Automation and Imperialism

In the past few years, the idea of “fully automated luxury communism” (FALC) has gained a considerable amount of support and admiration in leftist circles online. Many circulate it as a meme, but there is a significant number who also support it as a new approach to the destruction of capitalism in the 21st century. This is not surprising, because on the surface, the basic principles of FALC- that is, complete automation of all industries and the enjoyment of an extravagant lifestyle by the population where little actual labor is done- are incredibly appealing. And it does appear to make political sense given the trend of increasing automation, the stagnation of wages, the general disappearance of manufacturing jobs in imperialist countries, and the advancements of new technologies on the horizon, such as advanced 3D printers and driverless cars, which make the automation of entire branches of industry seem more and more possible. However, this theory is a desertion of Marxism, finding theoretical support from economically reductionist theories and revisionist “Marxism” that assisted in the capitalist restorations in socialist countries in the 20th century. Despite this, many self-identified “communists”- who almost entirely live in imperialist countries- have upheld parts of this theory. A return to Marxism is necessary.

Automation in a Capitalist Economy

Automation has always been an integral process to the capitalist mode of production (it is by no means a new phenomenon) and it brings many benefits to the bourgeoisie- although primarily in the short term. The ability to produce commodities at a faster rate than competing enterprises means the unit production cost of that enterprise goes down (even though prices will still more or less correspond to the average of prices), leading to extra profits in comparison to their competition. Obviously this is a short-lived benefit, because as new technologies become more widespread, as more firms adopt these technologies in their own operations, the average socially necessary labor time required to produce a particular commodity goes down. Following Marx, the decrease in the necessary labor time means a decrease in the value it contains, and therefore an overall fall in the market price of the commodity follows from this trend. The temporary nature of this benefit  incentivizes capitalists to constantly search for new technologies once the playing field is levelled out.

However automation also brings a benefit to the capitalist class in a longer term. The reduction of the value of commodities also means a reduction in the value of labor-power. Before we continue, lets review this central concept in Marxian political economy. Labor-power is itself a commodity- the commodity owned by the proletariat, which it sells to the bourgeoisie. The price of labor-power is the wage, which serves to pay for its reproduction- that is, the commodities workers generally consume in order that they can keep selling their labor-power, keep working. During the workday, workers spend a portion of their time producing value equivalent to the value of labor-power (their wage), and the rest producing value (surplus value) for the capitalists they work for. This is what Marxists are talking about when they talk about exploitation. But what does automation have to do with this?

As the value of commodities goes down due to increased automation across the board, the value of labor-power also goes down since it is also a commodity. And while the lower value of commodities also means a lower revenue per commodity for capitalists, the workday remaining the same means workers are producing more commodities than before in the same period of time. The lower value of labor-power means that it takes fewer hours out of the day to reproduce the value of labor-power. So, for example, if it previously took 4 hours for a worker to reproduce their labor-power, and a new technology cuts socially necessary labor time in half, a worker is only taking two hours to reproduce their labor-power. Conversely this means that the capitalist gets two more hours of surplus value production. So not only are capitalists benefitting from the lower wages in real terms, but they are also getting a larger portion of surplus value due to the lower necessary labor time to reproduce labor-power (Marx called this ‘relative surplus value’).This amounts to an increased rate of exploitation, and is one of the main mechanics behind the concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. In short, automation in the capitalist mode of production increases the amount of social wealth that goes towards the capitalists.

By now it should be clear how automation shifts economic power to the capitalist class, mostly in the short term. But it also directly weakens the power of the working class, as increasing automation allows capitalist enterprises to rely less on the living labor of the working class. This has the structural effects of decreasing the bargaining power of unions and the working class as a whole, as well as the economic effect of increased unemployment, meaning even higher downward pressure on wages.

Sounds pretty good for the capitalists. But it’s all short term. Remember, in the capitalist mode of production the source of all value is labor. In the long term, this results in a falling rate of profit.

The rising rate of profit allows for new technologies, automation, speeding up the production process and reducing the socially necessary labor time for production, increasing profits and relative surplus value. In addition, capital tends to be concentrated into “capital intensive” enterprises, whose success or failure occupies a leading position in the economy. But this “boom” is interrupted at some point since automation removes the actual source of value- labor. Profits begin to fall, the capitalists take some measures to hold up the economy a little longer (often by ballooning debt), and the entire world finds itself in a precarious situation that leads easily to economic crisis. So while automation is certainly happening, as it has historically, and it serves to shift economic and structural power to the capitalists, capitalism still needs labor to survive in the long run.

The theories behind luxury communism in large part have in an over-reliance on the theory of development of productive forces. This theory states that revolution is only possible in “developed” capitalist economies where the productive forces are substantially developed. But the history of socialist revolutions (and really, of revolutions since the development of class society itself) has taught us that the productive forces only develop in the context of revolutionary changes in the relations of production. To predicate a revolutionary theory on this wholly anti-Marxist outlook replaces dialectical materialism with mechanical materialism, and dialectics with a vulgar evolutionism typical of a liberal worldview.

The social-democratic cries to automate then, where the theory of “fully automated luxury communism” originated, are cloaked not only in this misunderstanding of the capitalist economy, but in a thoroughly counter-revolutionary distortion of Marxism. Any automation done without the abolition of the capitalist system will lead to the pitfalls of wage suppression and crisis. Any development of the productive forces without the revolutionizing of the superstructure or of the relations of production will lead to capitalist restoration. The goals of FALC are unattainable in our current mode of production, under the political rule of the bourgeoisie, utopian in the most literal of senses, and the potential development of these ideas under a proletarian dictatorship threatens the restoration of capitalism. Its ideological founders, namely social-democrat Aaron Bastani, do not just conveniently forget the necessity of proletarian revolution, they repudiate it and advocate for a “peaceful” transition into this fantasy. It is unsurprising then that before the concept became popularized as an internet meme, it resided mostly in the works of science fiction.

In fairness, we have experienced a greater degree of automation than before in recent decades. And at the same time we in the imperialist west are experiencing consequences of a capitalist economy that is relying less and less on labor- declining wages, unemployment, increasing costs of living, austerity… but is this because capitalism is automating itself out of existence (thus precluding the necessity of revolution) or because of a phenomenon perhaps even more infamous than automation- the globalization of production?

Outsourcing and Imperialism

While the imperialist countries bare witness to wider implementation of technology and more capital-intensive industries being the driving forces of the national economy, the labor-intensive parts of the production process aren’t simply disappearing. They are still integral to the maintenance of capitalism globally. Migrant workers in imperialist countries and workers across the global South are performing most of this labor. The lack of labor-intensive industry (and the growth of a proletariat that no longer works in labor-intensive industry)  in the centers of capitalism is facilitated by global labor arbitrage and imperialism. In addition, the capital necessary for the startup of new technological advancements is in large part accumulated through sale of commodities produced in the global South. As Marxist economist David Harvey noted, capitalism never solves its problems of crisis, it moves them around geographically.

As the brunt of the labor-intensive processes of production is carried out by workers in the periphery (the majority of whom are national minorities and/or women), the proletariat in the centers of capitalism, the imperialist core, finds itself facing an incredibly polarized way of life- a contradiction between the poverty caused by austerity and de-industrialization, and the social wealth they enjoy in the form of lower prices on commodities and generally lower rates of exploitation. While austerity, poverty, and increasing costs of living are an all-too-serious fact for many in the global North, the imperialist exploitation of the global South continues to fuel huge global wage differentials, resulting in far lower prices on commodities and vastly better living conditions in the imperialist centers.

In our modern imperialist era, automation and imperialism are intimately linked. In the global South, large sections of the working class has been rendered superfluous by the rising tide of unemployment, a result of increased implementation of technology. This alone is a powerful force of downward pressure on wages, which, combined with the far harsher labor regimes and political repression of the proletariat in these countries, leads to a situation where many workers receive far below the value of their labor-power, a process known as super-exploitation. As capitalists pursue outsourcing as an alternative to implementing new technology at home, they utilize new technology to lower the cost of labor through outsourcing, to replace labor with cheaper labor, to “prolong the life of obsolete production processes while freeing up corporate income for speculation in financial assets, where bigger profits are to be made” (Smith, Imperialism in the 21st Century). But while there is a certain charm to capitalists in the growth of relative surplus value in the global South, outsourcing remains the primary alternative to new technology- as such the main draw of Southern labor to Northern capitalists is wages below the value of labor-power, allowing for super-exploitation of Third World proletarians.

In addition, outsourcing and, more generally, imperialism, have been widely used methods to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (mainly through the monopolistic super-exploitation of low-wage workers). And while the first victims of imperialism are the workers in the global South, this trend also increases austerity, debt, and the risk of crisis for workers in the global North. As a result, workers both in imperialist countries and semi-colonial ones face destitution as global labor arbitrage (outsourcing) pushes down the value of labor-power, bolstering this downward push with the implementation of new technologies in the workplace in the global South. But this trend of outsourcing has also put workers in imperialist countries in direct competition with workers in the global South, as well as giving some of the benefits to them in the form of relatively higher wages and lower prices on commodities. In settler colonial countries like the United States this is further intensified by the long standing contradiction between colonizer and colonized.  

The fundamental viewpoint behind concepts of luxury communism and total automation is fundamentally Eurocentric in this way. Industry hasn’t simply diminished, it has moved. In addition, the enormous gap between theory and practice (that is, the near non-existence of a FALC movement in real world struggles while its theory exists exclusively on the internet) perfectly encapsulates the Euro-“Marxist” basis of this ideology. This is incredibly reflective of the class character of this ideology- bound up in the petit-bourgeois political line of a labor aristocracy that feels threatened by austerity but which rejects proletarian internationalism for an economistic nationalism.

Conclusion

So how can a communist movement react to this trend within itself? Honestly, I don’t think we should spend much time worrying about it. There’s no use in combatting a trend of leftism which enjoys its only real base of support in online communities, and only significantly (if one can call it significant) in the global North. But what is important is understanding the modern imperialist era, how there exists divisions within the working class and how a capitalism in decay relies on the outsourcing of production. Using the concept of “FALC” I attempted to delve deeper into the issues of automation through a Marxist lens, imperialism in the 21st century, and the bankruptcy of the “Theory of Productive Forces”. Luxury communism is but one example of a general opportunism in the centers of capitalism, where our implicit desire to maintain our material privileges granted by imperialism and the muting of social contradictions (a direct result of those privileges) promotes a wide gap between theory and practice.  In order to forge a real proletarian internationalism, we must confront these realities. While the bourgeoisie uses outsourcing and stirs up competition among workers of different nations (while also forging a situation where the high living standards of workers in the global North are largely reliant on the exploitation of workers in the global South), it also creates a situation where proletarian internationalism is able to be strengthened, as the global relations of production become more and more socialized and there exists a larger interdependence between workers in different countries. This fact gives us a passage into building a Communist Party and mass movement which can accurately and completely combat semi-colonial relationships and imperialism, fully decolonize settler society, implement automation as a benefit to the working class, and revolutionize production under the political leadership of the proletariat. Communism is not a state of affairs, it is the movement of the proletariat and oppressed people of the world to take down exploitation and oppression once and for all. But only through a correct understanding of our situation can such a movement challenge capitalism in its precipitant final moments.

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