All kinds of work are necessary in a society, including work no one wants to do. Usually it is either left to the most unfortunate ones and/or a specific group of people is roped in to do these jobs. But we’ll still have to clean the sewers after the revolution, won’t we?
Many of those jobs are not automated nowadays because there is plenty of available cheap labor. And yet, as of today, much of the cleaning of sewer tunnels in Vienna is already performed by robots and in virtually all of Europe the garbage recycling system begins at every home. Capitalism will not develop these much further if it is not given the opportunity to profitably exploit more people. But the workers will. A dictatorship of universal needs would have no trouble transforming processes, automating some of it and socializing others.
In doing so, it would rely on two trends thatare already present but constrained by a decadent capitalism: the socialization of production and the development of labor as a productive force.
The socialization of production
Socialization of production as a necessity for the development of productive capacities has progressively clashed more and more with capitalist social relations. In the 19th century, at the height of the youthful development of capitalism, it transformed the very idea of capitalist enterprise through the expansion of joint-stock companies. As we enter the imperialist era, there is a new push towards capitalist forms of socialization of production: the development of monopolies, the organization of inventions and technical progress, attempts at planning…. The entry of the system into decadence in the 20th century radicalized this process to the point of socializing the bourgeoisie itself into the various forms of state capitalism that we know today.
Today we live under systems that express in a twisted and subordinated way the needs of capital accumulation. From recycling systems to Google Translate, every product increasingly involves the collective worker yet this is subjected to the system’s main goal.
When we use an AI such as Google’s to translate, we are actually using all the translations published before on the web by millions of people. When we use free software such as Apache (the server that supports most websites), WordPress (the publishing system for most digital publications) or browsers such as Firefox or Chrome, we are using the contributions of hundreds of thousands of users and hundreds, depending on the case, or thousands of programmers, many of them non-professionals.
But there are even more sectors and activities in which socialization – and therefore the collective worker – is present in an almost invisible way. What enables Amazon to deliver almost every product in record time or Zara to know what quantity of complements to produce and in which stores they are most likely to be in demand, is the processing of millions of users’ and customers’ data from all over the world.
Compared to such sophisticated systems, sorting garbage into different bags and depositing them in different garbage cans seems primitive. But it is also a principle of socialization that reduces by millions the man-hours needed to recycle the waste.
Why doesn’t capitalism further develop the socialization of production?
The development of the socialization of production under capitalist forms is itself contradictory. It can be seen very clearly in all digital products, where in order to sustain the valorization of capital and escape the trend towards gratuity the bourgeoisie has been contorting intellectual property to the point of paroxysm for more than twenty years.
We are tragically seeing this in the Covid vaccines. Those vaccines are based on prior scientific and social knowledge, massive resources obtained by states, and the collaboration of hundreds of thousands of people who were part of clinical trials around the world. But vaccines have owners, each one its own capital fund, which imposes profitability interests, reducing their social use, reducing production compared to what would be possible, denying the vaccine to half the world and even endangering its effectiveness because with so much waste and the marginalization of entire continents, time is given to the emergence of new strains.
A case illustrating more clearly why monopoly and nationalization, while ending the anarchy of the market, do not eliminate but rather elevate capitalist chaos and waste to a new level would be hard to find. The principle of socialization that is present and makes possible the development of the vaccine, does not cease to be in contradiction with the concentration of property around finance capital. That is, it is another expression of the contradiction between property relations and socialization of production and therefore of the contradiction between the proletariat (the class struggling for universal human needs) and the bourgeoisie (the class that, under various forms, private, corporate or from the state, profits from the exploitation of labor and attempts to uphold the system of capital accumulation no matter what.
Can all unpleasant and dangerous jobs be replaced by socialized systems and machines
In principle, everything suggests that some of them will no longer be necessary and others can be automated and socialized, although it is impossible to know at this time how.
For instance, communists dreamed for nearly a century of robots and machines that would mine coal safely and with almost no human involvement. During the Russian Revolution for example, there was a conscious effort to imagine and design mining tractors whose development was expected to avoid at some point going down the shaft. They took it for granted that coal would remain for some time an indispensable energy source. But unlike what we are told today by environmentalists, and eco-socialists fakers of various stripes, they already thought that the generalization of electrification would serve to reduce the need for dangerous and unhealthy mining work.
In 1920 the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, in the midst of civil war against the tsarist armies and the intervention of the imperialist powers, approved plans to develop geothermal and hydroelectric power throughout the country. No, when the proletariat seized political power it did not intend to make mining sexually egalitarian, nor to make it clean and environmentally friendly, it intended to become able to abolish it in order to free human labor and humanity itself from going down the shaft.
What we learn from historical experience is that the technological how will depend on the means available – on a global scale – but the political how is through the emancipation of labor, the imposition of human needs expressed by the needs of the working class over the needs of valorization (=exploitation) of capital and its economy (=accumulation).
But capitalism… does just the opposite, doesn’t it
Not exactly. The productive forces have not stopped growing under capitalism, not even during its decadence. It could not be otherwise, decadence does not mean that capital ceases to re-valorize itself all the time being destroyed in every cycle, it only means that the tendency to crisis becomes constant and that the tendency to the development of productive capacities is more and more constrained by the needs of capital. Rather than than a constant reduction of production and productivity, the system is increasingly holding back the social and productive development that it itself makes possible.
To put it another way: the way in which capitalism develops productive capacities is contradictory and increasingly so. During rising capitalism, developments in productivity in terms of profit were linked to those in physical productivity because there were virgin global markets in which to place surpluses with relative ease. Production growths facilitated by new inventions and the proletarianization of large masses of peasants, found markets and produced only brief cyclical crises that readjusted themselves with new market expansions that in turn expanded capitalism as a system globally.
The result of this was that increases in exploitation in relative terms (the proportion of unpaid social work time) were accompanied by drastic reductions in working hours matched by growth in workers’ capacity to consume. In Spain, for example, the average working day fell from 16 hours in 1830 to 8 hours in 1919. From that moment on, around the time when internal and external non-capitalist markets began to prove insufficient, the lack of markets began to turn every technological improvement into supposed excesses of labor power. Capital does not even have the capacity to exploit all the labor power at its disposal because expanding production or reinvesting all the capital produced back into the existing productive apparatus is not profitable. Unemployment and precarization become chronic. Capital development and labor development -human development- become increasingly contradictory and opposed. And in this framework, capital invests into technological regression: pedal on, boys, it’s environmentally friendly!!!. A new level of waste of capabilities which goes almost unnoticed in the midst of the orgy of destruction of productive capabilities represented by each new crisis and each new war.
But at the same time, the trend towards the development of productive forces is still there. And if we go back to the logistics sector we were taking as an example, this is obvious: almost total robotization of warehouses and warehouses, socialized orientation of production, and so on. Only it is evident that, as Marx’s famous formula said, this trend cannot develop freely because it clashes with the prevailing productive relations, or in other words, because it is subordinated to the profitability of capital and today -and quite possibly for some time- it is more profitable to hire cheap workers at poverty wages. It will develop… but not in accordance with human needs and not as rapidly as it would have done in another era.
That brutal and dictatorial fetter that is profitability for capital is what disappears as the logic of universal human needs takes over. That is what the emancipation of labor also means: the development of the transformative capacities of labor becomes independent, emancipates itself from the needs of capital, ceases to be subordinated to it. We will develop new technologies simply because that development aims to liberate us from the slave labor of necessity. Because as a class we want to free the species from going down the shaft, pedaling to deliver a pizza, or crawling to clean a sewer.
And then who will do the unpleasant and dangerous jobs?
In general, all current trends point to the fact that we will be doing it with robots and machines that are increasingly socially directed – the way we socially tell Amazon what we are going to need – or collectively distributed with varying levels of voluntary responsibility – like free software. But there will also be many that we simply will not perform… because they will no longer be necessary, just as it will not be necessary to go down to the pit and just as many of the needs imposed by the opposition between city and countryside taken to paroxysm by capitalism and its logic of accumulation and concentration will not be necessary. It will not be instantaneous, it will be a process, that which we call socialism, but a process that will begin to make it a reality from day one.