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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Labour's unstoppable force meets its immovable object

Team Corbyn are confident. But so are their opponents.

If you come at the king, you best not miss. And boy, have they come at him: over 40 resignations from the opposition frontbench and a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that both loyalists and rebels expect to pass easily.

What happens next? The ruling executive of Momentum, the organising force behind Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in the party grassroots, met Corbyn in his office late last night. It would be overstating it to say that the mood was jubilant but Corbyn and his allies are confident of victory in the struggle for supremacy. “Game on,” texted one senior figure. “He won’t stand down,” another told me, “He feels he owes it to the membership to let them decide.”

Within Team Corbyn, they remain convinced that the shadow cabinet “are going to war without an army”, in the words of one insider. Others are already looking forward to the policy conference of Labour and Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, where there is a chance the union may adopt a policy of supporting mandatory reselection of Labour MPs.

Are they right? Having called and spoken to party members, it is certainly clear that Corbyn’s standing among the membership is not quite as high as it once was.

But members are unclear what they want next – several mentioned Keir Starmer, although my instinct that is largely because, as one member conceded, he is still very much a “blank slate” on which the hopes of the party’s electorate can be projected. What most want is someone who would retain much of the politics but with greater competence – the Vice News documentary seems to have done more damage than the referendum on the whole – and without the thirty years in politics for the right-wing press to pick over. The difficulty is that it is hard to see a politician in the parliamentary Labour party answering to that description or even close to it. While for the rebels, finding a winner is no longer the priority, surviving a snap election in October is, loyalists in the PLP and the grassroots are either unconvinced that the result will be heavy defeat, or unconvinced that any of the replacements would do better.

The difficulty for Corbyn’s critics is, rather like Labour under Ed Miliband, although they might be the repository for people’s irritation and uncertainty, there are few making a positive choice to vote for any of the available candidates. My instinct is, if Corbyn is on the ballot, the polls might show a tighter picture, he might have a tougher time on the campaign trail that he did last time, and he might have a closer fight as far as constituency nominations were concerned, but he would ultimately win, and win easily.

That’s before you get into Momentum’s ability to expand the electorate further.  Although appearing at last night’s rally was criticised by some journalists and cost Corbyn’s team at least one frontbencher, who, while keen to avoid prolonging the fighting, didn’t want to endorse the attacks on his colleagues in the parliamentary party, ultimately the petitions in support of Corbyn and the impromptu rally have given them more data to go out and recruit people to vote in the next leadership election, more than making up for any loss of support within the party-as-it-is.

But – and it’s a big “but” – I’m not convinced that Corbyn will make it to the ballot.

The party’s legal advice, from the party’s lawyers, GRM Law, is that Corbyn will have to secure 50 nominations to make the ballot, just as any challenger will. My feeling, with MPs of all parties convinced that there will be an election in October as soon as the new Conservative leader is in place, is that pressure from activists to nominate Corbyn will be less fruitful than it was in 2015. (That said, Labour MPs are skittish.) 

The Labour leadership themselves have obtained legal advice showing the reverse from Doughty Chambers. But whichever way the NEC rules, neither side will be able to take it to the courts. Most legal professionals estimate that Labour, like a trade union or a private members’ club, is exempt. “You accept the rules of the club when you join the club,” and that’s the end of it. My impression is that the judiciary would be reluctant to get involved.

The difficulty with predicting what happens next is it brings two of Labour’s iron laws into direct conflict: Labour never gets rid of its leader, and Tom Watson always wins. And I don’t think anyone is sure which of those laws is going to end up broken.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.