Karl Marx, it seems fair to say, did not possess a “9 to 5” mentality. As noted in Francis Wheen’s wonderful biography, Karl Marx, the report of a spy for the Prussian state emphasises Marx’s absolute disregard for both routine and work-life balance:
“He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.”
Wheen’s Marx – eccentric polymath, devotee of Shakespeare and able to quote whole passages of Dante by heart, duellist, drunkard, intolerant intellectual despot and doting family man – is a fascinating, sympathetic, carbuncles-and-all portrait of someone passionately in love with life, and with work most of all. As suggested by The German Ideology’s famous and somewhat whimsical picture of the hunting, fishing cowherd, who settles down at the end of the evening to pen a little after-dinner literary criticism, a Marxist utopia would free us not from work, but from externally imposed and meaningless wage labour, freeing us to choose how we spend our time. As the old saying has it, “It’s not work that I don’t like; it’s work that I don’t like that I don’t like.” Once we find that activity that gives us purpose and meaning, it ceases to become work. This is because, Marx argued, humans are productive beings; it’s in our nature to make and do. What kills this natural enthusiasm – at least for people like Marx – is where the activity is chosen and imposed by some external authority, who likely doesn’t share your values, your interests, your sense of your own worth; who doesn’t appreciate your eccentric timekeeping habits nor your penchant for long afternoon naps. The enemy then isn’t work, as such, but alienation.
As is well known, Marx borrows and adapts the concept of alienation from Hegel. History, Hegel thought, was driven by opposition – between master and servant, between different political perspectives and cultural values, between one ideology and another – and it was the conflict between these extremes that produced new relationships, new situations and ideas. But in this dynamic battle between opposites, this dialectical process, there could never be a winner, for each new idea, each victorious political movement, each dominant point of view, was merely another aspect of the whole, and as such its partial viewpoint and one-sidedness would always result in further opposition and antagonism from other ignored aspects. The only way out of this struggle – the end and goal of history itself – was for the separate, alienated aspects to become whole, to realise themselves as expressions of the same underlying reality – which, by logical necessity, they must eventually do. On an individual level, we think of ourselves as separate consciousnesses, single minds, but in reality, we are all part of the same great “Mind” or “Spirit”. If we could realise this – if Mind could realise it – then we’d no longer be alienatedfrom one another. Therefore, the inevitable goal of history was for Mind to realise its own nature.
Marx takes this mystical, high-flown picture and brings it down to earth. Instead of a fragmented God-like Mind in search of self-knowledge through human puppets, Marx sees humanity becoming conscious of itself in terms of its social relations. These relations were ultimately defined by work, so Marx’s version of alienation primarily concerns the divorce between workers and the product of their labour:
“The externalisation of the worker in his produce means not only that his work becomes an object, an external existence, but also that it exists outside him, independently, alien, an autonomous power, opposed to him. The life he has given to the object confronts him as hostile and alien.”
Outside of employment, whether painting a picture or baking a cake, the “product” is simply a natural outcome of your activity. However, under capitalism, this product is taken from you, both it and your labour becoming a “commodity”: your painting, your cake, are sold and exploited for someone else’s profit; your skills to produce things you may neither possess nor use. Unlike a primitive hunter or fisherman, the nineteenth-century factory labourer worked not directly for their own livelihood, but for indirect benefit, a wage, out of which the capitalist factory owner pocketed undeserved profit. The industrial worker is therefore alienated not only from others (as Hegel’s individual consciousnesses were), but also from a part of themselves: the product of their natural inclination to make and do things. Such exploitative relations had almost always existed, in one form or another – between master and slave, between serf and feudal lord – but the industrial revolution offered a means of maximising this exploitation to an undreamt-of extent: industrial technology.
Marx’s attitude to technology seems ambivalent. On the one hand, he recognised that it as an instrument of oppression and alienation, swelling the ranks of the unemployed and underclasses, devaluing and extinguishing skilled trades, and dehumanising the workforce. Combined with the division of labour, it was the chief means for the capitalist to squeeze ever greater profit from workers, and therefore a tool of the enemy. Gone were the old ladies spinning yarn in their cottage industries, replaced by Spinning Jennies – the earliest factory machine – even the prototype of which could outperform the most nimble-fingered spinster. Such developments allowed the basic cost of labour (keeping the worker alive) to stay the same, while the productive value of the worker’s labour (what could be accomplished in a given time) increased, the benefit of which (“surplus value” or profit) went mainly to the employer. A task which might once take a week of a skilled worker’s time could now be done in a day, or less, by a team of low-skilled labourers operating machines as part of a production line. This surplus value therefore stemmed from the role of technology in allowing more work to be done while paying the worker the same wage, the time saved allowing yet more work at the same cost. In this regard, technological progress is not incidental to capitalism, but essential to it.
On the other hand, technology was also essential to the feasibility of communism. Just as Hegel saw the relationship between “master” and “servant” as a necessary step in the inevitable progress towards Mind’s self-realisation, the industrial revolution had to happen if there were to be a communist one. Not only would the injustice and technology-driven exploitation inherent in the capitalist-worker relationship sow the seeds of discontent that ultimately caused the disgruntled workers (the proletariat) to rise up, but once that took place, the time- and labour-saving machines could then be employed by the workers for the workers. The Marxist goal, then, was not a return to some primitive pastoral idyll (after-dinner criticising, fishing, hunting cowherds aside), but a progressive society that takes technology and property out of the hands of the capitalists and places it into those of the workers – which is everyone. If we agree with Marx, then any ambivalence we might feel about technology would seem easy to resolve: worker exploitation and misery are not the fault of technology, but of those who exploit technology for heartless self-interest.
If we move this forward to the present, and the current debate surrounding AI, robotics, and other technological developments with work-related applications, the question – as Marx would see it – isn’t whether we can or should stop these developments, but whether we can wrest control of the future out of the hands of greedy, morally irresponsible capitalists. The fundamental issue is, therefore, “Who owns the robots?” In this regard, Marxism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin, both betting on the same horse, but hoping for different pay outs. But even certain capitalists would seem now to recognise that we cannot simply allow these technological developments to run amok, and that to protect society from this next wave of technological innovation we need to put in place various safeguards, both social and technical: a guaranteed basic income, perhaps, to redress the inevitable job losses through automation; a “robot tax”, as Bill Gates has suggested, thereby rechannelling funds into the public purse; or maybe even a sort of “intelligence cap” (bringing to mind the sci-fi novelist William Gibson’s “Turing Police” from Neuromancer), to ward off the possibility that a super-bright but emotionless AI might enslave or eliminate humanity, or through diligence bring about the end of the world by making too many paperclips.
Underlying this attitude is, I think, an assumption that technology is – at worst – neutral. In fact, for all his wonderfully realised visions of technology-driven dystopia, we find this very view defended by William Gibson himself: “I think that technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It’s only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil.” Not only can’t you fight the future, it seems, but nor should you blame the robots – it’s not their fault that they’re better, cleverer and more efficient at almost everything than you are! But is technology neutral? At a surface level, this would seem undeniable: quantum physics gave us both computers and the atom bomb; the discovery of DNA brought potential for medical advancement and more advanced biological weaponry. Thus, every boon has its bane, and the technology behind every infernal engine its corresponding life-enhancing application. But at a deeper level, the situation seems more complex.
Let’s take the Internet. One of the great ironies of social media is that it both simultaneously connects and isolates. Through it, we are – in the title of psychologist Sherry Turkle’s study of technological alienation – Alone Together. Turkle argues that connective technology appeals to us because it offers us the illusion of genuine communication and intimacy, without any of the hassles or demands of real-life face-to-face interaction. It offers us apparent control: we may cultivate an ideal image of ourselves, a public persona – a Twitter or Facebook profile, an online avatar; we may prepare, edit and delete our communications outside of the pressures of real-time conversation; we may address our loneliness and isolation by reaching out to like-minded individuals across the world, whom we might not otherwise meet in our “real” lives. But this constant connection comes with a price, for it is shaping and redefining how we behave, replacing genuine experience with its ersatz digital equivalent: “followers” instead of friends, “smileys” instead of smiles. It is this false connection that, far from redressing loneliness, fosters it, while starving us of the traditional experiences necessary for emotional growth.
But this isolation also has other, more disturbing repercussions. In Psychology of the Digital Age, psychologist John Suler analyses the disquieting consequences of the “disinhibition effect” of being online. If you’ve ever wondered how trolls can taunt grieving parents, or egg-on the suicidally depressed, it’s because, he argues, there is a sense in which they don’t think that what they’re doing is “real”. Thus, the nature of digital presence creates a sense of “dissociative anonymity”: you don’t have to take responsibility for your actions, because you’re not “really” you. In text-based communication, you are in a sense “invisible”, thereby making it easier to evade the other person’s “eyes” (and therefore not to acknowledge their humanity). And of course, it’s easy to think of digital interaction as a sort of game – and you wouldn’t feel guilty for “killing” a set of pixels in Call of Duty, would you? These and other factors thus divorce us from the normal context of interaction, and make us less moral, less compassionate, and overall less human.
If social media and online interaction are any indication, then the terrifying prospect is not that some greedy, thoughtless or malign agent might own this technology and use it to exploit others, leading to their alienation, but that such alienation is in some way built into our current technology.
Marshall McLuhan famously announced that “the medium is the message”, the central meaning of which seems to be that technology is not neutral. The “message” of any medium or technology is “the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs”, and as such is already inherent in the technology itself. Along comes the printing press, but, McLuhan says, we should not judge it by what it may be used to print (which, like any technological product, may be considered “good” or “bad”), but the subtler changes that the technology in question smuggles in – the shifts in ontology and identity, of behavioural norms and social relations – things that, in the usual sort of pro-con analysis, often get overlooked. And so, whether the Internet is used for disseminating fake news or highlighting social injustice, the deeper consequences are implicit in its very adoption, which – as the concerns of Turkle and Suler highlight – are far from unquestionably good.
Marx would no doubt argue that – supposing it could exist – Communist Twitter would be different, because the antisocial behaviour that we now witness is really just a consequence of the current oppressive and inegalitarian society, which skews our instincts and forces us to behave in those ways. Under communism, where different forms of social relations would prevail, people will be nice to one another. However, as Peter Singer argues in Marx: A Very Short Introduction, this involves a particularly optimistic view of the plasticity of human nature, and one that ignores subsequent findings in psychology. Since the sort of bullying we witness online stems from a desire for status and pecking order – deep-seated human instincts – it’s unlikely that even a communist society could uproot them (attempts at which, possibly, have produced the sort of authoritarian crackdown we’re familiar with from existing and historical communist societies – of which, Marx himself would thoroughly have disapproved).
The deeper question is therefore whether, having provided the primary means of capitalist alienation of the worker, such technology as we have can simply be repurposed in the way Marx imagines. Can a tool of alienation become a means of liberation? If not – if such alienation is inherent in current and emergent technology, tainted by its origins, fruit of the poison tree – then it will not matter who owns the robots.