Automation and the Future of Work: a letter from the Editor

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It’s actually a rare thing for a writer to be fully at home in both speculative social theory and number-crunching economics, but Aaron Benanav of Humboldt University fits that bill. To adapt a phrase, he combines practicality of the intelligence with optimism of the will. As he argues, ‘our present reality is better described by near-future science fiction dystopias than by standard economic analysis’, and it’s become a matter of urgency for us ‘to slip out of this timeline and into another’. We won’t achieve that, however, Benanav demonstrates, without a proper grasp of the dynamics of actual material production.

Automation and the Future of Work began life as a two-part essay in New Left Review toward the end of 2019. The first instalment questioned whether the much-anticipated rise of the robots really explained the worsening crisis of under-employment in all corners of the globe. ‘There are many reasons to doubt the hype’, he insisted. The second essay, equally heterodox, re-examined the assumptions that led automation theorists to pin their colours on proposals for a Universal Basic Income. UBI was, he insisted, no ‘silver bullet’ for deep-lying socio-economic problems. Taken together, these interventions were highlights of NLR’s publishing year.

Work on expanding the essays into a Verso book continued through the pandemic crisis of the spring. Aaron wrote to me from Chicago, his previous academic posting, in mid-March: ‘How are things over there? Does Verso still exist? Is my March 22 deadline still meaningful?’. To answer each point in turn: pretty bad, yes, and definitely yes. Holed up at home as Chicago prepared to go into lockdown, his emails mixed updates on the manuscript with concern for my Covid symptoms. ‘Sorry to be an American about this, but don't take anti-inflammatories/ibuprofen/aspirin’, he counselled. ‘Take some daily zinc, if you have it, and vitamin D3. Please be careful and keep me updated.’ I hope he felt in safe hands with me; I certainly did with him.

Benanav’s iconoclastic reappraisal of world labour-market dynamics, his systematic critique of the received wisdom around the supposedly decisive effect of technological unemployment, is likely to define the terms of debate; so, too, his plotting of a different, more solidaristic route to post-scarcity economics. ‘Instead of presupposing a fully automated economy and imagining the possibilities for a better and freer world created out of it,’ he writes, ‘we could begin from a world of generalised human dignity, and then consider the technical changes needed to realise that world.’

Among the books that will help us ascend from what Marx termed the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom, this is a pivotal contribution.

Tom Hazeldine, Verso Editor.

London, 2020.

Automation and the Future of Work by Aaron Benanav is one of our November Book Club reads: a carefully curated selection of books that we think are essential and necessary reading. All our Book Club memberships are 50% off for the first 3 months. Find out more here.

Silicon Valley titans, politicians, techno-futurists and social critics have united in arguing that we are living on the cusp of an era of rapid technological automation, heralding the end of work as we know it. But does the much-discussed “rise of the robots” really explain the jobs crisis that awaits us on the other side of the coronavirus?
 

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