Post-Capitalist Futures? Work After Automation

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Post-Capitalist Futures? Work After Automation

Brent Toye

Widespread social concern about potentially negative consequences of technological automation for workers is nothing new. Since the era of early industrialism, commentators and economists have mused about the potentially damaging effects of technological change that augments and displaces human with machine labour. Mid-19th century theorists like Charles Babbage, John Adoplhus Etzler and, and Andrew Ure envisioned the coming of fully automated industrial factories, where human labour would be reduced to a supervisory and maintenance role. Marx believed automation had the potential to de-skill and permanently replace human labour. In one memorable passage, Marx highlights the destructive potential of the sewing machine, arguing... that in the 19th century textile industry when other exploitative methods for obtaining surplus value had reached a natural limit,

“The hour of the machine had struck. The decisively revolutionary machine, the machine which attacks in an equal degree all the innumerable branches of this sphere of production, such as dressmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, sewing, hat-making and so on, is the sewing machine.” (Marx, Capital, 1867, p.601)

This ‘automation anxiety’, as economist David Autor has dubbed it, has resurfaced at different moments in the history of capitalism, for a variety of reasons, usually as an explanation for structural shifts in capitalist labour markets. In the early postwar period, high levels of economic growth intertwined with technical changes in the capital-intensive system of Fordist mass production created fears that rising levels of productivity might outstrip the demand for labour. Following the stagflation crisis of the 1970s and the end of the postwar economic boom, social democratic and progressive thinkers maintained that continued economic stagnation in the core capitalist countries was the result of a ‘skills mis-match’ between labour and the technical conditions of production in the emerging new information technologies.

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