A computerised workforce won’t necessarily benefit workers

Rethink Robotics MIT — Steve Jurvetson

BBC Panorama’s piece “Could a Robot do my Job?” is a sign that the question of an automated workforce is finally gaining traction within mainstream media and politics in important ways. The Panorama piece cites a recent study from Oxford University claiming up to 35% of present UK jobs are at risk of “computerisation.”

Contemporary leftists such as Paul Mason, Nick Srnieck & Alex Williams, as well as the current Labour leadership and Peter Phrase all see an emancipatory potential for workers within automation. But this vision is at risk of obscuring the exploitation and destruction of third world labourers and environments.

Tied to the development of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), computerising the workforce indeed an attractive alternative to the instability and physical and mental exhaustion of the working world. However appealing such a future may be, there are significant ethical and political concerns that cannot be ignored by any techno-left optimists – who hope to utilise computerisation and automation to full effect.

The cost of computerisation

One raw material that is necessary for computerisation and automation is gold, as it functions as a conductor in electronics. The recent Colombian gold rush has seen the licensing of millions of hectares of the Amazonian rainforest for excavation. I do not need to elaborate on the dangers of deforestation and its connection to global climate change. But likewise, gold exports from central America, to Africa and Asia have another byproduct; child labour and human rights abuses.
There is therefore a necessity to develop a strategy for supply. Otherwise we would be at risk of building a post-capitalist, post-work society in the Global North, on the capitalist exploitation and destruction of the Global South. However, Peter Phrase, of US socialist magazine “Jacobin” claims: “panic over automation misses the real problem – that workers themselves are treated like machines.”

For someone concerned with worker struggle Phrase seems to gloss over the human and environmental cost of extracting the raw materials necessary for computerisation. Phrase’s model for political struggle does little to bring third world labourers and green concerns into the fold. These points are nothing if not significant questions for a left that prides itself on emancipation, for the exploited and appropriated of the world.

Sterling Heights Assembly Plant – USA

A post-work world?

None of this is to dismiss the political significance or potential of automation. I find it hard to imagine our own Tory party with their idée fixe of “hard working people” could possibly comprehend a post-work world – a likely feature of an automated economy.

In fact, automation will confront the Tory party and profiteers alike with a peculiar knot. Automation means fewer waged workers and therefore more profit, along with the convenient fact that there would be no fear of future struggle for unionised workers. But on the other hand, with fewer waged workers there will be a decline in purchasing powers to consume the fruits of automated labour.

So how could there be more profit? Former workers will require their spending power to come from somewhere else, in the form of a UBI from the state, or by having a stake in increasingly automated companies. Both would be unpalatable, the former for obvious reasons and the latter because it is easy to follow up a demand for shareholding with management.

This presents the UK left with an opportunity, if it adapts to the shifting terrain presented by such studies mentioned above – such terrain should become the lefts natural terrain of struggle. But we must bear in mind the prescient question George Caffentzis’ put forward in his work On Africa and Self-Reproducing Automata – we on the left must ask “whose nightmare is this dream?” Who pays the cost of our techno-utopic fantasies? Finally and most importantly, how are we to minimise such a cost?

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