A Marxist approach to technology

Dec 9, 2019

In the last few decades, technological developments–particularly concerning automation–have transformed the economy in such a profound way that many are comparing this era to the Industrial Revolution. Some capitalist economists downplay the resulting loss of jobs, while others predict that such job loss is only temporary and will work itself out through the marketplace over time, similar to previous technological revolutions. In both cases, they seem to forget the permanent unemployed produced by the Industrial Revolution, underestimate the potential impact of modern automation technology, and disregard the irrationality and anarchic nature of capitalist development. In many ways, the current “automation revolution” is similar to the introduction of machines in the Industrial Revolution, which radically changed capitalist societies by amplifying inequality, creating a permanent unemployed class that Marxists call the industrial reserve army, and intensified colonialism. Today’s automation revolution will similarly transform the landscape of labor, as robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning make the automation of vast swaths of complex jobs possible.

What we want to do is provide comrades with some background on Marx’s analysis of technological changes within capitalism and use these to contextualize some of today’s transformations.

Marx’s understanding of production technologies and the class struggle

In Capital, Marx’s most developed analysis of capitalism, he dedicated an entire chapter–the longest one–to machinery and its impact on the working class. It’s helpful for comrades to have an understanding of his analysis, as it has many lessons for our understanding of the current transformations taking place in production.

The value of a commodity is determined by the value of the raw and auxiliary materials, means of production, and labor power consumed in its production. Only one of these things–labor power–actually produces value within the production process. The other elements merely transfer their existing value to the commodity.

Individual capitalists want to produce as many commodities as they can as cheaply and quickly as possible. This allows them to undercut their competitors and gain a greater share of demand. Investments in the means of production are a primary way that capitalists do this (in addition to cutting wages, seeking out cheaper raw materials, and so on). In the industrial era, machinery replaced human minds and hands, thereby decreasing the amount of labor time each commodity took to produce.

Not only did machinery throw workers out of work; it also increased the pool of available workers by facilitating the exploitation of children: “In so far as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means of employing labourers of slight muscular strength, and those whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple (p. 372).” Beyond cheapening wages through an increase in the supply of available labor-power, machinery also cheapened wages because these wages no longer had to provide for the entire family of the worker.

Under capitalism, each technological development is bound to be outdone. This means that once capitalists develop new technologies, they have an incentive to use them as quickly as possible. Thus, rather than shortening the working day, machinery prolonged it. Machinery also increased the pace of work through speed-ups.

Another way that machinery impacted workers was through deskilling. No longer was the worker’s knowledge required for production. Now it was contained in the machine. This also increased the available supply of labor-power for capitalists.

Marx further identified machinery as “the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes” (p. 410). In fact, he suggested that “it would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working-class” (p. 411).

When a capitalist introduces new machinery in the workplace, it tends to displace labor power in that workplace in ways that are easily observable. There are two countervailing tendencies, however, which are not so easily observed. First, if the machinery increases the rate of profit enough, other capitalists will move into that industry and therefore the need for labor as a whole in that industry might increase. Second, it can increase employment in other industries that feed into it. The invention of machinery, for example, increased the demand for coal and metal workers. That was the case, at least, until labor-saving technologies were later introduced in coal and metal mines. But the point here is that the major technological changes in the means of production led to a rapid overall increase in the size of the working class; these were coupled with labor-replacing technology that pushed agricultural workers and peasants off the land and into the urban factories.

In Capital, Marx focused on England because it was, at that time, where the capitalist mode of production was the most highly developed. Yet, as an internationalist, Marx considered how capitalism in England impacted the international scene. For example, Marx wrote that “the rapid strides of cotton spinning, not only pushed on with tropical luxuriance the growth of cotton in the United States, and with it the African slave trade but also made the breeding of slaves the chief business of the border slave-states” (p. 418).

Because machinery and the factory system increased the productive capacity of capitalism, it also intensified the impact of the boom and bust cycle. When machinery causes a rapid expansion in one industry, this carries over into all other branches of production that supply that industry with raw materials and means of production. And, as noted above, it can also result in an increased demand for labor in that industry. Just as the boom is greater and wider, so too is the bust.

While labor-saving machinery enables the individual capitalist to make higher profits, this too is only temporary. At some point in time, other capitalists acquire the same technology so the momentary advantage gained by the first is lost. This is largely how Marx accounted for the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Because labor-power is the source of surplus-value, which in turn is the basis of profit, and because machinery decreases the amount of labor power required, as a whole less surplus value is produced in the end. This is a contradiction between the interests of individual capitalists versus the capitalist class as an entity.

While the effects of machinery and the factory system were detrimental to the working and oppressed classes, they dialectically contained the potential for the opposite:

“By maturing the material conditions, and the combination on a social scale of the processes of production, it matures the contradictions and antagonisms of the capitalist form of production, and thereby provides, along with the elements for the formation of a new society, the forces for exploding the old one” (p. 472).

In addition to advancing the material conditions for socialism, they also helped create the subjective conditions for the movement. The drudgery and brutality that the machine era wrought caused organized outcry amongst not only the working class and the peasantry (who were in the process of becoming proletarianized), but the petit-bourgeoisie and some among the bourgeoisie too. In fact, these horrid conditions forced England to pass its first compulsory education act. Marx’s analysis of machinery is filled with testimony from state inspectors who were compelled to study conditions in the factories by bourgeois politicians.

How does today’s technological revolution within capitalism relate?

Today’s technological revolution has the same transformative capacity as the industrial revolution, which doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same of course.

Capitalists generally only invest in labor-saving technologies if they’re cheaper than the labor power they would otherwise have to employ. However, the state giveaways to corporations–from the 2008 bailouts to the 2017 Trump tax reform–have changed this equation somewhat. Today U.S. corporations are sitting on $1.9 Trillion in cash. They could hire more workers and raise wages, but of course they aren’t doing that. Instead, they’re investing in automation. As one report notes, “The logistics automation market is projected to grow from $46.22 billion in 2018 to $80.64 billion by 2023.”

Different industries will be affected in different ways by technology and automation, but in general it is predicted that demand for labor power in tech industries will continue to grow in the near future, but that the demand for labor power in manufacturing, service, and retail will decrease. The labor power employed in the tech industries will facilitate the automation of work in other sectors.

Automakers like General Motors are investing heavily in automation technology, and GM made headlines at the end of 2018 when it announced it would lay off 14,800 workers. In May, Amazon said it could have fully automated warehouses in as little as 10 years. Last holiday season, Amazon hired fewer seasonal workers for the first time, despite having grown as a company. FedEx and UPS are still struggling to compete with the extreme centralization of Amazon, despite experiencing growth alongside the rise in internet shopping.

In particular, the job of loading and unloading trailers poses a challenge for 3rd-party carriers, yet the automation is still worth the investment. Amazon also retains a technological edge over its competitors in the retail and shipping markets because it isn’t a retail or shipping company; it’s a technology company. Amazon develops technology and then sells it to its competitors. In this way, Amazon is a leader in the automation charge.

Again, the range of work susceptible to these labor-saving technologies is expansive. Tablets and adaptive learning software are replacing teachers. Artificial intelligence is replacing radiologists. The World Economic Forum predicted that 30% of jobs will be at risk of automation by 2030 (which doesn’t mean definite replacement).

Along with job loss comes an increase in the pace of work for those who are still “lucky” enough to be employed. Human labor will be used increasingly for “hybrid-jobs” or “superjobs:” jobs that combine multiple jobs roles previously performed by multiple workers.

While the rate at which this transformation takes place is subject to complex variables, the direction of the transformation is obvious and it presents a serious contradiction under capitalism. The World Economic Forum softens their dire 30% prediction by claiming that the amount of money saved by corporations will allow them to lower prices, causing increased consumer buying power and recycling that money back into the economy. Yet capitalist corporations have to increase their bottom line every quarter before passing on any savings to the consumer, and will continue to create crises of overproduction.

Many corporations also assuage fears about job loss by not laying off workers when they automate job roles. One of us was recently informed that our primary job task at FedEx will be eliminated with new software, but that we will be performing other tasks instead. Yet there are only so many possible jobs in the company. Furthermore, these massive monopolies leading the automation charge are driving their competitors out of business, eliminating those jobs, and increasing the concentration of capital into fewer and fewer hands.

Digital technologies today are also intensifying exploitation in the Global South, as they increase the need for raw materials like coltan and other rare-earth minerals.

At the same time, they’re increasing environmental crises. Around one-fifth of available energy of Earth will go to keeping data centers in operation by 2025.

Socialism is the only answer

Absent working-class struggle, we should not expect the U.S. Government, which is designed to preserve the rule of the capitalists by any means necessary, to mitigate any of these negative consequences flowing from automation. The working class in the U.S. hasn’t recovered from the consequences of deindustrialization that began in the 1970s. Deindustrialization, after all, was also the result of massive transformations in things like software that could manage complex supply chains distributed across the globe, among other things.

While technology and automation enriches and also provide an array of new weapons for the ruling class, the resulting economic and thus social transformation shakes the foundations of their rule. In High Tech Low Pay (1986), Sam Marcy wrote:

“The scientific-technological revolution is mercilessly and ruthlessly leveling down and demolishing the higher social stratum in the working class and reducing it to the level of the lower paid…

“It will inevitably shift the political balance away from the more privileged layers of the working class in favor of the hitherto underprivileged, unrepresented and more scattered oppressed workers. The internal political relations between the different strata of the working class will become more harmonized on the level of working class politics. This new trend in the working class goes contrary to the historical tendency of capitalist development in the past.”

As the crisis of neoliberalism deepens, class divisions are becoming more stark. This lays the basis for increased working-class unity. This is in part what accounts for the recent ramping up of bigoted attacks against oppressed people in the U.S. Automation will intensify capitalist’s drive to heighten national divisions and unleash bigoted campaigns aimed at preventing unity. Our fight against unemployment therefore isn’t just an economic one, but a social one, too.

The ruling class will continue to deflect blame onto other nations, oppressed nationalities, and workers’ alleged “lack of personal responsibility” or “lack of education.” We must be clear in defining who our real enemies are. We must patiently and persuasively explain the failures of capitalism to the working class, while promoting revolutionary optimism. After all, the U.S. is the perfect place to implement a socialist economy. All the Amazon factories and Walmarts could stay in tact in some form, as their centralized structure, data, distribution networks, and so on, could be used to provide for human needs. Automation could liberate workers from tedious work, rather than put them out on the streets. The funds used for the imperialist war machine that’s driven by the need for capitalism to secure energy, raw materials, and super-exploitable labor can be redistributed on a global scale.

At the same time, without a profit motive, we can orient technologies research and development beyond the confines of production. Instead of, “how can we increase commodity production,” our starting question can be, “how can we increase the well being and livelihood of the Earth and its inhabitants?”

There is no such thing as a “shortage of jobs.” There is only a shortage of jobs that can be exploited for a profit. There is plenty of work to be done, and with socialism we could fully utilize the vast potential of the working class. We have witnessed the ability of socialism to thrive under far more difficult circumstances. Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea guarantee housing, healthcare, and education for all citizens, despite being small, historically underdeveloped countries saddled with crushing sanctions. We can only imagine the advances that socialism would bring, to the U.S. and the world, in an advanced capitalist society.

We should use the growing contradiction between automation and labor under capitalism to expose the failures of the system to provide for humanity. We should be clear that socialism is the only way to resolve this contraction. Capitalism is a hopelessly outdated system, which has only preserved itself through violence. The rise of automation will accelerate the growing inequality that we see today, where the three richest people in the U.S.–Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett–own as much wealth as the bottom half of the country’s population.


Marx, K. (1867/1967). Capital (vol 1). New York: International Publishers.

Marcy, S. (1986/2009). High tech, low pay. New York: World View Forum.

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...