A reflection on Karl Marx in the 21st century

Now more than ever we are talking about artificial intelligence and robots, and their impact on business and the future of work.

Surprisingly, or not, Marx’s economic theory based on the labour theory of value: that the value of a good is the necessary labour time to make it, tackles the question of how we define value when the human labour required to create goods rapidly approaches zero.

Karl Marx, the famed German who co-authored The Communist Manifesto with fellow scholar Friedrich Engels in 1848, a piece of writing that makes the case for the political theory of socialism.

The political philosopher turned 200-years-old this year, but his ideas can still teach us about the past and present.

Anyone reading the manifesto today will be surprised to discover a picture of a world similar to our own, nervously on the brink of technological innovation unlike what we have encountered before.

In the manifesto’s time, it was the steam engine that posed the greatest challenge to the rhythms and routines of feudal life. Now, it is artificial intelligence and automation that loom as disruptive threats.

Marx’s writings acknowledge that automation has the potential to rapidly change the relation of capital, labor, and the means of production. Marx posits that society as a whole splits more and more into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other.

As production is mechanised, and the profit margin of the machine-owners becomes our civilisation’s driving motive, society splits between non-working shareholders and non-owner wage-workers while the middle class, ever dwindling, is set for extinction.

With automation wherein goods have become so inexpensive to manufacture, and require so little labor, then the current model of capitalism falls apart. In order to compete in today’s markets, employers seek to increase efficiency through technological innovation.

Today, most routine production work has been automated. Many information processing and basic “transactional jobs” such as cashing checks and taking calls have also undergone automation or outsourcing to countries with cheaper labour. This is a result of greater processing and connectivity capabilities of new technologies.

Technology has displaced certain skills and created new ones. This means routine tasks are separated from the job and automated or reassigned to lower skilled staff, a practice, for instance, used in healthcare, engineering and computer science.

This according to Mckinsey reports shows a “growing polarisation of opportunities in the labour market,” with strong demand for both the highest skills, and the lowest-skill jobs but decreasing opportunities for those in between, leading to a widened income gap.

Marx expounds an essentially utopian view of automation where  people have all their necessities paid for due to the overabundance of mechanized production, and are then able to spend their time on art, science, and self-actualisation.

This would be actualised by something similar to a universal basic income currently being tested in Finland.

Every major historical advance in technology has destroyed human jobs, with some leaving many unemployed for long periods at a time. The human workforce has responded to these shift by gradually adjusting, taking on the new jobs generated by these advances, and so capitalism has continued to function, always depending on both human labor and technology.

But the current crises posed by automation may not be resolved as easily as in the past, so it might be time to find a new framework by looking at some of capitalism’s critiques, including Karl Marx.



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