Automation and the Future of Work, by Aaron Benanav. Verso, 160 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1839761294
Aaron Benanav has the all the hallmarks of a rising star among the intelligentsia of the left. A native of Chicago, he was awarded his PhD in economic history at UCLA in 2015 and is now a postdoctoral researcher in economics at the Humboldt University in Berlin. This, his first book, is based on a series of articles published in New Left Review.
Automation and the Future of Work (AFW) is a penetrating study of the phenomenon of stagnation in the global economy. While the topic may sound dull, the clarity and lightness of the author’s style, coupled with his identification and critique of an emergent intellectual movement, makes for compelling reading.
According to Benanav, “automation theory” is a genre of public scholarship that materialised in the wake of the 2008 financial crash when a disparate group of left-wing sociologists, economists, political scientists and journalists expressed frustration with the horizontalism of protest movements like Occupy, which had proven so ineffective in challenging either the Iraq War or the doctrine of austerity. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams outline their antipathy to the ethos of these movements, lumped together under the term “folk politics”, in the automation theory classic Inventing The Future. While this term does not “name an explicit position, but only an implicit tendency”, Srnicek and Williams understood that at its heart “folk politics is the guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation”.
Automation theory was born from a desire to reinvigorate the left with new empirical research into the attritional and contradictory nature of contemporary capitalism. This motivation led to a renewed interest in international labour markets, in an effort to understand how the average worker was faring in the twenty-first century. As you might expect, the appraisals were largely pessimistic. British economist Guy Standing published a book in 2011 called The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, which defined a concept that has since gained a great deal of traction. The precarity this class experiences derives from the erosion of several previous features of employment, including “protection against arbitrary dismissal”, “barriers to skill dilution”, “protection against accidents and illness” and of course “assurance of an adequate, stable income”.
Automation discourse frames employment precarity in terms of a global diminution in the demand for labour. The cause of this diminution? According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, “a variety of useful robots have appeared just in the past few years. And these innovations are not just lab demos; they’re showing off their skills and abilities in the messy real world.”
From automated production lines to self-checkout machines in supermarkets, automation theory is dedicated to pursuing the consequences of what it takes to be an explosion in digitalisation, computerisation and roboticisation across all sectors of the global workforce. This explosion, proponents claim, has already taken place in the manufacturing sector, and its reach will soon extend to the entire working population.
Benanav is sympathetic to this argument, and he endorses the premise that increased automation “will destroy additional jobs in the future”. He also agrees that the situation concerning labour is deeply worrying:
This chronic labour under-demand is manifest in economic trends such as jobless recoveries, stagnant wages, and rampant job insecurity. It is visible as well in the political phenomena that rising inequality catalyses: populism, plutocracy, and the rise of a new, sea-steading digital elite – more focused on escaping in rockets to Mars than on improving the livelihoods of the digital peasantry who will be left behind on a burning planet Earth.
Nonetheless Benanav is fundamentally opposed to a set of assumptions that are central to the work of the automation theorists. In particular he criticises the notion that the manufacturing industry provides a blueprint for the services sector, “where ‘robotization’ is said to be ‘gathering steam’ with a growing army of machines that take orders, stock shelves, drive cars, and flip burgers”.
It is true that the share of manufacturing in the employment figures of developed countries has dropped, while output has increased. This fact, however, does not suggest that we are on the cusp of a new robot age. Benanav relies on one simple metric to prove his point: the speed of growth in manufacturing.
Since the 1970s, the rates of growth of output (volume of goods produced) and of productivity (goods produced per person employed) have slowed dramatically. In the UK, US, Germany, Italy, France and Japan, the figures point to the same result: output and productivity in the manufacturing industry have been growing at a snail’s pace. This snail’s pace is sometimes referred to by the automation theorists as the “productivity paradox”, but they fail to acknowledge the heart of the problem. The fact of the matter is that the growth of output and productivity has declined in precisely the period that automation theory assigns to rapid technological change. Consequently, while everyone can see that automation has affected manufacturing and eliminated or displaced jobs, it cannot be the engine of transformation that Srnicek et al assert it to be.
According to Benanav, the real culprit behind the downward trend in the demand for labour is overcapacity. AFW is preoccupied with the thought that manufacturing has reached saturation. This is Benanav’s principal assertion, and one that we need to take seriously if we accept its veracity. The catalyst for the growth of the world economy, manufacturing, which sparked into life in the nineteenth century and generated vast amounts of wealth internationally, has finally exhausted itself: The factories and machines that exist are largely sufficient to meet the world’s needs. From the perspective of the industry as a whole, there is no more room for dynamic growth.
Decades of industrial overcapacity killed the manufacturing growth engine, and no alternative to it has been found, least of all in the slow-growing, low-productivity activities that make up the bulk of the service sector … As economic growth decelerates, rates of job creation slow, and it is this, not technology-induced job destruction, that has depressed the global demand for labour.”
The value of AFW lies in its perspicacity; Benanav’s greatest strength is his ability to identify what and where the stakes are – he is not leading the field with new research but rather selecting and explaining the information that matters most. He studies the same datasets as automation theorists and neoliberal economists do, but, after even a casual review of his text, the reader has the definite sense that his interpretation is the one we should be listening to. He is also able to anticipate the reader’s assumptions and counter-intuitions, as they become relevant; passages that deal, for instance, with international supply chains, the impact of outsourced labour, and the difference between unemployment and under-employment come at just the right moment.
Aside from its razor-sharp economic commentary, the joy of Benanav’s text is that it obeys a precept once enunciated by Gilles Deleuze: “If you don’t admire something, if you don’t love it, you have no reason to write a word about it.” Throughout AFW, Benanav reflects on the merits of automation theory, even as he seeks to convince the reader that the arguments do not hold water. He devotes an entire chapter to the concept of universal basic income, a concept that, like the precariat, he attaches to the automation discourse.
His last chapter is explicitly utopian, featuring predictions and policy suggestions for a world characterised by labour precarity and insurmountable overcapacity. Though his premises are fundamentally different, in the end, Benanav reveals the extent of his complicity with the automation discourse – he shares their vision of a future where the necessity of work has vanished.
Tom Lordan is a freelance art critic from Cork. He studied philosophy and aesthetics in the UK and now lives in Dublin. His primary interests are Kantian philosophy and theories of cinema.