Automation is Overrated (1996 Marxist Edition)
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s an amusing aside from Harvey and Reed’s 1996 “The Culture of Poverty”:
A third form of contemporary class denial seeks refuge in the promise that a technological quick fix can eliminate persistent poverty. Of course, this is not the first time a technocratic myth has promised escape from the spiraling contradictions of capital. From Fourier’s phalanxes and Bentham’s workhouses of the last century, to the dreams of leisure-based societies in the American Century, capitalist culture has periodically bred utopian-based, futurist visions of technological progress. The latest myths look to robotics, computers, and the so-called information revolution to move humanity away from capital’s destructive commodification of institutional life.
Notice, Harvey and Reed weren’t denying that great technological progress was going to happen. They were denying that massive technological progress, if it occurred, would dramatically improve humanity’s quality of life in capitalist societies.
We are promised, even now, that the cybernetic revolution will usher in a new post-capitalist society in which Marxist political economy is to be rendered passe, just as the dynamics of class and class conflict will be technologically nullified. The Post-World War II welfare state in America, replete with its complex of class compromises, is being all but dismantled by flexible accumulation’s new system of unfettered production.
This “dismantling the welfare state” language, oddly popular in sociology and anthropology, raises many questions. Starting with: How long can the “dismantling of the welfare state” proceed before the welfare state actually gets dismantled?
At least 22 years, I suppose.
Moreover, we are promised that the new mountains of commodity wealth to be produced by this unfettered technology will make chronic need largely a thing of the past. Similarly, the old forms of cultural oppression will usher in a post-capitalist order that will provide a viable alternative to the twin modernist evils of American monopoly capitalism and Soviet Communism.
The promised technological fix is now upon us with a vengeance. Flexible accumulation and its concomitants-increasingly unregulated, international markets and the “freeing-up” of productive inputs-have transformed the monopoly capitalism of three decades ago. In the process, the cultural liberation pledged such a short time ago is faltering as forces of cultural reaction have seized the ascendancy. The freedom the new information technologies were to deliver to the many has been achieved for only the few-and, as usual, at the price of uncertain futures for the many.
To be fair, it wasn’t crazy back in 1996 to say that new information technologies hadn’t done much for most people. But as a prediction, this is even worse than Krugman’s notorious 1998 line that, “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”