The march toward the obsolescence of human labor is an inevitability of capitalism.
In a capitalist society, a business is structured like a dictatorship: an owner or small group of owners, board members, and investors hold all the power and make all the decisions, including how company profits are used — to increase production, to open new plants or stores, invest in new technology, increase advertising, hire more workers, increase worker pay, increase owner pay, and so on. They also decide, when times are rough, when to close the stores or factories, when to lay off workers, when to sell the business, etc.
As a business owner, investing in technology can make your workplace(s) more automated, allowing you to reduce your workforce. While technology costs money to create, install, and maintain, it can save huge sums compared to human labor, and is much more efficient. Ford, for example, needs only one-third of the workers it needed in the 1970s for the same production levels (Imagine, Goldwin and Smith). This leads to greater profits.
(There is little evidence, by the way, that higher minimum wages exacerbate this process; studies overwhelmingly show that raising the minimum wage does not cause unemployment, as more money in people’s pockets leads to more spending at businesses, creating equilibrium.)
The owners benefit immensely, massively increasing their wealth, but the workers are sent packing, forced to find work elsewhere (this has contributed to severe inequality in the U.S., where the bottom 80% of Americans now own just 7% of the national wealth and the top 1% owns 40%; recent income growth has gone almost exclusively to the rich; CEO pay has skyrocketed, worker wages have stagnated).
New technology and broader divisions of labor (think of the assembly line) constantly make specialized labor obsolete. The pursuit of profit tends to make a worker “an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack that is required of him,” to quote The Communist Manifesto. When a task that originally required advanced training or higher education can be accomplished by low-skill labor, a capitalist has no need for someone with a college degree and needs not pay the higher salary. Then competition among workers for that job is broadened, driving the wage down further. If a task can be totally replaced by a machine, the job opportunity vanishes completely (“technological unemployment”).
Supporters of capitalism will protest, saying the advent of new technology often creates new high-skill, high-wage jobs, which is true. New technologies, from computers to jets, require trained personnel to build, maintain, upgrade, and operate them. However, the people who can take advantage of these new opportunities are not usually the ones who are displaced by the new technology. The losers (usually older folks) find their once-valuable skills irrelevant and their jobs eliminated. As Erik Olin Wright (Envisioning Real Utopias) points out, firms do not wish to spend the money to retrain older workers, and the new opportunities may be in far away cities, requiring obsolete workers to move even if they got new training. Perhaps they would have to stop working and go back to school, something most adults with families can’t do. And even the winners may not be safe for long, as the cycle continues: firms divide labor, automate tasks, and turn high-skill work into low-skill work. The winners’ jobs are eventually obsolete, and then they are fired and must find new work, sometimes a low-skilled, low-wage job.
Now, it is also true that new technology can create low-skill work. Uber lets more people be personal drivers, Postmates creates delivery jobs, the relative ease of launching, running, and monetizing a website and social media creates work for many. A cheerful analysis by economists in 2015 declared technology, because it builds a more advanced, prosperous society, created more jobs than it destroyed in the U.K. in the last 140 years; so while jobs for farmers, secretaries, washers, and launderers vanished, jobs for teachers, caretakers, social workers, and nurses increased. They also noted how increased personal wealth in a more advanced society leads to more spending on luxuries, hence a rise in the demand for bartending and hairdressing jobs. In other words, as a separate analysis put it, it is often the case that “growth of jobs at low risk of automation outpaces loss of jobs at high risk” (in the case of the U.K., from 2001 to 2015, 3.5 million low-risk jobs were added to the economy, 800,000 high-risk jobs lost).
Yet this does not mean there will always and for all time be enough jobs free of automation for every citizen that needs work (even today during economic boom times, there are not always enough jobs for everyone, low- or high-risk).
Most unskilled labor, if we think of 50, 100, 500, or 1,000 years from now, will surely be abolished by automation and robotics. Machines can already operate a warehouse, pick and inspect fruit, build cars, and lay bricks. Google and Uber are already working on driverless cars, Amazon on drone delivery systems. U.S. restaurants are installing tablets at tables or counters that take orders and payments, China perfecting a weaponized police robot (Anbot), Toshiba placing a temporary robot employee (ChihiraAico) in a Japanese department store, Nanyang Technical University unveiling a robotic secretary (Nadine), the PR2 robot at MIT can bake, and even sex robots are under construction, perhaps one day threatening prostitution! High-skilled work is not free of risk either (who wouldn’t want a robotic lawyer with advanced knowledge of every legal case ever argued, able to easily out-think a human attorney?). Radiologists and journalists are threatened by technology able to do parts of their jobs faster, cheaper, with fewer errors.
A 2013 study by Oxford economists estimated 47% of jobs in the U.S. are currently at high risk of automation, perhaps fully automated “over the next decade or two” (including service, sales, office and administrative, production, and transportation jobs), 19% of jobs at medium risk of automation, and 33% at low risk (including other service jobs, plus education, media, legal, healthcare, business management, and engineering jobs).
Other analysts declared in 2015, “Our research suggests that as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. In the United States, these activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages.”
Wren Handman writes, “Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots. Gartner, a technology research firm, ramps that estimate up and predicts that one third of all jobs will be eliminated by 2025…” Capitalist owners will increasingly be able to do away with human labor, increasing profits—and the wealth gap between them and everyone else. The workers will have to compete for fewer and fewer non-automated jobs.
Albert Einstein wrote that under capitalism, “Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all” (“Why Socialism?,” Einstein). Advances in technology and productivity (and thus profits) could allow for higher wages and shorter work weeks for workers at their workplaces — if workers owned their workplaces and called the shots. Yet over the past four decades—a time of skyrocketing productivity—wages weakened and working hours lengthened (Economics of the Madhouse, Harman). Technological progress for each capitalist firm, instead of changing work for the better for each worker, exiles more people from the firm and from that type of work, creating a larger pool of laborers needing to compete for jobs elsewhere — usually low-skill and low-wage jobs.
What will happen to the vast majority of human beings when machines can outperform them at any job? When business owners can automate any task imaginable, increasing efficiency and profits?
There will surely always be demand for some human workers — perhaps citizens won’t want a robot teacher for their child or robot caretaker for their ailing parents. Perhaps business owners will always want to provide a human face to consumers, and will always preserve a partially human staff. Perhaps we’ll want human writers and human preachers. But can we all be teachers, childcare providers, business reps, and clergymen?
Surely for the vast majority of us, when all the freight trucks no longer need drivers, when machines can take an order, prepare your meal, and accept a credit card, when robotic clerks serve you at retail stores and police the streets — whether this happens in 100 years or 1,000 — we will need a new form of social organization to avoid extreme poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and hunger.
There are essentially two solutions.
One is a guaranteed basic income: the State simply provides each citizen with a monthly stipend, citizens spend the money where they will, taxes are collected on the businesses and organizations where people spent their money, and the cycle continues. Switzerland is already moving closer to adopting a guaranteed income. In this way, those who own the technology that made work a thing of the past make survival possible for the masses.
The other solution is worker ownership: businesses will have to be owned by all their workers, so that no worker will be fired as technology improves. In an authoritarian capitalist firm, robotic labor means fewer human workers. In a worker-owned firm, it means participants in the firm can switch to more fulfilling and enjoyable tasks, and work fewer hours each week for the same income, if not more. In this way, the technology would be owned by the masses, and the profits would be shared, making survival possible.
Worker ownership is already a reality in the U.S. and around the world, as explored in “What is Socialism?” This solution is a bit more complex than a guaranteed income (if there are more people looking for work than worker cooperatives need, it may be necessary for the State — or local governments — to launch New Deal-style public work projects, using tax dollars to pay people to improve their communities, even if machines could do it better). But it may be a better option than paying citizens who don’t work, as there may be work that could improve society but is unaddressed because worker cooperatives can’t profit from it (i.e., cleaning up streets and rivers, or tutoring struggling students).
Either solution, of course, is socialism.
Oscar Wilde contrasts in The Soul of Man Under Socialism how machinery operates under capitalism and how it should operate under socialism:
Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and, having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of much more importance, a great deal more than he really wants.
Were that machine the property of all, every one would benefit by it. It would be an immense advantage to the community. All unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.
Jack London said something similar:
Let us not destroy those wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us control them. Let us profit by their efficiency and cheapness. Let us run them for ourselves. That, gentlemen, is socialism… (A People’s History of the United States, Zinn)
As technology approaches a point where human labor will be all but obsolete, these ideas become increasingly relevant. When physicist Stephen Hawking was asked in 2015 whether technology would lead to mass unemployment, he replied:
If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
With so many jobs under threat of extinction in the next few decades alone, we know what option humanity must choose.