Eighty-four years ago, John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption”, and predicted that that generation’s grandchildren (that is, the “baby boom” generation now in their sixties) would work only three hours a day.
Twenty years ago Jeremy Rifkin published a book entitled “The End of Work”, and predicting “a near-workerless world”.
Keynes and Rifkin were not wrong about technical progress. The 1930s, despite the slump, saw the start of the modern chemical industry, and modern plastics. Computers came into widespread use in industry with the IBM System/360 in 1965. Small computers for individual use started to spread in the 1980s. The widespread use of the internet and the large and accelerating use of industrial robots dates from around 1995.
But our bosses are still squeezing us for more work, not sending us home early! Unemployment is high, at 5%-6% in the UK and the USA. But it’s lower than it was in the mid-70s, and indeed lower than it was in the UK and the USA in 1895. The employment rate, the measure of whether we have a workerful world, in the UK is the highest on record. We are moving further away from a workerless world, not closer to it.
Why? Because if capital can cut costs and increase profits here, it will start new lines of enterprise there. Accumulation of capital, as Karl Marx put, means increasing the size of the proletariat. On the way, thousands and millions are thrown out of work and pauperised. Marx also railed against “the apologist [who] calls [the long-term trend for expansion of capital to bring expansion of the working class] a compensation for the misery, the sufferings, the possible death of the displaced labourers during the transition period that banishes them into the industrial reserve army!” We must and do fight the bosses on the terms and modes in which new technologies are introduced.
I disagree with John Cunningham (Solidarity 369) when he repeats Keynes’s or Rifkin’s predictions. I agree with most of Bruce Robinson’s article in the same issue, but I disagree about his apparent wish to exclude technologies such as automatic piloting of planes and cars.
Every technology marginalises some skills. The introduction of agriculture marginalised hunting-and-gathering skills. Printing marginalises the skills of illuminated manuscript-copying.
I recently had a major medical operation. It was done by robot. Presumably that tends to marginalise the surgeon’s manual skills. But the robot also makes the operation safer, more reliable, easier to recover from. Some surgeons will still have manual skills, as some people are still skilled hunters or calligraphers. Others will develop new skills around guiding and improving the robots. That is fine. To want to have all traditional skills kept in general use sounds nice, but is a way to condemn us to a more drudgery-heavy, injury-heavy life and a more static, stereotype set of skills.
Most plane crashes and car crashes happen not because people fail to reach heights of moral judgement inaccessible to a robot, but because the pilot or driver is inattentive, distracted, unwell, drunk, sleepy... In the USA, 85% of all aviation deaths are in small private planes without automation, although they account for a tiny proportion of air passengers.
Driverless cars and autopiloted planes are an advance, not a step backwards.