During Nick Dyer-Witheford’s presentation at #PlatPol11 the issue of Capital replacing Labour in production entered the conversation and persisted throughout the informal discussions. Would Capitalism automate itself out of existence? Probably not. As Nick noted, it’s not the unskilled, menial jobs Capitalism automates, but usually the skilled ones. Rather than a future characterized by gleaming fully automated robot factories producing untold wealth while humans enjoy a life of leisure and pursuit of higher consciousness, a more realistic vision of capitalist automation is the panicked teenager frantically responding to various beeps and buzzers and flashing lights in the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant.
Up until the 50s only short-order cooks made simple, fast-cooked meals and snacks, and the booming diner industry of the era employed many of them. An in-demand occupation, good short-order cooks could be hard to come by, and needed to be paid relatively well. Insta-Burger King, established in 1953 by Matthew Burns and Keith J. Kramer in Jacksonville, Florida developed a way to sell burgers cheaper, by eliminating skilled short-order cooks, replacing them with unskilled labour through the use of their “Insta-Broiler.” Carl N. Karcher, founder of Carl’s Jr, followed suit, replacing his cooks with unskilled kitchen workers and automated kitchen equipment. This is not limited to the Fast Food industry, from call centers, to airports, from hospitals to factories, “Deskilling” has replaced skilled labor by the introduction of technologies operated by semiskilled or unskilled workers. Labour continues to be at the heart of the value creation process, it just becomes more and more embodied in an authoritarian, monitoring and directing, automated Capital super-structure. It is not “Labour” that Capital is replacing, but rather “Human Capital.” As Wikipedia describes it “That stock of competences, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value.” So rather than automation, perhaps it makes more sense to understand this process as the Dehumanization of Capital, the embedding of human skill into equipment, and the embedding of human labour into automation.
The technologies that are employed in deskilled production are of course themselves produced, and their design involves increasingly complex engineering that employs highly-skilled workers. Skilled labour is not so much replaced, but rather displaced. Moved away from the direct production of consumer goods, to the indirect production of capital goods. This also has a depoliticizing effect. The bargaining power of the masses of deskilled labour is greatly reduced, since they are more replaceable. While the skilled technologists that design the software are increasingly separated from the location of direct production, where surplus-value is created, and thus are abstracted from the appropriation of surplus value.
Technologists, often do not see themselves as exploited labour. Since they do not directly toil in the production of consumer goods or services, they often feel enabled, not exploited by capital. They produce ideas, designs, maybe prototypes, but never final products for sale. The Capitalists allow them to realize their technical visions, they don’t directly take anything from them.
At #PlatPol11, during Chris Chesher’s talk he presented a Robot waitress that was being marketed at a Korean trade show. It was noted that waitresses are minimum wage labourers, and therefore it was highly unlikely that such a product would be widely used, since it would be much more expensive to maintain a crew of Robot waitresses, then human ones. While the Technology industry may like to show off such novelties like robot pets and servants, Chris noted that the real money and development was in Military robots, designed to kill.
Capitalism will not automate itself out of existence. It will not eliminate the workforce, and it will not even try. What it will do is create a deskilled workforce, ever more dependent on capital for the ability to produce, and create a divided workforce, that does not share a common proletarian consciousness, thus diffusing its class power. And, for when and where discontent does bubble up, it will automate the deadly force required to repress uprisings. The brutal Enforcement Droid is much more viable than the pleasant robot servant.
A system that directs production towards the creation of exchange value has many motivations to create control, since capture of scarce resources is at the heart of the formation of exchange value, however, it has no motivation to create general abundance. Only a workers society, where people produced and shared as equals would be interested in achieving abundance, since more wealth and less work would be enjoyed by all.
Capital doesn’t automate, it entangles. Its technological apparatus does not free labour, it encloses, envelopes human life and labour within it – invading, harassing and extracting. The tremendous wealth-producing power of technology can only truly reduce toil when the wage system is abolished, and when classes are eliminated. Only then could the inovation and determination of people be genuinely applied to using technology to reduce work and increase leisure, until then it is only a sci-fi mirage.