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Maybe Karl Marx was right after all

Written By: - Date published: 8:54 am, October 22nd, 2016 - 44 comments
Categories: capitalism, class war - Tags: , , , ,

It has been many decades since I have read anything about Karl Marx but a recent Guardian article made me think about his writing again. The article by John Harris was about the failure of British political leadership and suggested, perhaps unfairly in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, that both major parties had lost their way and were not even thinking of the inevitable societal change being caused by new technologies.

The article starts off reviewing a conversation between Barack Obama and Joi Ito who is the director of the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology’s Media Lab. The article then sets out how Obama thinks a universal basic income may become a necessity:

Obama’s contributions are all about an acute, worldly kind of cleverness being tentatively applied to things he probably regrets not having enough time to think about. And when he turns his attention to the mess of stuff usually subsumed under the increasingly cliched heading of “automation”, he gets interesting. “As AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated – the computers are doing a lot of the work,” says Obama. “As a consequence, we have to make some tougher decisions.” One is whether it is time to consider a universal basic income, “a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years”.

Harris then sets out demographic change that may mean that the UK society is less able to achieve radical change which may be required.  He also hints at reasons why social media may not be heralding in a new participatory democracy despite our wishes to the contrary.

The electorate is growing older, and politics is clearly being reoriented accordingly. And in any case, Britain – or, rather, England – has long had an ingrained conservatism, there in everything from our eternal fondness for the idea of some lost Arcadian age, to the clarion call of the great English radical William Cobbett, which suits the time of Brexit as well as it fitted the late 18th and early 19th centuries: “We want great alteration, but we want nothing new.” But something more insidious is also going on. Increasingly, the orthodoxies of government and politics are so marginal to the way advanced economies work that if politicians fail to keep up, they simply get pushed aside. Obviously, the corporations concerned are global. The amazing interactions many of them facilitate between people are now direct – with no role for any intermediate organisations, whether they be traditional retailers or the regulatory state.

The result is a kind of anarchy, overseen by unaccountable monarchs: we engage with each other via eBay, Facebook and the rest, while the turbo-philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates superficially fills the moral vacuum that would once have pointed to oversight and regulation by the state.

He then sets out starkly the level of change that is occurring and why urgent radical decisions are needed now.

I wonder whether May, Corbyn and others – including, it has to be said, most of the media – grasp that the realities of what Obama talks about are already here. When it comes to automation, do they understand the incredible symbolism of the new Rolls-Royce factory near Rotherham, which covers 150,000 square feet and produces some parts for jet engines in a quarter of the time the processes used to take, but needs a mere 150 people on site?

Do they get the bracing view of the future contained in the same company’s claim about a plant in Tyne and Wear, where the machines run for “between 12 and 45 hours without any [human] intervention, compared to every half-hour before”?

With every turn of those machines and each bleep of a self-service checkout, we get nearer the future in which the Bank of England’s chief economist has said that technology might take 15 million jobs. If that sounds too abstract, try the projections of the Israeli sage Yuval Noah Harari: “Billions of people are likely to have no military or economic function. Providing food and shelter should be possible but how to give meaning to their lives will be the huge political question.”

The article feeds neatly into Labour’s future of work project and shows why the work is so important.

So what did Karl Marx think about technology?  He was not against technology per se, he foresaw a future where everyone would own the means of production and share in the wealth generated so any machine that lessened the need for work was a good thing.  But concentrating the advantages of technology in the hands of the few he thought was retrograde and a continuation of the problem that pure capitalism poses.

From a paper by Mokyr, Vickers, and Ziebarth:

Karl Marx, from a rather different perspective, also argued that technological unemployment was a serious problem in the short run, in the broader context of the immiseration of workers under a capitalist system. But for Marx as well, technological improvement was part of a social and political process that would lead eventually to widespread prosperity. (Of course, the Marxist vision of progress also eventually required a wholesale over- throw of the existing capitalist economic system.)

Before anyone writes me off as a card carrying member of the Communist Party can they say how providing universal basic income is so different to the state owning a larger part of the economy.  It is possible that we can achieve one by increasing taxation but multinational corporations have proved themselves to be very adept at avoiding paying their fair share.

Maybe Marx was right after all.

44 comments on “Maybe Karl Marx was right after all ”

  1. Siobhan 1

    The Americans can’t even manage Universal Health Coverage, and Obama has done next to nothing to reign in the Financial Markets and the Tax ‘minimising’ Corporations. In fact he has reneged on a number of his core promises for the benefit of Corporations, the GMO bill, anti whistle blower legislation etc etc.

    So if they can’t get those issues sorted there is no chance of a UBI.

    Unless of course it serves the purposes of our politicians real masters. In which case we need to figure out what they are really up to, because, let’s face it, they are not our friends.

  2. Gristle 2

    By having billions of people with “no military or economic function,” does that make them expendable?

    By the way doesn’t the phrase “military or economic function” strike you as odd?

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    If that sounds too abstract, try the projections of the Israeli sage Yuval Noah Harari: “Billions of people are likely to have no military or economic function. Providing food and shelter should be possible but how to give meaning to their lives will be the huge political question.”

    Isn’t amazing just how limited some people’s view of life is? You’re either in the military or have a job else your life is worthless.

    The job of the government is to ensure that everyone that lives in a nation has all that they need to live at a reasonable standard of living that is also sustainable. It is not to give those people’s lives meaning.

    Unfortunately, the government has come to the conclusion that their job is to make a few people rich and to ignore everyone else.

    (Of course, the Marxist vision of progress also eventually required a wholesale over- throw of the existing capitalist economic system.)

    They say as if that’s a bad thing but history shows us that capitalism simply doesn’t work and always results in the collapse of the society that becomes capitalist.

  4. Tiger Mountain 4

    the politics that dare not speak its name eh Micky…

    Marx and subsequent practitioners of dialectical and historical materialism could not foresee the particulars of say finance capitalists using virtually instantaneous digital transfers across the globe

    but they did get right the basic class analysis of how minority capitalist ownership of the means of production leads to global monopolies maintained by the 1%ers (in modern parlance) by armed force and institutions enforcing the capitalist model-media, schools, banks, the bourgeois parliament etc.

  5. Peter 5

    I am sorry to say this but I believe in the future 5 billion people will have to go.

    • Tiger Mountain 5.1

      and you will be leading by example?

    • mickysavage 5.2

      Doesn’t have to happen. We just need to learn to share and look after the planet.

      • jcuknz 5.2.1

        and engage with birth control instead of irresponsible procreation.
        and stupid games like Maori having lots of kids to preserve their % in the population as one Green leader is reputed to advocate.

      • AmaKiwi 5.2.2

        “We just need to learn to share and look after the planet.”

        By virtue of disability (and to some degree age), I am effectively “retired.”

        I have never been busier. It is unpaid, but it is important work for my family, my community, and the environment.

        The UBI does NOTHING to rebuild communities. I recently stayed in one of our hundreds economically abandoned provincial towns. It does NOT need bigger welfare checks (UBI). It needs a focus and purpose so small businesses can return to Main St.

        • AmaKiwi 5.2.2.1

          P.S. The epidemic of emotional depression, youth suicide, and drug dependency is about the breakdown of social relationships. UBI will do nothing to solve that. But destroying neo-liberalism will.

        • jcuknz 5.2.2.2

          UBI is NOT a welfare cheque but rather a compensation for the work place being largely deestroyed because of automation and over population.
          If everybody is to receive the benefits of western development then there have to be fewer around for the sharing.
          As I mentioned at one group I associate with ‘Trouble these days is everybody knows their rights but not their responsibilities”
          Sadly we cannot have a responsible society without a similar population.

          • Draco T Bastard 5.2.2.2.1

            UBI is NOT a welfare cheque but rather a compensation for the work place being largely deestroyed because of automation and over population.

            You’re correct in that a UBI isn’t a welfare check but it’s not compensation for work being destroyed by automation either.

            It is recognition that the economy is there to provide a reasonable living standard for everyone.

            • Rae 5.2.2.2.1.1

              A UBI done right is all citizens being shareholders in the technology/machinery that is doing the work.
              What will germinate from a UBI will be small boutique businesses that no machine can replace and creativity.
              BRING IT ON!

  6. greg 6

    there will be civil unrest and civil wars no society can function or survive that future what is work has to be redefined the current economic monetary system will need to be redesigned . when there millions of young people with no future you get gangs, isis Syria i honestly hope we don’t head down that path .the rich better learn to share or the pitch forks will come out.

  7. Conal 7

    Marx wrote some very interesting (and literally prescient) stuff about the evolution of industrial automation and what it would mean for capitalism and for wage-workers. There were some notebooks of Marx’s which contained rough notes which he never intended for publication but which were eventually published in the 20th C under the title “Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy”, AKA “Grundrisse”. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/

    The part that’s particularly relevant to this topic is a part sometimes called “The Fragment on Machines”. http://thenewobjectivity.com/pdf/marx.pdf

    It discusses how relatively independent workers using tools (the “means of labour”) are gradually replaced by workers whose role is reduced to supervising automated systems of machinery.

    But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages

    This means the contribution of labourers in production is massively reduced while the contribution of machines grows; that production levels reflect more and more the general level of science and technology in society, and depend less and less on the efforts of labourers, and that this reduction in the need for labour would be a necessary condition for workers to win their freedom from wage-slavery:

    Through this process, the amount of labour necessary for the production of a given object is indeed reduced to a minimum, but only in order to realize a maximum of labour in the maximum number of such objects. The first aspect is important, because capital here — quite unintentionally — reduces human labour, expenditure of energy, to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation.

    Maybe not even Obama would disagree with that. But I think where Marx went further was in arguing that the replacement of “direct labour” with automation would necessarily undermine the commercial relationship of wage-slavery that exists between bosses and workers, and that this would break capitalism as a system.

    As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis. The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.

    • Incognito 7.1

      It is obvious that production is the source of wealth.

      How did Marx envision paying for production & consumption once labour ceased to exist as the source of wealth (income)? How are we supposed to support our artistic and scientific endeavours? How are we supposed to disseminate & share these endeavours and ‘products’ thereof without proper infrastructure and who’s to pay for it?

      • weka 7.1.1

        “It is obvious that production is the source of wealth.”

        What is meant by wealth there? Because it’s not obvious to me that production is the source of wealth.

        • Incognito 7.1.1.1

          I don’t know what Marx meant by “wealth” but I second-guess that it is anything surplus to individual and social-collective need. Or perhaps it is held in reserve to be used for public (and/or individual?) good if/when the situation requires it.

          I also suppose that Marx also envisioned that society would own the production rather than a few wealthy capitalists that hold all power.

          I get the impression that Marx was thinking of AI but I am not familiar with his works or his thinking.

      • Conal Tuohy 7.1.2

        By ‘proper infrastructure’ (for distribution) I take it you’re referring to markets? But Marx’s point would be that the labour market (whose role is to compensate workers for hours worked) would no longer be ‘proper’ when the wealth produced is not in fact dependent on those hours worked, but on a socially shared infrastructure of scientific and technological knowledge.

        In the last quote above, where ‘exchange value’ must cease to be the measure of ‘use value’, you can essentially read ‘exchange value’ to mean ‘money’ or ‘price’, and ‘use value’ as ‘wealth’ (it means the practical value that goods and services have to their consumers).

        Obviously there needs to be accounting, but his insight there (remember this was written a century and a half ago) is that the wages system would cease to reflect what was really going on in production.

        A UBI is one gradual step towards the abolition of the wages system; even though it’s a step that can be achieved within a capitalist economy.

        • Incognito 7.1.2.1

          Thank you for your reply; it is much appreciated.

          No, I was not referring to “markets” but to the physical reality of getting things (and people) moved from one to another point; not everything can be transported via fibre. (NB I consider myself relatively naive & ignorant when it comes to political, economic, and social theories & practices)

          I like to think some more about exchange vs. use vs. practical value; somewhere there also has to be creative or aesthetic value, which is (entirely?) subjective. Similarly, something that is rare and ‘valued’ by many, by definition, has a higher value. These kinds of discussions will have to go beyond mere practical need (for survival & existence).

          FWIIW, I tend to be strongly supportive of the UBI concept and am, at the same time, a little disappointed that NZLP has gone very quiet on this after the initial flurry of activity & fanfare with its Future of Work Commission. With an election year coming up I can only hope the UBI will reappear firmly (back) on the agenda.

          PS I missed the last sentence:

          … in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.

          • Conal 7.1.2.1.1

            Cheers, Incognito. FYI in Marx’s economic analysis the concept of “use value” does include purely subjective and aesthetic value; anything which satisfies a person’s desire has a “use value”. Wikipedia has a good article on Use value that contrasts it with “exchange value”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_value

            • Incognito 7.1.2.1.1.1

              Thank you but I have to say that I found that very heavy going.

              The following sentence stood out most:

              In the case of information or communication as use-values, transforming them into commodities may be a complex and problem-fraught process.

              One could add to this “experience” as use-value, e.g. a (special) holiday or enjoying a superb live concert.

              The outputs of scientific research that add/contribute to our collective scientific knowledge are tricky to commodify; the value goes up the more it is shared and “consumed”. Unfortunately, publishers of scientific literature and journals have found a very effective way of commodifying scientific knowledge even though most of it is funded by public good money.

      • Draco T Bastard 7.1.3

        Get rid of money. It’s no longer needed.

    • Rae 7.2

      Nail/head. What Marx wrote about was not a political system but just how he saw what our future progress would be and how it might play out.

  8. Philj 8

    Thanks Conal
    Would you be able to provide a translation of this for public consumption? This is nigh unintelligible.

    • Sacha 8.1

      ‘Machines will set the workers free’ seems to be about it.

      • weka 8.1.1

        And it’s an inevitability that this will happen under capitalism. I don’t quite follow that, because if that’s true by bother overthrowing capitalism?

        • Sacha 8.1.1.1

          Seems our leveraged, financialised economy was beyond his imagining, understandably.

        • Conal Tuohy 8.1.1.2

          The ‘inevitability’ is that capitalist automation will continue to improve productivity and reduce the length of the necessary working week, and that this is inevitably a growing problem for capitalism as a system based on wage labour.

          That ‘growing problem’ is not an alternative to replacing capitalism; it’s actually a precondition for being able to do so.

          • Tiger Mountain 8.1.1.2.1

            true collective ownership of all the world’s productive activity (the definition would have to be changed to include caring, research/science, culture, personal development, homelife etc.!) would see many concerns about managing a transition to a post capitalist future covered

            but, the question asked since Marx’s time will no doubt be asked again-is a peaceful transition to a new way of organising society possible?-will the 1%ers and their armed force, control of finance capital’s digital money transfers, control of mass media, control of the bourgeois parliament etc. hand over their ill gotten gains voluntarily by the ballot box or negotiation?

  9. Bill 9

    Two quick thought s for the day….

    Yuval Noah Harari: “Billions of people are likely to have no military or economic function. Providing food and shelter should be possible but how to give meaning to their lives will be the huge political question.”

    It’s not too unreasonable to suggest that people all across Africa were viewed as having no military or economic function. And we could have provided food and shelter to all of them, but we didn’t. So why will we suddenly change our ways and provide food and shelter to billions in the future if those billions have no military or economic function?

    Second thought.

    ….can they say how providing universal basic income is so different to the state owning a larger part of the economy.

    A UBI is predicated on notions around equality of opportunity. State welfare is predicated on notions around equality of access/outcome. Under a UBI, there is a very real possibility that many, many people get ‘thrown under the bus’ of (for example) profit driven private health care provisions that they can’t afford, while the fitter and healthier shake their heads at those people having an apparent inability to utilise their equal opportunity. There was a very good reason why UBI was very much ‘flavour of the day’ among some of the most rancid and rabid right wing economists….the welfare state ‘dies’ and everything falls back to personal responsibility and the decisions individuals make in a supposed environment of equal opportunity.

    • Olwyn 9.1

      That is my concern about the UBI Bill – that under the current ethos it might be used to kill off what remains of the welfare state, and then let wither to the point where it cannot fulfill the function we are being assured it will. While capitalism does not have much interest in supporting those with no “military or economic function”, it does not want them to be free either – free people are not forced to be compliant. So under current conditions it seems unlikely that a UBI will turn out to be quite what we hope it will.

      It is perhaps worth remembering that the sub-prime mortgage disaster began its life with Bill Clinton being sold the appealing idea of a “property-owning democracy” by the banking industry. We know how that turned out. I will only be happy when I see neoliberal capitalism either losing or conceding ground. I am not much reassured by the solutions that it believes it can afford.

  10. jcuknz 10

    There has to be a change from the welfare state which breeds mental state of “whatever I do the state will look after me” to a combination of capitalism and welfare softening the hard edges off capitalism.
    Without consumers to use capitalism is doomed.
    Likewise without consumers having sufficient money to pay.

    • aerobubble 10.1

      Whatever they do the state will look after them… …what!

      Doctor visits cost money. Cas cost money. Homes are cold damp. Food sucks, fast food abounds.

      What exactly is govt looking after them, giving a paltry amount of cash to keep them from living in ghettos, from eating poorly,fromental and other problems.

      Who the frack believes the state will look afer them. Facts are that what passes for welfare nowadays is designed to keep a underclass lethargic, keep disease down, citizens avaliable to new drugs etc that make wealthy people live longer. Every aspect of welfare has a greater payoff for the wealthest.

      Take our roading network, those who profit the most are the wealthiest, yet we all pay the same. Take diplomatic services, wealthy people us them more, yet we all pay the same for a passport. Progressive taxes have been dropping, the giant tax switch, gave wealthy people more financial freedom and no compareable benefit to the other 90%.

      So you want to talk about welfare, tlk about the free ride monied people have thanks to the majorities taxes paying for them. Using our colectively paid resources far more than anyone with less cost thanks to Key. Its as if they think the govt will look after their rich smug behinds.

  11. Rae 11

    Maybe we would get further if we ditched the term “welfare state” and used another, perhaps something like “interdependent state”.

  12. trendy leftie 12

    A UBI is not necessarily based around notions of equality of opportunity. As much as anything, conservatives propose it as a way to put money in the hands of displaced workers to ensure they continue to consume, thus propping up a market economy, which cannot be sustained if no-one has money to buy anything.

    Famous non-Marxists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were proponents of the UBI.

    • Chris 12.1

      “Famous non-Marxists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman were proponents of the UBI.”

      Yeah, but paid at a pittance. Enough to see people eating 4 and a half days out of 7. Just like what benefits do now, but better because no admin costs. Very rational.

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