Political Automatons and the Politics of Automation

Bryant William Sculos | Labor Issues | Analysis | August 2nd, 2018

What's in a Meme?

While it would be easy to exaggerate the significance of any meme shared on social media, it is widely acknowledged that memes are inherently limited and simplistic. But their value in conveying important political messages is also clear-especially through sarcasm and irony. One need only spend a few seconds on social media to see the creative energy that people put into making and sharing these often-captioned images across various digital platforms. With that said, I came across this meme below (shared in a number of Facebook groups), and it seems like a useful starting point for a discussion about its central claims regarding political-economic change and the overall goals of such change. The meme's central argument (insofar as we can say a meme has an argument) is that consumers should not use the increasingly prevalent self-checkout lines at grocery stores, because the more they are used the fewer people the company will hire to work as cashiers and baggers. If consumers make the ostensibly simple choice to not use these lines and instead use the lines with human cashiers, grocery stores will not only stop installing these automated checkout lines and will even remove the ones they have already put in place-hiring more cashiers to work the in-person lanes that would be needed to service the customers once the automated systems are replaced.

Given the dire life circumstances that unemployment can cause, especially for previously underemployed, low-wage workers, the goal of struggling for more jobs for people is a noble one. However, this essay will show how that goal, as articulated in the context of a grocery store-and in society more broadly-is misguided, rooted in problematic assumptions about capitalism and transformational change, and is ultimately ineffective and an inefficient use of political energy. The core misunderstandings that produce the argument of this meme are two-fold: 1. individual consumer choices are an effective means of resisting the devastating consequences of capitalism (e.g., automation-induced unemployment), and 2. That resisting automation is productive goal.

There is an automated character to these modes of thinking, a kind of superficial intuitiveness that if we (each as individuals) simply behave differently the forces of the market will adjust to the implications of those choices in aggregate-as if neither the forces of the market (of capitalism) were to blame nor the individual choices difficult to make. Politics is not primarily about our individual daily choices. In fact, the least positive political thing you can do is act on your own. This is the liberal-influenced ideology, ensconced in capitalistic assumptions about society and human nature, that "individual choices matter"-and matter more than collective choices. In fact, liberalism doesn't even have the theoretical architecture to think through the concept of collective choices. Neither does capitalism. Aggregating individuals is all they can do. Socialist political praxis-rooted in democratic, egalitarian solidarity- on the other hand, knows better.

Your Choice Doesn't Matter, But Ours Do

In the 1960s, we saw a number of direct-action campaigns utilizing tactics like sit-ins and occupations to fight against segregation, the Vietnam War, and even capitalism itself. While these actions were taken by consumers of a certain kind, it was not primarily as consumers that these actions were conducted. Thinking about student protests specifically, students are often-and increasingly-treated as consumers within more contemporary neoliberal capitalism, but it is worth remembering that this conception of the student-as-customer is relatively new. Despite historically (and too often still being) bastions of elitism, too often excluding the poor and people of color, college campuses in the 60s were communities of radical dissent, often engaging positively with local communities, with people coming together to enhance their political power through collective action as affected (and effected) human beings with moral and practical interest in challenging violence, exploitation, oppression, and antidemocratic politics. They were not exercising political power rooted in "consumer choice."

We see similar, seemingly automatic, consumer-choice arguments made by left-liberal environmentalists. We are encouraged to recycle, to "shop Green," to use reusable bags, to use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. But in a world where something like 100 companies account for approximately 75% of carbon emissions and pollution more broadly, I can assure you that what kind of lightbulb you use could not matter less. You could burn all of your recycling daily in a tire pit using 1950s hairspray as an accelerant and it wouldn't matter in the slightest compared to the ecological footprint of just the US military (the single greatest ecologically-criminal entity in human history). We need collective, solidaristic, organized solutions on a massive scale to make a dent in the ecological damage wrought by centuries of extractive capitalism. In other words, fuck your lightbulbs. The planet's biosphere is dying. Maybe, just maybe, it's time to think outside of our individual consumer choices. Choose organized resistance, not Starbucks' Ethos Water.

Marches, protests, occupations, organizational meetings, public talks and discussions, sit-ins, and strikes, on the other hand, are all forms of collective political action that tend to speak better to the depth of the systemic forces that need to be resisted and superseded. They tend to be more effective at rejecting the forces of exploitation and oppression that drive our societies in the contemporary period, because they do not reinforce the underlying logic of automated consumerism produced through manipulative marketing and advertising, themselves driven by the profit-motive. It is not the choice of product on which you spend your almighty dollars that expresses your political power, but instead it is your capacity to act in concert with others. One of these conceptions of politics challenges the status quo-but the other conception is the status quo.

Thinking back to the meme that started this piece, the implied activism here is undergirded by a false alternative: I can either use the self-checkout line or use the human-clerk line. That is all. What should I do? What is the best political decision? First, it is useful to accept the fact that despite this decision taking place within a highly politicized context, in general, this decision is politically irrelevant. The structures involved are deeply political. We may feel that the appearance of our decision is reflective of a certain perceived set of political commitments-but compared to the political character of the political-economic structures that shape the circumstances where we feel like there might be important political consequences of one choice or another-or simply the fact that we have those two choices-the actual choice we make is functionally irrelevant. In aggregate, which is what I take this meme to be expressing, if customers stopped using the self-checkout lines, supermarkets would indeed stop expanding their use; they may even remove some of the ones they've already installed and hire more human cashiers, but given the enormity of the systemic evils we face, we should be thinking much bigger, broader, and deeper about our politics.

Given the degree of forces levelled against us, the severity of the problems we face, and the time and effort and general difficulty of collective action and organizing, it is too easy to think well at least I'm doing something. The problem is, after a long day or week or month or year of alienating labor, raising children, filling out memos, whatever wears you out, it is easy forat least I'm doing my part to become, I'll try again tomorrow. Our political engagement, our reflective capacities are increasingly automated. Like the automated checkout lines, we are (re)produced as (de)politicized subjects with little sense of any activity other than what we've been programmed-conditioned over years and years-to think. My individual choices matter. And, in fairness, to some degree they absolutely do, but some choices matter more than others.

Which choice matters more here: the decision as to which checkout line I should use, or the decision to get involved in a political organization or local social movement? Again, there is a false alternative here. You can do both, but if you're only going to do one, it should be clear that because of the depth of the structures of exploitation and oppression most people face daily, the latter choice-and the content of that choice-is the choice that really matters. It is a choice that, if made in the affirmative (and the choice is made to get involved in an organization that is socialist, anti-imperialist, pro-worker, anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc.), the choice automatically challenges the programmed automated political (un)thinking that is predominant in our society. Building solidarity in collective struggles with others directly challenges the automated, one dimensional, pathological (anti)politics of individualized consumer choice-oriented slacktivism.

With that criticism laid out, it is worth noting that collective consumer-side actions can be effective in short-term, limited circumstances. They can be a productive dimension of a broader strategy which utilizes a variety of tactics. One of the most historically significant examples of this is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While it was certainly an exceptional example of collective consumer action rooted not in the ideology of individual choices. A boycott is not an individual act, so, if we give the meme a more charitable reading, we could interpret it as a call for collective action against self-checkout lines. Again, that isn't made clear in the meme explicitly, but it still leaves open the broader question of the limitations of consumer actions, even when done collectively, but it also leaves open the issue of whether resisting automation is a good idea for those interested in progressive or socialist political-economic change.

A Robot Could Do Your Job (and It Should)

As for this second dimension of the meme, the opposition to automation itself, I want to suggest here, in line with what has been argued elsewhere by Peter Frase, Nick Srnicek, and Alex Williams, that automation-done democratically and equitably-is a process that we should support. There are, quite simply, jobs, where if there is an opportunity to make them not exist, that is precisely what should be done. Where is the expression of humanity in being a cashier or bagger? In what ways, other than simply engaging in casual sixty-second conversations with customers, do people employed in these kinds of professions express their humanity in any significant way? I want to be clear; I'm not criticizing the people who, for whatever reasons, do these jobs. I'm criticizing the existence of these jobs as such.

Who should feel compelled to clean piss or shit off bathroom walls in order to make some more money to pay for basic human needs, such as: healthy, nutritious food; safe, clean housing; and/or quality health care? Who should feel compelled to pick strawberries or lettuce in 100-degree heat? Who should feel compelled to install roofing in the scorching sunlight day after day? There is nothing wrong with manual labor per se, and certainly many people would prefer it to sitting in a cubical for eight hours per day, but the problem with any of these options is that none are typically chosen freely. Very few people, if any, would actively choose to undertake the most revolting, dangerous, uninteresting, and socially-unrewarding jobs if it weren't for the lack of better alternatives, if it weren't for the fact that freely chosen labor is barely a mythology in our societies (in that we can hardly even fantasize about it).

In an automated political economy, there will be plenty of creative, hands-on, salt-of-the-earth jobs to do. There will also be plenty of time for other, perhaps a bit more sedentary, creative, and productive activities for those of us who are less callously-inclined. The point is that automation driven by democratically-organized movements of working people, everyday people, the 99%, is the best way to make freely-chosen productive, humane labor thinkable again.

Automation in and of itself is neither a positive nor a negative. At its worst, automation deskills jobs so that the cognitive engagement and technical know-how needed to do the job decreases. Sometimes whole job categories disappear. All the while, companies continue to rake in record-breaking profits. These are the very real, if still exaggerated, fears that underlie this meme.

History need not go in that direction though. We can have an automation that increases quality of life for all people. In order for automation to have the liberatory effects that the above meme eschews, there would need to be a corollary supplement in the form of a universal basic income and/or shorter workweeks or job-share programs with no loss in pay - but it is highly unlikely either of those options would be achievable without the kind of mass organized political action that the individualized, automated politics of consumer choice activism undermines.

Automation-only when combined with genuinely democratized workplaces, companies, homes, towns, cities, states, and countries-can set us on a path of increased freedom for all people. Put simply, we want our shitty jobs automated, not our capacities for creative, collective activity. We want to automate toil, not politics. And it is always worth remembering: automation isn't the enemy of working people, their bosses are.

Bryant William Sculos holds a PhD in political theory and international relations. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, contributing writer for the Hampton Institute, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate Power. His other work has been published with a variety of academic and non-academic outlets, including: Constellations, New Political Science, Public Seminar, Truthout, Dissident Voice, and New Politics. His most recent article "Minding the Gap: Marxian Reflections on the Transition from Capitalism to Postcapitalism" is in the May 2018 special issue of tripleC commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. Bryant is also a member of Socialist Alternative-CWI in the US.