Factory Automation: photo: Wikimedia Commons Factory Automation: photo: Wikimedia Commons

We cannot consider automation without taking into account the mode of production in which it’s operating, argues Nathan Street 

Two weeks ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos, eager to prove the country’s ‘open for business’ credentials, a presumably straight-faced Theresa May declared

“… From the … advent of factory production, time and again initially disquieting innovations … we have found the way to make those changes work for all our people”. [1]

As if decades of outsourcing and de-industrialisations – most notably under Thatcher lead governments – had not left whole communities and job sectors angry, displaced and impoverished. The same government that has presided over Grenfell and Carillion wants people to believe that they are responsible regulators that can be competently and compassionately trusted to be mindful of the social costs and benefits, and to protect against the risks in the face of automation.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, perhaps this exemplifies how the right-wing forces would like to frame the ideological debate regarding technology if they could. They will write a 40 page pamphlet implying the left are stuck-in-the-muds that stifle technology whilst also appealing to mindsets fuelled from dystopian science fiction of the robots taking over under the left. Jeremy Corbyn spoke sensibly on the subject at the Labour Party conference in September saying

“We need urgently to face the challenge of automation: robotics… is a threat in the hands of the greedy, but it’s a huge opportunity if it’s managed in the interests of society as a whole. We won’t reap the full rewards of these great technological advances if they’re monopolised to pile up profits for a few. But if they’re publicly managed – to share the benefits – they can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure”. [2]

That this was spun in The Telegraph as a tax on robots is another case in point. [3]

The left needs to be clear and united in rejecting both ‘Silicon Valley and neo–ludditeism’. In fact the very term luddite – which is the most recognisable synonym for espousing an opposition to technology – is also a case in point: The actual Luddites were only opposed to technology in relation to its effect on the workers in the textile industry that were getting displaced in lieu of a positive solution or transition. Their classification was a tool of discrediting their movement. [4] But with no better term in the English language ‘neo-ludditeism’ will have to be written.

That false dichotomy is still ideologically parroted by forces in favour of the neoliberal transitions who want to silence criticism against the so called innovative market solutions that aren’t or wouldn’t work at all for anyone beyond perhaps a company’s shareholders, certainly not for those workers employed in the sector under attack. This trope will be repeated in the automation struggles to come as capitalists attempt to usher in innovations from R&D departments, at least if they are forecast to be more profitable than alternatives. There are many reasons to believe that whilst automation is a threat to many jobs and sectors, it is not likely to take all over, if you follow a Marxist economic analysis as outlined successfully by Michael Roberts in a three-part series on the Counterfire site. [5]

In 2013 Frey and Martin listed 700 jobs in order of likelihood that automation woudl replace them. [6] It is primarily in the at-risk sectors where the left needs to organise against attacks designed to crush labour movements and unions under the trojan horse of ‘technological progress’. There will be attempts to minimise the implicit ideological assumptions of neoliberalism that time and again underpin such changes. But having a complete anti-technology position is no solution for any resistance and is exactly the way that the forces of the right would like to make a strawman position the left. The left is going to have to respond in kind with unified and strong union activity and a mass movement of support behind it. But rather than just fighting to maintain the status quo, there needs to be a fight on the front foot; a positive,  alternative conception regarding how to better apply technology in society and the workplace.

Most warnings of future automation transitions caution of how they risk exacerbating already gross inequalities. [7] Ultimately in the sectors on the sharper end of change, advocates of technological solutions from the left have to reconcile that they “have been used, historically, to deepen exploitation rather than overcome it. It is far more likely that new technologies will intensify drudgery and further limits human freedom”, at least when delivered under existing economic modes of production. [8] There exists no contradiction in being opposed to what automations and innovations will mean under one set of economic conditions, but to be in support of their potential applications and possibilities under different economic ownership models.