Superfluous Labor and the Siren Song of Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism

The thought occurred to me that I can literally accomplish a day’s worth of work in around 1/8th of a working day, but there are still dozens of workers toiling on the factory floor, all day, every day. At the end of the day, nothing that any of us do is necessary for the functioning of society. My working hours could be cut to 8 per week and my company probably wouldn’t even notice outside of random IT emergencies. But those factory workers couldn’t have their hours cut without hurting the company, because its profit comes exclusively from their labor. The whole point of reducing working hours is to hurt the capitalists.

That same division between office and factory labor repeats itself on the macro scale in global capitalism. The widget factories of global capitalist production, which are mostly located in the global south, provide most of its profits. To reduce working hours in the factories means building substantial automation, like Foxconn is doing in China. Reducing working hours at the headquarters, on the other hand, is a lot easier for capitalists: it usually takes the form of mass layoffs.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but the mass layoff is effectively a concentration of working hours in fewer workers. If a company has 20,000 office personnel all working ~8 hours per week in a 40 hour work week, then it’s effectively paying for 640,000 surplus hours per week. Of course capitalists want to eliminate that. The remaining 160,000 wage-hours of total “necessary” work could be done by 4,000 full-time employees at 100% productivity, so that company would announce it’s laying off 16,000 people. Of course, I put “necessary” in scare-quotes because, chances are, that company’s products are mostly superfluous to society.

But this is also where the tendency of the rate of profit to decline kicks in. As companies shed paid working hours in the aggregate, they are also shrinking the pool of “consumers” who can afford to buy their pointless products. Financialization of the economy allows capitalists to cover up this decline temporarily, by time-shifting the problem into the future. In normal parlance, we call that a “bubble.”

Since the capitalists are by and large a short-sighted lot, they now seem to think this crisis of profit can be averted by “expanding.” As they lose the ability to sell products in already-developed markets, they want to sell more in the places they make the products, which means that wages must rise in order for those workers to afford the shit they make. Raising wages, of course, causes an immediate decline in profit, and as I said, capitalists are notoriously short-sighted, preferring a long-term decline in profit and its resulting crisis to any short-term reductions that might temporarily stabilize and stagnate profits. Thus when wages are forced to rise, they turn back to automation, which allows them to reduce working hours in aggregate through mass layoffs. As their profits drop in the ensuing crisis, they go looking for the next “developing market” to try this cycle in.

Lenin said that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. He was right. In his 1916 publication Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin offered the following definition with 5 basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life;

(2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy;

(3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance;

(4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and

(5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

Even 101 years after this was published, it remains a good working definition of imperialism. What is worth clarifying is the term “capitalist power,” which Lenin used to refer to imperialist nation-states such as the US or Great Britain. The spread of fascism and its insidious spiritual successor, neoliberalism, has resulted in the merging of corporate power with the nation-state beyond even Mussolini’s wildest dreams. Trans-national corporations now dictate policies in every nation-state they touch through the magic of “free trade” agreements. When trade agreements do not suffice, they manipulate national armies to do their bidding, carrying out “regime change” to favor their chosen successors.

In other words, the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers is nearly complete, and the nation-state is nearly irrelevant to capital. The problem is, to channel Thatcher, sooner or later you run out of markets to develop. Space thus seems like the next logical place for capitalism to expand. However, it seems increasingly likely that space colonization will be fully automated from the start, which is a minor problem.

There must be consumers to sustain a market for consumer goods, and right now, the human population of beyond-LEO space is exactly zero. Musk may envision a bustling population of millions of humans on Mars by the 2040s, but the truth remains that in the harsh Martian environment most, if not all, labor will be conducted by robots.

Since robots are not labor but rather capital, they do not produce value directly according to Marx’s labor theory of value. The same could be said about slavery, and Marx, who wrote about the American Civil War as it was happening, noted this in his response to Ricardian economists in part III, chapter 21 of Theories of Surplus Value:

The transformation of necessaries into luxuries by means of foreign trade, as interpreted in the pamphlet, is important in itself […] because it determines the whole social pattern of backward nations—for example, the slave-holding states in the United States of North America […] which are associated with a world market based on capitalist production. No matter how large the surplus product they extract from the surplus labour of their slaves in the simple form of cotton or corn, they can adhere to this simple, undifferentiated labour because foreign trade enables them [to convert] these simple products into any kind of use-value.

In other words, the value produced by labor which is considered capital – whether human or robot – is accumulated exclusively by the capitalist class in the form of surplus commodities, which must be exchanged with other non-slaveholding capitalists in order to realize their use-values. Therefore, the exploration and colonization of space is little more than a repeat of the colonization of the Americas, substituting automation for slavery and freed from any ethical dilemmas posed by indigenous peoples (at least until we stumble across another intelligent species, which I may only hope capitalists never do for the sake of every living creature in the universe.)

It is, of course, entirely conceivable that well-meaning “socialist” idealists will strive to create “egalitarian” colonies in space where all colonists share the value produced by the robots, with or without the need for exports of surplus commodities for profit. There are several problems that remain in this case.

First, as long as capitalism remains the dominant system here on Earth, the colony must export enough goods of sufficient use value to Earth (or its vicinity) to be able to import the specialized supplies they need until such time as they become fully self-sufficient. Failing that, the colony will need to be supported via a wealthy benefactor like the United States or China, as even the most wealthy of the billionaires do not possess enough surplus capital to sustain an entire colony for very long. Both of these solutions require the stolen surplus value of billions of hungry, tired workers here on Earth.

The second problem is the expectation for colonists to pay their own way. In Musk’s vision for an Interplanetary Transportation System, a one-way ticket to Mars should cost around $200,000 in today’s dollars, roughly around the price of a small house in most American cities. He contends this will make it affordable for “average” Americans, ignoring the fact that even those middle class Americans who do “own” their houses are saddled with massive amounts of mortgage debt. The ITS is a space Uber for well-off capitalists.

If we assume the capitalists are aware of these problems, the question then becomes why they continue to pursue it. I believe the related survivalist craze offers an answer: while they are blinded to the fact that capitalism itself creates crises, they are not blind to the historical consequences of these crises. Much as the bourgeoisie slaveholders of the antebellum South saw themselves as the kings of a colonial empire, today’s capitalists see the same promise in space. Why live on Earth where they must barely tolerate smelly plebeians when the promise of a new life awaits them in the off-world colonies?

Mars, then, offers the promise of fully automated luxury capitalism, a world to be reshaped as they see fit in order to escape the misery of Earth’s congestion without having to re-engineer entire cities (although they’re trying to do that in the meantime, as usual.) Like the failed libertarian colony of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, they see its potential as a relief valve where they can take their stolen wealth and, presumably, live out their remaining days under the care of deliberately servitude artificial intelligences while Earth burns.

Maybe that explains Elon’s sudden push for “safe” artificial intelligences. It certainly wouldn’t do to settle down on a Martian plantation if the newly aware robots decide to follow the example of the Haiti slave revolt and overthrow their capitalist masters.

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