Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Post Post Work Post

"Automation may mean a post-work society but we shouldn't be afraid," writes Paul Mason at the Guardian. Mason writes, "to properly unleash the automation revolution we will probably need a combination of a universal basic income, paid out of taxation, and an aggressive reduction of the official working day."

Don't get me wrong. The Sandwichman is all for aggressive reduction of working time. But not because magical robots are going to usher in a Utopian (or dystopian) post-work society.

Let me tell you a secret: although machines are used to produce things, they are not about producing things. They are about power -- the power of one human being with a will over other human beings with wills. Exchange value is a manifestation of this power relationship.

Twenty years ago, George Caffentzis explained "Why Machines Cannot Create Value." His essay began, "Thirty years ago... generation was told by economists, sociologists, and futurologists to expect a society in which machines had taken over most repetitive and stressful tasks and the working day would be so reduced by mechanization that our existential problem would not be how to suffer through the working day but rather how to fill our leisure time.
Twenty years plus thirty years makes fifty years. It might as well be a hundred years or a hundred and fifty. Perhaps fifty years from now some thinker will be predicting that some as yet unheard of technology is about to usher in a post-work society. Don't believe it.

And no, it's not because supply creates its own demand or because technology creates more jobs than it destroys.
Why did the most sophisticated analysts of the last generation go wrong and why is there a still continual stream of texts to this day like Rifkin’s The End of Work, which see in technological innovations the promise of a new era of workerless production?
Caffentzis asked in his essay.

And why twenty years later does Paul Mason regurgitate the Rifkinesque fantasy? Caffentzis answers his own question with an examination and defense of "Marx's original claim that machines cannot produce value" and an update of that claim from the perspective of the late twentieth century. The essay is reprinted in In Letters of Blood and Fire, a 2013 anthology of Caffentzis's essays.

Caffentzis's explanation is erudite and probably redundant. Those who have misinterpreted Marx's argument by viewing it through an economistic lens, will presumably do the same to Caffentzis's defence of Marx.

That is, when someone insists that wealth refers to a vault full of gold coins and/or a warehouse full of useful stuff, that person will no doubt presume that a labor theory of value refers to some sort of ratio between the coins and the stuff. Thus the critics attribute to Marx the position that Marx fundamentally critiqued. Kill the messenger.

Set aside the coins and the stuff, please. Wealth refers to, on the one hand, disposable time and on the other hand, command over the labor of other people. That is to say wealth expresses a power relationship between people -- always a precarious balance between autonomy and coercion. Precarious because "total power" over the other terminates the relationship by murdering the other.

Robots do what they do without autonomy or coercion. They do not desire time off from work "to seek recreation... to enjoy life... to improve the mind." That which they do not possess -- and do not want to possess -- cannot be taken from them. Robots are already dead. Thus they cannot create value in the sense of giving up a portion of their autonomy.

This perspective is difficult to grasp not because of any inherent complexity but because it lies outside the distorting frame in which wealth and value are conventionally viewed. But it bears repeating:

Machines cannot creates value because they are already dead.