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A fearful dilemma

Dave Ransom  |  Issue: July | August 2019

The class in control cannot manage the transition to the new economy. So we have to do it.

We face a fearful dilemma. The capitalists running the global economy cannot manage its transition from production by human labor to production by robots. But at the same time they are rushing to complete that transition — while fighting among themselves about who will be on top.

That means that we, the working class (who stand most to benefit from this historic change), will have to take power and manage it ourselves.

The capitalists’ inability to manage this shift is starkly illustrated in Hank Paulson’s minute-by-minute account of his frantic attempt to save the global financial system in the banking crisis of 2008. (“On the Brink,” 2010.)

At the end of President George W. Bush’s second term, Paulson resigned as head of investment bank Goldman Sachs to become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. He knew all the world’s top bankers and top finance ministers from Beijing to Paris.

When the capitalist financial system began to unravel, he orchestrated a series of crisis sessions of these top capitalists (and their staffs), working long into the night, for weeks.

Yet, though ultimately they succeeded, their coordinated planning was continually undermined by jockeying for position and fighting over the spoils. Banker couldn’t agree with banker; one country’s finance minister undercut the other’s.

Now, just weeks ago, the Washington Post followed Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) around Silicon Valley, as he talked to his billionaire constituents. “For the first time in decades,” it reported, “capitalism’s future is a source of growing angst for America’s business elite.”

The Silicon Valley billionaires are consumed by “a growing sense that the tech economy had somehow broken capitalism,” it said. “The digital revolution had allowed tech entrepreneurs to build massive global companies without the big job-producing factories or large workforces of the industrial era.”

As technology advanced, the tech capitalists feared things would only get worse. “Robots were eliminating much factory work; online commerce was decimating retail; and self-driving cars were on the verge of phasing out truck drivers.”

“‘What happens if you can actually automate all human labor?’ asked one billionaire. He had no solution, though the solution is obvious: when robots do the work, everyone gets what they need, gratis.

But that is contrary to our current economic system. In capitalism, those who work produce everything, but they get only survival wages (if that), while their employer takes the rest. Simply distributing what the robots make to everyone who needs it will leave the capitalists without wealth, power, and position.

Now we are facing another major crisis of the world economic system. It is playing out in the fight over tariffs between the United States and China, but all the world is involved, because all the world is economically interconnected.

And the tariff war could turn hot.

Global interconnection is a good and important thing when the world’s working-class people are in charge. But capitalism is in control, and at its core capitalism is intensely competitive. So the fight now is over who will dominate the new generation of technology (“5G”), China or the U.S., with the rest of the world in between.

Caught in the crossfire (again) are the workers of the world. In the past, U.S. technology companies like IBM, Dell, and Apple turned to China’s millions of low-paid workers to make their computers, ipods, smartphones.

Now the tariff war is wrenching that apart, and companies in both countries are rushing to automate the work, with no plans on how to feed, clothe and house the jobless workers. China will never be the same, one Chinese industrialist told the Financial Times.

“Automation and robots will radically change the face of manufacturing.”

Bottom line: if we, the working class, want to reap the harvest of riches that the robotic revolution promises, we will first have to wrest control from the old-guard capitalist class and manage the transition ourselves.

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