Automation on its Own and Under Capitalism

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Automation and Jobs

Automation and Jobs – 3

The real facts, which are travestied by the optimism of economists, are as follows:

The labourers, when driven out of the workshop by the machinery, are thrown upon the labour market, and there add to the number of workmen at the disposal of the capitalists. In Part VII of this book it will be seen that this effect of machinery, which, as we have seen, is represented to be a compensation to the working class, is on the contrary a most frightful scourge.

For the present I will only say this: The labourers that are thrown out of work in any branch of industry, can no doubt seek for employment in some other branch. If they find it, and thus renew the bond between them and the means of subsistence, this takes place only by the intermediary of a new and additional capital that is seeking investment; not at all by the intermediary of the capital that formerly employed them and was afterwards converted into machinery.

And even should they find employment, what a poor look-out is theirs! Crippled as they are by division of labour, these poor devils are worth so little outside their old trade, that they cannot find admission into any industries, except a few of inferior kind, that are over-supplied with underpaid workmen. [a]

Further, every branch of industry attracts each year a new stream of men, who furnish a contingent from which to fill up vacancies, and to draw a supply for expansion. So soon as machinery sets free a part of the workmen employed in a given branch of industry, the reserve men are also diverted into new channels of employment, and become absorbed in other branches; meanwhile the original victims, during the period of transition, for the most part starve and perish.

It is an undoubted fact that machinery, as such, is not responsible for “setting free” the workman from the means of subsistence. It cheapens and increases production in that branch which it seizes on, and at first makes no change in the mass of the means of subsistence produced in other branches.

Hence, after its introduction, the society possesses as much, if not more, of the necessaries of life than before, for the labourers thrown out of work; and that quite apart from the enormous share of the annual produce wasted by the non-workers. And this is the point relied on by our apologists!

The contradictions and antagonisms inseparable from the capitalist employment of machinery, do not exist, they say, since they do not arise out of machinery, as such, but out of its capitalist employment!

  • Since therefore machinery, considered alone, shortens the hours of labour, but, when in the service of capital, lengthens them;
  • since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital, heightens the intensity of labour;
  • since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of Nature, but in the hands of capital, makes man the slave of those forces;
  • since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital, makes them paupers –

for all these reasons and others besides, says the bourgeois economist without more ado, it is clear as noon-day that all these contradictions are a mere semblance of the reality, and that, as a matter of fact, they have neither an actual nor a theoretical existence.

Thus he saves himself from all further puzzling of the brain, and what is more, implicitly declares his opponent to be stupid enough to contend against, not the capitalistic employment of machinery, but machinery itself.

a. A disciple of Ricardo, in answer to the insipidities of J. B. Say, remarks on this point: “Where division of labour is well developed, the skill of the labourer is available only in that particular branch in which it has been acquired; he himself is a sort of machine. It does not therefore help matters one jot, to repeat in parrot fashion, that things have a tendency to find their level. On looking around us we cannot but see, that they are unable to find their level for a long time; and that when they do find it, the level is always lower than at the commencement of the process.” (“An Inquiry into those Principles Respecting the Nature of Demand,” &c., Lond. 1821, p. 72.)

From Karl Marx Capital Volume One
Chapter Fifteen: Machinery and Modern Industry
SECTION 6 : THE THEORY OF COMPENSATION AS REGARDS THE WORKPEOPLE DISPLACED BY MACHINERY

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