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.

After a long and painful evolutionary road some 2000 years later in the epoch of late-stage monopoly capitalism, the possibility of a ‘post-work’ world — with the ongoing development of robotic machinery, artificial intelligence (AI) and other forms of increasingly sophisticated automation — finally seems like a tangible reality. Decades of relatively small, quantitive innovations (with computing power, for example, tending to double every 18–24 months) have led to a point now promising a huge qualitative leap in the economic-technical foundation of society as a whole.

During this time, the global workforce has been increasingly ‘deindustrialised’ — shifted out of manufacturing and in to services.[2] The proportion of manufacturing workers in the total workforce in the US fell from 26.4% in 1970 to 8.51% in 2018.[3] Even Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa have been deindustrialising over the past decade, from a much lower starting point than Asia.[4] 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).[5]

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 (industrial capitalist) narrative trumpets the automation revolution as the ‘fourth’ industrial revolution.[6] 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,[7] slave-owning[8] and feudal systems[9]— 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 that 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”.[10] However, in creating a (primarily social, secondarily technical) division of labour, they did not free him (physical versus mental; rank and file labourers versus labour aristocratic intellectual/repressive managers, etc.). “The hand tool makes the worker independent — posits him as proprietor. Machinery — as fixed capital — posits him as dependent, posits him as appropriated,”[11] says Marx.

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 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 or ideological interpretations of history. (Indeed, Marx’s method 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 that,

“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.”[12]

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.”[13]

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 (WWI), 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. Volkov explains:

“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.”[14]

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.”[15]

This therefore means that capitalism “works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production”,[16] says Marx, since capital’s exploitation of human labour is the source of profit and exchange-value. (The worker keeps less value — or labour time, the real measure of value — than she creates, with the surplus value/labour time ­(necessary labour time covers the labourer’s living costs ) appropriated by the capitalist and realised as profit through commodity sales. This exploitation is obscured by the wage/money relation).[17]

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.”[18]

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”.[19]

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.”[20]

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 insofar 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.”[21]

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 or service/handle commodities (such as courier drivers and pilots carrying cargo; 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 the production of exchange-value.) This 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.[22]

The first industrial revolution began before and necessitated the rise of capitalism[23] (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 economic-technical 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);[24] 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 (e.g. 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.”[25] (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.”[26]

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 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.[27] 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.”[28]

The automation revolution cannot be consummated under capitalismsocialism must be established to finish what capitalism started.[29]

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 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”.[30]

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 therefore humanised) as (exploited) labour itself is automated. This then is the second industrial revolution.

Marxists therefore reject the bourgeois definition that posits the development of automatic machinery as the fourth industrial revolution.

Automation: a humanised (self-controlled) force

One of the projects championed by Fidel Castro in socialist Cuba was a biotechnology mission, beginning a year after the revolution. In 1960, Castro declared that “the future of our homeland must be that of men of science”. At his insistence, Cuba established a National Centre for Scientific Research (CNIC), the Centre for Molecular Immunology (CIM), the Finlay Institute and the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB).

Volkov wrote that,

“It is only logical to expect that the next foreseeable leap in technology will be tied up with the use of production of the biological properties of living matter with a view to achieving an even more radical transformation of nature…. Biochemical and bionic technology will enable us to transform living nature, plants and animals, direct the activity of living matter and make use of its marvellous properties for the good of mankind. Bionic technology will take the form of artificial sense, of organs of thought and psychology, which will reinforce and improve the functioning of the natural sense organs.”[31]

Rather than being a force alienated from humans, technology would thereby, under communism, become a “humanised force” designed to satisfy man’s needs and assist him in his various activities, including those of his body.[32] Bionic machines would “assume entirely unexpected forms” and at the time of writing (in 1967), “already, devices are being worked out in which a living body is fitted into a technical system”. The reflexes of a living body are much more efficient than “the present-day electronic control devices modelled on them”.

“It is therefore expedient and theoretically possible to use the nervous system of, say, a rabbit, dog or other animal in such a way as to make the biological currents controlling the heart also control a technical unit…. The organism’s biological currents can be used as control signals for transmitting information and supplying electricity to instruments.”[33]

Fifty years later, however, such possibilities have not really materialised beyond the expensive labs of mega-corporations and military facilities. Despite massive progress within those confines, robots are still more cumbersome than an athletic human, although the gap is increasingly narrow. The most advanced (and expensive) bionic leg has only recently been able to reproduce the agility of a human leg. Because production is now so capital-intensive, making capital increasingly unprofitable to (re)invest in production, the rate of technological progress has tended to slow down. The technical use of biological energy, a totally clean form of energy production, has not been realised on a level that can be generalised and diffused. Volkov said that biological methods of acting on nature

“correspond to the principles of automation even closer than chemical methods, inasmuch as a biological cell, and doubly so a living body, is the most efficient automatic (self-controlled) system there is. It is precisely this unity of the principles of control which makes possible an astonishing symbiosis of technical and biological elements. This same unity enables us to ‘humanise’ technology, ie to set up technical systems best adapted and adjusted to the possibilities of the human body. Such technical systems will permit us to amplify many times over the activity of the human senses and brain. The man-technology system will thus assume a new, efficient form in which technology will really play the role of a set of artificial organs of social man.”[34]

The clean, renewable and hyper-efficient technologies of the future will have to be fully realised under socialism and communism.

Towards a Single Automatic System

The maturity of technology that socialism will inherit in the 21st century means that the problems associated with central planning in 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 Bolshevik leaders thought capitalism was entering its final crisis at that time, despite the fact that Russia had only partially transitioned away from feudal, agricultural relations.)[35] Thanks to contemporary computing power, ‘big data’ and stock coding, the dominant ‘command and control’ military-style planning that overlooked the finer details and smaller components 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.”[36]

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

Two essential points must be grasped about automation. Firstly, the economic-technical base of society (our social formation) is becoming automated, self-controlled and therefore free and human. Hence why Marx called communism “the beginning of human history”. Secondly: automation 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 thus 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, surplus value and therefore exchange-value and profit tends to be contained in each commodity, compelling the capitalist to offset this decline by expanding 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 increasing overaccumulation of capital (a surplus that is unprofitable to (re)invest, resulting also in the equivalent surplus labour (unemployment)) and periodic contractions in economic output that tend to worsen. This overaccumulation is at the same time an underproduction of surplus value. The necessary reaction for capital is to expand and cheapen the labour base and raise its productivity (of surplus value) through innovation, only to increase the underproduction of surplus value in the long-run, since the amount of machinery/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, 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 and economies of scale (drives for efficiency)).

Since wages eat into thinning profit margins, expenditure on wages must be slashed. Robots not only work faster, they do not need toilet/rest/lunch breaks, sick or holiday pay, and are therefore much more productive and cheaper to employ. They also require less supervision, meaning capitalists can afford to employ fewer managers (of labour), including police and other repressive strata, meaning the labour aristocracy also shrinks.

There is no such thing as ‘technological unemployment’, though; people go unemployed when capital can no longer afford to employ them (so socialism, by contrast, is capable of permanent full, formal employment; and would take advantage of automated production by training and employing workers in industries that under capitalism are notoriously under-staffed; i.e. far more scientists, engineers, 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,[37] 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.[38] Indeed, interest,[39] GDP and general profit rates have all trended historically towards zero,[40] along with commodity prices.[41]

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 expansion, concentration and monopolisation of industry along with the increasing deindustrialisation, servicisation, automation, digitalisation and humanisation of labour. The new economic-technical base demands a new, applicable superstructure; i.e. public (human) ownership of the means of production; an all-socialist state (a people’s democratic republic made up of centralised workers’ councils); 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.[42]

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 socialism is now becoming an economic necessity for the first time.

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)…[43]

“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.”[44]

Ted Reese is author of Socialism or Extinction: Climate, Automation and War in the Final Capitalist Breakdown (2019/21) and The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (out May 2022).

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

[2] According to the US Census Bureau, the service sector produces intangible goods, more precisely services instead of goods, and, it comprises various service industries including warehousing and transportation services; information services; securities and other investment services; professional services; waste management; health care and social assistance; and arts, entertainment, and recreation.

[3] 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.

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

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

[6] “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, World Economic Forum (weforum.org).

[7] In hunter-gatherer societies, the male and female sex practiced a form of group marriage, and as paternity could not be established descent was traced through the mother. The emergence of agriculture, surplus production and private property relegated women from a position of equality to one of primarily producing labourers to work the land. As the obvious inheritors of private property had to be legitimate heirs, this precipitated the invention of monogamous marriage and the enforced fidelity of the wife, replacing the matrilineal system with a patrilineal one so that paternity could be determined. Communism then will also complete the ‘sexual revolution’ as women (including those not in the sex trade per se) will no longer have to ‘sell sex’ to men in return for economic security; and contraception will be abundant and free for all; while the material basis for the exploitative sex trade will of course also disappear. People will finally be able to enjoy relationships free of economic considerations. A number of studies found that women (and all genders and sexualities) enjoyed much more satisfactory sex lives in socialist East Germany compared to capitalist West Germany, since sex was seen as a natural need and something to share rather than trade. Indeed, birth rates in late monopoly capitalism are falling and people are generally having far less sex since the 2007–09 global financial crash. (Ghodsee, K., Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism And Other Arguments For Economic Independence, Vintage, London pp. 132–9.)

[8] Slavery itself represented progress relative to the preceding universal war. During the US Civil War (1861–5), Marx wrote in support of the ‘bourgeois republic’ in the North against the slave oligarchy of the South, convinced that the complete abolition of slavery was a precondition for the emancipation of the US working class and that “labour in white skin cannot achieve dignity as long as it is despised in a black skin”. Furthermore, writes Henryk Grossman, slavery’s “inherent expansionist tendencies limited the possibilities for northern industrial capital and hence the development of the industrial proletariat”. Slavery was inherently dependent on expansion since land was cultivated by means of extensive farming — i.e. the intensive nature of slave labour exhausted the land. To preserve themselves, slavers had to export slaves and seize new territory. For Marx, the US form of slavery differed to the purely consumptionist system of antiquity (the ancient past) since it was part of the present profit-making system that served the world market. Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 came with the demand from Republicans to limit slavery to the South, to push it back out of the ‘free states’. The union therefore became worthless to the South. Its war against the North was not a defensive one for the status quo but a war of aggression and conquest. “It was not difficult to predict that, in this case, the living standards of the white working class of the North would gradually be forced down to the level of the slaves,” says Grossman. Lincoln eventually accepted that, to save the Union — and its most agricultural regions — slavery would have to be abolished. “It was an unavoidable struggle between two social systems that could no longer peacefully coexist, because the continued existence of the one was only possible by virtue of its victory over the other!” Grossman, H., edited by Kuhn, R., Henryk Grossman Works volume 1, Brill 2017 pp. 455–8. Soviet leaders that promoted peaceful co-existence with imperialist powers apparently did not adopt the same sort of logic, although their position was more likely driven by the impossibility of defeating US imperialism at that time. The lessons for the coming global struggle for socialism are clear: the old ruling class — representing a decaying political superstructure that is being made increasingly obsolete by the evolving economical-technical base — is compelled to start the class struggle. Eventually the old ruling class must ‘bite off more than it can chew’, i.e. attack — too intensely — an unmanageably large proportion of the masses, who are therefore compelled to fight back and overthrow the old ruling class; and become the new ruling class.

[9] After the so-called Black Plague (1346–53), the contraction in the labour market saw the demand for labour rise dramatically in relative terms (per labourer). Labour militancy exploded to the point that the peasantry abolished serfdom (the condition of a tenant farmer bound to a hereditary plot of land and to the will of a landlord). While the ex-serfs enjoyed ‘The Golden Age of the Proletariat’ over the course of the next century or so, ‘elites’ suffering from ‘disaccumulation’ plotted to brutally re-expropriate common land through the enclosure movement (which took place alongside the even more brutal process of colonialism). The re-loosening of labour markets and innovations that enabled greater mass production and concentrated capital into fewer hands doubtlessly aided the process.

[10] Marx, K., Grundrisse, p. 705 (Penguin Classics, London, 1993).

[11] Ibid, p. 702.

[12] Marx, Capital vol I, pp. 496–7 (Penguin Classics, London, 1990). 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 50th 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 A.D. 330.” Quoted in Reynolds, B., The Coming Revolution, loc. 122–31 (Zer0 Books, 2018). “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).

[13] Volkov, G., Era of Man or Robot? The Sociological Problems of the Technical Revolution, p. 159 (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1967).

[14] Ibid, p. 40.

[15] Ibid, p. 40.

[16] Ibid, p. 700.

[17] For mathematical proof of the labour theory of value, see Kliman, A., (1999) “Debt, economic crisis, and the tendential fall in the profit rate: a temporal perspective”; and Cockshott, P. (2008), “How physics is validating the labour theory of value”.

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

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

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

[21] Ibid, pp. 50–1.

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

[23] As the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel writes, the “final dark episode” of the enclosure movement of the 17th and 18th centuries — the privatisation of common land that brutally expropriated and proletarianised the peasantry — “coincided exactly with the Industrial Revolution”. Less Is More, Windmill Books, 2021, p. 39.

[24] 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. A significant branch of artisanal labour has not yet been eliminated either; 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.

[25] Half the population in Nigeria now has access to the internet, for example. 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. (Bastani, A., Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, Verso, London, 2019, p. 108.) This is not to claim that capitalist imperialism has not continued to under-develop, or slow the process of development, of the neo-colonies. Most countries, however, 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 (i.e. the export of capital (machinery) and high-interest loans; and land grabs by multi- and transnational monopolies based (mainly) in North America and western Europe). The 20th century Marxist Henryk 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, H., The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System (abridged), Pluto Press, 1992, p. 183.

[26] Indeed, many areas of science in the era of late-stage monopoly capitalism are beginning to shake off mechanistic (seeing nature, including human bodies, as (merely productive) machinery) and dualistic (sentient humans, the thinking subject, versus the lifeless objects of nature, to be possessed; or civilised versus savage, justifying colonialism) bourgeois theory — and look more and more ‘pre-socialist’ (that is, dialectical (dynamic processes), systematic, holistic). As Hickel writes: “Science today is beginning to catch up [albeit, as far as Hickel is concerned, with indigenous and peasant animist theories (which capitalist ideology aimed to crush), which perceive all things — animals, plants, weather systems, etc — as animated, alive and essentially interconnected ­– a worldview hardly incompatible with Marxism]. 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, op cit, p. 33.

These developments in science reflect the increasing interconnectedness of the global economic-technical base and are therefore ‘permitted’ (while the political superstructure outwardly reinforces dualistic thought for the purposes of divide and conquer) in order to keep developing the base in order to keep cheapening labour and accelerating the circulation and turnover of capital — culminating in ‘the internet of things’, an online network of physical objects embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the internet. This development in itself reflects capital accumulation’s increasing dependence on monetising data — especially personal data created through unpaid labour, since next to no labour is needed to produce each unit of data, resulting in an increasingly invasive and oppressive superstructure — which has become more profitable than oil. See “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”, The Economist, 6 March 2017.

This dependence on data is especially significant because as Grossman says, “The physical nature of the commodity is a necessary precondition of its accumulation. Values enter the circulation of commodities, and thereby represent an accumulation of capital, only insofar as they acquire a materialised form.” Grossman, 1992, p. 153. Data is certainly physical in the sense that it must be stored somewhere, but this storage (per unit) is increasingly small. The nodes on a computer chip are measured by the nanometre (nm) — ie one billionth of a metre, or 100,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper. The smaller the node, the more can be fitted into the same small space. In 1965, a single transistor spanned the width of a fibre of cotton and cost $8 in 2018 money. Now, billions of transistors can be squeezed onto a chip the size of a fingernail, with the cost per unit having fallen to a tiny fraction of a cent (Bastani, op cit, p. 43). Sales of the 10nm class began in 2016, following on from 14nm in 2014, 22nm in 2012, and 32nm in 2010. Production of the 7nm class began in June 2017 and the 5nm class was expected to go on sale in 2020, but suffered delays, doubtlessly due to the deepening crisis of capitalism. At the same time, however, the exponential increase in data maintains rising demand for energy and storage tech in absolute terms.

[27] While it is true that the cultural and technical standards of the working class have tended to rise, the commodity fetish (the fetishisation of commodity/money/wage relations that obscure exploitative social relations) tends to strengthen in reaction to the increasing prospect of economic collapse. The ruling class also does everything in its power to lower and scramble class consciousness. The lower the general rate of profit gets, the more the mass (privately owned) media (which is compelled to cheapen its own production, anyway) aims to ‘dumb down’ and desensitise the working class to the violence, oppression and exploitation it faces. While the conservative factions of the ruling class tend to promote ‘traditional’ bigotry, the liberal faction tends to feed into this ‘culture war’ by promoting largely illusory ‘progress’ for individual ‘identities’ (genders, races, sexualities, ‘sex workers’, etc.) with the aim of reinforcing economically/socially constructed divides within the working class. Communists oppose discrimination against oppressed minorities but stress that doing so successfully requires focusing first and foremost on building working class unity. Furthermore: during the unprecedented global ‘lockdowns’ imposed by the ruling class in response to the arguably manufactured ‘COVID-19 pandemic’ starting in late 2019 — just as GDP growth had ground to a complete halt — brains shrank as a result of sensory deprivation and cerebral inactivity (“I have ‘pandemic brain’. Will I ever be able to concentrate again?”, The Guardian [online], 2021); and, with schools closed, child literacy fell significantly (“Covid ‘may leave 12 million children unable to read’”, The Guardian (online), 2021). (For an analysis of developments since late 2019, see Reese, T., “Capital’s profitability now depends on ‘lockdowns’, acute social enclosure, and ‘medical’ tyranny”, grossmanite.medium.com.) Deploying an array of bewildering psychological operations — usually aimed at creating a public clamour for stronger police/state powers, for example, by exaggerating spikes in crime or even manufacturing crime — the ruling class is waging an all-out assault on human consciousness. With capital’s dependence on monetising data rising exponentially and scientists having claimed to be able to implant memories in the brains of mice (“False memories implanted into the brains of sleeping mice”, The Guardian [online], 2015), we cannot rule out the possibility that the most ruthless sections of the ruling class are aiming to increasingly lock humanity into a world of virtual reality, as in the film Ready Player One or even The Matrix (where robots use unconscious humans as a power source). With surplus labour time tending towards completely subsuming necessary labour time, the ruling class will be compelled to attempt to re-establish absolute slavery if it is not to be overthrown by socialism. And with the fairly constant plundering of personal data, the trend towards 24/7 exploitation is already well underway. Even if any such extreme ‘dystopian’ scenario could somehow be established, however, the limit to exploitation (24/7, 365 days a year) remains, and so socialism remains an economic historical necessity.

[28] Volkov, op cit, pp. 162–4.

[29] Obviously fully automated production needs to be achieved without neo-colonialism or turbocharging the climate crisis. Along with other fibrous plants, such as kenaf and bamboo, hemp can potentially largely replace the materials that we currently extract from the earth (including trees).

Firstly, though, we should establish the role automation itself must play in solving the environmental and climate crises, since renewable energy is essentially a form of automation. Volkov wrote: “The opinion of sociologists and economists varies as to the main trends of scientific and technological progress, and their relative importance and role. Some lay emphasis on automation, others on atomic energy or conquest of outer space, and still others on the development of production mainly along chemical lines. But automation is not just one of these trends. It is a historically conditioned form of industrial development in a new historical stage of technical development, and is an element of all modern scientific and technological progress, and all its trends. The development of production along chemical, biological, or ‘cosmic’ lines (i.e., the application for industrial purposes of space, and, in terms of the future, also the organisation of production in outer space), and the use of the new powerful sources of energy — all this is tied up with automation and is inconceivable without it.” This is because a new form of energy “will not yield a substantial increase in the productivity of social labour unless the necessary technical conditions are provided for obtaining and using it, including automation as an indispensable factor. It is not until these conditions are available that the new source of energy will accelerate technological progress and act as a pusher of further changes in the ‘man-technology’ system.” (Op cit, p. 54.) Marx could see that the mechanical treatment of materials would give way to chemical methods. But before those methods could be applied in industry, they had to be given the corresponding technological form in terms of mechanisation or automation. Unlike mechanical methods of treating matter, “chemical reactions do not require the use of implements exerting a direct influence on the object of labour. The chemical properties themselves play the role of such ‘implements’. Nor is there any need for the power required in mechanical methods for driving the tools. Once the substances have been brought into contact, the reaction generally proceeds automatically…. In addition, whereas mechanical treatment is the result of a series of discrete, disjointed, singular movements, chemical treatment is continuous by nature, since chemical reactions go on without interruption. Automatic processes and continuity are the indispensable features typical of automation. Hence, chemical methods of treatment correspond to the very essence of automation (which cannot be said about mechanical and certain physical methods). Furthermore, chemical methods cannot dispense with automation, inasmuch as many chemical processes are harmful to health, and also because their control requires absolute precision, which only cybernetical devices can ensure. Close alliance between chemistry and automation will lead to the creation of new synthetic materials with miraculous properties, and this will revolutionise automation itself. Bulky automatic lines consisting of mechanical units with their complex and noisy systems of transmission and transportation will give way to compact, noiseless, elegant and dependable plastic installations.” (Op cit, p. 56–7.) Imagine, then, a lightweight Single Automated System built out of plant-based plastics/graphene. What’s more — and this was something, Volkov points out, that sci-fi novelists and other bourgeois prophets failed to anticipate — because “light, space and greenery are absolutely redundant for cybernetical installations… it seems more likely that automatic production of material wealth will be transferred underground, for man will thus avoid polluting the atmosphere and encumbering our planet, while enjoying to his heart’s content the vegetation and sunshine on its surface”. (Op cit, p. 64.) The accelerated development of automation under socialism — since the fetters on production of the profit motive and surplus capital will be removed — will minimise the mass of land dedicated to industry, increasingly creating more space above ground for reforestation, rewilding, hemp farming, countryside, public parks, and so on. In this way, whereas automation intensifies the alienation between man and nature under capitalism, it reunites them under communism.

One of the most institutionalised forms of this alienation — the worker is alienated from the products she makes that are appropriated by the capitalist; and since these products are made from nature, she is also alienated from nature — has been the prohibition and under-utilisation of hemp. Hemp in Latin actually means ‘useful’ — surely making it the ideal match for the use-value basis of socialism — since it is one of the only plant species that provides food/medicine, fuel and fibre. It was used prolifically by humans for at least 10,000 years before capitalism, which had to prohibit its production because its low labour intensity makes it relatively unprofitable and its versatility and cheapness threatened labour-intensive extractive industries. It is only now that the fossil fuel and other extractive industries have become so capital-intensive and therefore increasingly unprofitable that hemp and cannabis prohibition has started to end.

Hemp grows very quickly with little water, making it drought-resistant; heals and cleanses even the most damaged and poisoned soil, reversing land degradation and desertification, thanks to its deep aerating root system; and draws down CO2 from the atmosphere faster than any other plant. Since it grows tightly packed, nor does it need toxic pesticides that damage and ruin the soil and its biodiversity. Biofuel obviously releases gasses previously trapped in the plant back into the atmosphere when burned. But the unburned products made from hemp sequester the CO2 indefinitely. Highly-insular hempcrete makes the entire process of constructing and using buildings carbon-negative. A worldwide hemp/plant-based industrial revolution is therefore absolutely essential if we are to reverse desertification and stabilise the climate; and with the added bonuses of ending pollution, whether plastic or atmospheric, and furthering technological and industrial advancement: scientists have found that hemp graphene outperform lithium and conventional graphene as supercapacitors and conductors.

(Similarly, mycelium, a type of fungus, can be coaxed, using temperature, CO2, humidity and airflow, to rapidly build fibrous structures for things such as “packaging, clothing, food and construction — everything from leather to plant-based steak to scaffolding for growing organs”; all with minimal (mostly compostable) waste and energy consumption. (Bayer, E., (2019), “The mycelium revolution is upon us”, ScientificAmerican.com.) Mycelium is also used to bind hemp bricks. See also: Adamatzky, A., (2018) “Towards fungal computer”.

Other examples of fibrous plants that can be used in hi-tech production: banana peel can be made into high-performance sodium-ion batteries. Solar panels can be made from leaves and grass clippings (‘MIT creates solar cell from grass clippings’, Extreme Tech (online), 2012.) Other general options include: carbon-negative ‘sky mining’. This can be employed, for example, to make diamonds that are physically and chemically identical to those mined from the earth by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. Producing a conventional one carat diamond requires the shifting of around 1,000 tonnes of rock and earth, consumes almost 4,000 litres of water, and generates more than 100kg of carbon emissions. (‘UK ‘sky mining’ facility creates carbon-negative diamonds’, Engineering & Technology (online), 30 October, 2020.) Gold that is ‘purer’ than mined gold, meanwhile, can be grown in labs. (Mettal, G., et al., (2018) Nobler than the Noblest: Noncubic Gold Microcrystallites, Angewandte Chemie.))

We are not calling for a hemp monoculture. In 1984 it was estimated that just 6% (90 million acres) of contiguous US land cultivating hemp could supply all then-current demands for oil and gas, while maintaining a neutral carbon system. (‘Coincidentally’, the US government pays farmers not to grow on 6% of the farming land (to keep food prices high.)* Clearly the figure would have to be higher than 6% if hemp were also to replace steel, concrete, plastic and lithium, etc. While the economy is now much bigger than in 1984, a lot of what we presently produce is completely wasteful — much novelty tat, bombs, energy-intensive financial systems, etc. — made only to serve the needs of accumulation. As things like lab-grown food and 3D-printing become more diffuse and ‘localised’, as local life becomes more pleasurable, and public transport improves exponentially, private forms of transport like cars will become increasingly obsolete, too. And as the means of production become smaller and move underground, there will be more overground space to revive the environment and biodiversity. So a hemp monoculture is not necessary. (Sources: ‘History of hemp’, Hemp.com; Burns, J. (2020), ‘How cannabis coevolved with humanity, and could save it now’, Forbes.com; Briggs, J. (2012), ‘Hemp fuel guide’, Hemp Frontiers; Kaucic, G. (2019), ‘A sustainable alternative to fossil fuels: hemp & biofuel’, Hemp History Week; Mitlin, D., et al (2013); Interconnected Carbon Nanosheets Derived from Hemp for Ultrafast Supercapacitors with High Energy’, American Chemical Society Publications; Murray-Smith, R. (2017), ‘The hemp battery performs better than the lithium battery’, Cannabis Tech; UK Hempcrete, ‘Better-than-zero-carbon buildings’; Martino, J. (2012), ‘How hemp became illegal: the marijuana link’, Collective-Evolution.com.)

(There is also a growing body of anecdotal evidence that hempcrete can absorb reasonable quantities of electromagnetic interference (EMI). (“Why we should build with Hempcrete”, Hemptank.co.uk, 2019.) The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.)

There is also the potential for micro-organisms to supply a near-infinite source of energy. In 2018, scientists in the US confirmed a theory first proposed by Soviet geologists when they found huge populations of bacteria living in the extreme temperatures of Earth’s crust, despite the lack of photosynthesis and nutrients, living solely from chemical reactions fuelled by geothermal energy. They estimated that up to 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms live in this “deep biosphere”, making it the largest ecosystem on the planet and accounting for nearly 400 times the amount of carbon found in all living humans. Here lies a potential source of abundant energy (although we will have to assess whether the benefits outweigh the impacts of drilling).

Other scientists have even found that the Geobacter bacteria found in human waste can convert sewage into fresh water and produce electricity in the process. It is now thought that one day microbial fuel cells could power our phones, household appliances — and even spaceships.

Investment in microbial fuel cells will remain seriously limited, however, until value-creation is based solely on utility instead of exploitation and profit, since capital cannot exploit the labour time of microbes!

Emissions-free, energy-dense nuclear power, is also an option. The initial impact of mining uranium on the environment must be re-assessed by an independent socialist state, but to prove our earlier point, nuclear has not been abandoned because of safety fears, but because its capital-intensity has become unprofitable as ever-growing total capital becomes harder and harder to expand by the relatively diminishing pool of human labour. In terms of worker safety, nuclear is the safest form of energy production.

There is also the prospect of space-based solar power and associated wireless transmission, without the intermittency of night time or winter suffered by solar panels and wind turbines on Earth. This, too, however, has proven too expensive for investors who won’t invest without the prospect of a higher return.

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

[31] Volkov, op cit, p58–9.

[32] Ibid, p60.

[33] Ibid, p60–1.

[34] Ibid, p62.

[35] 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 the ruling class had cultivated in all classes). Yet there were many phenomenal successes, including the abolition of both unemployment and economic recession (outside of wartime), and the stunning lead the Soviet Union initially took in the space race. Soviet inventions 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. The continual aggression the Soviet Union faced from western imperialist powers, however, 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 the socialist bloc 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).

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

[37] At the end of May 2021, it was reported that, “A military drone may have autonomously attacked humans for the first time without being instructed to do so, according to a recent report by the United Nations Security Council. The report, published in March, claimed that the AI drone — Kargu-2 quadcopter — produced by Turkish military tech company STM, attacked retreating soldiers loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. The 548-page report by the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya has not delved into details on if there were any deaths due to the incident, but it raises questions on whether global efforts to ban killer autonomous robots before they are built may be futile.” (“Military drones may have attacked humans for first time without being instructed to, UN report says”, The Independent (online), 31 May 2021.)

Like the rise of CCTV and new forms of advanced surveillance, such as face-recognition tech, the primary reason for the rise of ‘killer robots’ is again the demands of accumulation: wages eat into profit margins, even when paid by the state — such money could otherwise go to subsidising capital directly. The other benefit of increasingly sophisticated surveillance is the data that can be gleaned from people’s phones and computers and sold on to third parties.

Could robots turn on humans in general? As an ‘ethical safeguard’, autonomous weapons should apparantly be programmed to ‘target combatants only’ — but what if, in a war-torn world where all humans have been reduced to surplus labour, every human is forced to become a combatant, scavenging to survive? This hypothetical scenario evokes a fight for socialism that becomes a protracted struggle by an already classless, lumpenised humanity against the common enemy of the ‘dictatorship of artificial intelligence’. Something like this would have to unfold in stages, of course. Perhaps robots could be programmed not to kill a select group of controlling human dictators, at least at first. Autonomous weapons may not need to become ‘self aware’, as in Terminator, to instigate ‘Judgement Day’, though (when the war of man versus machine begins). In April 2018, the RAND Corporation warned that AI could undermine the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) rationale that is meant to deter nuclear war. Geist and John, (“How Might Artificial Intelligence Affect the Risk of Nuclear War?”, RAND.org, 2018.) Programmers have claimed that the algorythms autonomous machines run on are already “out of control” since ‘machine-learning’ means they have learned to self-code. (“Rise of the machines: has technology evolved beyond our control?”, The Guardian (online), 15 June 2018.) This ‘learning’, though, seems to be based on extrapolations of information starting from that input by biased or Machiavellian human programmers. Predictive policing algorithms have proven to be racist, for example. (“Predictive policing algorithms are racist. They need to be dismantled,” MIT Technology Review, 17 July 2020.)

Tesla owner Elon Musk, seeing only a business opportunity, has claimed that humans will only be able to survive the robot age by merging with machines. Under capitalism, the latest developments in technology would be used increasingly to raise the productivity of labour, fight wars and strip away human rights. A ‘think piece’ on ‘human augmentation’ on the UK government’s website published in June 2021 (since deleted) stated that: “People have legal rights and machines do not, but human augmentation will make it increasingly difficult to adopt this binary approach as machines are integrated with our bodies… It could be argued that treatments involving novel vaccination processes and gene and cell therapies are examples of human augmentation already in the pipeline. Genetic engineering refers to the modification of reproductive cells. Germline modification affects all cells in the organism and the change is passed on to the next generation. Brain interfaces, also known as neural interfaces or brain computer interfaces, enable direct communication between brain and computer. Neurostimulation can be used to change brain function. One company has developed a neurosurgery robot capable of implanting flexible polymer threads, each the width of a human hair fitted with 32 electrodes, into the brain. The technology is being used on rodents and is intended for future human use. Implanted augmentations incur medical risk and there may be side effects that manifest long after safety certification has been awarded.”

Socialism will not throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course. Innovation continues under any mode of production, and socialism is needed to complete the automation revolution. See page 13, under the heading ‘Automation: a humanised (self-controlled) force’.

[38] Labour militancy in the past has often been at its most powerful as loose labour markets tighten (i.e., when high unemployment turns into high/full employment), usually via war, famine, etc., diminishing competition between workers and making the demand for labour (per worker) higher, increasing labour’s bargaining position and economic independence as a whole. (Loose labour markets provide capital with a reserve army of cheap labour, compelling the employed to accept lower wages.) Such militancy has usually ended in compromise between capital and labour, even after extremely bloody continent- or globe-straddling conflicts. There are very striking similarities between labour’s massive gains in ‘the Golden Age of the European proletariat’ of approx. 1360–1500 (the overthrow of serfdom, etc.), after the so-called Black Death, versus the following four centuries of rollbacks (enclosure, colonialism, etc.); and the post-WWI/II gains (a number of socialist revolutions plus numerous social democracies that included significant nationalisation programmes) versus the post-1973 rollbacks (globally). Two encouraging differences: firstly, labour ‘went further’ in the second period of gains, presumably because the number of poor peasants and labourers had grown relative to the number of landlords and capitalists; and because the economic crisis was deeper. Secondly, the second period of gains and rollbacks took place over a shorter period of time (approx. 150 (gains) versus 400 years in the first; 70 versus 45 and counting in the second), indicating that history tends to accelerate/periods of class struggle tend to shorten, presumably because of technological advances and, again, the growth of labour relative to capital and the deepening of economic crisis, i.e. the greater level of overaccumulation. The final crisis combined with the automation revolution, however, poses the likely new problem of an ever-looser labour market, amid populations exponentially greater than even a century ago. Marx certainly thought developments that “put the majority of the population out of [work]” would “cause a revolution” (1991, p. 372). Paul Mattick, writing in 1934, after the failures of several revolutionary situations, concluded that: “Only when the proletariat must necessarily be absolutely pauperised are objective conditions ripe for a real revolutionary movement.” (“The Permanent Crisis — Henryk Grossman’s Interpretation of Marx’s Theory Of Capitalist Accumulation”, Paul Mattick Texts 1, 1926–70, p. 114 (Word doc.)). With automation abolishing the source of profit, compromise and reform will finally no longer be an option. Exactly how long the global revolution may take is impossible to say, but the prospect of money becoming increasingly worthless for the vast majority of people; and the possibility that capital may not be able, at some stage, 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 sparked the collapse of 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 resort 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 exterminating became too onerous.) Clearly, compromise on labour’s part in the past has often been driven, perhaps even always, by exhaustion and war-weariness (including in terms of the Soviet Union taking up a position of ‘peaceful co-existence’ (in practice, to varying degrees) 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 permit them to 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 (failure to repay its debt) would cause interest rates to spike globally because US Treasury bonds represent the benchmark borrowing rate and investors would no longer be as sure of future payment. “Secretary Geithner sends debt limit letter to Congress”, Treasury (online), 1 June 2011.

[39] 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 0% more or less ever since.

[40] According to estimates by the Marxist Esteban Maito, the general rate of profit in the ‘core’ i.e. imperialist 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 unsustainable. My calculation. Source: WorldBank.org “GDP growth (annual %) — High income” (online).

The history of interest rates provides further evidence of the same phenomenon. Paul Schmelzing, an economic historian from Harvard University, has produced the most comprehensive survey to date of long-term interest rates, going back to the 14th century. His work shows that today’s low short-term yields follow logically from a downwards historical trend. “The century-average safe real rate peaked in the 15th century at 9.1%, and declined to 6.1% in the 16th century, followed by 4.6% in the 17th, 3.5% in the 18th century, and 1.3% (thus far) for the 21st century… My new data showed that long-term real rates — be it in the form of private debt, non-marketable loans, or the global sovereign ‘safe asset’ — should always have been expected to hit ‘zero bounds’ around the time of the late 20th and early 21st century, if put into long-term historical context.” Even negative long-term real rates “have steadily become more frequent”. Schmelzing says, therefore, that low rates cannot be explained merely by ‘secular stagnation’, i.e. a long-term period of low or no economic growth, as is claimed by mainstream liberal economists. The US ‘libertarian’ right blames the establishment of a central bank and the severing of the gold standard in 1913. The overall trend, though, has “persisted across a variety of monetary regimes: fiat- and non-fiat, with and without the existence of public monetary institutions… The long-term historical data suggests that, whatever the ultimate driver, or combination of drivers, the forces responsible have been indifferent to monetary or political regimes; they have kept exercising their pull on interest rate levels irrespective of the existence of central banks, (de jure) usury laws, or permanently higher public expenditures. They persisted in what amounted to early modern patrician plutocracies, as well as in modern democratic environments, in periods of low-level feudal Condottieri battles, and in those of professional, mechanised mass warfare.” Paul Schmelzing, “Eight centuries of global real interest rates, R-G, and the ‘suprasecular’ decline, 1311–2018”, bankofengland.co.uk, 3 January 2020, pp. 3–79.

[41] 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 $2,000 in two 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 (online), 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 $1,400 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 $5,000. 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 [i.e. measured in labour time] and as its entire business model disintegrates in slow motion.” Reynolds, op cit, loc. 589–673, 1813.

[42] 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 option 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, since the US dollar is the global reserve currency, would hit rock bottom. The US dollar is 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) prevented a deflationary spiral (although inflation was close to 0% for 18 months during ‘lockdowns’, below the target 2% that provides stability while incentivising lending) in asset prices after March 2020 (when the US stock market crashed by 30% in record time) in order to keep, for example, pension and hedge 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 2020, 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 (online), 28 March 2020.) Capital is increasingly dependent on state subsidies and purchases, 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 temporarily 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”. The prospect of worldwide hyperinflation fits logically with the historical devaluation of fiat (unbacked — by gold, for example — paper) currency. The US dollar lost more than 97% of its purchasing power between 1635 and 2019, but this devaluation has tended to accelerate — the figure is 96% when the starting point is taken from 1913, having remained nearly unchanged in the previous 120 years; 91% from 1947, when the US became the world’s leading imperialist power; and 85% since 1970, around the time the postwar productivity boom ended. For British pound sterling, the figure is more than 99.5% compared to 1694, the year it was adopted as the Royal Chartered Bank of England’s currency (93.5% since 1970). (Source: officialdata.org.)

[43] Ibid, p. 102.

[44] Ibid, p. 164.

Ted Reese is a Marxist economist and author of Socialism or Extinction (self-published) and The End of Capitalism: The Thought of Henryk Grossman (Zer0 Books)