Under Capitalism, “Labor-Saving” Technology Only Adds to Our Workload – Jacobin magazine
The term Industry 4.0 was first introduced ten years ago in Germany at the Hanover Messe, one of the world’s largest trade fairs. Heralding a “fourth industrial revolution,” this PR label quickly become a well-known brand name for the German state’s political and economic program. The economic basis of this program is often referred to as digitalization. On the technical level, this means enabling new production processes through internet-based machine-to-machine communication, artificial intelligence, and computer vision.
Both digitalization and Industry 4.0 should also be of interest for the US left. The reason is simple: In the United States, too, working conditions are deteriorating and digitalization is widely blamed for all of this. And just like in Germany, this new increase in productive power is used to drive imperialism forward. So, for Industry 4.0’s tenth birthday, here’s ten theses on why it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In the public debate we find repeated claims like “digitization will fundamentally change the way we work.” Not only should workers be reachable any time a digital meeting is due; at the same time, up to 50 percent of all the jobs in the United States are threatened by digitization. These assumptions are common, but nonetheless mistaken.
Digital technology makes it possible, among other things, to work from anywhere. But if employees have to check work-related emails around the clock, they don’t do it because of the smartphone in their pocket but because of the demands of their superiors. Robots might increase labor productivity. But whether this means more free time for the employees or unemployment for some and stress for others is not a question of technology but of the wider economy. It’s not about how or what is produced but for what purpose.
Digitalization doesn’t do anything. It is an expletive. This might sound complicated, but actually everyone knows expletives from everyday language. In the phrase “it’s raining,” everyone knows that there is no “it” that is raining. Rather, the “it” stands for a certain weather condition. All the talk of digitalization usually ignores which subject is putting digitalization into practice and for what reasons. Who gets or keeps their job, what this job looks like, and how it is paid, all depend on the decisions made by capitalists — and not on technology. Capital digitizes the world for its own purposes.
There are a lot of new and not-so-new technical devices. Thanks to the internet, they can now all be linked with one another. This “Internet of Things” links machines not only with one another but also with their products. In these “smart factories,” more goods are produced with significantly less work. In short: productivity increases. So much for the good news.
If you are very optimistic about technology, this fact may lead you to a number of conclusions: This makes it possible to reduce working hours! We will all have more free time and live healthier lives! And we will also produce in a more environmentally friendly way, because of waste reduction.
But the reality is that new digital technologies, as technologies, have no inevitable social consequences. Whether, through productivity increases, the workload decreases for everyone or increases for some while others lose their jobs is a question of economy, not technology. But even this is only half the truth.
The bad news is that productivity increases are purely there to help companies cut costs — and thereby gain competitive advantages. New technology is only introduced if it is worthwhile for the company.
Anyone who thinks that technological progress in capitalist society is innocent, and can be rolled out at will, forgets that the only reason for increasing productivity in this system is to increase profits. This always comes at the expense of the workers who have to generate these profits by working with the new machinery.
Productivity in capitalism has its peculiarities. It does not measure the ratio of labor to income but that of invested capital to realized profit. This means that with new machinery, work actually increases and intensifies. The capitalist isn’t out to reduce human effort, but rather to maximize his profit by increasing the efficiency of his capital.
Capitalist progress produces odd results: it actually increases work stress — and even more so in the digital age. What Karl Marx described for the conditions of industrialization in Das Kapital now repeats itself on a technically superior level. Armed with laptop and digital equipment, the individual employee now commands a larger machine park than ever before. This can also be noticed at the assembly line: More is produced in less time. Every mistake is even more significant. This causes what Marx in his day called an increased “contraction of labor.”
Marx also pointed out the increasingly dense “filling of the pores of working time.” Unfortunately, this is still true today. The more expensive the digital machines that are purchased, the more economically sensible it is to use them without interruption. The same applies to the wageworkers themselves. For examples, today’s logisticians at Amazon have become so-called pickers: with a GPS around their wrists, they navigate the shortest distance through the warehouse. Their superiors receive a message if they leave the route without permission — even if they just want to talk to colleagues for once or take a short toilet break.
So, what to do when capital shapes digitization according to its interests and labor only appears as a means of profit? The realization that technology is only developed and used for capital is a rejection of illusions about the beneficial effects of digital machine parks. It is the indication that the consequences of the new technology are actually quite harmful for those who have to work with it. However, this is due not to digitalization but the fundamental arithmetic of the capitalist system. That is why there is need not for a new Luddism but an organized “No!” to a life being reduced to nothing but variable capital.
So, if you do not want to be degraded to a bit or byte of the digital machinery, you should study how this economy works and why it is always the same who benefit from increases in productivity — namely, those who acquire the new technology as capital and not those who have to work with the new technology. As long as things stay that way, there are very narrow limits to the use of technology.
As if all this wasn’t uncomfortable enough, now the birthday boy comes into play. Since 2011, German politicians have made these new technologies and their economic application a top priority: with billions in investments, digital infrastructure is provided that supports research. In addition, an alliance is being forged between industry, research institutions, and the state: the “Platform for Industry 4.0.” The American rival project, the “Industrial Internet Consortium,” was founded three years later, in March 2014.
This is also the difference between digitization and Industry 4.0. While the former describes the ideological version of the new wave of increased productivity of capital, Industry 4.0 describes a program of the German government that aims to catapult German capital to the top of the world market using this technology. Industry 4.0 is therefore a political and economic program.
The year 2014 saw the start of Europe’s “Digital Agenda.” Six years later, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed the goal of “digital sovereignty.” This goal not only requires the expansion of digital infrastructure across Europe but also a common European legal framework. The aim is to turn Europe into a large single market for digital technologies so that companies can use this market and grow accordingly. After all, they are to take on US companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook or Chinese giants like Ali Baba.
This German program, however, increasingly meets opposition in the EU itself. If national rights are standardized across Europe, the companies with the greatest capital power will prevail in the new homogeneous market. And those are mainly the German ones. This causes resentment among the European partners. In October 2020, Michael Roth, minister of state for Europe in the German Foreign Office, let everyone know what he thinks of those objections by smaller EU countries: they would just have to “overcome the national small statehood” and “bundle the Europe-wide sprawl of programs and strategies in a common policy.”
Elegantly enough, Roth equated German and European interests in order to denigrate any objection to the project for German capital as national particularism. The small states, however, have a choice: either they turn their backs on the EU and its leading nation, Germany, and thus immediately give up competition for the world market, or they accept their shabby role as a sales market for German products or as a workbench for German companies in order to “participate” in potential global market gains.
This inner-European contradiction reproduces on a higher level in the competition with China and the United States. Germany likes to boast about its comparatively strict data protection laws, but the reason for this should also be looked at. While the German Industry 4.0 relies particularly on the networking of factories, the United States, with Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, are far ahead when it comes to business-to-consumer technology — the use of consumer data for business. So, Europe has particularly tough rules where it hits foreign capital.
In Europe, whose free market benefits mostly German capital, the German government regards the legislation of its partner countries as reflective of mere “small state mentality.” But where US capital is superior, Europe will defend its own rules against the United States — but this should not be regarded as narrow-minded European particularism against the rest of the world but rather a sign of adherence to ethical principles.
At least that’s the impression you get, if you follow Germany’s Europe minister: “Our path must focus on the individual, build on clear ethical principles, high data protection and security standards and freedom of expression, and contribute to more democratic participation, prosperity and freedom.” In this way we are clearly differentiating ourselves from the data capitalism of US tech giants and the Chinese model with state control and digital repression. Because nowhere is the focus more on the individual than in Europe, where Daimler organizes its production via the German SAP systems and not via Microsoft.
However, in the last decade the EU was not alone in launching a project for digital sovereignty. All over the world, nations support their domestic capital in the competition for growth with appropriate programs. In the United States, the industrial internet took off around the same time as its German counterpart. Under Trump, for example, many US states have become huge experimental fields for autonomous vehicles, one of the digital technologies in which the capitals with the most test miles also have the best chance of dominating the market in the future. So, the American auto industry can finally catch up with the German one. May Germany become the next Detroit!
Under the Trump administration, attacks on Chinese capital increased. One prominent example in the IT sector was the US government’s offensive against TikTok. The ban on the platform, which has a few million users in the United States, was averted only because Trump “agreed” with the Chinese owner Bytedance to transfer its US business to a company presumably based in Texas.
In recent years, China has risen from being the “extended workbench” of the West to becoming its fiercest competitor. With its “China 2025” program and its recent update in 2020, the Middle Kingdom aims to reach the top. With its strategy of “dual cycles,” China wants to strengthen its domestic market (cycle one) and intensify its cooperation with other Asian countries on the field of digitalization (cycle two) in order to intensify the trade war against the United States.
With all these measures, China pursues the same goal as the European Union and the United States: to dominate the world market as a leading technological power.
In this way, digitalization connects the shop floor with the imperialism of the world powers. For both — economy and politics — the workers being digitized are the human resource in this latest edition of the world market competition. The theses have shown the serious consequences this has for them. Now, it’s up to them to put an end to it.