Automation and the Future of Work (excerpt)

Excerpted from Automation and the Future of Work by Aaron Benanav (footnotes omitted). Copyright 2020 Verso Books. Used with permission of the Verso Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 6

Necessity and Freedom

Even if one doubts automation theorists’ account of technological progress—as I certainly do—their attempt to imagine and chart a path toward a post-scarcity future remains their thought’s most attractive aspect, because it allows us to pose the question of how the pieces of this defunct world can be reassembled into a new mode of social existence. Harboring such a vision is crucial if we are to revive an emancipatory project today, not least because its future realization seems so far away. Nineteenth-century socialists knew they were far from achieving their goals, but they were nevertheless possessed by an idea of a freer future, which animated their struggle and the risks they took in its name. As late as 1939, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht could still write: “Our goal lay far in thedistance / it was clearly visible.” Few would say that today.

Not only are we living in an era of stubbornly entrenched neoliberalism, provoking angry ethno-nationalisms and climate-induced catastrophes of growing frequency and scale. We also lack a concrete idea of a real alternative. Central planning turned out to be both economically irrational and ecologically destructive, filling warehouses with shoddy products and proving susceptible to autocratic bureaucratization. European welfare states and Keynesian full employment policies proved unable to adapt to a context of slowing growth and ongoing deindustrialization. Meanwhile, against the attacks of neoliberals, social movements have mostly mustered rearguard defenses, which will merely slow our slide into the abyss.

Robot Pipe by Thor_Deichmann (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

So, “demand the future,” indeed. But which one? It is striking that Star Trek: The Next Generation provides the go-to example of a freer future for so many automation theorists. In this series reboot, launched in the late 1980s, a technology called the “replicator”— essentially a highly advanced three-dimensional printer—brings about the end of economic scarcity, allowing people to live in a world without money or markets. Citizen-scientists are then free to explore the galaxy, “boldly going where no one has gone before,” without having to worry about how they are going to earn a living. The question is: Can we envisage a post-scarcity world without the replicators—that is, even if full automation turns out to be a dream?

By focusing on technological progress rather than the conquest of production, automation theorists end up largely abandoning what has been seen as the basic precondition for generating a post-scarcity world, from Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia to present-day Trekonomics. This precondition is not the free distribution of money, as the most recent wave of automation theorists have it, but rather the abolition of private property and monetary exchange in favor of planned cooperation. One of the reasons they relinquish this key objective is that they begin from the wrong transitional questions: they start from the assumption that full automation will be achieved, going on to ask how we would need to transform society in order to save humanity from mass joblessness and create a world of generalized human dignity. It is possible to reverse this thought experiment. Instead of presupposing a fully automated economy and imagining the possibilities for a better and freer world created out of it, we could begin from a world of generalized human dignity, and then consider the technical changes needed to realize that world.

The Post-scarcity Tradition

What if everyone suddenly had access to enough healthcare, education, and welfare to reach their full potential? A world of fully capacitated individuals would be one in which every single person could look forward to developing their interests and abilities with full social support. What would have to change in the present for this future scenario to materialize? In a fully capacitated world, everyone’s passions would be equally worthy of pursuit. Particular individuals would not be assigned to collect garbage, wash dishes, mind children, till the soil, or assemble electronics for their entire lives, just so others could be free to do as they please. Instead of pushing some people down “under the mudsill” in order to raise up the rest, as the South Carolina slave owner James Henry Hammond once put it, we would need to find another way to allocate the necessary labors that serve as the foundation for all our other activities.

Whereas automation theorists place their hopes in technology, many of the original theorists of post-scarcity—such as Karl Marx, Thomas More, Étienne Cabet, and Peter Kropotkin—did not need to call on a deus ex machina to solve this riddle. They claimed that post-scarcity was possible without the automation of production. Instead, they argued, we needed to reorganize social life into two separate but interrelated spheres: a realm of necessity and a realm of freedom. The distinction between these two realms comes from ancient Greece, although for Aristotle, this distinction was one between persons. Slaves were condemned to the realm of necessity, while only citizens were allowed to enter the realm of freedom. Aristotle was himself a reverse automation theorist, justifying slavery by reference to the absence of self-moving machines: “If every tool, when summoned, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it,” he said, “then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers, or of slaves for the lords.” For Aristotle, the absence of such machines made servitude unavoidable.

Although his vision was not devoid of slaves, who were adorned with “golden chains,” More transformed this division between classes into a division internal to the life of each individual. Drawing inspiration from Plato’s Republic and the early Christians—who lived according to the principle of omnia sunt communia, or everything held in common—More had the inhabitants of his imagined island, Utopia, abolish money and private property. “Wherever there is private property” and “everything is measured in terms of money,” he explained, “it is hardly possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity, unless you think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people or that happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few, who themselves are not entirely happy, while the rest are plunged in misery.” Living in a time of early agrarian capitalism, More was disgusted by the enclosures, by which farmers were “stripped of their possessions, circumvented by fraud, or overcome by force” in order to make way for the pasturing of sheep. Left with no option but to steal their daily bread, poor people were imprisoned or summarily executed. Instead of this patently absurd and cruel system, in which some were condemned to poverty and death so that others might be wealthy, More advocated the pooling of necessary labors in common and the opening up of a realm of freedom for all to enjoy. Indeed, in Utopia, “the commonwealth is primarily designed to relieve all the citizens from as much bodily labor as possible, so that they can devote their time to the freedom and cultivation of the mind.” The class of idlers—Aristotle’s free men—would be disbanded, so that everyone could have a share of idle time for themselves.

Almost three hundred years later, these ideas inspired the exiled Rousseauian republican Étienne Cabet, who read More’s Utopia in the British Museum and was immediately converted to the social ideal of post-scarcity. He wrote his own treatise, titled Travels in Icaria (1840), advocating for what he called “the community of goods.” To More’s call for the abolition of money and private property, Cabet added the application of advanced machinery to reduce the extent of the labors of necessity. These were the ideas that inspired the French communists of the early 1840s, to whom Marx turned when he outgrew the liberal republicanism of his youth. Marx necessity and freedom condemned the French egalitarian communists—the followers of François-Noël Babeuf—for their asceticism. He rarely referred directly to Cabet, who had become a Christian mystic by the time Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto. Nevertheless, Marx saw it fit to lift the famous slogan that would grace the communist banner—”From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need”—almost directly from Travels in Icaria‘s “To each according to his needs, from each according to his strength.” Many of Marx’s post-scarcity ideas are derived from his Morist predecessors.

Marx then went beyond More and Cabet in charging that the post-scarcity world at which these thinkers aimed could only be achieved through mass action: it would not be handed down from on high by a wise lawgiver (as was the case in the visions of Plato, More, Rousseau, and Cabet). That was why the Paris Commune was so inspiring to Marx. In the brief life of the Commune, workers invented new modes of democratic self-government, replacing periodically elected officials with immediately recallable delegates. Exiles from the defeated Commune, including Élie Reclus, later roamed Europe, coming into contact with revolutionaries like Peter Kropotkin, who went on to write detailed accounts of how democratically organized post-scarcity societies could be constructed. Kropotkin emphasized the role of voluntary associations in postscarcity life. He argued that voluntary associations would flourish in a world where money and private property had been abolished and necessary labors were pooled in common.

These ideas were taken up in various guises by Otto Neurath—the original target of the socialist calculation debate—and by thinkers as diverse as W.E.B. Du Bois, John Dewey, and Karl Polanyi. All advocated for a world in which democratic associations of women and men replaced the rule of markets with cooperative production, and—taking advantage of capitalist technologies—reduced the common labors of necessity to expand a realm of individual freedoms. Du Bois estimated that, in the “future industrial democracy,” just “three to six hours” of necessary labor per person “would suffice,” leaving “abundant time for leisure, exercise, study, and avocations.” Instead of making some engage in “menial service” so that others might make art, he said, we would “all be artists and all serve.” To many people, this vision of post-scarcity was what “socialism” and “communism” had come to mean, before their later identification with Stalinist central planning and breakneck industrialization. I will take each component of this vision in turn, in order to sketch an account of how, on the basis of a conquest of production, fully capacitated individuals might solve the contemporary problem of persistent underdemand in a socially emancipatory direction.


Aaron Benanav is a Researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin. He previously taught at the University of Chicago and has written for the Guardian and New Left Review.