Work or toil in the pandemic

The pandemic has opened up a Pandora’s box about the future of work.  The slump has caused a huge loss of jobs, hours and earnings, particularly for those who are in all sorts of service sectors, like retail, entertainment, leisure, events, food preparation etc and it is driving thousands of small businesses surviving on small margins and with large debt burdens to the wall.

But it is more than that.  The slump will and is providing an opportunity for companies, particularly large ones, to do away with substantial parts of their labour force and replace them with machines, robots, home working connectivity and algorithms.  The result is that there will be further concentration of companies in sectors, as larger companies devour the markets of the smaller.  Of course, this is no new phenomenon but is part and parcel of slumps under capitalism. Friedrich Engels detected this process as long ago as in the 1840s in industrial England: “The former lower strata of the middleclass – the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, the retired, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which modern industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production”.

The much talked about automation revolution is likely to take off, at least in some important growth sectors.  Under capitalism, the production for profit system, this will not mean fewer working hours for employees; more interesting work rather than basic toil; or rising incomes.  On the contrary, the automation revolution under capitalism will aim to reduce the workforce, increase hours for those still employed and keep wages from rising – all in order to raise the profitability of the most efficient at the expense of the least efficient.

There are many forecasts of the loss of jobs as robots replace workers.  Management consultants, McKinsey, forecast that automation could displace 53 million positions on the European continent alone by 2030, the equivalent of about 20% of the current workforce.  The biggest reductions in jobs will be retailing, manufacturing and food and accommodation services.  And those hit the most will be those who have the least ‘skills’ and are paid the least.

Again, there is nothing new in the story of labour being replaced by machines.  It is the essence of industrial capitalism.  The so-called ‘industrial revolution’ of the early 19th century saw millions of craftsmen and skilled artisans replaced by machines.  Real wages were stagnant or even fell as craftsmen’s incomes vanished and the gains of the new industries went to their owners. Engels noted this result in his brilliant book, The condition of the working class in England (1844).  The machine-owning industrialists grew “rich on the misery of the mass of wage earners”.  Now the pandemic slump is creating the conditions for the wiping out of jobs across the board as happened in that period after the slump of the third decade of the 1800s.  The third decade of this century could see the same.

In his book Engels noted that mechanisation led to a fall in the labour share of national income, even if some workers gained employment in new industries as old ones died.  This process will be repeated in this post-pandemic decade.  Already, in the US, the wages for prime-aged men with no more than a high-school diploma have declined since 1980 and labour force participation rates among men aged 25 to 55 have fallen in tandem. Part of the reason was a switch to cheaper female labour and shifting of manufacturing industry out of the advanced capitalist economies to the ‘global south’ to use even cheaper labour with modern plants.  Again, Engels noted that trend in 1840s industrialising England: “the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women and children… Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.”

But labour-replacing technological change was also a major reason. Estimates show that each multipurpose robot has replaced about 3.3 jobs in the US economy and reduced real wages.  And forecasts for robot expansion in the 2020s predict exponential growth. The number of industrial robots has already increased by a factor of three over the course of the last decade, rising from a little over one million operative units in 2010 to a projected 3.15 million units in 2020. Over the same time, robots reportedly became capable of substituting for, or even outperforming, humans for many tasks, such as producing customised parts and medical implants using 3D printing technologies, diagnosing diseases, and assisting decision making, for example, by ‘robot judges’.

The rise of the robots: robots million units

Routine and low-skill tasks continue to be easier for robots to perform than non-routine, high-skill tasks. This implies that increases in the number of robots or improvements in their productivity tend to affect low-skilled workers much more adversely than high-skilled workers. Moreover, high-skilled workers tend to specialise in tasks to which automation is complementary, such as robot design and maintenance, supervision, and management. The differential impact of automation implies that the wages of low-skilled workers might stagnate and even decline in the presence of automation; just as Engels found in the 1840s.

When robots constitute a perfect substitute for labour, workers and robots compete directly on the labour market, holding wages down. As a consequence, automation leads to a declining labour income share. In the US, the labour income share within the productive sectors fell during the 1970s as companies tried to compensate for falling profitability by reducing their workforces, enabled by two huge slumps in 1974-5 and 1980-2.  The labour share stabilised during the 1980s and 1990s at a lower level as corporate profitability improved somewhat in the neoliberal period.  Clearly, there were other factors than mechanisation that led to a fall in labour’s share (the destruction of the trade unions, wage freezes etc), but it is estimated that of the 3% fall in the labour share from the 1990s to 2010, about 1% point can be laid at the door of automation.

Labour share of US GDP (%)

But as Engels also noted, mechanisation works both ways.  On the one hand, the introduction of new machinery or technology will lead to the loss of jobs for those workers using outdated technology.  On the other hand, the new industries and techniques could create new jobs.  But it is only in sectors of industry that require high skill and/or are subject to union protection that increasing wages and jobs are sustained: “The so-called fine spinners…do receive high wages, thirty to forty shillings a week, because they have a powerful association for keeping wages up, and their craft requires long training; but the coarse spinners who have to compete against self-actors (which are not as yet adapted for fine spinning), and whose association was broken down by the introduction of these machines, receive very low wages” (Engels).  Generally, however, “that wages in general have been reduced by the improvement of machinery is the unanimous testimony of the operatives. The bourgeois assertion that the condition of the working-class has been improved by machinery is most vigorously proclaimed a falsehood in every meeting of working-men in the factory districts.”

Mechanisation, robots and automation will reduce labour time. That should mean fewer working hours as more use values are created by labour in less time. But under capitalism, the extra use-values only deliver more value through the sale of those use-values and that value is only paid out to workers either in fewer hours, higher wages or both through a class struggle between the owners of capital and the labour force.  So, under capitalism, mechanisation does not ‘automatically’ lead to fewer hours and less toil.

In a new book, Work: a history of how we spend our time, James Suzman explains that, contrary to hopes and predictions of such as Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes, technology does not deliver a “happy life” (Smith) or “abundant leisure” (Keynes). As the recently deceased (and missed) David Graeber showed, mechanisation under capitalism has actually led to more ’bullshit jobs’ that destroy creativity and meaningful work, while increasing toil.

As the pollster Gallup showed in a recent survey of working life in 155 countries published in 2017, only one in 10 western Europeans described themselves as ‘engaged’ by their jobs. In another survey conducted by YouGov in 2015, 37 per cent of working British adults said their jobs were not making any meaningful contribution to the world.

It’s true that average working hours in most advanced capitalist economies have fallen since Engels’ time, but that has not been because of mechanisation, so much as from trade union struggles to improve conditions and from political battles over factory legislation and on the reducing working day etc.  Indeed, since the trade unions were decimated in the late 20th century in most countries, there has been little reduction in the average working week (still hovering at about 40 hours) despite the acceleration of robots and automation.

When trade unions in Finland recently proposed a 6 hour day, verbally backed by the Finnish prime minister, the idea was shunted off to a committee because of resistance from employers, who have an interest in paying (as little as possible) for hours worked, not according to productivity. A six-hour day for eight hours’ pay means a higher hourly wage. It also means a loss of control over workers — not only in terms of a smaller chunk of each day where employers control the activities of employees, but also through the implicit acknowledgment that workers should have more of a say in organizing working life.” Keynes’ dream nearly 100 years ago of a 15-hour week is still just that – a dream.

The pandemic slump looks like being a new catalyst for a change in working conditions.  ‘Working from home’ is the new cry. But that will only apply to a minority, mostly those in better paid office-based work.

And there is no surety that ‘working from home’ will improve job satisfaction or make people ‘happier’ as Adam Smith hoped.  Already employers are developing new methods of monitoring staff in their homes and indeed ensuring that they work even longer hours as they no longer commute.  And for the vast majority, going out to work in jobs that offer no creativity, pay badly and are increasingly insecure will remain the norm.  More toil not less work.

13 thoughts on “Work or toil in the pandemic

  1. I seriously doubt it. Capitalists are on investment strike. Investing in more automation at a time when there are millions of unemployed does not make sense to me. Why invest when capitalists have access to a huge army of unemployed willing to work for little wage, part time and temporary? They can hire labor power for cheap, temporary, and part time and dispose as soon as not needed. Cannot do that with fixed capital. Investment in automation in a deep depression?
    For the last decade I’ve been hearing about the fourth technological revolution. 3D printers, drones, AI, blockchains, autonomous vehicles, … but not much to show for. The likes of Uber have constituted the “innovative disruptive” technologies. A taxi company using software. If I had a dime for every time I was told that AI was going to replace humans.

    1. Mas a verdade é que a tendência de médio e longo prazo tem sido a automação e mecanização, principalmente nas atividades que criam valor para a economia capitalista, como agricultura, mineração e indústria (principalmente a pesada e a de bens duráveis, que são as que mais produzem valor).

      A produtividade desses setores aumentou absurdamente desde o início da era neoliberal, ou seja, é preciso cada vez menos trabalho humano para criar uma unidade de valor. Com isso o lucro global despenca e os trabalhadores vão para indústrias menos importantes ou para o comércio e serviços, onde quase não se cria valor e o trabalho é parcial, temporário ou informal.

      Mas isso não é um problema apenas para o trabalho: o capital precisa do trabalho para criar valor, que está se desvalorizando com a automação generalizada. Há muito emprego, mas a maior parte dele não produz valor nem mais valor.

  2. Either you stay healthy but you suffer economic ruin – or you go back to work and the pandemic keeps going. The dilemma is real in capitalist countries. But a socialist country can go back to work with rigorous safety measures. Social distancing requires more space, so you can only use offices, schools, etc. at partial capacity. You can’t bring all the workers back to their original jobs. But you can put people on work that needs doing: parks cleanup and trimming, blanket testing for the virus up and down every street, and so on. The pandemic exacts a cost in this. You must accept smaller profit and a lack of some consumption items for the duration. This is something socialism can do, and capitalism cannot.

  3. Caro Roberts,

    A automação também não diminui o lucro, já que o mais-valor só é produzido pelo trabalho vivo?

    A queda da taxa de lucro e o desemprego tecnológico não teriam a mesma causa, ou seja, a automação; e o capitalismo não estaria perto do colapso por conta de tal situação limite de desvalorização do valor, como afirmam Robert Kurz e os teóricos da crítica do valor?

  4. The holy grail of machine learning (there is no such thing as artificial intelligence despite the hype) is not to get rid of low paid unskilled work, it is to get rid of higher paid white collar workers in accounting, legal, marketing, banking etc. This is happening under the cover of COVID. But the capitalists are playing with political fire, or should we say democracy, because they are, like Trump, literally killing off their voting base.

  5. So all the timesaving devices resulting from the wonders of technology achieve is to allow us to work longer hopurs in bullshit administrative roles?

    What do you make of Ivan Illich’s take on labour-saving / time-saving devices and the increased leisure time of hunter gatherers c/f today?

    Couple of typos Michael.
    Paragraph 7 – “But labour-replacing technological change was also major reason. ” *a major reason
    Paragraph 14 – “so much as from trade union struggle and political battles over factory legislation and on the reducing working day etc.” This reads a bit funny? Perhaps *so much as a result of trade union struggle and political battles over factory legislation and reductions to the working day etc

  6. Robots are not the problem because in the medium and long term their lost jobs are transferred to other new sectors. The main cause of job destruction is the concentration of capital in monopolies that eliminate small and medium-sized companies and their employment. The only problem is who owns the robots. And whose is the property of productive capital in general. Property of only a few (capitalism) or all (socialism). The ownership of the bakery is what matters and not the production of bread, according to a good metaphor from M. R. on Facebook.

    1. I would think that a change in the ownership of the means of baking requires a change in the production of bread. Actually I don’t think a change in ownership can be isolated from changes in the production of bread— the production of bread being the result of social relations. Marx’s reciprocating analysis of the interrelationships, the interdependence of forces and relations of production is at one and the same time more nuanced and more thorough than “simply” changing ownership. Just my opinion, but I’m sticking to it.

      1. You are right. Our circadian clock determines that in a socialist society, where the health of workers rather than the wealth of capital dictates, work between 11 and 7 will be abolished except in things like hospitals. This applies to bakeries which because of competition under capitalism sees bakers up at three in the morning. This is only one of the changes in the work process.

      2. Why limit the imagination to the mere (socialist) transtion to communism? Humans need and like to work. Drudgery (a relative concept) would be limited to robots. Human’s would be liberated to the pleasurable work of satisfying the democratic community’s needs (gardening? educating children? caring for the disabled? etc.) and play according to one’s desires, maybe building one’s own house or a beautiful silo, or the perfect expeditionary recumbent trike for exploring the globe during one’ s half year off from community responsibilities and the drudgery of looking after robots (unless one has, adavistically, fallen in love with one)?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: