Automation needs to be tackled with the economics of the 19th century

Marx versus the robots.

Since covering the strangely unimaginative way the economics establishment treated the effect of automation on the economy, I've been looking for economists who do seem to get it.

Responding to a piece by Paul Krugman (a back-of-the-envelope demonstration of how neoclassical models could show technological improvements leading to a reduction of the real wage), Fred Moseley, Professor of Economics at Massacheusettes' Mount Holyoke College, gives an overview of the Marxist approach to the problem:

Marx’s theory predicted in the early days of capitalism that technological change would tend to be labor-saving… and this labor-saving technological change would cause increasing unemployment (the “reserve army of the unemployed”) which in turn would put downward pressure on wages and the wage share of income (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25). He called this important conclusion “The General Law of Capital Accumulation” (the title of Chapter 25). One does not have to use the very dubious marginal productivity theory to explain these important phenomena. Marx’s theory provides a perfectly adequate explanation without the extremely problematic concepts of marginal products of labor and capital.

Marx is obviously relevant to the end stage, of a world in which automation replaced the bulk of work. That world would struggle to continue to arrange things along a capitalist order, as Noah Smith's contortions demonstrated. Ownership of the means of production — the robots, algorithms, computers and everything else replacing human labour — becomes more and more important the closer to that stage we reach.

Moseley's point is that Marx is probably relevant to the whole thing far earlier. The labour theory of value (Marx's key economic idea, that value — which is distinct from "price" — is determined exclusively by the human labour a good takes to create) has always been a lens through which technological improvement in the means of production leads, eventually, to immiseration of the labourer.

(The flip side of such an argument is that immiseration is offset by the fact that technology also reduces the amount of labour required to live a good life. The balance between those two tendencies is, in essence, the answer to the question of whether or not capitalism is sustainable or not.)

No matter how accurate it may have been in this situation, it will take a long time for most people to begin taking the Marxist economic analysis seriously. (Part of that might be that it's got that frightful déclassé word "Marxist" in it.) But if economics doesn't adopt some of its lessons, it seems doomed to spend the next decade reinventing it from scratch.

A man poses in front of a bronze statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the fight against climate change, humanity has a choice of two futures

We must fight man-made climate change, says Patricia Scotland. 

So here we are at this fork in the road. On one path, the risk of a future of chaos. A new world map with miles and miles of stormy ocean where there were once islands and schools and playgrounds, businesses and life.

A globe with acre after acre of arid desert where there were once fertile mountains and valleys, green vegetation and food.

A path where our existence is defined by pandemics and migration crises, as the earth’s population tries to squeeze into the ever-reducing areas of habitable land.

In this reality, all the arguments about progress and advancement are consigned to the pages of our history, the only agenda item at international meetings is survival.

But the other fork is an alternative path. From the window of an airplane, with wings that exactly resemble a bird’s feathers, views of healthy mangrove as far as the eye can see, miles of luxurious, green canopy, interrupted by shimmering blue oceans.

Nature in all its glory and striking colours, thriving. And when it meets a city it doesn’t mind pausing for a while, because this metropolis is powered by geothermal energy, and the office buildings are made of carbon-eating concrete that behave like trees, and the mall is modelled after a termite mound. Every roof is lined with solar panels.

Two sides of the same coin. The first possibility a dystopian apocalyptic vision; the other a reality, already happening, which may just prevent and reverse the existential threat on this precious planet we call home. 

Last month, representatives of Commonwealth governments met with climate change experts, academics and businesses to launch an alternative pathway to addressing climate change, one that moves beyond adaptation, beyond mitigation, to actually reversing the human effects of climate change. 

It proposes to regenerate the environment by taking excess carbon and carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere, where it is poisoning our planet, and putting it back in the soil where belongs.

This initiative, Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, in collaboration with the Cloudburst Foundation, creates the potential for climate change to become an opportunity for innovation and sustainable, eco-friendly economic growth.

Strong support from some of the greatest environmental advocates, including Prince Charles, Mary Robinson and Anote Tong, and powerful presentations from some of the finest minds in the climate change arena, gave us the gift of possibility.

World-renowned experts like Paul Hawken, Thomas Goreau, Janine Benyus and Ben Haggard pointed out that these innovations are already happening. And it is quite simple really. For years man has watched nature and copied nature and nature has always led the way. How else did we make human flight happen if we did not copy God's own 'animal aircraft'?

We see it in other ways too, and the truth is that we already have amazing examples of biomimicry – technology that mimics nature. The eco-friendly Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe is modelled after termite mounds. In China, the dry, barren plains of the Loess Plateau have been regenerated and restored to healthy green land; and we have similar examples of land regeneration in Rwanda.

What I am saying is that the genius of man, which created technologies that have huge benefits for human beings but detrimental effects on our environment, is the same genius we will employ to help us through mitigation and adaption, and ultimately to reverse climate change and stop global warming. But there is a fundamental problem. We have ecologists, scientists, environmentalists and academics coming up with these solutions working in silos.

So what the Commonwealth began to do last October, when we had our first climate change reversal workshop, is to bring them together. We invited 60 experts who are pioneering these approaches to climate change to Marlborough House. They explored how we can create an integrated plan on climate change reversal.

My goal is to be able to offer every Commonwealth country a package of multidisciplinary, multisectoral solutions to this multidimensional problem. Collaboration and political will are key, because we will need to weave the ideas into our curriculum, insert them in our building codes and business regulations and integrate them into our gender, agricultural and environmental policies.

But how will cash-strapped countries fund this? This is where initiatives like our Climate Finance Access Hub comes in. This programme gives countries the capacity to make successful applications for funding from the Green Fund and other climate change financing mechanisms.

We also have to listen to what the captains of industry are saying. At our meeting last month, Paul Polman, CEO of the mega-consumer goods company Unilever, stressed that when businesses consider investment they take into account sustainable development goals.

If there is no justice and peace, if there is hunger and destitution and if they are operating in cities which are not sustainable, on land that might be reclaimed by the sea or deteriorate into desert conditions, they are investing in a venture that will fail. So the regenerative approach does not have to come at the cost of economic growth. Actually, it will boost investment and development.

The Commonwealth has been at the forefront of the climate change discussion since the 1980s when it first became topical. Our milestones include the Langkawi Declaration in 1989 which commits us to protect the environment, and our leaders' summit in 2015, days before COP21, was instrumental in the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. But the empirical evidence shows us that even at 1.5 degrees, islands will disappear into the ocean.

This November when governments convene at COP23, we will be posing the question: which pathway will you take? But this is not just a question for governments and organisations, it is a question for every single individual on this earth.

So what are we going to teach our children? More than 60 per cent of the 2.4 billion people in the Commonwealth are under the age of 30. How are we going to harness this exuberance and abundant talent and transform them into innovative solutions? How are we going to run our businesses and manage waste and energy in our homes? What path are you going to take? One that risks our future? Or one that is built on the principle that we can work with nature instead of against it to progress and develop?

Patricia Scotland is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth

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