Can Technology Alone Propel Us Beyond Capitalism?

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A polemic with those who believe AI, robotics, 3D printing, and nanotechnology will overcome class exploitation.

We present a preview of Paula Bach’s book — in preparation — on the evolution of “new technologies” in relation to the economic crisis, the ontology of capital, and geopolitics. The original title of this excerpt in Spanish translates as “Beyond Capital: The ‘Historical’ Possibilities of Technology.” The excerpt criticizes various postcapitalist positions, concluding the second of the book’s four parts. The first part discusses the legacy of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, deepened by the pandemic, as an objective condition necessary for reflecting on the possibilities of the development of a new Industrial Revolution. The second part is an empirical analysis of the current state of “new technologies” such as artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and biotechnology, and polemicizes against the various positions taken by authors from different currents regarding the potentialities, dynamics, and concrete conditions for these technologies’ transformation into an economic-material force on a large scale. The third part discusses the future of human labor and the diverse positions that, in a sort of shading from black to white, develop between the conception of a kind of “circularity” and the idea of a “radical transformation” under capitalist conditions, whose more finished version is synthesized in the idea of the “end of work.” The fourth and final part introduces the geopolitical dimension, fundamentally with respect to technological competition between the United States and China, considering, in general terms, the relationships between technology, the economy, the spaces for the accumulation of capital, and military questions.

In publishing this excerpt, we have removed references that lose their meaning because of the absence of the remaining text. Nevertheless, the reader should rest assured that issues not fully developed here are discussed in considerable detail in the rest of the book. Further, some crucial questions have been clarified in endnotes. Finally, some headings have been added to facilitate reading. Naturally, this text is intertwined with the book as a whole, and while we consider this excerpt to be sufficiently important to warrant advance publication, we apologize to the reader for any issues that may be insufficiently explained.

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One of the great debates today revolves around the question of whether “new technologies” constitute what are known as “general purpose technologies.” That is, are they comparable to electricity and the internal combustion engine, which emerged in the late 19th century and revolutionized the entire economy and life of humanity from the 1920s to the period after World War II? Here, I draw a counterpoint to this idea, criticizing it — justly — for its abstract idea of the “economy.” This indeterminacy masks the specific characteristics, evolution, and current requirements of capitalism, making it seem to be the natural — and therefore unique — form of existence of the social relations of production. As a result, a linear vision of technological development appears as prefigured in the very essence of technological innovations — or of the “things” themselves. This way of approaching the problem has significant consequences for the content, or the “imaginary,” of  such innovations.

If new technologies transform into a material force and give rise to significant convulsions — of economy, politics, geopolitics, and class struggle, in that order — whose final results are open, it is impossible not to imagine at least the possibility of establishing qualitatively different relations of production that would lead to an objectionable horizon for those “general purposes.”

Of course, such a perspective lies beyond the teleological speculations of either Robert Gordon, Erik Brynjolfsson, or Andrew McAfee, or others who, like Martin Ford, question the issue of “general purposes.” I have already criticized the historical narrowness that presupposes — in Gordon’s case — the idea that the inventions of the late 19th century are “unrepeatable” with respect to the fact that they “utterly transformed life, including production and working conditions.”1 If Gordon chooses to ignore the negative capacity to “utterly transform life” derived from the implementation of capitalist technology under “neoliberal” power relations, even while correctly pointing to its limited benefits to humanity as a whole, he is even less willing to imagine a completely new state of affairs in which recent innovations can deploy transformations of similar magnitude in a progressive sense. But, as the author puts it well in his approach to technological development during World War II, “necessity is the mother of invention.” It is a question that forces us to think that the current limitations faced by the “new technologies” could be overcome both by the reactionary needs of capital in search of new spaces for its accumulation and by much more “desirable” needs from the point of view of the interests of the vast majority of people. If the latter were the case, the development and transformation of current innovations into material force, under the condition of superior social relations of production, have nothing to envy compared to those enabled by the technologies of the end of the 19th century. It is necessary to insist that, for example, the fusion of artificial intelligence and robotics could enable a progressive liberation from alienated work, a question that — undoubtedly — allowed this “utter transformation” of everyday life, production, and working conditions on a scale at least similar to that produced by electricity or the combustion engine.

The “techno-optimists” like Brynjolfsson and McAfee do not even wonder about such “utopias,” although they are not shy about imagining an oxymoron such as the coexistence of capitalism and the progressive elimination of all prices. For his part, Martin Ford, in a vision that is optimistic about technological development but pessimistic about its social consequences, rules out any possibility that the pace of innovation occurs in parallel with the realization of “broad-based prosperity,” as happened in the case of electrification. It is a diagnosis that has nothing to do with the limits for the valorization of capital but, once again, is mechanically and teleologically determined by the essence of the new technologies. This is because information technologies have the “unique capacity” to replace workers and tend to create “winner takes all” scenarios, which will have dramatic implications for both the economy and society.2

Although this naturalization of the state of things is more categorical and evident among these types of authors who, generally speaking, are part of the mainstream, it also has repercussions for the logic of the “postcapitalist” authors — although with a different intensity and in a much more labyrinthine way. Let’s look at that in more detail.

The Postcapitalists

Postcapitalist thought emerges as the result of taking the most extreme “techno-optimist” thesis to its logical conclusion. The “techno-optimists” observe a practically unhindered development of the “new technologies” in which the “zero marginal cost”3 is gaining ground and the old “scarcity” is being progressively replaced by modern “abundance,” all in a relatively harmonious coexistence with capitalism. The postcapitalists, for their part and in general terms, also consider that this dizzying technological implementation is happening now. Unlike the “techno-optimists,” however, they maintain that in the course of this process capitalism is automatically losing its identity.

Paul Mason, for example, argues that information technology — the most instrumental product of the 21st century — is dissolving the capitalist system as a whole because it corrodes market mechanisms, erodes property rights, and destroys the traditional relationship between wages, work, and profit. This is why, he argues, these technologies are leading us to a postcapitalist economy.4 According to Mason, companies’ survival strategy is “the creation of monopolies on information and the vigorous defence of intellectual property,” along with “the attempt to capture and exploit socially produced information.”5 Thus, today’s “main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods and a system of monopolies, banks, and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information.”6 Technology thus emerges as an independent variable that acquires a will and a life of its own, transforming itself into a source of “abundance” — existing here and now — while the companies, banks, and governments persist at its side as a sort of holdover or external obstacle to the process that ends up partially restricting it. It is an independence entirely consistent with the assumption that innovation and increased productivity are contrary to the increased “exploitation” of the labor force in the context of capitalist social relations of production.7 Mason’s logical conclusion is that we have to “build alternatives within the system” and “radically accelerate technological progress.”8

Aaron Bastani, for his part, emphasizes the evocative idea that capital needs to impose “artificial scarcity” to create a market in which the “marginal cost tends to zero,” because otherwise no one could make a profit.9 This idea is fine, but only if “free reproduction” is understood as a trend that operates at the margins of the capitalist mode of production. If, on the other hand, as Bastani suggests, we are faced with a process in which the marginal cost of producing goods and services approaches zero in more and more sectors — with the result that an increasing number of transactions are becoming free rather than market-based10 — then it becomes the law that advances toward the economy being governed under circumstances in which, once again, technology seems to acquire a life of its own and a “personality” in everything that is independent of the relations of production under which it is subsumed. In this framework, as in Mason’s, the “new technologies” emerge as the deus ex machina originating in the realm of abundance as opposed to the preceding realm of scarcity,11 — leading to two key results. One involves losing sight of the relative character of the concepts of “scarcity” and “abundance” while accepting the idea of “scarcity” on which bourgeois economic theory is based. Conversely, and what is most interesting to highlight here, technology — as in Mason — appears as the midwife of an unlimited “abundance” that is alienated in the specific way in which the private ownership of the means of production governs it and shapes it in its image and likeness. Remember, it is the private ownership of that technology.

In this context, Bastani’s idea of the re-creation of “artificial scarcity” — as it accompanies an “objective” generation of abundance unhindered by capital, which limits it only by placing a “price” on it — ends up removing the problem from the terrain of production and relegating it to that of “distribution.” It is an issue that once again, and quite naturally, omits the essential role of the private character of the means of production and concentrates the solution on the need to improve the conditions of distribution within capitalism. Therefore, in Bastani’s terms, while a world beyond work and scarcity is on the political horizon, the most urgent task is to break with neoliberalism by seeking viable alternatives within the system.12

Finally, although the vision of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future is ambiguous and seems somewhat more aware of capital’s imprint on technologies, 13 it ends up giving the latter equal, independent status. This is clear from the fact that, in the authors’ view, how capital shapes technologies does not depend on the private character of the means of production — that is, on the private ownership of technologies — but rather on “politics” as a concept abstracted from those relationships. The authors point out that technology is not neutral and is “political,” but it is flexible, which means that it always exceeds the purposes for which it was devised.14 Again, we confront the problem of limits. How far can technologies under capitalist relations of production exceed the “purposes” for which they were created? Only at the margins, of course. But Srnicek and Williams raise the need and possibility of promoting a fully automated society that guarantees conditions of “abundance” within the very confines of capitalism and as a precondition for a future postcapitalist society.15 The lack of limits attributed to technologies’ ability to exceed the “purposes” for which they were conceived ends up making them an independent variable stripped of the apparently recognized way in which capital molds them. So the postcapitalist “first demand” consists of the “political” demand for a fully automated society that drives the current trend beyond the limits acceptable to capitalism. By using the latest technological developments, this economy — the capitalist one, recall — would aim to free humanity from the monotony of work while at the same time producing ever-greater amounts of wealth.16 What is remarkable is that all this would happen within capitalism itself, or to put it more prosaically, while respecting private ownership of the means of production. As the authors make clear, that is because while total transformative change is not immediately possible, a commitment to the totality of power and capital is inevitable.17 After all, the choice of which technologies to develop and how to design them is, first and foremost, a “political” question.18

Taken as a whole, this way of reasoning — despite the authors’ claims — presupposes “neutral” technologies and is crowned with the recurring idea that low wages restrain the incorporation of innovations that allow for increased productivity.19 This issue does retain an aspect of reality, but in its abstract, unilateral consideration — which therefore lacks an understanding of it in all its dimensions — leads to an unrealistic appreciation of its dynamics. On the one hand, it greatly underestimates the present capitalist structural crisis and its two components: a shortage of profitable spaces for expanded accumulation and the need to find new sources of cheap labor — or, in other words, to increase exploitation. Unlike the particular conditions that unfolded in the 1990s, these aspects “restrain” massive investment in technological innovation. On the other hand, they seem to interpret the incorporation of new technologies — in the same sense as Mason discusses — as a sort of “imposition” on capital. This conception ignores both the role of intercapitalist competition as the engine of investment in new technologies and the increase in exploitation that is necessary and derived from that investment, reaffirming once again the idea of technology as a force independent of the relations of production. But the technological application and the consequent reduction of socially necessary labor time for production are resolved, under the aegis of capital, in an increase in exploitation — although in a manner different from the direct reduction of nominal and/or real wages. The relative surplus value is the form through which capital valorizes the creation of free time derived from investment in new technologies. In Marx’s terms, its tendency is always, on the one hand, to create available time and, on the other, to turn it into surplus labor. The negation of the particular ways in which capital necessarily molds technologies in its image and likeness, their application, and the production of wealth in the very act of converting available time into surplus value are the cornerstone of “technological fetishism” or, in other words, of the consideration of technology as an independent variable that is characteristic of postcapitalist thought.

The truth, though, is that it is impossible to imagine the “general purposes” of technologies that exceed the logic of capital without thinking about the need to subvert the private character of the means of production or, in other words, the conditions of existence of capital itself. It is not — and cannot be — autonomous technological development that leads to the dissolution of capitalist relations of production. This is not some “maximalist” whim. It is an undeniable fact that the historical capitalist drive to minimize labor time appears to culminate in the possibility of reproducing certain digital goods and services — including certain means of production such as software20 and even energy21 — almost without the need to add additional labor and capital. This is a question that cannot help but make us reflect on Marx’s famous exposition — by now trite — in a paragraph of the so-called “Fragment on Machines,” often evoked by postcapitalist authors:

As soon as labor in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. The surplus labor of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labor of the few, for the development of the general powers of the human head. With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis.22

But, again, today we are faced only with symptoms of a similar result. It is a trend that manifests itself in the margins. While most postcapitalist authors — and even the “techno-optimists” in the mainstream — more or less generally recognize this, the crux of the discussion lies in the dynamics. Unlike these authors, I in no way consider that the development of this tendency and its transformation into a law that dominates everything can be driven by the “force of things” itself. How capital imprints its conditions on this tendency inseparably intermingles the questions that have to do with the characteristics assumed by production and the place of human labor itself — as I will now address.

Abundance vs. Unnecessary Work and Superfluous Needs

Without the slightest intention of invoking some sort of “authoritative quotation,” but rather to understand Marx’s own reasoning — which, as we shall see, seems to be sufficiently current — it is worth quoting the complementary paragraph to the “Fragment on Machines” that appears just a few lines after the previously quoted text. It is something the postcapitalist authors typically do not mention even for the purpose of taking it on with their own ideas. Marx continues the idea presented earlier by highlighting that

capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labor time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition — question of life or death — for the necessary. On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labor time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labor time as the measuring rod for the giant social forces thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value.23

And a few pages later, he notes capital’s tendency “always, on the one side, to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labor.24

It should be noted here that there is a close relationship between this “conversion” and the particular characteristics assumed by the production of wealth. In the first place, it is necessary to distinguish between the technological capacity that reduces the time of socially necessary labor for the production and reproduction of goods and services — as a generic problem — and capital’s need to absorb labor time for its valorization, as a specifically capitalist problem. This distinction of the “specific,” in the sense of what makes capital capital, is precisely what renders it impossible to assume both an autonomous development of technologies and the possibility derived from a progressive elimination of human labor. It turns out that understanding technology in terms of its ability to create “use values” — and free up necessary labor time — is one thing; it is quite another to understand technology as a means of creating exchange values, which is the quality that is genuinely “useful” to capital. Capital is an exchange value in search of ways to valorize itself, one that disregards “use value” rather than seeing it as a necessary vehicle of value and surplus value — that is, of profit. Fixed capital cannot generate entirely new “values.” That is why capital, on the one hand, seeks tirelessly to reduce labor power as a “cost,” while on the other hand labor represents the only source of genuine profit that capital — with the same will — seeks to increase.25 Precisely, technology as an instrument for creating relative surplus value represents the tool of choice for combining this double aspiration even when, in the same process, it erodes the rate of return and historically ends up — as is the case today — radicalizing dissolute tendencies of capital itself, as expressed in the possibility of reproduction at “zero marginal cost” or practically zero.

If, however, thanks to the incorporation of technology, labor tends toward its progressive liberation at one pole, and even to its direct elimination in certain sectors, capital seeks to maximize its surplus counterpart in every possible variant. This is a complex process that takes place through a combination of unemployment in certain sectors, an increase in relative surplus value — often intertwined with increases in absolute surplus value — in others, and the recruitment of new sources of cheap labor that generate, fundamentally, absolute surplus value.26 As capital incorporates new technologies and adds increasing masses of surplus labor time, it creates — necessarily — and subsumes under its aegis new tasks, jobs, and “needs” that are unnecessary, strictly speaking. And in this process of making working time the “sole measure and source of wealth,” surplus labor becomes increasingly superfluous as necessary labor decreases. This results in an exponential increase of a “wealth” — or an “abundance” — that appears largely in opposition to real social needs. It is here that the discussion with the postcapitalist authors takes on its most concrete aspect, since the specific modes of production of “wealth” under the criteria of private ownership of the means of production are not “neutral” but, on the contrary, adopt a format that we could call “relative scarcity” in the face of those real needs. As David Harvey so acutely observes,

Capital has systematically shortened the turnover time of consumer goods by producing commodities that do not last, pushing hard towards planned and sometimes instantaneous obsolescence, by the rapid creation of new product lines (for example, as in electronics in recent times), accelerating turnover by mobilising fashion and the powers of advertising to emphasise the value of newness and the dowdiness of the old. It has been doing this for the last 200 years or so and concomitantly produced vast amounts of waste. But the trends have accelerated, capturing and infecting mass consumption habits markedly over the last forty years, particularly in the advanced capitalist economies. The transformations in middle-class consumerism in countries like China and India have also been remarkable. The sales and advertising industry is now one of the largest sectors of the economy in the United States and much of its work is dedicated to the acceleration of the turnover time of consumption.27

Jeremy Rifkin, for his part, reports that in the course of the Great Recession of 2008–9, millions of American families found themselves saddled with astronomical debts they had accumulated during nearly 20 years of “wasteful consumption” in the largest shopping spree in history. In a sense close to Harvey’s formulation, he observes that “millions of families began to look over all the stuff they didn’t need and hadn’t even fully paid for and asked not just ‘why me’ but ‘why?’ It was a collective existential question — a soul-searching reevaluation of the nature of modern life. ‘What was I thinking?’ became the unspoken litany of the so-called ‘consumer society.’”28 In this context, and in Rifkin’s thesis, the notion of “optimizing the lifecycle of items in order to reduce the need to produce more partially used goods has become second nature to young people.”29 The author formulates the suggestive idea that the combination of the 2008–9 shock and the ascendancy of the Internet and social networks is giving rise in sectors of the youth to a mentality of “sharing” or “the common” as opposed to “private ownership” as the defining characteristic of the capitalist system. This ends up being associated with the idea of “extending the lifecycle of stuff by passing it on from user to user,” but which “significantly cuts into new sales.”30 While the author’s thinking — as is that of postcapitalism in general — is characterized by the “absence of limits,” this reflection that interweaves the characteristics of capitalist production criticized here with certain manifestations in consciousness deserves all the attention.

But returning to and insisting on the specific question of the “useful lifecycle,” let us go a little further down the path laid out by Harvey (and more implicitly by Rifkin) to reflect on the meaning acquired by that increasingly perishable character of “wealth” — in terms of “use value” and “exchange value” — as it is subjected to the rapidly changing fashions imposed by the needs of reproduction and valorization of capital. The interest in shortening the duration of “durable goods” to a minimum — a contradiction in terms — or reducing the useful life of consumption of these types of products suggests the idea of an increasingly contradictory tendency between the needs of “use value” and “exchange value,” and not only as an internal antithesis but also as an external dysfunction. It would seem that, in a dramatically accelerated process over the last 40 years, the needs of “exchange value” tend to be increasingly opposed to the “durability” part of the definition of “durable goods,” and, therefore, to a very significant aspect of their “use value.” It is an aberrantly irrational scheme that needs to increase surplus human labor time — when what is necessary decreases to a minimum — as part of the same act that reduces the lifetime (one of the aspects of their “utility”) of the products it delivers.

This contradiction, which naturally becomes more acute as the time needed for work is progressively reduced, is itself responsible for falsifying the idea in which technology is seen as an “independent variable” that creates “wealth” in general. The concrete characteristics adopted by the production of goods and services under capitalist command confront the identification of “abundance” conceived in abstract terms. There is no such thing as “abundance” that unfolds alongside a capital that coexists with it only by limiting it through the imposition of “prices,” while creating the conditions for its own dissolution and, therefore, of a “post” world. Capital shapes the material characteristics of wealth in the very process of production, which is subject to property relations and not only alters the conditions of its distribution — the prices — that ultimately result from the former.31

Therefore, we must seek the key questions about the “artificial creation of scarcity,” not the sphere of distribution of goods and services where Bastani delves into the “distribution” of the means of production, or, in other words, their private nature. Many phenomena are inseparable from the degradation of work, the proliferation of junk jobs, precariousness, and the increasing coexistence of overemployment, underemployment, and unemployment. These include the increasingly dizzying creation of superfluous needs and of perishable products whose “durable” character functions as a characteristic of their “utility” or “use value.” They include the subsumption to capital of vast sectors formerly outside the creation of value — whether in the form of the extraordinary increase in patents, along with the “industrialization” of what were once personal services, among others. There is also the application of artificial intelligence to advertising, online sales, or finance on a massive scale — a reflection of both the difficulties of realizing and producing value.

To a large extent, “unnecessary” work is aimed at feeding superfluous needs. This apparent nonsense is a manifestation of the “general” way in which capital resolves the tendency toward “zero marginal cost,” but that must be understood as intimately intertwined with the current concrete obstacles it faces for its expanded accumulation. The “dissolution” tendencies developed by capital itself — to the extent that they increase its dysfunctionality — do not make capital “residual” and more “malleable” but, to the contrary and together with the difficulties for its accumulation, instead intensify its aggressiveness and irrationality. The prospects for the large-scale application of “new technologies” or their transformation into “general purpose technologies” are inseparable from the dynamics derived from the combination of these designs.

From every angle, it is impossible to assume an autonomous development of technologies with respect to the relations of production that contain those technologies. This utopia constitutes the main ingredient of postcapitalist thought, whether in its more leftist versions, such as those of Mason, Bastani, or Srnicek, or coming from Jeremy Rifkin, the original ideologue of the “end of work” thesis. A large-scale investment in “new technologies” that would allow us to speak of a new “industrial revolution” under capitalist conditions requires that at least two problems be examined. The first concerns the increasingly irrational way in which capital will seek to resolve — while necessarily preserving its laws — the progressive decrease in necessary labor resulting from the massive application of “new technologies.” The second concerns the need to resolve the exhaustion of spaces for new profitable investment, which became evident after the crisis of 2008–9 and that — at least so far — has been exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Without a relative resolution of these obstacles and with a continuation of current conditions, any further application of technology will be partial; radical transformations of the economy are unthinkable — including, as a couple of examples, a substantive and large-scale transformation of the main urban centers into “intelligent cities,” with totally self-driven vehicle fleets, or the full development of the Internet of Things, which — among other things — would revolutionize the production of all sorts of devices to effect a qualitative fusion of the online and offline worlds. In the alienated view of the relations of production, technology allows for the development of some kind of unsigned “abundance” that is “spoiled” only by the “artificial” imposition of markets and forged outside the critical and concrete conditions of today’s economy. This view results in simplistic characterizations that end up minimizing the distorting role of capital in the very field of production itself. This manner of reasoning is, in general terms, embodied in Rifkin-style propositions. The author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society recounts an almost unbridled advance toward the “zero marginal cost” of practically everything: from the meteoric rise of the Internet that reduced the marginal cost of securing information to almost zero, followed by the dizzying fall in the marginal cost of taking advantage of solar, wind, and other abundant sources of renewable energy, as well as 3D printing and online higher education courses. In Rifkin’s world, the 3D printing revolution is an example of “extreme productivity.”

As it kicks in, it will eventually and inevitably reduce marginal costs to near zero, eliminate profit, and make property exchange in markets unnecessary for many … products. The democratization of manufacturing means that anyone and eventually everyone can access the means of production, making the question of who should own and control the means of production irrelevant, and capitalism along with it.32

In all these theories, the logical consequence of viewing technologies as autonomous is that capital is relegated to a more or less residual place, while the state assumes a neutral character, stripped of its essential role in guaranteeing the governing property relations. The development of the productive forces drives capital’s tendencies toward “dissolution,” and this itself becomes a law that gradually becomes dominant within the existing relations of production and ends up disintegrating them in the course of a more or less harmonious evolutionary process. That is why, even in the most left-wing postcapitalist variants, the question of which technologies to develop and how to design them is posed as a “political” issue. This question must be understood in terms of the unnecessary questioning of the private character of the means of production. Occupying a position that the state is neutral (according to the logic of these authors), the task of the moment becomes to accelerate technological innovation and investment that necessarily ends up being “neutral” itself. That acceleration will, on its own, end up developing automation, abundance, and finally, diluting the private relations of production.

On Distribution, Production, and Human Labor

Although we must recognize that the postcapitalist authors have a relatively greater “internal coherence” of thought than the “techno-optimists,” their technological fetishism — insofar as it denies the fundamental laws of capital and the state as its instrument — ends up in a similar teleology. This teleology shares with that of the mainstream — be it in its optimistic or pessimistic sense — an extreme underestimation of the structural pitfalls revealed by the 2008–9 crisis. The weakness of real investment emerges, however, as the most acute and immediate concrete dilemma facing the economy today. It is an issue that is closely associated with the depletion of the sources of absolute and relative surplus value that, under a multiplicity of circumstances and combinations, enabled the decades of growth — still moderate — under neoliberalism. But the problems related to human labor, to “value” and “surplus value” as the only genuine source of profit, are disappearing in all the postcapitalist diagnoses, prognoses, and programs. In addition to the multiple references to “labor value,” capital’s dilemma remains focused on the abstract and unilateral trend toward the disappearance of prices derived from technological investment. The reduction of labor time to the limit always appears integrated into the idea of “zero marginal cost,” but because in this definition — adopted by the majority of postcapitalist authors33 and coming from the neoclassical synthesis34 — “labor” is interpreted only in its character of cost and not in its character of source of profit, and price ceases to be the necessary vehicle of value, becoming completely independent and taking center stage in the form of an indeterminacy. Thus, an absolute disconnection between “price” and “value” is revealed, which takes shape in the circumstance that capital appears capable of tolerating the “end of work” but not the “end of prices.” Prices are decoupled from value determinations or, in other words, from human labor whose technology-driven reduction is, as discussed earlier, fought in every possible way by the needs of capital. In fact, these authors deny the contradictory unity of labor as a cost and as a source of profit that constitutes a determining factor in the movements of capital. The idea of “exploitation” understood only in the form of wage cuts and attacks on the system of social protection and presented as opposed to the application of technological innovation in the hands of capital — avoiding its particular modalities of increasing exploitation — is an offshoot of the same reasoning in which wages always appear as a mere cost. Precisely, relative surplus value — the extraction of which is particularly intertwined with the incorporation of new technology and, therefore, with the conditions of production themselves — embodies the most finished mechanism through which capital reacts to the decrease in necessary labor time, combining the double aspiration of reducing wages and increasing profits, in relative terms.35

It would seem that the tendency to identify labor only in its “cost” aspect leads one to think of the entire movement from the sphere of circulation. Thus, while wage “cuts” take place in the exchange, the reduction in relative wages — rendered invisible by the postcapitalist authors — is generally negligible in that sphere and has a clear origin in the field of production. In the same line of reasoning, the presumption of the “end of work” becomes — in postcapitalist thought — a problem for the functioning of capital not because it annuls the conditions of production of genuine profit, but only because the absence of wages would lead to the depletion of consumer markets. This set of factors explains the fact that, for these authors, the problems of capital tend to be posed — and find some kind of solution — in the fields of circulation36 — and distribution — and not in that of production.46

This form of reasoning necessarily underestimates a pressing problem of the present economy — namely, the scarcity of sufficiently profitable sources for the development of new investments. Consequently, it suffers from a tremendous lack of imagination — and historical memory — with respect to possible capitalist attempts to resolve it. It is here that the discussion reaches its culmination. The contradictions that the development of the productive forces pose in general terms to capital are one thing; the concrete conditions, the specific circumstances, under which those contradictions are made manifest are something else. To suppose that the development of the former will lead by its own impulse toward the very dissolution of capital implies — in addition to everything noted earlier — ignore, necessarily, the latter, that is, the place of the structural crisis opened in the post 2008–9 period and deepened in the heat of the pandemic, the notable weakness of investment in the “real economy,” the increasingly tense relations between the capitalist states, and even class struggle action. The contradiction between the development of “new technologies” and the scarcity of profitable spaces for their transformation into a large-scale material economic force has invariably resulted in the extremely convulsive periods in which those great forces have entered into action.37 While we cannot pretend to imagine the specific scenarios that will unfold in the future, there is no evidence that a “third” or “fourth” — according to the various authors — “industrial revolution” or a “second machine age” will take place without disrupting the conditions of the endemic, global weakness that capital investment has exhibited for more than a decade. Such alterations do not typically take place harmoniously, as history shows. The “final” results of the crisis of the 1930s and World War II on the one hand, as well as those of the late 1960s and early 1970s together with the neoliberal offensive considered as a whole on the other hand, were, of course, not determined by the circumstances of those eras. Again, there is no reason to presuppose how “history” will be resolved this time, so teleological thinking — as usual — is out of the question.

What is important to emphasize here is that the eventuality that the new technologies achieve the status of “general purpose technologies” by qualitatively transforming the economy under the “laws of capital” will depend, ultimately, on the possibility of regenerating conditions that will allow expanded accumulation on a large scale. This will imply, in turn, subordinating the development of productive forces that progressively free up labor time under increasingly irrational conditions — at least, from the point of view of the great majority — not only in terms of the characteristics of the exploitation of the labor force but also in terms of the specific characteristics adopted by the production of goods and services.

This is not a “circular” story as, in some ways, authors such as Gordon presuppose, but neither is it a “completely different” world as the “techno-optimists” and postcapitalists claim from their different viewpoints. The somewhat “partial” way that capital solved the problems related to its expanded accumulation during the neoliberal decades, together with the growing contradictions posed by production of value, have shaped the characteristics of the economy in recent years. The capture of new areas of extraction of absolute surplus value, combined with an increase in unemployment and a rise in relative — as well as absolute — surplus value, in which investment in technology increased substantially, was accompanied by subsuming new areas (such as what had been personal services or the expansion of patents) to the production of value. This process of increasing space for the accumulation of capital operated in conjunction with the conquest and creation of new markets. Even so, the persistence of relative limits to the production of value gave rise to the exacerbated “financialization” characteristic of the period.

In the framework of this tension and as formulated by David Harvey, the law of value constitutes the only restriction that prevented the fall of capital into total disorder over the recent decades.38 That is, it persists as an organizing factor of the body of capital. In fact, the absorption of extraordinary sources of supplementary surplus value — particularly over the course of the 1990s and 2000s — operated as that very restriction on “total disorder” while the gigantic “financialization” was increasingly moving away, although always up to a certain point, from the determinations of value. But the problem, in any case, in the fact that this “restriction” has been consuming itself and, ultimately, the weakness and structural crisis through which we are going is revealed in the form of a relative but growing scarcity of the “organizing factor.” What we might call an “ontological crisis” is thus intertwined with the “spatial crisis” of capital.

Mason’s hypothesis is that “the real danger in robotization is … the exhaustion of capitalism’s 250-year-old tendency to create new markets.”39 This denies — as a necessary consequence of presupposing technology as an independent variable — the circumstance that the particular and concrete forms of technological development under the logic of private ownership of the means of production and profit include the technological application itself as an instrument both of the struggle for spaces for the accumulation of capital and of the conquest and creation of new markets. The contradictions that capital faces in expanding its reproduction are not, in and of themselves, a vehicle for its dissolution. They instead lead to a greater aggressiveness toward the working class and the poor as a whole, as well as to growing disputes between states, ranging from greater tensions to warlike conflicts at various scales. The growing application of new technologies will be at stake as part of the dynamic of these scenarios, in which the actions of the different states — both internally and externally — will reflect that they are instruments of the various capitals, just as we see today.

In the postcapitalist conception, this intertwined dynamic disappears, and just as technological development becomes independent of the social relations that shape production, so too do the state in general and states in particular, logically, become “neutral” instruments independent of those relations. From the extreme right, Rifkin presents a world in which “the struggle between prosumer collaboratists and investor capitalists, while still nascent, is shaping up to be the critical economic battle of the first half of the twenty-first century,”40 while “governments seem to be caught in the middle attempting to serve two masters, one dedicated to a capitalist model and the other to a Commons model.”41 From the extreme Left, Mason salutes the capitalist who “understands that a world of free stuff is beginning to pervade the physical as well as the digital world” while criticizing that the “struggle between the two systems is reduced to a struggle between business models and good ideas.”42

One must agree with Mason’s critique. Throughout the sometimes suggestive pages of The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Rifkin’s apparent naïveté can surprise anyone, whatever their creed. But Mason’s problem lies in his presumption of technological automatism that drives the rise of the “world of free” and the “struggle between the two systems.” To the extent that this vision, as in Bastani and in Srnicek and Williams, presupposes that technologies with lives of their own are in charge of dissolving the very foundations of capital, it interprets not “government” — in the way Rifkin does — but the state as an independent actor that defends existing property relations. That is why Mason’s postcapitalism, as well as that of Srnicek and Williams or of Bastani — beyond the fact that it sometimes encourages somewhat progressive measures — ends up, without exception, seeking “viable alternatives” within the system,43 posing the inevitability of “an engagement with the totality of power and capital”44 or calling for “learning to do positive things,” that is, “to build alternatives within the system” and “use government power in a radical and disruptive way” (Mason).45 Thus, together with its essence, both the material and consensual strength of the capitalist state apparatus, designed to safeguard the private character of property, is disappears, and for this reason the transition to a superior system follows from technological development itself — finding an almost unfettered path. This is portrayed as an almost automatic process that must be aided by the actions of governments committed to the paradoxical task of promoting — from the capitalist state — the technological transformation to its logical conclusion, which is resolved in the dissolution of capital itself.

These are positions that deny the dynamics of capital in the face of crises in general and seem to think it has been lulled to sleep right now, at the very moment it is being challenged by a multipronged crisis. In the same sense, these positions fall apart in the face of the class nature and power of state(s), beyond the character of their various governments. The transformation of “new technologies” into a true material force that radically disrupts the economy presupposes a jump in real investment. That is, it presupposes a drastic change in the current dynamic, in which new investment requires the reestablishment of sufficient conditions of profitability. Such conditions necessarily require the conquest of space for the expanded accumulation of capital along with qualitative increases in the exploitation of labor. Both circumstances invalidate the postcapitalist thesis.

Recognizing the offensive that lies ahead for capital, and assuming — as history suggests — that capital will fight to defend its laws with everything it has at hand, implies recognizing a “war” in which there are multiple potential outcomes, including the possibility of capital’s defeat. This is where all teleologies die and where the “general purposes” of technologies can acquire a dimension conceived beyond capital. If we return to the idea that “necessity is the mother of invention,” it becomes evident that this necessity will not be of the same type if it responds to the power and requirements of capital rather than to the power and requirements of the great majority of people. The format acquired by the transformation of the “new technologies” into “material strength” will be shaped, ultimately, by what kind of “needs” drive those technologies. Inevitably, if those driving needs come from the power and interest of the masses, they will, in the course of their consummation, radically transform the relations of production — that is, of property — and of its main instrument, the state.

First published in Spanish on November 29 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Notes

1 This is one of Gordon’s strongest ideas. See Robert Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 20–24.
2 Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (New York: Basic Books, 2015), chap. 3, 85–97 in particular.
3 The concept of “zero marginal cost,” drawn from the arsenal of neoclassical economics, seeks to express the fact that the new technologies allow for the reproduction of certain services — such as music, films, books, and so on — without the need to incorporate additional labor or capital.
4 Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 104.
5 Mason, Postcapitalism, 131–32.
6 Mason, Postcapitalism, 133.
7 Mason writes, “If the working class is able to resist wage cuts and attacks on the welfare system, then innovators are forced to search for new technologies and business models that can restore dynamism on the basis of higher wages — through innovation and higher productivity, not exploitation” (Mason, Postcapitalism, 78).
8 Mason, Postcapitalism, 217, 252.
9 Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2019), 143.
10 Ibid., 213–15.
11 Ibid., 176–78.
12 Ibid., 174; see also 176–79.
13 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2016). See, for example, 194.
14 Ibid., 193.
15 Ibid., 138.
16 Ibid., 138.
17 Ibid., 164.
18 Ibid., 184.
19 Ibid., 141.
20 Mason, Postcapitalism, 222–23.
21 See, for example, Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 121–23.
22 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857–61), Notebook VII — The Chapter on Capital; emphasis in original.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid., emphasis in original.
25 Paula Bach, “¿Fin del trabajo o fetichismo de la robótica?”[The end of work or the fetishism of robotics], Ideas de Izquierda, July 11, 2017.
26 This is a combination of mechanisms fully verified in the neoliberal decades.
27 David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 236.
28 Rifkin, Zero Marginal Cost Society, 285.
29 Ibid., 288–89.
30 Ibid., 290.
31 While “prices” represent the form that “distribution” takes under current social relations of property, distribution — before being the distribution of products, as Marx reflected in Grundrisse — is the distribution of the instruments of production. That is why the distribution of products is clearly only a result of the distribution of these instruments, which is included in the very process of production and determines the organization of production. See Marx, Grundrisse, Introduction — I. Production, Consumption, Distribution, Exchange (Circulation).
32 Rifkin, Zero Marginal Cost Society, 156.
33 Unlike Mason, Bastani, or Rifkin, Srnicek and Williams do not use this concept in their work cited.
34 Mason even suggests, “Let’s admit, then, that only marginalism enables us to build price models in a capitalist society where everything is scarce.” See Mason, Postcapitalism, 157.
35 The socially necessary labor time that machinery frees is not transformed into a available for the workers but becomes an increased share of surplus value for capital. This naturally implies a reduction in relative wages — that is, the proportion of the created wealth that the worker receives in the form of pay — in principle by the same amount, although this does not prevent the real and/or nominal wages from being increased at the same time. The magnitude by which relative wages decrease and real wages increase — as well as the possibility of a reduction in the workday that is never an automatic result of the incorporation of new machinery — is subject to the “distribution” of the new wealth created and will depend, now, on the relationship of forces between the classes. But relative wages, as a final result, must of necessity decrease; otherwise, the owner of the capital would not benefit from the incorporation of new technology.
36 See the concept of “infocapitalism” in Mason, Postcapitalism, 158–61; the already-discussed idea of “creating artificial scarcity” — a term coined by Lawrence Summers and J. Bradford DeLong — in Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, 65; and the imposition of prices well above near-zero marginal costs and profits in Rifkin, Zero Marginal Cost Society.
37 It was very particular conditions that allowed the diffusion of late 19th-century inventions into the economy as a whole, especially electricity and the internal combustion engine, from the 1920s onward but particularly during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Particular conditions also allowed the generalization of information technologies — mainly originating in the 1970s — beginning in the mid-1990s.
38 Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 116–17.
39 Mason, Postcapitalism, 160.
40 Rifkin, Zero Marginal Cost Society, 285. Translator’s note: The term “prosumer” is a portmanteau of producer and consumer used to describe a consumer who is also involved in the design of a company’s products and services.
41 Ibid., 327.
42 Mason, Postcapitalism, 131.
43 Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, 347
44 Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 307
45 Mason, Postcapitalism, 217.
46 In his later Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek formulates an economic perspective in which the terrain of production and value-labor regains prominence. See Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2016).

About author

Paula Bach

Paula Bach

Paula is an economist from Buenos Aires and a member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS).