What do communists think of automation

theme - book

London in the 19th century. The metropolis is growing rapidly, more and more people come and want to make a living in the factories. Whole families squeeze into a single room in the houses of the slums. Children toil instead of going to school, and cholera breaks out regularly in the city. And a German emigrant spends his days under the high dome in the reading room of the British Museum and is writing a huge book about this new era: In 1867, the first volume of “Das Kapital”, Karl Marx's main work with over 700 pages, appears.

150 years later, the cityscape of London is no longer characterized by sooty chimneys, but rather glass office towers. Buses and subways have replaced the wagons. And there is free Wi-Fi in the British Museum. If the long-bearded economist were beamed into our 21st century - would he have to change his theories? What was left of his indictment against capitalism? The journalist Mathias Greffrath recently published the anthology "RE: Das Kapital" (Kunstmann-Verlag) - and he thinks Marx is more topical than ever. It can help to understand the present, says Greffrath. About the ...

Self-learning machines take over the production, even the intellectual work of highly qualified people should be done by algorithms and artificial intelligence in the future: If you believe some technology visionaries, we are on the verge of a new industrial revolution. Aren't the conditions completely different from those in Marx's time? “If intellectual work becomes more and more automated, there is certainly a tremendous boost in it. But automation itself is a characteristic of capitalism and would be nothing new for Marx, ”says Greffrath. According to Greffrath, Marx would point out that with digitization not only work but also power is shifted - towards the owners of intelligent machines. Towards the entrepreneurs, the monopolies, the investment funds and the investors. So towards capital.

A few years ago, Greffrath visited a research institute that programmed an algorithm for the production of toilet bowls: The experience that master distillers have developed over generations is now contained in a control procedure for industrial robots. Except that it has now become private property as software.

Knowledge economy

Wherever digitization is mentioned, the knowledge economy is also quickly mentioned. The term means that our economic system today is fundamentally different: one that is not based on steel and muscle power, but on know-how, creativity, ingenuity and expertise - capitalism is no longer a question of hardware, but above all one the software. Knowledge becomes the determining factor of production.

In Marx's time, economists attributed the prosperity of an economy to three classic factors: land, capital and labor. All three production factors in turn generate a specific income. The landowner earns the lease by letting other people - for example the factory owner - have his land. The factory owner makes a profit by having his machines produce goods - by the workers. The worker receives the wages for the work of his hands.

For Marx, however, this three-factor model was a typical example of what he called "vulgar economics": an idea of ​​the economy that does not look behind things. Marx assumes that prosperity does not come from three different production factors, but ultimately only from one: work. The capitalist's profit is really unpaid labor. The landlord's rent, in turn, is part of the profit - and thus in the end also unpaid work.

Anyone who claims that value creation today is based primarily on knowledge as a new, fourth production factor, would be a vulgar economist in Marx's eyes. “Knowledge and work cannot be separated from one another at Marx,” says Greffrath.

Unconditional basic income

When the machines do the work, what do people live on? A new utopia has been making the rounds for some time: everyone should in future receive a fixed salary from the state, regardless of whether they work or not.

Some people like the basic income - and think they can appeal to Marx, who warned against alienated work under capitalism. People, they argue, with an unconditional basic income would no longer have to indulge in dull, externally determined activities, but could devote themselves entirely to the affairs of the heart. Managers from Silicon Valley are also drumming for the basic income.

But is it really a concept for the future in Marx's sense? "For Marx, the basic income would be a crime against humanity," believes Mathias Greffrath. The promised freedom could prove to be a fallacy: According to Marx, man can only experience true self-realization if he carries out an activity that has a meaning for society, a real one and not a simulated one. “If an activity makes social sense, why isn't it paid like work?” Asks Greffrath. For Marx, the basic income would be more of a stoppage bonus that tends to exacerbate the feeling of uselessness rather than end it.

According to Greffrath, Marx would advocate a different approach: do away with dull work, shorten working hours and redistribute the remaining demanding and fulfilling tasks so that everyone can participate.


What we call globalization today, Marx already had in mind - even if the term only became common much later. In the “Communist Manifesto” he and Friedrich Engels describe how capitalism is gradually spanning the whole world. In this respect, says Greffrath, Marx would probably not see himself disproved if he were to travel back in time to today's Europe: in which the exploitative economic system that he once described seems relatively decent. Although he would be surprised by the widespread prosperity, the middle class and the lack of class struggle, he would recognize the old mechanisms of exploitation with a view to global production chains, said Greffrath. “Marx would certainly no longer encounter capitalism in its purest form in the industrialized countries,” says Greffrath. "Seen on a world scale, it is all the more lively."

The battered, from whom corporations squeeze the last bit of labor, no longer necessarily live in the proletarian quarters in London or Berlin. For this they toil in the textile factories in Bangladesh or in the cobalt mines in the Congo, for example.

In the 19th century people streamed from the countryside to the cities, to London, to Berlin and the industrial strongholds. That, in addition to wars, global inequality and poverty in the 21st century are causing many people to make their way to Europe - for Marx this would be a comprehensible interpretation.

Globalization also produces losers in western countries: companies can relocate their production to locations where wage costs are lower. Recently, however, it has also been the right-wing populist parties that have been campaigning the loudest for the voices of those who see their jobs threatened. Why is the uprising against capitalism not coming from the left as Marx had hoped?

“A global market that should not lead to blatant divisions would need a kind of world government as a corrective,” says Greffrath. “But because there is no such thing, it is quite rational to demand more protection from the nation state. That is not reactionary in itself, but it is used by right-wing populism to stir up xenophobic resentment. ”Even Marx probably could not foresee correctly how difficult it would be to defeat capitalism beyond the nation state.

And otherwise? Is there anything that would shake Marx's thinking if he were to sit around the table with us today? “Analytically nothing would probably surprise him at all,” says Greffrath. But one thing might surprise him: how much the 21st century man has come to terms with capitalism. How much dull work he endures in order to be able to afford the supposed blessings of consumption, even if it's just choosing between eight different types of toilet paper. Is it worth it? "Marx would have thought man to be more stubborn."

Illustrations: Eugen Schulz