Artificial intelligence, unemployment and universal basic income: another panacea of the owner class - humanaesfera

Image from

How can AI concretely change capitalist society? And how can universal basic income be implemented in practice?

The owner class - or at least their high-tech chiefdoms 1 - looks worried about the outflow of their commodities if the prediction that AI (artificial intelligence) will make humankind definitely unemployed is accomplished. 2 After all, they are so little "imaginative" that it is not in their prediction that machines with AI may be intelligent enough for the capitalists to deprive them (as they did to us for centuries) of their material conditions of existence - subjecting them to deprivation of property, that is, to private property - so that these machines too are forced to sell themselves "voluntarily" in the labor market to buy from them the means to survive, 3 outflowing their commodities. Weak in imagination, the owner class then seeks to entrust the problem it foresees (that of AI disrupting the outflow of commodities) to the state - the institution responsible for the infrastructural conditions necessary for the accumulation of capital. The state would give a universal basic income 4 to the population so that the outflow continues, by realizing and returning to the enterprises the value of the goods that were produced, which would allow the continuity of the accumulation of capital, the production for sake of production.

In the meantime, bureaucrats, reformists and social democrats are enthusiastic about the "universal basic income agenda", seen as capable of herding "the people", engaging "the citizen" in the spectacle of political grazing (left or right), that is, seen as the expected dream finally able to make the population abandon once and for all the autonomous struggle - finally discarding all the "old and obsolete" class struggle.

However, let us see in more detail how AI can concretely change capitalist society and how universal basic income can be implemented in practice.

During the time when only a few enterprises (or only enterprises in a few regions or countries) adopt full automation with IA , i.e., while this has not yet occurred in all other companies competing with them, these competing firms will inevitably be pressured (so as not to go bankrupt face the ultra-automated competitor) to increase the rate of exploitation of the workers employed in them (by reducing wages and increasing the intensity and time of work), hoping that they will still be able to sell their commodities at a competitive price and quality.

This "surplus labor" made in all these enterprises in order to at least continue to exist and not go bankrupt is the source of the surplus value which accumulates in ultra-automated AI companies (which may not even employ anyone). This is the source of the superprofits which, even today (actually, since the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century), accumulates in the high-tech enterprises - superprofits that magically seem to rain from heaven "by virtue of exclusive merit of genius entrepreneurs." In sum, ultra-automated companies will only be able to sell valuable goods and make a profit as long as their goods command or impose the intensified exploitation of workers in the rest of society (and the rest of the world), both by their competitors and of those who, to buy goods from them, need to work hard to get enough money (eg, doing odd jobs, informal jobs, or doing more than one job).

For this material reason that frustrates all good intentions, capital (be it in particular enterprises or concentrated in the state under the formal direction of left or right bureaucrats) can establish a "universal basic income" only insofar as it serves to maintain a mass of proletarians permanently available and ready (that is, making them not become unusable by hunger and remain "educated") in an "optimal" condition to be used, consumed to generate maximum profit, and discarded at any moment by companies, and only insofar as this basic income is not so high that the proletarians can afford to refuse to sell themselves on the labor market for a low wage. 5

On the other hand, in the more daring speculative hypothesis of that full automation with IA will ceases to be a monopoly of some enterprises and diffuses in a way that is adopted equally in all the work processes of all the companies still existing, not only the competition between them will force them to sell their goods at a price equal to the costs, making the profit impossible, but also, and this is much more fundamental, thanks to this total automation (which would dispense with all human labor), these capitals (and it no matters whether all capitals are concentrated in the state) will have absolutely no value at all, because the commodities will no longer be able to impose or command any labor of others, since work has become useless for capital.

Prices will be absolutely worthless. Even if the state offers money for free, as the "universal basic income," it will have to arbitrarily attribute value to prices by decreeing the value of the equivalence of the money it is giving in relation to the products. This is arbitrary because this value attribution will have no substance - and the substance of value is the equivalence of the labor of others, based on the socially necessary labor time to produce commodities globally in capitalist society at every moment. The quantification of the value attributed by decree to each thing will be incessantly frustrated, reduced to zero - unless the owner class can actually discard capitalist society in order to establish a sort of world-wide “oriental despotism”... then it will be used "transcendent", mystical, religious (likely in a scientistic and technocratic fashion, eg. "value-energy","value-entropy"), ritualistic, sacred criteria, which is the only way to establish the equivalence of apples with oranges.

Of course, as long as this loss of substance of value begin to occur due to the exponential diffusion of AI predicted in this speculation, long before the hypothetical situation described above (diffusion of AI in all enterprises) could occur, in the absence of the eruption of the proletariat as a world-historical class, capitalist society and its states would have already suffered an economic collapse which will automatically and rapidly lead to restoration of the original archaic conditions that capital depends to sprout, stand out and continue accumulating. The "invisible hand of the market" itself or the entity called "creative destruction" would perform this kind of automatic historical "reboot."

This hypothetical crisis is no different from the barbarism we are already seeing: a generalized war of mafias, identitarisms, fundamentalisms, neo-feudalisms, rackets, nationalisms, ethnicisms, etc., in which the proletarians are kept crushed as a class, engaged in the wage labor of killing each other in the name of defending “their own” ruling classes at war with each other. This situation makes the more trivial aspects of daily life (eg, a simple trip to the bakery to buy bread) extremely violent, a real work, a repulsive and dangerous activity, the execution of which will only be accepted by someone who is desperate and needs to earn some money to survive (ie, proletarians). Once these smallest trivial dimensions of life have been transformed into "work" ("workerized"), fierce competitions will automatically arise by the possession of trade routes (a kind of new “age of great navigations”), innumerable enterprises and entrepreneurs “focused” on a multitude of "opportunities" of "new niches" will emerge, highly profitable capitals, because there is again much "substance of value," for formal and then real subsumption of that labor to capital.

In conclusion, it can be said that, through the chatter about universal basic income and AI, businessmen and bureaucrats - the ruling class - only add another new contemplative element to the society of the spectacle. From the speculative analysis on the future of technology and of capitalist society, one sees the present situation in an equally speculative, imaginary way. Speculation about AI leads us to see the whole of present-day humanity as lumpens already expelled from the sphere of production (which is already imagined to move on its own, as many commodity fetishists claim - from some critical theorists of capitalism to futuristic bourgeois scholars), a humanity unable to subvert society by themselves from the bottom up. From this speculative imagination it naturally follows that, if they are already impotent, reduced to nothing, they must be "engaged activists", must ask and thank god that a vanguard of illuminated philanthropists proposes to use the state and capital to implement from top to bottom charitable reforms.

In contraposition to all this speculativism, we seek to take as a starting point the present concrete conditions of the proletarians 6, the potentialities of the present situation with regard to their capacities and needs to associate and fraternize against the owner class everywhere, internationalistically, i.e. in a cosmopolitan fashion, by sabotaging from below all business and military competitions all over the world. By self-constituting himself as an antagonistic world-historical class, the objective of the struggle of the proletariat is invariable: that instead of competing with each other for their subjection to private property - no matter whether individual, collective or state owners - of the means of life and production on which their survival depends, they suppress class society by taking the worldwide productive forces to put them under the power of freely associated individuals, according to their their desires, passions, thoughts, projects, needs and capacities on a global scale - abolishing work, private property, commodities, boundaries and the State. The goal is precisely to make impossible all equivalence (value, remuneration, price, payment, commodity, barter, merit, etc.) through the universal (that is, for all) free access to the material practical conditions to the free creation of singularities, individualities, free multiplicities which can no longer be subjected to the incessant war for comparison, for equivalence, which the coercion to compete imposed.

humanaesfera, September 2017

(Translated to English by humanaesfera from the original article in Portuguese: Inteligência artificial, desemprego e renda básica universal: mais uma panaceia da classe proprietária)

  • 1. Reports on artificial intelligence, unemployment and UBI (universal basic income) were highlighted at the World Economic Forum in 2016 and 2017. Of course, as always, pious philanthropy, this time towards future unemployed, is what they say worrying them.
  • 2. As expressed in the article: Deep Learning Is Going to Teach Us All the Lesson of Our Lives: Jobs Are for Machines.
  • 3. In this speculative hypothesis, the only one that does justice to the "intelligence" in the expression "Artificial Intelligence", capitalist society will continue to be condemned to create its own gravediggers - that is, we, the proletariat.
  • 4. Also called basic income guarantee, Citizen's Income, unconditional basic income.
  • 5. On the argument of this last sentence, see the text What is wrong with free money? by Gruppen Gegen Kapital und Nation.
  • 6. e.g.: Notes on class composition, by Kolinko