Say goodbye to the last factory job

SoftWear robot

The SoftWear sewing robot which can replace 17 factory workers (SoftWear Automation)

As Quartz reports, American tech company SoftWear has just announced a robot that can replace 17 factory workers in the manufacture of garments. I first learned about SoftWear in this podcast by NPR’s Planet Money.

This is a tremendously huge deal because garment manufacturing is one of the last traditional manufacturing jobs that requires a large number of workers. Until now.

As factories drastically reduce their labor requirements, self-driving cars eliminate the most common job in America, and artificial intelligence continues to automate white collar jobs… what will we do?

Many liberals and even some conservatives believe that a Universal Basic Income will be the solution. Under a UBI scheme, every citizen would receive a salary from the government to cover basic expenses. This would preserve the capitalist power structure and maintain the military-industrial-information complex status quo. It would continue to justify the “need” for a state to organize the redistribution of resources which we, humanity, are more than capable of distributing among ourselves.

Though this “problem” of automation is today accelerating more rapidly than ever, it’s nothing new. Pyotr Kropotkin predicted all of this nearly two centuries ago and outlined very specifically what it meant and what we should do in his seminal work The Conquest of Bread.

Sweatshop Workers

We should be in a position where we can cheer at the liberation of workers from these dirty, stressful jobs. (TakePart.com)

What Kropotkin realized, and what we as a species need to finally come to grips with, is that automation and the increased productivity it leads to is not a “problem” at all!

The evil of the present system is therefore not that the “surplus-value” of production goes to the capitalist . . . The evil lies in the possibility of a surplus-value existing . . . for, that a surplus-value should exist, means that men, women, and children are compelled by hunger to sell their labour for a small part of what this labour produces, and, above all, of what their labour is capable of producing. But this evil will last as long as the instruments of production belong to a few. As long as men are compelled to pay tribute to property holders for the right of cultivating land or putting machinery into action, and the property holder is free to produce what bids fair to bring him in the greatest profits, rather than the greatest amount of useful commodities — well-being can only be temporarily guaranteed to a very few, and is only to be bought by the poverty of a section of society. It is not sufficient to distribute the profits realized by a trade in equal parts, if at the same time thousands of other workers are exploited. It is a case of PRODUCING THE GREATEST AMOUNT OF GOODS NECESSARY TO THE WELL-BEING OF ALL, WITH THE LEAST POSSIBLE WASTE OF HUMAN ENERGY.

-Pyotr Kropotkin, the Conquest of Bread

To put it in more modern language, Kropotkin is explaining that capitalists and corporations hyper-focus all of the mighty and formidable strength of industry at their disposal on one very specific target: profit. Kropotkin knew that this profit-making is nothing more than WASTE. If we think of a dollar as a unit of productivity, then every dollar that is channeled into the pocket of a capitalist is waste, and nothing more.

Furthermore, capitalism leads capitalists to steer the ship of industry in some very strange directions. We have enough surplus in America to house every homeless American, feed every hungry American, and clothe every American in rags. But all of this surplus is privately owned, and thus those with the most need are barred from enjoying these basic necessities of life.

The gross inefficiencies of capitalism lead us to the situation we’re in now, where the average worker’s productivity has skyrocketed while wages have stagnated, according to this report by the Economic Policy Institute:

From 1973 to 2015, net productivity rose 73.4 percent, while the hourly pay of typical workers essentially stagnated—increasing only 11.1 percent over 42 years (after adjusting for inflation). This means that although Americans are working more productively than ever, the fruits of their labors have primarily accrued to those at the top and to corporate profits, especially in recent years.

This is perverse, especially when you compare it to the near-future scifi fantasies of thet 1950s and 60s, when Americans believed that the miracles of modern technology would lead to a “push button future” where we could all enjoy more leisure time and suffer less workplace stress.

Machines are not the enemy

We, as a species, should be striving for more productivity! We should be embracing automation as a gift to humanity. After all, the job of a machine is to do work so that we humans won’t have to. Machinery and technological progress can and should be liberating workers and giving us better, more comfortable lives, not driving the workers of the world ever deeper into poverty and hopelessness.

George Jetson

George Jetson was the archetypal factory worker of the mid-20th century’s concept of the “push button future”

Instead, we find ourselves in this Hellish situation where we’re making our capitalist bosses more and more profit for every hour we work, our wages are stagnant, and despite all of the incredible advances we’ve made in productivity, 8 out of every 10 Americans suffer from workplace stress.

But it’s not surprising at all that this is how things are developing when you realize that our entire society is built upon the idea that every human endeavor should be undertaken with the sole goal of producing profits for capitalists.

All of this is not even mentioning the way we export the worst of our capitalistic oppression to developing nations, where poor laborers work long hours for starvation wages to manufacture our goods. And even those jobs are getting fewer and farther between, allowing capitalists even more leverage to exploit and neglect workers.

The UBI is not Leftism

On the surface, a Universal Basic Income looks a lot like Leftism. It IS wealth redistribution. It DOES take from the rich and give to the poor. However, at its foundation it is essentially a strategy for preserving the structure of capitalism. It keeps those at the top at the top, and it keeps the vast majority of humanity at the bottom, reliant on the state to distribute the merest requirements for survival when we could, all of us, be living in material comfort.

We on the left see a different path to the future. By dismantling capitalism, every human can enjoy the fruits of progress which have been developed through centuries of worker exploitation. Every generation of workers has sacrificed blood for this progress. Blood, yes, but also time. Time that could have been spent with their families, time that could have been used cultivating artistic and scientific interests, time that was rightfully theirs, but ripped away for the benefit of capitalists.

Don’t buy into the idea of the Universal Basic Income. Don’t allow the workers of the world to be put into a situation where we must suffer the indignity of relying on the “charity” of the state when every day our capacity for surplus is driven ever higher by industrial ingenuity.

Every time a dirty, stressful, and dangerous job becomes obsolete we workers should be filled with cheer, not worry. The only solution to a jobless future is the dismantling of capitalism and the cessation of capitalistic waste and theft. The fruits of industry belong to all of humanity.

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