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The Automation Myth (Review Essay)

Most important, computerization has reduced neither the workweek, the promise of all techno-utopias since the 1950s, nor the burden of physical work. We now work more than ever.

—Silvia Federici, “Reenchanting the World: Technology, the Body, and the Construction of the Commons”

IN 1963, the Black working-class revolutionist James Boggs wrote of a coming cataclysm in American industrial production. As an autoworker at Chrysler in Detroit, Boggs had an intimate knowledge of the changes introduced on the shop floor and the impacts that reverberated from them across the city, seeing the ways in which these shifts in the technical aspects of the labor process came to affect the prospects for radical organizing. He saw one particular harbinger of this coming utter devastation of the working class, and especially the Black working class—automation. It makes sense that a Detroit autoworker would find himself especially attuned to this phenomenon. The contemporary usage of the word automation has its origins in the Automation Department at Ford Motor Company set up by vice president of manufacturing Delmar Harder in 1947—even though Harder’s actual proposals for the reorganization of work in Ford’s factories primarily relied on nineteenth-century technologies designed simply to speed up the production line. Throughout The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Boggs speaks of automation in apocalyptic terms, issuing the grave pronouncement that “America is headed toward full unemployment, not full employment.” By the early 1960s when Boggs wrote of this fast-approaching wave of automation, the term had come to mean the replacement of jobs once done by human laborers, now performed by an integrated system of machines that themselves come to regulate the pace of production for the smaller number of workers on the line.

Central to Boggs’s analysis of automation is his insistence that the process will create a massive surplus population of “outsiders,” people whose labor has been made superfluous and obsolete who cannot get a foothold anywhere in the labor force. He argues that Black industrial workers will be hit first and hardest by this unemployment but assures his readers that it will come for all workers in time:

Automation replaces men. This of course is nothing new. What is new is that now, unlike most earlier periods, the displaced men have nowhere to go. The farmers displaced by mechanization of the farms in the 1920s could go to the cities and man the assembly lines. As for the work animals like the mule, they could just stop growing them. But automation displaces people, and you don’t just stop growing people even when they have been made expendable by the system.

Boggs’s vision of the world to come is a harrowing one indeed: even as work becomes increasingly scarce, the capitalist world-system will inevitably still condition the right to live upon the production of surplus value. This warning of automation’s capacity to create a crisis of joblessness and an ever-expanding surplus population still echoes in the contemporary discourse which always suggests a world of labor on the precipice of coming undone. Though this description of full unemployment did not unfold as Boggs predicted, the processes of deindustrialization and class decomposition certainly did, not just in the United States but all around the globe, even in nations whose industrial booms came much later in the twentieth century. To what degree can we blame automation for this shift? Has the coming onslaught of automation merely been delayed or are we living through a longue durée of disappearing labor? What is the future of work? And above all else, how can we collectively ensure the possibilities for organizing ourselves as the ground shifts underneath our feet?

Three more recent works of economic analysis provide a much-needed critical lens on the future of work, each arguing that not only is an impending future of laborlessness unlikely to arrive but also that the promise of automation (always doubling as a thinly veiled threat to workers) has been used to paper over the larger structural fault lines of a festering global regime of capital accumulation. Taken collectively, they portray a world economic system in long-term crisis and a global labor force increasingly stuck in low-wage service work while living under austerity regimes that have stripped both labor protections and social services to shreds. Automation’s acolytes often suggest that the hour of drudgery’s end is nigh, that a techno-utopian abundance, a land of milk and honey, is just around the corner if only we can have faith in technology’s promises just a little bit longer. Contrary to this assertion, these authors demonstrate that the work we do is in fact changing, just not in the ways we have so often been palliatively foretold by the carnival barkers of automation.

Read entire article at The Baffler