“Post Post Work Post”
As one of those manufacturing people who improve throughput, I often read Sandwichman who writes for “Econospeak BlogSpot I hope you enjoy his analysis of robots replacing humans and the resulting availability of time off. Wait a minute, does a post work society giving time off really take place?
“Automation may mean a post-work society but we shouldn’t be afraid,“ writes Paul Mason at the Guardian. Mason writes, “to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day.”
Don’t get me wrong. The Sandwichman is all for aggressive reduction of working time. But not because magical robots are going to usher in a Utopian (or dystopian) post-work society.
Let me tell you a secret: although machines are used to produce things, they are not about producing things. They are about power — the power of one human being with a will over other human beings with wills. Exchange value is a manifestation of this power relationship.
Twenty years ago, George Caffentzis explained “Why Machines Cannot Create Value.” His essay began, “Thirty years ago…
…my generation was told by economists, sociologists, and futurologists to expect a society in which machines had taken over most repetitive and stressful tasks and the working day would be so reduced by mechanization that our existential problem would not be how to suffer through the working day but rather how to fill our leisure time.
Twenty years plus thirty years makes fifty years. It might as well be a hundred years or a hundred and fifty. Perhaps fifty years from now some thinker will be predicting that some as yet unheard of technology is about to usher in a post-work society. Don’t believe it.
And no, it’s not because supply creates its own demand or because technology creates more jobs than it destroys.
Why did the most sophisticated analysts of the last generation go wrong and why is there a still continual stream of texts to this day like Rifkin’s The End of Work, which see in technological innovations the promise of a new era of workerless production?
Caffentzis asked in his essay.
And why twenty years later does Paul Mason regurgitate the Rifkinesque fantasy? Caffentzis answers his own question with an examination and defense of “Marx’s original claim that machines cannot produce value” and an update of that claim from the perspective of the late twentieth century. The essay is reprinted in In Letters of Blood and Fire, a 2013 anthology of Caffentzis’s essays.
Caffentzis’s explanation is erudite and probably redundant. Those who have misinterpreted Marx’s argument by viewing it through an economistic lens, will presumably do the same to Caffentzis’s defence of Marx.
That is, when someone insists that wealth refers to a vault full of gold coins and/or a warehouse full of useful stuff, that person will no doubt presume that a labor theory of value refers to some sort of ratio between the coins and the stuff. Thus the critics attribute to Marx the position that Marx fundamentally critiqued. Kill the messenger.
Set aside the coins and the stuff, please. Wealth refers to, on the one hand, disposable time and on the other hand, command over the labor of other people. That is to say wealth expresses a power relationship between people — always a precarious balance between autonomy and coercion. Precarious because “total power” over the other terminates the relationship by murdering the other.
Robots do what they do without autonomy or coercion. They do not desire time off from work “to seek recreation… to enjoy life… to improve the mind.” That which they do not possess — and do not want to possess — cannot be taken from them. Robots are already dead. Thus they cannot create value in the sense of giving up a portion of their autonomy.
This perspective is difficult to grasp not because of any inherent complexity but because it lies outside the distorting frame in which wealth and value are conventionally viewed. But it bears repeating:
You sound more like an anthropologist than an economist. That’s good. Value was always an abstract kludge brought into economics to justify the power of the ruling class. (OK I’ll confess, I’ve been reading Joan Robinson.)
This realization has a lot of explanatory power. For example, it explains why a woman would get paid less for doing the same job as a man. It also explains the short-lived Nazi empires pay policies where one’s race determined one’s pay. (Nordic=100%, French=%60, Pole=30%, Jew=0%)
More economists should start thinking this way.
“to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day.”
Even before that we must shift taxation from individuals to business. Wages are a cost of doing business. If wages come from taxation, then taxes must come from business. They will pay taxes instead of wages.
I keep thinking about the one society in history that had a group of folks who did not do much work, the mobs in Rome and Constantinople. (not folks living elsewhere in the empire). Recall that the empire gave the mobs bread and circuses to keep the peace as much as possible. Much of the budget was spent on providing the bread and when the bread baskets of Rome (north africa) and Constatinople (Egypt) where cut off in the 4th century by the Vandals, the food supply was cut off and Rome fell shortly thereafter. Likewise in the 6th century after Egypt fell the same thing happened in Constatinople. But for a while you did have a class that lived off what was basically the dole.
Interesting analysis. Let me add that as a recently, mostly retired person–I am now selling very little of my time–living off distributions from 401K until social security maxes out, I have been struggling a bit with the notion that I am not creating value. To be sure I do more housework, I am finishing up a cottage that a couple of friends and I built from the ground up, I get a lot of exercise and stay up with current events, but there is none of the happiness that I experienced by creating value. I suspect that is the real problem with a society where most people do not produce value for at least a good part of their lives. People are not happy living off the dole–they are happiest when they are creating value-it gives them more autonomy even if the cost is to give up some autonomy.
We do not a society that lives only off the dole. people have a sense of value adding that must take place to become a whole person. Therefore when one retires one must find new ways to contribute and add value to society. This can be done in many ways and does not mean it can only be done by making something. There are many other ways to contribute to society even though we are fastly becoming a society of takers rather than makers. New wealth is created by making, mining or growing but adding value can be done in many ways. This is one of the main tenants of Lean. Yo can add value to the customer, process or bottom line by taking ownership and developing from the inside out by sharing, growing, learning from mistakes with many others. Never stop thinking that we could be wrong on anything…”Extractive capitalism has worked for centuries. Move in, rape the resources leave the mess behind for others, move on”. = Goldman Sack’s business model.
You analysis seems to contradict your conclusion:
“Wealth refers to, on the one hand, disposable time and on the other hand, command over the labor of other people.”
“Machines cannot creates value because they are already dead.”
The second sentence ignores the first part of the first sentence. Machines can create value because they create disposable time. A washing machine or dishwasher creates disposable time by reducing the time required to wash clothes or dishes. A car creates disposable time by reducing the time required to travel from one place to another.
While not necessarily disagreeing with you, wealth and value are two different things.
No, I don’t. As Jerry Critter just pointed out…
The assertion was, “Machines cannot [create] value.”
Many machines obviously DO create value — either by producing things that we value, or by providing us more free time (which we value).
If you weren’t such a troll, Warren, I would take the time to explain to you the contested meanings of “value” in Marx, neo-classical economics, classical political economy and Andre Orlean’s Empire of Value. But I’m sure that “value” means to you exactly what you think it means and to Hell with such academic chattering. So I won’t bother.
Please do not waste your time explaining it to Warren; although, it would be a good read for others on this post.
And in NONE of those contested meanings do machines create value?
Do you not have machines in your home? Do you not have a car? Have you never taken a bus or a train or a plane? Those are machines made by machines. Obviously, in the definition provided in the original post of providing one with “disposable time”, machines do create value (unless, of course, you do not value your disposable time).
Now, it may be that the only thing YOU value is the power to command the labor of others. Then you are correct that machines cannot create such value, because then value to you comes in the power over other people.
Not a good day to push your luck.