Posts Tagged ‘noncapitalism’

(now all together)

(now all together)

You’d think, if you’re going to write about the inhumane effects of robots on our daily lives, you’d at also acknowledge the long, rich history of human movements and thinking about machinery and other technological developments since at least the nineteenth century.

But that’s not what we get from Simon Chandler [ht: ja] who deplores the new artificial intelligence and robotic technologies being developed by a wide range of companies, from Toyota to Amazon. Why? Because they threaten to reduce human autonomy:

With artificial intelligence suggesting to people what to consume, when to turn the heating down, when to get out of bed, and when to do anything else, people will find themselves becoming ever more regularized and automated in their behavior. Regardless of the fact that AI is characterized by its ability to adapt, to learn from how its putative user reacts, it can adapt only so far (especially in its present form) and can perform only so many actions. This means that any person who allows AI into their home will have to adapt to its behavior; will have to begin conforming to their robot helper’s way of doing things, to its rhythms, schedules and choices. As such, they will become more formalized and systematized, losing much of their spontaneity, impulsiveness and autonomy in the process.

Because of this increased tendency toward repetition and inflexibility, the AI or robot assistant will make its “master” more repetitive and inflexible. Its master will come to divide her time and spend her day according to algorithms which, no matter how advanced, are still nowhere near as complex as the human brain. Therefore, with growing frequency, she may be reduced to a mere function of these algorithms, pressured into acting in accordance with her android butler, into adopting the stereotype it foists on her.

Because these AIs would be the product of single R&D centers, such as the Toyota Research Institute, this influence of robots on human behavior will also represent a general homogenizing and centralizing of said behavior. Instead of being the result of innumerable interactions with hundreds of people and with her own community, the AI user’s psychology and personality will be molded to a greater extent by Toyota, Google or Facebook, particularly if this user becomes more socially isolated and more reliant on robotic aids.

What Chandler seems not to understand is that technologies, once invented, take on a life of their own—or, at least, a certain degree of autonomy. And we have lots of examples of people reacting to and thinking about the consequences of those technologies, as they become relatively (and, perhaps these days, increasingly) autonomous.

I’m thinking, for example, of the machine-breaking Luddites who, as both Eric Hobsbawm and Thomas Pynchon explain, were not hostile to machines as such, but using a technique of trade unionism (when labor unions barely existed): “as a means both of putting pressure on employers and of ensuring the essential solidarity of the workers.”

There’s also Marx, who (especially in Part 4 of volume 1 of Capital) wrote a great deal about machinery—as a way of increasing relative surplus-value, in terms of its sweeping-away of handcraft workers, as a means of employing women and children, as weapons against the revolts of the working-class, and much more.

And, of course, building on and extending Marx’s analysis, Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation or Work in the Twentieth Century (pdf): on the role of scientific management as the “displacement of labor as the subjective element of the labor process and its transformation into an object” and the role of machines which “has in the capitalist system the function of divesting the mass of workers of their control over their own labor.”

More recently, we have plenty of other sources, such as AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs by the Pew Research Center. What is interesting about the report, which starts from the premise that automation and intelligent digital agents will permeate vast areas of our work and personal lives by 2025, is that almost half (48 percent) of the technological experts who responded to the survey

envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

Finally, there’s Jacobin magazine’s special issue, “Ours to Master,” in which the various authors see new technologies both as today’s instruments of employer control and as the preconditions for a post-scarcity society. As Peter Frase explains,

The mainstream discourse tends toward the facile view that technology is a thing that one can be for or against; perhaps something that can be used in an ethical or unethical way. But technology in the labor process, just like capital, is not a thing but a social relation. Technologies are developed and introduced in the context of the battle between capital and labor, and they encode the victories, losses, and compromises of those struggles. When the terms of debate shift from the relations of production to a reified “technology,” it is to the benefit of the bosses.

I hope readers will find the links to these various sources useful.

My only point is that we can do much better than the humanist discussion of the inevitable engagement of humans with their uncontrollable creations (as in Chandler’s case) by examining the consequences and reactions (within specific and quite different capitalist and noncapitalist contexts) of the relatively autonomous technologies that are being invented today—a complex, contradictory process that will surely continue for the foreseeable future.


The other day, I expressed my doubts about Paul Mason’s arguments about postcapitalism. But others see his argument in a much more positive light, including some friends of mine, Jenny Cameron, Katherine Gibson, and Stephen Healy [ht: sk].

They, too, however, assert that “technology does not in and of itself guarantee a better future.” What are needed, and which they see emerging in the midst of capitalism today, are “explicit ethical commitments that are developed independent of online apps and cyber networks.”

Technology is augmenting relations of care for others. Technology does not bring these relations into being.

In our research on the diverse economic practices that exist outside the purview of mainstream economics, we find people are forging new types of economies around six ethical concerns:

  • What do we need to survive well?
  • What happens to surplus, or what is left over after our survival needs have been met?
  • How do we act responsibly to those whose inputs help us to survive well (whether other people or the environment)?
  • How much and what do we consume in order to survive well?
  • How do we care for the commons – the gifts of nature and intellect that we rely on?
  • How do we invest so that future generations can also live well?

I think they’re right: we do need to be aware of the ways the existing set of relations—the relations of capitalist commodity production—not only create capitalist subjects, but also noncapitalist subjectivities.

The way I’ve put it in my own writing, capitalist commodity production both presumes and constitutes particular kinds of individual subjects (which Marx referred to as “commodity fetishism,” i.e., particular notions of “freedom, equality, property, and Bentham”). But it also brings into existence new collective subjectivities—new ways of “being in common”—that can transcend capitalism.

A concrete example might help here. The existence of capitalist healthcare (of healthcare providers as well as healthcare insurers) both presumes and supports the idea that healthcare is an individual concern: we are supposed to take care of our own individual healthcare (whether through the established healthcare system or via “alternative” therapies) and purchase healthcare commodities (again, either established or alternative) if and when they are necessary. But it is also the case that the existence of healthcare commodity markets also brings together providers and consumers—nurses, doctors, and patients—who have an interest in a different kind of healthcare, one that is less interested in profits and more in the well-being of both providers and consumers.

That alternative subjectivity—that “being in common” in relation to healthcare—can serve as the basis of a noncommodified, noncapitalist form of healthcare. And, pace Mason, new kinds of information technologies might even be useful for connecting producers and consumers in postcapitalist ways. There’s nothing automatic about it, of course. Still, both new ethical commitments and information technologies signal the possibility of ways of moving beyond capitalism.

The key is to find ways to combine those emerging technologies and ethical concerns in a political movement that is inspired by a fundamental critique: both what is wrong with the existing order and an imagining of a concrete alternative.

That’s what comes next. . .


Marxist economists have spent a lot of time in recent years deconstructing capitalism, showing that there are lots of spaces within modern economies in which capitalism does not prevail. The idea behind “iceberg economics” is that lots of alternatives to capitalism already exist (barter, self-help, producer cooperatives, and the like) and, once recognized, they can be fostered and further developed.

By the same token, it’s also important to focus on instances where capitalism does exist, even when—as in the case of the so-called sharing economy—it might appear that the typical relations of capitalism don’t apply.

Uber, the ride-sourcing service, is a case in point. The owners of Uber maintain their drivers are independent contractors, and all they’re doing is providing “a technology platform that helps willing drivers connect with passengers willing to pay for a ride.” Drivers, in turn, benefit “because they have complete flexibility and control.”

But the California Labor Commission has now ruled that Uber has an employer-employee relationship with its drivers. As Katy Steinmetz explains,

The growing independent-contractor workforce is a key reason that companies like Instacart and Uber have been able to grow so quickly, because the cost of organizing independent contractors is much less than hiring employees. There’s no requirement to pay unemployment tax or ensure that workers are making at least minimum wage. In many cases, the companies don’t have to pay for the smartphones or data plans workers use on the job. They don’t have to deal with the costly spools of red tape that come with federal and state withholdings and healthcare and anti-discrimination laws.

Uber’s relationship with its drivers is an essentially capitalist one, in the sense that it hires the drivers and extracts a surplus from them—without many of the rules and regulations that pertain to other capitalist employers.

Recognizing the capitalist dimension of that relationship is important, at one level, because it pushes back against the ability of Uber and other companies in the so-called sharing economy to shift many of the expenses of running a business onto their employees. Drivers and other workers will certainly benefit as a result.

But only partly. They’ll still be employees of billion-dollar companies. Recognizing the capitalist nature of much of the on-demand economy is even more important, on another level, because it means we can finally go beyond the false image of flexible and in-control independent contractors and put on the agenda the abolition of the wages-system itself.

Then we’d have the chance to build a real sharing economy.


Last week, in my discussion with Chris Dillow on the differences between mainstream and heterodox economics, I cited the example of one Charles Calomiris, a professor of financial institutions at Columbia University and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, as an example of the kinds of policies mainstream economists would like to see imposed in Greece.

Richard Wolff [ht: hr], a heterodox economist, offers a very different analysis of the situation in Greece, along with an alternative set of policies. Wolff makes a number of key points—about how Greece got into this mess (as a result of a number of conditions that came together and then blew up during the global economic collapse of 2008), the mistakes some Greeks made (believing they could become more competitive, based on lower wages, within the euro zone), what austerity has meant in Greece (shifting “the burden of the crisis. . .on to the masses of people, while telling a story which you hope that the media and the professors of economics will take seriously, that this is not only the best way to solve the problem, but the only way”), the fact that the United States has it own Greece (in devastated major cities, like Detroit), and finally an alternative set of policies (less about the relationship to the rest of the world and more about the organization of the economy inside the country).

The whole interview is worth a read. What it does is illustrate my original point that “heterodox economists see that another economics—another economic theory as well as another economic system—is both necessary and possible. Mainstream economists, for their part, don’t.”


Most mainstream economists are not on the Left. Most wouldn’t know heterodox economics if it bit them on the proverbial nose. And most heterodox economists do identify with some kind of left-wing politics.

Yet, Chris Dillow (with whom I have found myself in agreement on many occasions) just can’t seem to disentangle the relationship among mainstream economics, heterodox economics, and the Left.

Let’s see if I can’t offer a bit of assistance. First, most mainstream economists with whom I’m familiar (at least the sort one finds in the U.S. academy) tend to locate themselves somewhere in the center of the political spectrum—some more to the liberal side (like Arrow, Solow, Tobin, and Samuelson, the economists named by Dillow), others to the more conservative side (like Mankiw, Cochrane, Taylor, and so on). But they’re certainly not on the Left, if by that we mean critical of the capitalist system and supportive of one or another kind of socialism (a pretty traditional definition of the Left for much of the past century, it seems to me).

Mainstream economists also don’t know much, if anything, about heterodox economics. Perhaps a previous generation did (if only for having studied the history of economic thought) but not the current generation. A friend of mine reported the following story from the most recent meetings of the American Economic Association/Allied Social Science Association meetings:

On Monday morning I was hanging out in the exhibition hall at ASSA, at a table shared by Dollars and Sense and the Heterodox Economics Network. About once an hour, some professional economist looked perplexedly at the banner saying “Heterodox Economics” and asked what that meant. They genuinely, honestly did not know.

The current generation of mainstream economists don’t know because they weren’t exposed to heterodox economics as undergraduate or graduate students, it doesn’t appear in the journals they read, and they simply aren’t forced to learn about it. Ever.

Heterodox economists are in a very different situation. They may reject mainstream economics but, as I’ve written before, they have to know it—and know it even better than mainstream economists themselves. Why? Because they have to teach it (often alongside their own, quite different approaches) and they have to engage it in public debate (precisely because mainstream economics dominates the debate within the academy, the media and policymaking circles).

Finally, most heterodox economists do, in my experience, identify with some kind of left-wing politics. Not the Austrians, of course—although it’s not clear they’re not part of mainstream economics these days. But all the other heterodox economists—of the sort one will find on the Heterodox Economics Directory—are located somewhere on the Left (in the way I define it above). The names may have changed over time—when I was young, we were called “radicals,” now it seems “heterodox” is the more accepted term—but the support for left-wing politics doesn’t seem to have changed.

So, what distinguishes liberal mainstream economists from left-wing heterodox economists? To my mind, it comes down to focusing on market imperfections (which can, at least in principle, be fixed within capitalism) versus focusing on the problems with capitalism as a system (which require, for a solution, the creation of noncapitalist practices and institutions).

Here’s the definition of heterodox economics I gave back in 2010:

Heterodox economics comprises all those theories that academic economists and others use to criticize and develop alternatives to mainstream (neoclassical and Keynesian) approaches. Heterodox and mainstream theories differ in terms of their starting points, methodologies, and conclusions. Thus, for example, Marxian economists start with class and use Marxian value theory to criticize capitalism, whereas neoclassical economists start with a set of given preferences, technology, and resource endowments and use a framework of supply and demand to celebrate capitalism. The problems of capitalism and mainstream economic theories, now as throughout their history, create the space for and interest in heterodox approaches.

To practice that kind of left-wing heterodox economics means one does have to know something about Marx, Kalecki, Sraffa, and Minsky—because their work (and that of many others) constitutes the foundations (or at least some of the foundations) of nonmainstream, heterodox analysis.

Heterodox economists reject economic orthodoxy not, as Dillow believes, because they’re ignorant of what the orthodoxy is or because of some kind of halo effect, but because, when they look at the world through the lens of Marx, Kalecki, Sraffa, and Minsky, they see an economic and social system that continues to discipline and punish the vast majority of people in order to benefit a tiny minority at the top. They see, in other words, an economy that is inherently unstable, fundamentally unequal, and profoundly unjust.

Hence, heterodox economists see that another economics—another economic theory as well as another economic system—is both necessary and possible. Mainstream economists, for their part, don’t.


Here is my friend and former fellow graduate student Antonio Callari in an interview on Marxism he did for a group that produces educational videos directed at students and teachers. He starts with Marx’s biography, discusses changes in Marx’s thought and politics during the nineteenth century, and concludes with a discussion of the ways Marxism has (and has not) worked over the course of the past century.


Clearly, U.S. capitalism continues to face a serious legitimation crisis.

According to new Pew survey [ht: db], 62 percent of Americans now think the existing economic system unfairly favors the powerful, and 78 percent think too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies. The only group that thinks otherwise—on the Right or the Left—are “business conservatives.”

Here’s the breakdown according to the political categories devised by Pew:


Most Americans, then, believe current economic arrangements are unfair.

That should invite a robust discussion—in the academy, in the public sphere—of alternative ways of organizing the economy. We can and should be debating how to create more economic fairness and how to change the way corporations are organized so that, instead of wielding excessive power over the rest of the economy, their power might be democratically exercised by their employees and the communities in which they operate.

But we’re not there yet. Capitalism’s legitimacy continues to be called into question but alternatives to capitalism are still, for many people, hard to imagine. As Antonio Gramsci wrote during the last Great Depression, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”