In the just-released April issue of Brooklyn Rail, Jason E. Smith dismantles much of the conventional wisdom about impending automation. He notes that in both developed and developing countries, the so-called "service sector" employs the vast majority of workers, and will continue to do so for decades to come. This sector, which includes teachers, retail workers, and home healthcare aids, is inherently resistant to automation. This does not mean, however, that we face a future and well-paid full employment. Rather, the service sector, which offers precarious jobs at dismal wages, will be the site of whatever job growth occurs, as more forms of basic human interaction are "monetized." Check out an excerpt from the piece below:
Smith's piece is the second of a two-part essay on automation. We linked to part one last month.
As it turns out, the capitalist mode of production has experienced a slowly unfolding crisis of accumulation over the past forty years, punctuated by sudden, and near lethal, collapses: since the early 1970s, we have witnessed diminishing productivity, falling profit rates, and stagnant and even declining real wages. And yet where Marx imagined the rude disciplining of social production to the tune of capital’s drive to self-valorization, and thereby the eventual rationalization—even automation—of labor processes in order to serve the needs of this expanding mass of value, ours is a world in which the vast majority of labor market-dependent proletarians are compelled to perform tasks that resist what Marx called “real subsumption” under capital, their re-shaping through mechanization to meet the productivity requirements of capital. This is the world of services such as I have defined them above. These labor processes can only be formally organized along capitalist lines: personal services that were formerly offered by self-employed domestic servants, or performed without compensation by women in the home, are incorporated into profit-making enterprises, and performed by workers for wages. Fast-growing occupations like the home health aide, or the personal care aide, are particularly refractory to the productivity increases promised by capitalist refinements. These types of labor processes, which are increasingly the norm for the majority of the population of rich countries like the U.S. and Britain, can generate higher output solely by longer working days, or the hiring of more workers. Because they are so labor-intensive, with little capital spent on machinery, plant, or raw materials, capitalist profits in this sector are inversely correlated with wage levels: any rise in the latter squeeze the former. It is for this reason among others that most of the fastest growing occupations in the high-income countries pay so poorly: any rise in wages would either raise prices, eating into demand, or come directly out of capitalists’ pockets.
Accordingly, if we return to the rift within the service sector at which we started, we can speculate that it is those occupations in business and professional services (accounting, finance, the treatment of data, etc.) that are most likely to suffer the direct effects of a new wave of automation. Whether these fields can experience sizable gains in productivity is another question entirely. But if we assume that innovations in machine-learning and artificial intelligence will make headway in these lines of work, those whose jobs are usurped by the machines will be forced into the provision of low-paid, precarious consumer and personal services. If the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s projections are to be believed, this migration might already have been triggered. Most contemporary speculation concerning the automation of the service sector not only neglects this sector’s specific features, they also implicitly assume that the number and type of occupations are finite or fixed. To the contrary: the colonization of human activity by the service sector has most likely only begun. In principle, the entire range of human activity is subject to segmentation; these segments can be transformed into occupations, which in turn can be organized along capitalist lines. Responding to the Oxford Martin School report on the “computerization” of current occupations, Paul Mason notes that should half of these jobs indeed be wiped out, the result might be less mass unemployment than a vertiginous explosion of the “human services sector”:
We would have to turn much of what we currently do for free, socially, into paid work. Alongside sex work we might have “affection work”: you can see the beginnings of it now in the hired girlfriend, the commercial dog-walker, the house cleaner, the gardener, the caterer and the personal concierge. Rich people are already surrounded by such post-modern servants, but to replace 47% of all jobs this way would require the mass commercialization of ordinary human life [This would] push commercialism into the deep pores of everyday life, [and] make resisting it a crime. You would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century.