Revolution in Technology Makes Revolution in Society inevitable
The capitalist ruling class and their advisors at elite universities and corporate foundations are feeling uneasy about rising joblessness during this period of massive investment in new technology. Various explanations for this contradiction have been offered. In his book, Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty is praised for arguing that inequality “normally” increases when capitalists accumulate more wealth. The longstanding discussion about how technology impacts employment is resurrected (see for example The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee). While the material situation is indeed unprecedented, the discussion is rarely posed historically and concretely, because doing so would clarify cause and effect, and indicate the necessity for independent and self-interested political initiative by the workers. The ruling class wants none of that.
We are living in a period of profound technological revolution (sometimes called the “electronic revolution”) where robots, driverless cars and trucks, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology are developing at exponential rates. Observers such as Jeremy Howard note that “machine learning” is reaching a level of maturity that creates the possibility for replacing labor throughout the service economy, that employs the majority of the workforce within the world’s largest national economies. Such an event would simultaneously cheapen the costs of production and generate a permanent crisis of massive unemployment.
Now is also a time of unprecedented suffering among the masses, even within the wealthiest country, the United States. Millions of people were homeless in America during 2016, 42 million were “food insecure” (hungry), 43 million were living below the federal poverty line, and 33 million Americans were without health insurance. It should be clear to all that the electronic revolution is increasing the profits of the economic owners and is not serving the needs of the people.
Given fewer buyers in the market place due to rising joblessness, the world’s ruling classes are fighting each other for shrinking market share. They use technology to cheapen the costs of production and increase profits, only intensifying the destruction of the market. This is creating the social conditions for world war and fascism. The current political system is utterly incapable of stopping the rising tide of joblessness. Fascism is essential for the rulers to sustain a bellicose political agenda. They will not allow the people to think and act independently, and are well down the road toward building a State designed to exert the necessary ideological and physical control.
How did we get here? A brief description of the history of class society provides the answer.
Technology and Class Society
Over the past several decades electronic technology has been used to increase output with decreasing numbers of workers. For example, U.S. manufacturing as a percent of GDP was relatively constant between 1960 and 2011 (about 12 percent), yet the share of jobs in manufacturing during this same period fell from 24 percent to 9 percent. Much of this change was between 2000 and 2011, when one third of all U.S. manufacturing production workers were eliminated.
During prior periods of capitalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the deployment of labor-saving technology had the net effect of increasing employment in core countries such as Great Britain and the United States. There are several reasons for this. First, new production methods required additional workers to produce the labor-saving tools. Second, core countries enjoyed a privileged position within the world economy because the rest of the world had uncompetitive industrial bases and consumed a share of core country manufacturing output. Third, productivity increases with labor-saving technology are linear, whereas the electronic revolution produces a technological growth curve that is exponential – technological power doubles over given units of time (see for example “Moore’s Law”). Thus labor-saving technology during the 19th and 20th centuries displaced workers, but the net effect in countries such as the U.S. was increased employment.
Today this is no longer the case, because technology has leaped from linear change to exponential change, and exponential change becomes increasingly nonlinear over time. Exponential change builds upon itself by accelerating to faster and faster rates of change, and is radically different from linear growth at a constant rate. It has recently become evident that exponential change in the power of artificial intelligence is developing to a stage where it can automate entire service industries.
Within the earlier stages of class society organized around agriculture, the direct producers (peasants, serfs and slaves) owned the instruments of production, or were themselves owned, and the ruling classes (Kings, Queens, Mandarins, etc.) owned and controlled surplus food and ownership of land. The ruling class guaranteed food for its table, even if it meant that the producer classes starved. With the advent of capitalism, new ruling classes gained ownership over the instruments of production and set about improving these instruments in order to increase output with lower quantities of human labor, thereby increasing profits. It is this process working over time that drives technological development and ultimately creates the conditions for the introduction of qualitatively new means of production.
Class Society and Technological Revolution
When qualitatively new means of production are introduced, there is a class struggle to define new property relations that determine who owns and benefits from the new sources of wealth. This struggle continues until a new ruling class gains hegemony to reorganize society around its self-interest. Agricultural societies gave birth to the first State, defined as the organization of violence to protect class rule. Agricultural societies also created the first cities, irrigation works and organized warfare with metal weapons. These developments set the conditions to eradicate the hunter and gatherer societies. After many centuries, agricultural ruling classes were in turn eradicated by capitalist classes that gained control over society in the context of the developing industrial revolution. Capitalist classes gained hegemony within the core countries and pulled the remainder of the world economy into the capitalist marketplace.
The electronic revolution constitutes a leap, or discontinuity, that is destroying the foundation of capitalist property relations based upon buying and selling. The electronic revolution builds upon earlier stages of development, yet is qualitatively distinct from earlier stages, because it progressively eliminates human labor from social production. At present this leap is disrupting economic distribution within capitalism by diminishing wages, ramping up joblessness, and creating the conditions for a new society to arise. In a March 2017 article “Trump, jobs and robots,” Silvia Ribeiro notes an “exponential leap in the development of artificial intelligence and the convergence with this and other new technologies, such as nano and biotechnology, that is expanding beyond industrial manufacture, to agriculture and food, transport, communication, services, trade, extractive industries…” Electronic technology is destroying the foundation for capitalist property relations on the basis of exponential change. This objective process poses a question that can and will be decided subjectively by people: will society become fascist or communist?
The entry of electronic technology into capitalist production is creating a new class that must fight politically for its right to live. This objective communist class is the product of thousands of years of technological development and human toil. Its arrival on the world stage is the summation of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, and gives us cause for celebration and a renewed spirit of struggle.
What Communism Makes Possible
Under capitalism, having a job organizes social life, in particular within the core countries. In these countries people are led to believe that a job is necessary for an orderly, happy life. Things will be different in communist society. Human experience indicates that the basis for happiness is contribution to society, or to the betterment of others. Thus the work of society becomes finding ways to guarantee the contribution of all for the benefit of all, rather than guaranteeing the enrichment of a ruling class. Working a job and the pursuit of wealth cease to be a way of life, and happiness becomes the purpose of life.
Ray Kurzweil and other technologists envision revolutionary ways to enhance human capacities with artificial intelligence. Within a communist society, it is perfectly logical to create artificial intelligence to expand our capacity for wisdom, love, humor, music, and sociability, and to distribute the abundance the new technology creates according to need. However, this vision cannot be fully realized until social classes and private property are eliminated. Only then can technology become a force that benefits everyone.
The new class is the agent of history that can learn, and is learning, to fight for its right, not just to survive, but to create a new world of unimaginable happiness.
July/August 2017 Vol27.Ed4
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011