Review: Aaron Benanav, Automation and the Future of Work

Verso 2020

Aaron Benanav is becoming a cult figure with parts of the Left. His short, but intriguing book sets out to refute arguments that capitalist economies are experiencing profound changes in the production process because of automation. Rather than a Second Machine Age or a Fourth Industrial Revolution creating a new ‘technological unemployment’, the loss of jobs in manufacturing is, he argues, the result of a more general stagnation and years of overcapacity — in other words, falls in output due to lack of demand are more significant than increases in productivity through new technology.  A consequence of the shortage of jobs and an excess supply (or reserve army) of labour ‘forced to work at any cost’ (46) is wages being depressed still further in the low paid low skilled jobs towards the bottom of the service sector. By implication this makes it less likely that firms will want to invest in new technology. Though it’s argued that many of these jobs are difficult to automate anyway.

This does not mean that automation has not been important to capitalist accumulation — Benanav considers it a ‘constant feature’(7). The manufacturing sector is diverse. While food processing and garment making have continued to operate labour intensive sweatshops, the same cannot be said about automobiles where robotics has long since replaced the mass-production lines of Henry Ford. Having said this, it is now often argued that in this sector, automation has peaked and that with the saturation of the market, productivity increases are not able to be sustained. As Benanav recognises, technology can result in ‘sweeping job destruction in certain industries’ (47). An example of this is the disappearance of thousands of ‘middle jobs’ in sectors like banking, where digital technology has been used to reorganise the industry, but also to respond to changes in consumer habits.

But Benanav is correct to attack the technological determinism of the Silicon Valley techies who think that automation will create a new golden age and who completely disregard or misunderstand the anarchic nature of capitalist accumulation and its inescapable contradiction — the need to produce goods as cheaply as possible by reducing the proportionate return to labour and as a consequence, not being able to realise their value through sales.  For this reason, it is wrong –as Benanav does on the opening page — to include left-wing critics as part of a ‘new automation discourse propounded by liberal, right-wing and left-wing analysts alike’. 

For Mason (2015) automation has created a situation where particular commodities now have ‘zero-marginal’ costs. In terms of the Marxist theory of value, where prices reflect the amount of labour time embedded in the production of a commodity, these goods should be mostly ‘free’. but powerful monopolies are able to command huge mark- ups – preventing the transition to ‘post-capitalism’. While for Srnicek and Williams (2015) the liberating potential of automation cannot properly be exploited under current conditions.

As the second half of the book unfolds, it’s clear Benanav’s main motivation is to defend traditional Marxist/socialist politics from its post-capitalist variants (p12) — from those who look to developments in technology, rather than traditional class struggle and ‘mass action’ (87) to resolve the problem of ‘scarcity’ and, he asserts , want a universal basic income instead of a reliance on wages. The origins of this tendency can be traced to writers like Andre Gorz in the 1980s,   yet Marx himself in his less well- known and belatedly uncovered ‘notes on machines’ ( a section of The Grundrisse ) implies that advances in technology will allow different social relationships of production – gliding into socialism rather than necessitating its violent overthrow.  But using automation to reduce the amount of work necessary, rather than ‘share it around’ (87) would still require a radical political programme to ensure its success.

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