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Innovation Used to Benefit Workers. Can It Again?


Innovation Used to Benefit Workers. Can It Again?

Bob Lord

A few weeks ago, I cringed when I saw this headline at a popular progressive website: “See How Well the GOP Tax Scam Is Creating Jobs? Walmart Announces Plans for 360 Robot Janitors.”


The economic system we have likes cheap workers and the more unfair the division of the fruits of production (for maximum profit at minimum taxes) the better: That’s about the opposite of workers’ interests, and the few with giant concentrated wealth are ready to quash any threat from the many to their ongoing gluttonous predations.


“It doesn’t have to be this way.” Yes it does, if you have a system whose highest priority is profit.

We need to change our economic system fundamentally. We need a system that values the fostering of life above the bottom line.

As it is, our economy, dominated by greedy capitalists bent on making more and more and more money at any cost, is eating up our planet. At the rate things are going, robots may be the only intellegent beings left in 100 years.


Just heard today that due to self driving vehicles over 10 million truckers will be out of work. So… as the mad scientists concoct their inventions- they do not care about real people.


Capitalism was always designed for the rich and for products to have a short shelf life so they break and people need new products- the opposite of recycling- a sick system.


No kidding Doc Obvious.


HI Swagman: but this current system can’t go on forever—because returning to a feudal system is not gong to happen. We are getting to the point though where the “working class,” can barely afford rent, or buy decent food or pay for health care----- and when an Uber class becomes more and more intolerant----somethings got to give. And sometimes the ratio of people in terms of who is where in the social order makes all the difference. Every time this inequality happens crime seems to rise------although the highest crimes recently seem to be in the Uber zone. But then, Britain never believed that the colonists and their revolution would amount to anything---- life is always full of surprises and sometimes from such unexpected quarters. : ) Who even believed that Tom Paine, former corset maker and then tax assessor in Lewes, England could start revolution–just by writing a few pamphlets. : )


I don’t expect a tax lawyer to understand Marxist economics but he really should read about the introduction of machinery to the production process and the reason and purpose of it.

The system is not shaped by the techniques of production, but by the relationships of production, by how society is organised to produce wealth.

When a machine is introduced in a particular production unit this reduces the number of workers (living labour) required there to produce the same goods or provide the same service. But, since the machine had to be produced by living labour, extra workers must have been taken on somewhere else to build it, so the question arises of whether the two effects on employment cancel each other out at the level of the economy as a whole.

At first, economists tried to argue that this was so but they soon recognised that they were mistaken and conceded that there would be a net reduction in the total level of employment, not as great as the number of workers displaced in the productive units affected but to a level less than previously. In other words, machines sack more workers than they take on.

Writing in 1821 not long after the Luddites had been smashing knitting machinery, David Ricardo concluded:

‘That the opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests, is not founded on prejudice and error, but is conformable to the correct principles of political economy’( Principles of Political Economy and Taxation).

He added that this reduction in total employment could, and normally would, be offset if the economy expanded as a result of new capital investment in some other field of activity. Marx, writing nearly fifty years later, agreed. This – the expansion of capitalist production – is the reason why the introduction of machinery in the past has not resulted in steadily increasing mass unemployment.

Marx made a further point about the introduction of machinery: for a machine to be genuinely ‘labour saving’ in the sense of reducing the total labour-time required to produce something from start to finish, ‘less labour must be expended in producing the machinery than is displaced by the employment of that machinery.’ ( Capital). By ‘labour’ Marx meant not simply ‘living labour’ or its immediate product but also the ‘dead labour’, the product of previous living labour, incorporated in the raw materials, energy, buildings and machinery used in production.

In a rationally-organised society based on the common ownership of productive resources so that production can be carried on to produce directly to satisfy human needs instead of for profit whether or not a machine did this would be the main criterion for deciding whether to apply it to production. Not all inventions of machines do displace more labour than would be required to produce them but, in a rationally-organised society, even machines falling into this category could be introduced if it was considered that the specific labour that would be replaced was considered dangerous, unhealthy or boring.

But this is not what happens under capitalism. Built-in to the capitalist system is a drag on the use of machines. As Marx went on to explain:

‘For the capitalist, however, there is a further limit on its use. Instead of paying for the labour, he pays only the value of the labour-power employed; the limit to his using a machine is therefore fixed by the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour-power replaced by it.’

Under capitalism the immediate product of living labour is divided into a part that the capitalist firm has to pay for (wages) and a part that it doesn’t pay for (surplus value, the source of profit). This means that under capitalism a machine that would genuinely save labour – the time society has to spend to produce something – would only be introduced if it also reduced the total labour that the capitalist firm had to pay for, i.e. the dead labour incorporated in the machine and materials plus the living labour it employs. If this is not the case, then the labour-saving machine will not be introduced, as to do so would reduce the amount of unpaid labour that the firm extracts, i.e. the source of its profits. In fact, the lower wages are, the less the incentive to apply labour-saving inventions, and vice versa.

Marx gave some concrete examples to illustrate that under capitalism there is a difference between invention and application:

‘Hence, the invention nowadays in England of machines that are employed only in North America, just as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries machines were invented in Germany for use exclusively in Holland, and just as many French inventions of the eighteenth century were exploited only in England … The Yankees have invented a stone-breaking machine. The English do not make use of it because the ‘wretch’ who does this work gets paid such a small portion of his labour that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist.’

This is the answer to the question as to why the futuristic labour-saving inventions have not been used on a wide scale: capitalist firms are only interested in using machinery if it will reduce their costs of production, i.e. the labour (living and dead) that they have to pay for. They will not and do not introduce machines that will increase their costs of production, even if their use would reduce the total amount of labour required to produce them. This is why, as long as capitalism lasts, the rate of the actual application of machinery to production will always be less than the rate at which labour-saving machines are invented. Under capitalism invention is one thing, application another. The mere invention of some labour-saving machine does not destroy jobs; only its application does.

While capitalism does expand in the long run it does not expand, as everyone is agreed nowadays, in a straight upward-sloping line. It goes in fits and starts, booms and slumps, with each succeeding boom reaching a higher level of production and employment than the previous one. Because capitalism grows in this way, it needs a pool of unemployed workers, which Marx called ‘the industrial reserve army of labour’, that capitalist firms can draw on quickly in a period of boom and who become unemployed again when the slump comes. So, unemployment rises and falls with the capitalist business cycle.


Well over a century into mass mechanization, Western peoples have mostly ceased to raise our own children so that both members of a marriage can work.

Despite an interim of relative equality brought on by union activity, distribution of wealth is now somewhat worse than it was during the Guilded Age at the end of the 1800s.

We have far more access to second-hand information, though disinformation has arguably kept out in front.

There is plenty of bad mechanization, but to really screw things up still seems to require human judgment.


How about this? People should stop having kids so that the population can decrease. Also, if they do not raise their own kids what is the point in having them- to place babies with strangers in day care?


Hi alanjohnston: And In Chandler, AZ, the teaching ground city for the WAYMO self driving car----------the Luddites seem to have been reborn! Not only are workers upset, but the humans are attacking the WAYMO cars just like they were knitting looms. On man slashed the tires, others ram at them in traffic. Sigh------and what is coming? A more expensive car and more 1099 jobs and soon no employers will be paying any taxes of the working people----a perilous future. ( Chandler was also the same city where the self driving car ran over a lady in the sidewalk-----and killed her. : (


Decreasing population growth would give us more transition time, all else being equal. Having no children is a respectable decision. And I am particularly in favor of people who do not wish to raise kids not having them.

But all that does still actually leave us with most all of the same problems yet to solve.

You have not implied this in any postings that I recall, Mealouts, but what I often get from discussions of population seems to be that were enough people to vanish, the remaining people could go on making all the mistakes and indulging all or most of all the abuses that we are indulging. I do not see these as your intentions, particularly considering your ethical stance as a vegan, but I want to address the matter here because these sorts of articles regularly draw posts from people who do seem to be population reductionists and because I find that people in general do not envision the sorts of changes that Westerners particularly need to undergo.

None of us is really volunteering to reduce population by leaving personally, so this often amounts to feeling that other people should leave–sentiments that I do recall indulging myself when the mountain trails that I had hiked and the beaches where I had surfed became more populated and usually degraded. Whatever one may think of this otherwise, it does not work because it meets resistance. You wind up with various groups trying to extract the same resources from the planet without returning surplus. And historically, there really is a tendency that the larger and more extractive group tends to destroy its neighbors.

That becomes the primary motive for growth.

Given enough cynicism, one might imagine that this means that one should or must go ahead and extract and destroy. But doing so actually leads to growing population and reducing resources because most people are actually in conditions wherein they compete best by maintaining large families, and the other people complete by destroying people and ecosystems.

Maintaining the current sharply imbalanced system creates overpopulation. If you create an agrarian and mercantile system, which still underlies the artifices of abstracted capitalism and military tech and is still the immediate system for most Homo sapiens on the planet, you create a system in which children become the wealth of the elders. There is a dark side to this, just as it sounds, but mostly the relationships continue including this aspect and also a lot of family bonds that seem to work just a smidgen better than those in Western societies–as nearly as I can tell.

Telling people in such situations that they cannot have children amounts to telling them that they should die in abject poverty in early old age after a lifetime of lonely labor for an impersonal system rather than age in a warm and loving home, and that this is necessary so that other people far away can live in large houses and drive cars because these constitute a more worthwhile way of life. This meets with resistance. Most of that resistance is well founded, though of course some of it is not.

When the following factors get set up in a society, native population stabilizes or drops:

  • Education for women
  • Care of elders
  • Healthcare
  • Relative freedom from conditions of war
  • Relative freedom from harsher sorts of coercion

Conditions of relative economic equality help, too, just as they help a vast range of other problems–and this is very far from anything like absolute equality, which is probably a theoretical notion in any event. It requires a loosening of control from extractive neoliberal economics and its odious debt, competing mafiosi, and the usual rat’s nest of self-styled “elites.”