Monday, September 12, 2016

Workers, slaves, androids - and agency

Einstein produced well-validated scientific theories combined with speculations which seem out of synch with current quantum orthodoxies, while politically he seemed to be socialist-pacifist.

Marx produced rigorous theories of class societies focusing on the capitalist mode of production (Capital etc), speculated about the future of capitalism (inaccurately), and politically seemed to be, well, a communist.

It pays to stay focused on the theories.

So ignore the politicking and moralising and focus on Marxism as a theoretical system; how exactly do workers as living, breathing persons figure in Marxist economic theory?


In the beginning was the 'primitive communism' of egalitarian hunter-gathers. Following the neolithic revolutions - agriculture and pastoralism - we entered the age of class societies. All class societies are unequal. At the bottom there are one or more classes which are the primary producers of the necessities of life.

Through the increased productivity of agriculture and pastoralism, the lower classes produced more than they needed to survive. The excess, the social surplus product, was appropriated by the rulers, also serving to fund the elements of the state - administration, warriors and of course, tax collectors.

There was always an accompanying ideology to explain why this little ditty:

was inapplicable, and in fact downright subversive.

Archaic empires had their God-Kings while Axial age empires harnessed more abstract Gods to the maintenance of social order.

In feudal times, there was "a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord."

As I mentioned already, for Marx the specific essence of capitalism was generalised commodity production and exchange.

The value at which a commodity is exchanged is captured by the formula c + v + s, where c is the value of machinery and raw materials, v the value of the worker's wage and s the additional value created by the activity of the worker in producing the final commodity.

The class nature of capitalism is exhibited in that the worker produces more value (v + s) than he or she receives in payment (v). It doesn't seem that way, as wages are superficially presented as payment for labour (ie the product of labour) rather than labour-power (the capacity to work - placed at the disposal of the capitalist).

Still, in formal terms the worker and the capitalist meet as equals in the market place; the worker sells his/her labour-power and receives a fair price for it. The workers don't have to sell their labour-power and the capitalist doesn't have to employ them. Proletarians have agency (although the concept is not theorised).

We have to add a few things to get closer to quotidien reality: asymmetries of power between workers and bosses; supply/demand & differing profitabilities creating price-variations around value, and so on. But the principle is as stated.


People sometimes talk about wage-slavery, working for the Man. Slavery exists under capitalism (the antebellum American South and Nazi Germany being high-profile examples) but in Marxist economics a slave isn't a proletarian; a slave is not a party to a market-transaction for labour-power: a slave is owned.

In this sense, a slave is in the same category as any other piece of equipment, classified as constant capital (c) in the equation. The slave is not paid wages but is merely provided with the same maintenance and raw materials (specifically shelter, food) as any other piece of smart automation. In particular, a slave does not produce surplus value (just surplus product). An economy comprised wholly of slaves, with no wage-labourers, is exactly equivalent to a totally-automated economy - it cannot operate as a capitalist economy as no surplus value is produced.

It's in this sense that slave economies such as the Roman Empire prefigure speculative-future total-automation economies. The Romans had a class of incredibly advanced, intelligent instrumenta vocalia ('talking tools') embedded within a general technological environment of staggering backwardness and low productivity.

The instrumentum vocale philosophy might be adopted for future AI systems, such as the androids featured in the recent TV programme 'Humans', but we run straight into the problem of agency.

"Humans" on Channel 4, showing the 'Synth' Anita

The moment we start treating advanced automation systems as persons, we cannot embed them into the economy as 'talking tools'. Considering them as free agents, we may feel obligated to offer them rights, including labour rights in waged employment. They then enter our existing capitalist society as 'new proletarians' .. and 'new capitalists'.

No doubt that will turn out well.


Let's be clear. There is nothing in Marx or reality which prevents a 'robot capitalism'. As long as worker-robots are paid wages which they use to buy their means of self-reproduction in the marketplace, and as long as robot-capitalists can use their robotic work force's labour-power to make profits, capitalist relations of production remain in place.

Protoplasm is not a requirement.

Whether these industrious, capable androids will feel comfortable being taxed to support the remaining, wholly parasitic, humans is an issue I leave to your imagination.


In the previous post on this topic, "Total automation under capitalism?", I considered communism brought about by non-sentient automation, giving as an example the 3D printer/fabricator.

In the scenario above, abundance is delivered through automation systems with agency: sentient AI systems - androids or robots - which most people would classify as persons.

It mirrors the distinction in AI research between systems which augment people (like Google today, satnavs or exoskeletons) and those which emulate/replace people, which cut people out of the loop. There are few examples of the latter at the moment - autonomous piloted vehicles perhaps being the most salient.

If we are to avoid the much-hyped technological singularity where in the worst case humans are rendered extinct by our creations, we should perhaps make sure that our automated infrastructure is of the non-sentient type while AI-based agents become our colleagues, companions and friends.

On a bad day, I wonder if this distinction can really hold, given the likely extreme complexity of a communist economy.


  1. I am still not clear exactly what the prediction is here.

    An AI future generates two broad issues of concern/opportunity:

    1. Technological singularity/greater social productivity

    2. Capitalism intensified/Capitalism replaced by an "AI Marxism"

    I am not clear yet why the Robot surplus value (equivalently benefits of greater social productivity) does not continue to accrue to the (Mega-)Capitalists. Something needs to change this: for example are we suggesting an intermediate of a "Fully automated company" - the Shareholders, Directors, C-level staff, workers are all Robots or AIs. Now Human based Capitalism has a rival....?

    1. No prediction here as such. In the previous post, "Total automation under capitalism?", I proposed that a transition to post-capitalism was unlikely until the development of the productive forces was 'almost there'. That is, massive automation and productivity of the economy was making capitalist production relations essentially ridiculous as more and more production was plainly possible - or even occurring - outside of commodity exchange.

      In such a situation, a small level of not-very-violent transformation could enable the transition - as we saw with the collapse of 'communism' in 1989.

      The issue I address in this post is how Marxism distinguishes between the constant capital of machines and raw materials vs. the value-increasing labourer. I wanted to knock down any 'vitalist' readings of Marx which suggest an 'inorganic machines vs. living beings' distinction: it is not.

      Once we understand that capitalism can still work with robots occupying class positions, this makes the process of post-capitalist transition much more complex and problematic: suddenly it's not just humans who have agency, who have choices about the social relations of production - the robots or androids also have a say.

      I'm not sure we should really go there.

    2. Yes, I had got the "Protoplasm" point.

      Of course we can still present a "machine evolution" story here too. I mean that in Victorian (Marx's) time industrial machines (e.g. Jaquard's Loom, governor-based Steam Engines) would be seen as the "Production machines" associated with "Cost" and nothing else. The AI Robots are being seen as different from this. Exactly "why" they are different remains to be determined: in Humans everyone was surprised to find that the domestic automated servants were really self-aware beings.
      Perhaps the Turing test of the future should be:
      "Prove to us that you are more than a mindless Jacquard Loom and we will give you a living wage and decent rights."


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