Chris Harman


A class of robots?

(November 1991)

From Socialist Review, No.147, November, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Capitalism and automation
Ramin Ramtin
Pluto Press

It is rare to find a book written by a Marxist academic that gives you an insight into the present day dynamics of the world system. This is such a book.

Ramtin bases himself on an account of the past development of the system very similar to that developed over the years by supporters of the International Socialist tendency. But he tries to push this account forward to analyse the effects on the system of the rapid advance of new technologies.

The result is thought provoking. Unfortunately, however, there are a few slips in the argument that can lead to dangerously mistaken conclusions.

Ramtin’s central thesis is that the advances in information technology of recent years enable capitalists to begin the make real a very old dream – that of displacing ever greater amounts of labour power by machinery. The advent of mass cheap computerisation means, according to Ramtin, that mechanisation no longer involves a growth in the productive labour force.

Automation is possible on a scale inconceivable only 20 or 30 years ago. He backs up his argument by providing a mass of empirical material on the displacement of human beings by machinery in the most advanced Japanese and American factories.

But this, for him, is only the beginning of a relentless process of change. The aim of the vast sums being spent on Artificial Intelligence Research is, he argues, to produce the ‘intelligent machine.’ He does not mean, by this, that there will be machines with human levels of intelligence in the near future, but rather machines programmed to evaluate their surroundings and to carry through appropriate tasks rather as insects do. He speaks of ‘bee like forms of intelligence’, of ‘neural computers that handle particular tasks through learning by example.’

These trends, he says, point to a future when the productive workforce is reduced to a stratum of highly skilled software engineers engaged in programming ever more sophisticated robots – including robots doing routine programming – to do what we currently think of as work.

Alongside these, he argues, there will be a vast number of people who are ‘unemployable’ because the system simply does not need productive workers, and a smaller number of nonproductive employees concerned, mainly, with trying to stop the unemployable from rebelling.

The picture, so far, is similar to the post Fordist, ‘end of the working classes’ account to be found, for instance, in Marxism Today. But Ramtin separates himself from such people in a very important way. He does not see these trends as solving capitalism’s problems, but rather as making them worse.

For the decline in the number of productive workers is, by definition, a decline in the number of surplus-value producing workers. There is a heightening of all the system’s central contradictions, pushing it towards the point of collapse.

At the same time, the growing pool of those the system cannot possibly employ leads, according to Ramtin, to a ‘proletariat’ which is larger and more alienated than ever before. He therefore sees the trend to microchip based automation as spelling the final, revolutionary crisis for the system – a conclusion diametrically opposed to the proponents of ‘post Fordist’ theories.

Yet there are mistakes in his analysis which can only encourage those who would come to non-revolutionary conclusions.

First, he vastly exaggerates the tempo of introduction of such technology. Here capitalists face a problem he does not mention – what Marx called the ‘lifespan of fixed capital.’ Capitalists rarely replace existing machinery the moment technological advance takes place. They try to wait until they have recovered and made a profit on what they spent on that machinery – which usually takes them a number of years. This tendency to wait is increased by risks inherent in being the first to use untried technology: the chance of scooping the market by a massive reduction in costs can be outweighed by the dangers of the technology simply not working.

Some of the innovation Ramtin talks of are coming into operation now. But many are several lifespans of fixed capital away – that is, they cannot come into effect until well into the next century. And an awful lot can happen before then.

The very contradictions Ramtin stresses guarantee this. If the scale of investment dwarfs the amount of productive living labour and surplus value, then the result is not going to be a smooth downhill path of the system towards collapse, but the most bitter slump-boom cycle capitalism has known in its history.

We can expect a series of massive economic, social and political convulsions. And the working class which is forced to fight for its livelihood in the midst of such convulsions will continue to contain a large core of productive workers for quite a time yet.

At one point Ramtin himself half admits this, quoting figures (including some from Alex Callinicos and myself) to show that the productive working class is far from disappearing in Britain and has been continuing to expand in several Newly Industrialising Countries in recent years. But he then goes on to paint a picture of the near future in which old style productive workers hardly play a role.

This telescoping of the path from the present to the future is accompanied by a very serious mistake when it comes to looking at the situation of those productive workers Ramtin expects to survive – the software engineers.

He speaks of these as ‘a small layer, separated from the rest of the class by its now considerably improved privileged position,’ which eventually ‘merges into the already existing elite of bureaucratic managerial functionaries and offers of capital.’ They are contrasted with the growing ‘unemployable’ section of the population, which is seen as the protagonist of revolutionary change, the real ‘proletariat.’

But the logic of capitalism cannot lead to the productive working class becoming more privileged as it becomes smaller. Quite the converse. As the only source of surplus value in a system increasingly plagued by a declining rate of profit, the productive workers will be subject to an ever more intensive regime of exploitation. The fewer there are of them, the more surplus must be extracted from each. Capitalism will try to maintain a continual downward pressure on their living standards and working conditions, and will seek to use at least a section of the ‘unemployable’ population as a reserve army, trained in skills required for productive labour even if rarely able to engage in it. So the productive workers certainly would not be ‘privileged’ and completely separate from the rest of the working class.

It is just as well Ramtin is mistaken on this point. For his own perspective is, in reality, a very pessimistic one.

He sees a vast class of the permanently unemployed as the agent of revolutionary change. But although mass, permanent unemployment can lead to deep bitterness and alienation from the structures of the system, it does not, in itself, lead to revolutionary struggle.

Sustained organised revolutionary opposition to the system has to have strong roots inside the process of production, where the collective action which the realities of capitalist exploitation enforce on employed workers can provide a framework for directing the sudden upsurges of spontaneous anger among the unemployed.

Last updated on 11 June 2010