Marx’s Commiebots and the Fall of Capitalism


All hail the coming of our robot overlords!

Well, I doubt it.

The chances are what we’ll see is the coming of robot labor, and the consequences of that could be worse.

On the surface, robot labor is not an issue of much concern, at least in the long term. After all, technologies advance. These advances change the nature of work, of labor and even of human relations to production, let alone to other human beings. Yet culture manages to adapt, if not find a way to be better off.

That being said, technological advances have always been a double edged sword. On one hand, technology has the potential to be liberating as production becomes more efficient. Being able to produce more in a shorter amount of time should liberate the worker for at least the time saved. In capitalist economies, however, the increased efficiencies brought by technology do not necessarily translate into liberation. Too often, they simply incentivize the corporate class to demand greater productivity from the worker who experiences no net gain in liberty, let alone quality of life.

Think about it. Consider the technologies available today as compared to, say, the so-called golden age of the fifties. Are we better off? Are we working less? Do we have more leisure time? What happened?

Arguably, during this particular time, workers did not see a benefit from the increased efficiencies of technology because they also experienced a decrease of power. Instead of liberating workers, the economic elite used advances in technology to make capital mobile while using their political power to ensure that labor remained static. High paid workers watched their jobs move to other countries as a result of improvements in communication and transportation technologies. Likewise, they also saw their jobs automated.

Now, economists argue that this is to the ultimate benefit of all. Mobile capital guarantees that entrepreneurs can find the most efficient sources of labor and offer their products to the market at less cost to the consumer. This is true. If capitalist nations provided support for those who were displaced and deskilled by the capital mobility, and we ignore the fact that the “more efficient sources of labor” often translates into “sources of labor that are more easily exploitable,” then perhaps offshoring and automation might be a benefit to all. When left to the discretion of the corporate elite, however, the benefits of this technological innovation is not evenly distributed.

That being said, it is impossible to deny the long term benefits of capital and technological innovation–at least up to now. We are certainly living at a much higher standard than ever. Even the poorest among us, it could be argued, benefit by the increased quality of the refuse and discards of the contemporary capitalist economy. For instance, with all of the cell phones laying around in people’s drawers or packed away after an upgrade, just about everyone can manage to get their hands on a device for little or no money. Everyone benefits!

Eventually, the disruptions caused by technological innovations to the factors of production fade and new jobs are created and with them new opportunities. On the other hand, new requirements for expanded education develop as the new technologies often require higher technical skill. Again, in societies in which higher education is supported as a public good, this is not necessarily an obstacle. In our society, however…

Capitalist economists point to the fact that, throughout modern history, improvements in technology and efficiencies in production always eventually translate into more jobs and more opportunity. Yes, there may be some transitional instability. Some people are displaced and suffer in the process. In the long run, however, technological improvement is a bargain. I would argue that this is a valid point even if one is concerned about those harmed by the transitions–as I am.

However, I see no reason to believe that this will always be true. The last two to three hundred years has seen some improvements in the standard of living, the job market and to capitalism itself resulting from technology. What concerns me is that future innovations will be different in kind to historical trends in technical evolution.

Thus far, human history can be defined in terms of technological advances in physical work efficiency. To put this in context, what we have seen is improvements in Artificial Sinew. Technology has evolved to help human beings produce more physical output per calorie. From the development of agriculture to improvements in plows, transportation, to the use of water and wind power to move wheels, to steam engines to nuclear power. Even communication technology can be looked at in terms of artificial sinew. It allows us to transmit information without having to physically travel.

Moving information may be the signal event in the birth of the next great transformation in human development. After all. Moving information is what the brain does. Humanity is rapidly developing technologies aptly referred to as Artificial Intelligence. More of our technology is dedicated to information processing and now, even interacting with humans. If the history of humanity can be divided up into pre-agricultural, agricultural, and industrial we may be on the cusp of the fourth great epoch–the robotic.

As with all of humanity’s transformative technological periods, it is not unreasonable to predict a corresponding evolution of the political-economy. It’s not too early to consider the possibilities, for I think it’s not a wild speculation to suggest that capitalism, concomitant with the rise and progress of the industrial age, may become a quaint anachronism in the Robotics Age. Nor is it unreasonable to speculate that artificial intelligence technologies may be qualitatively different from the evolution of artificial sinew.

Why would I suggest this?

Let’s consider the ultimately consequences of true artificial intelligence. To do this one must allow herself the imaginative freedom to project into a time when machines can process information in such a way as to fully approximate human thought. They can think in ways comparable to how human beings think. They can learn in ways comparable to how human beings learn. Only they do these things faster than any human.

In this scenario, is there any profession that cannot be done more efficiently by a robot? Perhaps we can argue that computer processors could never replace human ingenuity when it comes to creativity, to making dreams reality. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even if this were the case. Let’s say a medical researcher dreams up an effective way to perform a delicate surgery. Once created, would there be need for a surgeon when the task could more efficiently be done by a robot?

If we make the speculative leap that, at some point in the future robots will be truly “intelligent” then we must conclude that there is no labor that a robot could not do. Now we can skip the philosophical ramifications of artificial sentience and a claim to “rights.” That’s a speculative problem beyond the scope of this post. It must be conceded that an artificially thinking machine, something that does not need rest, does not need access to resources beyond its power supply, is a much more efficient form of labor than is any human. It will not unionize. It will not daydream. It will not stand at the water fountain and complain about the boss.

Such a world would constitute a completely novel, never before experienced, realignment of the economy and the division of labor. Artificial intelligence poses the prospect of, for the first time in human existence, decoupling labor from productivity. Imagine a world in which surplus value was created not by the exploitation of workers, but by automatons. What would such a world look like?

Such a world could be liberating in much the way Marx envisions a possible communist utopia. Human beings, liberated from toil, can dedicate themselves to the creation of beauty and expression. Time that’s not exploited by an ownership class can be used to pursue one’s passions and interests contributing to the poetry and panorama of human history.

On the other hand, the rise of thinking machines could also be brutally exclusionary, with the ownership society hording the benefits of automated production for themselves while the rest of mankind is cast aside like all of those outdated cell phones cluttering up our storage and polluting our landfills. Such disposable people would be forced to build a second tier economy of their own, if allowed by the power elite (Doubtful. Alternative economies are never tolerated by the economic elite). Or, the desperate masses may be reduced to selling their labor for nothing more than survival.

Regardless of whether the road leads to utopia or dystopia, what will not exist is capitalism. Capitalism requires the movement of the legal fiction of currency through the system. On one hand, the value wealth held by the capitalist is expressed in terms of currency. That currency is then exchanged with human labor as remuneration representing the value of the work done. This fictitious currency then returns back to the capitalist in exchange for good and services. The capitalist then reinvests that currency into the factors of production and reaps the benefit of the accounting trick of multiplication.

This is the system that we con ourselves into believing is the right and natural way to run an economy. That a single piece of paper, or at this point a digital representation of a piece of paper, can represent a dollar’s worth of wealth, a dollar’s worth of goods and a dollar’s worth of labor at the same time, repeated many times over, as it gains interest measured in other such pieces of paper does not strike us as patently absurd is telling of the human condition.

Such a system can only be disrupted upon the rise of the robots. There will be no reason for providing a wage to the robot laborer. Robots will not be significant consumers. A shrinking or even disintegrating consumer base, cannot sustain capitalism as we know it. Some other legal fiction would be required for defining wealth and ownership. It’s very likely that robots will, themselves, become the measure of wealth in such an economy.

Admittedly, I am intentionally dancing on the slippery slope here. After all, it could be impossible to program machines to exactly approximate human intelligence.

Admitted. But how close can we get? How closely can machine intelligence approximate human intelligence before the fiction underlying capitalism is no longer sustainable? According to Jaime Rodriguez Ramos, computer brains out perform or are closing the performance gap on six out of ten critical brain functions. Human brain retain an advantage in only creativity, empathy, planning and executive function and consciousness. Is it conceivable that artificial intelligence can make significant gains in any of these traits? What might be the consequences for even moderate progress in only one of these categories?

Marx understood the disruptions inherent in capitalism’s inherent drive for technical innovation. Capitalism relies on human labor, while at the same time strives to destroy it. Despite this foresight, Marx assumed that capitalism would be destroyed by a global uprising of a class conscious proletariat that would ultimately build a just and equitable society. This was a theoretical leap that could not be sustained even by Marx’s own theory of dialectical materialism. The ages of mankind have been driven by technologies rather than by revolution. Uprising, even great uprisings like the French Revolution, were consequences rather than causes of a more evolutionary process.

There’s no reason to believe that the age of Artificial Sinew will end any differently than did feudalism. There’s also no reason to assume that this transformation will be liberating in any meaningful way. Yes, industrial capitalism did manifest some degree of liberation, but this cannot be assumed as inherent in such transitions. After all, the transition from neolithic culture to agriculture was not necessarily liberating to any but a small knot of privileged individuals, and arguably wasn’t so liberating for them either.

Whether the commiebots of tomorrow usher in the utopian possibilities Marx only dreamed of, or becomes the foundation of the most brutally oppressive and exclusionary system in history, or something in between is not clear to contemporary prognostication. Where mankind stands in the robot age will depend on the vitality of democracy when the transition happens.

As it stands, a democratic age of liberation from toil seems dangerously far away.

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