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7/4/19

Can't stop alienation by trying to end automation

An extraordinary amount of our interactions with other humans takes place in the context of economic activity - while we are consuming, working, conducting transactions, exploiting labor, and so on. And because these activities proceed according to the rules of capitalism, capitalism exercises a profound influence on our social lives. When I am shopping and I strike up a conversation with a service employee, for example, the rules of capitalism impose a powerful incentive on the way they respond to me: they need to try to get some of my money for their boss.


It's easy enough to think of scenarios where the economy coerces people into unwanted socialization, but consider the problems that emerge even when social and economic incentives happen to align. Imagine for example that you develop what feels like an authentic crush on your boss: even then you might ask yourself, do I just feel this way because it's convenient for my career? What do I really want? In this way, the economy has introduced what Marxists call "alienation" into the relationship: it has created a possibility for doubt that might not otherwise exist, because you have two identities (your identity as an employee and your identity as a partner) that cannot necessarily be reconciled.

This is what alienation is. It is not just a problem where you spend less time around people - it is a problem where even the time you do spend around people is scripted, or coerced, or inauthentic. If you manage to build real relationships within our society, it is despite capitalism, not because of it.

The point is worth making, I think, because a lot of our discourse around automation revolves around concerns that the "human" aspect of our economy is being eroded away, and that we are being "alienated" from the customers and coworkers and bosses that we interact with on a daily basis. But in a Marxist sense, this is simply incorrect - because in Marx's sense, we are already alienated from customers and coworkers and bosses. If you don't appreciate this then you haven't appreciated one of capitalism's greatest horrors: our economy has already isolated us from meaningful relationships with other people and left us in social poverty.

The question for the socialist is not whether we can try to hold onto these warped relationships by fighting off automation - it's what we will do with all of the extra time that automated labor will continue to create.