Marx and AI, a future for 19th century political philosophy?

By Piers Eaton

While German philosopher Karl Marx is one of the most celebrated political philosophers of all time, his philosophy is also widely criticised. The most common criticism of Marx’s philosophy I hear is that it is utopian. This is only a criticism if you take utopian to mean unrealistically perfect, that this utopia is a fantasy that could never be achieved. The idea that society would generate such a surplus that no one would have to work would have seemed unfathomable in Marx’s day, but today it doesn’t seem so unreasonable, due to major technological advancements in the field of artificial intelligence technology.

AI technology could potentially do any job that is repetitive, so long as the time needed to learn and adapt to the task is sufficiently shorter than the time needed to do the task. The upshot is that there are many jobs that we would no longer need people to do. With self-driving cars, we would no longer need taxi drivers. With the right infrastructure, AI could learn to grow crops, recognise what doesn’t work and learn how to fix it. Using artificial neural networks and driverless cars, we could have an automated garbage collection service. The possibilities are not endless, but many of the jobs that are necessary for our society to function could be automated.

To many, this is worrying, as these jobs are their source of income, and they need to keep making money to preserve their way of life. In December, the research firm Gartner calmed those who are afraid AI will take away jobs by releasing a report that in the next five years they expect AI tech will create 500,000 more jobs than it eliminates. This makes very little sense, as AI is meant to do jobs for people, not create more jobs to do. The reason so many people were glad to hear this is because they are either afraid of losing our jobs, or afraid of there not being enough jobs for them in the future.

These fears of come from a fetishisation of commodities, and subsequently, jobs. In Das Kapital, Marx writes that through capitalism we give commodities a second value beyond its “use-value”, an “exchange value”, which is intrinsic. We no longer see material items as merely instrumental means to an end, but also as ends in themselves. Marx then shows labour is given this same exchange value, and so the very process of having laboured over something is what gives the item its value, instead of its usefulness. This belief that labour, and by extension jobs, is an intrinsic good is what causes people to worry that jobs could be eliminated, and this is why people worry about AI technology eliminating jobs. AI’s fundamental purpose is to do jobs for us, so to say they are a job creation source is ultimately to limit its potential.

Marx would see previously necessary jobs being done by AI as a step towards freedom. Marx doesn’t want to stop people doing work, but he also doesn’t want people to be forced to sell their labour to survive. Marx believed that people should be allowed to choose what they do, and their survival shouldn’t rely on them having to sell their labour. A common criticism of communism is that without private property, there is no motivation for anyone to work. With enough levels of AI technology, however, very little work would be required for a society to function, and so long as material goods were distributed properly, the society could function well.

At the start of Das Kapital’s chapter “Machine and the Modern Industry” Marx quotes J.S. Mill, who asks if all mechanical invention has made life any easier for those working, and Marx quickly answers Mill’s question with a firm no. He says that modern machinery is just another tool the capitalists use to increase the surplus-value they can appropriate from the worker. For these reasons, I imagine Marx would be both hopeful and pessimistic for the potential for AI technology. Hopeful, as these machines could drastically change the dynamics of working life, with the potential to liberate people from a troublesome wage labour economy. Worried, as another advancement in technology could represent another yoke for the bourgeois to place on the proletariat, and further entrench their domination.
In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx writes “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” What society will AI give us? Will artificial intelligence give us a society with a new ruling class, or will it bring about the communist utopia that Marx claimed was inevitable?

Photograph: fhwrdh via Flickr

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