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Are robots taking all our jobs?

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As robots begin to do more of the jobs traditionally done by people, Tomáš Tengely-Evans asks if the relationship between worker and machine has fundamentally changed
Issue 2504
A robotics demonstration at the Rethink Robotics HQ in the US
A robotics demonstration at the Rethink Robotics HQ in the US (Pic: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

In the SEW-Eurodrive mechanics factory in Germany humans and robots work side by side. For supporters of capitalism this is the beginning of a “robot revolution” that will lead to a brave new capitalist world.

Barclays bank claims this could revolutionise capitalist production and drag global capitalism out of its slump. But automation also raises the spectre of mass unemployment and poverty.

The Bank of England’s chief economist Andrew Haldane has claimed that 50 percent of jobs could be done by robots or algorithms within 30 years.

But despite the business press hype about the investment boom, the global slump holds back widespread automation.

Fundamentally, full automation is unlikely to come about because it conflicts with the logic of capitalism.

The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that capitalist society is defined by key divisions, one between capitalists and workers and the other between capitalists.

Marx argued that capitalists “exploit” workers in order to make a profit. Mainstream accounts of exploitation treat it as bosses treating workers badly.

For Marx exploitation wasn’t a moral or descriptive term. It is about how capitalists make profit. Marx developed a labour theory of value, which argues that human labour is the source of all value.

To understand how it works requires us, as Marx put it, to enter “the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face ‘No admittance except on business’.”

When Marx was writing in the 1800s leading capitalist economists accepted the labour theory of value.

But they soon derided it—because it implied the new capitalist class was as parasitic as the feudal landowners they had replaced.

So today we’re told that profits are a reward for capitalists’ “business acumen” in taking risks on investments.

Mainstream economists of all stripes push the idea of “free and fair exchange”. They argue that the relationship between capitalists and workers is a business transaction between equal parties where one buys labour from the other at a “fair price.”

But Marx argued that this ideology of “free and fair exchange” hides exploitation behind a wage packet. Once we understand how this works, we can see the barriers to capitalism’s full use of robots.

For most of human history people have mainly produced things for their own consumption needs, whether food or clothing. By contrast, capitalism is based on commodity production.

Marx wrote that the utility of a product gave it a “use value”—how useful it is.

But commodities are produced not because they are useful but because they can be bought and sold on the market.


What matters here is their “exchange value”—or the amount of one commodity that can be exchanged for another.

Marx asked what could express this value. His answer was that human labour was common to all commodities, and that the amount of labour time necessary to produce them determines their value.

At first this seems impossible to quantify—put a journalist to work on a task such as building a wall and they will usually slow the process down.

But that doesn’t make the wall more valuable because someone spent a long time on it.

Marx argued that value wasn’t determined by the actual work workers do and how long it takes them.

Instead value is determined by the average time required to produce something with the general level of skill and technology in society at a particular time.

Under capitalism labour power—workers’ ability to work—is also turned into a commodity to be bought and sold.

So workers sell their ability to work for a wage.

As with other commodities, it’s the labour time necessary to produce it that determines the value of labour time.

Capitalists need to pay workers enough to “reproduce their labour power”, so they are healthy and fed enough to work for them.

Apart from the obvious physical part, Marx argued that a “moral-historical component” determines how capitalists treat workers.

For instance, in France the “moral-historical” norm of a 35 hour week has been determined by workers’ struggles.

If workers aren’t successful in pushing back the French government’s present Work Law, a new norm could be established with longer hours.

During the production process workers produce more value than they are paid for.

After four hours’ work they may have covered the cost of their wages.

But they keep working for eight hours or more, producing more value than they receive back. Marx called this gap “surplus value” and it forms the basis of capitalists’ profit.

Capitalism needs workers to make a profit.

Marx made a distinction between what he called “living labour” or workers and the “dead labour” of machinery.

Machinery contains and can pass on value because it was made by human labour. But it cannot add any new value.

Only workers’ “living labour” can add new value to a commodity.

Machines and tools do not create profit — they have to be put to use by workers.

In a society where robots produced everything and human beings were out of work, there would be no surplus value and no profits for capitalists to grab.

This is where the second division in capitalism, between the capitalists themselves, becomes important. Capitalists’ profits aren’t determined by how much “surplus value” they pump out of the workers they employ.


Capitalists compete with each other to grab a slice of the total surplus value that workers have created. How big an individual capitalist’s slice of the cake is depends on how efficient their firm is.

Competition forces capitalists to invest in new technologies to try and get ahead of their competitors or risk going out of business.

This makes capitalism an incredibly dynamic system which is constantly changing the way it produces things.

The steam engine and later the railways in the 1840s laid the basis for modern British capitalism.

This was then exported across Europe, helping capitalism take hold of the continent.

But this drive means that capitalists increasingly invest more and more into “dead labour” as opposed to “living labour”.

The “robot revolution” also flows from this process and is part of that long term tendency within capitalism.

Profits may be produced, but more and more machinery is needed to get them.

The amount of total profit compared to the amount spent on technology and other costs of production—the rate of profit—tends to fall over time.

Marxist economist Michael Roberts told Socialist Worker, “If we apply the labour theory of value we can see that if there’s sharp increase in the amount invested in technology as opposed to workers it will drive capitalist profits in general down.”

While investing more in “dead labour” can boost individual capitalists’ profits, it drags profitability across the system down because there is less new surplus value.

For instance, profits are, for now, high within the robot industries, but capitalism in general remains in a slump.

As Marx argued, “The real barrier to capitalist production is capital itself”.

To try and overcome this barrier, capitalists can ramp up exploitation—cutting wages, increasing hours and so on.

Their other option is to clear out the unprofitable bits of dead labour by letting companies going to the wall.

To utilise new technology and innovations for the benefit of all would take a socialist economy that was democratically planned for people’s needs, not profits.

The working class has the power to bring about that transformation.

The bosses’ need for human labour is workers’ potential power to stop the system and reshape it in the collective interest of the immense majority.

There is nothing certain about the outcome of the struggle, said Michael.

“It could either be a socialist society or a form of extreme of unequal wealth,” he argued. “Which way we go depends on the class struggle.”

Michael Roberts speaks on Robots and artificial intelligence—utopia or dystopia? at Marxism 2016. For details and to book go to

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