Economía marxista para el Siglo XXI

Archivo para agosto, 2015

Michael Roberts. Robots and AI: utopia or dystopia? – part two

In my first post on Robots and AI, I dealt with the impact of these new technologies on future employment and productivity.  I raised the contradiction that develops within the capitalist mode of production between increased productivity achieved through new technology and falling profitability.

In this second part, I want to consider the impact of robots and AI seen through the prism of Marx’s law of value under capitalism.  There are two key assumptions that Marx makes in order to explain the laws of motion under capitalism: 1) that only human labour creates value and 2) over time, investment by capitalists in technology and means of production will outstrip investment in human labour power – to use Marx’s terminology, there will be a rise in the organic composition of capital over time.


De Trotsky a Kissinger

Maciek Wisniewski*
Si la primera mitad del siglo XX fue la época de Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxemburgo o León Trotsky, la segunda lo ha sido más bien de Raymond Aron, Leo Strauss, Henry Kissinger y Ariel Sharon (p. 13).

Así Enzo Traverso, el historiador italiano, pone el dedo en la llaga e identifica la peculiar transposición de los acentos políticos e intelectuales en la judeidad a lo largo del siglo pasado (El final de la modernidad judía: historia de un giro conservador, 2013, 235 pp.).

Y una cita más de su excelente ensayo, también incluida en la portada (raras veces logra el editor sintetizar y/o reflejar tan bien el contenido de un libro, aunque todos los aplausos van al autor y su pluma):

Si antes la voz de los intelectuales y políticos judíos, recurriendo a las metáforas musicales tan caras a Theodor W. Adorno y Edward W. Saïd, se manifestaba a manera de contrapunto, era disonante, hoy día ya se funde en la armonía con el discurso dominante (p. 14). (más…)

Michael Roberts. La gran desaceleración de la productividad

La productividad del trabajo es un componente importante de la tasa de crecimiento del PIB real. Lo que le ocurra a la productividad (producción por trabajador o producción por trabajador y hora) es importante para las economías capitalistas maduras porque el crecimiento real del PIB puede considerarse a partir de dos componentes: el crecimiento de la productividad y crecimiento del empleo. El primero muestra el cambio en la creación de nuevo valor por trabajador empleado y el segundo muestra el número de nuevos trabajadores empleados.

En las economías maduras, el crecimiento del empleo se ha desacelerado durante décadas. Así que es necesario un crecimiento más rápido de la productividad para compensarlo. En términos marxistas, eso significa que la desaceleración del crecimiento en valor absoluto (y plusvalía) debe ser reemplazado por un crecimiento más rápido en nuevo valor relativo (o plusvalía). [Véase mi nota al respecto].

En el primer trimestre de 2015, la productividad en Estados Unidos cayó a una tasa anual de 3,1%. En todo 2014, la productividad creció un modesto 0,7%, incluso menos que el aumento de la productividad del 0,9% en 2013. De 1995 a 2000, la productividad de Estados Unidos creció a tasas anuales promedio de 2.8%, lo que refleja, en parte, el impulso que dio a la economía el boom del internet. Pero desde el año 2000, la productividad se ha desacelerado a tasas anuales del 2.1%.


Robots and AI: utopia or dystopia? part one

Michael Roberts

I did a recent post on Paul Mason’s new book, Postcapitalism, which argued that the internet, automation, robots and artificial intelligence were creating a new economy which could not be controlled by capitalism. According to Mason, new forces are at work that were replacing the old class struggle between capital and the proletariat, as Marx saw it, with a network of communities.  Technology and the network would lead to a post-capitalist (socialist?) world that could not be stopped

I disagreed that the new technology would replace the ‘old forms’ of class struggle or for that matter regular and recurrent economic crises under capitalism would dissipate towards a high productivity, low working day as capitalism ‘withered away’.

But this debate has encouraged me to do something that I have been wanting to deal with in more detail for some time.  Namely, what are the implications of these new technologies for capitalism?  In particular, are robots and artificial intelligence set to take over the world of work and thus the economy in the next generation and what does this mean for jobs and living standards for people?  Will it mean socialist utopia in our time (the end of human toil and a superabundant harmonious society) or capitalist dystopia (more intense crises and class conflict)?

It’s a big subject.  So let me first make a few definitions.  By robots, I mean machines that can replace human labour through the use of computer programmes that direct the movement of machine parts to carry out tasks, both simple and increasingly complex.

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) considers a machine as an industrial robot if it can be programmed to perform physical, production-related tasks without the need of a human controller. Industrial robots dramatically increase the scope for replacing human labour compared to older types of machines, since they reduce the need for human intervention in automated processes.   Typical applications of industrial robots include assembling, dispensing, handling, processing (for instance, cutting), and welding – all of which are prevalent in manufacturing industries – as well as harvesting (in agriculture) and inspecting of equipment and structures (common in power plants).

Industrial robotics has the potential to change manufacturing by increasing precision and productivity without incurring higher costs. 3D printing could generate a new ecosystem of companies providing printable designs on the web, making everyday products endlessly customizable. The so-called ‘Internet of Things’ offers the possibility to connect machines and equipment to each other and to common networks, allowing for manufacturing facilities to be fully monitored and operated remotely. In health care and life sciences, data driven decision-making, which allows the collection and analysis of large datasets, is already changing R&D, clinical care, forecasting and marketing. The use of big data in health care has led to highly personalized treatments and medi­cines. The infrastructure sector, which had no gain in labour productivity in the last 20 years, could be greatly enhanced by, for example: the creation of Intelligent Transportation Systems, which could massively increase asset utilization; the introduction of smart grids, which could help save on power infrastructure costs and reduce the likelihood of costly outages; and efficient demand management, which could dramatically lower per-capita energy use.

Which of these emerging technologies have the greatest potential to drive improvements in productivity? McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) (2013) reckon that ‘technologies that matter’ are technologies that have the greatest potential to deliver substantial economic impact and disruption in the next decade. Those that make their list are rapidly advancing (e.g. gene-sequencing technology); have a broad reach (e.g. mobile internet); have the potential to create an economic impact (e.g. advanced robotics) and have the potential to change the status quo (e.g. energy storage technology). MGI estimates that the economic impact of these technologies – derived from falls in their prices and their diffusion and improved efficiency – to be between $14 and $33 trillion per year in 2025, led by mobile internet, the automation of knowledge work, the internet of things and cloud technology.

John Lanchester in a brilliant essay summed this up (Lanchester): “Computers have got dramatically more powerful and become so cheap that they are effectively ubiquitous. So have the sensors they use to monitor the physical world. The software they run has improved dramatically too. We are, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, on the verge of a new industrial revolution, one which will have as much impact on the world as the first one. Whole categories of work will be transformed by the power of computing, and in particular by the impact of robots.”

By artificial intelligence (AI), is meant machines that do not just carry out pre-programmed instructions but learn more new programmes and instruction by experience and by new situations.  AI means in effect robots who learn and increase their intelligence.  This could happen to the point where robots can make more robots with increasing intelligence.  Indeed, some argue that AI will soon surpass the intelligence of human beings.  This is called the ‘singularity’ – the moment when human beings are no longer the most intelligent things on the planet.  Moreover, robots could even develop the senses and form of human beings, thus being ‘sentient’.

But before we get into science (or science fiction?), let us consider first things first.  If robots and AI are fast on their way, will this mean a huge of loss of jobs or alternatively new sectors for employment and the need to work fewer hours?

In recent work, Graetz and Michaels looked at 14 industries (mainly manufacturing industries, but also agriculture and utilities) in 17 developed countries (including European countries, Australia, South Korea, and the US)  They found that industrial robots increase labour productivity, total factor productivity, and wages.  At the same time, while industrial robots had no significant effect on total hours worked, there is some evidence that they reduced the employment of low skilled workers, and, to a lesser extent, also middle skilled workers. Full paper here .

So in essence, robots did not reduce toil (hours of work) for those who had work, on the contrary.  But they did lead to a loss of jobs for the unskilled and even those with some skills.  So more toil, not less hours; and more unemployment.

Two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, looked at the likely impact of technological change on a sweeping range of 702 occupations, from podiatrists to tour guides, animal trainers to personal finance advisers and floor sanders.  Their conclusions were frightening: According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. We further provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation….Rather than reducing the demand for middle-income occupations, which has been the pattern over the past decades, our model predicts that computerisation will mainly substitute for low-skill and low-wage jobs in the near future. By contrast, high-skill and high-wage occupations are the least susceptible to computer capital.’  Lanchester summed up their conclusions: “So the poor will be hurt, the middle will do slightly better than it has been doing, and the rich – surprise! – will be fine.”

Lanchester makes the point in his essay that the robotic world could lead, not to a ‘post-capitalist’ utopia but instead to a ‘Pikettyworld’ “in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour.”  And he quotes the huge profits that the large techno companies are making.  “In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight.”

But looking at the profits of companies that have seized the value created by labour in the new sectors is not necessarily a guide to the health of capital as a whole.  Is capitalism as a whole having a new lease of life as a result?  After all, overall investment growth is very low in the current long depression and productivity growth as a result also.  See my posts on productivity and investment.

Robots do not do away with the contradictions within capitalist accumulation.   The essence of capitalist accumulation is that to increase profits and accumulate more capital, capitalists want to introduce machines that can boost the productivity of each employee and reduce costs compared to competitors.  This is the great revolutionary role of capitalism in developing the productive forces available to society.

But there is a contradiction.  In trying to raise the productivity of labour with the introduction of technology, there is process of labour shedding.  New technology replaces labour.  Yes, increased productivity might lead to increased production and open up new sectors for employment to compensate.  But over time, a capital-bias or labour shedding means less new value is created (as labour is the only form of value) relative to the cost of invested capital.  There is a tendency for profitability to fall as productivity rises.  In turn, that leads eventually to a crisis in production that halts or even reverses the gain in production from the new technology.  This is solely because investment and production depend on the profitability of capital in our modern mode of production.

So an economy increasingly dominated by the internet of things and robots under capitalism will mean more intense crises and greater inequality rather than super-abundance and prosperity.  In my next post on this subject, I’ll consider whether the world of robots making robots with ever-increasing intelligence  – and perhaps eventually no human labour employed – would end the law of value and recurrent crises under capitalism.

¿Por qué se está desplomando el tinglado?

Market turmoil

Michael Roberts

As I write on Monday 24 August, stock markets around the world are taking another plunge.  Most markets have already fallen by 10% in the last month.  Why is this happening?

EM stocks

The reasons are clear.  The Chinese economy, now officially the largest in the world (at least as measured by the IMF’s rather weird purchasing power parity method), is slowing fast.  Every bit of data coming out of China shows a worsening situation for manufacturing output, investment, exports and, above all, the purchase of raw materials from other countries.  The drop in demand from China for basic commodities has caused a huge drop in commodity prices (the prices for oil, food, iron, coal, industrial metals etc).  This drop in prices means less export sales for the likes of Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, Argentina etc.  Also the Chinese are not buying so many BMWs, luxury handbags, machine tools, cars etc at home and abroad.  That’s bad news for Europe and Japan, as well as the US.

Os explicadores do Brasil.

Leonardo Boff

Eduardo Hoornaert é um conhecido historiador da Igreja e da história do Brasil na perspectiva das vítimas. É belga e vive no Brasil praticamente toda a sua vida, trabalhando e pesquisando no Nordeste. Interessa-se especialmente pela cultura popular e por sua sabedoria. Publicamos aqui este texto que nos ajuda a refletir e nos tornar críticos face às pressões político-ideológicas dominantes no atual momento. LBoff


No momento pipocam por toda parte explicações da situação atual no Brasil, principalmente na Internet, mas também na rádio, na TV e nos jornais. Enumero algumas:

O Brasil está em crise. Nos grandes meios de comunicação, essa afirmação é hoje um postulado. Mas não se explica o que se entende por ‘crise’. Em 1939, quando eu tinha 9 anos, o país em que nasci estava em ‘crise’: as pessoas estocavam alimentos e todos sentiam que a guerra se aproximava. Isso era crise. Neste…

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Greece: it’s unsustainable

Michael Roberts Blog

So the Greek parliament has approved the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Euro credit institutions for a third bailout deal valued at €86bn over three years (Greece MOU).  The terms of the bailout funding commit the Greek government to a new round of austerity measures, including pension cuts, tax increases, a ‘fire sale’ of state assets, a reduction in labour rights and an end to minimum wage rises and a reversal of public sector re-employment.

No wonder about 32 Syriza MPs voted no to the deal and another 11 abstained.  That means that the Tsipras government would not command a majority in parliament in any confidence vote if that rebellion was repeated.  Tsipras plans an emergency Syriza conference in September and then will probably call a general election for the autumn.  That adds a new political uncertainty to the implementation of this deal.


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