A Marxist-Humanist glance at Brynjolfsson and McAffe's Race Against the Machine

					Has anyone looked at the Race Against the Machine, which was published last year, authored by
MIT Business Management professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee? They are
making a serious attempt to interest people in the notion that automation, especially its
acceleration over the past decade, explains more about the current economic crisis than
cyclicality and stagnation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that theirs is a view that “remains on
the fringes”, citing as a reason low unemployment levels in the U.S. throughout the 1980s, ‘90s,
and first seven years of the millennium. They cite IMF papers, as well as a 2010 Federal Reserve
Bank of Richmond report on a long-term rise in unemployment which, “does not contain the
words, computer, hardware, software, or technology in its text.”

I began to have questions about the current significance of automation in today’s economic crisis
recently while working on the volume of correspondence between Raya Dunayevskaya, the
Marxist humanist theoretician, and two prominent members of the Frankfurt School, Herbert
Marcuse and Erich Fromm (see http://marxist-humanistdialectics.blogspot.com/2012/08/marxist-
humanist-dialectics-russell.html). Among the topics in the correspondence that provoked the most
fireworks between Dunayevskaya and Marcuse especially were the social implications of
automated production. Automation was taking hold particularly in heavy industries, such as coal
mines and automobile plants, racing ahead from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. Though it continued
until 1978, the bulk of the Dunayevskaya-Marcuse correspondence took place between 1954 and
1965, years in which Dunayevskaya published Marxism and Freedom, and Marcuse published
One-Dimensional Man (as well as Eros and Civilization and Soviet Marxism). Dunayevskaya
and Marcuse agreed that technology and automated production were of the utmost importance to
understand both the current social conditions and the contemporary relevance (or lack of such) of
Hegel’s philosophy and Marx’s theory. Marx’s Grundrisse was an especially important text here,
having fairly recently been published in a more accessible edition, though still not in English
translation. In a nutshell, while Marcuse tended to argue that “complete automation” could end
the long night of alienated labor, essentially abolishing the “realm of necessity”, finally allowing
the “realm of freedom” to prevail, Dunayevskaya argued that the potentials of automated
production did raise the question of what kind of labor people should do, but could never abolish
the realm of necessity. As Marx wrote in Capital, Volume 3, “The true realm of freedom, the
development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond [the realm of necessity], though
it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is
the basic prerequisite.”

Especially important for Brynjolfsson and Mcfee’s argument are 3 graphs:

The first graph shows that, beginning in the 1950s, productivity has increased in every decade,
including 2000-2009. In fact, while the 1960s showed the greatest growth in productivity (2.7%),
the decade with the second greatest growth in productivity after the 1960s, was 2000-2009
(2.5%).
The second graph shows that the last decade is the first since figures have been compiled to show
a decline in real median household income.

The third graph shows job growth to have been in the 20% to 30%+ range in every decade from
the 1940s through the 1990s. However, in the decade 2000 to 2010 job growth actually declined
1.1%.

Brynjofsson and Mcfee write:

“This reflects a pattern that was noticeable in the ‘jobless recovery’ of the early 1990s, but has
worsened after each of the two recessions since then…The historically strong relationship
between changes in GDP and changes in employment have appeared to weaken as digital
technology has become more pervasive and more powerful.”

Marcuse tended to argue that even in a society in which increasing automation was the major
“centrifugal force” threatening social stability, as long as the “administered population” had the
“goods delivered” (employment, rising standard of living), not many realistic prospects for social
change appeared on the horizon. But now that we have just completed the first decade in more
than half a century in which productivity has continued to soar, but income and job growth have
plummeted, where to now for theory and practice?

				
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Description: MIT economists are making a serious attempt to interest people in the notion that automation, especially its acceleration over the past decade, explains more about the current economic crisis than cyclicality and stagnation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that theirs is a view that “remains on the fringes”, citing as a reason low unemployment levels in the U.S. throughout the 1980s, ‘90s, and first seven years of the millennium. They cite IMF papers, as well as a 2010 Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond report on a long-term rise in unemployment which, “does not contain the words, computer, hardware, software, or technology in its text.”