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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Marx and Race Against the Machine

Has anyone looked at the Race Against the Machine, which was published last year, authored by MIT Business Management professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee? They are making a serious attempt to interest people in the notion that automation, especially its acceleration over the past decade, explains more about the current economic crisis than cyclicality and stagnation. 

Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that theirs is a view that “remains on the fringes”, citing as a reason low unemployment levels in the U.S. throughout the 1980s, ‘90s, and first seven years of the millennium. They cite IMF papers, as well as a 2010 Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond report on a long-term rise in unemployment which, “does not contain the words, computer, hardware, software, or technology in its text.”

I began to have questions about the currentsignificance of automation in today’s economic crisis recently while working onthe volume of correspondence between Raya Dunayevskaya, the Marxist humanisttheoretician, and two prominent members of the Frankfurt School, HerbertMarcuse and Erich Fromm.

Among the topics in the correspondence that provoked the most fireworks between Dunayevskaya and Marcuse especially were the social implications of automated production. Automation was taking hold particularly in heavy industries, such as coal mines and automobile plants, racing ahead from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. Though it continued until 1978, the bulk of the Dunayevskaya-Marcuse correspondence took place between 1954 and 1965, years in which Dunayevskaya published Marxism and Freedom, and Marcuse published One-Dimensional Man (as well as Eros and Civilization and Soviet Marxism). 

Dunayevskaya and Marcuse agreed that technology and automated production were of the utmost importance to understand both the current social conditions and the contemporary relevance (or lack of such) of Hegel’s philosophy and Marx’s theory. Marx’s Grundrisse was an especially important text here, having fairly recently been published in a more accessible edition, though still not in English translation. In a nutshell, while Marcuse tended to argue that “complete automation” could end the long night of alienated labor, essentially abolishing the “realm of necessity”, finally allowing the “realm of freedom” to prevail, Dunayevskaya argued that the potentials of automated production did raise the question of what kind of labor people should do, but could never abolish the realm of necessity. As Marx wrote in Capital, Volume 3, “The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond [the realm of necessity], though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”

Especially important for Brynjolfsson and Mcfee’s argument are 3 graphs:

The first graph shows that, beginning in the 1950s, productivity has increased in every decade, including 2000-2009. In fact, while the 1960s showed the greatest growth in productivity (2.7%), the decade with the second greatest growth in productivity after the 1960s, was 2000-2009 (2.5%).

The second graph shows that the last decade is the first since figures have been compiled to show a decline in real median household income.

The third graph shows job growth to have been in the 20% to 30%+ range in every decade from the 1940s through the 1990s. However, in the decade 2000 to 2010 job growth actually declined 1.1%.

Brynjofsson and Mcfee write:
“This reflects a pattern that was noticeable in the ‘jobless recovery’ of the early 1990s, but has worsened after each of the two recessions since then…The historically strong relationship between changes in GDP and changes in employment have appeared to weaken as digital technology has become more pervasive and more powerful.”

Marcuse tended to argue that even in a society in which increasing automation was the major “centrifugal force” threatening social stability, as long as the “administered population” had the “goods delivered” (employment, rising standard of living), not many realistic prospects for social change appeared on the horizon. But now that we have just completed the first decade in more than half a century in which productivity has continued to soar, but income and job growth have plummeted, where to now for theory and practice?

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