Book Review: Aaron Benanav, “Automation and the Future of Work”

Does automation mean the end of work? In this relatively brief essayistic work, Aaron Benanav – fellow Berliner and sociologist – engages critically with one of the main topics that have found new and fruitful engagement in Marxist theory over the past two decades or so: the topic of automation and its relation to freedom. Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, computing (or at least computational power), and algorithmic coordination have advanced so greatly in recent years that they have led to a reconsideration of the future of labor under conditions of strong labor-saving technological change. For many, not least in the Western labor movements, this has been a cause for concern and even fear. But others have seen in these developments the unfolding of the potential required to make a qualitative leap into a new kind of relation to work, and therefore a new relation to human freedom.

The tendency to see potential in these developments, rather than merely threat, is primarily found among the intellectual thought of the contemporary left. Certainly, for some reactionaries the thought of pesky labor organizations and demanding First World workers being shunted out by automation and being relegated to cowed serfs depending on a new corporate-feudal oligarchy for handouts is an attractive proposition. Among some liberal economists, there has been worry about the implications of shifts in the labor market for social stability and for the ability to contain ever-rising inequality. But among those engaging with real-world developments, it is primarily the left that has drawn attention to this process and its implications in our times. (Certainly the theme as such is not new, but this orientation was true in past iterations of automation discourse as well: examples are such figures as André Gorz, James Boggs, and Herbert Marcuse, as Benanav points out.)

Moreover, an important strand of Marxist thought, with its pedigree in writings of Marx and Engels themselves, points to automation and the labor-saving process as the foundation for the potential to reduce the total workload of society, and thereby to free up humanity for its true development. The development of the productive forces makes much human labor objectively unnecessary, even if under capitalism only labor has the ability to add value and is therefore essential to the system’s reproduction. This contradiction can be blown up with capitalism itself in order to free up humanity from its unneeded toil, leaving the machines, robots, and computers to do most of the work when humans no longer depend on such work for a living. In recent years, this has found a new impetus with among others the work of Srnicek and Williams in their Inventing the Future (Srnicek and Williams 2016) and sometimes ‘semi-ironically’ referred to by the loose slogan “fully automated luxury communism”, associated with the left media network Novara.

It is with this tendency that Benanav’s book critically engages, marshalling both economic-historical and theoretical arguments. His core thesis is that automation, which he defines as fully labor-saving technology as opposed to technology that merely increases productivity of existing labor, appears as a sense of crisis or a tipping point because of a persistently low demand for labor. This low demand is not just in evidence in the rich countries, but across the globe. However, against the automation utopians, Benanav argues contemporary automation is not the actual cause of that low demand for labor. Instead, he locates the causes of this low demand in the long term of secular capitalist stagnation that set in after the boom period of capitalism was over, i.e. in the 1970s. Since then, as Benanav shows, rates of output growth have slowly but systematically declined throughout the world.

The crux of his argument is not this familiar observation, however, but to point out that rates of productivity growth have also systematically declined since then, quite contrary to what the bullish talk of the automation theorists would suggest. During the boom period of capitalism (1950s-1970s) and as part of the process of economic development and reconstruction in the postcolonial era, manufacturing output enormously increased. Because the world market is a capitalist market, this tremendous increase in output caused significant and persistent overproduction at the global level (tempered only somewhat by population growth). This overproduction has not only hindered the possibilities of economic development through industrialization in much of the Third World, but it also caused rates of growth in manufacturing to plummet, causing deindustrialization. Indeed deindustrialization has been such a potent process that it has not only stripped much of the Western world of its industrial workforce, but even such ‘workhouses of the world’ as China have seen declining shares of manufacturing employment. Manufacturing output growth rates have over time become so low that productivity growth in this sector is consistently greater than the rate of output growth, implying the systematic shedding of employment.

This absolute surplus workforce has been shunted off into the service sector. But the service sector has the peculiarity that it is particularly unamenable to significant growth in sectoral productivity. (Indeed, as Benanav mentions, the primary way this tends to happen is by a process one could call ‘reindustrialization’: instead of launderettes you have washing machines, and fast food has subjected cooking to a factory mode of organization.) This leads to even lower rates of output growth and an even more sluggish accumulation rate overall, with declining rates of return inducing enormous financial bubbles for want of places to invest.

So as overproduction in global manufacturing has crashed output growth rates and taken productivity growth with it, it is not rising productivity rates but falling output rates that are the real drivers of global stagnation. The result is widespread underemployment and increasing inequality, as organized labor has been unable to adjust to the new feedback loop of stagnation and has found it harder to organize in the service sector. Meanwhile many governments have pursued neoliberal austerity policies aimed at reducing the costs of labor, both to remain competitive in the global market and to force workers into accepting an absolute increase in the rate of exploitation. Underinvestment resulting from the lack of returns for private capital – and almost as poor prospects of improvements in productivity across the economy as a whole – lead to technology hypes and huge speculative inflation of fixed assets like real estate as capital seeks a way out of the cycle of stagnation.

Seen from this vantage point, Benanav proceeds to critique some of the more utopian or at least optimistic solutions proposed by the automation theorists, in particular his comrades on the left (whom he repeatedly avows sympathy with, even as he disagrees on the analysis). Based on the preceding analysis, he critiques the proposals from the left (and some of the libertarian tradition) for a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI), as well as more traditional Keynesian and social-democratic amelioration strategies. What these have in common, Benanav argues, is that they essentially ignore that the power of capital over the production process and over investment and distribution of resources is the basis for the political power of capital, and that in order to counter the ‘rational’ decisions of capital in the pursuit of profit under conditions of stagnation an enormous amount of political force and power will be required.

Essentially Benanav’s critique of these approaches is in line with the traditional Marxist critique of social-democracy (in the post-1918 sense): if you have enough power to force capital to accept a UBI that supplements workers’ bargaining position rather than undermining it, or to accept something like the Meidner Plan, then you also have the power to overthrow capital as such, and should rather do so. In the conclusion, he points in that same direction: a regime of social relations based on maximizing free time, equal distribution of burdens, and rational collective control over economic decision-making is a matter of political will and strength, and does not depend on any particular level of automation or the coming of the Great AI.

Indeed the great strength of the book is precisely this: to remind the left automation theorists that while their Marxist analysis of the potential of liberation from work is quite correct, what they should not neglect is the other part of the Marxist theoretical legacy, namely the critique of capitalist production. Although Benanav mostly eschews using Marxist economic jargon and uses mainstream authors like Leontieff and Baumol wherever possible, in essence his argumentation is based on a demonstration of the operation of the falling rate of profit: capitalism’s own success undermines its conditions of accumulation, and this causes stagnation and bubble formation until sufficient value is destroyed to reboot the cycle. Benanav’s emphasis on the particular significance of manufacturing as the “engine of economic dynamism” is a reflection of the role of commodity production for the production, and therefore possible accumulation, of surplus value. Although large ‘service sectors’ are often portrayed as a sign of a modern and mature economy and therefore desirable, from a Marxist point of view it is ultimately the regime of surplus value generation and accumulation that determines the ‘health’ of the beast, not the distribution of this value across all other sectors. (Needless to say, the health of the beast is not the same as the health of the workers trapped in its belly, in either case.)

The point of all this is not to hammer one over the head with theory, but to point out that left engagement with automation and other forms of qualitatively striking technological change should not forget what Kliman (Kliman 2011) has aptly called the failure of capitalist production. Even for left theorists it can be tempting to take capital in a sense at its word, to be led to the mountaintop and shown the dazzling vistas that lie ahead and to think what we could do with all those tools and riches. But not all that glitters is gold. For all the hype generated by the tech billionaires and the slow but not negligible rate of improvement in global living standards from increased output (which the author acknowledges), capitalism is reminiscent of the man who sticks a bar between the spokes of his own bicycle: sooner or later it brings itself to a fall, and then looks around indignantly for who might have sabotaged its great promise. But it is its own mode of production and accumulation that does this, and it cannot help but do it, again and again. No amount of machine learning or robotics can alter this fate of its own power, whatever other potential the computers and robots may have.

That said, Benanav’s own suggestions for the norms of a noncapitalist world are in the foundations not very different from those discussed in such left automation theory works as Srnicek and Williams’ or Peter Frase’s Four Futures (Frase 2016), also premised on a fully automated future. Indeed, with its discussions of collective distribution of work and its slightly blithe argument that the denizens of the future socialist world should just agree with each other on how to solve economic challenges, it reminds one a bit of the slightly older tradition of such postcapitalist social design like Parecon (Albert 2004).

On this basis, I would suggest it is not so much to be read as a critique of left automation theory as a supplement to it, one that more systematically incorporates the Marxist critique of capitalist production as not just wasteful of its potential, but also as subject to (irrational) secular tendencies to stagnation and unemployment. Insofar as the book has weaknesses, it is mainly in this latter sphere, the discussion of the low global demand for labor. Benanav tends to treat the First World and the global South as fairly equivalent and subject to the same processes in this regard, but thereby tends to elide the structural differences between them. After all, the vast majority of global inequality is inequality between nations, not within them, and structurally huge unemployment and underemployment are characteristics of poorer nations more than of richer ones. Premature deindustrialization is certainly a matter of the world market, as Benanav rightly says, but that world market is not born equal, and likely his argumentation works all the more clearly and transparently in countries with an educated but wildly underemployed workforce like Syria or Egypt than in the Western metropole.

This also raises the question of what to do with the traditional Marxist argument of the need to develop the productive forces to achieve the necessary potential for a postcapitalist future – a cornerstone of both Marxist and non-Marxist state practice in the 20th century in the form of the developmental state, but an issue not much addressed by Benanav. This is slightly curious since precisely this insight is at the heart of the (so to speak) ‘left optimists’ in the automation discourse: it is precisely the appearance of a very advanced state of development of the productive forces that invites the suggestion that the potential for utopia is around the corner. This may not be justified, and others have historically hewed closer to Benanav’s apparent approach that the leap to freedom is a matter of political will more than of technological capacity. But a further discussion of this theme would, I think, add to the filling out of Marxist theory that the left automation theorists are so fruitfully and – dare I say – productively engaged in.

Overall, Automation and the Future of Work is a remarkably lucid and sharp argument made in hardly a hundred pages. It fits well together with the previously mentioned works of Srnicek and Williams as well as Frase as part of a larger (and very welcome) exchange of thoughts among left theorists on the implications of modern automation technology and the systematic restructuring of the global workforce since the 1980s. It adds to this discussion a firm rooting in the Marxist theory of capitalist production and accumulation as well as more neoclassical interpretations of the ‘secular stagnation’ thesis, which point in the same direction. Most importantly, by emphasizing declining output growth rather than increasing productivity growth, it provides an important empirical and theoretical check on overly bullish interpretations of capitalist Promethean power.

Benanav, Aaron. Automation and the Future of Work. London 2020: Verso.
Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life after Capitalism. London 2016: Verso.
Kliman, Andrew. The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession. London 2011: Pluto.
Srnicek, Nick and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London 2015: Verso.

The Reversal of Values as a Method in Criticism

One could say with only limited exaggeration that all intellectual vices reduce to the vice of intellectual dishonesty, and that all intellectual dishonesty reduces to the phenomenon of kneejerking. Kneejerking could be defined as responding to the form of the thing rather than the thing itself: to its associations or appearance or emotional resonance, not to the substance of the argument within its specific context. While in principle everyone knows this vice to be one, it does not mean that it is easily avoided (as is generally true for intellectual vices). Within the political and cultural left, particular forms of kneejerking occur that are peculiar to our social sphere. Without wanting to point the finger at anyone or any group in particular, I think it is worth examining in more detail some of these specific forms of intellectual vice that we are prone to. 

One such example I think is often not recognized as a pattern, despite being unfortunately rather common in ‘radical’ theorizing. In fact, it is often not recognized as being an intellectual vice at all, although I think more often than not it is one. It is a form of kneejerking, but at a high level of abstraction: a form I call ‘the reversal of values’.

By the reversal of values I mean this. Often there will be a dominant or powerful narrative with normative implications, whether historical, political, or otherwise, in which a clear value hierarchy is established. There are forces or abstracta that are portrayed as good or desirable, and ones that are portrayed as bad or undesirable, and through this value hierarchy the narrative tries to make sense of the dynamics at issue. One could call this the conservative master narrative. By definition, radical theorizing sets itself against such conservative master narratives in the specific domain which it studies, and seeks to undermine it. 

A frequent approach in radical theorizing has been to do this by taking the conservative master narrative and reversing its values. This seems, after all, the strongest kind of critique: to show that those things seen as good are ‘actually bad’, and those things portrayed as bad are ‘actually good’. This undermines not just the original narrative’s potency, but also the ability of the exponents of the conservative master narrative to make value judgements at all. It exposes their value hierarchy as reversible, and therefore not natural or inevitable, which has been one of the essential goals of radical theorizing in modern times since it roots in the Enlightenment and romanticism. Finally, it has the clear advantage of having the theoretical tools laying ready to hand. After all, the conservative master narrative has already done most of the work in distilling the relevant abstracta and providing the raw materials for theory: all one needs to do now is to question the normative frame. In this way, it is always a tempting approach, since it appears simultaneously radical and easy.

It is not difficult to find practical examples in (relatively) recent radical theorizing. A clear example is the study of the witch hunts. The conservative master narrative had portrayed the witch hunts as a kind of irrational mass craze, and their victims as (at best) pathetic losers who had lost social support or (at worst) sinister figures in their own right who might have brought it on themselves. From the 1970s onwards, a strand of feminist historiography inspired by the work of Margaret Murray and others has sought to reverse this approach. Most eminently represented by Silvia Federici’s work, this strand has argued that in fact the witch hunts were very organized, ‘rational’ and deliberate undertakings, supported by a social elite, and their victims primarily (proto-)proletarian women, whose freedom and self-organization the witch hunters sought to destroy in order to inaugurate or further capitalist social arrangements. 

Beyond the historical specifics, the argument is quite explicitly framed as a reversal of values: the witch hunters were not crazy but rational (in an instrumental sense anyway), their victims not social losers or sinister schemers but oppressed workers, the violence not primarily a work of religious mania but of gendered social control, and so forth. These are, of course, social abstracta and not values in the strict sense. But the normative import attached to it, and the purpose of the historical exercise, is precisely to demonstrate that the victims were – anyway from the viewpoint of Marxist historiography – the ‘good guys’ and represented historically progressive forces, while the witch hunters are to be identified with the same historically regressive forces of exploitation and oppression that would manifest under capitalism, and therefore the ‘bad guys’. For her, the victims of the witch hunts were indeed the social underclass, but this is good about them

Moreover, Federici hints at the old idea that the oppressed workers victimized by the witch hunts were really in some sense deviants from the official Christianity, and had a different religious life; it plays into the reversal of values between the conservative master narrative of church history and its radical opposite. It is not a coincidence that Federici is happy to regularly rely in her book on very old works inspired by Catholic reaction, works in which the witch hunts are essentially justified as necessary measures to defend Christianity. These suit her purpose, because they give her a perfect opportunity to reverse that polarity. She too presents the witches as representing an inherent challenge to that same Christianity, but argues that this is a good thing, because that Christianity was patriarchal, oppressive, controlling, etc. 

There is much that can be doubted about this line of argument; it is certainly not in agreement with the more contemporary historiography of the witch hunts, which does not see such strong class or religious differences between witch hunters and their victims, nor was the upper class of the time uniformly enthusiastic about the enterprise. But that is not the point. The purpose of the book is to establish a reversal of values, where the victims of history are feminine, working class, organized, and free, and therefore represent things to be valued, whereas the winner-protagonists of the conservative master narrative actually represent all the things to be despised. 

Similar kinds of arguments can be found outside historical discussions too. One may think for example of the arguments about the nature of ‘rationality’. The conservative master narrative of philosophy and reason of old presented rationality as masculine, cultural, and dominant, and therefore associated irrationality with femininity, nature, and passivity. Clearly, this is no longer generally believed (although it still has its fans in many dark intellectual corners). What is surprising perhaps is how popular nonetheless the reversal of its values remains. A popular response is to say things along these lines: perhaps femininity is better then, because more in touch with emotions; or perhaps artificiality is ultimately destructive and harmful, and the natural is more balanced and more sustainable; perhaps rationality is not so desirable, because instrumental reason is ultimately a form of domination, and we should seek a more intuitive approach; perhaps acceptance of the dictates of nature is better than the aggressive and vainglorious attempt to control and dominate the natural; and so on and so forth. 

All of these represent in one form or another an attempt at the reversal of values as a method of criticism of the conservative master narrative, in fact a reversal by now much more common and more persistent than that old narrative itself is. Many more examples could be furnished: one need only think of the postcolonial studies tradition of revaluing the ‘subaltern’ against the Orientalist conservative master narrative, or the desire to revalue ‘queering’ against a vast array of master narratives of Otherization, and so on. 

It would seem a banality to observe that this method, as a method in radical criticism, is not really adequate, were it not so pervasive. Its great weakness is that while it undermines the value system of the conservative master narrative to which it responds, it preserves its parameters intact. It is in this sense that it is a kind of kneejerking: it says “if you say X is bad, I will say X is good!”, while thereby conceding that X has the properties and meaning that were ascribed to it in the first place. 

Analogous to how for Wittgenstein “philosophy leaves everything as it is”, the reversal of values also leaves everything as it is: it challenges the normative implications or the identification with one or another label, but does not challenge the structure of the argument itself. One might instead ask: what if the witch hunts were neither a defense of the true church nor a conspiracy by the ruling class, but a product of the particular social tensions of Renaissance state-building and religious conflict in which perpetrators and victims were often quite similar? What if rationality is not masculine to begin with, or femininity not natural, or the artificial not inferior to the spontaneous, or indeed none of these binaries particularly sustainable or likely to refer to natural kinds?

The point here is of course not to take positions in those specific debates, but to identify a pattern of reasoning. Indeed, reversing values is by itself not necessarily a bad thing. Many values do deserve reversal, and the reversal when undertaken as a deliberate enterprise intended to provide a form of counterculture or counterideology can be a healthy contribution to the landscape (Gerald Gardner’s inspiration of Wicca comes to mind here). But as a product of the kneejerk it is a serious methodological problem in radical theorizing. 

The upshot is that the critique of ideology demands a questioning not just of the normative claims inherent in the analysis but also of the analytical parameters themselves. The first instinct should not be to preserve the reasoning but to reverse its polarity, but to find that tertium quid – one that is not merely saying “this binary is insufficient” (which is surely itself often banal), but to find that analytical ground from which the parameters themselves come to look very differently, and the normative reversal becomes as irrelevant as its original counterpart. The way past the reversal of values as a method in criticism is to reject the instinct to say, as the witches in Macbeth, that “fair is foul and foul is fair”. This is a beginning, perhaps, but not adequate to the task. Instead we should make our instinct to go outside: to find that Archimedean lever, with which one can move the world.

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A Corbyn Hot Take, or: A Revolution Without Solution?

Since the Lord knows that what the world really needs is another take on Corbyn, let me add mine to the pile. Since getting a sense of the strategic issues involved around his leadership involves something approaching a pros-and-cons format, it is probably best done in the form of a set of succinct points rather than a fully fledged essay. I hope to provide at least some sense of why I am skeptical about Corbyn’s prospects and yet find defending him important for the future of the British left, including those of us (such as myself) who have not joined the Labour bandwagon. Continue reading “A Corbyn Hot Take, or: A Revolution Without Solution?”