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7 January 2021

“The social movements of our time are explosive“: Aaron Benanav on robots and revolution

The economic historian and social theorist discusses automation and the future of the left. 

By Lola Seaton

On 10 October 1989, a helicopter bound for Atlantic City crashed, killing everyone on board. Among the dead were three top executives of Donald Trump’s casinos in the famous New Jersey coastal resort. “No better human beings ever existed” Trump said in a statement following the tragic incident, evidently already master of semantic evacuation via hyperbole on sombre occasions. Trump also claimed he was supposed to be on the helicopter, but changed his mind at the last minute, which a former Trump Organisation official called a “total lie”.

One of the executives killed was the 33-year-old vice-president of the Trump Plaza casino hotel, Jonathan Benanav. “All Benanavs are related to me”, the economic historian and social theorist Aaron Benanav, 37, told me when we spoke over Zoom in October. “Benanav” is a unique surname – Aaron’s grandfather “made the name” when he arrived in the US from Hungary via Israel. “I don’t know the official count of Benanavs but there’s only like 20 of us. They’re all my relatives, every single Benanav. There’s no other Benanav.”

[See also: “Unless we adapt and change, we are brittle”: Julia Samuel on healing from trauma]

Jonathan was Aaron’s uncle. After the fatal crash, Jonathan’s bereaved parents – Aaron’s grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, his grandmother escaping from Romania, his grandfather from Hungary (they met on a boat on their way to Israel, despite not sharing a first language) – “got this pay-out”, much of which they put toward the education of their grandchildren.

This “helicopter money” paid for Aaron’s tuition at the University of Chicago, a “very, very expensive school” which would otherwise have been unaffordable. At Chicago, Benanav was taught by the heterodox Marxist historian Moishe Postone, and met editors of the left-wing journal New Left Review, eventually leading him to the University of California to undertake graduate work with the historians Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson.

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Benanav’s seminal debut, Automation and the Future of Work (2020), grew out of his doctoral research. It is also a book which, like Benanav’s elite education and the formative intellectual encounters it afforded, may, strange to say, not have existed without the Trump Organisation.

***

Benanav told me this wild story from his roof terrace, bordered by potted plants and hung with festoon lights, in a quiet, family-friendly neighbourhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin (the Brooklyn of Kreuzberg? “Yeah, but like the Fort Greene of Kreuzberg”). He moved there recently to take up a four-year post at Humboldt University, but his academic work – he’s writing a global history of unemployment – is in some ways secondary to his projects intended for a wider audience; he’s already at work on the sequel to Automation and the Future of Work.

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Benanav’s book does not, as a cursory deduction from its title might suggest, speculate that we are on the cusp of a technological breakthrough that will make most human labour redundant. Rather, this speculation – which Benanav dubs “automation discourse” – is partly its subject. However futuristic they might sound, prophecies about machines taking our jobs, which come in apocalyptic and utopian varieties, are not only not new, they have been around since “at least the mid-19th century”, and tend to recur whenever there is anxiety abroad about the labour market.

Though some jobs – “hand-rolled steel manipulators”, for example – have been made obsolete by machinery, a technological breakthrough of the kind that would entirely upend the labour market has so far not materialised. Benanav thinks contemporary automation theorists will prove mistaken too. Yet his attitude towards the discourse he identifies is ambivalent: at once critical – he disagrees with their analysis of the present – and sympathetic.

[See also: “The English believe their elites are a treacherous class”: James Hawes on his short history of England]

Benanav admires automation theorists’ utopian efforts to envision alternative futures, where mass unemployment is not a guarantee of mass destitution but an opportunity for mass fulfilment. Automation theorists, Benanav writes, have “done more than anyone I have yet encountered to think through the logical organisation of a post-capitalist society and to imagine the pathways by which we might get there”.

In keeping with this ambivalence, Automation and the Future of Work falls into two halves: the first is devoted to patient correction of the notion that “runaway technical change is destroying jobs”, while the second is a series of utopian thought-experiments attempting to sketch a “post-scarcity world” – and is thus not a critique of automation discourse, but an extension of it.

***

The “real trend” to which the latest bout of automation anxiety is responding, Benanav writes, is the fact that “there are simply too few jobs for too many people”. Or, in more technical parlance: there is a chronic, worldwide under-demand for labour. But whereas automation theorists blame technology – by increasing productivity, technological innovation means fewer workers are needed to produce the same quantity of goods – Benanav argues we need to train our sights on a longer-term horizon and the broader economic environment in which technological change happens.

Why are there not enough jobs? The key trend overlooked by most automation theorists, Benanav explains, following Brenner, is the worldwide slowdown in manufacturing production since the 1970s. In the 1950s and 1960s – the so-called “golden age” of postwar capitalism – global manufacturing production expanded at an average rate of over 7 per cent per year; by the second decade of the 21st century – between 2008 and 2014 – this had fallen to 1.6 per cent. More goods were produced year on year, decade on decade, but by smaller and smaller margins.

Behind what Brenner called “the long downturn” in manufacturing was “global overcapacity”. As country after country followed the US, Germany and Japan in adopting export-led growth strategies, the world market for manufactured goods became saturated: goods were produced faster than anyone wanted them, depressing prices globally.

Rustbelts developed, as manufacturing regions that couldn’t remain competitive deindustrialised – notably in the north of England and in parts of the upper Midwest, the political consequences of which are still being felt. Where industry led – or failed to lead – the wider economy followed: as manufacturing stagnated, “no other sector appeared on the scene to replace industry as a major economic-growth engine”.

This decades-long slowdown in economic growth – sometimes known as “secular stagnation” – is, Benanav contends, the vital context for understanding why there aren’t enough jobs to go around. The problem, in other words, is not that jobs are being rapidly destroyed by technology, but that, in an environment of anaemic growth, jobs are being created too slowly.

One of Benanav’s other critical insights is that this scarcity of jobs is not expressed as rapidly rising unemployment but as what he describes as “rampant under-employment”: “Rather than being put out of work by the low demand for their labour, people are forced to work for lower than normal wages, and in worse than normal conditions.” Anticipating an era of mass joblessness is in a sense to overlook the symptoms of the jobs shortage that are already with us: stagnant real wages, falling living standards, the proliferation of precarious work.

***

Benanav grew up in upstate New York – “which, as people from New York know, is literally anything north of New York City” – teaching himself “basic internet languages, like html and java script” and excelling at maths and chemistry. He loved reading and watching science fiction, which may partly account for the utopian impulse animating his work, and his sense of the effort of imagination required to pursue it. Despite his aptitude for science and his lacking much of an “intellectual, cultural background” – “we were just suburban kids, hanging out at the gas station. My dad had a PhD but it was in computers” – Benanav ended up enrolling in the “Great Books” programme at Chicago – “a classical education,” he said – after an older high school friend introduced him to philosophy.

The 2008 financial crisis hit while Benanav was studying for his doctorate in California. It proved to be a major turning-point in the development of his politics. The global crash was “a huge event in my life”, which convinced him he had “to figure out a way to be more practical, politically”. In the aftermath of the crisis, the University of California “announced major cuts and tuition increases” – “austerity in the public university system”.

Benanav got involved in direct-action social movements, organising strikes and occupations of campus buildings. A proto-Occupy Wall Street? I asked, referring to the 2011 movement protesting income inequality at Zuccotti Park. Occupy “came out of” the California student movement, Benanav explained. “Our slogan was: Occupy Everything.”

[See also: “Avoiding debate is not good for democracy”: David Dimbleby on Boris Johnson and the BBC’s future]

The two parts of Benanav’s book – analytic and utopian – in some ways correspond to the two halves of the traditional Marxian project: to unite theory and practice, intellectual endeavour and political activity – to both interpret the world, and change it, as Marx put it in his Theses on Feuerbach. There is a pleasing dialectical relationship between theory and practice in Benanav’s thought: his practical experience of social movements has clearly informed his ideas about them – one of which is that movements need ideas.

“There’s a lot of catastrophic thinking in the present,” Benanav observed. “People can lay out all the reasons why dramatic social change seems unlikely. But what I noticed about myself and others was that if you ask them, ‘Well, what if we were able to succeed? What would we do?’, it felt like… [we] didn’t have an account of what success would look like.”

The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement – or rather, its dissipation, leaving few concrete accomplishments in its wake – convinced Benanav of the importance of “harbouring a positive vision” of political change: not just a set of criticisms of the existing world – a sense of what we don’t want – but a conception of what we would put in its stead. It is only in working out a “viable vision of where we could be going” as a society – the task to which he is devoting himself in the sequel – that the steps to achieving it begin to become clear.

***

If movements need ideas, ideas need movements, too. “Marx and Engels”, Benanav explained, “increasingly recognised that [their] utopian ideas were never going to be able to realise themselves unless they actually became the ideas of the existing movements of their time”. Nineteenth-century radicals were able to fight “really, really hard for” reforms “that only made modest differences in their lives” because they saw themselves as part of a “larger narrative that was leading to something better”; they felt “they were links in a chain that was actually heading somewhere”.

As for where we are headed, Benanav is sanguine – relatively: “We’re living in a time where, more than in the past, there is an effort to give a positive account of where we’re going.” He’s heartened, too, by “the social movements of our time, which are so explosive. That [Black Lives Matter] movement in the US [last] year was the largest movement since maybe the Civil War, in terms of share of the population participating”. The year 2019 was also “a huge, huge era of social struggle”.

“I’m not saying it’s all going to come together next year,” but “over the next decade, I’m optimistic about the idea that we are going to see a more vibrant and powerful and internally diverse ‘left’, or emancipatory movement. I’m not optimistic about the chances of that movement’s success, but…I think that that’s what we need to invest ourselves in somehow.”

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control