Lynn Parramore: Obsolete Humans? Why Elites Want You to Fear the Robot

By Lynn Parramore, senior editor at Alternet. Cross posted from Alternet

Editor's note: This is the third part in an ongoing series on job insecurity.

Machines have been relieving humans from drudgery and delighting us with their marvelous feats for thousands of years. Consider the Antikythera mechanism, a Hellenistic wonder of wood and bronze gears that charted the movements of the heavens, thought to be the first analog computer. The island of Rhodes was so famous for its automata, as ancient robots were known, that Pindar wrote an ode in their honor:

The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
Move their marble feet.
—(trans. Rev. C. A. Wheelwright, 1830), Seventh Olympic Ode (95)

Do we still hold robots in such high esteem? It depends on how the economy is doing.

Robot Revolution?

When economic times are good, machines are celebrated as wonders of progress and prosperity that will improve our lives. But when times are tough, they become objects of fear. The unemployment crisis of the past four years was triggered by a Wall Street-driven financial crash, and exacerbated by policy makers who failed to do enough to stimulate the economy and to ensure that there’s enough demand for goods and services. But lately, a new argument for job insecurity has made a splash in the media: It’s the machines! Pundits predict the “end of labor,” and talk about armies of sleek robots taking over the workplace as a foregone conclusion. Dystopian fantasies worthy of a late-night sci-fi flick flood the airwaves.

The 2011 book Race Against The Machine, by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam McAfee, fueled the idea that machines are finally getting so smart that they’re displacing human jobs at an alarming rate and leaving stunned workers helpless in the unemployment line. This time, they warn, it’s not just factory workers or agricultural hands who will find their job snatched by a robot. White-collar workers like accountants and lawyers are losing out to machines.

Scary articles in the business section warn that any rise in wages will drive companies to save money by shedding workers and buying robots. Visions of increased efficiency and machines that can run 24/7 with no need for bathroom breaks have workers frantically trying to prove their value. Bosses warn that worker protests will only speed up automation. Don’t like the harsh conditions at Foxconn? Fine, a robot will do your job. The message: Keeping wages down and workers toiling until they drop is the only way to stave off a robot revolution.

People are naturally terrified when the economy is not growing. Technical change becomes the great evil, and gives people something concrete to blame for their economic woes. It also provides a handy scare tactic for those want to squeeze wages and workers, and a cover for politicians who push austerity policies and object to government intervention in the economy. During his first term, President Obama sometimes echoed this line of thought in remarks about the rise of things like ATMs, suggesting that because automation causes unemployment, there’s not a lot the government can do. (Never mind the incredible proliferation of banks on every corner staffed with what appear to be humans.)
The notion that technology is driving current unemployment doesn’t make much sense when you look at it closely. In 2007, there were reasonable, if not great, labor markets in the U.S. The giant leap in unemployment numbers dates from a very specific event, not from a long-run process that has been displacing workers over time. In 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.6. By 2009, it was 9.6, and remains very high. What happened wasn’t a sudden rush of robots onto the scene, but a financial catastrophe that nearly tanked the global economy.

Back in the 1990s, all kinds of technological changes were happening, as new users of the Internet will recall. Manufacturing productivity and some parts of service productivity went way up. People weren’t paranoid about machines because the economy was humming along. Technology was making humans more productive, the pundits said.

But now those same people who cheered technology are warning that this time, it’s different. Now robots have higher cognitive functions, and can do more things that used to be the sole province of humans. Noah Smith, a finance professor at Stony Brook University, sounded the alarm in a piece in The Atlantic:

“Once human cognition is replaced, what else have we got? For the ultimate extreme example, imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.”

You Are Not a Horse, Of Course

Is that really true? Are you about to become as redundant as a Victorian buggy horse?

Economist William Lazonick, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Industrial Competitiveness, thinks that economists have gotten a lot of the labor-technology issue wrong (See "Robots Don't Destroy Jobs; Rapacious Corporate Executives Do"). He reminds us that it was 19th-century economist David Ricardo, author of the theory of comparative advantage, who is largely responsible for the modern notion that technology depresses wages and displaces workers. Ricardo wrote a famous book in 1817, during the world’s first very first industrial revolution, in which he argued that machinery would not hurt workers. Then, in a third edition, Ricardo famously changed his mind. That recantation had enormous impact.

Nineteenth-century thinkers were influenced by Ricardo, and also by Friedrich Engels, whose dad owned a textile factory in Germany which had some outlets in England. Engels was deeply disturbed by what he saw in these factories, and at the age of 24 he wrote a treatise called “Condition of the Working Class in 1844.”

Engels saw textile workers treated badly and being replaced by machines as weaving was moving into factories. He was right about what he saw.  A machine known as the “self-acting mule” which spun cotton was indeed taking over work done by humans. But Engels was also basing his theories on a moment in time that happened to be the worst economic downturn of the century. That would be like judging 20th-century factory conditions in the U.S. by visiting Chicago meat-packing plants in 1933. The problems faced by the workers Engels saw were not a permanent set of conditions, but partly the result of a cyclical downturn. Technology wasn’t really the issue. Many weavers were forced to move from their homes, where they had traditionally labored, into factories, where conditions were difficult and where women, who had traditionally worked as weavers, were excluded. In the long run, factory owners saw that they needed the skills of workers to run the new machines. Britain became the workshop of the world, workers did pretty well, and the country enjoyed a long economic boom.

But Karl Marx looked at Engels’ work and concluded that automation was decreasing the power of workers. Marx got many things right, but he may have gotten it very wrong on technology and labor.

It’s undeniable that mechanization can sometimes leave workers behind, like makers of Swiss watches, or, to use a more recent example, compositors who have been replaced by digital printing. But displacement doesn’t have to be inevitable or permanent. Countries can respond with national policies that help those valuable, highly trained workers acquire new training. They can use local, state, and federal taxes to help foot the bill. The kinds of policies used by companies makes a huge difference in how workers experience automation. Japan is the world leader in robots, but it’s also a place where permanent employment is much more common than in the U.S. In 1990, Japan had many times more robots than factories. But it turns out that in order to make those robots work, companies needed people for programming, maintenance and repair. Because they didn’t lay off employees, firms simply retrained them. Workers observed the robots and learned how to do new things to work alongside them.

In Lazonick’s view, economists have not thought enough about how workers can gain from technological change. When companies automate, he argues, you can expect more jobs, not fewer. Just look at a company like Apple, which automates rigorously and yet provides new possibilities for jobs. It produces software that does things humans used to do, for example, but it employs engineers, designers, and people who package, market, and sell new products.

Automation increases profits for companies, but for Lazonick the real question is, how are those profits distributed? Are they being distributed to shareholders for short-term profits? Or are they being invested back into the company to do vital things like retraining workers, which helps the long-term economic outlook? The problem is not automation, but greedy CEOs who pay themselves gigantic, disproportionate sums and follow the dangerous and misguided principle of "maximizing shareholder value” to distribute profits to themselves, often caring little whether the company even survives 10 years down the road. What’s it to them? They’ll have their pay packages and can move on. The perverse misuse corporate profits is the real culprit, not Rosie the Robot.

Why should we expect companies to spend their money retraining workers? Aren’t they around to make a buck? Certainly many of them are doing quite well in that department, making record-breaking profits. The truth is that companies are also supposed to have a social purpose. That’s why we, as taxpayers, invest in all kinds of things that allow them to do business, from constructing roads and airports to basic research. (And why we confer on them the extraordinary privilege of limited liability and other legal advantages.) Apple would not be able to make its wondrous gadgets if the government had not invested heavily in the development of the Internet and things like touchscreen technology. So Apple owes something back to those who have footed the bill for its success. That includes not only sharing profits with workers, but investing in retraining them when new advances in technology change the workplace. It's not just altruism, it's about fairness. And smart economics.

Workers aren’t vulnerable because of robots. Investment in automation is a good thing that can produce more, and better jobs. People are vulnerable because of misguided policies that depress economic growth, reward short-term profit-making, and leave workers with nothing left in their pockets to buy goods and services – not even robot vacuum cleaners, now endowed with human-like emotive responses so we won’t be mad when they break down — which they very frequently do. And guess what? They need a human to fix them.

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  1. Sandwichman

    “But Karl Marx looked at Engels’ work and concluded that automation was decreasing the power of workers. Marx got many things right, but he may have gotten it very wrong on technology and labor…”

    This glib description suggests to me that Lynn Parramore knows precious little about what Marx said about machines and labor. I won’t dwell on “the fragment on machines” from the Grundrisse or the discussion in the excised “chapter six” contrasting formal and real subsumption of labor to capital but Karl’s light- hearted poke at the technological optimists of his day should offer a hint and how he would respond to Ms. Parramore’s assessment of his thought on the matter. It is an address Marx attributed to Bill Sikes, the villain from Dickens’s Oliver Twist:

    “Gentlemen of the jury, no doubt the throat of this commercial traveler has been cut. But that is not my fault; it is the fault of the knife! Must we, for such a temporary inconvenience, abolish the use of the knife? Only consider! Where would agriculture and trade be without the knife? Is it not as beneficial in surgery as it is in anatomy? And in addition a willing help at the festive table? If you abolish the knife — you hurl us back into the depths of barbarism.”.

    The problem that Ms. Parramore appears to be ignorant of is that technology is not “neutral” but has often been designed and employed expressly to undermine the power of workers. As the NRA has it, “guns don’t kill people…” And technology doesn’t displace workers. But some guns are designed to kill people just as some technology is designed to displace workers. Glib platitudes and made up stories about Karl Marx’s understanding of technology won’t change that.

    1. n8dub

      In no way am I trying to defend the author, but I believe that technology is merely designed to perform work more efficiently (from an employer’s perspective: at less cost and with greater predictability) than a human. The fact that automation displaces human employees is secondary.

      Even if an employer harbors some antisocial desire to displace his living, breathing charity cases, he is unlikely to outsource their work to automation unless the financial case for it is solid.

      Keynes had it right, but we have been ignoring his tremendous insight. Rather than deny automation, we humans must figure out what the hell we are going to do with our time and the wealth produced when robots are capable of solving the work problem. Some form of socialism seems to be in order, and most Americans dare not speak its name. Will the robots be programmed to know that we’re exceptional?

      1. tagyoureit

        Are you suggesting we should not question our preference for profit over the well-being of a human?

    2. from Mexico

      Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Karl Marx and the tradition of Western political thought,” states that Maxism “has done as much to hide and obliterate the actual teachings of Marx as it has to propagate them.” And you offer the perfect example. Marx certainly was not a Luddite as Parramore suggests, but neither was he a half-way Luddite as you suggest.

      As John Gray writes in Al Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern,” Marx was a Positivist. “The Positivists are the original prophets of moderity,” Gray observes. “Through their influence on Marx, they stand behind the twentieth century’s communist regimes.”

      The Positivist vision was nowhere more glowingly articulated than by Thomas Jefferson’s friend and correspondent, Joseph Priestly:

      “Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy… Thus whatever the beginning of the world the end will be glorious and praradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive.”

      It was this paradise that Marx envisioned. And those people who accuse Marx of being self-contradicting forget that Marx viewed history through the lens of a dialectic. As Arendt explains, this “can be expressed in various ways, such as that he needed violence to abolish violence, that the goal of history is to end history, that labor is the only producive activity of man but that the development of man’s productive forces will eventually lead to the abolition of labor.” Machines at the end of Marx’s history, therefore, would not merely “liberate labor,” but “abolish labor altogether.”

      But in order for this to happen, a revolution in politics and morals was also necessary. And Marx, like all Positivists, believed that the revolution in politics and morals would march side by side with the technological revolution. Gray explains in more detail:

      ***beginning of quote***

      According to Saint-Simon, actually existing societies are chaotic and divided; but that is because they have not absorbed the findings of science. Progress in society is a by-product of progress in science. As knowledge advances, so does humanity.

      Every society must pass through a series of definite stages. Each must move from a religous view of the world to a metaphysical outlook, and from that to the positive — or scientific — stage. In each of these three stages, human knowledge becomes more definite and — a vitally importnat point for the Positivists — more systematically organised. In the end, when all societies have passed through these stages, ethics will become a science, no less objective in its results than physics or chemistry. At this point, the moral and political conflicts of the past will disappear.

      Where there is no conflict there is no need for power. As Marx put it in a phrase he borrowed from Saint-Simon, the government of men will be replaced by the administration of things. Marx knew little of the work of Comte, whom he read only in the late 1860s and then dismissed, but the influence on him of Saint-Simon was profound. With the growth of knowledge and the continuing expansion of production, Saint-Simon believed, the state will wither away. Marx followed Saint-Simon in this conviction which became the core of his conception of communism.

      ***end of quote***

      What most people fail to recognize is that neoliberalism and communimism are founded on the same Positivist faith, as Gray goes on to explain:

      ***beginnig of quote***

      Through their deep influence on Marx, Positivist ideas inspired the disastrous Soviet experiment in central economic planning. When the Soviet system collapsed, they re-emerged in the cult of the free market. It came to be believed that only American-style ‘democratic capitalism’ is truly modern, and that it is destined to spread everywhere. As it does, a universal civilisation will come into being, and history will come to an end.

      This may seem a fantastical creed, and so it is. What is more fantastic is that it is still widely believed.
      ***end of quote***

      1. from Mexico

        And as Arendt goes on to explain, Marx’s belief that “the development of man’s productive forces will eventually lead to the abolition of labor, etc. arises from [his] insistence on freedom.” Arendt believes that Marx reached all the way back to antiquity to find the paradaiscal model for his future society, which according to his dialectical theory of history was inevitable:

        ***beginning of quote***
        Most striking of all is of course Marx’s insistence that he does not want to “liberate labor,” which already is free in all civilized countries, but to “abolish labor altogether.” And by labor Marx here does not mean only that necessary “metabolism with nature,” which is the natural condition of man, but the whole realm of work, of craftsmanship and art, that requires specialized training. This realm never fell under the general contempt for the drudgery of labor that is characteristic of our whole tradition and whose degradation specifically characterizes Athenian life in the fifth century. Only tbere do we find an almost complete leisure society in which the time and energy required for making a living were, so to speak, squeezed in between the much more important activities of agorein, walking and talking in the marketplace, of going to the gymnasium, of attending meetings or the theater, or of judging conflicts between citizens. Hardly anything could be more revealing of Marx’s original impulses than the fact that he banishes from his future society not only the labor that was executed by slaves in antiquity, but also the activities of the banausoi, the craftsmen and artists: “In a communist society there are no painters, only men who, among others things, paint.” The aristocratic standards of Athenian life had indeed denied freedom to those whose work still required the exertion of effort. (That effort, and not specialization, was the chief criterion can be seen from the fact that sculptors and peasants, unlike painters and shepherds, were deemed unfree.) In other words, if we insist on examining Marx’s thought in the light of the tradition that began in Greece, and of a political philosophy that, either in agreement or opposition, sprang from and formulated the principal experiences of Athenian polis life, we are clearly following the central indications of Marx’s work itself.

        ***end of quote***

      2. from Mexico

        The other two features that communism shares with neoliberalisms are:

        1) The insistence that freedom be made absolute, and
        2) They are both materialistic philosophies and thus, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, they “know nothing of what Thomas Hobbes termed ‘the continual competition for honor and dignity’ in human affairs.” They “understand neither the traditional ethnic and cultural loyalties which qualify a consistent economic rationalism; nor the deep and complex motives in the human psyche which express themesleves in the desire for ‘power and glory.’ All the conflicts in human society involving passions and ambitions, hatreds and loves, envies and ideals not recorded in the market place,” are beyond the typical Marxist or bourgeois ethos.

        This same materialistic ethos, but marred with an extreme pessimism that stands diamertrically opposed to the naive optimism of the moderns (e.g. the Positivists, the Progressivists, the Liberals, the Marxists, etc.), is to be found in the conservatism of those like Bertrand Russell, Ludwig von Mises and James Howard Kunstler. Here, for example, is Kunstler from one of his posts linked on NC a couple of days ago:

        ***beginning of quote***
        We see the comforts and conveniences of modernity slipping away and we’ll do anything to try to hang onto them, including lying to ourselves to such an immersive degree about what is really happening that we suppose we can manufacture a happy counter-reality.


        I maintain that things would go a whole lot better for us if we acknowledge what is actually going on, namely: a major shift of direction into economic contraction after 200-plus thrilling years of expanding energy resources and easy-to-get material riches.
        ***end of quote***

        “Thus,” as Reinhold Niebuhr put it in Optimism, Pessimism , and Religous Faith, “the optimism of pure naturalism degenerates into a fairly consistent pessimism, slightly relieved by a confidence in the meaningfulness of human life.” When optimism “is not qualified to accord with the real and complex facts of human nature and history, there is always a danger that sentimentality will give way to despair and that a too consistent optimism will alternate with a too consistent pessimism.”

        “Yet,” as Niebuhr goes on to explain, “this pessimism is not completely realistic. The world of nature is after all not as inimical to the human enterprise as this view assumes”:

        ***beginning of quote***
        The beauty and meaning of human life are partially revealed in ideals and aspirations which transcend all possibilities of achievement in history. They may be approximated and each approximation may lead to further visions. But the hope of their complete fulfillment arises from a confusion of spirit and nature, and a failure to realize that life in each moment of history moves not only forward but upward, and that the vertical movement must be expressed no matter how far the horizontal movement on the plane of history is carried. Marxism may represent a more realistic politics than eighteenth-century democratic idealism [liberalism]. But as a religion it will end just where the latter ended. Its optimism will sink ultimatley into despair.
        ***end of quote***

        1. Sandwichman

          You present an interesting, thought-provoking and (in parts) compelling thesis here, Mexico. That makes me feel somewhat guilty about taking issue with your rhetorical springboard:

          “Marx certainly was not a Luddite as Parramore suggests, but neither was he a half-way Luddite as you suggest.”

          Luddites were not indiscriminate paranoids about machines. They rioted and smashed the machinery of factory owners who used the machines as a pretext for displacing workers, lowering wages and worsening working conditions. The “Luddite” of economic lore is a myth. Marx knew a thing or two about the history of such resistance to factory work and was nowhere on the mythical spectrum of so-called Luddism.

          Marx was indeed an optimist about the potential of technology but he was also one of the most profound critics of its actual employment. Both critique and appreciation, though, were grounded in his unwavering insistence that what was at stake was the social relationship between people, not the distorted, fetishized relationships between commodities, machines, jobs and people acting as personifications of those things.

        2. jsmith

          For more on how Arendt simply did not understand what Marx was actually saying all the while she basically agreed with what he actually DID say here is an again detailing her blatant disregard for what Marx actually wrote:

          Marx and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition
          by WA Suchting

          Let us now compare Arendt’s account of Marx with Marx’s own words. There can be no doubt that Marx regarded
          labor (Arbeit) and, specifically, labor by means of tools, as the feature differentiating man from the rest of the animal kingdom. The question is, then, whether Marx meant by this “labor” in Miss Arendt’s sense and whether he confused
          it with what she calls “work.” Marx’s central discussion of the “labor process” occurs in the first volume of Capital.
          5 He emphasizes here that he is not concerned with “the first animal-like and instinctive forms of labor,” but with labor
          in the form which “is peculiar to man.” He finds this peculiarity of human labor in the fact that the latter results in something
          “which, at the beginning of the process, already existed in the worker’s imagination, already existed as an idea.” The human laborer “not only . . . effects (bewirkt) a change of form in natural objects,” as animals and insects do, but at the same time “realizes (verwirklicht) his own purpose” in nature.” But this is precisely the second of Miss Arendt’s criteria of “work,” as listed previously. The other criterion is that of durability.
          But this feature, relating to the product and not to the process resulting in the product, is simply a function of time and use,
          purely quantitative, qualitatively homogeneous factors which cannot provide a criterion of essential demarcation, being quite accidental features of the object. The distinction
          between “consumer goods” and “use objects,” from the point of view of durability, is a highly relative and contingent
          It thus seems that, from this point of view at least, Miss Arendt’s “work” coincides with Marx’s “labor.”
          Miss Arendt grants, indeed, that Marx had “occasional hesitations” about his concept of labor (p. 99, n. 36), that there exists in his work, besides the dominant concept
          of labor (in her sense), also that of work (in her sense). But that Marx was really not concerned with work, and only
          with labor, is shown by the fact that “the apparently all-important element of ‘imagination’ plays no role whatsoever in his labor theory,” and that in the third volume of
          Capital he repeats that surplus labor beyond immediate needs serves “the progressive extension of the reproduction process.”
          It has just been seen that Miss Arendt’s first point is simply false: in Marx’s central discussion of his theory of labor it is precisely the “element of ‘imagination'” that plays the basic role. That he does not constantly reiterate this point each time the idea of “labor” comes up is easily understandable if it is remembered that Marx was basically concerned not with the labor process in general-with those features of it common to all modes of production-but rather with the specific features of different historically given (and historically possible)
          forms of the labor process and, in particular, of course, with that at the basis of the economic system of capitalism. This is
          also the context of the passages in the third volume of Capital referred to by Miss Arendt. Even on page 872 (German ed.,
          1949), Marx does not say that all surplus labor beyond immediate needs serves the ”progressive extension of the reproduction process.” He says: “A definite quantity of
          surplus labor is required for security against contingencies, for the necessary progressive extension of the reproduction process corresponding to the development of needs and
          the increase in population, an extension that, from the point of view of capitalism, appears as accumulation.” On page 278 of
          the same volume he explains that, under the conditions of capitalist production, “capital and its self-expansion (Selbstverwertung) appears as the point of departure
          and the conclusion, as the motive and goal of production . . . production is production purely for the sake of capital and the means of production are not, on the contrary, simply
          the means for a constantly expanding reconstitution (Gestaltung) of the lifeprocess for the society of producers.” Miss Arendt says further, putting, as it were, the finishing touch to her argument, that “Marx remained convinced that ‘Milton produced Paradise Lost for the same reason a silk
          worm produces silk.’ “‘I But Marx’s meaning is again misunderstood. Marx was here comparing Milton and the silkworm not with respect to the nature of their respective
          labor processes (in particular, he was certainly not saying that the labor expended in the production of Milton’s poem was
          a purely physiological process like the production of silk by the worm) but with respect to the fact that, in each case, what was produced was an immediate spontaneous fulfilment or expression of the essential being or nature of each. This becomes obvious when the rest of the passage, quoted only in part by Miss Arendt, is taken into consideration. “It,” namely Paradise Lost, Marx continues, “was an active manifestation (Betdtigung) of his nature.”8 In a passage of the Oekonomnisch-philosophische Manuskripte of 1844 quoted by Miss Arendt (p. 102, n. 41) in the original German but not, however, quite accurately, Marx says that animals “produce only under the domination of immediate physical need, while man produces independently of physical need and truly produces only when free from this need.”9

          1. jsmith

            More from Suchting which seeks to show that – like many other topics Arendt addressed – she did so in a wholly cursory manner which fit into her preconceptions and models.

            Sorry for the length but if From Mexico is allowed to bombard people with citations then I can to from time to time.


            It is in this respect that Miss Arendt’s exposition is so unsatisfactory, even in its positive parts. Take, for example, the question of “consumerism” that constitutes one of her main characterizations of the “laboring society.” This she puts forward purely as a matter of fact. The depth and extent of penetration of this “ideology,” as Miss Arendt sees the matter, may be disputed. Nevertheless the phenomenon is there; moreover, it was carefully noted by Marx well over a century ago. Furthermore, he attempted an explanation of it. Within the economic system of capitalism, Marx says, the aim of man is production and the aim of production is wealth. Production is carried on, not for the sake of people but, in the final analysis, for the sake of production itself. He contrasts this with, for example, the state of affairs in ancient Greece (and presumably Rome-he refers to “the ancients”) where “wealth never appears as the aim of production. . . . The inquiry always concerns the sort of property that creates the best citizen.”24 The continued existence of the capitalist mode of production thus presupposes the unbroken conti- nuity of the production-consumption-production cycle, since the main interest of the capitalist is not in use values, but in the exchange values embodied in objects having use values, and exchange can only be continued by continuous consumption of use values.25 Thus it must be an essential aim of capitalism to stimulate consumption-by the intensified satisfaction of old needs, and the creation of new-through all possible avenues.26 This is of course not a complete explanation, but it forms the foundation for one. It must be completed, for example, by an account of how the depleted quality of life, as a result of the “estrangement” suffered by all classes of society (as a consequence of the mode of production specific to that society) creates an atmosphere in which such stimulation of consumption finds a maximum possibility of success, in which satisfaction through simple, passive consumption is preferred to the more complex, more active, and strenuous forms of satisfaction. In such a situation, Marx says that possessing is an even greater object of desire than using; a mode of being is replaced as a goal by the mode of having.27 Again, Miss Arendt sees another fundamental feature of “society” (in her sense of this term), and particularly of contemporary society, as a process of leveling down, a tendency to conformity (pp. 39-46). This is in fact, of course, another widely discussed idea, as little original to Miss Arendt’s book as is the idea of “consumerism,” and represents a phenomenon of real importance. Marx does not seem to have discussed the matter anywhere in his works. However, the main lines of what his approach would have been are fairly clear from the basic lines of his thought already presented. If a person achieves self-knowledge and self-development through his work, his main life-activity, then the work will be less self-revealing and self-developing, less differentiating, the less that work- the product and the mode of producing it- is determined by the specific individuality of the person; or, looked at from another side, the less differentiated the work the less differentiation it will stamp on the people performing it. But the whole tendency of the evolution of modern production has been to erase all distinctions (of strength, skill, sex, etc.) in the labor power of those serving the machines, to “level” qualitative differences into a single uniform type of ex- penditure of energy. And this has become increasingly true not only of factory work but of office work also. Furthermore, uniformity will tend to be stamped on leisure activities also-for example, entertainment. This is partly owing to the restrictedness of variety of types of entertainment even in an “affluent society.” It is also a result of the fact that the uniformity of sentimental banality, of the monotonous indistinguishability of the simple, crude world of the instincts, of all types of standardized escapism, is easier, therefore cheaper, and there- fore more profitable to produce than work of quality; and by definition production- of entertainment also-is carried on not for the sake of people but for the sake of wealth. “Just as industry speculates on the refinement of needs, so it does also on their crudeness, on their artificially produced crudeness, the true spirit of which is thus self-stupefaction, this merely apparent satisfaction of need.”28 Furthermore, such types of entertainment are also of value in creating and maintaining an atmosphere appropriate to the continuance of the prevail- ing order: obscuring real images of men as they are and of their potentialities, accustoming people to the acceptance of the conditions in which they find themselves. A more comprehensive discussion of the contemporary idea of “leveling,” “conformity,” “other-directedness,” “organization man,” etc., from the standpoint of Marx’s ideas, applying his general analysis to phenomena either not present or only implicitly so during his lifetime, would necessitate the taking into account of the specific features of the development of capitalism during the present century, putting first the funda- mental tendency toward the ever greater concentration of economic power, with the corresponding narrowing of opportunities for individual initiative, increasing bureaucratization of society, and the adaptation of the individual to this state of affairs.

          2. jsmith

            Source for the above:

            Source: Ethics, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Oct., 1962), pp. 47-55

            Arendt – at her very core – had a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx so is therefore undeniably one of the worst critics of Marx one could find.

            Here’s yet another scholar on Arendt’s inability or refusal to read Marx accurately, notice how the whole


            Dialectics and distinction: Reconsidering Hannah Arendt’s critique of Marx

            Christopher Holman

            Perhaps the most often criticized element of Hannah Arendt’s political theory is her insistence on the necessity of constructing and maintaining rigid boundaries between various activities of the human condition. Less often, however, is the attempt undertaken to determine the philosophical motivation stimulating this project of distinction. This article will attempt to demonstrate the extent to which Arendt’s imperative is rooted in a certain misreading of the Marxian dialectic. The first part of the article will outline the contours of Arendt’s erroneous interpretation of Marx’s understanding of labour, demonstrating the degree to which the latter breaks down the tripartite structure of the vita activa. The second part of the article will read Arendt’s affirmation of distinction as being a response to what Arendt will take to be the problems of the dialectic, specifically the dialectic’s allegedly necessary positing of conceptual contingency and logical necessity. Finally, the third part of the article will demonstrate, through an examination of two key passages in the work of Marx, the extent to which Marx himself was just as concerned with overcoming the type of homogeneous and abstract universalism rejected by Arendt. The ground will thus be provided for the overcoming of the necessity of Arendtian distinction, and perhaps also for a more fruitful engagement between the Marxian and Arendtian theoretical problematics.

          3. skippy

            Sorry fm & jsmith

            To inform you both…. that, the authors your quote, are using religious axioms… cough the *division of tasks* – *distribution of yield* in order to beautify the gawd]s farm.

            Skippy… to think the classical shit fight really started (as far as we know to date) in Babylonia, yet a consensus has failed… well… I’m not encouraged.

  2. Gerard Pierce

    The answer to the robot problem was published indirectly a long time ago – by John Kenneth Galbraith. In one of his books, probably the “Affluent Society”, he pointed out that a few humdred years ago, a persons power in society was based on ownership or control over land.

    As society became industrialized, a persons stake in society was no longer based on land. Technical skills gave people without land a claim against the output of the new manufacturing age. These skills did not have to be based on education although education came to indicate possession of needed skills.

    From another source: Prior to computers, a district manager was a person who could use a very small amount of information to decide whether a particular product line should be retained, and when to roll out the new product line. It was very often an intuitive skill. After the advent of computers, all of the sales information was sent to central headquarters where it was massaged and a central management group used it to make decisions in a more “scientific” way. The middle-management class lost their mojo.

    The bottom line is that most technical skills have been commodified and rendered easily replaceable, wiping out the power base of the middle and lower-upper classes.

    Programming used to be a largely intuitive and artistic skill – which drove management crazy. Much of the IT field has been dumbed down. Management has learned that the key element of any technology is their ability to keep it under control.

    There was a time when I believed that salesmen were the one job category that could not be commodified. I was wrong. That is why you get a limited selection of merchandise in five different colors – take it or leave it. They dealt with salesmanship by making it unnecessary.

    Robots are simply a continuation of this same process, and Chinese labor is simply a short-term solution until the robots are ready to replace coolie labor.

    Short and sweet, it’s all about power – and you don’t got any.

    Of course none of this makes any sense in the long run, but that’s someone else’s problem.

    1. Nathanael

      Programming is still a highly trained skill. Management who thinks they have their programs under control? Are fooling themselves. Their programmers are controlled by any hacker who wants to mess with them.

      But this is the delusion of authority which is common to the Leisure Class.

  3. Glen

    Something perhaps overlooked is that highly overpaid CEOs do not create or implement automation or robots.

    And I can tell you from being there and done that, the engineers and technicians putting the cutting edge technology onto the factory floor are paid peanuts compared to the CEOs.

    Too bad the CEOs can wreck the company and get millions. Too bad the engineers can bust their ass keeping the company competitive and get peanuts.

    Seems like the shareholders should out source the CEOs to India and spend more on keeping the company competitive with cutting edge technology.

    1. Cynthia

      It goes without saying that a robot are far better than a human at algorithmic thinking and making complex decisions, but you’d be hard pressed to find a robot, particularly an affordable and reliable robot, that’s far better than a human at using its hands to perform multiple tasks. So if most work that managers do, from the CEO on down, can be easily automated, why aren’t they being replaced by robots, or at least getting a cut in pay for having robots do most of their work for them?

      I think that part of the answer to this question lies in the fact that corporations wrongly believe that the productivity of managers can’t be tracked and monitored like it can at for laborers. What makes this particularly wrongheaded is the fact that managers are far more expensive to corporations than laborers are. So if there’s any group of workers that oughta have their productivity tracked and monitored, it is
      managers, not laborers.

      1. Nathanael

        What’s really happening is that managers — who run companies — protect *their own stream of income*. They know perfectly well that the managers are useless wastes of space, but they *are* the managers and so they take the opportunity to write their own salaries.

        Now, competent managers really are worth their weight in gold. They’re also incredibly rare. A class of “pseudo-managers” has developed who pretend to be managers in order to extract money from businesses. They are parasites; they are also very successful, so far. They are behaving as described in Theory of the Leisure Class. Their behavior is unsustainable because they are killing their hosts.

    2. digi_owl

      I Think it James Burke touched on computerized automation in relation to office management in episode from the first Connections series, claiming that all decisions would be made by the mainframe in the basement rather than the managerial office floor.

  4. Neil Wilson

    I think relying on the ‘it will create more jobs’ argument is going to run out eventually.

    Clearly there are other jobs created when there is a technical revolution, but there is no unwritten rule that says that will carry on or that it is inevitable.

    And suggesting that you should just ‘train workers’ assumes once again that the taxi driver can be made into a brain surgeon just by adding that magical ingredient ‘training’.

    It is completely irrational for a company to train anybody. If they invest in training some other competitor can lift that individual by making them a better offer. Therefore they don’t do it.

    Training and education is a common good and it has to be paid for in a common fashion.

    What has actually happened is that we have increased the number of retirees and unemployed as the technology has improved – and increased the age at which people leave school. Check out the percentage of the *entire* population contributing and not contributing to production over time.

  5. Rufus T. Firefly, Jr.

    I imagine that as capitalism continues to collapse, and we are returned to a new Dark Age, land ownership will once again become central. In such an environment, technology such as drones will become very useful in not only controlling vast swaths of land, but also in keeping the masses subdued.

    The Hunger Games really is our future… and I’m sure Beyonce will play a part in the yearly gladiatorial human sacrifices that our miserable elites probably can hardly wait to get going.

    1. Mark P.

      Yes, those drones. Yours is a common lament around here and not a thought-out one.

      The rich have much more to worry about from drones — which anybody can field, which present no real economic barriers to entry, and whose operators will often be neither traceable nor punishable — than you do, probably.

      Eric Schmidt said the same thing at Cambridge this week —

      Schmidt isn’t a stupid man, whether you like him or not. Full presentation here —

      What is true of drones also applies to, for instance, what the rapid advance and democratization of biogenetic technologies makes possible in terms of weapons. Overall, in fact, the history of military technology over the last century and a half is primarily the history of ever-increasing destructive powers in the hands of smaller groups and even individuals.

      So elites have perhaps never been more vulnerable in history than they are now. Just saying.

      1. Rufus T. Firefly, Jr.

        “So elites have perhaps never been more vulnerable in history than they are now.”

        That is a ridiculous statement. You must have missed the brutality with which the elites have crushed OWS in the US and similar movements across the world. And you must have missed the lawlessness with which Western leaders are operating. The elites are now more self-assured and more confident than they ever were in history.

        As far as fighting against the elites with home-made drones is concerned, once the world will be once again be plunged into an Agenda 21 Dark Ages type arrangement, how are people going to get access to any kind of technology such as remote controls, miniaturized motors, transistors, or even batteries. Unless, of course, we’ll attack the elites with paper kites… I’m sure Bill Gates is shaking in his boots at the thought of that…

        And by the way, Eric Schmidt is part of the criminal elites that run and plunder this country, so how about we just ignore everything he says? Does that sound like a good plan to you?


        1. from Mexico

          Rufus T. Firefly, Jr.says:

          ***beginning of quote***
          You must have missed the brutality with which the elites have crushed OWS in the US and similar movements across the world. And you must have missed the lawlessness with which Western leaders are operating. The elites are now more self-assured and more confident than they ever were in history.
          ***end of quote***

          How do you respond, then, to the notion that Hannah Arendt puts forth in “On Violence” that “Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost”?

          1. Ruben

            It’s not that power is being lost. The harvest and control of human stocks works by indoctrination and by coercion, both methods applied in different degrees depending on the status of the herd.

          2. from Mexico

            @ Ruben

            So how do you respond to the psychologiest Andrew M. Lobaczewski, who lived 6 years under Nazism and 32 years under Communism:

            ***beginning of quote***
            The pathological authorities are convinced that the appropriate pedagogical, indoctrinational, and terrorist means can teach a person with a normal instinctive substratum, range of feelings, and basic intelligence to think and feel according to their own different fashion. This conviction is only sightly less unrealistic, psychologically speaking, than the belief that people able to see colors normally can be broken of this habit.


            The entire system of force, terror, and forced indoctrination, or, rather, pathologization, thus proves effectively unfeasible, which causes the pathocrats no small measure of surprise. Reality places a question mark on their conviction that such methods can change people in such fundamental ways.

            — ANDREW M. LOBACZEWSKI, “Political Ponerology”

            ***end of quote***

            How do you respond to Hannah Arendt, who also had a good bit of personal experience with totalitarianism:

            ***beginning of quote***

            The only limitation to what the public-relations man does comes when he discovers that the same people who perhaps can be “manipulated” by buy a certain kind of soap cannot be manipulated — though, of course, they can be forced by terror — to “buy” opinions and political views. Therefore the psychological premise of human manipulability has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common andd learned opinion. But such doctrines do not change the way people form opinions or prevent them from acting according to their own lights. The only method short of terror to have real influence on their conduct is still the old carrot-and-stick approach…

            [T]he greatest disappointment in the Vietnam adventure should have been the discovery that there are people with whom carrot-and-stick methods do not work either.


            The results of such experiments when undertaken by those in posession of the means of violence are terrible enough, but lasting deception is not among them.

            — HANNAH ARENDT, “Lying in Politics”
            ***end of quote***

          3. Nathanael

            “From Mexico” is *COMPLETELY* correct about all of this. I came to the same conclusions from studying entirely different fields and reading entirely different authors. (Veblen’s my favorite right now.)

            A good real-world example of the bankruptcy of the authoritarian attempt to rule by force is Syria. There, Assad has a huge stockpile of weaponry and even a fairly loyal group of followers to deploy it *and* foreign support (from Russia) and he *still* can’t win — he’s just decided to go out in an orgy of violence.

            Another example is North Korea, which has switched over from Orwellian methods of social control (which failed — 1984 is unrealistic) to the far more effective *religious* methods of maintaining social control, and yet is still only intact because it’s propped up by China.

        2. Mark P.

          Rufus Firefly wrote: ‘As far as fighting against the elites with home-made drones is concerned … how are people going to get access to any kind of technology….’

          The level of technology required is merely the same cheap, democratized tech you have now inside your cellphone. Cellphone chips are already used as the brains for some DIY drones, and one way drones can be conceptualized is as flying smartphones running apps.

          Indeed, in this context, the most significant technological difference is that a terrorist-commandeered smartphone can’t be used as a missile against a ground target or flown into an airliner’s path.

          Rufus: ‘That is a ridiculous statement. You must have missed the brutality with which the elites have crushed OWS in the US.’

          You’re funny. Qaddafi and Assad’s regimes could show you real brutality. How’s that working out for them? Note particularly that rebels in Libya and Syria have been doing DIY military tech that is laughably low-budget hack of stuff they’ve probably only seen on the Internet. But it works. See forex — —

          “Shanzai! The Era of DIY Warfare: Low-cost knocks offs of multimillion dollar weapons systems – the era of large scale, run-and-gun DIY micro-warfare is just around the corner.”
          – Current Intelligence Magazine

          Rufus: ‘The elites are now more self-assured and more confident than they ever were in history.’

          Those who are, are fools.

          1. Nathanael

            Syria has taught one major lesson in modern military strategy. If you are on the side of an popular rebel movement, fighting against an unpopular dictator who has an arsenal, the one piece of weaponry you need to guarantee victory is anti-aircraft missiles. Air power is still powerful even though its power is declining.

            (Incidentally, this is why I laugh at the gun nuts who think that their guns will protect them against a tyrannical government. If that was really their concern, they’d be fighting for the right to have anti-aircraft missiles. Which I would actually support, after looking at Syria: anti-aircraft missiles are a primarily defensive weapon and not so easy to use offensively, making them a suitable militia weapon.)

      2. Cynthia

        It won’t be long now before the robots are building more robots, which build more robots. And then some Bill Gates-like nerds come along and take control of Skynet. At that point, we’re all terminated.

        Then again, maybe some Anonymous hackers get control of enough drones and turn them against the elitist rat bastards.

        Actually, I’m more worried about us using robots in warfare than in the workplace. The primary reason we are using aerial drones to expand our war on Islamic terrorism to include countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen is so that we can kill tens of thousands of Muslims, whether they are guilty of terrorism or not, without putting any of our soldiers in harm’s way. But the sad truth is that drone attacks have killed far more innocent civilians than Islamic terrorists.

        And I’m sure that the vast majority of people throughout the Muslim World will never, ever forget this. So what really worries me is that as soon as the friends and survivors of our attacks get their hands on these killing machines, which is only a matter of time, believe me, they won’t think twice about not flying them over to the US and dropping bombs on our innocent civilians.

        Blowback is looming large on the horizon, itching and ready to blow up in our face!

      3. hunkerdown

        Untraceable? That’s silly. These things, quite literally, have photographic memories. Stakeouts can be done retrospectively now. Storage being as dirt-cheap as it is, there’s no reason to not record every frame that comes back from a private or public surveillance drone for short-term or long-term preservation, processing and searching. To investigate a guerrilla drone flight or any other incident, one might start the video from the point of a known sighting and run it backwards until one has identified the perps to one’s satisfaction. Whether one answers with judicial or extrajudicial power is a matter of policy.

        Also, private patrols of commercial and business zones by car have been commonplace for decades now. Why wouldn’t a security company or its customers jump at the chance to replace a dozen cars and drivers on the ground with a single auto-piloting surveillance drone, a single pilot, an image processing cluster, and a couple of guys looking at pictures the computer finds interesting and escalating internally or externally as needed?

        1. Mark P.

          ‘Storage being as dirt-cheap as it is, there’s no reason to not record every frame that comes back from a private or public surveillance drone … To investigate a guerrilla drone flight or any other incident, one might start the video from the point of a known sighting and run it backwards until one has identified the perps to one’s satisfaction.’

          One might. But it’s far-fetched that this would be practically reliable in most instances in any real-world future, as opposed to a spi-fi movie. Essentially, you’re assuming:

          (a) that there’ll be one global, unified and seamless network of surveillance drones that’s always everywhere, able to register everything perfectly;

          (b) that law enforcement drones are not vulnerable — so that holes couldn’t be created in even the seamless drone network you hypothesize — when the fact is that drone GPS systems are very easily easily spoofed/jammed, sometimes with the same cheap technologies that cellphones are jammed with. Forex —

          (c) that ‘perps’ are going to be stupid enough to stand around on visible ground-surface to be registered in a good enough light and at the right angle for facial recognition software when they launch their drone.

        2. Nathanael

          We are entering an era with lots and lots of data.

          “Untraceable”? Maybe not.

          “Not practically traceable?” YES.

          Why? Injection of false data. If an organization decides to collect lots and lots of data, it becomes very very easy to inject false data. The government investigators trying to track down the “perps” will be led down a dozen false leads to completely innocent people, who they will then terrorize under the mistaken impression that those people were “perps”. This will merely discredit the government investigators.

  6. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Robots make the 1% of the 1%, you might call them the kings of kings, even more poweful, even if they don’t take your job away.

    Who is more likely to own robots – you or your 0.01% boss?

    It’s always like this – when you have gate communities, the rich care less about public safety; when they can drink water, they care less about public water; when they can sent their kids to private schools, they care less about public education.

    So, when the rich families have their own private security robot armies, what will happen to crime in your neighborhood?

    Therefore, you worry about 1) robots taking away jobs and 2) who will be able to afford robots.

    A further note about 1) – just becuase technology did not destroy jobs completely before, it does not mean it will not do so eventually. Remember, we are the smartest generation the wrold has ever seen before. We can make anything, for example, machines, or pollutants or poisons, that are so powerful people a hundred years ago could not even imagine. So, under-estimate the smartest generation at your own peril.

    1. Goin' South

      It might not work out so well.

      Ever see anything of the Battlestar Galactica series?

      Robots smart enough to defend you may decide they’re smart enough to run things instead of you.

      This whole discussion is mired in the perverse assumptions perpetrated by Capitalists. Labor-saving devices are great things unless you’re a wage slave begging for your next paycheck.

      The real truth is that we all own this technology, and it should be deployed in a way that benefits us all. There’s nothing holy about wage slavery and drudgery. What is sacred is human life and the right of each human to enjoy it.

    2. JTFaraday

      “A further note about 1) – just becuase technology did not destroy jobs completely before, it does not mean it will not do so eventually.”

      So, are we suggesting that continuing to insist on being slaves is ultimately a losing proposition?

      Maybe we should raise our collective self conception a little bit?

      They’re certainly not going to do for us.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        We should never accept being slaves, even for a second..or a first.

        A few days ago, someone brought up overpopulation, which we don’t talk about enough. Overpopulation means more soldiers and more divisions in our war on Nature.

        With robots ,and we can envision hordes of flying robots, swimming robots, running robots, hammering robots, parachuting robots, axe-wielding/gun-toting robots, it can only mean a further escalation of the war on Nature, i am afraid.

        1. Keenan

          I can envision it now: My very own squadron of quadcopter drones standing night watch. The robot swarm equipped with sensors and programming to detect, identify, and repel the nocturnal, cleft-hoof beasts preying on & defecating about my vegetable garden.

  7. American Slave

    So here we go again with another article by someone who has never seen or been apart of “robot or automation building” see the link at the bottom of the post for an example of a huge automation company who employs less than 6,000 people and makes more than $10 billion a year. There is just not much involved like people think, they don’t write new lines of code for each new robot they design they just change some numbers and timing on the same old code wrote in the 80’s there just hasn’t been much changed when it comes to programming and when a good and I mean real good robot costs $30,000 why would a corporation install some thing that requires more and expensive labor to run, and the answer is it doesn’t because that would be stupid, robots don’t require a lot of people just take a look at lights out manufacturing. Japan can get away with robots because there exports have grown but not there population same with Germany unlike in the 60’s and 70’s when they had this ginormus demand for workers and imported them by the millions.

    1. Nathanael

      An awful lot of stuff can’t be automated yet.

      Nobody knows, for instance, how to automate sewing garments. Whoever does figure it out will collect a fortune.

      At this point, anything which can be done by machine can be done by programmed machine — but there is no magic breakthrough in machinery, and each individual field can only be automated by development of specific, individual mechanical (/chemical/biological) devices.

      1. digi_owl

        I find myself wondering if it would be just as practical to figure out some kind of flexible mix of loom and knitting machine.

        And on writing that i remind myself that i may have read about a automated loom once that could create whole garments. The only manual action needed taken was to cut open the openings for limbs.

  8. Andrew not the Saint

    Hmmm… I wonder how many cleaners will be re-trained to fix robot cleaners. And who will actually foot the bill for the re-training.

  9. geojos

    If frogs had wings they would fly, and if production wasn’t for profit for the owners, Parramore may be on target. Marx was correct as he was describing technological development under capitalism. Of course, they will automate whenever they can, that is, when it reduces cost and gets rid of the unruly and mistake prone human element. The last time I looked (yesterday) I didn’t see any great surge to change the profit motive or even the short term profit motive. If they plowed it back to investment as they once did before the stock market ruled, it would be for more automation, Sorry workers are just another figure in the profit calculus.

    Now say they did reinvest in their workforce the way Parramore suggest, who is to say there is enough soft ware engineering jobs and the like for the populace. Perhaps the outcome will be a relatively small ‘intellectual work force’ and a very large service work force, probably part time. Because technology in the past resulted in other jobs for many people, does not mean it always will, especially as artificial intelligence and robotics advance. There is no ‘natural law’ that will result in a good outcome even with planning.

    1. Newtownian

      Agreed. And by the way frogs can fly – to a degree – as can various fish to a degree and hosts of insects. And plenty of terrestrial beasts have relearnt to swim – penguins, seals, whales, otters which are different states.

      The point here is left to be ‘Free’ capitalists will happily adapt and make a profit by any means leaving the rest of us mugs in the lurch.

      All in all this suggests freedom is not all its cracked up to be and needs to be controlled if we are not to end up as virtual slaves. But how and how far this can be done with out rerunning the appalling socialist disasters of the last century or the monarchy/theocratic/military alliances of previous centuries beats me.

      1. hunkerdown

        Hunkerdown’s Law of Conservation of the Human Condition: The results of the drives that make up the human condition cannot be created or destroyed, only redistributed.

        Corruption, for example, is a fact of life, and one that is pretty nearly constant in any large enough group. The decision a society must make is how the practice and its fruits should be distributed: broadly, as with trade unions, or narrowly, as with crony capitalism. Schädenfreude could be read likewise a fact of life, but a more complex one with two orthogonal ends to distribute.

        Also, the principle of anacyclosis suggests that the symphony is from antiquity and that we merely re-record cover versions of its movements with our contemporary sensibilities, instruments, riffs and vocals.

    2. from Mexico

      geojos says:

      “If frogs had wings they would fly, and if production wasn’t for profit for the owners, Parramore might be on target.”

      We shall see. As Frederick Lewis Allen observed in “Since Yesterday”:

      ***beginning of quote***
      Because as a group (there were many exeptions) the well-to-do regarded the presence of Roosevelt in the White House as a sufficient excuse for not taking a more active part in new insvestment, they inevitably lost prestige among the less fortunate. For the rich and powerful could maintain their prestige only by giving the general public what it wanted. It wanted prosperity, economic expansion. It had always been ready to forgive all manner of deficiencies in the Henry Fords who actually produced the goods, whether or not they made millions in the process. But it was not disposed to sympathize unduly with people who failed to produce the goods, no matter how heart-rending their explanations for their failure.
      ***end of quote***

  10. Jim Nichols

    Technology in the hands of workers can be used to get rid of needless middle management and increase worker control of production. It all depends on who is controlling the technological development and what they are developing it to do–create “profits” via ruining lives or create more productive, safe work places; creating a more comfortable, vibrant society.

    1. mikkel

      Forget just middle management. Communities sharing manufacturing hardware will be able to cheaply create prototypes and localized goods without going to capitalists that take all the control/reward.

        1. Goin' South


          It’s not the technology itself that’s evil. It’s who controls it. If “owned” by communities and deployed for the benefit of all, it can free us from work that is dangerous or boring.

  11. Sanctuary

    And yet, experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence would forcefully disagree with the author of this article. Read the “Artilect War – Cosmists vs. Terrans A Bitter Controversy” by Hugo De Garis. As much as De Garis supports further development of machine intelligence and ability (along with Kurweil and his Singularity) he at least argues that such development will come at the price of a breaking of society into machine, augmented, and normal human intelligences such that the normal human kind will not be able to compete with god-like machines or augmented humans.

    1. Alex

      Kurzweil does present a very credible vision of this, i.e., humans and machines are on a path of convergence not replacement. A couple of years ago I thought it was plausible but today it seems almost inevitable. I just hope that an enlightened strain dominates, otherwise its pretty scary indeed.

    2. Keenan

      De Garis’ thinking would seem to echo Bill Joy’s thesis from his year 2000 landmark article in Wired magazine: “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Joy saw two alternatives for humans given the relentless advance of technology: Biological enhancement via genetic engineering or enhancement via implanted electronic / electro-mechanical systems.

      Interestingly, Joy cites David Kaczynski, who went into this topic to some depth in his “Unabomber Manifesto”

      1. Sanctuary

        Yes. One key point De Garis makes is that it is inevitable, in his opinion, that non-augmented humanity will strike first (violently) to prevent a situation in which they are made obsolete. Since the Singularity is now forecast to occur sometime after 2040, his estimate is that this issue will first come to a violent head in the late 2020’s to 2030’s.

  12. JDM

    Back in the 1980s there was a Seagate hard drive manufacturing facility in California near me. I had a look at their employee magazine one day, and most of it was rah rah stuff that just happened to say rah rah see what a great job our employees in Texas and Malaysia are doing. I’m sure the other facilities had similar slants in their publications. It’s a don’t rock the boat if you know what’s good for you, cause we’ll just move the jobs over there if you so much as look at us sideways… and that’s exactly what employers are doing now with fear the robot stuff.

    The end result is the employees don’t rock the boat and then the empoyers sell them down the river anyway.

  13. Klassy!

    Is that it?– invest profits in retraining workers? This is not what I was hoping to hear. I really can’t imagine much beyond using taxes or shortened workweeks to redistribute the gains in productivity, but I’m sure other NC commenters have some good ideas.
    And why would anyone use Apple as a model for job creation?

    1. Paul Jurczak

      I think you nailed it! Shortened workweek and more fair distribution of profits (redistribution is unnecessary, if you distribute income justly in the first place) is a reasonable replacement to end-stage capitalism.

      There will be no more (or very few) miracles allowing masses of workers to move to the new type of better paying employment, along the lines of perpetual growth professed by evangelists of capitalism. Opportunities for gainful employment of average person will be narrowing down to service and entertainment sector, where “human touch” is required. With time (think centuries), automation will render humans ridiculously inefficient in any other area.

      I also agree that Apple is a counter-example to perpetual job creation theory. Unless we conquer new colonies somewhere in our vast galaxy, “people who package, market, and sell new products” can do it only as a part of a giant pyramid scheme.

      1. Klassy!

        Yeah, the perpetual growth thing I just don’t get. I don’t think I’ve ever got it.
        I just would prefer more money and shorter hours because in the end, a job is just a job. I think maybe people might be better off if they had other avenues for self actualization (or however you want to describe it) than through their employment.

  14. Brick

    I don’t think I agree with the premise here either about whether this time is different or about CEO motivation. I perceive that it is not robots exactly that are the problem but the linking together of disparate data. Humans are good at interpreting human response and decision making based on experience (disparate data). While interpreting human responses through monitoring eye movements and facial pattern recognition, this is an area where technology will always struggle. Pulling together disparate information for decision making is something technology can do without too much significant cost.

    For instance from your water bill it should be possible to determine washing and drinking patterns especially if you combine this with grocery shopping information. From an energy bill you should be able to calculate waking and sleeping patterns, periods of TV watching and computer usage. From GPS information from you phone you should be able to determine travel and speed information. From banking information you should be able to determine buying patterns. By combining disparate information like the above you should be able to improve tailor insurance, reduce health care requirements, tailor sales offerings, interact visually with technology rather than verbally with a human. The point is that up to this point most technology has been about reducing physical or repetitive labor so that labor can be more focused on service and quality. Now the availability of data is changing patterns in the decision making and service related jobs for the first time.

    CEO motivation is not just about keeping the shareholders happy it is also about managing the balance between risk, costs and targets. That means ideally a CEO wants employees who are easily replaceable and don’t have a large train up cost. This means jobs will tend to reduce in scope and complexity to keep wages lower and keep training costs low and to make employees easy to replace. It does mean that there are risks for service and quality which need to be managed with performance indicators and because nobody knows the big picture. Very few CEO’s now days would see a 5 percent failure in service or quality as an unacceptable risk. The point is that jobs are tending to narrow in focus and become more defined by process, making them easier targets for technological replacement.

    Upper level management changes in risk management combining with the coming together of disparate data is producing an unprecedented tidal wave of employment change for which the transition is being managed very badly. It will go to far and there will be bad investment and risk criteria will change so the cycle will ebb back, but only if the economy is not trashed in the meantime. Its not the robots it is the data miners.

  15. Expat

    It is a misreading of Marx to say that he opposed the advent of a machine age no matter what single sentences may be pulled from the hundreds of pages that he wrote (you can equally “prove” that he believed in magic). Rather, his key insight was the fact that the economic system determines the social relations of the people who live under its dominion.

    If we accept Marx’s insight, then we should embrace robots as yet another way to free ourselves from the yoke of capitalist oppression. Since we are democratic in the sense that the majority rules, we can choose to be liberated from the tedium of production or we can continue to reward capitalist oppressors while we destroy the planet, our health, and the happiness of future generations.

    In other words, to the extent machines can take over the tedious and dreary aspects of living, we each of us are free to engage in the activities we enjoy. It ‘s the life of the historical upper class — without the slavery.

    However, we would have to cooperate to achieve this. The crisis we are in was caused by individualism, but individualism cannot solve it.

  16. Adam Noel

    Although I am agree with this article on a few points and disagree on others here are some of my own thoughts.

    1) The current economic crisis is blamed on automation yet all the articles featuring robotics clearly show in development robots and gadgets that are not yet on the market. It should be obvious that although these technologies are starting to emerge they are not the current cause of the crisis.

    2) The latest trend in automation has been the further Macdonaldization of the service industry. Examples of this are touch screen based self check-outs. Once again the owners are gaining profits by forcing time constraints on the consumer. The work is not being automated but forced onto the consumer.

    3) The other latest trend in automation is the removal of middle men due to online shopping. This trend could actually be a cause of increased unemployment but online shopping was popular during the recession where unemployment was far less of a problem. Once again, it is not automation but surplus supply that cannot be cleared.

    4) The other possible trend in automation is displacement due to software. This is perhaps the most threatening of trends but once again unemployment was not near as high before the recession. Automation, thus far, has not been the problem.

    5) Technologies like self-driving cars and next generation robotics are emerging and we do not yet know how they will change the labor market. The problem is these technologies that are threatening unemployment are being promoted by people who find themselves in the Silicon Valley Digital Myopia.

    6) If the limits on Moore’s law are reached in the next decade (The slowdown should begin in 2014) the slowdown in the increase of processing speeds may limit further progress in Artificial Intelligence. Most robotics today use a combination of neural networks and signal processing to achieve what is necessary and I am unsure how these methods would be affected by slow downs in processing speeds. Software development has been a lot slower then hardware development and it has been the ease of hardware development that makes further software development unattractive.

    7) Even if technological unemployment is a problem, a reduction in the hours worked per week to 30 could easily fix this problem. Popular protests should consider demands for work week reduction at least 35 hours.

  17. Dan Kervick

    There is one thing Lynn Parramore touches on that is worth emphasizing: elites are always figuring out new ways of blaming struggling workers and the unemployed for their own misery. In every era, the current crop of workers are always and everywhere deemed too fat, too stupid, too impulsive and too self-indulgent to “compete” in the new society. If only they had worked harder, to get into an elite college or university! But no, they didn’t – and now they must accept the worm-ridden wages of their own stupidity. The latest elite story is that there is nothing that can be done about unemployment and income inequality because workers have now declined to a level at which they are stupider than robots. What can be done with such people?!

    Television is filled with endless lessons in self-hatred designed to teach the lowly how disgusting, criminal and undeserving they all are. If it weren’t for a few brilliant CSI fascists holding the society together we would all drown in our own licentious vomit.

    It’s interesting. If the task at hand is fighting a miserable war to advance the positions and expand the wealth of entrenched corporate governance, then the philosophy is “you go to war with the army you have, rather than the one you wish you have.” But if the task is winning the war against economic misery, loss and unemployment, suddenly the philosophy becomes “we must spend years building a new army and forget about these unemployable wretches that we stuck with now.”

    One thing that is different now is that some educated elites in the early part of the 20th century had a belief in the underlying equality of human beings, and the malleability of society. The educated in the current period have all been stewed in Pinker and other similar thinkers to believe that their entitled position is the result of their genetic superiority in mind, body and moral inclinations, and that the highly stratified social result represents the natural order of things.

    1. Klassy!

      Yesterday I read an article in the paper that noted approvingly the strides our city had made in attracting “knowledge workers” — IT professionals, financial service workers, health service providers and marketers (!). Bad as that was, there was a quote that said these are the more “upscale” people the city needs. What sort of country do we live in that someone can use the phrase “upscale people” with no irony?

    2. Thorstein

      Nobody ever talks about the most pervasive robot in modern society: the reading machine (and I don.t mean the Kurzweil machine). Less than a century ago people would gather around the hearth at night and the person in the room who could read would read to those who couldn’t. Then, within 30 years, television usurped that human function, displacing priests, scribes, and billions of certified and uncertified teachers. But for that small, literate sliver that reads NC, now only robots read to the world, and the robots read only what Rupert Murdoch and his cronies select.

      1. from Mexico

        Well that certainly was Marx’s view, which he derived from Plato, who believed that “speech was opposed to the perception of truth, unfit either to adhere to or express truth.”

        “When under the influence of the French Revolution” Marx formulated his credo that violence is the midwife of History, Hannah Arendt explains, “he denied in terms of the [Western] traditon the very substantial content of freedom contained in the human capacity for speech. And he followed this line of thought to its ultimate consequences in his theory of ideologies, according to which all activities of man that express themselves in the spoken word, from legal and political instititutions to poetry and philosophy, were mere and perhaps unconscious pretexts for, or justifications of, violent deeds.”

    3. from Mexico

      Dan Kervick says:

      “There is one thing Lynn Parramore touches on that is worth emphasizing: elites are always figuring out new ways of blaming struggling workers and the unemployed for their own misery.”

      It’s the workers!

      It’s the machines!

      It’s the gays!

      It’s high oil prices!

      It’s the immigrants!

      Blame anybody or anything, just don’t blame the economic and political overlords.

      1. Klassy!

        Well, to me in this post it still seems to me that it is blaming workers or at least putting the burden on the workers to retrain for a new job working alongside robots. What about shorter work weeks? Isn’t there any other way for the worker to capture some of the gains in productivity?

        1. hunkerdown

          Plenty — but the changes that would enable them are social in nature, and I can readily think of two examples. First and foremost, there is a belief, especially among heavily Anglophone and/or Protestant peoples, that there are only two conditions that alleviate the moral hazard of pecuniary gain: status quo wealth/status and recompense for harm or loss (wages as payment for opportunity costs, various forms of damages). Second, the right to the fair fruits of participating in society must be rehabilitated and seen as inalienable. People have been conditioned to assign one’s birthright to big men and grovel for bits of it back. Together, they form a doctrine of economic original sin, which makes all sorts of horrors justifiable.

          After we have removed this bit of S&M from public life and restored it to its rightful place in the private life of consenting, intimate adults, only then can we begin to sensibly question distribution. I tried this once already: proposed the guaranteed basic income to a fairly bright, one-foot-in-the-D-party’s-left-wing software developer, was answered with “I worry that the risk of ruin would cause more startups to fail”, to which I fought through the strong urge to headdesk in order to respond sensibly and call attention to the falsity of that assumption.

          1. Nathanael

            That answer was a complete non-sequiter — it’s no wonder you headdesked.

            After all, assume that the risk of ruin is a worry which causes startups to fail out of the gate more often. A guaranteed minimum income removes the risk of ruin and therefore helps startups succeed.

      2. psychohistorian

        I don’t blame the overlords.

        They are not the evil as much as society’s agreement about private ownership of property entwined with inheritance is.

        I would encourage us to attack the elements of the social contract that are evil, rather than the current manipulators of it.

        I believe that inheritance is evil in the way it is currently defined.

  18. wunsacon

    >> But it turns out that in order to make those robots work, companies needed people for programming, maintenance and repair. Because they didn’t lay off employees, firms simply retrained them. Workers observed the robots and learned how to do new things to work alongside them.

    Lynn. You need to look where the puck is moving, not where it’s been.

    I recommend that anyone who wants to write about the future impact of robots/AI on society actually take a course in artificial intelligence that includes not just those cool-named neural networks but genetic programming, logical entailment, belief networks, and search algorithms.

    If you don’t look where the puck is moving and think the future is going to be a grand re-run of Japan’s use of robots alongside humans, then you are accepting a narrative favored by plutocrats and propertarians. How do I figure? First, it’s what I hear from a propertarian friend. Second, the longer the plutocrats can hold out the promise that “you’ll still have jobs working alongside robots”, the longer they can defer discussing a means of sharing the profits derived in their entirety from machine output.

    1. wunsacon

      As the jobs disappear around us and economic royals live richer lives than ever on less-and-less of their own output, they’ll continue claiming “don’t believe your lying eyes about robots taking your jobs” and “everyone can earn a living working alongside the robots” — so “don’t demand a societal transformation”.

  19. alex

    Thank you Lynn Parramore for throwing cold water on these fervid concerns about automation (oops, I mean robots) putting us all out of work.

    If the doom-and-gloom types were right, we all would have been out of work a century before we were born. The industrial revolution started over two centuries ago, and yet as recently as 2007 we had near full employment. Oh, but this time it’s different! We’ve hit the singularity! (or whatever idiotic buzzword is currently being used).

    This “robots will take our jobs” discussion is a distraction from the real causes of the unemployment problem. If the 1% do have an organized conspiracy to distract people from how they’re getting screwed, the talk about robots is it.

    Futurists exist to make astrologers look respectable.

    1. wunsacon

      >> Oh, but this time it’s different!

      This is one of the most overused phrases. And it appears to be used to turn off thinking or justify just about any viewpoint.

    2. A Real Black Person

      Ok, it’s pretty apparent you don’t understand mathematics or why technology exists. If a piece of technology creates more work than the human labor that preceded it, then it is abandoned pretty soon. A tractor doesn’t create more work for everyone. If ten people did what a tractor did before, and the tractor reduces the human labor required by fifty percent, five people will have to find work somewhere else. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when resources were more abundant, and markets were less free, those five people went into producing more finished goods. If they were lucky, one of them went into “professional services” like sales, marketing, management, and engineering. Now, just to earn a living wage, everyone in the United States is being urged to go into the professional services because wages are falling in the manufacturing sector and in low-skilled services. The difference between”professional services” and manufacturing, and the primary sector is that many professional services can only employ a certain number of people at good wages while remaining efficient. In other words, we all can’t become “businessmen” engineers, bean counters, and scientists. Fewer people are needed at the top and technological progress reduces the need for labor at the top whenever it happens.

      “Sure”, you think “but doesn’t the resulting complexity from the expanding global economy and new emerging technologies CREATE jobs with good wages?” It does for the few people who are smart enough and want to deal with complexity. At this point, I’m talking about people who have postdocs in the STEM fields. People with postsocs constitute a very small percentage of the population. Well-paying jobs are becoming a minority of jobs created by new technological developments. The most common job created by the recent technological developments is a sales job as we can see from the spam on the internet AND the continued expansion of large retail chains.

    3. A Real Black Person

      This “robots will take our jobs” discussion is a distraction from the real causes of the unemployment problem. If the 1% do have an organized conspiracy to distract people from how they’re getting screwed, the talk about robots is it.” For the most part, the 99% are screwing themselves, literally, into poverty.
      The one percent is not responsible for rampant population growth. The real thing that is devaluing human labor is the supply of it, and its consumption patterns.

      The wealthy are taking advantage of desperate people but they aren’t really responsible for all of the desperation.

  20. Tom

    The missing link that somehow is missed – Robots are used to produce tangible goods that are used by people. Obviously, if goods are bought by people, then people will need a means of purchasing these goods, if they can not – then what is the use of robots except to lay idle. A robotic production line should be capable of reducing the cost of the produced good yet, when the product goes to market – a demand for the product must be there or your robot produced widget will just sit around doing what? All this mumbo jumbo about being slaves to robots is pure BS when taken out of fantasy land thinking and put into the real world – makes me laugh.

    From Tax Facts in the 1920’s

    Laborers knowing that science and invention have increased enormously the power of labor, cannot understand why they do not receive more of the increased product, and accuse capital of withholding it. The employer, finding it increasingly difficult to make both ends meet, accuses labor of shirking. Thus suspicion is aroused, distrust follows, and soon both are angry and struggling for mastery.
    It is not the man who gives employment to labor that does harm. The mischief comes from the man who does not give employment. Every factory, every store, every building, every bit of wealth in any shape requires labor in its creation. The more wealth created the more labor employed, the higher wages and lower prices.
    But while some men employ labor and produce wealth, others speculate in lands and resources required for production, and without employing labor or producing wealth they secure a large part of the wealth others produce. What they get without producing, labor and capital produce without getting. That is why labor and capital quarrel. But the quarrel should not be between labor and capital, but between the non-producing speculator on the one hand and labor and capital on the other.
    Co-operation between employer and employee will lead to more friendly relations and a better understanding, and will hasten the day when they will see that their interests are mutual. As long as they stand apart and permit the non-producing, non-employing exploiter to make each think the other is his enemy, the speculator will prey upon both.
    Co-operating friends, when they fully realize the source of their troubles will find at hand a simple and effective cure: The removal of taxes from industry, and the taxing of privilege and monopoly. Remove the heavy burdens of government from those who employ labor and produce wealth, and lay them upon those who enrich themselves without employing labor or producing wealth.

    Just update in your heads the language and terminology from this peice written in the 1920’s

    1. alex

      “people will need a means of purchasing these goods, if they can not – then what is the use of robots except to lay idle”

      So true, but so often overlooked in the policy prescriptions of the 0.01% and their sycophants. Common sense and empirical evidence need not apply.

      “Just update in your heads the language and terminology from this piece written in the 1920′s”

      What’s there to update? If you said it was written last year I would’ve believed it. And it would be applicable too.

    2. wunsacon

      >> Obviously, if goods are bought by people, then people will need a means of purchasing these goods, if they can not – then what is the use of robots except to lay idle.

      Yes. But *which* people?? Of course, some small group — people who live off their capital — will continue to have purchasing power! The productive capacity of the machine world will serve their whims, because they own the resources and machines and will trade with each other. (You can see this dynamic in ethanol policy, where “food for the masses” becomes “fuel for the gas-guzzling few”. You can see it in globalization, where “cheap goods for the still-employed” comes at the expense of impoverishing mid/late-career workers with no shot at retraining.) Meanwhile, people who once labored for them for a living will struggle to survive, because every reason anyone ever paid them to do something will disappear. Our class system can easily become more stratified.

      Unless we recognize/admit this credible outcome, we risk its realization. (Like with global warming — if ignore it, it’s more likely to happen, whereas we can avoid it if we actually recognize it and consider it a problem.) But, obviously, many people aren’t AI programmers, can’t “extrapolate”, and will be stuck in the past until the future inconveniently smacks them upside the head.

  21. Max424

    For many, many years now, I’ve been doing my shopping for mixed greens and other lesser groceries at between 2 and 5 in the a m, and I’ll say this about The Early: as far as supermarket experiences go, just before the birdies start chirping is the most efficient and peaceful time to go shopping …

    …. no question. Check it. An empty lot means I always get the headliner’s parking spot. Right? And once inside, I have the building –and all the items, excluding fresh meats*– to myself. And how cool is it to move unhindered? It’s so cool it’s cold, dog! And I can execute a game plan, shop lightening quick, and zip past the sh-t I don’t need (that’s important for the pocketbook). Best, I don’t have to stand in checkout lines, as there are no Commie lines!

    (Tear for the Sovs and the CCCP. Why only the bad memories surrwive?)

    And not to underestimate, my early morning checkout person is usually pretty friendly (or at the very least, un-nasty). The hustle and bustle –scan and bag, debit or credit? scan and bag, debit or credit?– that you see during the day has been replaced by a more relaxing ambient.

    It’s about … time. When there is no one behind you in a checkout, you have all the time … to chat, for instance. And I like chatting. In fact I like it so that in this particular setting, I came to know several members of the checkout personnel so well I could make inquiries like: You’re jaking me girl! Surely you momma is not out every, single, night, flatbackin’ for crack?… Is your indebted granddaughter still at the University, Sal, or-is-she-in the Army-now? … Dude, I heard you guys gave it away to those Abe Lincoln patsies on Saturday. What the f-ck?

    They’re all gone now. There is no a m checkout personnel. One day a couple of years ago, they all just up and vanished.

    No options anymore, I have to go it alone.

    Place basket. Scan bonus. Yes. No. Yes. No. Swipe, swipe, bag. Swipe, miss, swipe, f-ck, miss, swipe, bag. No. Yes. Bills … in. Change … out. Peneezz??f-ck … to charity!

    Bag up. Make sure to nod at minimum wage observer. Exit stage left.

    So, it’s goodbye to the near perfect emptiness of my old a m shopping experience, and welcome to the new, I guess.

    *That’s a drawback, I admit, as I’m not a veg. At least not yet …

  22. Timothy Gawne

    A generation ago many high tech goods were made on semi-automated assembly lines in the high-wage United States. Today they are assembled by hand in vast hangars where 40-cents-an-hour workers are jammed side by side like battery hens. Just look at the world: the factories in Asia are not automated, they are operated by vast numbers of poorly paid people doing the work by hand. Overall we are seeing more handwork and less automation in the production of most industrial goods. Saying that automation is the problem is like standing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and claiming with a straight face that boats can no longer float because they have run out of water. How much do you have to get paid to utter this nonsense, anyhow?
    There have been times in the past, for example when automated looms were first developed, that automation had a big impact on the labor market, but that was a special case and a long time ago. For some commodities, like nails, automation is so efficient that nobody will ever mass-produce nails by hand no matter how cheap labor gets. There are also some processes, like precision welding, where human labor is just not accurate or repeatable enough. But as a general rule, automation does not lower the value of labor, rather, automation is a reaction to expensive labor. Because automation is so expensive, it typically does not depress the value of labor to any significant degree.

    Why do you think that places with high wages have high automation, and places with low wages have low automation? You would expect the opposite if automation drove wages down, wouldn’t you?? All this talk of automation is just propaganda designed to distract us.

    1. from Mexico


      It provides a perspective that originates from outside the hidebound little bubble world that many Americans reside within.

      The pauperization of the “developing” world’s populations is dissimulated under the guise of “technological progress.”

      1. ebear

        The pauperization of the “developing” world’s populations is dissimulated under the guise of “technological progress.”

        Indeed! Imagine how much better off Japan would be if they hadn’t cornered the market in cheap manufactures way back in the 60’s. Korea? Taiwan? Same thing right?

        1. psychohistorian

          I believe it is true that “outsourcing” is the hammer being used in the current Shock Doctrine event to reduce/eliminate the social safety nets in the US and EU.

    2. Cynthia

      Many of our jobs have been lost due to automation, but even more of them have been lost due to globalization. This wouldn’t be so had our elected officials NOT crafted a whole slew of trade agreements that are geared towards enrich corporate America at the expense of the American workforce. Even after our corporations have created massive unemployment in the US by shipping thousands, if not millions, of jobs overseas, they still pay next to nothing in taxes and still receive military protection from our armed forces.

      Talk about having your cake and eating it too. There’s no doubt that our corporations are getting a smorgasbord of free lunches out of the rigged trade deals that we have with low-wage countries like India and China!

  23. Praxis

    “But Karl Marx looked at Engels’ work and concluded that automation was decreasing the power of workers. Marx got many things right, but he may have gotten it very wrong on technology and labor.”

    This is complete misunderstanding of Marx.

    To put it simply, Marx argued that technology in capitalism would be used to increase labour productivity, and therefore total output, but that it would not and *could not* be used to *replace* labour in the aggregate because labour, for Marx, was the sole source of surplus value and therefore profit.

    Further, he argued that capitalism’s compulsion to increase labour productivity was a *progressive force* since it created the very productive capacity he believed was a pre-requisite for a communist revolution where the working class would overthrow capitalism and institute direct-democratic control of the means of production and turn that very labour productivity to the satisfaction of human needs instead of the pursuit of profit.

  24. F. Beard

    The government backed counterfeiting cartel, the banking system, gives business the option of stealing the worker’s purchasing power rather than paying honest interest rates for it or an equity share in the profits.

    Do you think God was wasting His breath He when forbade usury from one’s fellow countrymen (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)? But we’ve done worse; our money system charges usury for stolen purchasing power, especially from the poor who are considered less or non “creditworthy.”

  25. GDC707

    Hmm. When the phonograph came on the scene, many were predicting the end of live music. The opposite happened as millions could hear a much greater variety of music and picked up instruments and started playing what they heard from the phonograph. A golden era of live music was launched that lasted for decades.
    That was then. This is now. Recorded music was scratchy and faded, now it is arguably better than live. At my wedding we considered hiring a live band, but decided on a DJ who was much cheaper, not drunk, and could play literally ANYthing we wanted.
    I think in the past you could make the argument that new technologies spurred new employments. But once you reach a point of technological virtuosity, that job goes the way of the machine. I mean, how much more specialized can you get than a modern day radiologist? Highly skilled, vastly educated in the field. But the core of most radiologist work is reading images and technology has made it easy to fire off those images to India or Pakistan or wherever you can find a group of radiologists ready to read the images for a small fraction of what American radiologists will charge, reducing the need for that specialty.
    And that’s just for the time being. How long before algorithms prove better at reading images than humans? Sounds fanciful but who can be sure? And if someone as highly skilled as a radiologist feels nervous about his work, just exactly WHO is completely safe?
    The work scene will evolve into an ever decreasing number of highly skilled technophiles until they, too are rendered obsolete by their own technology. It is up to that last remaining few elite who CONTROL THE TECHNOLOGY to decide how to dispose of the rest of us. I suppose the ‘disposition matrix’ will be expanded to include all elements of humanity, not just suspected terrorists.
    By then, of course the means of controlling vast numbers of humans will have advanced exponentially and greater #’s will be controlled, through force, by ever fewer individuals.

    It is at this point that things may become unimaginably sad.
    Science fiction? We are already living in science fiction’s imagined future. Nothing is impossible.

    1. alex

      That’s an interesting line of reasoning, but it has nothing to do with historical reality. For example, the 1940’s through 1990’s saw greater equality and lower unemployment than the 1920’s and the Gilded Age, despite vastly greater automation in the later period.

      1. Nathanael

        Really, it’s all about tax policy. When government taxes the rich, we have equality and economic improvement; when government taxes the poor, we have pauperization of the masses and economic decline.

        Nearly perfect matchup throughout history, if you correct for natural disasters.

  26. Eric377

    I think Parramore’s implicit assumption that retraining workers is “vital” to a company experiencing workforce disruption by techonology is wrong in many instances. For many companies, the move from one level of sophistication in the workforce to the next is not accomplished by retraining, but by layoffs of one portion of the workforce and hiring of other types of workers, who not coincidentally are likely to be younger, healthier and, at least initially, have lower salaries. It is a tough world out there and it is not being run with romantic ideas as to the value of retraining, if retraining forces a firm to retain the slice of the workforce deliberately targeted for reduction.

  27. digi_owl

    A major issue, as i see it, with replacing labor with robots is the drop in wages earned and therefore demand. And even with training it is unlikely that a displaced worker will regain his former wage and therefore the demand he represented. Never mind those that have any issue that obstructs retraining.

    Still, all this can be mitigated to some degree via redistributive taxation. But in the current political climate that is the same as the pope denouncing god.

  28. 7% return guaranteed

    So we are talking about automation, robots, and all the things that will put the 99% out of work. Hmmm, ok.

    Mind you, the real unemployment/underemployment rates are very high and corporate profits are at record highs. All this while only maybe skimming the surface of the automation/robotic potential.

    It further illustrates how “enough” never enters the vocabulary of elites when it comes to profit-making and eliminating anyone/anything that comes between them and their singular goal.

    Nor do I buy the argument that automating “X” work creates new jobs for those left without employment. It is easy to think it only puts the person taking your order at the burger joint out of business, which is no doubt bad for them. However what is, say, the pharmacist, who sunk years into school and incurred massive debt, when the APM takes his/her job? Maybe they can toss more years and debt into becoming an MD. Oh wait, that too is targeted for automation.

    No surprise really for the aforementioned reasons – profit surpasses everything for that parasitic elite.

  29. Hugh

    Economists don’t think, they propagandize. Automation is just a second shot at the pie. The first attempt was a “structural unemployment” driven by a mismatch between the jobs companies needed done and the skills of available workers. Its attraction was that it effectively did away with the unemployment problem by justifying permanently high unemployment. If one or two percent was added to a base unemployment rate of 5%, this would make the new base rate 6% or 7%. Subtract this from the artificially low official unemployment rate of ~8% and the jobs crisis, the part that government (and corporations) could do about it anyway, reduced to only one or two percent of the labor force or about 1.5-3 million workers. No wonder politicians found such an explanation so appealing. It let them off the hook.

    However, it failed for a number of reasons. Skills/jobs mismatches should only have created high unemployment in certain industries not more broadly as was the case. Nor did structural unemployment explain why industries were not raising wages to attract workers to fill the jobs needed. Or why they were not training or retraining the workers they had and then raising their wages to retain them. This last was especially ironic because of the grandiose retention bonuses upper level management tended to pay itself even or particularly in companies where this management had driven the firm into the ground.

    Propaganda no matter how many times it is discredited or debunked never dies. The same old lies can always be recast in new terms. Enter automation or Structural Unemployment 2.0. It is a great concept. You see it is future-oriented and so not falsifiable. It can explain why jobs in some industries might currently be affected while holding out the specter that everyone’s job is at risk in the future. In this sense, it does not resolve but fudges current high unemployment while suggesting that permananent high unemployment is the wave of the future.

    The problem with propaganda is if you ever think about it. If you do, the initially plausible quickly transmutes into the silly, and automation driven destruction of jobs is a very silly, albeit pernicious, theory. If we all lose our jobs to the machine, and we receive none of the productivity gains from this transfer of work, exactly whom are these machines producing for? Where would be the market? Who would be the consumers of these goods?

    As I said at the outset, economists don’t think, they propagandize. They and their masters are just hoping many of us won’t think either, or at least for a little while. And even if we do, not to fear, Structural Unemployment 3.0 or some other wheeze is probably already in the works.

    1. hunkerdown

      “The problem with propaganda is if you ever think about it. If you do, the initially plausible quickly transmutes into the silly, and automation driven destruction of jobs is a very silly, albeit pernicious, theory.”

      So let’s look at some silly old recent history then?

      “If we all lose our jobs to the machine, and we receive none of the productivity gains from this transfer of work, exactly whom are these machines producing for?”

      Those machines are producing for those who own them. What are they producing? Insurance: owners get first dibs on the fruits of their machines, just as the wealthiest get first dibs on scarce goods in an open market. Whatever productivity gains may be, or surplus if you prefer, go to those most willing to pay, just as always.

      “Where would be the market?”

      Well, heck. I guess we’ll have to come up with something else. Ooh, here’s an idea. Assemble a new one based entirely on near-zero marginal cost of production, economic rents and permission slips according to social status. Sell nothing, let everything. Privatize and monetize the commons. (“knowledge economy”, “intellectual property”, “streaming video”, lifetime counters in e.g. printer cartridges) Hire people to jump through demeaning, useless hoops so they can feel like they “earn” their keep, while using underhanded means to manufacture demand for these services. (call centers, “bar and grill” casual dining, streetcars, health insurance, just waiting for the timer chips in CFL ballasts…)

      Et voila. You can easily enough transition into this totally intangible economy as the tangible economy fails, and you can even bring your advantages from one into the other while claiming credit for “saving the economy”. With a marginal cost of production approaching zero, what’s not to love for those who can stake a claim or thousand?

      “Who would be the consumers of these goods?”

      Roughly the same people as before? Except now, instead of buying products, they’re renting licenses. Producers never have to worry about 100-year light bulbs…

      1. Hugh

        Automation is a fantasy argument created to justify permanently high unemployment. It is silly to treat it as packaged and used by propagandizing economists as reflecting anything real. Automation, of course, exists but that is not the point of what is going on here. It is simply being used to promote and justify policies that ignore the needs of the 99% and, in fact, do them serious harm.

        My point was that even on its own terms the automation argument falls apart. If workers are thrown out of work by machines to such an extent as to have a major impact on the labor force, then this will create downward spiral. As automation increases, employment decreases which in turn decreases demand for the products produced by automation which makes automation (which is expensive to put in place and maintain) cost ineffective. The rentier class is not going to continue investing in processes which lose them money. So the system collapses in on itself. There is no first dibs for the rich. They can afford goods which are more labor intensive. They don’t need automation.

        1. EconCCX

          If workers are thrown out of work by machines to such an extent as to have a major impact on the labor force, then this will create downward spiral…employment decreases which in turn decreases demand for the products…which makes automation…cost ineffective. @Hugh

          Hugh, a rare slip. This is a classic collective action problem, where the cost savings from automation, which also translate to market share, accrue to the capitalist, while the loss of purchasing power by the workers displaced is widely dispersed.

  30. Susan the other

    Japan and Bill Gates and others seem to think that service robots will be a mega billion dollar industry within the next 20 years or so. But robots, the cute little humanoid models especially, have got to be the most inefficient, delusional form of automation ever imagined. I’m not buyin’ any of it. The only effective form of robotics is for specialized tasks. Are we gonna have a robot for every rote task in our behavioral repertoire? I don’t think so. Automation which delivers productivity and increases shareholder value but causes un/under employment will also be limited by its own market. What we have is oxymoron capitalism. That’s why everything is coming to a screeching halt. But that’s what nature intended because it’s time to stop already. We need to rationally decide what we want as a civilization and then design an economy to create it. Come to think of it, we might be too idiotic to do this. Maybe we could use some robots after all.

  31. William Neil

    Lynn and NC readers: I replied to Lynn’s article at Alternet yesterday with the following comments, which I have edited for clarity and rushed punctuation:

    With all do respect Lynn, I think I did a far better job in exploring the issue in my long essay, “The Costs of Creative Destruction: Wendell Berry vs. Gene Sperling.” It can be found online here, in four parts, at

    Do readers know that in 1963, scientists (headed by Robert Oppenheimer) and leading cybernetic developers took out a full page ad in the NY Times calling attention to the issue, that Lyndon Johnson did a dodge by appointing a commission, that Robert Heilbroner and Michael Harrington both addressed the issue in the NY Review of Books, as a follow-up, and that Jeremy Rifkin beat the current authors to the issue with his “The End of Work: Tech. Jobs and Your Future,” which came out in 1995, and updated in 2004?

    Far from being a plot by the 1%, quite the contrary, most of the economics profession, 99 percent have had a very doctrinaire view, which you echo, that we’ve been living with this issue since at least the late 18th century; automation creates jobs, makes work more humane (or eliminates the most back-breaking labor), and increases productivity – the basis – a little parody here – of all life and goodness itself – yes to productivity and whatever will deliver it!

    Don’t you recall just a decade ago, the near religious belief in comparative advantage in trade? Krugman shifted on that, helped lead the way to greater realism and less Utopian visions, and now he seems to be sending a similar signal with his recent “Robots and Robber Barons” column, which echoes Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture of April, 2012, even though Krugman did not refer to it.

    Something has changed in the nature of automation – its pace, capacity and scale vis a vis work and workers; its always been an option for management to wield, threaten or deploy; it’s never going to be a case where we wake up one day and 80% of the jobs have been automated….and yet, think of Jefferson’s yeomanry, 80% of the nation in 1800; down to 30% by 1932 and 40% of them had become tenant farmers; until today, they are just 1% or so of the workforce…when the tenant farmers of the 1940’s were displaced by the mechanical cotton harvester, certainly the clearest case of recent massive displacement, it led to the great migration written about by Nicholas Lemann’s in “The Promised Land,” about the great black migration to the eastern and midwest industrial cities…after the second World War. However, nearly all of who lived through these under the Civil Rights banner and then urban crime and decay – even though this migration took place during “the golden age” of American Century – the industrial jobs were already leaving the older cities just as automation displaced black citizens arrived…a great tragedy ensued, but no one – until Lemann – labeled it as a cost of automation…it was never stressed.

    In my essay, I criticized Gene Sperling, one of Obama’s key eco advisers, for his “high altitude” view of American manufacturing jobs losses. Those losses have greatly accelered since 2000, but he was maintaining that for many decades when labor was complaining about job losses, the actual baseline of total manufacturing jobs stayed about the same, and I laid into him for what that obscured, where race met class in our older industrial cities: Newark, Patterson, Camden, Detroit, Lynn (MA), Philadelphia…and on and on…if you look at steel, coal mining and auto manufacturing today in the US, one sees draconian drops in the labor force, higher levels of automation, and great productivity…John L. Lewis, Lynn, said he wasn’t afraid of advances in technology in mining – this from Wm. Nordhaus of Yale’s account – but he, of all labor leaders, got that completely wrong…and, to come back to the broader themes, do any of us except the unemployed coal miners trapped in already depressed regions – our permanent third worlds – lament the passing of pick and shovels there – or the outflanking of coal (no, not yet on the world level) by other “cleaner” forms of energy (still not the ones we want or need though)…

    I’ll close by recommending the sophistication of Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation, when technological changes and yes social engineering in Eng.agriculture created a huge, rootless surplus of those formerly tied to the land, and made them, through key legislation, available as fodder to those infamous satanic mills of the 1830’s and 1840’s. It was brutal, those 40’s but Polanyi concedes the eventual human progress and yes new jobs…but, coming back to my theme of that great automation driven displacement of black tenant farmers from the US South, the human costs were enormous…because we have never been able to accept the enormous social implications of vast tech. change – automation is a key part of it – and planning is absolutely verbotten – we always underestimate the costs and like to point to the grand ever upward and onward spiral of progress and job creations.

    But what is new is the possibility – I will not overstate the case because I don’t have – and I don’t believe anyone has – the data to make a tight case for “this time automation’s effects are going to be grander – is the possibility that that – to condense a lot – the robot factories will be assembled by robot’s themselves, and a good part of the design creativity that goes into making each will be done by cybernetics, not humans…and so on…possibly creating a new and inhumane version of “the great chain of automation” instead of the old “great chain of being.” We’re not there yet, but I doubt most economist have ever had to face what our older industrial workers in the town’s Iisted did…and even had they made the adjustments urged upon them by the Right and Center today – look at the still dominant lack of planning – move to North Dakota, home of fracking and plentiful jobs, and live ten to a trailer, no women – a slight improvement, I guess, to Manchester in the 1840’s or the South Side of Chicago in 1950.

    Thanks, Lynn and Yves, for broaching the topic.

    1. Brick

      I think I need to take slight issue with the use of the word cybernetics in this context when really people mean robotic artificial intelligence. Its a subtle issue but should change expectations about possible directions for technology to take.

      The most clearly definition of cybernetics was by Norbert Wiener who wanted to evoke the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback, and response in systems of all kinds and came up with the term “control and communication in the animal and machine”. My own view is that perhaps a better description would be “Its the study of relationships and interfaces between discreet entities”. That means it covers interfaces like a mouse, keyboard, speech or a visual display and covers the feedback of actions by one entity on another. The principles are used across biological systems, economics, business modelling, architecture, psychology, medicine, social modelling.

      For me the real roots of cybernetics are with psychology and Ştefan Odobleja’s Psihologia consonantistă because it focuses more on the improvement of interactions and relationships to the mutual benefit of all entities.

      The point is that the most natural result of the cybernetics is most probably not a robot but symbiosis between a human and technology. Think thought control of technology making a human symbiotic more employable. The problem might be a new class system based on the haves and have nots of this type of technology. There again since cybernetics is making more inroads into economics and social sciences so perhaps not.

      1. William Neil


        Here’s what Jeremy Rifkin had to say about “the father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, and what Weiner had to say about its effects on employment: from page 84 of “The End of Work”: “…Weiner, who perhaps more than any other human being was in a position to clearly perceive the long-term consequences of the new automation technologies, warned of the dangers of widespred and permanent technological unemployment. He wrote, ‘If these changes in the demand for labor come upon us in a haphazard an dill-organized way, we may well be in for the greates period of unemployment we have yet seen'”

        In the next paragraph, Rifkin continues… “Weiner became so fearful of the high-tech future he and his colleagues were creating that he wrote an extraordinary letter to Walter Reuther…pleading for an audience (Editor’s Note: 1949)He warned Reuther that the cybernetic revollution’ will undoubtedly lead to the factory without employees.’

        Rifkin goes on to write that Reuther was initially sympathetic, but cooled later and labor was very accomodating to managment on the issue…Rifkin says that in “1955 the UAW issued a resolution at its annual convention amounting to a ringing endorsement of the very forces of automation that were beginning to seriously erode their membership rolls.”

        Just to be clear, my own perspective is that automation, which includes the more specified realm of cybernetics, was a constant and growing pressure, but if you look at the other forces pressing down on organizaed labor and American manufacturing in the older industrial cities, and thanks to labor historian Jefferson Cowie for his fine books, esp. “Capital Moves,” manufacturers were trying to escape unions and their effectiveness inside friendly cities like Camden and Newark…they headed to the rural Mid-West, added many women to the workforce, then headed south…and south again over the border to Mexico…before they headed due to Asia. And don’t forget the technological aspects of changes from overseas competition in steel: a rebuilding Germany and Japan built newer and more automated plants…and the US didn’t see them as threats, very mistakenly, says author Judith Stein in her book “Pivotal Decade.” Suzanne Berger and her colleagues at MIT have painted a sophisticated real life portrait of today’s companies, many manufacturers, in a book called “How We Compete” which does not minimizes automation and cybernetics but points out the other labor, location and training considerations that go into decisions to close or move.

        None of this changes my overall judgements reached in “The Costs of Creative Destruction.” The pressure is real from automation, and at a time of a new global “glut” of labor, management has the option of delploying it, if it so chooses, in many more varied and expansive ways. And let’s not forget that Nouriel Roubini explicitly cited it as a factor weighing down employment in his diagnostic essay of the “crisis” “The Way Forward.” (Fall of 2011 but snubbed by establishment economists.)

  32. William Neil

    Lynn and Yves:

    Let’s bring the topic of automation up in the context of something even closer to the heart of NC’s readers, and two of today’s postings, the great behind the scenes play made by the Mortgage Electronic Registration System, MERS to make themselves the evader and then collector of the colonial era mortgage registry property deed system which heretorfore had been done at the county level in the US.

    Readers who missed some great testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 2, 2010, from Professor Christopher Peterson of the University of Utah, can fill themselves in on the hidden history of MERS by reading what he had to say here:

    I think this is a great example of the options available to the owners of capital – the power to deploy or not, the new automation capabilities of the cybernetics revolution, in this case to avoid the repetitive payment of – allegedly – some 30 billion in fees that they might otherwise pay to local govts as those MBS/dervivates changed hands so many times…did they ever win, by passage of a law (yes only in Minnesota) the authority to do this end around existing law? Peterson says no… And the amazing thing about the MERS operation, as Peterson and others have pointed out, is that it just didn’t have many human hands at the station – well under a hundred to handle an enormous operation, which eventaully handled 60% of the mortgages in the nation -and you can read the tragi-comedy presented by the Prof. in his testimony. And who were the drivers behind MERS? Angelo Mozillo, I’ve seen named as a big backer, along with other banks on Wall Street who were engaged in the whole MBS production line…as well as other arms of the real estate industry.

    Lynn, Peterson calls MERS “…A deceptive and anti-democratic institution…” but if you read his testimony and dig deeper into how “they” pulled this off, you’ll hear productivity, efficiency and automation (esp. saving those pesky old colonial recording fees collected by: bad government) crop up in the why they did it…with the concessions from even Peterson that maybe the old system was becoming untenable and this was the image of the future, brought to you and made possible by ….”automation.”

    Sorry, nearly forgot about this little recent historical incident which has dropped out of the news…I haven’t seen a reference to MERS since I worked on the issue in “Ten Million Foreclosures: No SAving Private Ryan This Time.” I’ll spare you the rest.

  33. Sandwichman

    For the record: Testimony of Walter Reuther to the 1955 Joint Congressional Subcommittee Hearings on Automation and Technological Change (p. 124):

    “Every tool on every operation has a green light, a yellow light, and a red light; and when all the green lights are on, it means that all the tools at each work station are operating up to standard. When a yellow light comes on, on tool No. 38, it means that the tool is still performing, but the tool is becoming fatigued and that is a warning sign, so that the operator sitting there looking at these panels will know that he has to get a replacement tool for tool No. 38. He stands by at that position on the automated machine, and at the point the red light would kick on, on the board, he walks over — the machine automatically stops — he puts the new tool in the place of the tool that is worn out, and automatically the green light comes on and the machine goes on.

    “When I went through this plant the first time I was told by a top official of the Ford Motor Co.: ‘Mr. Reuther, you are going to have trouble collecting union dues from all of these machines.’

    “And I said: ‘You know that is not bothering me. What is bothering me is that you are going to have more trouble selling them automobiles.’ That is the real significance. We have mastered the know-how of mass production, and what we need to do is to develop comparable distribution know-how so that we will have markets for the tremendous volume of production that automation now makes possible.”

    That was 1955. We “solved” the distribution know-how problem with something called “credit” a.k.a. debt: credit card debt, mortgage debt, government fiscal policy. We’ll leave it to others to figure out how well solved that still is. Meanwhile that tremendous volume of cars has contributed to a tremendous volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leading to a tremendous volume of seawater lapping at the NYC and Jersey shores during Sandy.

    In 1956, Time magazine published a report titled, “One Big Greenhouse” and the Nation published an essay by Kenneth Burke titled ,”Recipe for Prosperity: ‘Borrow. Buy. Waste. Want.'” I’ll let those titles stand for themselves.

  34. casino implosion

    They’re going to be forced to share the profits of increased productivity with the (former) workers once there’s no one left to buy their products.

    No doubt they’ll make it (the guaranteed income) as stingy and shameful as possible. Drug tests, etc are just the beginning.

    1. abprosper

      I don’t think they are that smart. I think the elite will use their tech to keep themselves and a small number of people content and happy and just let the natural population decline take effect.

      The human population is starting to slow and in maybe a hundred years or so it will shrink. Keep encouraging shrinkage (and note this effect almost every population now) and pretty soon all thats left is the Elite class, maybe 2-5% of the global population including some comely servants, entertainers a small cognitive elite and maybe a few science and tech types. This would be enough to rule over and enough so that would feel rich but would not be much threat.

      The US might have I dunno 15 million and the rest of the world will gradually empty out.

      Total human race, 250 million or so..

      The average folk will simply have one child till attrition made them go away

      Of course its entirely possible that the entire edifice they depend on will simply end do to demand starvation and the gradual truculent jamming by the population or from running out of the ability to get energy too.

    2. William Neil

      Lynn and fellow NC commentators:

      I was struck, Lynn, by your emphasis on “recession” in the England of the 1840’s, as having had such bad timing, making the ever upward spiral of progress brought on by the industrial revolution (and its phase of automation) seem worse – brought us the plague of Marx-Engels – who just couldn’t see the good coming.

      I think you’re really compressing and distorting events and how long they played out in England to get to this point; it certainly was not a matter of just bad timing in the 1840’s…may I toss out the centuries long issue of the “enclosure” movement and the constant technological changes in English agriculture which set the stage for all that – no apologies for the term – “surplus” labor…just picking up my Introduction to Thomas Carlyle’s “Past and Present” – his attempt to deal with the great social questions before England in the 1840’s…which reached a climax in 1842: ” ..developments that had begun six years earlier. Since 1836 England had been suffering from severe economic depression. There was a series of bad harvests, the price of bread was cruelly high, wages were falling and unemployment was reducing hundreds of thousands of workers to pauperism.”

      Need I add the whole epic fight over the Corn Laws in the 1840’s to make the point that the “classical” economics of the day – which Polanyi, presciently wrote as approaching a religious fervor and intensity, went along with the technological changes, an intensity which was perhaps necessary to carry out the changes required to produce,for the first time in human history, a genuine free market in labor. (Preceded in England by the commodification of nature into land/real estate and money…)…so I think your whole approach, belied by Polanyi’s long and careful background to these epochal upheavals (and Polanyi was not a Marxist) illustrates my point: your are trying to minimize the enormous costs to the tech. changes and automation, who bore those costs…and who wielded the power, practical power of building factories – and, the revolution in economic thought that was translated into the upheaval in English laws – capped by the overturning of the Corn Laws.

      You plead, Lynn, for the buffers to cushion the changes in hard times, such as we’re going through, and say, with some truth, that’s its not automation’s fault. Yet in many ways the whole American intellectual context of today mimics what Polanyi wrote about in the way the classical economists of his time (and even Edmund Burke of all people) demanded with religious intensity: the free hand to mould the society of their day…there was a reaction of course, the Blue Book Parliamentary hearings…the long slow rise of a labour movement…but jumping to the US context…you have a society that is not only equipped with the ideology of the 1830’s in England, but also is greatly influenced by the American love affair with modernity, technological change and innovation…we are a society that cannot see or recognize “the costs of creative destruction” and despite having undergone that great black migration in the 1940’s and 1950’s and the de-industrialization of our older cities – next to the war in Vietnam probably the greatest disgrace of our 20th century…that was Wendell Berry’s plea, completely ignored…

      Let me summarize this thrust in another way, just for NC readers, to make the point that we’ve learned nothing from “the Great Transformation” in England, nor “the great migration” or great de-industrialization here in the US…all of which involved wrenching changes in the labor force, labor markets and a terribly disproportionate bearing of the costs – if those costs could only be recognized in time. But stop and think: think about the great dual mandate of the Federal Reserve, and which side gets let down: the full employement side…where is it exactly that the great Bernanke will not tread, out of fear, disposition or is it intellectual trajectory of the past 30 years, he so skilled, imbued with what happend in the 1930’s; he can’t or won’t tread into labor markets, minimum wages, labor share of productivity, de-industrialization, in short, the very areas most crying for attention…god forbid the man could ever utter or even write “CCC” or WPA…or whatever new equivalents like Randall Wray’s “guaranteed employment” program or Cass Sunstein’s recent column resurrecting FDR’s Second Bill of Rights – the first right of which was to a job.

      So Lynn, I see many comparables to the 1830’s 1840’s to today, and hope that what you are calling for won’t take as long to arrive as the English response…because the intellectual and political barriers that have to be crossed are just as foreboding,maybe more so, and the reasons are historically interconnected.

  35. jfleni

    Automation and “Artificial Intelligence” routines really have a long way to go, despite some progress in recent years, and despite the crowing of the “Artificial Intelligentsia” to the contrary.

    Case in point: My credit card company “forgot” to cancel an old lost card after issuing a new one. The old one caused no problems, but did show up on annual credit reports. It took a little over a year to solve this problem, with several carefully written letters to a particular knowledgeable person needed to do it. Emails, no matter how clearly and simply written, were just an excuse for a new “Artificial Lunatic” to try to “read” them and proceed to ball things up to a complete fare-thee-well!

    This happens to nearly everybody, and gives the lie to the omnipotent robot theory! In fact it’s much easier to do definite mechanical tasks, than to even approach something that resembles robot judgement.

  36. F. Beard

    AI, like practical fusion energy (until recently), is always 50 years in the future.

    But if Man ever does create a true AI, would he not be as troublesome as Man is or even worse since the creator himself would be flawed ?

    1. abprosper

      FB, AI is wholly unnecessary to supplant humans. Most jobs, even many parts of doctoring and engineering are rote work.Robots can already recognize speech, flip burgers, do accounting and do most jobs almost as well as a human.

      Not all of them, not yet but sooner than later the majority of them.

      This will break human society and as such if we want human society to survive, we need to be ready to make policy that works for people not against them.

      1. F. Beard

        Yep. The solution is not make-work but a just sharing of the profits from the automation our stolen purchasing power financed.

        But most Progressives can’t even recognize the inherent injustice of the government-backed credit cartel.

  37. craazyman

    Oh Man. This is like watching a rivulet of rain meander down a window. You don’t know where it’s going next. But you know where it will end up.

    Someplace, over the rainbow . . . where skies are blue . . . and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

    1. JTFaraday

      I think there’s going to be riot over at the bargain bin for the last copy of “Who Moved My Cheese?”

  38. jsmith

    Arendt’s misunderstandings of Marx are actually embarrassing in that she blatantly misrepresents Marx and then turns around and agrees with much of his work

    Please see the following for an utter annihilation of Arendt vis a vis Marx which is succinctly summarized by Pitkin but which others have commented on as well.

    The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the Social
    By Hanna Fenichel Pitkin

    pp. 127-144

  39. kevinearick

    when money is free, from the top, down, to be paid in the future, from the bottom, up….normalization to stupidity. Don’t be “us” or “them.”

    Replacing humans with machines is a simple trick, if the humans are sufficiently dumbed down.

    Does Microsoft work for Boeing or does Boeing work for MIcrosoft? Is there really a difference between Apple and Microsoft? Does it matter?

    Drawing conclusions from a sub-system delay mechanism and expecting to apply the result to improve the supra-system creating it is pretty damn stupid.

    1. skippy

      You know… sticking a seed in the ground has had some unfortunate consequences…. cough… the… FARM.

      Hell the nation state is just that, only that some are feed lots, some still organic and just a few a mix bag thingy, although the plan is to incorporate the planet into ONE BIG FARM.

      Skippy… When crops fail the trouble begins (hunger pangs do make us think strangely [cannibalism]),,, one farm means total failure… if the rains don’t come… eh.

      PS. hows the new yob?

  40. Mansoor H. Khan

    Clifford H. Douglas in his “Social Credit” published 1924) solved the problem of automation.

    We need to give people government printed money to create demand (a monthly direct deposit to their bank account). The demand is then satisfied by the smaller sub-portion of the population which has the higher skills to do the highly skilled jobs of today.

    Income tax is not necessary. A consumption tax may be necessary to limit the amount of resources consumed by the high income earners or the rich.

    But today I am more worried about peak oil and depletion of fossil fuels then automation. If we don’t find a cheap alternative to fossil fuels we will have to start serious conservation in order to even have a industrial civilization.

    Mansoor H. Khan

  41. jsmith

    Yet another scholar who shows all that contrary to what From Mexico would have us believe most scholars view Arendt’s views on Marxism to be specious garbage:

    On Needing Both Marx and Arendt: Alienation and the Flight from Inwardness
    Author(s): Jennifer Ring
    Political Theory, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Aug., 1989), pp. 432-448

    From the opening:

    Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt were two theorists concerned with the causes of modern misery. Both utilize a theory of alienation as an explanation for that misery. The Human Condition is the work in which Arendt most directly confronts what she regards as flaws in Marx’s thinking. Although the book is generally regarded as Arendt’s most important theoretical contribution, her theory of alienation is seldom taken seriously as central to her political thinking. Moreover, as a critique of Marxist theory the work is eccentric. Her contention that Marx, far from being a materialist, is overly subjectivistic seems perverse given Marx’s reputation as a materialist critic of Hegelian idealism and has perhaps prevented her book from being taken seriously as a criticism of Marxist theory.

    Not taken seriously?!!!

    Not taken seriously?!!

    Why, why would that be?

    Because she basically made up what she wanted Marx to say so that it fit into her repackaging of the parts of Marx which she didn’t bother to read?


    Notice how it’s basically a given that as concerns Marx most scholars agree that she is fool and not to be listened to.

  42. wunsacon

    I suspect people like “Alex” know little about AI. There’s not just an industry studying algorithms to solve one particular problem at a time. AI researchers are expanding/developing a collection of algorithms with which computers can *teach themselves* (“learn”) new things.

    That capability currently separates advanced organisms (e.g., humans) from machines. (But, notice I had to say “advanced”. Software is already more advanced than many simpler life forms. It will continue to evolve.) What do you think happens when that distinction disappears? Are you still going to sarcastically remark with “this time it’s different!”??

    If you think about AI but look in the mirror and say “can’t touch this”, you’re in for a rude awakening one day.

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