‘The key to innovation is not to be found in chemistry electronics, automatic machinery, aeronautics, atomic physics, or any of the products of these science-technologies, but rather in the transformation of science itself into capital’. Harry Braverman, Labour and Monopoly Capital.

Asingle image, captured in countless recent press photographs, expresses a central paradox of contemporary capitalism. The picture is one of a worker, typically a highly-skilled spray painter, guiding the arm of a robot through the motions of a precise and complex task. The machine—a continuous path play-back robot—will then be able endlessly to replicate the exact movements of the human being. Almost certainly, the worker who has been selected to ‘teach’ the robot is the most experienced or the most efficient of this section of the factory’s workforce. According to one’s point of view, the picture may be seen as representing the ever-progressing triumph of technology, or the ultimate irony of automation—the mechanisation of a dreary and potentially dangerous job, or the moment at which years of carefully acquired skill are transferred to an inanimate object, and the human individual is simultaneously rendered redundant.

But, beyond this, the image also symbolises a crucial issue for our understanding of the present nature and future destiny of the capitalist system. It confronts us with the instant at which living labour ceases to be involved in the productive process, and therefore, according to the labour theory of value, the instant at which this fragment of the productive process ceases to generate surplus value. Envisaging the same event repeated hundreds of times—as it has been in the past few years—we seem inexorably to be propelled towards the conclusions put forward by Ernest Mandel.

In his work Late Capitalism, first published in the early 1970s, Mandel argued that the process of automation constituted the critical contradictory force within the development of capitalism: ‘ . . . we have here arrived at the absolute inner limit of the capitalist mode of production. This absolute limit . . . lies in the fact that the mass of surplus-value itself necessarily diminishes as a result of the elimination of living labour from the production process in the course of the final stage of mechanisation-automation. Capitalism is incompatible with fully automated production in the whole of industry and agriculture, because this no longer allows the creation of surplus-value or valorisation of capital. It is hence impossible for automation to spread to the entire realm of production in the age of late capitalism’.footnote1

The vision of automation as the end of capitalism is not a new one. Mandel’s views are clearly rooted in Marx’s concept of capitalist development: a process blindly generating, through its own progressive yet self-destructive forces, the seeds of a socialist society where ‘labour in which a human being does what a thing could do has ceased’.footnote2 Indeed the Marxist notion of automation as the harbinger of the end of capitalism has found an echo—albeit in a typically woolly and indistinct echo—in the writings of neo-conservative futurologists such as Daniel Bell. Bell has painted a picture of a post-industrial or information society in which, not only manual labour, but also the centrality of private property and profit maximisation will, it appears, gradually and painlessly wither away: ‘ . . . the social forms of managerial capitalism—the corporate business enterprises, private decision on investment, the differential privileges based on control of property—are likely to remain for a long time. And yet the functional basis of the system is changing, and the lineaments of a new society are visible . . . In the new society which is emerging, individual property is losing its social purpose . . . and function stands alone.’footnote3

In the past few years, the idea that the full automation of production represents the ‘absolute inner limit’ of capitalism has acquired particular importance. When Mandel wrote Late Capitalism, production systems approaching total automation were almost entirely limited to industries such as oil refining, which work on the continuous flow principle. Assembly line industries still required a substantial (though declining) input of human labour. Since then, the development of robots and their incorporation into data-controlled production systems has created a realistic future prospect of worker-less factories (from the perspective of management no doubt ‘worker-free’ factories) even in complex assembly processes—including the production of robots themselves. In 1970 there were probably less than a thousand robots in operation around the world: by 1982, according to one estimate, there were more than 30,000.footnote4

The present situation is obviously very far from the state of total automation which Mandel depicts as the limit of capitalism. But if we accept his view that automated enterprises can make profits only parasitically, by absorbing the surplus value created in other parts of the economy, and that the rising level of automation must therefore be accompanied either by increasing exploitation of the remaining labour force or by falling average levels of profit,footnote5 then it would seem that major capitalist economies are rushing towards their doom like Gadarene swine.