The Gravediggers

‘The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers…The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.’ (Marx K. and Engels F., 1848)

This is a minor excerpt from the monumental ‘Communist Manifesto’, a short exposition that had a drastic effect on the political reality of a large portion of the twentieth century. Firstly, I want you to know that I am not a Marxist. I fear I have to point that out because  the stigma that arose from the aborted experiment that was the U.S.S.R had the knock-on effect of rendering Marx entirely unquotable, unless you happened to be ridiculing or refuting. However, I think recently some have to come realise that he wasn’t entirely wrong in his historical conceptualising of the capitalist system.

I use this particular statement because it has always stuck with me, though for this post it might be better to narrow it down to a more succinct description: ‘Industrial Capitalism engineers it’s own gravediggers’. I say this because Marx and Engel’s words take on new meaning in todays rapidly advancing technological world, becoming narrowed in definition to describe the breakdown of a social contract that arose with the advent of consumer culture. It was a contract which stated that whilst consumerism brought with it a plethora of new markets for the economy to exploit; people wanting more things, experiences, etc;  in order to provide such realities more people would have jobs, enabling them to acquire more wealth which they would spend on ever more things. Into this mix, however, we throw technology.

Technology rapidly advances and improves productivity in this ‘brave new world with such things in it’. More things are made by fewer people. Soon, the social contract between consumer and provider becomes a little shakier. In developed countries, suddenly nobody makes things anymore. It isn’t cost effective, and technology enables providers to ship these jobs abroad whilst maintaining the productivity of the workforce and driving down costs, (a wonderful example of this system comes in the fact that scottish salmon is now caught in Scotland,  shipped to China for packaging, before being shipped back again to the consumers of the West).  Of course, a multitude of factors are involved in this scenario, but technology has played a central role in the rapid globalisation of the labour force. As this has occurred, we have become consumers whilst other countries such as Bangladesh, or China, have become providers. Cue global imbalance. To digress slightly, it would seem now that if we want a living wage in this country we are going have to start actively improving the wages of workers in other countries. Stamp out the competition.

Some say that the automation and digitalisation of labour simply provides new and better jobs for the workforce of tomorrow. At the same time, many jobs in the lower end of the market, service and retail providers, for example, are simply not replaceable by machines, and it will always be the case that some jobs will require the human touch. This seems to me a rather short-termist view, considering the rapid advances in technology in the past decade. Vast swathes of ‘big-data’ now mean that computers are able to simulate human intelligence, ‘A.I’, as they call it. Perhaps I saw Terminator too many times, but surely the road seems fairly unpredictable from that point? How long before computers replace doctors and lawyers? Of course, we’ll need programmers to set-up these grand machines, but how long will it be before they will be able to program themselves? It’s all Sci-fi, futuristic stuff, but so was landing on the moon. Unfortunately, in a world governed by a capitalist system that is driven to narrow cost margins, innovation in the labour sector is where the focus lies.

It is important to state, however, that the link between advancing technology and stagnant employment growth is still debatable. That said, I think the most important factor in all this is not the replacement of human beings in the labour market but the slow chipping away at the the value of that labour. Even though employment has been steadily rising in this country, wages have stagnated. In order to find work, people are having to make themselves more and more flexible. Technology’s role here is to make each individual more productive, thereby lowering the value of his work. If we look at a broader view, access to technology then becomes a precursor to success, and this access is becoming increasingly  limited to those that can afford it, vis-a-vis large companies, thereby obstructing the rise of small businesses and forcing more and more people into employment with the aforementioned larger companies, who are now able to streamline their labour force to the point where they require humans only for certain tasks. Thereby, we get a minimum wage, but we work less hours and take home less than we ever have.  It is a simplification of a complex scenario, but the basic point is there.

Back in the Sixties, technology was seen by many as a tool with which we might unleash the utopia of the future. No longer would we be required to do those pesky jobs around the house, cleaning, ironing etc. Instead, an efficient (and probably more proficient) robot would do these things, allowing us time for other things such as leisurely activities. Unfortunately, what wasn’t factored into this picture is the value of workers in the labour market. Instead of enjoying more leisure time, people now simply work the same amount but have to put up with less job security. A dystopian future can be seen in a capitalist system that only strives to streamline and thereby increase its profitability. In the hands of this system, technology becomes a tool with which to further extend the imbalance between the rich and poor in society. I think we can look at it in two very different ways; the P.K Dick way: Technology and global corporations as a threat for the future of mankind as we know it; or the Star Trek way: The abolition of the market economy and the embracing of technology as a tool for the benefit of mankind as a whole. Unfortunately, either way I suggest the immediate future will be turbulent and unpredictable. One ray of light is that something has to change, and necessity is the mother of all invention.