One hundred and sixty years ago, at a time when the light bulb was not yet invented, Karl Marx predicted that robots would replace humans in the workplace.
“[O]nce adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery,” he wrote in his then-unpublished manuscript Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism. “The workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.”
Gradually, in the century and a half since Marx wrote those words, machines have taken on more and more jobs previously done by humans. The 20th century political movements that attempted to make Karl Marx’s ideas reality may have failed but, 200 years since the philosopher’s birth on May 5, 1818, his analysis and foresights have repeatedly proven true. We are, in many ways, living in the world Marx predicted.
Marx showed that recurrent crises were not an accidental side effect of capitalism, but a necessary and inherent feature, explains Nick Nesbitt, Princeton University professor of French and Italian and editor of The Concept in Crisis: Reading Capital Today. “He shows that the source of value in capitalism is living labor. He also shows that capitalism nonetheless tends to eliminate living labor as a necessary dimension of its development,” Nesbitt says. That contradiction means capitalism is never stable, but forever shifting in and out of crises: The system depends on human labor while simultaneously eradicating it.
And the stakes are high. Marx analyzed capitalism as a social system, rather than a purely economic one. “Humans and human relationships depend on our place within the system of capitalism itself,” says Nesbitt. “If we don’t find a place within the system as individuals and human beings then we live under exclusion.” Capitalism doesn’t just determine our source of income but how we relate to each other, our surroundings, and ourselves. To be rendered superfluous by the system is damning to social wellbeing as well as economic livelihood.
It may be tempting to dismiss Marx’s analysis given that his communist vision failed in practice. However, the politics that developed in the Soviet Union were “not part of Marx’s vision of a social structure” says Nesbitt, but “developments of Leninism and the Russian revolution.” Most of Marx’s work was focused on critiquing capitalism, and he wrote relatively little about exactly what it would take for communism to become reality, or how it would function. Marx famously popularized the slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” meaning that all would have the opportunity to reach their highest potential and to receive the needed goods, such as food and shelter in turn. But, notes Carol Gould, philosophy professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, Marx didn’t say much about what this mantra would look like in practice.
Besides, Marx thought true communism would develop only under certain conditions. “Marx predicted that for a communist revolution to survive, it would need to involve the countries with the most developed industries, and become at least as broadly international as the capitalist system it would replace,” Vanessa Wills, political philosopher at George Washington University, writes in an email. “Neither of these conditions were met in the case of the Soviet Union, which was always highly economically isolated.”
And so it would be wrong to confuse the failure of 20th century communist states with the failure of Marx’s thoughts. Two centuries later, Marx’s writing remains one of the most “penetrating” analyses of capitalism, says Nesbitt.
The thinker was not only right about the rise of automation. He also predicted globalization and the rising inequality of today, notes Gould. “He was correct that the gap between labor and capital would get worse,” she says. Marx predicted that capitalism would lead to “poverty in the midst of plenty,” a scenario that’s depressingly familiar today. “HUD [US department of housing and urban development] estimates there are roughly half a million homeless people in the United States on any given night, in a country that is estimated to have roughly 18 million empty homes in it,” says Wills.
Meanwhile, as Harvard Business Review points out, contemporary society is characterized by a sense of alienation among workers distanced from the output of their labor, and the fetishization of commodities—both predicted by Marx.
Wills believes the revolutions described by Marx could one day transpire, though not soon. “Among many necessary factors, working class people in the most economically developed nations would need to develop greater political independence from the capitalist classes in those countries,” she writes. “We would also need to see the emergence of more principled anti-imperialist politics that oppose war and racism, and promote solidarity among working people of all nations.” But there’s little indication of what would be necessary to bring about such radical political changes.
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher used the phrase “there is no alternative” to explain her commitment to the capitalist system. Thoroughly understanding capitalism, informed by Marx’s piercing analysis, allows us to envisage potential alternatives.
“If you don’t understand what capitalism itself is, then how can you hope to formulate any revisionist system and a critique of what might lie beyond it?” asks Nesbitt.
There are still plenty of contemporary political movements that continue to reference Marx, with various degrees of accuracy. The Chinese government bequeathed a huge statue of Marx to his hometown in Germany in honor of his 200th anniversary; it’s doubtful the thinker would have been as enthusiastic about the totalitarian state as it is of him. The economist and former Greek minister of finance Yanis Varoufakis recently wrote a compelling new introduction to “The Communist Manifesto,” detailing why Marx is so essential if we want to reckon with the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Meanwhile, workers across the world held aloft images of Marx on May 1, international Labor Day; his work is still the crucial reference point for those protesting the injustices of capitalism and demanding change to benefit the 99%.
Every major historical advance in technology has destroyed human jobs, with some leaving many unemployed for long periods at a time. The human workforce has responded to these shift by gradually adjusting, taking on the new jobs generated by these advances, and so capitalism has continued to function, always depending on both human labor and technology. The current crises posed by automation may not be resolved as easily as past, though. The situation is “very different,” says Nesbitt, and demands adequately sophisticated analysis about the nature of capitalism. “That’s what makes Das Kapital a work of theory and critique that’s not limited to the 19th century,” he adds. The capitalist system, after all, is “the world we continue to live in today.”