Saturday, 24 March 2018

Land of the UnFree - Eugene Debs and the Struggle for American Democracy

Eugene Debs fought his final Presidential campaign from a prison cell.

It is no secret or surprise to socialists that the American revolution was laced with contradictory aspirations from the very beginning. For every Tom Paine there were ten Burkian conservatives who saw the new nation as epitomising the promise of early bourgeois capitalism and imperialism.

Once the 13 states had freed themselves of the Royal British yoke, private property was enshrined to include the right to own human slaves, taxation for the greater good was derided as a breach of liberty and the invocation of the Common Weal to defend the individual left the USA at odds with its espoused values from the very start – a phenomenon that persists to this very day and the director Oliver Stone has described as “the United States’ unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice and realpolitik.”

In the first seven decades of the 19th century, many Americans pursued what they termed their “Manifest Destiny” – the destruction of Native peoples' cultures and seizure of their lands in the belief that this was God’s Will. In a country rich in natural resources, and unimpeded by archaic social conventions or physical infrastructure, American capitalists were able to seize the technological initiative from older European states and develop their own industrial revolution. Many fortunes were made, reinforcing the sense of the American Dream of individualism, but ignoring the reality of a growing, struggling proletariat. With mass migration often of the poorest sections of European societies used to undercut the wages of existing labour, American capitalism soon developed along the same elitist, unequal lines as the European versions.

But so did opposition to this twisted polity grow. Revolutionary America had supported the French revolution at least initially and the social ideas forged then were as influential in the USA as elsewhere. Tom Paine’s personal involvement in both was an important boost, but other Americans during the 19th century looked for a better society too. The anti-slavery movement was a key part of this, as were some Christian groups and socialist thinkers, including the poet Walt Whitman, whose espousal of humanitarian equality ran through his widely disseminated writings

Abraham Lincoln and many Republicans, while not embracing socialism as an ideology, invoked socialist ideas in their programmes – the fluidity of US politics may be obscured to some extent by the ideological stance of the parties in recent decades. It’s interesting to note that the American contribution to the international Republican forces in the Spanish civil war was titled the Abraham Lincoln brigade.

Additionally, perversely perhaps as it was an outcome of the conquest of native America that gave the space and resources for it, many socialists established living communes to create socialist societies from scratch across the US territories. As many as 1,200 existed by the 1880s, seeking to exist separately from capitalist society.

However, large scale capital was as prevalent in dominating Washington politics as it was in any European government. In particular, it mobilised to oppose the rising trade union movement. American unions were organised on craft lines and were inherently conservative, focussing on the narrow interests of their members alone rather than wider society or economics. And it was in this environment that Eugene Victor Debs was to first come into activism and agitation for change.

Debs was born in 1855 to French migrants who ran a prosperous, thoroughly bourgeois textile mill in Terre Haute, Indiana. However, he dropped out of public school at the age of 14 and worked on the railways, eventually becoming a night fireman on the run from Terre Haute to Indianopolis and earning a dollar a night. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875 and attended the national convention, soon becoming editor of the Fireman’s Magazine and later Grand Secretary of the BLF. He also became active in local politics and served one term as a Democrat on the Indianna State Assembly.

Debs initially took a fairly conventional view of unionism, seeking co-operation and concentrating on services for members. But as time went by, he saw the injustices of the railroad companies, who were among the richest and worst-behaved corporations. After the Burlington strike was brutally broken in 1888, he grew closer to the idea of industrial unions and a more confrontational stance – especially as the two decades from 1975 were seeing the first major recession in the newly industrialised world.
He left the BLF and in 1893 with George Howard as vice-president, Debs established the American Railway Union – the first industrial union in the USA and inclusive of unskilled workers. Unlike the non-striking BLF, the ARU held its first strike in 1894 against the Great Northern Railway and membership rocketed as workers organised across the US railways. Chicago, Illinois, was at the centre.
The Pullman strike was violently suppressed.

This led in the following year to the Pullman Strike, which Debs initially opposed, but embraced when he saw it was the clear demand of the members.
The Pullman corporation used the economic crash of 1894, the Great Panic, to justify cutting wages by 28%. In response, the ARU’s members in Illinois refused to handle Pullman coaches and this was eventually extended until 80,000 rail workers boycotted Pullman.
The press called the action the Debs Revolt and denounced him as an enemy of the human race, not just management. The Government sent the army against the strikers on the grounds that the boycott was interfering with the mail, which was a federal offence. 30 railwaymen were shot dead, thousands were sacked and blacklisted, and Debs was arrested and jailed. He was sent to Woodstock prison for six months.

It was there that Debs began to question the system that had killed workers and imprisoned him.
"...I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of Bellamy and Blatchford early appealed to me. The Cooperative Commonwealth of Gronlund also impressed me, but the writings of Kautsky were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance – and I thank him and all who helped me out of darkness into light."

He was visited in prison by Victor Berger, a newspaper editor from Milwaukee in Wisconsin, where there was a rising socialist movement. Berger talked passionately about his socialism and gave him a copy of Das Kapital which Debs described as “providential” and after reading it, he emerged from jail with a transformed view of the world and his mission in it.

Returning to his union duties, he persuaded the ARU to join with the Brotherhood of the Co-operative Commonwealth to establish the Social Democracy of America. This still had a focus on Chicago with 11 of its 50 branches there, but had a reach throughout the Eastern USA. It sought to combine trade union organising and socialist communes with political action. But it quickly became evident that the communes were ill at ease with engaging with mainstream political and industrial life. At its first convention in 1898, it split and Debs and Berger went with the minority to set up the Social Democratic Party, under which title he stood for President in 1900, winning 87,000 votes, 0.6% of the total.

In 1901, the SDP merged with elements of the much older Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America, which was to endure until 1972.
The Socialist Party was a broad church initially at any rate. It joined the Second International of global socialist parties and caught and shaped the radical sense of the time, named historically as the Progressive Era, when a wide range of people and thinking coalesced to demand change in the USA. The appalling conditions in factories and big city housing, the rural poverty across the mid-west and the South, the continuing exclusion and exploitation of people of colour, created a powder keg that even some capitalists such as Andrew Carnegie found either morally unacceptable or politically dangerous, or both. Although many reformers did not embrace socialism, socialist thinking and proposals heavily influenced them and even eventually policy-making.

Debs himself was influenced by Marx but also by Whitman, Paine, Wendell Phillips and the later writings of Mark Twain. He often invoked religious imagery in his speeches, referencing Jesus as a working craftsman, but organised religion was of no interest to him – the pulpit always sided with the Masters in his view.

Debs sought peaceful revolution, but accepted that at the point of revolution, some degree of force would be necessary and although he embraced electoral politics, this was more about having a platform to promote and spread socialism than to win legislative power to change society by parliamentary means. He did not see himself becoming President and believed that, when the time came, others would organise the new society. In 1906, he said:
“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.”

Although he embraced the broad movement, he was sceptical of the so-called “sewer socialists”, who followed a community politics approach to develop socialism from the ground up via existing institutions, especially at city level. This tactic did enjoy some success. In its time, the Socialist Party won over 1,200 elections, including two members of Congress – Berger and Meyer London – as well as 70 Mayors and 32 state legislators. Berger’s home city of Milwaukee became a particularly centre of socialist government, implementing widespread reform of housing, education and welfare that helped hundreds of thousands of people. But inevitably they had to, or were seen to, compromise with the existing system.

In this context, the decision of the party to join with the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), headed by Big Bill Heywood, in 1911, was set to divide the party. Heywood debated with Morris Hillquit, a champion of the sewer socialists, in 1911 in New York and the event dissolved into trading personal insults, presaging the 1913 split when the IWW left the party.

But Debs himself, although firmly on the left of the party, managed to transcend many of these divisions and even after various splits maintained productive personal relationships with socialists of all tendencies. He stood for President of the USA five times. His 1912 run was in many ways the most successful, while his final 1920 one was the most striking and poignant.

In 1912, reflecting the turmoil of the progressive era and the rise of socialist thinking and home and abroad, as well as all the contradictions of a now rapidly expanding but inherently grossly unequal and inequitable capitalist system, the Presidential election was a uniquely four-way contest. 
Former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, uncle of the later Democrat President FDR, formed his own Bull Moose Progressive Party to challenge as a capitalist reformer. Roosevelt openly boasted of stealing what he termed the "reasonable" elements of socialism.

Woodrow Wilson for the Democrats grabbed large parts of the Socialist Party platform including housing and child labour reform, while for the Republicans, incumbent President Taft denounced Debs and his party an unAmerican.

Debs ran a powerful, well-funded campaign across the entire USA. The Socialist Party was at its peak with 150,000 members and the IWW on board. There were well-organised parties across the country, education programmes in place and a dozen daily newspapers as well as some sympathetic journalists and editors in more mainstream journals.

His line was revolutionary. The interests of capital and labour were and always would be in conflict and could never be reconciled. Liberals and progressives might seek to ease the symptoms of the conflict; only socialist would remove the cause by demolishing the capitalist system and starting anew. He opposed regulating corporations – instead, the people should simply seize them.

The resulting vote saw Wilson win with Roosevelt defeating Taft – the best 3rd party result in history and the worst outcome for a sitting President. For the SPA and Debs, the 901,555 votes and 6% share was the strongest electoral performance for socialists anywhere in the world at that time. 

In the years that followed, the Democrats were to neutralise some of the Socialists' appeal by tackling a few of the worst excesses of capital while the IWW split weakened the party significantly, with a decline of almost a third in membership by 1914.

The First World War brought new challenges – while Wilson initially promised to keep the USA out of the war, his anglophile attitude caused concern among many German immigrant communities, many of which were close to the Socialist Party. Berger himself was of German background and this led to the Socialists opponents tarring their opposition to the war as being pro-Kaiser rather than anti-war.

Debs himself spoke out against the war, but found some influential socialists, including the author Upton Sinclair, arguing for a war for democracy. A party referendum was 90% for neutrality in 1915, but there were clear tensions within the party and some were directed at members of German descent.

However, he did not run for President in 1916 although in many ways fear of war had improved Socialist prospects. He cited exhaustion as his reason, though he stood in his native Indianna for Congress, coming a strong second. Meanwhile, a journalist, Allan Benson, stood for President and polled 600,000 votes – his anti-war platform was founded on no offensive war being legal unless a popular referendum ratified it.  Woodrow Wilson, running on a repeated promise of no war, narrowly won re-election and soon reneged completely on his commitment to peace.

When the time came and Wilson called for war in April 1917, Debs returned to national anti-war campaigning, especially when the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act outlawed anything deemed to interfere with the war effort and a number of socialists were jailed as a result.
Woodrow Wilson, War President

He welcomed the then ongoing Soviet revolution:
“Out of Russia, the land of despotism and dungeons, of exile and death to political agitators flashed the red flame of revolution in the night of Capitalism’s wars.”

Capitalism was, he believed, about to collapse, so “Must we send the workers of one country against those of another because a citizen has been torpedoed on the high seas, while we do nothing about the 600,000 working men that are crushed each year needlessly under our industrial machinery?”

And facing the denunciation of Wilson and Roosevelt and other warmongers clamouring for a so-called patriotic war, Debs said:
“I have no country to fight for; my country is the Earth and I am a citizen of the world. Let the capitalists do their own fighting and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.”

In June 1918, joining a protest outside Canton prison in Ohio where three socialists were being held, Debs denounced the war as one of conquest and plunger where “the Master class has always declared the war and the subject class has fought the battles.”

He was arrested and charged with 10 breaches of the Espionage Act. He pled guilty and on 18 November 1918, a week after the war had ended, he was jailed for 10 years. His sentence began on 13 April 1919 and was marked soon after by a May Day riot in Cleveland.

Debs ran again for President from his prison cell, leading to leaflet asking people to vote for Prisoner 9653 with a photograph of a now increasingly frail man. In spite of the huge crackdown on socialists and anarchists in the two years after the war, with J Edgar Hoover making his virulent anti-communism evident for the first time, Debs saw his vote tally reach over 919,799, the highest vote ever achieved by an American socialist.

He was released by the new President, Warren Harding, who hosted him at the Whitehouse and he returned to a hero’s welcome in Indiana. But he was a broken man and his health never recovered from prison. He wrote on prison reform, but his main activity was being treated for a circulatory disorder and he died of heart failure in Illinois in October 1926 at the age of 70.

The Socialist party itself declined and split almost as soon as Debs was imprisoned – it divided over whether or not to join Comintern and faced severe attacks sponsored by the Government as part of the Red Scare of 1919 to 1921 – thousands were imprisoned, sacked or deported; socialist meetings were broken up by thugs and police; 5 Socialists elected and re-elected to the New York state assembly were expelled by the Republican majority for being “unAmerican”; trumped up charges of violence were brought against activists and some were even lynched – an act the press saw as cleansing of the American soul.

But socialism remained influential with five million striking in 1919 alone. After backing  the independent “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s 1924 campaign for left progressivism which took 17% of the national vote, the Socialist Norman Thomas stood for President several times from 1928 onwards, peaking at 884,000 votes in 1932. Socialist party members were even employed by FDR to help shape the New Deal in response to the rise of populists like Huey Long in the 1930s. 

But the Socialist Party lost support when it first admitted and then split with Trotskyists after disagreements on the Spanish civil war. By 1941 it had declined to a small core and this fell further when it opposed the war against Hitler. Although many American Communists joined it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, it fought its final Presidential campaign in the same year, polling just 2,044 votes. There was some revival in the 1960s in the civil right movement, but the party was split over whether to seek to influence the Democratic Party or take a more independent stance. In 1972, it renamed itself Social Democrats USA before splitting again into the Democratic Socialists and Social Democrats. With the recent rise in interest in socialism in the USA, it has been largely bypassed by followers of Bernie Sanders and younger people looking for an alternative to neoliberalism - Sanders' use of the terms "socialism" and "revolution" is of course open to some discussion, but his relative success in mobilising a whole swathe of younger people to the concept shows the growing thirst for real change in contemporary American politics.

Debs himself remains a slight quixotic character, representing the optimism of the age as well as the apocalyptic character it took on alongside rampant capitalism and the industrial-scale world war. He was passionate, committed and risked his all for his cause – he fought capital and in response capital denounced him, beat and killed his comrades, threatened and imprisoned him and eventually in effect murdered him. But his words echo through time and are as relevant today as ever. 

As he faced a decade in jail, these are some passages from his speech to the jury at his 1918 trial and committal:

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul....

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.

Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

I am ready to receive your sentence.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

"Their hearts are far from me" - A Very Tory Christmas

"Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen" - John 1, 4.20

As usual, our political leaders have seen fit to bless us all with a Christmas message. Why they think we want to hear from them at this time of year, who knows?

There's Lib Dem Vince Cable, wandering about in a long black coat and a fedora, like some vampiric George Galloway, bothering homeless people with his sudden shock that they are sleeping on the streets. Meantime, Jeremy Corbyn is hailed as the Second Coming by some of his more fervent followers, but in spite of his shared initials with a certain other JC, his elevation is more akin to a slightly baffled Life of Brian than a would-be King of Kings, and his message is suitably personal, asking people to look after their neighbours and not let anyone be lonely this Christmas. He may not be the Messiah, but he is ready to stand up to Elvis.

But the one who takes the biscuit, and the whole Christmas pud, is of course our dearly beloved Prime Minister, Theresa May. Not only does she issue her sermon sitting in regal pose, she invokes Britain's "Christian heritage" and talks of love, service and compassion lived out every day in Britain. Darkly, she warns of Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

Yet perhaps Saint Theresa should stop and think why, in Alistair Campbell's infamous words, Prime Ministers shouldn't "do God"...

Because when she talks of compassion, hers is the Government that has plunged four million children below the poverty line. It is the government that has presided over the exponential rise of foodbanks in this, the 5th or 6th richest nation on the planet. It is the government that, when May was Home Secretary, locked up an Indian couple who came on holiday to the UK because the wife had her degree certificate with her, leading to suspicion she might be looking for a job; then kept her detained even after her husband died in custody and she begged to be allowed to take him home for his funeral...

And as for Christians persecuted in the Middle East? While contrary to the common portrayal, around 15 million Christians in Middle East countries live and worship - the church in Iran is small but actually growing in numbers - there clearly is persecution in several Arab states. By far the worst is Saudi Arabia, where the practice of any faith other than Islam is illegal. Yet it was the Saudis to whom Mrs May personally flew to promote arms contracts worth billions of pounds.

So when Mrs May talks of Christian values, she may want to reflect on the deeds and acts attributed to the founder of Christianity. For Jesus Christ's teachings don't seem to bode too well for a Government that puts profit before people and stigmatises the weak and vulnerable.

Tories rail against "health tourists"; Jesus taught the need to give medical help to foreigners without asking for payment (The Good Samaritan).

Tories test disabled people to check if they are lying; Jesus healed them without questioning them.

Tories have set up all sorts of tax dodges for the rich; Jesus told people to pay their taxes (render unto Caesar).

Tories praise the accumulation of wealth; Jesus flogged financial speculators. (The cleansing of the temple.)

Theresa May quite possibly prays for God's aid every day for all we know - given the mess she is in, who could blame her? Her own faith is clearly lifelong and there is no intention here to question the sincerity of her personal belief. But it is manipulative beyond belief for her to try to associate herself with values she then attributes both to to the nation as a whole, and to God.

Of course, May wouldn't be the first leader in the world to try to use religion for political ends - but those who have done so have rarely found a happy ending.So no, she's not the Messiah either...

 (Jesus) replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.' " - Mark 7.6

Happy Christmas!  (n.b. this salutation does not represent or claim to represent any endorsement by any Divine Being. All wording contained herein, however penetratingly insightful, is of purely temporal origin.)

Monday, 18 December 2017

Kissing The Machine - the robot dividend and the death of want

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote these words in “The Manifesto of the Communist Party” in 1848, Europe was in the grip of multiple revolutions and their channelling of Shakespeare’s prose on impermanence was apt indeed.

In the previous half-century, three key technological advances – Arkwright’s spinning machine, Watt’s steam engine and Cartwright’s power loom – had made real the Industrial Revolution, itself the offspring of revolutions in thought and learning stretching back over three centuries from the birth of the Renaissance to the enlightenment of the Age of Reason. Powerful new mechanised productive forces swept aside the remnants of the feudal age, with liberalism tearing down the privileges of the old nobility and the hierarchy of entitlement and obligation that had governed society for over a millennium and longer.

As Marx and Engels observed, global transportation opened up whole new industries with the potential to create a world of abundance. Raw materials could be transformed into hitherto unimagined goods and services in undreamt of quantities. All that was solid was indeed melted – not into air, but recast into new forms with ever new uses and benefits to their owners.

Yet the liberal world was not one of benefit to all – for the system that forged this change was one of capitalist exploitation and accumulation. While feudal lords had fixed the lives of their serfs to an unchanging existence of mostly agrarian toil, this had its limits and compensations – feast days most weeks, commonly held land and the protection of their overlord. As that system was swept away, a largely rural Continent was swept by Acts of Enclosure, alienating previously commonly held land and resources to new private owners. Tens of millions were forced off the land to be delivered into the gaping jaws of urban factories and poorhouses, which consumed human labour with less regard than that afforded the iron pigment dripping from the hellish blast furnaces tended by these disposable workers.

It was then against this backdrop that the Manifesto was written as the social and economic dislocation of the early 19th century spilled onto the streets in scores of European cities in the form of revolutionary violence. While these uprisings ultimately failed, the vision of constant change summoned up by its authors was to become ever more prescient as liberal capitalism continued its march far beyond Europe’s heartlands to grip the globe in its all-encompassing embrace.

Technological change was both the enabler and the product of this new system – as the ecosocialist Murray Bookchin observed in his “Towards a Liberatory Technology” (1965), the eight decades after the Manifesto saw humanity go through two further major transitions. First was what he called the Paleotechnic Age of coal and steel in the 1850s and 1860s, and then from the 1890s, the Neotechnic Age of electricity, synthetic chemicals and the internal combustion engine. Yet as Bookchin also observed, in spite of the exponential enhancement of power granted by mechanisation, “Ironically, both ages of technology seemed to enhance the importance of toil in society.”

Prior to industrialisation, tools such as spades and axes were used to augment and enhance human effort, while manufacturing was in the hands of craft workers, who rendered raw materials into finished products usually from start to finish – leather hides to hand-made shoes; clay into wheeled crockery, and so on. Industrialisation changed this irreversibly – while the sheer scale of 19th and early 20th machinery required large numbers of operatives, in a sharp reversal of roles, humans increasingly augmented the effort of the machines. Capitalist management specialists like F.D. Taylor developed and applied theories where the human element meshed with the technological into the so-called “Man-Machine”, where processes were broken down as near as possible to single, repetitive, often physically demanding tasks. Any need for the complex and individual knowledge of the craft-workers of old was removed, deskilling and alienating the worker from the eventual product of their labour.

Lang's Metropolis
Marx had foreseen the liberatory potential of new technology, but he also knew that in the mid-19th century it was not yet at a stage that could free humanity from the need to work – hence his acceptance of the necessity of a bourgeois stage of economic transformation. Even without the inequity of the accumulation of surplus wealth by the ruling class, industry could not yet provide abundance, whatever the economic system. While the combination of the importance and the exploitation of labour put the newly emergent working classes at the heart of revolutionary thinking, socialism itself continued to emphasise the nobility of hard work.

Reflecting this, Lenin was heavily influenced by Taylorism and had a portrait of the Taylorite founder of US production-line mass manufacturing, Henry Ford, in his Kremlin office. Even under Soviet socialism, with Russia’s proclaimed need for massive modernisation, humans were ultimately resources to be minimised in terms of cost and subordinated to process. In the Stalinist USSR, the shock brigades of Stakhanovite workers (so named after a miner who allegedly dug 14 times the average amount of coal produced by his colleagues) were perhaps the apogee of this.

Fritz Lang’s 1929 dystopian film Metropolis stunningly evokes the Man-Machine in a scene where rows of human workers perform repetitive, isolated tasks, swinging levers to and fro in their individual compartments, stacked on top of each other, machines themselves in all but flesh and name, more cogs in the service of an industrial megalith. Perhaps more gently satirical, but equal damning, was Chaplin’s Modern Times. In this, following the implementation an automated feeding machine for workers intended to eliminate wasteful lunchbreaks and keep ahead of their competitors, Chaplin’s employers force factory operatives to keep up with an ever-faster production line, with perhaps predictable, but nevertheless telling, slapstick results. 

Fast-forward seven decades and technology’s relentless development has reached an entirely new epoch.

While Lang and Chaplin satirised the contemporary theme of humans enslaved by machines, strikingly, the very first use of the word “Robot”, derived from an Old Slavonic word for “slave”, was in the 1920 Czech play by Karel Capek, R.U.R. – Rossums’ Universal Robots – which foresaw intelligent, autonomous androids – the robots - not enslaving humans, but replacing them altogether. And as time and technology have progressed, R.U.R. seems somewhat less fantastical than it did back in post-Habsburg Prague – or even in 1938 when it was the first ever sci fi TV programme broadcast by the BBC. 

The human factor has diminished, not only in physical effort but in mental processing too. Almost by stealth, unnoticed by many and incomprehensible to most, this is now the defining issue of our time, greater even than the danger of climate change because, in the end, it may be either our deliverer from disaster or the harbinger of our end. 

The development of computers and the rise of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) has transformed our world. First in the 1920s and 1930s as automated calculating machines capable of processing data much faster than humans and then, with huge investment by all the belligerent powers during the Second World War, used for a range of purposes including by Alan Turing as a decoding machine at Bletchley Park, drove the dynamic rapidly forward. As Martin Ford chronicles in “The Rise of the Robots”, its capacity now doubles every eighteen months or so – for example, there is many more times computing power now available in a Smartphone than used in the Apollo Moon landings. The invention of the silicon chip and subsequent miniaturisation, ever faster processing and increasing automation has led to more and more functions requiring little or no human input at all. 

From domestic appliances through the omnipresent internet to automated factories and semi-autonomous military machines, automation has made possible whole aspects of life that even two decades ago would have seemed fantastical. Seemingly light years on from the giant mainframes of the 1940s and 1950s, smaller and more powerful computers have become everyday items. Real robots, including a growing number in ever more human-like android form, have emerged in virtually every arena of society. And there is little sign of this slowing down.

The consequences have been and will be profound, far beyond the immediate purpose of any piece of technology itself. As the majority of this is being driven by profit-seeking companies, albeit often subsidised in one way or another by public funds, the appeal of employing automated tech rather than people is obvious - robots, living up to the origin of their name, don’t take holidays, fall sick, demand pay rises, join unions, go on strike, take breaks or need sleep. Yet there is precious little public debate and even less control over the new world that is being shaped by the R&D wing of post-(Henry) Fordist capitalism. 

Previous waves of new machinery have of course destroyed old industries and created new ones. While this often led to resistance from established owners and workforces, ultimately it provided sufficient benefit to be at least tolerated and often embraced by the societies it served. What Keynes referred to as “a temporary phase of maladjustment” ultimately gave way to new forms of previously unimagined work and in time to higher living standards for workers as well as owners. 

We can be replaced
So, some have argued, fears of the current wave of change leaving hundreds of millions, if not billions, of human workers surplus to requirements could be misplaced. While Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne have infamously predicted artificial intelligence will replace 47% of current jobs by 2030 (a prediction for the US economy – their UK figure stands at around 30%), US Professor of Economics Robert Gordon argues it will be a somewhat more conservative 15%.
He is joined in this caution by Marxist academic David Harvey, who points to the exponential growth in the global labour force in the last few decades as a counter to those proclaiming the end of human work. While western countries like the UK and USA do show symptoms of the beginning of a shift to a low job, hi-tech economy, their recent “jobless recoveries” can equally be attributed to the outsourcing of jobs to new low wage labour markets first in post-Soviet eastern Europe and then in South and East Asia. Harvey has pointed to this though as a one-off process, unable to be repeated on our finitely sized planet.

However, others such as Martin Ford claim that, this time, the new tech revolution is different in a number of ways. In the past, changes in industrial processes often occurred over many years, even generations, and still required human input to function. Now, however, the pace is infinitely faster and the impact deeper and far more destructive than with past tech-shocks. There is far less time to understand and accommodate change and disruption is so great that the entire economic system itself seems increasingly unstable and inherently unable to correct itself. 

The destruction of whole labour forces at a macro-economic level could sound the death-knell of the very consumer markets that capitalism requires to survive and thrive. Yet, at the micro-economic level which predominates in our economic system, the self-interest of individual companies in maximising competitive advantage over their rivals means that the drive to replace the labour of human hands and brains with the micro-processing units and silicon chips of robots will continue apace. 

Auto-waiter McDonalds, Leeds
Apocryphally, this change can be most strikingly observed in High Streets everywhere – supermarkets led the way with the euphemistically named “fast-lanes” where customers scan and pack their own purchases, interrupted only by the barking tones of the A.I. warning about unexpected items in the bagging area and harsh metallic alarms demanding that the sole human employee on duty should guess the age of the person trying to scan porn DVDs alongside their cornflakes. Many other retailers have followed suit in whole or in part – McDonald’s are rapidly replacing human order-taking with a forest of large consoles in each of their outlets and some fully automated servers are already being trialled. Whilst humans will not entirely disappear from the retail experience for many years yet, our numbers are set to drop dramatically.

The migration of much consumer shopping online has further hastened this dehumanisation of labour. In Amazon warehouses robots perform ever more of the distribution sequencing required to get your exotic brand of toothpaste from the shelf to a box to a delivery drone. Even in the City of London, algorithms have replaced human traders to undertake the scandal that is “split-second trading”. 

In the midst of this sits the military-industrial complex, now as in the days of Empire, driving and funding much of the research that is creating ever-more ingenious and terrifyingly powerful possibilities. The military application of A.I. has seen the rise of remote-piloted drone technology to the point that the USAF and the RAF are training more drone operators than pilots. Military robots akin to props out of bad science fiction movies are already a reality and the next major phase is to move towards truly independent, autonomous weaponry, guided and limited by nothing but the algorithms of its software. As human soldiers become redundant, the risk of conflict is likely to grow both in frequency and ferocity, with untold “collateral” impact.
AI Dog Soldiers

Robert Gordon and others may try to downplay it, but the human factor in the workplace is in long-term decline. According to the number-crunching analysis of Frey and Osborne, a host of roles from credit analysts, cooks and estate agents to crane operators, taxi drivers and baggage porters will disappear, while others such as solicitors will find software replacing large numbers of their profession.

Some human roles will be relatively immune – work requiring significant precision and manual dexterity, such as plumbing or gas engineering, will not be possible to replace using the level of robotic technology likely to be available in the next two decades. Similarly, while A.I. programmes like Deep Blue may be increasingly good at winning chess championships, even cutting-edge android robots like Asimo remain somewhat less adept at clearing and cleaning the spectators’ area after the match is over - so people with mops and dusters are likely to remain in demand. Likewise, “cognitive roles” requiring a high level of human interaction and understanding, such as psychologists, surgeons, engineers and fashion designers should be safer – so, perhaps sadly, will PR execs. For now.

Yet while there is much debate over both the pace of these changes and their foreseeable limits, nearly all commentators agree on though is that any future tech-driven capitalist society will be divided between an ever-smaller elite of owners and specialists on one hand and literally billions of dispossessed “surplus” humans on the other. Rampant inequality, far worse than even today, will become the norm as a world of abundance is skewed between utter excess for the few and deepening scarcity for the many. 

Martin Ford’s research shows in some detail how this is already happening – the share of surplus value paid to workers is falling rapidly as automation bites, even in newly prosperous economies such as China. In the UK, the percentage of national wealth distributed via employees’ wages has fallen by nearly a fifth since the 1970s in spite of GDP more than doubling in real terms and corporations raking in record returns. Under present conditions, this will simply get worse. Traditional professions and training routes via university courses and apprenticeships will be meaningless to individuals’ search for employment and there will be little time to adapt or invent significant new areas of work likely to generate well-paid work. 

In this new paradigm, the nightmare scenarios proliferate: will the rich elite exist effectively in their own supra-economy, operating apart from the rest of society, not unlike a virtual representation of the off-world gated community of capitalists in the film Elysium? Or, with their markets gone, will capitalists turn increasingly to the co-option of state power to keep them afloat, perhaps finally shedding even the slightest pretence of our current pseudo-democratic forms?

Though a good number of the rich are reportedly buying up post-apocalyptic bolt-holes for themselves, the second option seems for now the most likely and is probably the most appealing for most capitalists. Under this, the State steps in to save not capitalism, as it will be dead in even its most badly reanimated form, but rather the capitalists themselves. 

Neoliberalism has excelled in the seizure of public power and resources to the benefit of private companies and shareholders in the name of a non-existent free market. Its final, climactic purpose as the suicidal capitalist system passes into history, will be to cement the power of the final gang of owners of the world into a new plutocratic royalty for the Third Millennium. And with yet more irony, the leading advocates of one of the key economic measures to achieve this rescue of the damned elite see themselves as radical challengers to the very system that is set to incorporate their Big Idea.

That idea is known by many names – unconditional basic income, citizens’ income, universal credit among them – and has a diverse range of proponents. Broadly, the concept is that, in a society where high-producing technology means there is not enough human work to create big enough consumer markets to keep the economy functioning, the State intervenes to make a regular payment to its citizens which they can then use to purchase the essentials of life and, just maybe, a little bit more. In this way, the economy keeps turning with some minimum level of demand propping up the balance sheets of the big corporations. 
There have been various experiments with UBI including in Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has recently announced UBI pilots will take place in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire. Some of the oil states, like contemporary Iran, provide a form of basic payment as a “dividend” to the countries’ citizens from their natural resources, while South Africa makes a healthcare payment (predominantly, but not exclusively, to women), examined in James Fergusson’s Give A Man A Fish, which is intended to ensure the well-being of the poorest. 

In the UK, as well as the SNP’s recent interest, the Greens have championed what they call Citizens’ Income, although they have done so in the teeth of vicious opposition from the media and from Establishment politicians who derided it as at best utopian and at worst a charter for the feckless. Given the psychological conditioning of the public to believe that money must be earned via ideally full-time work, the derision of the Greens as hopelessly idealistic struck a powerful chord with many voters. But times change and the Green Party’s trail-blazing had led more recently to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell considering it as an option for a Corbynite social democracy. 

Capitalists have been relatively slow to advocate what, by the finest of Protestant work ethics would be derided as the sin of free money. Yet some are gradually concluding that it would be an effective means of saving capitalism from its inherently self-destructive genetic code. Ford himself recommends it as the basis for a new economy, though he argues that any basic income payment should not be unconditional but dependent on recipients undertaking some sort of currently unpaid community work, allegedly to avoid creation of a dependence culture.

By contrast, the left-wing argument for it as a dividend for sharing out the common wealth (the “robot dividend”, perhaps) is superficially appealing and even just. Much would of course depend on the level of payment, whether or not it was truly unconditional and how it interplayed with the rest of the economy. While ecosocialists argue it should not negate measures such as living wage legislation, other allegedly progressive proponents claim that a sufficiently high level UBI would remove the need for any wage protection as people could simply refuse badly paid work – a rather unworldly view of how the labour market works, especially in a world with huge surpluses of workers.

And this is the problem - by itself, UBI is just a tool and like any tool can be used to very different ends. Alone it does nothing to challenge the inherent inequality of capitalist society. It does nothing to rein in consumerist desire to pillage our planet of its diminishing resources. It does nothing to wrest control or ownership of the economy from the hands of a tiny elite – indeed, potentially it does quite the opposite, providing a basic level of demand in an automated economy, thwarting social change and locking citizens ever more into a system that kindly doles out their “income”. It does mark the end of capitalism as we have known it – nothing more will melt into air and the nostrums of private ownership and bourgeois hierarchy will be frozen like corpses in a morgue; and if we persist with a zombified market system, the morgue will be where we will stay.

And in that ossified condition, right-wing “libertarian” economist and author of “Average Is Over” Tyler Cowen salivates that, “This is not a world where everyone is going to feel comfortable…The world will look much more unfair and much less equal; and indeed it will be.” While the rich control untold wealth generated by automation, such human work as remains will be in serving their whims: “Making high earners feel better in just about every part of their lives will be a major source of job growth in the future.”

So here comes the challenge for socialists: do we back UBI as anything more than an important but transitional arrangement to protect people from the worst ravages of the transformation of our economy? As long as a monetary system continues, a Citizens’ Income would be a useful method for ensuring a fair distribution of wealth, but this would be a very different use to the idea of using it to keep a market system ticking over in the absence of sufficient paid employment. So do we focus instead on how to embrace and harness the powerful changes underway to deliver a society where material abundance allows us to eventually do away with markets and much, if for now not all, labour?

For Cowen’s dystopian world is not the inevitable outcome of automation and improved A.I. While acknowledging some inequality is driven by technological changes, Robert Gordon stresses that this is because of a choice: previous post-war technological advance led to greater equality and a much larger share of GDP going to employees. But since the days of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, “The nature of innovation…has created a sort of winner-takes-all society. Part of the difference today is political.”
Back in 1965, Bookchin posited:
“The question is whether a future society will be organised around technology or whether technology is now sufficiently malleable so that it can be organised around society.”

He was writing in the days of giant mainframes and transistors – even something now as antiquated as dialup networks using telephone cables would have seemed a revolutionary fantasy to all but the most visionary. Where we are now, exponentially on from Bookchin and several epochs from the steam and iron contemporary to Marx and Engels, the needs of all can finally be met – but only if we revolutionise the whole pattern of ownership and crucially of distribution of goods and services.  

Bookchin’s own thinking was a synthesis of ecology, anarchism and socialism. His advocacy of small-scale communities and communal ownership has become increasingly feasible thanks to the decentralisation and specialisation permitted via ever more flexible software programmes and technologies such as 3D printing. As we urgently need to move to more localised economies in the face of resource depletion and climate change, his ecosocialism has become all the more urgent and essential too. In this, UBI will have a positive, transitional role to play, but it should not be a long-term objective – because that should be nothing any less audacious than removing markets from all but the smallest scale economic activity, eventually removing the very need for money at all.

Imagine a confederation of self-governing canton-like communities, using largely automated technology to manufacture goods from local resources and then distributing them according to need. Imagine a world where these communities are largely self-sufficient but where the internet, renewable energy and low cost, emission-free (driverless) public transport facilitates the exchange of items of cultural interest or significance. Imagine a world where, rather than firing and impoverishing half of us, technology has created a five-day weekend. Imagine a world where people are free to explore their creativity and enjoy leisure without guilt or capitalist concepts of being “time poor” or “debt-ridden”. Psychologically, freed of the burden of want and the desire for acquisition, society would seek out new ways to find human fulfilment, a society that unleashes what Bookchin argued is the “basic sense of decency, sympathy and mutual aid (which) lies at the core of human behaviour.”

These are all potential liberatory and egalitarian scenarios for the future of our species and our world. But we won’t find our way to them under capitalism or its pending Pluto-Corp PLC upgrade. For in this time of transition, or age of disruption, one thing is for certain – capitalism has served its historical purpose. Its relentless drive to put profit over people and planet has entered a stage of such excess that it renders the system dysfunctional and for some decades already only the deployment of the coercive powers of the very State have shored up its beleaguered hold on society. 

And all this comes before we face the full, deep impact of the changes that are coming ever faster on the horizon – changes which are just the first of many which will mark this century far more profoundly and irreversibly than any that have come before in the Anthropocene Era. For, far beyond anything anticipated by Ford, Frey or Karl Marx, the nexus of genetic engineering and cybernetic biotechnology threatens to transform the very core of what we consider to be human. 

Yuval Harari, author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, warned in a 2015 New Statesman essay that “They (the tech-elite) dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness.”
Google has set up a Life Sciences investment company charged with a mission “to solve death”, while PayPal founder Peter Thiel is investing a chunk of his $2.2 billion fortune in research to upgrade humans and fight mortality. Much may be fantasy, but just as the potential of material utopia finally really does cleave into view, so too does the prospect of the rebirth of eugenics and its appalling consequences.

Harari berates the managerialism of contemporary mainstream politics, with myopic leaders rarely lifting their eyes from the four or five years ahead and, by default, ceding the great visions of tomorrow to the plutocratic geeks quartered in Silicon Valley. “The most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and business people, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

We need visionary politics more than ever. We need a politics that transcends hustling for cyclical elections to powerless legislatures that are bogged down between bureaucratic paralysis and the bullying of the Establishment. No more gradualism or liberalism or even social democracy. We no longer have the time. Now, more than ever, we face the stark but very real choice espoused nearly a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg: that of socialism or barbarism. 

The socialism of a society where the great bounty of commonly-owned technology is equitably and sustainably shared among the inhabitants of our planet. A society where work is much reduced, replaced by leisure and learning, and where clean energy, an economy of the Commons and social justice keep Homo Sapiens safe, in some balance with the natural world and ready to finally fulfil all that we can be.

Or, alternatively, the barbarism of a pseudo-capitalist dystopia where the elite shore up their decaying economics by employing the very tech that could free us all to instead bind us with ever more virtual chains, weighing us down with suspicion and surveillance as our world is racked by resource depletion and climate change. A world where the genetically modified, trans-human inheritors of capitalism will soon enough build that Internet of Things, a veritable Skynet, in the profane name of public wellbeing and national security. And somewhere, arguing that if they don’t do it, a competitor will instead, someone will build a Terminator.

And it won’t have an OFF switch.

“In a future revolution, the most pressing task of technology will be to produce a surfeit of goods with a minimum of toil. The immediate purpose of this task will be to open the social arena permanently to the revolutionary people, to keep the revolution in permanence. Thus far, every social revolution has foundered because the peal of the tocsin could not be heard over the din of the workshop. Dreams of freedom and plenty were polluted by the mundane, workday responsibility of producing the means of survival…. The most critical function of modern technology must be to keep the doors of the revolution open forever!”
-          Murray Bookchin, “Towards A Liberatory Technology”

NB - this article originally appeared in The Point, online Scottish socialist journal.

Towards A Liberatory Technology”, within “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” by Murray Bookchin, AK Press, Edinburgh, 2004. Also available as free download at:
The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment” by Martin Ford, Basic Books, New York, 2015
 Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism” by David Harvey, Profile Books, London, 2014
Inventing the Future: Post-Capitalism and a World Without Work” by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Verso, London, 2015
Who owns the future?” article by Yuval Harari, “New Statesman” magazine, 12-18 June 2015
You’re Next” article by John McDermott, “Prospect” magazine, April 2014
Immigrants from the Future” Special Report, The Economist, 29 March 2014