Note — Apr 17, 2022

The Automation Myth

Clinton Williamson, for The Baffler, recaps some of the history of automation and the myth that it’s coming for our job and will lead to, alternately, a dystopia or a wonderous world of ample free time. We’ve read variations of this over the years, this one is nicely weaved and includes Luddites, UBI, inequality, bullshit jobs (without using that term), and racism.

I’d like to draw your attention more specifically to two things. First, this rather large caveat to the vision of all-out automation: “so long as companies continue to benefit from more technically efficient production processes, the service industry will continue to have a vast pool of labour to draw from, ensuring that these workers will always be cheaper than any permanent investments in automating even that segment of work which could be done by machines. Under such a capitalist regime, full automation of work simply cannot happen.”

Second, for this sequence (I always love a good alliteration) from Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work (which is staring at me from the desk, sadly as yet un-cracked): “The decelerationist tendency of Luddism then is primarily about recapturing control of the terms not just of our work but of all of our social relations…” “Along with deceleration and degrowth, we can add decarbonization to this mix, since the current organization of work is directly responsible for the rapidly accelerating destruction of the planet.”

Benanav argues that neither neo-Keynesianism nor UBI programs are adequate solutions. Without a social movement capable of embarking on a quest of production that could actually place the means of our labor into our own hands, piecemeal reforms remain inevitably susceptible to the capital strike. […]

Mueller argues that automation does not so much replace humans with machines as it remolds work altogether, “isolating and rearranging tasks, altering job descriptions, and hollowing out middle-tier occupations.” […]

The political praxis of Luddism offers up a way of linking concurrent struggles together and of acting now, for coming together within and outside of the workplace to reassert our collective autonomy, to begin to actually build a new world by taking apart our present one. […]

As Boggs told us in 1963, we desperately desire to lead lives with meaning that decouple our work and our worth. We need a life not beholden to the value form. We need a labor no longer doggedly paced by Frederick Taylor’s stopwatch. We need a planet that remains inhabitable and biodiverse. Machines are not coming to make a better world for us. Robots won’t build the classless society. That historical task, as always, remains solely our own.