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In her presentation at yesterday’s session of Marx’s Capital after 150 Years, Ursula Huws ridiculed the idea that increased automation (e.g. robots) will (soon) replace all human workers. She bases her argument on Marx’s understanding of both the organic composition of capital and the temporary profitability gained from automation.

The organic composition of capital refers to the proportion of constant capital, including machinery, to variable capital (labour). The lower the organic composition of capital (i.e. the more human labour is used compared to machinery), the higher the rate of profit. But capital is always trying to lower the amount of human labour required in order, they think, to increase profits through not having to pay for labour. One of the contradictions inherent in capitalism is that capitalists are constantly attempting to automate (i.e. replace human labour with machine labour), in the attempt to lower labour costs, but this process (“the tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise”) in fact lowers the profitability of a given capital.

Marx also argued that any gain in profitability due to increased automation could only be temporary. Because profitability is a social average, only an increase in productivity above the average makes a given capital more profitable. Once the increase in productivity becomes generalized, any profitability gain is lost, and the new level of productivity becomes the average.

So for Huws, the current round of mass automation (including robotization) is only attractive to capital as long as the effect on productivity raises it above the average. A mad scramble for automation up to and including “lights out” roboticized factories is currently taking place, and the logic of capitalism means that only the first will get the profits. Those who are too late will lose out, and at that point the average productivity of that organic composition of capital which equalize and no more profitability gains can occur.

What is interesting in this analysis is how difficult (impossible) it is to imagine what will come along to kickstart profitability again. Admittedly, we are very far from this point, and we will see robotic automation replace previously privileged sectors of labour (like immaterial and knowledge labour, for example) for some time to come. But at a certain point capitalism is going to reach the point where the existing model of automation (Dyer-Witheford identifies robotics and networks as the key technologies here) will not allow any more increases in profitability.

This is precisely the point capitalism reached which led to the invention of digital technologies in the first place. That inflection point comes precisely during World War 2, when capitalism was finally nearing the end of a long crisis which began in 1914, and included the Great Depression. The purpose of this crisis, like all crises, was to wipe out a certain amount of value in order to allow capital accumulation to restart. Was the development of digital technology a cause or an effect of this recovery? I imagine that, for those whose technology was industrial, and which reached its apotheosis in the atomic bomb, digital technologies would have been more or less unimaginable except to some people like Turing, Von Neumann, Wiener, etc.

What this suggests is that when this equilibrium of productivity is reached, we will see on the one hand, a crisis on the scale of the First and Second World Wars and the Depression in order to wipe out capital value, and on the other hand, a change in technology (means of production) which we are currently unable to foresee. This new technology will not be a quantitative increase in computing power (e.g. Moore’s law, and the basis for our current fad of machine learning). I don’t even think it will be artificial intelligence/consciousness; these are too similar to our current model of technology. In reading Norbert Wiener, it is interesting that he (and others) looked at the human body as a new model for technological development (i.e. cybernetics), so perhaps what we are looking for is a new, completely different, model on which we can base our technological advances. Swarm nanotechnology may be a contender, but I think it is very possible that this future is currently outside the possibility of all but a very few of us to think.

I could be wrong about this. An interesting research question would be whether, and to what extent, engineers, mathematicians, and industrialists foresaw the rise of computing and digital technologies prior to the Second World War.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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