Automation Won’t Save Capitalism




Almost daily there are reports of production workers being displaced by robots and other machines.  How does automation affect the political struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat and the basic contradiction of capitalism: the contradiction between the private appropriation and socialized production?  Does this decline in the output of workers relative to that of machines, with the distinct possibility that the output of workers will eventually drop to nearly zero, undermine the need or the possibility for revolution?


It could be said that it really doesn’t matter that there is even complete automation in one or a handful of imperialist countries, because there are large numbers of  industrial production workers in the less developed countries and the affairs of any one country or locality are mainly determined by world conditions.  But increasingly automation is finding its way to less developed countries as well.  In many instances production in the less developed countries is already highly automated and this is increasing with time.  Eventually production in the developing nations will be substantially if not thoroughly automated.  And this will happen no matter which class rules society.  The effects will differ, but automation will increase.


In order to understand the impact of automation, first we have to back up quite some time and examine the origins and nature of the nucleus of capitalism and imperialism, which is commodity production.


To live, humans must transform reality, and this includes producing things or objects which allows them to exist.  At a certain stage in the evolution of human society this leads to a well defined division of labor, particular individuals or groups produce particular things.  This brought about exchanging products so that those who desire a product different from the one they produce may secure them.  Exchange takes place both within groupings and between groupings.  Products always satisfy uses or have use value, but that isn’t always their primary purpose.


The purpose or goal of production and the exchange of products are of paramount importance to the question of automation, society and revolution.


With commodity production, the motor driving capitalism, the purpose of production is to sell use value in order to achieve profits.  When this happens, the product being sold is called a commodity.


The organizer of a commodity’s production spends whatever it costs to make production of that commodity possible, but for each commodity created they are paid above what it costs to make production of that commodity possible.  What is paid to the organizer of production for a commodity is the value of the average number of industry wide hours of labor necessary required to create that kind of commodity. 


For each individual commodity of a certain type produced, for example, for each individual car produced, the organizer of its production is not paid the value of the specific number of hours required to produce that individual car, but rather they are paid the value of the average industry wide number of hours of labor necessary required to create that type of car.  In political economic lingo, the organizer is paid the value of the socially necessary labor required to create that type of car.


The profit made by the organizer of commodity production is the difference between the value of the average socially necessary number of labor hours required to create that kind of commodity, minus the value of what the organizer spent to make production of the commodity possible.


While the organizer of commodity production can make a profit from the production process, the human worker that performs the labor required to create a commodity is always being exploited, i.e. “ripped off”.  To demonstrate this let us take a look at 1 week in the process of commodity production.  The value of the average number of hours necessary to sustain the worker on the job referred to as the value of labor power.  In the typical case, when a worker signs a contract to work for the organizer of production for 1 week, the worker agrees to be paid for the value of their labor power for 1 week.  When the organizer of commodity production sells the products the worker has created during that 1 week, the organizer is paid the value of 1 weeks worth of the average socially necessary labor required to create the kind of product the worker has created.  If the worker labors with the average effort and skill of other workers creating the same product, the value organizer realizes by selling the products the worker has created for 1 week is equal to the actual value of the amount of labor the human worker has “worked up” into that 1 week of products.  The problem for the worker is that the value of the labor they “work up” into the products they create for 1 week, and which the organizer makes off with by selling the products, is greater than the value of 1 week of labor power for which the worker has agreed to be paid.  The difference between what is paid to the worker and what the organizer of production by selling the products the worker creates is called surplus value.  The primary aim of every organizer of commodity production is to accumulate profits in the form of surplus value.



Labor that creates new use values, new products, transforms things that have existing use value into new things that have a new use value.  Labor which produces products makes a transformation of things to create products so that they serve some purpose, have a use, have some use value.  Historically the amount of useful transformations done to things has been measured in the labor or transformations per hour by people.  Humans have been the chief transformers of things in the past, so it was the number of hours of a human worker’s transformations that has traditionally been used as a measure of a products worth.  Human workers are able to make useful transformations to things to make products, but this is true for machines as well.


Traditionally it has been said that only what is paid to sustain people for labor (what is paid for human labor power) can grow or increase itself in the production process, that machines only pass on what’s paid for them.  One of the reasons for this was that, in the past machines mainly played a secondary role to people in the production process.


As opposed to the nature of the majority of machines used during the Industrial Revolution which simply transferred energy, or merely acted as tools in the production process, many machines nowadays actually “craft” the products of commodity production themselves.  Machines work, just like people’s labor or work, performs useful transformations to things.  And if a machine performs more transformations than what it cost to pay for the machine then the machine is creating profit.  Some machines not only pay for themselves, they do more work that what’s paid for them.


Much of the theory of political economy was initially conceived by Adam Smith and the French Physiocrat school of political economics around the time of the Industrial Revolution.  Thus the foundational theory of political economy made the essentially proper assessment for that time that machines do not add value to raw materials.  To a large extent Marx followed in the wake of these beliefs.  However it is clear that in the extended volumes of Marx’s “Capital” called “Theories of Surplus Value” that he was a hairs width away from making the leap to understanding that machines themselves can create surplus value.  Among other things, Marx repeatedly states that workers had become appendages of machines in the production process.  Despite that, Marx acknowledged that surplus value continued to be generated in the commodity production process.  New value in the production must be created in some way and if it isn’t done by humans, it can only be the machines that transform raw materials into new use values that are creating that new value.


The rate of profit, that is the profit realized for the amount spent to organize production, tends to fall with the increased use of machines.  In the past this was assumed to happen because only human labor was capable of creating surplus value.  Given that machines are able to transform raw materials into finished use values for sale, the decrease in the rate of profit with the introduction of greater numbers of machines can only be due to the fact that the cost per transformation by machines is less than the cost per transformation by human workers.  Machines generally operate faster, more intensely and for a greater number of hours per day than humans.  Given this, for the same costs, machines tend to produce more transformations per hour than humans.  The same product crafted by a machine will on average cost less than the same product crafted by a human because for the same amount of transformations, those from the machine cost less.  Even though the rate of profit falls when using machines, machines on the whole produce more value than the value of their cost, so a profit may be made from their use in production.


The useful transformations done to a product are expressed in the amount of the product’s exchange value when the purpose of production is to exchange products for profit; the useful transformations done to a thing beyond the preexisting transformations paid for to make a product are expressed in the product’s surplus value, which is included in its exchange value.


It is only by exchanging their product for other use value of at least equal value, preferably more, that the organizer of commodity production can realize the wealth added by the production process.  Money is the most sought after use value in the exchange process.  With money the organizer of production can most easily exchange for any other use values whenever they desire to do so.  Money is the universal solvent.  Although products are exchanged for their exchange value in money to make profit under commodity production, exchanging products has not always been, nor hopefully will it always be, for the purpose of making a profit.  Human beings have actually lived much longer without commodity production and its exchange of products for profit than we have lived with it.


Capitalism makes commodity production dominant in society and with this as its fundamental economic cell and motor, capitalism’s basic contradiction as a whole is between the private character of appropriation and the socialized character of production.  Private character of production means that the society’s rulers control use and dispense the wealth created by society in ways which are against the interests of the world proletarian struggle.  Socialized production means essentially that the tasks required to make a product are divided up, there is a division of labor.


Appropriation and control of the production of use values in capitalist countries are intended to enrich a small elite.  The aim of the rulers of a capitalist country in controlling the production process is to make profits.  If producing some use value is unprofitable or doesn’t give a high enough profit for what’s invested, the capitalists of these or any other capitalist country will not invest in making that use value. 



Commodity production makes capitalism susceptible to the revolutionary political struggle of the proletariat, because it drives the political and social contradictions and crises of capitalism.  The basic contradiction of capitalism is that between the socialized, or highly cooperative nature, of the production process versus the private and narrow appropriation of the surplus value, the profit, of the production process.  The basic contradiction of capitalism is a larger reflection of commodity production’s basic contradiction, that of exchanging use values for exchange value.  Private appropriation tends to reflect exchange value and socialized production tends to reflect use value.


There will be a need , and more importantly a basis, for the revolutionary struggle and process, even if machines are the primary creators of commodities because the production process throughout society remains highly cooperative while appropriation of the wealth is remains very private.  And this possibility for revolution will be felt as long as commodity production feeds the basic contradiction of capitalism and the basic contradiction of capitalism itself continues to exist.


The proletariat wages political struggle against the bourgeoisie in order to abolish classes, class society and their present day foundation, commodity production.  These must be abolished because they are the roots the proletariat’s exploitation and oppression and the reason there is so much suffering in the world, including the “screaming horrors of war.” 


The proletariat, where it is in power and has established a socialist society, begins to abolish commodity production and resolve the contradiction between the private appropriation of the capitalist and the socialized character of production in that area, by working for the immediate and long range goals of the world proletarian revolution.  Control and ownership of production is taken over by the revolutionary proletariat, and products in the area under the sway of the proletariat are exchanged increasingly for their use value as opposed to realizing a profit from them.  In a socialist society, the revolutionary proletariat works to advance its ability to transform and develop reality in order to benefit not a handful of profit hungry capitalists and their minions, but rather to benefit the overwhelming majority of the popular masses worldwide: workers, peasants, farmers, professionals and students.  Production is oriented mainly toward making use values which meet the requirements of the world struggle, whether that be where the revolutionary workers hold power or elsewhere.  And the revolutionary proletariat sees to it that the benefits of socialism go first to the most exploited and oppressed sections of society.


Unfortunately, there is a possibility during socialism that capitalist roaders in the proletariat’s vanguard party and in the socialist government will restore capitalism.  The former Soviet Union during the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin was a socialist country.  Capitalism was restored there in the mid-1950’s after Stalin passed and Khrushchev assumed power.  The revolutionary proletariat of China was able to establish a socialist society there beginning in 1949, during Mao Zedong’s leadership.  Mao made the struggle against capitalist roaders the primary task of Chinese socialist society and took the struggle against capitalist roaders to the highest level with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.  Despite the best efforts of Mao and other genuine Chinese proletarian revolutionaries, like the Gang of 4, capitalism was restored in China when a clique of selfish, cruel, and profit hungry capitalist roaders led by seized power upon Mao’s death in 1976. 


While human history spans millions of years and the existence of class society, of which capitalism is its most recent form, goes back roughly 5 thousand years, the scientific socialist movement is less than 200 years old.  In that time, the scientific socialist movement founded by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels has already had spectacular successes, but it also has had major reversals and has not reached its goal of eliminating class society along with all of its brutal exploitation and oppression.  Just as a baby falls as it learns to walk, the socialist movement has risen and faltered, but the need and impetus to reach its goal is being driven precisely by the social and political consequences that result from the tension between socialized production and private appropriation that commodity production generates as the principal economic engine of capitalist society.


Working to strengthen the role of use value until exchange value is abolished throughout the world is one of the ways in which the proletariat in power in socialist society transforms the purpose of production under their control to benefit the world proletarian revolution.  One of the ways, because it is the overall social, economic and primarily political effort of the proletariat in power which mainly benefits the world proletariat struggle.  Only by the proletarian seizure of power throughout the world can commodity production and the fundamental contradiction of capitalism can be totally eliminated.  When these are eliminated, exploitative and oppressive classes and class society won’t have a leg to stand on.


Upon coming to power the proletariat may not be able to make immediate large scale changes in the economic structure, but it intends to do so.  To fulfill its intentions it must be working concretely for the all-around, overreaching tasks and goals of the world proletarian struggle, and this will enable changes to be made in the economy controlled by the proletariat as swiftly as possible.  As this is done, the economic resources should be apportioned to provide for those on the lowest rung first, chiefly considering the needs of the world struggle.  And this should continue throughout socialism and beyond.


As worldwide commodity production wanes, the global struggle advances, and people’s ideas and institutions reflect these developments, the production process is brought increasingly under the control of society as a whole.  In dealing with economics this way and working for the overall goals and tasks of the world proletarian struggle, the proletariat eventually achieves its lofty historic mission to liberate people from the vicissitudes of capitalism and commodity production and is able to fully implement the motto inscribed across its banner: From each according to their ability to each according to their need.


Capitalism will always be driven by commodity production and wracked by the paroxysms of its basic contradiction between private appropriation and socialized production whether there are people or machines producing the commodities.  Powerfully generating contradictions at the very core of the capitalist system, no matter what changes occur in any capitalist country of any kind, commodity production assures the possibility of going forward into the future through proletarian revolution.



Tim Redd


May 1986,

Revised May 2006.


© 1986-2006