The Relevance of Utopianism

Review of Aaron Benanav's book Automation and the Future of Work

One summer during my youth I was hired to work the assembly line at a television manufacturer. This was in the days when America had a manufacturing base and actually produced consumer goods. I found myself working next to a conveyor belt slapping stickers onto large cathode ray tubes as they left an oven from another part of the factory. (From Wikipedia: The cathode-ray tube (CRT) is a vacuum tube that contains one or more electron guns and a phosphorescent screen, and is used to display images.) These tubes resembled enormous Bosc pears. The screen size was 15 inches measured diagonally and the whole tube was close to two feet long. They weighed at least 30lbs.

The tubes emerged of a portal high up near the 16 feet ceiling and about thirty feet distant from the assembly line. They were carried on a track by a clasp around the electron gun side, like the stem side of the pear. I was working below on the line for a few hours chatting with the guy next to me when suddenly I heard a crunching, banging sound and the guy I was chatting with grabbed me and pulled me away from the line. We ran and as I looked back and up, I saw tubes jerking back and forth as the belt that carried them shuttered to a stop. The tubes swung by their necks, smashing into each other and then some began to fall and explode hurtling bits of glass all around.

Luckily my workmate saved me from possible injury. I was told that “accidents” like this happened once a month on average, but despite the danger of injury no protective gear was issued to the workers below the tubes. This happened years before OSHA was formed in 1971. I left that job at lunch time.

This wasn’t the only time I witnessed industrial mechanization go awry. Luckily, despite the fact that many industrial accidents are caused by malfunctioning machines, I never was a victim. These experiences jaded my impression of workplace “technical improvements.” That changed when I read about the robots auto companies introduced. These machines seemed extraordinary examples of technical prowess, though the autoworkers had other thoughts, and not only because they were killed and maimed by them. Over the years of introducing these early examples of automation thousands of autoworkers lost jobs—high paying jobs with enviable benefits due to the fact that they were union jobs. Of course, that was the plan: more machines meant eliminating a high cost of labor forever.

The sophistication of these robotized servants accelerated over the decades and while the old ones tended to need human oversight, the newest versions clang and bang away without a human in sight.  Elon Musk famously said he hoped soon to turn the lights off in his assembly plants and have the machines spit out Teslas in the dark. I believe Bezos said the same about his distribution centers.

Given the speculations that the billionaire tech cabal promulgates we will all be out of jobs soon. I recall though that these buffoons said five years ago that self-driving cars are “just around the corner.” Yes, they may be hiding around the corner to kill us. The hype, and that is what it must be called, is not intended to be rational prediction. It’s merely market malarky to raise more venture capital. And it continues.

Aaron Benanav, in his book Automation and the Future of Work, devastates this rubbish with a nuanced economic analysis. And he manages to pull it off with succinct prose, free of jargon. His basic argument rests on well-documented evidence he amasses that job losses are not due to automation, but to the slow growth of economies all over the world. He notes that as the rate of economic growth decelerates, as it has for decades, rates of job creation slow and it is this, not tech-induced job elimination, that has depressed the global demand for labor.

Prediction of a work-starved future are centuries old. These fears first arose when peasants were thrown off the commons so sheep could graze, and then again when the owners of cotton mills introduced steam-powered machines. At the onset of the Great Depression, Keynes’ speculated about the 15-hour work week to absorb surplus labor. And after the end of WWII, a worried chorus proclaimed a grim future when automation began to displace workers in the auto industries. More recently, a revival of these concerns appeared in the 90s just as computerization entered the workplace on a massive scale.

Automation does lead to unemployment in some cases, but the bigger issue for Benanav is the fact of underemployment, which he defines as precarious jobs, especially in the gig economy, and a retreat into the informal (undocumented) service economy. The decline of employment in manufacturing, however, cannot be offset by an increase in service sector jobs. Manufacturing, importantly, provides a multiplier effect throughout the economy, aside from the fact that those jobs pay more. Low paying jobs act as drag on the economy.

To be clear about the argument here, we must understand that Benanav defines automation as technology that replaces workers and not the technology that augments workers, though the early introduction of robots in the auto plants did both.

Tech billionaire assumptions regarding the acceleration of job loss due to the expansion of automation and AI, in the sense that Benanav defines it, lead them to promote compensating jobless workers with free money—universal basic income (UBI). Benanav takes a critical view of the UBI promulgated by this cabal and their followers. This sort of libertarian UBI dissolves the welfare state and is rightly condemned as a neo-liberal project to shackle the jobless to unremitting precarity.

Benanav alternatively situates a progressive UBI as an element in a post-scarcity economy. He recognizes that we are on the cusp of a society beyond scarcity, but restrained from its realization by the frenzy of the commodity-economy; an economy that drains precious resources to generate a vertigo of addictions, impoverishes billions on the margins, and leads to many thousands dying of despair all over the world.

While most of Automation and the Future of Work sketches out in detail the argument for understanding the real reasons for unemployment, Benanav refreshingly concludes with an excursion into utopianism. Benanav, it should be noted, makes clear that he is not an economist, but an historian of economic ideas. His review of the origins of post-scarcity thinking makes his book unique in a volume dealing with economic issues.

Unfortunately, he skips Paul Lafargue’s contribution to this history with his essay The Right to be Lazy, written while he was imprisoned in 1883. This was the most popular pamphlet read by workers in the 19th century, but for one other—The Communist Manifesto.

Benanav admonishes the full automation theorists, those who advocate accelerating automation to achieve post-scarcity, for promulgating “technological progress rather than the conquest of production.” This was the main point of Lafargue’s essay. For Lafargue advances in workplace mechanization should benefit the workers, not the capitalists. If a machine can do the work of ten, he proposed that the increase in productivity directly reward the workers by reducing their hours without cutting their wages.

In other words, Lafargue adopted the perspective of the workers and imagined how society could be transformed to allow workers to develop their capacities, or as Marx would say, realize their species being. Benanav advocates this reversal of perspective himself when he ridicules the tech billionaires’ assumption that first we establish a tech utopia and then deal with the consequences of a jobless society.

Benanav, since he envisions the complexity of a post-scarcity society that full automation theorists elide, discusses the distinction between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. This distinction has a long historic trajectory and serves to define more precisely the parameters of a free society. It reminds me of the old brickbat directed at anarchists: “Who’s going to pick up the garbage?” The problem is that the realms of necessity and freedom can be taken too literally as fixed and static concepts. In fact, to use the terms before us, the realm of freedom trumps the realm of necessity, as Benanav recognizes. The early utopian precursors of a post-scarcity society believed that voluntary cooperative effort would reduce necessary labor. The realms, that is, also define sources of action. The realm of necessity is reactive and deals with obligations, while the realm of freedom is proactive and guided by the principle of Eros, as some utopians argued (contrary to Benanav’s bias against Fourier and Marcuse).

The elephant in the room in Benanav’s discussion of post-scarcity utopianism is climate change. Let’s introduce a few problematic complications: take the utopian dreams of a society freed from dispiriting toil and mash it up against the nightmare of unending heatwaves, depleted soils and lack of water everywhere except in the streets of coastal cities. Can a utopian society, in the sense that Benanav extols, deal with the effects of climate change? Is it futile to imagine a society of friends, of individuals realizing their potential collectively, given the catastrophes that scientists forecast? How can we discuss a post-scarcity society when it seems that all we can expect is scarcity—shortened growing seasons, disappearing rainforests, scarce water resources, scarce everything?

But are we caught in a bind here and should we reimagine our situation? Maybe we should think of climate change—the realm of necessity—as driving us towards the realm of freedom. Obviously, the markets, the financial sector, the militarized, corrupt-to-its-core state are unable to fix a problem they generated. What’s left? Certainly not appealing to the vultures of these institutions to reform them.

Benanav makes a fine distinction, which again has utopian precedent, that may provide an exit from our dire situation. A society of material abundance, he states, is not the path to a free society, as the full automation theorists envision; abundance is a social relationship. And ironically, will the ecological threat to the “good life” we have been conditioned to strive for, become so pervasive that we dump the entire lot of donkeys who have been leading us into the cul-de-sac of extreme consumerism, and search for a saner life?

The pandemic has temporarily halted some of the worldwide mass movements of the past few years. These movements have a varied agenda, but, I believe, have one common thread—disgust with corruption and nihilism. In his “Postscript,” Benanav extolls these socio-political eruptions which he sees as “. . . a struggle over the consequences of industrialization’s end.” Which might be a valid interpretation, if he didn’t reduce these manifestations of popular power to “struggles over the collective reproduction of the working class, whose deterioration, under the pressures of stagnating wages, employment insecurity, and welfare-state retreat, has been extreme.”

Despite his persuasive recounting the limitations of a previous era of industrial struggles as models for today, Benanav nonetheless seems to favor that old-time religion. To dismiss the diversity of these nation-leaping eruptions by squinting through only one lens betrays his utopian sensibilities.

To discount the possibilities of mass mobilization in the productive sector (which spans the globe) would be folly. However, if we wish to abide by the evidence of recent US strike action—nurses, logistics workers, teachers, fast food servers, and related service industry workers—we need to recalibrate our trajectory of future economic disruptions beyond the industrial ones and beyond “the collective reproduction of the working class.” For example, nurses and teachers garnered popular support for their wage demands, but more for their selfless dedication to larger social goals.

The demise of traditional industrialism, the phenomenon of deindustrialization that Benanav thoroughly documents, spells the precipitous decline of the middle class.  And with the middle class decimated who will support the consumer society? Another erstwhile pillar of consumerism—the service economy—is driven by exploitation of its agents, the precariat, who increasingly serve only the wealthier members of society. The hollowing out of expectations for generalized prosperity, what in the US was considered “The American Dream,” will not be retrieved by a program based on growth, green or otherwise. We have passed the time when a cascade of environmental devastations could be reversed by economic programs from another era.

To presume that radical climate change politics will remain subordinate to immediate economic issues for the vast majority of people—pay raises, mortgage relief, public housing—is to ignore the projections of climate science and the daily news.  Tepid leftist responses to catastrophic weather extremes is no better than climate change denialism. As Benanav notes in this concluding section: “Movements without a vision are blind….”

To this aphorism one could add that uncritical visions of previous struggles are easily lost to archival pursuits. We cannot assume that the diverse worldwide mobilizations we witness daily will necessarily coalesce around post-capitalist politics, but for them not to, negates the possibilities of a future beyond the ravages of climate change. Utopian visions are ultimately revolutionary when they weave current rebellions to the historic threads of emancipation from sacrifice and obedience. As Benanav remarks, the socialists, anarchists and communists of the 19th century who strove to overthrow their oppressors expected to achieve a society beyond scarcity. Our challenge today, however, is to imagine, and to materialize, not only a post-scarcity society, but also a post-growth one. The utopian heritage offers centuries of wisdom to draw upon, if we can only match our appreciation and application to what is on offer in that tradition.

Bernard Marszalek was a member of a Chicago printing cooperative in the 60s that printed for The Living Theater, the Yippies, anti-war and labor groups. He retired as a member of a Berkeley printing and publishing collective, Inkworks Press, after 18 years. He is the editor of a selection of Paul Lafargue’s essays—The Right to be Lazy. https://www.akpress.org/righttobelazyak.html And his rants are archived at www.ztangi.org Read other articles by Bernard.