Automation represents the second not ‘fourth’industrial revolution. Just as the first necessitated capitalism, the second necessitates socialism

“If each of the instruments were able to perform its functions on command or by anticipation … so that the shuttles would weave themselves and picks play the lyre, master craftsmen would no longer have a need for subordinates, or masters for slaves.”[1]

Aristotle

Humans have longed to be free from toil. The Greek poet Antipater, a contemporary of the Roman statesman Cicero, welcomed the invention of the water mill, which worked “without labour or effort”, as the foundation of a “Golden Age” and the liberator of slaves.

Now in the epoch of late-stage capitalism, after a long and painful evolutionary road, the possibility of a ‘post-work’ world — with the ongoing development of robotic machinery, artificial intelligence (AI) and other forms of increasingly sophisticated automation — seems like a tangible reality. Decades of relatively small, quantitive innovations (with computing power, for example, tending to double every two years) have led up to a point now promising huge qualitative technological leaps.

At the same time, the global workforce has been increasingly ‘deindustrialised’ — moved from manufacturing to services. The proportion of manufacturing workers in the total workforce in the US fell from 26.4% in 1970 to 8.51% in 2018.[2] Even Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa have been deindustrialising in the past decade, from a much lower starting point than Asia.[3] Whereas industrialisation peaked in western European countries at income levels of around $14,000, India and many Sub-Saharan African countries appear to have reached their peak manufacturing employment at income levels of $700 (both at 1990 levels).[4]

As McKinsey Global Institute Director James Manyika said in June 2017: “Find a factory anywhere in the world [our emphasis] built in the past five years — not many people work there.”

The ‘fourth’ industrial revolution?

The bourgeois (capitalist) narrative trumpets the automation revolution as the ‘fourth’ industrial revolution.[5] Is this accurate?

The evolution of production is a process of developing man’s mastery over nature, of harnessing nature to serve our needs. New technologies give rise to new needs. For centuries — comprising the primitive communal, slave-owning and feudal systems — manual labour determined the technological basis of society. As the continual improvements and specialisations of the implements of labour reached their limits and slavery and feudalism became fetters (restraints) on the further development of the productive forces (technology and humans) as a whole, mechanisation (machine-aided production) necessarily replaced manual labour. Man was no longer the source of power which wielded the implements of labour.

Consolidating capitalist relations of production, this was the first industrial revolution — it marked a radical change in the technological mode of production, i.e. the mode of combining man and technology. Where man had controlled and wielded the inanimate elements of work, machines now dictated the inputs of man and relieved him as, in Marx’s words, “chief actor”;[6] but, in creating a division of labour, did not free him. “The hand tool makes the worker independent — posits him as proprietor. Machinery — as fixed capital — posits him as dependent, posits him as appropriated.”[7]

Dominant versions of history tell the story that — since it was the most obvious contrast between machine production and the handicrafts and ordinary manufacture of small ‘cottage industry’ workshops — the upgrade of the steam engine made by Scottish engineer James Watt around 1775 was the fundamental catalyst of the first industrial revolution. By extension, it was considered the primary factor behind the rise of British capitalism and the ensuing industrial and economic dominance of its Empire. All thanks to the supposed individual genius of Watt (or was it his ‘Britishness’?).

This is an example of idealism, the theory that man’s ideas or ever-improving rationality determine the course of history. Marx’s method of dialectical materialism — that history is driven by ongoing conflict or interaction between material and social forces — enables the understanding of history per se, rather than individual versions of it. (Indeed, it also explains man’s ever-improving rationality.) That it was Watt who made this innovation is merely a ‘historical accident’ — if he had never been born someone else would have realised this inevitable evolutionary development.

Behind this ‘accident’ lay the driving necessity to develop machinery and liberate industry from the confines imposed by nature in terms of a power source. The development of steam power removed the reliance on water power and therefore enabled industry to be moved to other locations more freely. With steam power, the primary factor became access to coal, the source of the energy needed to generate steam, which in turn enabled greater access to coal. With the development of electrical power, industry was further liberated, and has therefore invariably moved to wherever the cheapest labour can be found.

The origins of the steam engine can actually be traced back to the ancient Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria. Within a system of slavery, though, it could not be utilised. Marx therefore argues:

“The steam-engine itself, such as it was at its invention during the manufacturing period at the close of the 17th century, and such as it continued to be down to 1780, did not give rise to any industrial revolution. It was, on the contrary, the invention of machines that made a revolution in the form of steam engines necessary. As soon as man, instead of working on the object of labour with a tool, becomes merely the motive power of a machine, it is purely accidental that the motive power happens to be clothed in the form of human muscles; wind, water or steam could just as well take man’s place.”[8]

In his 1967 book Era of Man or Robot? The Sociological Problems of the Technical Revolution, Russian Soviet philosopher Genrikh Volkov writes that what made an industrial revolution for Marx

“pivoted on finding the correct methodological approach. His examination focused on changes in the joint working mechanism and the combination of the inanimate and human elements of the process of production. Whether the machine is driven by an animal, a man or steam, Marx showed, is immaterial. The source of power, being part of the machine, only serves the system of working machines.”[9]

What is defined as the second industrial revolution by bourgeois scholars was therefore merely the ongoing development of the first. Taking place in the decades before World War I, it saw the growth of existing industries and establishment of new ones, with electric power enabling ever-greater mass production. Major technological advances included the telephone, light bulb, phonograph and the internal combustion engine.

The ongoing digital revolution — with the emergence of digital record-keeping, the personal computer, the internet, and other forms of information and communications technology — is considered to be the third industrial revolution. This is, perhaps, more arguable. The instruments described certainly amplify man’s mental capacity. But the digital revolution is a technological revolution and actually part of the automation revolution; not an industrial revolution by itself:

“Mechanisation begins with the transference to technology of basic physical working functions, while automation begins when the basic ‘mental’ functions in a technological process actually materialise into machines. This becomes possible with the appearance in production of supervising, controlling or programming cybernetical installations.”[10]

The productivity of machines is slowed down by the physiological limits of human bodies, and so automation becomes necessary; man is increasingly excluded from direct production and now works alongside fully mechanised machines, calling forth a radical change in the man-technology relationship. As Marx said of automation:

“Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself.”[11]

This therefore means that capitalism “works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production,”[12] says Marx, since capital’s exploitation of human labour is the source of profit and exchange-value (the worker keeps less value than they create, with the surplus value appropriated by the capitalist and realised as profit through commodity sales).

The point of automation, therefore, says Volkov,

“should be to remove the contradiction between the inanimate and human elements, between man and machine, to break the shackle that made man and machine a single working mechanism, to act as Hercules setting Prometheus free to perform his great deeds. Potentially, automation can enable man to become Man with a capital letter, and the machine to become Machine in the full sense of the word. Freedom for man’s development is, at the same time, freedom for technological progress.”[13]

Defining automation

In Automation and Social Progress (1956), English socialist Sam Lilley defined automation provisionally as “the introduction or use of highly automatic machinery or processes which largely eliminate human labour and detailed human control”.[14]

The term is of course applied to a very broad field ranging from semi-automatic machinery to automatic factories. These are qualitatively different notions and so must be understood carefully. Volkov writes:

“Semi-automatic technology (semi-automatic machine-tools and lines, so-called cyclic automatons) represents a transitional form from ordinary to automatic machines. In this form, ‘automation’ is usually affected by mechanical means without, as a rule, recourse to cybernetical devices. The worker is still directly included in the process, which he supplements with his nervous system, intellect and, partly, muscular energy (loading and unloading of machines). At this stage, the new technology does not yet constitute automation proper and lacks its most characteristic features. As a matter of fact, semi-automatic technology stretches to the limit the adverse aspects of mechanisation by simplifying things still more, robbing working operations of all their creative content and contributing to their further fragmentation.”[15]

Automation proper can therefore be subdivided into three stages:

1. Initial or partial automation (separate machine-tools fitted with programme control, separate cybernetically controlled automatic lines). Here, the worker has relative freedom of action. They are included in the process only in so far as their duties include the overall supervision of operations, maintenance and adjustment of the machines.

2. Developed automation, e.g., automatic factories equipped with overall electronic control of all production processes, regulation of equipment, loading and unloading, transportation of materials, semi-finished and finished products. In this stage of automation the worker takes no direct part in the production process.

3. Full automation, which ensures automatic operation of all sections of production, from planning to delivery of finished products, including choice of optimum conditions, conversion to a new type of product, and auto-planning in accordance with a set programme. The planning of production as a whole and the overall control of its operation are also to a considerable extent transferred to automatic installations. “Automation of this kind is equivalent to automatic production on the scale of the entire society,” says Volkov. “Here, not only the labour of workers, but that of technicians and, to a considerable extent, of engineers as well, is excluded from the direct technological process. This does not mean, of course, that such work disappears altogether. It is only shifted to another sphere, becomes more creative and closer related to scientific work.”[16]

Base and superstructure

Under capitalism in the first part of the 21st century, we are still a fair way from achieving a singular fully automated system of production (The production process includes the transport of commodities to the point of sale/consumption, so workers who transport commodities (such as Deliveroo and other courier drivers) and check-out/till-point workers add value to a commodity. Drones, autonomous vehicles and self-serving tills are therefore automating the last stage of production.) That does not mean we are not moving relatively rapidly towards that outcome or witnessing an industrial revolution. McKinsey and Co expects “the near-complete automation of existing job activities” somewhere between 2060 and 2100, with the “most technologically optimistic” scenario putting the date at 2045.[17]

The first industrial revolution began before and necessitated the rise of capitalism (the printing press being the first generalised example of machine-aided mass production), just as the second begins before and necessitates the rise of socialism.

Marx recognised that the technological-economic base of a society determines its political and class superstructure. (Although the two of course interact and influence each other, the former dominates.) An industrial revolution has far-reaching consequences that go beyond the framework of technology and even beyond that of material production.

The first affected the character of labour (manual to mechanised); social structure (artisan and peasant turning into worker/proletarian);[18] the correlation of economic branches (agriculture being supplanted by industry); and, finally, the political and economic field (capitalist relations superseding feudal relations). Volkov spells out the most characteristic features of the second industrial revolution.

1) The production of material wealth has a tendency to turn into fully automated production “on a society-wide scale”. The second industrial revolution therefore “marks the completion of the establishment of industry”. At first, large-scale machine industry had a relatively limited area of diffusion, having taken the place of handicrafts and ordinary manufacture. But with the second industrial revolution, “industrialisation tends to spread also to the whole of agriculture, beginning with mechanisation, followed by comprehensive mechanisation and, eventually, by automation. Industrialisation is spreading to house-building, distribution, the community services (eg public catering) and even intellectual, scientific work. In this way, industry becomes the universal form of producing material wealth.”

2) While the first industrial revolution was local in character, being limited to a few developed European countries, the second industrial revolution “tends to involve all the countries of the world” as newly industrialising countries begin by installing the most up-to-date industrial equipment involving comprehensive mechanisation and automation. “This presents features of the first and second industrial revolutions at one and the same time. Consequently, the second industrial revolution is global in character, laying the groundwork for a subsequent economic and social integration of nations.”[19] (Our emphasis .)

3) The modern industrial revolution leads to substantial structural changes in the various spheres of social activity. Because of the ever-decreasing need for manpower for material production, scientific production increases both quantitatively and qualitatively and tends to assume priority over the direct production of material wealth. “Hence, science is the helmsman of the modern industrial revolution.”[20]

4) The dominant feature of the automation revolution concerns its social implications. As we know, the first industrial revolution led to the consolidation of capitalist exploitation. Large-scale industry spelt wholesale ruin for artisans and peasants, longer working hours, intensification of labour and narrow specialisation (the breaking down of the production process into a series of repetitive, monotonous tasks). In contrast, the modern industrial revolution in the socialist nations “leads to a shortening of working hours, an easing of labour, a modification of its nature (work becoming more creative and free), and to the elimination of the essential distinctions between town and countryside, and between mental and manual labour. While yielding the industrial basis for an abundance of material wealth and to distribution according to need, it also opens up possibilities for unlimited spiritual improvement of man’s personality.”

Volkov adds:

“The second industrial revolution resolves the contradiction between the machines and those who operate them, i.e. the contradiction within the joint working mechanism. By completing the automation of production, it paves the way for the implementation of the principles of socialist humanism in society. Hence, the very logic of the second industrial revolution strengthens man’s personality and humanism.

“In capitalist countries, however, this logic and the above-mentioned features of the second industrial revolution contradict the very essence of the relations of exploitation. All the same, mechanised labour gives way to automation, the antithesis between mental and physical labour tends to disappear. And the cultural and technical standard of the workers tends to rise. Substantial changes also occur in the social structure and in the relation between the various economic branches. In other words, many of the essential elements of an industrial revolution are distinctly on hand.

“The fundamental difference between the revolution in capitalist countries and its counterpart in the socialist states consists in its leading to the breakdown, [our emphasis] instead of the consolidation, of the existing relations under the conditions of the private ownership of the means of production. The modern industrial revolution has strained to the utmost all the contradictions of capitalism…. It does not reform capitalism. Instead, it creates the material preconditions for a social revolution and paves the way for the eventual replacement of capitalist relations of production by communist relations.”[21]

The automation revolution cannot be consummated under capitalismsocialism must be established to finish what capitalism started.[22]

The technological determinists who see automation as the ‘fourth’ industrial revolution do not put the development of technology in its proper socio-historical context, but instead in isolation from the human component of the productive forces. They fail to see “the genuine dialectics [interactions] of the forces and relations of production, [and] deny the inverse influence of the relations of production on the productive forces and the development of science and technology”.[23]

Recap

To summarise: over many centuries, manual labour determined the technological basis of society. The technological mode of production, the mode of combining inanimate and human elements, was subjective.

The next stage, paved by the specialisation of implements in manufacture, began when the main working function — control of partial implements — of the ‘living mechanism’, the worker, transferred to the mechanical mechanism, the machine. From human-inanimate, the working mechanism became inanimate-human. The technological mode of production became objective and labour became mechanised. This is then the first industrial revolution.

Finally, the third historical stage in technological development is ushered in by automation. The working mechanism becomes fully technical and the mode of combining man and technology becomes free and labour itself is automated. This then is the second industrial revolution.

Marxists therefore reject the bourgeois definition that posits the automation revolution as the fourth industrial revolution.

Towards a Single Automatic System

The maturity of technology that socialism will inherit in the 21st century means that the problems of planning associated with the 20th century Soviet Union will be much easier to overcome. (Indeed, in hindsight it is arguable that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 proved to be somewhat ‘premature’, given that the Bolsheviks thought capitalism was entering its final crisis at that time.)[24] Thanks to contemporary computing power, ‘big data’ and stock coding, the dominant ‘command and control’ military style planning that overlooked the finer details is no longer necessary.

As Volkov writes:

“Let us anticipate the future and suppose that it has attained its zenith and that its characteristic features… have reached full development. We shall then have a society with fully automated production of material wealth, ensuring abundance. Such production will form a Single Automatic System which, for the sake of maximum efficiency, will incorporate all the branches of industry and agriculture, centrally controlled according to a single plan.

“From the social point of view, this will be a single society, because there will no longer be any workers or peasants previously associated solely with physical labour, and because the distinction between mental and manual labour, and between town and countryside, will have vanished. Creative work incorporating intellectual, emotional and manual activities will predominate. The life of society will be governed by the laws of free, instead of working, time, and so on.”[25]

The direction of history towards turning world productivity into a Single Automatic System shows that the final stage of socialism before the higher stage of communism is a de facto single world state. To get there each nation-state obviously needs to become socialist, with its own governing structure and centrally planned system working towards full automation in that country. A Communist International would be required to oversee development and trade between each socialist state — making sure, for one thing, that the plan incentivises the sharing of technologies and material wealth (including human resources) — which would act with the same semi-autonomy in relation to the International as a region of a country does to its central government or a state to federal level (or a local soviet to its regional soviet, and so on).

As this system develops, the Single Automatic System and a de facto one-state world would come into being, with borders being rejected as fetters on productivity — there being no transfer of ownership when it comes to trade in a socialist political union, anyway — and individual nation-states withering away in all but regional name.

We can see then that, whereas capitalism in the long run has a historically centralising tendency, socialism in the long run has a historically decentralising tendency. This then is the path to a borderless, stateless world, not the fantasy anarchist one, which, with its desire to introduce federations of fully autonomous communes, would effectively introduce new borders and undermine internationalism. The necessary aim of communism is to unite — to un-divide — the working class and humanity as a whole.

Conclusion

The essential point that must be grasped about automation is that it is abolishing the source of profit and exchange-value, i.e. capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour. This process is not reversible. Innovation and the tendency for machinery to grow relative to labour continues throughout history, under any mode of production. Under capitalism, the process is driven by the needs of capital accumulation.

Commodity-producers must continually expand production to overcome the inherent contradiction contained in the commodity: it is both a use-value, a utility; and an exchange-value, containing surplus value and sold for profit. The quicker and more abundantly commodities are made, the less labour, exchange-value and therefore profit tends to be contained in each commodity, compelling the capitalist to expand production yet further, only to continually intensify the contradiction. All production under capitalism is governed by this, the law of (exchange-)value.

This contradiction is also expressed in an overaccumulation of capital (a surplus that cannot be (re)invested profitably, resulting also in the equivalent surplus labour (unemployment)) and a contraction in economic output. This is at the same time an underproduction in surplus value. The necessary reaction for capital is to expand and cheapen the labour base and raise its productivity through innovation, only to increase the underproduction of surplus value in the long-run, since the amount machinery and capital employed tends to rise relative to the total surplus-value-producing labour employed.

Commodity-producers continually have to attract greater investment to turn a profit. As a company gets bigger, though, its costs get larger and more unsustainable, and so greater profits need to be generated than before (hence the dominant tendency towards the ever-greater monopolisation of industry, for economies of scale (efficiency)).

Since wages eat into thinning profit margins, expenditure on wages must be slashed. Robots do not need toilet/rest/lunch breaks, sick or holiday pay, and are therefore much more productive and cheaper to employ. (There is no such thing as ‘technological unemployment’, though; people go unemployed when capital can no longer afford to employ them (so socialism, capable of permanent full employment, would take advantage of automated production by training and employing far more scientists, doctors, teachers, etc). Even police and soldiers, who do not produce surplus value and are therefore paid out of the surplus produced by commodity-producing workers, are increasingly being replaced by surveillance technology and autonomous weapons, since one effect of shrinking profit margins is shrinking government tax bases, at least in relative terms per capita.)

Innovation is necessary to continually raise the productivity of labour, to meet the demands of accumulation — only the size of the ever-expanding total capital eventually becomes too large for the ever-dwindling pool of surplus-value-producing labour to renew and expand. The underproduction of surplus value becomes insurmountable. The system comes up against a historical limit of accumulation and breaks down into barbarism, necessitating socialist revolution.[26] Indeed, interest,[27] GDP and general profit rates have all trended historically towards zero,[28] along with commodity prices.[29]

As with previous modes of production, the contradictions between the productive forces (the means of production) and the productive relations (the ownership of production) are being driven into irreconcilable conflict by sheer historical force. While this contradiction has always been expressed under capitalism by the private appropriation of the products of collective, socialised labour, it is now increasingly expressed by automated labour and a diminishing source of profit, tending ever-closer towards the self-abolition of the law of value.

Just as capitalism matured in the womb of feudalism through the concentration of industry, socialism has matured in the womb of capitalism through the further concentration and monopolisation of industry and the deindustrialisation, servicisation, automation and digitalisation of labour. The new technological-economic base demands a new, applicable superstructure; ie public ownership of the means of production; an all-socialist state (a people’s democratic republic); centrally planned production on a break-even basis; and the replacement of money by digital (non-transferable) vouchers pegged to labour time.

Indeed, fiat money is becoming more and more worthless — pound sterling having lost more than 99.5% of its purchasing power during its lifetime, for example. Worldwide hyperinflation is already on the horizon.[30]

The age-old arguments about which system works better, capitalism or socialism, are quite redundant — the answer has of course always been socialism, but the point that now has to be stressed is that, for the first time, socialism is becoming an economic necessity.

As Volkov concludes:

“As the mass of exploited manual workers decreases due to scientific and technological progress, particularly automation, the mass of exploited intellectual workers, i.e. white collar employees, engineers and scientists [who increasingly contribute to commodity production] also increases in reverse proportion (or even more rapidly)…[31]

“Capitalism in the age of automation increasingly turns the majority of the population into proletarians and, in doing so, creates all economic, social and political prerequisites for the system’s downfall.”[32]

Notes

[1] Aristotle’s Politics, translated by Carnes Lord, University of Chicago Press, book I, chapter 4, 2013.

[2] Similarly: although the absolute number of slaves in the US continued to grow, the number relative to the whole population tended to fall before slavery was abolished in the US (approx. 25% in 1790 versus 16% in 1860). “Population of the United States, 1790–1860,” ncpedia.org.

[3] “Premature deindustrialization in the developing world”, Dan Rodrik’s Weblog, 12 February 2015.

[4] Andrew Norton, “Automation will end the dream of rapid economic growth for poorer countries”, TheGuardian.com, 20 September 2016.

[5] Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum (weforum.org).

[6] Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin Classics, London, 1993, p. 705.

[7] Ibid, p. 702.

[8] Marx, Capital, 1990, pp496–7. The first generalised example of machine-aided mass production was the printing press, which revolutionised the production of text — the first globally mass-produced product — and images. The cost of books, which had been extremely labour intensive to make, fell to 2% in England of the price of an average manuscript prior to the advent of printing. “A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more than perhaps all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in AD 330.” Quoted in Ben Reynolds, The Coming Revolution, Zero Books, 2018, loc. 122–31. “Ultimately, the explosion of production created by the printing press made it necessary to overcome the limitations of local markets,” says Reynolds. “Thus, the printing press established the industrial production paradigm” (the technical foundation of a mode of production). While it took around 350 years for the industrial production paradigm to expand to other commodities, and 45 years for the steam-powered loom to overtake the handloom in textile production in Britain, it took only a decade for personal computers to make minicomputers obsolete (loc. 569).

[9] Genrikh Volkov, Era of Man or Robot? The Sociological Problems of the Technical Revolution, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1967, p. 159.

[10] Ibid, p. 40.

[11] Marx, 1993, p. 705.

[12] Ibid, p. 700.

[13] Volkov, op cit, p. 45.

[14] Sam Lilley, Automation and Social Progress, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1956, p. 13.

[15] Volkov, op cit, p. 50.

[16] Ibid, pp. 50–1.

[17] Adair Turner, Capitalism in the Age of Robots: Work, Income and Wealth in the 21st Century, Institute for New Economic Thinking, April 2018, p. 5.

[18] The peasantry remains in some small vestiges of rural life in what may be called the neo-colonies of ‘developing nations’, particularly on the African continent. And a significant branch of artisanal labour has not yet been eliminated; namely, the traditional arts. The painter, for example, still produces commodities before securing a sale of their labour-power. In general, they do not own capital, locating this relationship as an artisanal one. While modern branches of the arts (beginning with film) work by the relations of capital and certain traditional artists operate as capitalists, the general organisation of the labour remains in this form.

[19] For example, half the population in Nigeria now has access to the internet. But rather than going through the sequence of adopting landline access and then mobile access, as in Europe and North America, Nigeria leapfrogged the former and adopted mobile internet en masse. (Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, Verso, London, 2019, p. 108.) This is not to claim that capitalist imperialism does not continue to under-develop, or slow the process of development, of the neo-colonies. However, most countries have now industrialised to an extent that was obviously not true before WWII, even if this development has been severely limited due to imperialist parasitism (the export of capital (machinery etc) and high-interest loans; and land grabs by multi- and transnational monopolies based in (mainly) north America and western Europe). Grossman backs up the point: “It is not necessarily true that in countries recently opened up to capitalist production the organic composition is always lower. While West European capitalism may have needed 150 years to evolve from the organisational form of the manufacturing period into the sophisticated world trust, the colonial nations do not need to repeat this entire process. They take over European capital in the most mature forms it has already assumed in the advanced capitalist countries. In this way they skip over a whole series of historical stages, with their peoples dragged straight into gold and diamond mines dominated by trustified capital and its extremely sophisticated technological and financial organisation.” Grossman, The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System (abridged), Pluto Press, 1992, p. 183.

[20] Indeed, many areas of science in the era of late-stage monopoly capitalism are beginning to shake off mechanistic bourgeois theory and look more and more ‘presocialist’ (that is, dialectical, systematic and holistic). As the sociologist Jason Hickel writes: “Science today is beginning to catch up [albeit, as far as Hickel is concerned, with animism, which perceives all things — animals, plants, weather systems, etc— as animated and alive]. Biologists are discovering that humans are not standalone individuals, but composed largely of microorganisms on which we depend for functions as basic as digestion. Psychiatrists are learning that spending time around plants is essential to people’s mental health, and indeed that certain plants can heal humans from complex psychological traumas. Ecologists are learning that trees, far from being inanimate, communicate with each other and even share food and medicine through invisible mycelial networks in the soil. Quantum physicists are teaching us that individual particles that appear to be distinct are inextricably entangled with others, even across vast distances. And Earth-systems scientists are finding evidence that the planet itself operates like a living superorganism.” Hickel, J., Less is More, Windmill Books, London, 2021, p. 33.

[21] Volkov, op cit, pp. 162–4.

[22] Obviously fully automated production needs to be achieved without neo-colonialism or turbocharging the climate crisis. See: The Green New Deal is species suicide — hemp, mycelium and nuclear are infinitely cleaner and greener than solar, wind and lithium

[23] Volkov, op cit, p. 166.

[24] Having inherited an undeveloped peasant-based economy decimated by WWI and then counter-revolution, the Soviet Union faced many major problems, including widespread illiteracy and the dominance of cultural social conservatism (i.e. fiercely patriarchal, religious and xenophobic ‘values’ that had penetrated all classes). Yet there were many phenomenal successes (including much social progress, especially for women and children — numerous studies showed that women enjoyed more economic independence (and as a result, better sex lives (since sex was something to share rather than trade for economic security), as did all genders and sexualities) in East Germany compared to West Germany — including the abolition of both unemployment and economic recession (outside of war-time), and the stunning lead the Soviet Union initially took in the space race. Inventions there included: the radio antenna; 2- and 3-D holography; artificial satellite; the programmable computer; the nuclear power plant and nuclear-powered submarine; the AK assault rifle; the mobile phone; and Tetris. See “Russian inventions in the soviet era”, inventions-handbook.com. According to an eye-witness account from Lilley, in the 1950s the Soviet Union also had the two most advanced automated factories in the world. But the constant aggression the Soviet Union faced from western imperialist powers forced it to spend increasingly heavily on defence at the expense of its civilian economy and again decimated its population and infrastructure during WWII. The situation combined with the scarcity that arose from this was bound to bring about a centralisation of power to a greater degree than desired and at times also manifested in regressive social policy (such as restrictions on abortions when contraceptives could not be imported). That the Soviet Union, where it could circumvent sanctions, had to import various goods and raw materials from capitalist countries also meant it could never fully plan its economy, since volatile foreign prices could not be predicted. For the same reason, nor could money be abolished (although it was used internally, at least at first, only as a kind of index). This also meant there was some logic to allowing a black market to flourish, in order to build up foreign currency, especially the US dollar, the world’s reserve currency, upon which it eventually became too dependent. All this held back the Soviet Union’s ability to transition to the higher stage of communism, resulting in relative economic stagnation and a growing pressure in the direction of capitalist reform, especially from skilled workers and intellectuals who knew they would earn more under capitalism. This latter problem understandably convinces many people that socialism cannot work because of ‘human nature’/greed, but as capitalism is now abolishing itself for good, this potential problem will soon no longer exist (not to mention that world socialism will bring about abundant material wealth for all).

[25] Volkov, op cit, p. 169.

[26] In the past, after partial and temporary but significant economic breakdowns, labour militancy has often been most powerful as loose labour markets (high unemployment, which enables employers to easily replace workers, compelling the latter to accept lower wages) turn into tight labour markets (full employment, and therefore diminished competition between workers), i.e. following plague, famine, or war (which also helps to resolve crises by destroying surplus capital), making the demand for labour higher and therefore increasing labour’s bargaining position and economic independence. Such militancy has usually ended in compromise between capital and labour, even after extremely bloody continent- or globe-straddling conflicts. (The similarities between labour’s massive gains in ‘the Golden Age of the European proletariat’ of 1350–1500 (the overthrow of serfdom, etc), after the Black Death, versus the following four centuries of rollbacks (enclosure, etc); and the post-WWI/II gains (the Soviet Union, socialist China and some other countries in Asia and Africa; and social democracy, which included significant nationalisation programmes, in western Europe, north and Latin America and some African, Asian and Middle Eastern nations) versus the post-1973 rollbacks (globally) are very striking. Two obvious differences: labour ‘went further’ in the second period of gains, overthrowing and becoming the ruling class in Russia, eastern Europe, China and some other Asian and African countries, presumably because the number of poor peasants and labourers had grown relative to the number of capitalists; and because the crisis of capitalism was deeper (draw your own conclusions as to what that indicates for the next period of gains); and the second period of gains and rollbacks also took place over a shorter period of time (approx. 150 (gains) vs 400 years in the first; 70 vs 45 and counting in the second), indicating that history tends to accelerate/periods of class struggle tend to shorten, presumably because of technological innovation and, again, the growth of labour relative to capital and the deepening of capitalist crisis, i.e. the greater level of overaccumulation.)

The automation revolution, however, combined with accumulation coming up against an absolute historical limit and the now exponentially larger size of the global working class, means compromise and reform will not be an option this time — labour will be compelled to go all the way and overthrow capital, globally, for good. Exactly how long this will take — or when the tables will begin to turn this time — given that labour markets now look to be permanently and increasingly loose (as long as capitalism survives) is very difficult to say (and strongly suggests labour cannot simply wait for such conditions to return), but the possibility of money becoming worthless (at least for the vast majority of people) and capital being unable to pay/feed/fuel its police, spies and armies* (which are being privatised and automated!) does at least generate the possibility of the kind of mass defections that have not usually been possible in the past (other than in the case of the near bloodless seizure of power in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (and when hyperinflation hit the Soviet Union), when Russia was badly losing a world war that bourgeois and social democratic reformist leaders wanted to continue). (There is also the possibility that capital will attempt to revert to chattel slavery, which could even form part of plans to colonise Mars, etc (since there is presently no labour to exploit there). This would ultimately fail for the same reasons as in Nazi Germany: the resistance and lethargy of slaves meant they were very unproductive; and the fuel and other costs of transporting, housing and genociding them were too high.) Clearly, compromise on labour’s part in the past has often been driven, perhaps even always, by exhausted economies and war-weariness (including in terms of the Soviet Union taking up a position of ‘peaceful co-existence’ with imperialist powers during and after WWII). To limit conflict as much as possible (especially given the complication of the impact of modern-day weapons on the climate crisis), it may be prudent to compensate the last capitalists (most will go bust before any successful revolution, anyway) for expropriations (just as the extremely rebellious final slave-owners were) via long-term debt repayments, and let them keep their houses and holiday homes. Obviously if genuinely reasonable offers are rejected, they will have to be expropriated without compensation.

* In 2011, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress that a US government default would cause interest rates to spike the world over because US Treasury bonds represent the benchmark borrowing rate and investors would no longer be as sure of future payment. Gudmundson, E., “Secretary Geithner sends debt limit letter to Congress”, Treasury, 1 June 2011.

[28] The base interest rate in the US and UK, the long-time dominant imperialist powers, had never been lower than 1% and 2% respectively before 2010, but has now been stuck at little above 0% more or less ever since.

[29] According to estimates by the Marxist Esteban Maito, the general rate of profit in the ‘high-income countries’ fell overall from a decade average of 43% in the 1870s to 17% in the 2000s. As of 2014, it is on course to reach zero around 2054. The Historical Transience of Capital: The Downward Trend in The Rate of Profit Since XIX Century, Universidad de Buenos Aires, 2014, p. 18.

Average GDP growth rates in what the World Bank defines as ‘high income countries’ are already closing in on zero, having fallen every decade apart from the last one for the past half century: from 5.59% in the 1960s, to 4.15% in the 1970s; 2.93% in the 1980s; 2.35% in the 1990s; and 1.78% in the 2000s. The figure rose slightly to 2.1% in the 2010s, but this minor reprieve, based on murderous austerity measures and record levels of debt, has already proven to be unsustainableMy calculation. Source: WorldBank.org data: GDP growth (annual %) — High income.

[30] For example, whereas the world’s fastest supercomputer in 1975 commanded a price of $5m ($32m in 2013’s money), an iPhone 4 released in 2010 with the equivalent performance was $400. Whereas the first example of Human Genome Sequencing — which, in line with socialist principles, is set to revolutionise health care by making it preventative — required 13 years and billions of dollars, it now takes under an hour and could cost “as little as flushing a toilet” by 2022. (Bastani, op cit, p. 146.) Aerospace companies producing engines in 2010 for $24m in 24 months are now 3-D (three-dimensional) printing them for $2000 in 2 weeks. Furthermore, rather than having globalised supply chains, such companies foresee the entire rocket being built ‘at home’. (Ibid, p. 123.) While ‘offshoring’ manufacturing jobs to the ‘low-income economies’ saves up to 65% on labour costs, replacing human workers with robots saves up to 90%. (Quoted in Stewart, H., “Robot revolution: rise of ‘thinking’ machines could exacerbate inequality”, The Guardian, 5 November 2015).

3-D printing is a type of additive manufacturing, which is far more flexible than traditional manufacturing, since products are built by layering component materials from the bottom up. While commercial prices of 3-D printers fell from $100,000 in 1988 to $1400 in 2015, open source designs can be assembled for as little as $300. The first printers have only been able to print in plastic or steel, but the development of continuous composite printing means they will be able to work with multiple complementary materials simultaneously. Scientists have even developed the ability to print living human kidneys and artificial skin. Edible products like structures made of chocolate or sugar can also be printed and decent sized housing structures can already be printed for as little as $5000. In the future it is likely that printers will be capable of producing goods at the molecular level, i.e. capable of printing anything composed of the molecules used. Ben Reynolds describes additive production — which “fulfils the promise of the personal computer as a means of production”— as a paradigm shift from industrial production to distributive production. “It is conceivable that the logical fulfilment of distributed production — nearly instant production of anything, at will, anywhere in the world — will arrive within the lifetime of children born at the time of this writing… Distributed production fundamentally erodes the basic pillars of capitalism… Any industry that finds itself competing with a form of distributed production will no longer have the option of adaptation through monopolisation. Instead, that industry will flail wildly as prices fall back toward their values and as its entire business model disintegrates in slow motion.” Reynolds, op cit, loc. 589–673, 1813.

[31] Ending a recession usually requires an average 6% cut in the base interest rate set by central banks, but most are already stuck at zero. Governments may be compelled to go deep into negative rates, but this is limited by how much money can be converted into stocks and bonds. Eventually rates will have to go back up, making already unsustainably high government debt even more expensive to repay, at some point causing panic selling of government bonds (with investors switching to hard assets, especially precious metals), bursting the global bond bubble, the biggest financial bubble in history, and sending prices through the roof. The US banking system would collapse, the US government would go bankrupt and tax bases around the world would collapse, since the US dollar is the global reserve currency.

The US dollar is already being devalued at record speed. As of 23 November, 21% of all US dollars in circulation had been printed in 2020, taking the figure to 75% over the past 12 years. The Federal Reserve (the US central bank) has prevented a deflationary spiral in asset prices since February 2020 (when the US stock market crashed by 30% in record time) in order to keep, for example, pension funds afloat. As of 29 February 2020, the Fed held $2.47 trillion, 14.6%, of $16.9 trillion marketable US Treasury securities outstanding, making it by far the largest single holder of US Treasuries anywhere in the world. By the end of March, this rose by an unprecedented monthly increase of $650bn, to $3.12 trillion. One estimate said that if this pace of buying continued, the Fed would “own the entire Treasury market in about 22 months”. (Martens P., Martens R., “The Federal Reserve now owns 15 percent of the US Treasury Market; at its current rate, it could own the whole market in less than two years”, Wall Street on Parade, 28 March 2020.) Capital is increasingly dependent on state subsidies and orders, making the state increasingly dependent on electronic ‘money’ printing from the central bank, with the pandemic response (i.e. subsidising capital with soaring public debt, especially ‘Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Tech’) producing state spending in terms of the percentage of debt to GDP equivalent to the world wars. (The countries that lost the world wars went deep into negative interest rates, incidentally). In August 2020, the chief US equity strategist at US multinational investment firm Morgan Stanley, Mike Wilson, said that the Fed “may not be in control of money supply growth, which means [it] won’t have control of inflation either, if it gets going”.

[32] Ibid, p. 102.

[33] Ibid, p. 164.

Ted Reese

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