Opinion: Machines should benefit us all, not just bosses

Since the industrial revolution, machinery has become increasingly prevalent in industry and has often taken the place of human labourers.

By Joe Lo 

The premise that machines are taking over the world has been common in science fiction for decades. Bladerunner, Doctor Who, I Robot, Artificial Intelligence. The list is endless. Like all good science fiction premises however these films exaggerate a real and current trend which is that, since the industrial revolution, machinery has become increasingly prevalent in industry and has often taken the place of human labourers. Recent examples of this are self-service check-outs ousting shop assistants, unmanned aerial vehicles replacing pilots, oyster card readers sending bus conductors to the job centre and 3-D printers looking set to replace all sorts of factory workers.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since capitalism was created. In the 1810s, the Luddites smashed new factory machinery that was making them redundant. In 1834, Karl Marx commented, “the Bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production”. Capitalism has always encouraged innovation and the development of labour-saving machinery, often at the expense of workers.

This is great news for business owners as costs are cut dramatically and increases the UK’s “productivity” and “competitiveness”, as conventionally measured. Less staff are needed so there are lower wage bills for bosses and the staff that remain can produce more with the help of our new robotic friends. It’s not great news however for the workers who are made unemployed or for the people these newly-unemployed people go on to compete against for jobs.

So what’s the solution? In “I Robot”, Will Smith’s character lambasts the owner of USR robotics company: ‘I have an idea for one of your commercials: You could see a carpenter, making a beautiful chair, and then one of your robots comes in, and makes a better chair, twice as fast. And then you super-impose on the screen: “USR. Shittin’ on the little guy.” That would be the fade out.’ A fair point from the Fresh Prince but the CEO has a convincing response: “I suppose your father lost his job to a robot. I don’t know, maybe you would have simply banned the Internet to keep the libraries open?”, the CEO is presenting us with a false dichotomy between Capitalist innovation and stone-age Ludditism.

The third option is to distribute the rewards of innovation amongst the workforce. This can be done by encouraging workers’ co-operatives. Under a capitalist system of ownership, labour-saving machinery is used to sack people and cut their paid hours. Under a co-operative system of ownership, the same machinery could be used to give all the workers a day off with no decrease in their wages. To see the advantages of labour-saving machinery we have to look not at a privately-owned workplace but into peoples’ homes. Washing machines, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers have saved people work and given them more leisure time. This is how it should be in the workplace.

This is not an unachievable dream. The Green Party has a policy that, in the unlikely event that it is invited to form a government, it would give workers a right to buy out their companies with funds from a Green National Investment Bank. There is no reason the Labour Party should not adopt a similar policy and implement it in the event of their election. A society where machines work for humanity, not just for bosses, is what we should be fighting for.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.