Bread and Robots: Automation, urban farming and the abolition of wage labour.


“Let us be lazy in everything, except in loving and drinking, except in being lazy.”
- Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot”; I’ll have an Americano, double shot. If I had the chance to sit down for a coffee with Star Trek's Captain Jean Luc Picard, after he poured scorn on my choice of beverage and I asked some awkward questions about the need for military rank in a communist society, we may turn to discussing the technology that allows the citizens of this future utopia to live as free people, released from the chains of wage labour, housework and other forms of drudgery. What would it be like to live in such a society, a society where the provision of everyone’s needs and desires were taken for granted? Could the good Captain imagine a situation where the acquirement of a cup of his favourite hot drink, required one to sell their labour, to do anything, regardless of their interests and skills?

A disastrous dogma
It is the opposite for us, now, a decade into the 21st century. Work is in and of itself, seen as a virtue, a requirement if one is to be a valued member of society. Those who don't work are often vilified as lazy or as welfare scroungers in the media. Job creation makes the headlines, both in the local and national press. To receive social welfare payments, the unemployed person must be “genuinely seeking work”. To be known as a hard worker, is to be respected. But, why do we work? And for whom?

Do we work for ourselves? In capitalist society, we work to obtain income for things like food, clothing and lodgings. Necessities, without which life would be unbearable, even impossible. If I were to decide tomorrow, that I no longer wished to work, I would find it very difficult to procure these things. In this case, work is a necessity; But what if the necessities of life could be produced without labour? After all, most people in Europe work in jobs that do not directly contribute to the production of anything. Many work in what David Graeber, described in an article in Strike Magazine, as “bullshit jobs”.“Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).”i

If so many jobs are unproductive and unnecessary, and industrial production could be largely automated, couldn’t we just stop working and let robots do the work?

Robots of dawn
The word robot, conjures up images of science fiction, of the imaginative output of individuals whose feet are not resting firmly on solid ground. Yet, few would dispute the reality that much of the industrial production that was once carried out by the oft- vaunted blue collar worker, is now carried out by machines. The first industrial robot, Unimate, went to work in a General Motors factory in New Jersey in 1961. It was a primitive machine that consisted of a drum memory box, that stored systematic tasks, which was connected to a robotic arm. It's job was to carry die-cast moldings from an assembly line and weld them onto car bodies.

Since Unimate, advances in robotics mean that single machines, with high powered computer brains and sensors that act as eyes, can carry out multiple tasks. In 2011, in Tianjin, China, Great Wall Motors opened a plant with thirty workstations occupied by twenty seven robots that can perform four thousand different welding operations. They can complete the welding of a single SUV in eighty six seconds. The implication of these advances in robotics is far- reaching. Any task that requires an assembly line is suitable for robot labour. Even the notorious Foxconn corporation, manufacturer of iPhone's and iPads, in 2011, announced that it would install up to one million robots in its factories in the next three years.

In construction, much prefabrication is already carried out by machines. We may soon, however be able to replace construction workers with robots. Last year, in a Paris warehouse, a team of flying robots were the first of their kind to construct a tower. They “seamlessly worked together with the help of a group of motion cameras installed in the ceiling of the art space to place the bricks in order one by one until the tower was built. The robots each have a suction device on their underbelly that grabs onto bricks and allows the robots to fly with them. When a robot gets tired it automatically plugs itself into a charger to juice up while another robot taps in and takes its place.”ii In the same year, another construction prototype, that operates by moving along trusses was developed. This robot can move, horizontally, vertically, make ninety degree turns and flip itself over on a beam.iii

Robots at point zero
Of course, labour is not just something that occurs in the factory, in the office or in the fast food restaurant. Due to the fact that many of the revered thinkers of the socialist movement were men with extravagant beards, few stopped for long to consider the issue of housework, long deemed to be the domain of women. The feminist writer, Silvia Federici, wrote in her 1975 essay, Wages against Housework: “The difference with housework lies in the fact that not only has it been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.”iv

Federici argues for demanding wages for housework, not as a narrowly economic demand for remuneration, but as a means of recognising housework as labour. In a world where men still dominate both the corporate world and left political organisations, it remains a crucial demand. But while we argue for this recognition, like all labour, we argue for its abolition. The material means already exist to make this a reality. Washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, self cleaning ovens all exist in the here and now. The unequal system we live under, however, means that these products are luxuries that the majority of the world's population can not afford.

Even more out of reach of the average household, are devices like robotic vacuum cleaners and floor cleaning machines. A company called iRobot, produces compact robots that vacuum, sweep, mop and clean gutters. The cost of these items however, means that the closest most of us will get to see one in action is the web-famous video of a cat dressed in a shark costume riding one around a kitchen.v Further developments in humanoid robots, like Honda's Asimo, could lead to the possibility of robots to dust, do dishes, iron and hang up clothes. Of course, with the abolition of housework, along with wage labour, there would be more time to share out more equally, currently gendered work like childcare, that we probably wouldn't want to leave to robots.

From the plough to the stars
While it is true, that it is possible to automate most industrial production and housework, it is also true that we can't eat cars, or spotless houses. Agriculture, however, is nowhere near as labour intensive as it used to be. Large fields can be ploughed and grain can be harvested by a single individual driving a piece of agricultural machinery. Even at that, this work could be automated too. As of now, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, Nissan, Toyota, BMW, Volvo, and Cadillac are all testing driverless cars; i.e. cars that are driven by computerised navigation systems. If these machines can navigate complicated road systems, they should have no problem ploughing and harvesting.

Another solution to the world's food problems could be to build upwards. Urban vertical farms, green- house skyscrapers, have their detractors, but there have been significant advances in the field in recent years. In Singapore, Jack Ng's “Skygreens” development is the world's first commercial vertical farm system. “Trays of Chinese vegetables are stacked inside an aluminum A-frame, and a belt rotates them so that the plants receive equal light, good air flow and irrigation. The water powering the frames is recycled and filtered before returning to the plants. All organic waste on the farm is composted and reused. Water wheels are gravity aided, which take little electricity. According to Ng the energy needed to power one A-frame is the equivalent of illuminating just one 60-watt light bulb.”vi

There are still concerns about energy costs for larger facilities, however solutions such as pyramidal structures, using mirrors to reflect sunlight and rotation systems have all been put forward as solutions. In the society we long for, one without borders, nations and wars, a fraction of the research that goes into military technology, including drone aircraft that bomb civilians, could quickly solve any outstanding problems. We could live in a society where automated vertical farms, grow grain that is harvested by robots, packed by robots, transported by driverless truck to factories where robots make bread.

The players of games
It may seem now that a life without work is something unnatural, yet do the rich work in any way that we would recognise as labour? Do millions dream of winning lotteries, so they may be freed of the necessity to toil for the right to exist? The work ethic, has only been ingrained in our psyche for a few hundred years, and only so that those of wealth and power can live in luxury without labouring. As Paul Lafargue wrote in The right to be lazy, “The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labor: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind. And so it was in this era that men like Aristotle, Phidias, Aristophanes moved and breathed among the people; it was the time when a handful of heroes at Marathon crushed the hordes of Asia, soon to be subdued by Alexander. The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods.”vii Even the god of the old testament worked for six days, then rested for eternity.

In the era of robots, vertical farms and libertarian communism, a life of leisure will not just be the preserve of a small elite, luxury will be the birthright of all. Under capitalism, automation drives up unemployment or drives people into “bullshit jobs”, in an anarchist, post-capitalist society, the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”, would be a reality. How we organise to overthrow the capitalist system and how we replace the functions of the state, is another day's discussion. Here, the line is drawn at the fact that the material conditions to realise the abolition of labour and a society of abundance, exist in the here and now; If we want such a society, it is up to us to “make it so”.

Words: Mark Hoskins

i Graeber, David, On the phenomenon of bullshit jobs
ii by-flying-robots-rises-in-france/
iii mous-truss-robots/
iv Federici, Silvia, Wages against housework, Rev- olution at point zero, (PM Press)
vi Singapore’s vertical farms http://www.amus- html
vii Lafargue, Paul, The right to be lazy, http:// ch01.htm

This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no 8 Autumn 2013