Earlier this year, global accountancy and consulting firm PwC published an analysis which concluded that almost 40% of US jobs could be lost to automation in the next 15 years. The figures for elsewhere in the world were equally staggering; 35% in Germany, 30% in Britain, and 21% in Japan. The loss of jobs to automation is something that has worried economists, workers, and social commentators since the time of the industrial revolution. In the early 1800s in England, the Luddites – a group of textile workers who protested against the increasing growth of industrial factory production of cotton and wool – were some of the first to recognise the effects of automation on employment.
We’ve come a long way since the days of the Luddites, and more and more aspects of production can now be done without a human worker. A report issued by the outgoing US administration in late December 2016, written by Obama’s top economic and science advisors, estimated that automated vehicles alone threaten between 2 to 3 million existing US jobs. Right now, the types of jobs most susceptible to replacement by automation are white-collar jobs in retail, sales and administration, as well as blue-collar jobs in assembly-lines and machine operation – jobs which make up about 50% of employment in the United States.
Looking not so distantly into the future, we find that increasingly complex jobs are likely to be superseded by machines. Doctors face the looming threat of losing their jobs to automation. Expert radiologists are routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software, diagnosticians by computer questionnaires. Even surgeons could risk losing their jobs to highly sophisticated machines; Silicon Valley firm Intuitive Surgical, has created a “surgical system” named Da Vinci, through which one expert surgeon can perform surgeries by controlling the machine online from anywhere in the world.
The fact that so many of our jobs can be done by machines with today’s technology should be a blessing for humankind. Technological progress has created the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of time humans have to spend labouring, while still producing the same or greater output. Automation should mean that we could reduce the average working week from 5 or 6 days, to 2 or 3, without any decrease in production and therefore no drop in our wages. We would take home the same salaries, but have so much more free time for our leisure, our hobbies, our family, our friends. But this logic is lost on capitalism. Under capitalism, automating your job means losing your income.
Capitalism, in which individual capitalists or groups of capitalists produce in competition for individual profit, creates an anarchic market. It means that, in the hopes of increasing their profits, the capitalists automate their production and lay their workers off, with the aim of producing more quickly than their competitors.
This is logical for each individual capitalist, and can maximise their profits in the short term. But when all capitalists behave in this way the result is that the workers, unemployed and without income, are unable to buy products, and so the capitalists and the workers both lose out in the long run. Unemployment is an enormous drag on the economy. Full automation would therefore be a disaster for the capitalists, and they know it: they are playing with fire – automation cuts away at the very branch they are sitting on. It makes sense in the short term for individual capitalists, but in the long term it threatens the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. The bourgeois commentators, economists, and politicians have no real solution to this contradiction.
The only solution is a socialist one; for the working class to take control of the major levers of the economy, to democratically plan production on a socialist basis, and to utilize the tremendous potential of automation to improve the lives of the working class. Only a socialist revolution can turn the inevitability of automation from a dystopian nightmare of mass unemployment and economic stagnation, to a future in which we use our technology to benefit us all and allow us the time, energy and resources to truly realise our human potential.
by John Russell, Norwich Marxists