Automatic production - Joel Stein

Joel Stein discusses the limits of technology, the impossibility of full employment under capitalism and the need for worker control of production for liberation in Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on December 18, 2021

The benefits of industrial society under capitalism are purchased at a terrible cost: the regimentation and dehumanization of labor, the distortion of human needs, global war, ecological unbalance. These facts are either denied by bourgeois writers, explained away as necessary evils, or glibly accepted as temporary problems subject to amelioration. This last group, so proud of its liberal willingness to admit to the existence of social problems, is known for its boundless faith in the ability of capitalism to solve problems.

Thus with what joy did they greet the "age of automation," "the new machine age," the "second industrial revolution." The machine which had enslaved mankind would now liberate it. With the same iron necessity with which the machine itself had supposedly ushered in the age of human mutilation, it would usher in the new age of human freedom.

So the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibit on "The machine as seen at the end of the mechanical age." John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a widely heralded book on The New Industrial State in which he promised the end of the class struggle by means of the automation of the industrial working class out of existence. It was announced that "automation may be a reversal rather than an extension of the first industrial revolution" because it would replace

large numbers of unskilled workers on drab, monotonous jobs with highly trained technicians in challenging, responsible assignments of keeping the fabulous machines running ....

The new technology may cure the evils of the old technology.1

can now be admitted. But behind the frankness there is a self-assured smile. Don't worry. What the machine hath taken away, as we told you all along, the machine giveth. Capitalist industry transformed the worker into a mutilated human being, the performer of repetitious dull operations, a complement, a part of the machine. Automation will now reverse this process, by eliminating these dull, boring operations through complete mechanization, demanding higher education levels of those who continue to work. It is contended that unemployment is not a problem but that, rather, there is, and for some unspecified reason, will always be, a dearth of skilled labor. Unemployment is said to result not from automation but from low growth rates, caused by wrong government policies, either of too much or too little, and by “structural unemployment” which is generally due to the undereducation of the work force.

Two, Three, Many Industrial Revolutions

Automation is described as the second industrial revolution. According to Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings, the first industrial revolution was the replacement of human brawn whereas the second is the replacement of human intelligence in labor. Leaving aside the fact that, if this were the case it would make even more doubtful the increase of demand for intellectual labor (in fact Wiener was most pessimistic concerning, at least the immediate results of automation), this view is a serious misunderstanding. The first industrial revolution was also the automation of intellectual labor. It rested upon the transformation of skilled into unskilled labor, of the craftsman into a mere hand who no longer guided and instructed his tools but was instead guided and instructed by the machine. While it also eliminated many kinds of heavy labor, the machine in general was used to transform work into a purely physical task. It might be said then that the second industrial revolution actually is the final elimination of physical labor in contrast to the first which eliminated mental labor. In fact, both developments occurred in each "revolution" insofar as they may be differentiated at all.

The tendency of capitalist industry is to displace human labor by the machine. All machines are automatic mechanisms operating to some degree without human guidance or control. From the point of view of the worker, automation is simply the total elimination of the human being from direct intervention in the production process. The means by which this total mechanization is effected, whether through cybernetic devices, computers, or other means, is irrelevant insofar as its effects upon the labor process and life conditions of the worker are concerned. From the historical viewpoint of the working-class movement, the introduction of new production techniques, such as cybernetic devices or new power sources, is not of decisive importance and does not warrant the title of a new industrial revolution. Rather, it continues the general effects of the first industrial revolution, that is to say, of the industrial revolution. This is of course hardly to say that these questions are of no importance, nor to deny the possibility of technical "revolutions"; it is merely to state the simple fact that automation and cyber­nation are continuances of the general tendency of capitalist industry.

The extent of automation is determined by the requirements of capital expansion and profit production which form its limit2 . On the one hand, the goal of profit production, which is surplus-value, that is surplus labor, must ultimately conflict with the elimination of labor. On the other hand, the efficiency of automated processes is determined not in comparison with the total working-time but only with the necessary portion of the labor-time, that which the capitalist pays in wages.

The history of technology shows that in many cases machines were ignored or abandoned for a time when manual labor remained more profitable for the industrialists, with no consideration of the difficulty of the tasks thus retained3 .

In fact, automation is today still a rarity in production, affecting only a few industries fully, such as some chemical processes4 . Labor is still cheaper than the gigantic investments required for fully automated processes. The limits of automation in the capitalist economy derive ultimately from the relative stagnation of that economy at the present time; a situation which seemingly cannot be overcome within the private property framework of the system as it exists.

The various spheres of industry are interdependent in the capitalist system. (This is, for instance, why a crisis and depression or a boom affects the economy as a whole.) In the long run, the transformation of one sphere of production through extensive new investment in automated equipment can proceed only to a limited extent unless this occurs in other spheres, throughout the economy as a whole. The piece­ meal automation of the present time must eventually either come to an end or be accelerated throughout the system.

The situation is different in a state-controlled economy of the Russian type. In such a system, in which the ruling class, controlling the sum total of economic resources, can plan the allocation of capital for the system as a whole, automation could possibly continue indefinitely, while workers not needed for production could be kept employed in various forms of waste production. But in a mixed economy like that of the US, in which the government-directed sector is subservient to the private sector, this is impossible. Here the total capital can be dealt with practically only in the form of the private corporate capitals which make it up. There is no real planning of the economy as a whole; rather the individual corporations make investment decisions on the basis of their private profit requirements.

Given the stagnation of the capitalist economy at the present time, an acceleration of automation beyond its current limits would be possible only with the abolition of the mixed economy and the substitution of a state-controlled one. (Indeed, the technical developments of the post-war period in Western Europe and the United States are in general a function of State spending, mostly of the military kind5 . Such a change of the form of production by the ruling class is now imaginable only as a response to a deep-going social and economic costs from which genuinely revolutionary forces may also emerge.

Part Machine, Part Human

As long as automated techniques are introduced piecemeal, workers must continue to supplement machine operations. Insofar as workers continue to produce directly with machines, no matter how otherwise automated, they suffer from increasing subordination to the machine, boredom, stupefaction. As the machine takes over more and more of the intelligent functions of the producer, as of the physical activity—since mental and physical labor are always combined to some degree—the producer is more and more reduced to mindless activity.

Automation has not reduced the drudgery of labor. The very opposite is true6 .

Those who work with automated equipment do not enjoy the fact that, as Marcuse has said, their work is transformed into “psycho-technical rather than physical labor.”7 The worker is perhaps not exhausted physically. Instead he has no opportunity to use his body at all. In place of physical energy, he expends energy of tension. Both this lack of movement and constant tension contribute to disease and deterioration of mind and body.

Perhaps it is true in a few isolated cases that in the automated factory,

The worker is swung along by the form and rhythm of his work; the satisfaction this gives him can be highly productive8 .

In such instances, the worker would have to be a very incidental component of the plant. In general, the worker, as in all capitalist industry, is not swung but driven, and the feeling is anything but satisfying or productive. For example, it is said that,

Petroleum refineries and chemical processing plants are so highly automated that everything is controlled by one or two operators, who certainly can also be replaced. If and when they are it will not be for reasons of cost but because they slow down the operation" [which is of course also a reason of cost]9 .

These workers, who form the upper limit of the speed of the production process must be under constant pressure to quicken their workpace.

It is highly instructive to examine the consequences of automation in one industry in some detail. Thanks to the US Department of Labor Bulletin No. 1437, it is possible to get a relatively complete picture of what is in store for the machine tool industry10 , once consisting almost entirely of highly skilled tool and die makers and semi-skilled machine operators.

In this industry,

Numerical control permits automatic operation of machine tools by such means as a system of electronic devices (control units) and changeable tapes11 .

Reductions in unit labor cost requirements in machining operations range generally from 25 to 80 percent, which more than compensates the increased costs of numerically controlled machine tools. Almost all new machine tools are therefore of this kind. At the same time, profit costs prevent the full automation of this industry. We may let the Department of Labor speak for itself in describing "Changes in Content of Machine-Tool Operator Jobs."

The machine operator working a conventional machine tool is required to set up a machine including indexing of table or workpiece, select the cutting speed and feed; and keep adjusting the machine settings to achieve part specifications. Under numerical control, these duties are automatically carried out by coded tape instructions. The operator of the numerically controlled machine tool is responsible for tending or watching a highly automatic, costly piece of equipment as it goes through a sequence of operations. He loads the control tape, fastens the part in the fixture, and verifies finished part dimensions. When finished part dimensions do not conform to specifications, or an operating malfunction occurs, the operator of a numerical control machine is usually required to notify the supervisor or programmer rather than make the necessary adjustments himself12 .

While the worker is thus reduced to this simple, dull activity, reduced from what was already a dull, mechanical job, companies demand highly skilled and trained workers, and perhaps even knowledge of programming techniques. In addition,

Some companies prefer to use highly skilled and experienced machine-tool operators on numerically controlled tools13 .

As the skill content of the jobs fall, the skill level of the worker is expected to rise. The high formal requirements asked by the companies are used in statistics pretending to show rising skill requirements of work, despite the actual fall.

But the machine operator is the least skilled producer in this industry. What are the consequences of automation for the most skilled, the tool designer and tool and die maker?

Many of the decisions, judgments, shop practices, and precision machinery functions presently required of these highly skilled craftsmen will also be transferred to the planning and programming operations to be coded as instructions on a control tape . . . .

The functions and skills of the draftsman and engineer­ designer may be altered considerably as a result of various new methods of automating design being developed in conjunction with numerical control . . . . Techniques [which] produce a computer-captured model of the shape to be manufactured which can be converted readily into tape instructions for use on numerically controlled machine tools. When this occurs, it may affect the numbers of draftsmen required in the future. The principal duties of the engineer-designer will be the selection of design criteria and development of mathematical techniques for determining optimum design14 .

Of course, these are not the limits of automation. It is useful to briefly compare the changes of content in numerically controlled machine tool work in Soviet Russia. While Soviet sources make the same claims as US government and corporation officials concerning the enhancing effects of automation on work, the actual results also seem to belie the contentions. The machine operator, now liberated through automation, can

tend several machines at the same time. Where a series of machines is controlled by one worker the manual operations on one machine may be carried out while the other machines are working automatically15 .

But, in case this liberated worker has too much free time on his hands,

On integrated automated lines the job of machine operator can be eliminated altogether, and the tool setter can perform the few operator functions that remain16 .

In other words, as in US industry, a whole section of workers become mere tenders of “the fabulous machines.” Rather than a deliberate policy of the elimination of the destructive hierarchical division of labor between skilled and unskilled workers, following, for example, the suggestions of Marx, Russian industry has reproduced the hierarchical division of labor which prevails in all capitalist industry. Like the US spokesmen, they contend that this will be changed through the technical uplifting of all job categories through automation. In fact automation tends to reduce rather than raise job categories.

Nor is this tendency confined to factory labor. In a study of the automation of office work, Michael Rose contends that,

Computerization tends to reproduce the consequences—more repetitive, 'routinized' and 'machine-paced' work duties for employees and more standardized service to the customers—of mass-production factory mechanization17 .

According to Donald N. Michael,

While there is considerable feeling that cybernation is definitely displacing the unskilled (and in some cases reducing what were skilled jobs to unskilled ones), only recently has there been a growing awareness that cybernation challenges the job security of many workers customarily classified as skilled. For example, numeric control, the technology of guiding the machine tool by computer, is just beginning to make inroads into the skilled blue-collar community of metal workers, welders . . . and the like . . . . 18

Michael continues to list some of those who can expect to be replaced through cybernation: machine maintenance workers, clerical and office workers, middle management, engineers and others engaging in compiling information and issuing “expert” advice which can now be supplied through the computer and other cybernated equipment.

Michael notes that, due to automation,

White-collar workers are coming to recognize what blue­ collar workers have long known: technological change introduces uncertainty. Many skilled persons will be subject to replacement by the latest cybernated device . . . . This means a continuing potential threat of downgrading or retraining for the skilled, and along with it the emotional difficulties of job insecurity which will be new to skilled workers.

Changes in organization within both plant and office, which are inevitable when computers and automatic production lines are introduced, change social relationships as well. Among other things, conversation on the job and other informal, social arrangements are often reduced during the working period because fewer people are needed to perform cybernated tasks and they may be physically separated. There are changes in the pathways to job promotion and the procedures by which efficiency is judged; these wipe out investments in time and experience which people have expected to be applied to their future careers. And with smaller work forces and fewer supervisory tasks, openings for job promotions are often sharply altered or reduced. These changes therefore destroy traditional expectancies about how things will be done and how people will be evaluated19 .

In addition to the many other benefits which automation is bringing to the working population, a marked increase in shift work has been noted in recent years through the introduction of automation, as rising capital costs make the expense of idle machinery ever greater. In France, for example,

the percentage of undertakings in the manufacturing industry which had introduced shift work rose from 8.7 in 1957 to 11.2 in 1959 and the percentage of workers in this sector who worked in shifts rose from 12 to 17 in the same period. . . .

This increase is no doubt directly linked to the introduction of continuous processes, which are frequently automated, in a widening variety of operations.

In Britain as well,

The installation of large-scale systems of automated data processing has led to some night shift working in certain offices. As yet this development affects only a very small number of employees, but the number is likely to grow, though not to any massive extent. The introduction of on-line computer-controlled systems of manufacture and material processing is likely to have a greater influence on the development of shift working in the future. There is, however, considerable resistance from workers and some trade unions to the spread of shift working20 .

Attempts were expected to be made to exchange a four-day week for the introduction of shift work on week-ends and at night.

Thus for the majority of workers continuing to produce along-side of automated machines, automation promises no improvements, in fact the very contrary. It may be said that, despite all of this, the demand for highly skilled engineers, scientists and technicians will markedly increase with the development of automation.

The Redundant Brain?

Even if this were true, while there is no doubt that the absolute and even the relative number of skilled technicians and scientists has increased with the post-World War II technological development, it must be remembered that the increased skill levels of some technicians develops on the basis of the general fall in knowledge requirements and applications by workers in general. In every industry, scientific knowledge becomes the province of a small number of skilled workers while the majority is divorced from all intellectual activity. The computer industry is itself a recent example. Initially, in the immediate post-World War II period, all of those who worked with the machines' hardware were skilled maintenance men, capable of operating and repairing the equipment. As the industry became more developed, the technical training of these workers, and of all those who worked directly with the machines, was not kept up. Instead a new division of labor came into being with a handful of highly skilled computer repairers, and a large number of un- or semi-skilled workers who knew nothing of the operations of the machinery, and functioned merely as tape changers and in other mindless auxiliary capacities. Through the conscious policy of the creation of hierarchies, the machine which can replace skilled professional labor is serviced by full-time tape changers!

In general, automation continues the rising productivity of labor of the entire industrial development. This means that less labor is utilized to produce a greater quantity of goods. Included in the labor must be the education of the producers. While, for a truly free society, human beings must understand in order to control the scientific and technical processes at their disposal, a rising labor productivity which demanded increased labor time would be nonsense. It is precisely because rising labor productivity, including the development of technology, decreases the demands for training and for labor time in general that it is a potentially liberating force. Precisely this development under capitalism leads to the cheapening of labor which is the very goal of the capitalist process. The fact is that the computer has shown that intellectual labor is only labor and can be replaced by machinery as easily as any other kind of labor. Particularly under capitalist conditions where the skilled worker is assigned uncreative, restrictive tasks defined by the limited requirements of profits and war-making, mechanization of these jobs will continue. While the skilled workers' labor is differentiated from that of other workers often by only the degree of its boredom, the education factory is itself often only an element of hierarchy and discipline of the workers and technically trained. The university system also serves to cheapen brain work by mass production of students. In large part, the dissatisfaction of the “new working class” to which a number of radicals a few years back looked for their “revolutionary constituency” stemmed from the fact that these workers feel slighted in production. After years of technical training, they are generally faced with the choice of performing mechanical, proletarianized functions or else joining management. The reality of their position stands in stark contrast to their belief in their own self-importance. Often, as frequently emerged in the May 1968 events in France, the demands of these workers for control in production stemmed from their desire to have greater control over the other workers (see The Mass Strike in France, this volume) to take what they felt was their rightful place as the technical masters of production. But a revolutionary movement of these workers, who are being unemployed today as well as proletarianized on the job, can develop only when they renounce any pretensions about their own importance in production and seek control as workers, that is, equally with all other workers.

As we noted, in order to actually control the machines and modern technology, human beings must understand them and a truly liberated humanity will require great knowledge and understanding. But these considerations do not define the requirements of capitalist technology. Production according to profit considers education to be merely a cost of production; education which can not be employed in the production of profits is sheer waste production and from this point of view is totally useless. Even if the absolute number of educated workers had to increase, it would not be great enough to compensate for the millions of unemployed and the denigration of those employed; but, in fact, there is even evidence that, just as automation may also lead to a general fall in the absolute numbers of productive workers, so will it lead to an actual fall in the absolute numbers of scientists and engineers. Cuts in armaments and space programs are actually leading to such results in the United States today.

Thus it has been said that the control industry has 'closed the industrial loop' meaning that it has made intricate processes subject to computer control. It has now begun to close the 'intellectual loop', which will make the industrial operation subject to the control of management through a hierarchy of computers21 .

Here is the dream world in which a few rulers' commands are transformed directly from will to reality without the intervention of human beings who look on as passive observers and recipients of the will of the gods. Under such conditions, however, as Paul Mattick has remarked,

capital would feed labor instead of labor feeding capital. The conditions of capitalism would have been completely reversed. Value and surplus-value production would no longer be possi­ble22 .

As we have said, from the point of view of the working class, there have been not two, nor three, nor four industrial revolutions but only one continuous crisis-ridden process of capitalist development which has generally deteriorating effects for the working population. Automation does not reverse the results of the first industrial revolution, but continues the stupefication of labor, the insecurity of unemployment and work down-grading. “Giant robot brains” are not ironing out the “over-all complexities” of modern times but threaten rather to be instruments of human destruction. Automation is not eliminating the causes of class conflict but intensifying the crisis of class society. In short, automation, like industry in general, is not in itself a boon to humanity but is rather an instrument, an instrument which will be used against the workers until they seize control of it themselves. By seizing hold directly of production, the workers may abolish hierarchical and atomic divisions of labor and thus lay the groundwork for the abolition of labor itself.

The possibility of automation unfettered by capitalism is a real alternative now. This alternative holds up the spectre of the abolition of work, exposing the contradiction in the division of labor between managerial and managed functions; or between predominantly intellectual and predominantly physical work. Automation, while reifying these capitalist conditions, potentially exposes the absurdity of the fetishistic belief in the incompetence of the mass of producers and the special nature of those who perform intellectual and man­ agerial functions. So long as the producer was required to perform definite productive functions within the machine process, even total workers' control and equality could not release him or her completely from the limitations of industrial work. Automation makes the whole basis of the wage system into an obvious obsolescent and absurd form. Like all technology, automation opens the basis for a restructuring and freedom of human life, opens up a wide variety of options for the greatest human freedom; and like all technology, used under capital production at its lowest common denominator, it becomes an instrument of human mutilation.

Beyond Full Employment

Under capitalist conditions workers do not struggle first for the abolition of labor or even for the abolition of the wages system. First they fight to hold on to their jobs, or to defend their old positions in industry against the encroachments of capitalist technology. This they attempt to do through the old forms of “workers' organization” such as the labor parties and trade unions. However, these organizations are based upon an acceptance of the profit requirements of capital, while it is these requirements which demand the automation in the first place. At best, unions have managed to hold on to the jobs of members already employed, jobs which are closing up with retirement and workers leaving. At worst, as in the case of the United Mine Workers, the union receives actual payments to give the owners a free hand in automation. (In the case of the mine workers as well we see the destruction of health by virtue of the capitalist use of automation; through speed-up of the machines which kick up excessive amounts of dust. Here is the final irony, for potentially modern machinery could totally dispel the danger of work, and of mining, altogether.) In between are cases such as the West Coast Longshoremen. Here all "certified" workers were guaranteed pay for 35 hours work no matter how great automation. However, a great portion of workers are not certified and these suffer the full consequences of automation. But even this stratification of privileges will not serve to overcome the full effects of automation upon those who benefit from it now in the future.

The struggle, even to maintain jobs or to protect the given conditions can only take place through a movement which rejects the premises which make these demands appear realistic. That is to say, the demand to maintain the given conditions of wage-slavery can only be carried out through a movement which rejects the bases of the conditions of wage-slavery. Only through the seizure and running of plants and offices can workers force employers, even momentarily, to rescind those investment decisions which will displace the workers. What is at stake is not actually the demand to save jobs, or to retain the stupefying kinds of jobs presently carried out, but rather a rejection of the capitalist use of technology. Of course, workers today will and must fight for jobs, both to hold on to their own and to open up new ones. But as this need grows, the means by which it can be obtained can only be those which challenges the very bases of capitalist industry, posing the question of who determines production. A movement which could force full employment under capitalist conditions in violation of profit requirements is an impossibility. A movement around such a program might be capable of scaring, but not of destroying, the ruling powers. If the workers were prepared to implement such a program taking the full consequences into account, they would be fully revolutionary and therefore not interested in limiting themselves to the demand for full employment. Many socialists would for this very reason approve of this slogan, because they believe that programs consisting of demands of just this kind are needed to trick the workers into revolution. But a full understanding of the real conditions is precisely one of the things that a revolutionary workers' movement is about.

Thus the demand for full employment must give way to the demand for the abolition of the wage-system, for workers' control, for the abolition of the old division of labor, as means for the abolition of labor. The movement for jobs becomes the movement to abolish wage-labor through the means of class struggle which demands a practice which rejects the assumptions of the wage system and therefore of full employment. The means of factory seizures, general strikes, and operation of plants by the workers themselves which would have to be employed for a movement for full employment are not utilizable on a sustained basis by such a movement, for they demand a level of struggle which could be vigorously and consistently pursued only by a collectivity which has already gone beyond such limited demands. The workers must come to consciously reject the demand for full employment. Just as Engels noted that the demand “a fair day's pay for a day's work” must give way to the demand for “the abolition of the wages system,” so we today must recognize that the movement for full employment must give way to the movement for the abolition of labor.

Automation will not naturally lead to the overcoming of the capitalist conditions; although it makes those conditions increasingly obsolete, it does so only as the consistent extension of those conditions. Only through the direct seizure of control of industry can the workers transpose the natural tendency of capitalist production by their conscious intervention, redetermining industry according to their own needs and knowledge. Automation can be used in a liberating way only by human beings who are themselves liberated.

Root & Branch: The Rise of the Workers' Movements (1975), pp. 158-173.

  • 1Frank K. Shallenberger, "Economics of Plant Automation," in E. M. Grabbe, ed. Automation in Business and Industry. N.Y. 1957.
  • 2Paul Mattick, "The Economics of Cybernation." New Politics.
  • 3Georges Friedmann. Industrial Society. N.Y. 1955. p. 174.
  • 4For a full treatment of the limits of automation under capitalism see footnote three above and the chapter on "Technology and the Mixed Economy" in Paul Mattick's Marx and Keynes.
  • 5See Michael Kidron Western Capitalism Since the War; London, 1968.
  • 6Charles Denby. "Workers' Battle Automation." Priscilla Long, ed. The New Left. Boston 1969.
  • 7"Socialism in the Developed Countries." International Socialist Journal. April 1965. p. 147.
  • 8Marcuse. op. cit. p. 148.
  • 9R.D. Hopper, "Cybernation, Marginality and Revolution" in Irving Louis Horowitz, ed. The New Sociology. p. 318.
  • 10Outlook for Numerical Control of Machine Tools. 1965.
  • 11Ibid., p. 1.
  • 12Ibid. p. 37-38.
  • 13Ibid. p. 38. 14 Ibid. p. 40.
  • 14lbid. p. 40.
  • 15Labour and Automation. Bulletin No. 3. Geneva 1966. "Technological Change and Manpower in a Centrally Planned Economy." International Labour Office. p. 24.
  • 16Ibid. p. 27.
  • 17Computers, Managers and Society. Baltimore 1969. p. 23.
  • 18"The Impact of Cybernation." Kranzberg & Pursell, eds. Technology in Western Civilization. Vol. II. N.Y. 1967. p. 660.
  • 19Michael, op. cit. pp. 664-665.
  • 20Labour and Automation. Geneva 1967. "Manpower Adjustment Programmes." I. France, Federal Republic of Germany, United Kingdom. pp. 61-62 & 184 respectively.
  • 21New York Times.
  • 22"Marxism and Monopoly Capital." Progressive Labor. p. 40.