Sunday, April 15, 2018

Michael Roberts: Total Automation under Capitalism

Michael Roberts has a new book out:

Amazon link

Here is what he has to say about the impact of total automation on capitalism (pages 137-141).
"What does this all mean if we enter the extreme (science fiction?) future where robotic technology and AI leads to robots making robots AND robots extracting raw materials and making everything AND carrying out all personal and public services so that human labour is no longer required for ANY task of production at all?

Let's imagine a totally automated process where no human worked in the production process. Surely, value has been added by the conversion of raw materials into goods without humans? Surely, that refutes Marx's claim that only human labour can create value?

In Marx's economic theory, abstract labour is the only source of value and surplus-value. However, in the case of an economy where robots build robots build robots and there is no human labour involved, surely value is still created?

This was the argument of Dmitriev in 1898, in his critique of Marx's value theory. He said that, in a fully automated system, a certain input of machines can create a greater output of machines (or of other commodities). In this case, profit and the rate of profit would be determined exclusively by the technology used (productivity) and not by (abstract) labour. If 10 machines produce 12 machines, the profit is 2 machines and the rate of profit is 2/10, 20%.

Value reduced to use value has nothing to do with Marx's notion of value, which is the monetary expression of abstract labour expended by labourers. If machines could create 'value', this value would be use-value rather than value as the outcome of humans' abstract labour. But, if machines can create 'value', so can an infinity of other factors (animals, the forces of nature, sunspots, etc.) and the determination of value becomes impossible. And if machines supposedly could transfer their use-value to the product, this would immediately crash against the problem of the aggregation of different use-values.

For Marx, machines do not create value. Rather, concrete labour transfers the value of the machines (and, more generally, of the means of production) to the product. They increase human productivity and thus the output per unit of capital invested, while decreasing the quantity of living labour needed for the production of a certain output. Given that only labour creates value, the substitution of the means of production for living labour decreases the quantity of value created per unit of capital invested. ...

The Dmitriev critique confuses the dual nature of value under capitalism: use value and exchange value. There is use value (things and services that people need); and exchange value (the value measured in labour time and appropriated from human labour by the owners of capital and realised by sale on the market). In every commodity under the capitalist mode of production, there is both use value and exchange value. You can't have one without the other under capitalism. But the latter rules the capitalist investment and production process, not the former.

Value (as defined) is specific to capitalism. Sure, living labour can create things and do services (use values). But value is the substance of the capitalist mode of producing things. Capital (the owners) controls the means of production created by labour and will only put them to use in order to appropriate value created by labour. Capital does not create value itself.  So in our hypothetical all-encompassing robot/AI world, productivity (of use values) would tend to infinity while profitability (surplus value to capital value) would tend to zero. ...

This is no longer capitalism. The analogy is more with a slave economy as in ancient Rome. In ancient Rome, over hundreds of years, the formerly predominantly small-holding peasant economy was replaced by slaves in mining, farming and all sorts of other tasks. This happened because the booty of the successful wars that the Roman republic and empire conducted included a mass supply of slave labour.

The cost to the slave owners of these slaves was incredibly cheap (to begin with) compared with employing free labour. The slave owners drove the farmers off their land through a combination of debt demands, requisition in wars and sheer violence. The former peasants and their families were forced into slavery themselves or into the cities, where they scraped a living with menial tasks and skills or begged. The class struggle did not end. The struggle was between the slave-owning aristocrats and the slaves and between the aristocrats and the atomised plebs in the cities.

A fully robot economy means that the owners of the means of production (robots) would have a super-abundant economy of things and services at zero cost (robots making robots making robots). The owners can then just consume. They don't need to make 'profit', just as the aristocrat slave owners in Rome just consumed and did not run businesses to sell commodities to make a profit. So a robotic economy could mean a super-abundant world for all or it could mean a new form of slave society with extreme inequality of wealth and income. It's a social 'choice' or more accurately, it depends of the outcome of the class struggle under capitalism.

The key issue is Marx's law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. A rising organic composition of capital leads to a fall in the overall rate of profit engendering recurring crises. If robots and AI do replace human labour at an accelerating rate, that can only intensify that tendency. Well before we get to a robot-all world, capitalism will experience ever-increasing periods of crises and stagnation."
Everything Roberts says here is orthodox Marxist economics and yet there is something missing: the use of the abstract concepts of Marx's theory to reconstruct the concrete phenomena, to discern the details of the actual transition to 'a robot-all world'.

Marx was not a vitalist. He did not think that human protoplasm endowed human labour with some mysterious value-producing quality that mere steel and electronics could never replicate. So what if human workers were everywhere replaced by fabricated androids who also toiled in the factories, were paid wages and consumed ersatz food? Does capitalism still work? [Answer: of course].

If one particular capitalist creates a totally automated factory (or one using purely slave labour which is - in Marxist terms - the same thing) is that incompatible with capitalism? [Answer: of course not].

As more and more capitalists automate their factories, displacing human labour, what is the process which unfolds before them and why? How do they perceive the capitalist economy failing before their eyes?

Or will they rather observe, as Peter Singer writes in his book on Marx: ‘Future capitalists will not find their profits drying up as they dismiss the last workers from their newly-automated factories’ (p. 76).

I outlined some answers here.

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