Monday, December 14, 2020

Waiting for the Robots: Benanav and Smith on the Illusions of Automation and Realities of Exploitation

All images from Starstream

In the last month or so two remarkably similar books appeared, Aaron Benanav's Automation and the Future of Work and Jason E. Smith's Smart Machines and Service Work: Automation in an Age of Stagnation. The books are similar without being redundant. They are too similar to construct anything like a provocative debate between them. They are perhaps best viewed not just in terms of their polemics against certain fantasies or fears of automation but the way in which they constitute an emergent, or even dominant, sensibility and orientation of Marxist thought, one that makes sense of the present through the infamous tendency of the rate of profit to fall. 

First, a personal aside, and this is just something that I have been thinking as of late, as I try to keep up with some of the latest writings, podcasts, and websites on Marxist thought. When I first began to study Marx in the nineties there was perhaps no aspect of Marx's thought in more disrepute than the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It was considered part of the bad teleological aspect of Marx, best approached through a litany of counter-tendencies. Predictions of any future where considered part of some Hegelian residue. That was the philosophical criticism. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall also did not seem to correspond to the world we were living in, the Soviet Union had collapsed and capitalism seemed to be fueled by the dotcom boom. It is possible to argue that there was an entire wave of post-autonomist Marxism, at least in its American revival, was an attempt to image a transition to communism predicated not on capitalism's contradictions but its strengths, to image a post-capitalism and a transition that is predicated on abundance rather than immiseration, on activity rather than exclusion. The same could be said for accelarationism, which attempted to think post-capitalism from capital's ability to create technological progress (even if that progress was largely squandered or wasted). 

Benanav and Smith's books can be read together as a not so much the emergence of a prominent counter-tendency to both of these orientations, it has been brewing for a long time in journals such as Endnotes and related projects. Benanav's previous work on surplus populations was even central to Jameson's odd statement that Capital is about unemployment. The publication of these two books marks the emergence of this orientation in a more public form, contending not just with other strains of readings of Marx but with the general and prevailing sense that technology and automation is the central driving force of capitalism, what could be considered the spontaneous ideology of the era of Uber and iphones. 

Benanav argues that the spontaneous image we have of the current state of the economy, of technology and automation displacing jobs, and leading to precarious labor and unemployment is perhaps the wrong way of understanding what we are seeing. The precarious status of labor is not a product of the coming revolution of machines, but rather a byproduct of the stagnation and decline of capital. Benanav describes this particular illusion as follows: 

It is not automation that is driving unemployment and underemployment, but a general decline in profits. The train we are on is not moving towards some post-work future. The speed and instability we see is really the train on the other track, the track of profitability, slowing down, casting off workers, or more often than not underemploying them. It is for this reason that the biggest technological changes affecting production in the last twenty years have neither been in production nor services but surveillance and tracking. The latter are less about increasing productivity overall, but of hyper-exploiting workers, getting more work out of less workers. 

Why has the idea of automation, of a technological revolution, continued to be so persistent, returning time and time again in an almost cyclical prediction of the rise of robots and the end of work? Perhaps because so many of the technological changes of the past twenty years have not been in the factories or even in the restaurants but have been aimed at consumption and entertainment. Have ended up in our hand As Smith states in a recent interview in the Brooklyn Rail (recapping an argument he makes in the book).

The “smartphone” stands in as the signal innovation, or contrivance, of the age, its “star commodity.” Its sheer pervasiveness, its presence on sidewalks, in boardrooms, classrooms, or at the dinner table, confirms its status as an epochal emblem. For the most part, it simply brings together older devices (the mobile phone, the personal computer). Providing access to a panoply of diversions—shopping, streaming music and video, interpersonal communication—by means of a single, interactive screen, these apparatuses complete a confluence underway for decades now: the fusion of commerce and news, entertainment and sociality, self-stylization and civic life on a one-size-fits-all, touch-sensitive LCD (or OLED) screen. Its user is torn between these registers, while performing them all at once; at a loss for bearings, their mood flickers between harmless diversion and inarticulate rage. Yet the heavy hand the largest technology companies have had in equities markets, combined with the concussive force they have unleashed on leisure, consumption, personal identity, and public discourse—all already in the throes of erosion and decomposition for decades—gave rise to claims for this core technology that far exceed its impact on how we shop, consume media, or interact with friends, family, and strangers. In the workplace these innovations promised to lead to what Paul Mason heralded as an “exponential takeoff in productivity.” That’s precisely what has not happened. What we got instead are increasingly tight webs of surveillance and tracing, on the streets and in workplaces.

I should say that these two books complement each other nicely. Benanav spends more time working out the economics of stagnation, but Smith offers a little more of a sketch of why the spontaneous ideology of automation is so persistent. How our daily experience of technology, constantly checking our phones, makes us believe in a revolutionary transformation of production that has not only yet to manifest but is not coming under existing economic and social conditions. Consumption appears more revolutionary than production, and that is precisely because of the declining profits from production. The iphone is less a revolutionary force of production than it is a kind of profit squeeze, seeking get more consumption and work out of existing conditions of production. It is also a kind of dead end for gains of productivyt, even if it becomes cheaper to produce iphones most people still need only one; Steve Jobs will never be another Henry Ford, the large scale effects of the automobile are just not possible for the cellphone despite its cultural ubiquity. As Smith points out, no one knows this better than Apple which spends most of its profits on stock buybacks rather than developing the next generation of iphones. 

On this last point is worth focusing briefly on Uber and Proposition 22 in California, which classified drivers for Uber and other companies as independent contractors rather than workers. While the spectacle of Uber, and what Uber very much wants us to see is the app on the phone immediately showing us tiny maps and cars catering to our needs, what we really drives the company (which incidentally is yet to turn a profit) is its ability to circumvent the minimal requirements of labor laws. On standards of productivity Uber changes very little, it might get more cars on the road at peak hours but it is still using the same private automobiles and the same roads to transport people. It is basically a cab hailing software where the real innovation has to do with how it reclassifies workers and takes advantage of underemployed workers looking for extra hours or more work. It is hyper-exploitation masquerading as technological innovation. 

The same could be said for the other supposedly cutting edge companies of the digital economy, when they are not using the wealth they accumulate to buy back stocks they are investing not in ways of increasing productivity but ways of delivering advertisements (as in the case of facebook) or improving forms of surveillance (as in the case of google). Even the ATM machine is less a robot teller than it is a way to outsource much of the work of banking to customers. Technological innovations have not increased productivity. Where they have not been aimed at consumers, trying to target attention, they have primarily been focused at scheduling and surveilling workers, creating a constant sense of anxiety.

Where does this leave us? Both Benanav and Smith follow James Boggs in seeing that the revolutionary question has less to do with the working class than those who are displaced from work, or perpetually underemployed. The workers of a stagnating economy are increasingly isolated and divided, often split between the hyper-exploited and those that desperate for the chance to even be exploited. They are more in contact with their employers, who watch over them endlessly, and advertisers, who seek to exploit every remaining moment, than they are in touch with each other. As Smith argues the contemporary working class is one that is thoroughly infused with management, surveilling each other in positions that blur management and work. This presents monumental barriers to organization, which is perhaps why we live in an age of sporadic contestations that never become movements. Lastly, as Benanav argues, letting go of the fears of automation, of workers replaced by machines, also means letting go of the corresponding fantasies, of fully automated luxury communism. Capital is not building its own automated gravediggers; it is just driving its diggers to quicker graves. There is no post-work future to come, but there is a chance to struggle or a world where work, as well as creativity and research, is oriented more towards human needs and less to the declining standards of productivity. 

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