Human finger touching robot finger

Capitalism vs The Robots

“It’s not politicians that can solve problems. They have no technical capabilities. They don’t know how to solve problems. Even if they were sincere they don’t know how to solve problems. It’s the technicians that produce the desalination plants. It’s the technicians that give you electricity, that give you motor vehicles, that heat your house and cool it in the summertime. It’s technology that solves problems, not politics.” – Jacques Fresco

One thing stands out far above all others as the greatest contributor to improving the human condition: technology.

Consider the changes society went through at the advent of the wheel, the plow, tractors, motor vehicles, washing machines, refrigerators, plumbing, electricity, computers, satellite communication, and the Internet – just to name a few. In each technological advancement, grueling and repetitive work was eased; this freed up time for enjoying oneself and for creative endeavors. When one could hook up a plow to an ox and travel by cart into town, for instance – instead of planting fields by hand and trekking – productivity, quality of living, and wealth increased.

Technology “unlocks” new modes of organizing a society, from the aqueducts of urban Rome to the adobe pueblos to the Silk Road merchant societies. Technological and scientific advancements change the very fabric of society – arguably more than politics. When the nature of labor is altered, the nature of society is altered. The history of society is in many ways the history of what humans have done with the technology available to them. It follows then that as technological advancement is progressing at an exponential curve, the way our society is organized must necessarily evolve along with it – at least to some degree.

Scarcity is Artificial

In order to have a functioning society that would not be decimated by starvation, disease, or conquest, humans have had to create various systems of exchange and cooperation – economic systems. For most of human history, those economic systems have had to wrestle with moderate to severe resource scarcity – finding a way to stabilize supply and demand. One such stabilizer, for instance – something we would call a “buffer stock” today – was the ancient Chinese “ever-normal granary.” These were granaries set up all over ancient China to ensure grain was always available, which offset food shortages when production varied. This stabilized prices and protected from famine.

For a merchant, the best thing that can happen is to have a great number of things that are in high demand; high demand raises prices. This means scarcity and neediness is good for profits. Importantly, this also means that plentitude and cheap availability is bad for business – if a product is too plentiful, for instance, it will become so cheap that there’s little profit margin and therefore shrinking incentive to continue production. This also explains the planned obsolescence so prevalent in capitalism.

In other words, as Eileen Workman says, “The absolute ‘worst’ outcome in a capitalistic enterprise is to create something that enables people to become more self-sufficient. By fostering self-sufficiency, the business undermines its ability to continue to harvest money off its dependents.”

In the case of lobbying against the development of renewable energy done by fossil fuel companies, the loss of profit is powerful enough a force to override democratic consensus in favor of policy that moves us toward self-sufficiency – a display of power that should worry all of us. In the case of lobbying against the development of renewable energy done by fossil fuel companies, the loss of profit is powerful enough a force to override democratic consensus – a display of power that should worry all of us.

Especially with the advent of robotics and automation – cheap and easy mass production, in other words – systems based on scarcity run contrary to the direction technology is taking us. And something has got to give.

At its core, this resistance to progress is not the capitalist ethic, but a corruption of the capitalist ethic. Consider what the capitalists wanted and what their stated goals were in the overthrow of feudalism. It is important to remember that the capitalists were trying to own their own labor, not owe the fruits of their labor to a lord simply because that labor took place on that lord’s land. By so doing, everyone would theoretically reap the fruits of their own labor, and the rise in personal wealth would mean more exchange; because the velocity of money means more wealth is accumulating, a rising tide lifts all boats and the dissolution of Feudalism would result in a more egalitarian society.

The ethic of the capitalist revolution, then, was supposedly not personal profit as an end in and of itself, but to achieve a socially egalitarian end. Today, when it is pointed out that these ends are not being achieved, the messenger is metaphorically “shot” with the “socialist” label and written off as a fringe thinker. A capitalist might defend their position based on the “abundance” offered by supply-side economics as the fulfillment of those egalitarian ideals – essentially favoring scarcity-oriented systems over abundance-oriented systems because of… abundance. This is flawed thinking by any measure. However, a futurist society that creates more abundance – and thereby diminishes profit – is only a threat to the false idol of profit by ownership as an end in itself, not a threat to a society that is egalitarian because people are paid an honest wage for honest work. 

At the end of the day, most of humanity has similar dreams of autonomy and owning the fruits of our own labor. Sometimes in the heat of our political arguments and tribalist loyalties, we forget that; instead, assuming the worst of all possible intentions from those “on the other side.”

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Albert Sabin was an extraordinary scientist and doctor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital whose clinical research allowed him to develop an oral Polio vaccine. Polio was an enormous problem in Sabin’s days (between the 1930s and 50s), but he was able to develop a vaccine that saved over 100 million people around the world. This could have made Sabin an extremely wealthy man, but he refused to patent the vaccine and profit from it. Commercial overtures by pharmaceutical industries were made, but Sabin refused everyone to ensure that prices remained as low as possible. He was not trying to get rich – he was trying to contribute to his world. Recognizing that these two things were at odds, Sabin chose to maximize his contribution to society rather than the lucrative alternative. Sabin never got a dime from his vaccine – he just kept getting paid his professor’s salary. It is not that no money was made from the manufacture of Sabin’s vaccine – it is that that money paid the salaries of the people producing the vaccine.

Sabin was a good and noble human being, but he was not a very good capitalist. He did not profit from the neediness of others by claiming ownership of his vaccine and did not raise its price by charging royalties. The economic system he operated in gave no incentive to behave this way; he did this despite the economic system. In a society organized to make profit sacrosanct, he treated the general welfare of humanity as sacrosanct instead. The positive results of working against capitalist incentives cannot be expressed in money – yet was far more valuable.

But Albert Sabin was an exception, not the rule; in general, people do what they have the incentive to do. The incentive system would have made a Martin Shkreli out of him if that was his primary directive.

If a society is organized to maximize profits, it will breed far more Shkrelis than Sabins. It will sacrifice efficiency and public health for profit (why else is there an entire medical insurance industry that adds cost but no value?), environmental progress for profit (why else do ALEC lobbyists write anti-renewables legislation?), and even quality of goods for profit (there’s that pesky planned obsolescence again).

What is it we ultimately want society to be about? Do we organize society to protect profit or to drive an end to social ills? Which is the priority? Do we maximize profit and make the public welfare secondary, or do we maximize public welfare and make profit secondary? Who is revered as a hero – Martin Shkreli or Albert Sabin? Which used a better ethical framework?

“One would think that with our technology we could eliminate most social ills. Couldn’t modern technology supply enough food, clothing, shelter, and material goods for all if used intelligently? What is stopping us from achieving this? Technology is racing forward but our societies are still based on concepts and methods devised centuries ago. We still have a society based on scarcity… We still have thinking patterns based on old structures used several thousand years ago. We are trying to adjust to the rapid advances in technology with obsolete values that no longer work in today’s world.” – Jacques Fresco

What is stopping us from achieving this? The power of profiteers and their protectors: the politicians. Technicians work to break our dependence and enable self-sufficiency; politicians work for the people that keep them in power. These are the same people that rely on our dependence and our engineered inability to live self-sufficient lives.

“Man vs. Machine”: Only Under Capitalism

Besides scarcity, there is one more aspect of our economic model that is quickly undergoing a radical paradigm shift: labor itself.

As noted earlier, technological advancements ease the burden of grueling and repetitive work, which frees us to engage in more sophisticated work and recreation. As automation, 3D printing, robotics, and AI continue to ramp up, a great many jobs we take for granted today will become obsolete. It is not that work itself will disappear anytime soon; it is that there will be very little human labor involved in the provisioning of many of our material needs. The best-known argument between capitalism and socialism is over the relationship between labor and capital goods (aka the “means of production”) – but when the capital goods themselves (i.e. robots) start doing the labor, the very foundations of this disagreement begin to warp and the questions begin to become moot.

The nature of society is altered when the nature of labor is altered. It follows then that if technological advancement is changing what human labor is about, any economic system that deals with human labor should adapt itself to changing circumstances and organize itself with respect to the emergent realities.

Slavery was never justified and runs contrary to nearly every modern concept of ethics; but what if we had “slaves” that were not actually conscious, provisioning us without need for wages? This is merely the next step in technological labor-saving; only the need for profit can complain. But we cannot eat money – it exists to make provisioning ourselves more convenient.

If we continue to make profit sacrosanct – the Shkreli ethic – this cannot happen. If we make the goal sacrosanct instead – the Sabin ethic – it must. Only under capitalism would there even be a question; of course, we should do this. Why should our system discourage us from improving our conditions? Why should man fight a machine for the privilege of turning a screw? Anyway, it’s happening, whether we like it or not. Something will have to give, and it is not going to be technology.

The Vision

Anything can be criticized; what do we do moving forward with regard to technology? First, we fund it democratically; then, we reap the rewards democratically. There are three specific areas we need to focus on: health and nutrition, environmental justice, and transportation. Proper investment will have effects not only in those sectors but will be a heavy boon to overall economic justice and overall peace.

First, a hefty investment in medical care, equipment, and R&D can incubate research, expand the number of people that have real access to needed treatment, and create the life-saving technologies of tomorrow. Robot surgeons and nanobots – for example – may seem like distant futuristic science fiction now, but they’re already on the scene. In addition, robot-operated greenhouses can automate a great deal of our agriculture. Perhaps the Sabin approach makes more sense here than the Shkreli approach, given what we have already covered.

Second, we must promptly and dramatically fund R&D for renewable energy technology. At 70¢/kwh (and falling), solar watts will soon be cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives; wind and solar are already cheaper. With climate change already wreaking havoc – and much darker days to come – we can and must leverage the power of our technical minds to make the necessary changes to stop worsening the problem and eventually – hopefully – reverse it. As a secondary benefit, industrial revolutions are massive job creators that provide a gigantic economic stimulus (just as in Sabin’s case, it’s not that no money gets made – it’s that it’s made on the basis of actual work that produces actual goods, rather than “ownership”).

Third, we must focus on an overhaul of our crumbling transportation infrastructure. Not only do bad roads increase the cost of vehicle ownership, but new and vastly superior options are available. Roads can be built much more durably out of recycled plastic – and plastic roads can double as solar panels, which would kill two birds with one stone. Next-generation automated shipping is also on its way as well as driverless vehicles – just to scratch the surface. As before, it is not that no money gets made – it is that it is made based on actual work that produces actual goods, rather than “ownership.”

Because environmental conditions, health, and nutrition are major factors in one’s material well-being, to improve these conditions is to improve overall economic justice. When one’s material needs are met, they are not needy, and can thus gain – rather than merely subsist – by their labor. When justice increases, so too must peace.

The vision is one of a society that embraces its technology and uses it creatively and enthusiastically to limit neediness and maximize self-sufficiency, valuing our planet and each other over acquisitive materialism. It is an answer to a system so wrapped up in the profitable byproduct of pursuing its goal that it forgot its goal and devoured itself.

Society is undergoing a radical technological revolution. It is time our sociopolitical system got the message and caught up. If our political mainstream continues to bury its head in the sand, it will one day soon be so obsolete that it will implode.

And maybe it already has.

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