Automating away class struggle?

Sam Kriss wrote a pretty good critique a little while back in Viewpoint Magazine of the arguments of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams around automation, universal basic income, and futurism, outlined in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015).  Kriss talks about quite a few things, some more philosophical than others, but one argument that stood out was whether successfully winning UBI would actually put the working class in a better position to fight for real socialism/communism, and how this relates to the alleged tension between big, national visions and local “folk politics”.

To briefly summarize the book: Srnicek and Williams argue that the left has been paralyzed by what they call “folk politics”: a cluster of practices characterized by localism, horizontalism, prefiguration, direct action, and direct experience. All these forms privilege immediate suffering and immediate struggles – folk politics isn’t getting us anywhere, they argue; it fights small battles on fractured terrains, without any master plan for a transformed society, and even there it loses. We’re trapped in nostalgia for a lost era of Maoist revolution or social-democratic comfort, and all the while the world is slipping into a digitized apocalypse. To halt the coming catastrophe, the left needs to offer an enticing vision of the future, and Srnicek and Williams have such a vision. We should demand full automation of production, a reduction or elimination of the working week, a universal basic income, and “the diminishment of the work ethic.” …

…But the compensatory effects of UBI might not be as great as they imagine, and the proposals in Inventing the Future are not themselves intended to amount to communism. Its authors might argue that they only place the working classes in a better position from which to dismantle the existing state of things. I’m not so sure. While the workplace was never the only place where workers have historically struggled, it has always been an important site of radical agitation – it is here that the working classes exercise tremendous power and great capacity to disrupt production. While recent struggles have demonstrated the disruptive potentials of blockades, I’m skeptical that the disappearance of longshoremen or warehouse workers will necessarily advance our position. What forms could resistance take once the workplace is safely cleared on all human flesh, yet private property still remains firmly in the hands of the capitalists? One: nihilist terrorism. Two: protest marches, boycotts, and online activism. Or, in other words, folk politics.

This is a solid point, and builds toward a larger critique of Inventing the Future based on the lack of theorization around how socialist strategy (rather than programs) should be worked out.  Srnicek and Williams seem to have given much thought to programmatic policy ideas, but not to the strategic questions of day-to-day proletarian struggle.

However, I think more thought needs to be put into analyzing the actual impact of automation on the working class, and class composition.  I’ve been growing more skeptical about whether we’re realistically ever going to see the mass destruction of jobs, rather than a general recomposition of the working class to be more and more immersed in the techno-scientific labor of creating software, robotics, algorithms, etc.  There is huge and increasing demand for tech work, which has already been having an affect on educational institutions, and this trend will only increase.  Based on my own experience in the field, computational work — whether we’re talking about industrial automation, or data analysis —  isn’t really any less labor intensive than “traditional” working-class jobs.  Software requires construction and maintenance and troubleshooting, just like the physical things they control, like valves, pumps, cranes, conveyors, etc.  And capitalists would absolutely love to increase the supply of capable workers, and push down the relatively high wages and nice benefits that tech workers currently command due to their favorable position in the labor market.

Dislocation and displacement will almost certainly happen from the ports, factories, and warehouses, but this will probably simply imply a shift of workplace-based class struggle, rather than its disappearance.  But for class struggle to really manifest, the radical left will need to keep up with the restructuring of capitalism and penetrate these new emerging layers of techno-scientific workers.

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5 thoughts on “Automating away class struggle?

  1. @pplswar January 17, 2017 at 9:45 pm Reply

    And yet we haven’t seen much (or any?) class struggle at companies like Google, Facebook, or among the other Silicon Valley titans among ‘techno-scientific’ workers. Meanwhile, the Rust Belt and left behind sectors of the working class in the midwest in desperation defected from Obama and elected Trump.

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    • Arjun January 19, 2017 at 9:31 am Reply

      There hasn’t been much (or any) class struggle at the centers of the tech industry, but you see quite a bit of grumbling when you go out into the general world of software. And this will almost certainly increase as capital tries to push down the relatively high wages of even the workers at the core of the software industry. But the real question will be what relationship these sectors have to the radical left; I’d say that low levels of class struggle have as much to do with both 1) the general weakness of the radical left in the US, and 2) the alienation of the radical left from techno-scientific work, both of which cede the ground in this sector to professionalism instead of any sort of class consciousness.

      Of course, none of this means that the radical left ought to put its stakes on techno-scientific areas and fully abandon old bastions of the working class, just that we should take these new and emerging areas seriously as another front in the class war.

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      • @pplswar January 19, 2017 at 12:42 pm

        Low wage workers are struggling with mixed success in the fight for $15 movement but I don’t see them gravitating towards the radical left nor is the radical left leading those fights, so I wouldn’t expect tech worker struggle to be any different really.

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      • Arjun January 19, 2017 at 1:12 pm

        Not sure that’s true, at least on the West Coast there has been ongoing and strong relations between various left-wing groups and the $15/hour minimum-wage movements. But either way, I would agree with the basic point that the radical left needs to do more work on organizing and strategizing in general.

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  2. @pplswar January 25, 2017 at 8:51 am Reply

    Well, the West Coast is the exception to a lot of rules. Good to hear.

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