By Kyle Lewis

May 22 2020


The automation debate

The impact of automation on employment has been the subject of much intrigue for progressives over the last decade. Expediential advances in AI and computational learning have been noted as a key component of an emergent new era – what’s sometimes referred to as the “fourth industrial revolution”. However, whilst most theorists and social commentators agree that AI technologies represent new and disruptive challenges to society, their concrete impact on work remains subject to rigorous debate.


This debate around automation is what Nick Dyer-Witheford and his colleagues at the University of Western Ontario (2019) refer to as ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ positions. The extreme end of the former, ‘minimalist’ position refers to the belief that discourses on the impact of AI are overhyped and have been weaponised throughout the history of capitalism in order to intimidate and discipline workers. Astra Taylor refers to this as ‘fauxtomation’ –  an ideological deployment of technology that aims at disguising the real social and economic conditions of the work in question. For Taylor, and those of a minimalist position, the talk of automation hinders progressive causes by focusing our attention away from traditional forms of organising and class struggle and onto a fictional technological future that never materialises. 


On the other side, left ‘maximalist’ positions contend that AI technologies should not be dismissed as trivial and have both the dystopian and utopian potential to dramatically transform the conditions of production and employment. Maximalist positions draw attention to the vast and drastic changes that labour-saving technologies have had on workforces in the past which, as Paul Mason (Postcapitalism, 2015) and Aaron Bastani (Fully Automated Luxury Communism, 2019) emphasise, should not be ignored. In addition, maximalist positions contend that AI and associated technologies not only have the capacity to transform capitalist production and work, it also views these capacities as facilitating a transition to socialism (or at least ‘post-capitalism’).

The COVID accelerator

The outbreak of COVID has made this debate all the more compelling. As economist James Meadway has argued, the world economy that emerges from this crisis could be one that recognises and makes visible the fundamental importance of labour, both in terms of its withdrawal becoming an institutionalised public health necessity, and also in addressing the inequality revealed by the fact that key workers are some of the most poorly paid and at risk in society. This fundamental challenge to capitalism-as-we-know-it could shift the balance of power away from free market fundamentalism, due to worker and public pressure from below opposing a return to the austerity measures that underwrite the economic crisis sparked by Covid-19. A new settlement for workers could, in this way, see the emergence of a reinvigorated labour and trade union movement. Under these conditions, whether automation technologies are installed and deployed in the workplace or not, shifting the balance of power back in favour of workers provides the basis for resisting or utilising automating technologies. 


On the other hand, what’s also beginning to emerge from this crisis is a monopolistic concentration of wealth in a few large platform conglomerates – many of whom deploy the most exploitative working conditions. Whilst most small to medium size businesses across the world have been devastated by the corona virus outbreak, companies such as Amazon have reportedly expanded by mopping up thousands of people left unemployed by the crisis. A world in which information is captured and goods are delivered by a precarious workforce, coupled with the drive to shore up share prices and undermine any organised pushback from staff, makes the possibility of a highly-automated economy ever more likely. Perhaps a recent report from EY might be understood as a canary in the coal mine: it found that nearly half of company bosses, in 45 countries, plan on accelerating plans to automate their business in response to workers having to stay at home during this crisis. The final destination of automation could therefore end up being one of ‘maximalist capitalism’.

A political reality? State planning and the role of automation

The destiny and utilisation of automation post-COVID will also hinge on whether a joined-up, futureproofing narrative, with the freedom of workers and non-workers alike at its core, emerges. In a world in which a Conservative prime minister admits society actually exists, this is an opportunity to demand a new social contract that recognises the collective and essential function of mobilising and demobilising labour for a new economic moment. This means understanding the ideological and technological elements that underpin the automation debate. This, in practice, will require shifting the ‘burden of risk’ narrative of technology – whereby automation is understood as an inevitable threat or a promise – away from workers so as to position the debate squarely at the door of politics. As this crisis has demonstrated, whether governments want to or not, state intervention and planning will be vital in withstanding, and overcoming, the economic devastation caused by pandemic outbreaks. It only takes a few more steps down this avenue of thought to raise the question of planned automation: by whom and for whom will labour-saving technologies be governed?


In order for automating and AI technologies to be considered utopian and emancipatory, we must first of all consider the way in which its dystopian threat is understood as a more realistic outcome under contemporary neoliberalism. Technology being utilised and controlled by the forces of free market capitalism is not a natural state of affairs but instead the result of a struggle over what is considered politically possible. Neoliberalism has shaped not only the economics of the last 40 years but also the social imaginary in conceiving what’s possible – marketisation defines what is conceived as being ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. In contrasts – as many have begun to articulate – ideas such as a universal basic income (or guaranteed income floor) and a shorter working week could inform an alternative vision for modernity – complete with a narrative of emancipation and equality – in which progressives embrace and advocate the utopian potential of automation. However, to do this, its technological potential must first of all be mediated and positioned within a broader political project of the future, one that captures the social imaginary in proposing a radical yet pragmatic path beyond the neoliberal horizon (which is already receding). 


Applying this approach to the current political climate, we need to understand the ways in which integrating mechanisms for both mobilising and demobilisng labour could create security and freedom for all in managing a world in which multiple outbreaks of the virus are a reality. Outside of the unlikely development of an effective universal vaccine within the next two years, creating the foundations for a demobilised economy will require governments to act in ways which have been repudiated for the last 40 years. What were once seen as radical forms of state intervention and planning appear now as pragmatic solutions in averting future economic catastrophes. From a ‘left modernity’ perspective, a shorter working week would factor in care roles for workers with children kept out of school or elderly relatives needing essential goods and services. Shorter working weeks could also generate additional free time over the summer months in order to boost the domestic economy in terms of interior tourism – an idea which is being taken seriously by the prime minister of New Zealand and the first minister of ScotlandIn addition, setting up a guaranteed income floor would provide a fast and inclusive mechanism for making sure people stay away from non-essential work, create a social safety net and provide an inflationary economic mechanism for stages of post-lockdown recovery.

A space is opening...

The role automation plays in this new economy is an intriguing question, rich with potential. For a more equal economy, the roll out of a government scheme to subsidise and implement automating technologies in industry could help reduce the amount of time we all collectively need to work, whilst also holding the possibility of reducing human contact in high risk jobs during an outbreak. In addition, information and wealth taxes on companies who currently control and extract societal data, could thus generate new forms of revenues to pay for and maintain a universal basic income for its citizens. And lastly, providing and maintaining a new digital commons infrastructure fit for a world in which communication will need to be carried out remotely rather than in person, will increasingly need to be prioritised with the same level of infrastructure investment as roads and railways. Again, it would appear that automation and AI technologies could play a key role in its effective deployment and installation by the state.      


Whether – and to what extent – automation will play a key part in this new economy remains undecided. For once, however, the burden of risk may no longer belong to workers alone. Automation’s ideological threat and technological promise could become a challenge that every government is forced to contemplate.   In a world where shaping the political conditions for the right not to work becomes just as important as the right to work, we, on the progressive wings of the political spectrum, must start laying the foundations on which the demobilised economy will be built. If not, debates around automation, and technology more broadly, will be filled by the voices driving the rise of authoritarian capitalism. Instead, we need to create new narratives and initiate original demands around not only how automating technologies relate to work, but also how they intersect with the social imaginary in creating a political vision of the future. This means utilising this crisis to broaden the discussion of technology beyond the workplace in order to understand its political dimension rather than its isolated productive capabilities.

Kyle is one of Autonomy’s Directors and is an Associate Lecturer in the Health and Social Sciences department at the University of the West of England. He runs Autonomy’s consultancy service and is currently writing a book on the history and future of the shorter working week (Verso, 2021).