only ever know one way of producing, exclusively determined by the evolutionary struggle to survive. Humans, like all other creatures on earth of course still labour to survive. Even within a Marxist economy the labouring of production will undergo an extensive restructuring, but still it must continue as long as goods and services produced through these endeavours are required by society.
Today, we look at a world where most products humans labour over the production of could instead be produced by technologies within an alarmingly short time span. For one current example, at the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, ‘Flippy’ the robot is employed to flip burgers. Flippy consists of a robotic arm attached to a cart and has the capacity to not only flip burgers but check whether they're cooked or not. While even business advocates of this technology insist robotic burger flippers will never completely replace human kitchen staff, there's a real potential that over the next ten years this kind of technology could transform the entire food industry. It's not unfathomable to imagine a McDonald’s where half of the kitchen roles were automated while a smaller workforce monitors the machines. Are the wider consequences of this not cataclysmic for the international working class?
For many people, idea of a world without work or wage labour would pose an existential crisis. From the moment we begin to participate in the world around us we're made aware that for most people, those who don't have substantial inherited wealth, work is a condition of life. Human beings are often categorised by what they do, meaning their job or profession. On meeting someone for the first time, our first question is rarely an enquiry into their hopes, dreams, hobbies or passions. Often working-class people, whose very survival is dependent on selling their labour, write off their own passions as unmaintainable in the face of the all-consuming operation that is living under capitalism. If you're not a worker, you're a shirker. Capitalism tells us we can never work too hard, but that’s just what the ruling classes want you to think.
Capitalism has continued to change the jobs human beings do, making previous skills redundant without compensations for workers. This isn't going to change, but what's crucial is it would be wrong for the left to base any future economic strategy on a capitalist framework of what productivity is considered to be. Our entire economy is run on unvalued ‘non-work’ such a domestic, and unpaid caring responsibilities. If higher value is placed on the paid jobs we do, even those which are underpaid, we will neglect the many jobs which are completely unpaid. Even activities such as reading, cooking, practising a hobby or sport, are just as ‘productive’ within society – they simply fulfil a longer-term goal than the immediacy of required labour.
If new technologies were used for the benefit of all human beings would have increased leisure time, opening new and exciting possibilities for humanity. Many jobs human beings undertake to get by could be eliminated, and the wealth generated by technologies could be used to redistribute wealth to working class. In comparison to the extreme luxury of the ruling classes, a post-work society certainly seems utopian, but not impossible. After all, the super-rich experience work as a choice, not a prerequisite; couldn't it be said they already enjoy a post-work lifestyle?
The potentials of an automated society are boundless, but a post-work economy must be coupled with the mass redistribution of wealth and power to the working class if it's to be of any benefit to society. Leisure without resources is still undoubtedly oppressive. This piece also doesn't tackle the organising which is required to change this balance of power. But the intention isn't to encourage armchair criticism – quite the opposite in fact. We need to place technological advancement as part of a historical cycle which is deeply entwined with the advancement of capitalism, and for this not to lead the reader to despair but action.
Many years ago, most of the working class couldn't read or, as you could say, weren't literate in the technology of language. Everything which has been designed is a form of technology and in this sense, coding and automation are no different from a book. There's much to be learned from the socialist culture of self and popular education, something previous generations benefited from. This served a purpose of not only sharing the history of our class, but of instilling within working class people a sense of empowerment which says there's no book which we can’t read, nothing we can't learn if we don't put our mind to it.
Technology is a language which the working class has been learning since even before we were governed by feudal lords. The challenges of automation are certainly new but not unique. Technology doesn’t need to serve the capitalist class: like wealth, it can be hoarded and used for exploitation, or used for the common good. Automation and the elimination of jobs is the second head of a beast we’ve faced many times before, and by taking control of our workplaces and calling for redistribution, we can fight against it.