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Sat Dec 8, 2012, 03:42 PM

Rise of the Robots

Or, Paul Krugman rediscovers fire and Marxism.



Robots mean that labor costs don’t matter much, so you might as well locate in advanced countries with large markets and good infrastructure (which may soon not include us, but that’s another issue). On the other hand, it’s not good news for workers!

This is an old concern in economics; it’s “capital-biased technological change”, which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.

Twenty years ago, when I was writing about globalization and inequality, capital bias didn’t look like a big issue; the major changes in income distribution had been among workers (when you include hedge fund managers and CEOs among the workers), rather than between labor and capital. So the academic literature focused almost exclusively on “skill bias”, supposedly explaining the rising college premium.


I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.

But I think we’d better start paying attention to those implications.

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Reply Rise of the Robots (Original post)
Starry Messenger Dec 2012 OP
kelly1mm Dec 2012 #1
Starry Messenger Dec 2012 #2
white_wolf Dec 2012 #3
Starry Messenger Dec 2012 #4
joshcryer Dec 2012 #5
tama Dec 2012 #6
joshcryer Dec 2012 #7
tama Dec 2012 #8
joshcryer Dec 2012 #9
rhett o rick Dec 2012 #10
Starry Messenger Dec 2012 #11

Response to Starry Messenger (Original post)

Sat Dec 8, 2012, 04:08 PM

1. Robotics/automation/technology have had a big impact. When I started my law firm

I had a receptionist and a paralegal. Once voice mail came in the position was consolidated when the receptionist left. Then online legal research/word processing/case management software came along. Thus, when paralegal left she was not replaced. Then 'by the hour' offices came available, so I moved there as I had face to face client meetings maybe twice a month. Basically I have reduced my overhead by 90% in the past 10 years.

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Response to Starry Messenger (Original post)

Sat Dec 8, 2012, 04:20 PM

2. "Marx - still valid"--Victor Perlo, 1996


"The books of MIT economics professor Paul Krugman were called to my attention recently. Krugman dismisses the liberal economist John K. Galbraith as a "media personality," one not taken seriously by academic economists.

Although he may not admit it, Krugman has much in common with Galbraith. Both criticize the "supply-side" snake oil of Reaganomics and its economic lap-dogs, without mentioning the anti-working class and imperialist-expansionist essence of its theories and policies.

Krugman favors the new technologies and "high-value-added" industries advocated by Lester Thurow and Clinton's Labor Secretary Robert Reich. And, like them, he fails to approve the necessary funding for high-tech education or to explain how -- even if there were funding -- millions of newly- trained "symbolic thinkers" will find jobs in a downsizing capitalist economy.

The pendulum may be swinging to the left, as Krugman asserts -- and I agree -- but that is despite the pro-capitalist, anti-working class and racist ideology of economists like Krugman. Neither the accelerating rate of exploitation of labor and intensified racism, nor their resulting crisis- breeding contradictions, are mentioned by Krugman and Co. Nor are the mounting struggles of labor and the oppressed against these developments.

Krugman accepts the capitalist myth that declining productivity is the cause of growing poverty -- and that it is a mistake to think the government can do much about it because, he says, "nobody knows how to do either of these things. The roots of inadequate productivity performance are deep and poorly understood, the causes of growing inequality and poverty hardly less so."

To polish his reputation as a liberal, Krugman proclaims his adherence to John Maynard Keynes, but opposes the fundamental tenet of Keynesianism -- the expansion of public works to provide jobs during a recession.

Keynes' major work, "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" was published in 1935 when "workers of the world," inspired by the tremendous accomplishments of socialism in the USSR, were seeking a revolutionary way out of the Great Depression and a significant section of the capitalist class considered it necessary to make substantial concessions to workers and peasants in order to avert socialist revolutions.

Keynes wrote: "The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and income." He called for a "somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment" as needed to secure "full employment" -- but to be carried out only as far as needed to establish a new balance in capitalist society.

Keynes called for the gradual "euthanasia of the rentier, ... the functionless investor."

Today such proposals are anathema to economists and politicians of both the Reagan- Bush-Gingrich variety and the more moderate Clinton-Rubin-Reich school.

The books of Krugman and Keynes compel one to study the writings of Karl Marx -- work that is the foundation of working class economics and politics. Much of what is valid in Keynes' analysis of capitalist crises is derived from Marx, all covered up and distorted to serve Keynes' basically pro-capitalist purposes.

While never quoting Marx, Keynes limits himself to the remark that the "Great puzzle of effective demand ... could only live on furtively ... in the underworlds of Karl Marx, Silvio Gesell or Major Douglas." One might ask: What underworld?" Marx' Capital may be the most widely read book of all time.

Although Marx analyzed the course of the business cycle in all its complexity, he expressed the central feature of every crisis succinctly and accurately: "The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit," he wrote in Capital, Volume III.

Neither Krugman nor Keynes recognized Marx' observation that exploitation of labor and the creation of surplus value are the driving force of the capitalist class, that "the production of surplus-value -- and the reconversion of a portion of it into capital ... is the immediate purpose and compelling motive of capitalist production."

Surely a look at the soaring profits of corporations, along with the downsizing of hundreds of thousands of workers, makes it clear that the capitalist class, today more brutal than ever, is intensifying the exploitation of labor, multiplying income inequality and causing declining living standards for the majority of the working class.

While Krugman and Keynes look to the economists to convince politicians of what they consider desirable changes, Marx and the Communists look to the working class to win better conditions through struggle and, eventually, to eliminate forever capitalist exploitation through a socialist revolution. Science and action are inseparable in the approach of Communists.

Marx' Capital and Lenin's Imperialism define the nature of the system. The necessity of socialism, as proclaimed by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, is as valid as a guiding light for political struggles today as when it was first issued nearly 150 years ago."

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Response to Starry Messenger (Original post)

Sun Dec 9, 2012, 12:18 AM

3. Tomorrow you should cross-post this in GD.

It's too late to get seen much tonight, but Paul Krugman is heavily respected on this site and by liberals in general. Even this mild support of Marxism could signal a big shift and at least open some more people to the idea.

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Response to white_wolf (Reply #3)

Sun Dec 9, 2012, 12:40 PM

4. Done.


Hopefully my subject line is catchy. I usually suck at those and my stuff sinks like a rock.

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Response to Starry Messenger (Original post)

Tue Dec 11, 2012, 08:35 PM

5. Marx predicted it, but his position on automation is iffy at best.


The commercial worker, in the strict sense of the term, belongs to the better-paid class of wage workers: to these whose labour is classed as skilled and stands above average labour. Yet the wage tends to fall, even in relation to average labour, with the advance of the capitalist mode of production. This is due partly to the division of labour in the office, implying a one-sided development of the labour capacity, the cost of which does not fall entirely on the capitalist, since the labourer's skill develops by itself through the exercise of his function, and all the more rapidly as division of labour makes it more one-sided. Secondly, because the necessary training, knowledge of commercial practices, languages, etc., is more and more rapidly, easily, universally and cheaply reproduced with the progress of science and public education the more the capitalist mode of productions directs teaching methods, etc., towards practical purposes. The universality of public education enables capitalists to recruit such labourers from classes that formerly had no access to such trades and were accustomed to a lower standard of living. Moreover, this increases supply, and hence competition. With few exceptions, the labour-power of these people is therefore devaluated with the progress of capitalist production.

This is of course totally correct, particularly with institutionalized capitalist education.

However, he scorns Proudhon (in his typically mocking way) in The Poverty of Philosophy:

The automatic workshop wipes out specialists and craft idiocy. Mr. Proudhon, not having understood even this one revolutionary side of the automatic workshop, takes a step backward and proposes to the worker that he make not only the twelfth part of a pin, but successively all twelve parts of it. The worker would thus arrive at the knowledge and the consciousness of the pin.

How else do you maintain a revolutionary workshop that is automated if you are not involved in the entire process? At this point you have a choice, you remove the hierarchical relationship created by the division of labor and educate all people on all forms of automation or you maintain the hierarchical relationship as created by institutionalized capitalist education and create a social class that only has access to automation technology while denying said technology to the rest.

Which way is it? I think that Marx lived in a time where he couldn't envision automation, the "Rise of the Robots" actually making the totality of a given thing, and that people would have to be involved in the process on some subdivided level. That is, you're not a "specialist" if you simply put one widget into a part and send the part down the line for someone else to put a part in.

Proudhon argued, even then, that one should be involved in the totality of the process, so that you put in a widget, you move down the line, put in another widget, and there you go, at the end of the line you have your product that you yourself have put together using schematics. Of course back then it was possible, though probably not as efficient as the industrial model (since all you're doing is following instructions, but you have to read each instruction as you go down the line and therefore are not doing the actions by rote).

As we move forward with automation I argue that Proudhon was correct, as technology is going to allow individuals to create the totality of an object with their own schematics, while they may not actually understand the underlying nature of said product, they will be able to specialize in the creation of products at a higher more transcendent level.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #5)

Wed Dec 19, 2012, 04:05 PM

6. Division of labor


I've been interested in anthropological anarchism, Zerzan included, but getting rid of all division of labor (as the root cause of all evil) is a tall order given that all societies, including primitive ones, have had division of labor based on gender roles: men hunt, women cook. And as a species we depend from fire and cooked food.

Of course Proudhon is correct that holistic comprehension is better than narrow myopia.

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Response to tama (Reply #6)

Thu Dec 20, 2012, 06:22 AM

7. What do you think the Rise of the Robots means?

Marx couldn't predict it, so he gets a pass.

Proudhon couldn't predict it, so he gets credit for having a theory that fits the future more closely.

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Response to joshcryer (Reply #7)

Thu Dec 20, 2012, 07:42 AM

8. What I think?


Many things, of course, from Matrix etc. movies to what not. In terms of capitalism and real - material - economy of energy use per capita, there is dialectic between quantities and qualities that could be further analyzed. Though Marx and Proudhon could not predict fossile capitalism of oil and natural gas in the age of coal (to which we are returning, alas), they were both well aware of industrial capitalization and luddite labor reaction to it. In that respect the quantitative increase of level of industrialization aka Rise of the Robots means qualitatively increased alienation of people, collective insanity of technocratic civilization on suicide path. Heidegger is one the most important and deep cultural critics of Western technocratic metaphysics, tracing the Fall back to Greeks and Aristotle, but Marx despite his (or Engel's?) historical materialism remains captive of technocratic metaphysics.

And much better than Heidegger is Charles Chaplin's anarchistic Modern Times:

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Response to tama (Reply #8)

Sat Dec 22, 2012, 03:52 AM

9. OK, so I think that the "Rise of the Robots" does end the division of labor.

I do not believe that the "Rise of the Robots" means an "increased alienation of people." It can, if you allow it to work within the confines of capitalist society and industry, but it is not a condition which technology requires. In fact, I would argue that said condition is due to the hierarchical nature of the state, because if it allowed horizontal organization, the state would have no reason to exist and the relationships would not be alienating.

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Response to Starry Messenger (Original post)

Thu Dec 27, 2012, 01:13 PM

10. If all the capital is shifted to the capitalists, who is going to buy products? nm


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Response to rhett o rick (Reply #10)

Thu Dec 27, 2012, 02:14 PM

11. Not the robots.

That's for certain.

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