From promoters of labour efficiency to accelerationists, unburdening human beings from the requirements of work doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
Still, the question remains as to whether the robots are coming at all.
In Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism, Phil Jones, a researcher at London’s Autonomy think tank, establishes himself as a leading figure in what might be called post-accelerationism.
Perhaps the world of ideas doesn’t need another “post” but it seems appropriate for two reasons.
First, Jones aligns himself with Canadian philosopher Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism.
Srnicek’s book is a systematic analysis of the influence of semi-monopolistic technology platforms such as Apple, Facebook and Google and of the political implications of such rapidly-expanding agglomerations of finance and technology.
Phil Jones is one of a number of thinkers (others might include Peter Fleming and James Young, as well as the late David Graeber) who sees technology’s influence as ultimately positive, in an indirect way.
One of the central points of Work Without the Worker is the degree to which artificial intelligence (AI) is not as wholly technological as advertised.
In fact, there remain a large number of tasks in which people still perform better than even the best AI. While artificial intelligence can beat any of the best chess players, it can’t figure out how to clean a room or to determine if it is safe.
But AI remains worryingly unsure about the distinction between cars, people, and other elements of the built environment such as mailboxes and concrete bollards.
If driverless vehicles, so often put forward as the avatar of post-human technology, are not to leave a trail of destruction (and occasionally bodies), they require the assistance of human beings to assist them in figuring out what they can roll over and what they can’t.
One of the real growth sectors in platform capitalism is the use of click workers, performing myriad tasks for as little as $.02 apiece.
The leading edge of this development was Amazon’s Mechanical Turk project, named for the nineteenth-century fake robot which beat human chess players by concealing a human chess master within it.
The growing reliance on these workers (sometimes designated “Turkers” with reference to the Amazon project) illustrates a crucial development in the trajectory of neoliberal capitalism.
In the Global North, the broadly expansionist postwar economy led to a confluence of unionised white workers represented by social democratic parties.
This was most extensively the case in Europe, where social democrats and large labour unions exerted powerful political influence in Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Scandinavia.
Matters were somewhat different in the United States, where the Democratic Party constituted only the most milquetoast version of social democracy, and then only at the price of colluding in the brutal repression and political exclusion of Blacks in the Deep South.
Still, the 1950s and 1960s did constitute the high point of union power in the US, with the AFL-CIO and related organisations representing the apogee of bread and butter (i.e., politically neutered) unionism.
In the fifty years since the end of the postwar boom in the early 1970s, a new, and from the perspective of neoliberalism, more ideal economy, has arisen.
Rather than long-term, skill bearing employees, the leading edge of capitalist development has moved toward short term, deskilled workers with decreasing claims to benefits and any kind of job security.
This has led to shifts of production to the Global South, where workers were more subject to political oppression, as well as to the rise of the so-called precariat and the gig economy in the North.
Work Without the Worker provides a disturbing look at the modern apotheosis of this process, in which platforms like Appen and Playment exploit marginalised workers from the refugee camps of Africa and the Middle East to the rust belts of the United Kingdom and the United States.
In part, this is only a further development of the reserve army of labour that Marx pointed out in the mid-nineteenth century as being fundamental to the functioning of capitalism.
The prospect that one could easily be replaced by someone who was more compliant and would work for less was a key component of labour discipline in the decades when the factory system destroyed the value of craftsmen’s knowledge.
The crucial difference now, according to Jones, is that the world economy is burdened both with surplus capacity and with surplus population. The standard state of capitalism has a significantly lower growth rate than was seen in the era of the postwar boom.
At the same time, the global rate of profit has been declining since the early 1970s, to a great extent for reasons that Marx pointed out in Volume 3 of Kapital.
The solution to slower productivity growth in the last half-century has been the increasing application of technology to speed up the labour process. But, as Marx argued, these technological innovations (fixed capital) aren’t the source of profit.
Only the more intensive exploitation of human labour-power (variable capital) can make that happen.
In terms of the broad trajectory of political and economic development, what is interesting is that, at least for the moment, the threat of job losses is as much virtual as real.
The threat of having one’s job taken by a robot goes a long way toward making workers more pliant to the demands of employers.
Also, while a large pool of unemployed people is useful for disciplining those currently employed, employment itself is a form of discipline, one which is important for keeping the system as a whole functioning.
One of the defining ideologies of neoliberalism (and of liberalism generally) is that there is a fundamental dignity to work, in and of itself.
This is probably a hard sell to someone flipping burgers or doing any of the other myriad tasks that ideally should be automated.
But it also underlies the attitude of international organisations like the World Bank to facilitate the spread of click work facilities on the principle of “give work, not aid”.
The work being doled out, in this case, is of a particularly pernicious sort.
The point is not to master a few moves in a larger process, but rather to engage in a series of low-paid, temporary gigs with little or no idea of what process or processes one is actually involved in.
Workers are subject to algorithmic control, such that error rates and failures (whether caused by the workers themselves or by the clunky networks on which the work is delivered) result in the degradation of the worker’s status.
Most troublingly, this work is particularly atomised when it is done from home, as is often the case in the Global North, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The working-class solidarity of nineteenth and early twentieth-century unionism is difficult to generate when workers aren’t really doing the same thing, and often not in the same places.
The shop floor was once a locus of protest which could be seized or shut down by like-minded workers during strikes. Platform capitalism forestalls this.
Phil Jones does make some suggestions about how solidarities might be created, such as unwaged workers movements and the like.
Solidarity can arise from the fact that class struggle is something that happens before workers recognise themselves as an economic group, creating a possible wellspring for labour activism.
What is needed is the creation of political organisations more in the nature of oppositional parties rather than shop floor union groups.
This could be a moment for a basic regeneration of progressive political parties, beyond the strategy of modern social democracy of trying to make a bad system work better.
The utopian moment in Work Without the Worker lies in its faith in technology. For Jones, it’s in its ability to help human beings overcome the disciplinary effects of today’s click work economy.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.