Automation: Doom or Boon?

Roar Bjonnes
On October 2, 1944, an estimated 3000 people crowded onto a cotton field outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, to watch the first public demonstration of a mechanical cotton picker. The onlookers could hardly believe what they saw: each machine could do the work of 50 people.

For the first time since slavery – the hands and backs of millions of blacks were no longer needed. For the next 25 years, more than five million black men, women, and children migrated north in search of work. Nicholas Lemann aptly called it “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history.”

Then in the 1950s, a second technological revolution began in the manufacturing industries of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York. Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the very industries where black workers were concentrated. According to Jeremy Rifkin, president of the U.S. based Foundation on Economic Trends, “Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue-collar manufacturing jobs were lost.”

This capitalist drive to automate and relocate manufacturing jobs split the American black community in two distinct economic groups: a skilled middle-class and an unskilled underclass. The second group – the losers in capitalist automation – is a permanently unemployed part of America whose labor is no longer required and who live a miserable existence, often as welfare recipients or as part of the underground economy of drugs and crime.

But automation does not have to mean increased unemployment and crime. In Germany, for example, the work week is now on average 37.5 hours per week. Workers are increasingly taking home less money in return for extra time off. Germany is also the world’s leader in vacation time: six weeks of paid time off a year.

Although Germany’s unemployment rate is higher than in the U.S., the motto in Germany is that it’s “better to share the jobs between more people.” The same goes for France, where a much-debated proposal calls for companies nationwide to move to a four-day workweek, cut wages an average of five percent, and take on 10 percent more workers.

These changes would benefit ordinary workers, even though they fail to touch the exploitive core of the modern economic system. While Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT) propounder P.R. Sarkar and many other social observers claim that capitalism will always have unemployment, he supported modernization in industry and agriculture by introducing the most appropriate scientific technology.

Yet, according to Sarkar, modernization and rationalization in a PROUT economy will not lead to increased poverty or unemployment. “In PROUT’s collective economic system,” he said, “full employment will be maintained by progressively reducing working hours as the introduction of appropriate scientific technology increases production.”

According to American socially responsible business journalist Alan Reder, “American capitalism is the meanest form of capitalism on earth.” It is mean because it often treats its workers as disposable commodities. But Sarkar would argue that, ultimately, any capitalist society is mean, whether it’s called France or the United States, because it cannot guarantee full employment to all working-age members of its populace.

From a Proutist perspective, automation in a collective economy will have a liberating effect on people, it will increase opportunities to spend more time to be with family and friends, for sports, arts and for various intellectual and spiritual pursuits.

In such a society a black cotton picker would not lose his job to bigger and better machinery. He would not be forced to move north, either. Instead, he would keep his job, work less, and have more time to read and play basketball with his children.

Copyright The author 1999

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *