Karl Marx on automation and job losses due to disruption

“In these spacious halls the benignant power of steam summons around him his myriads of willing menials.”

Andrew Ure

Marx’s rage against the machine

Another thought about the rate of change and “distruption,” this time from Karl Marx. I love Marx’s writing and his desire to do better for the working poor, even as I sigh at his wrong economics (c.f. the labour theory of value) and roll my eyes at the extent to which he romanticises pre-industrial industry and largely ignores the agency of his victimised ‘working class’.

As we live in fear of the loss of jobs to automation (for example, as workers increasingly serve robots in Amazon warehouses), here’s a great riff on this old theme, lamenting the passing of a type of labour (cottage industry and early skilled manufacture) that we don’t miss today:

The life-long speciality of handling one and the same tool, now becomes the life-long speciality of serving one and the same machine… Machinery is put to a wrong use, with the object of transforming the workman, from his very childhood, into a part of a detail-machine. Along with the tool, the skill of the workman in handling it passes over to the machine.

To work at a machine, the workman should be taught from childhood, in order that he may learn to adapt his own movements to the uniform and unceasing motion of an automaton.

In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage.

“The miserable routine of endless drudgery and toil in which the same mechanical process is gone through over and over again, is like the labour of Sisyphus. The burden of labour, like the rock, keeps ever falling back on the worn-out labourer.”

At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity. The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman.

Karl Marx – Capital, Vol. 1

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