In the The Human Condition, Arendt writes:

The danger that the modern age's emancipation of labour will not only fail to usher in an age of freedom for all but will result, on the contrary, in forcing all mankind for the first time under the yoke of neccessity, was already clearly perceived by Marx when he insisted that the aim of a revolution could not possibly be the already-accomplished emancipation of the labouring classes, but must consist of the emancipation of man from labour.

And then:

At first glance, this aim seems utopian, and the only strictly utopian element in Marx's teachings. Emancipation from labour, in Marx's own terms, is emancipation from neccessity...Yet, the developments of the last decade, and especially the possibilities opened up by automation, give us reason to wonder whether the utopia of yesterday will not turn into the reality of tommorrow.

Given, that Arendt wrote this over fifty years ago and in passing, and given the accelerated and accelerating pace of technological change where all manner of automations have become distinct possibilities has anyone seriously explored how this ties in (or not) with Marxs prediction and how likely it will lift the yoke of neccessity that is labouring (as opposed to work)?

  • 2
    Another word for "emancipation from labor" is unemployment. How will we eat? Will there be programmers making millions and everyone else living on the street? San Francisco is on the way there already. If labor becomes obsolete, we'll need a new economic model.
    – user4894
    Aug 2 '16 at 2:23
  • @user4894: sure, if there is no labour then we will have mass employment, and some other means of dividing the social product will be required - ie a new economic model - what this will be is anyone's guess; Marx didn't guess one, he simply asserted that at some point a new model will be required. I've worked as a programmer, and I can't say its worth millions as labour qua labour; but obviously it's a function of how it's fits in the modern economy. Aug 2 '16 at 3:29
  • Reminds me of Keynes's 15 hour work week: marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/keynes/1930/…
    – Dave
    Aug 2 '16 at 19:04
  • Both did not anticipate the movement of 'labour' (as used in economic theory) into supply of services instead of production. This pretty much ruined the whole idea behind an emancipation of man from labour. I think as the very concept of labour of both authors here is tied to the capitalistic/economic concept, it would be simply false to destinguish it from 'work', as long as it's been paid.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 2 '16 at 20:18
  • @klocking: I agree with most of what you say, apart from your last sentence, Arendts notion of work is a technical term of hers, and doesn't really correspond to Marxs, it has a different orientation. Aug 4 '16 at 4:29

Western thought boils down to dedication to ownership - copyrights, patents, fences, etc. More broadly, human behavior is not unlike other mammals. Dogs sniff one anothers butts, just as humans do. Any media executive knows that what people subscribe to is dirty laundry, sex, and violence. Women know men respond to the display of sexuality. Men know women respond to financial wealth. This behavior is rooted in what is the essence of mammals - reproduction with a desirable mate.

So, how is automation ever going to free man from his essence - desire? I suppose it depends on what culture you are speaking of. In the West, even if all essential labor is automated, the automation will be owned by someone. In many ways, "work" is a means to reproduction (copulation); a means to differentiate yourself from the many.

The scary part of this automation is already evident vis-à-vis character assasination. Mob mentality exists and we are all sinners, all do wrong, and will do wrong again. Automation gets to a point where all wrongs are recorded and published. Then what? The Kübler-Ross model?

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Arendt posits this as a hope; but in her essay she's also critical about this possible emancipation through accelerating technology, in a different line from yours. Aug 2 '16 at 1:43
  • Mob mentality is real for sure on the net. Aug 2 '16 at 1:44
  • I take it though, she's talking about an emancipation from labour, and not from ourselves. Aug 2 '16 at 1:49

What you asked is more of a question about the nature of economics, and since I am decently versed in that as well, here you go with the hybrid answer:

The same was said about the washing machine, printing press, irrigation, the cotton gin, and a myriad of other technologies. The short answer is: While technology provides the opportunity to become more productive it does not eliminate the need for us to contribute value. Real money is based on the value you create for others. When you do something that makes others more productive either though tool, method, or personal labor you are creating a profit. In a healthy free society this can be exchanged to provide a win-win scenario.

Now, this does mean that people will possibly lose their jobs just as buggy whip makers did which is a GOOD THING IMHO since we have no need for those. People not needing to do things like carry buckets of water is an improvement to civilization. This leaves them to pursue other ventures where they can produce additional value to others. Some displaced people also go and work on improving the new technology too to make it better. Some people out because they are unable to adapt and they go the way of the dodo bird. No one want's to see people suffer, yet people that are unwilling to face reality and adapt to the changes of nature around them are just as likely to be wiped out by a famine as they are a change in the market. I pity them for what they do to themselves yet have no guilt at watching them ruin their lives; It is like a mad man yelling at a tornado to get off his lawn.

  • "People not needing to do things like carry buckets of water is an improvement to civilization." That's debatable. Everything following that is frankly weird and disgusting. Every time there's a seismic change in the economy, millions of people are going to be impacted - some severely. And you're saying those who get stuck in the lurch deserve to die?!! May 20 '18 at 2:19
  • @DavidBlomstrom, so, you'd prefer to be a hunter in hunter-gatherer society and die at 30 being eaten by some animal?
    – rus9384
    May 20 '18 at 11:19
  • @rus9384 - Thank you for your textbook example of a strawman argument. Hint: There's a significant difference between TECHNOLOGY and JOBS/LABOR. May 20 '18 at 11:38
  • @DavidBlomstrom, that's you who started to be a strawman. You connected two independent things together - carrying buckets and jobs. Job itself is a foundation of capitalism. Regarding economy - that's capitalist economy you refer to. You say automation is awful, while that's capitalism what is awful.
    – rus9384
    May 20 '18 at 11:59
  • @rus9384 - 1) Believe it or not, socialist states are capable of embracing automation; they will be affected by it even if they don't. 2) Whether or not capitalism is "awful" is hard to say. No one hates capitalism more than I do, yet there are certain things about capitalism that I like. In the realm of philosophy, it might be better to describe economic systems as neutral concepts rather than "awful." May 20 '18 at 12:15


The opposite of emancipate is enslave, and that'a a much better description of what's happening - not in the future, but now.

There are some who might consider themselves emancipated - the techies, propagandists, etc. But, in the U.S., the middle class may be going the way of the dodo. Of course, the people who are pushing automation - notably corporate tycoons - keep getting richer and richer, giving them more power over the government and therefore over ordinary citizens. That's hardly an example of "emancipation." It's just the opposite.

Keep in mind, also, that the global population continues to grow, meaning the number of people requiring either a job or a free handout from some utopian post-capitalist government that's remarkably fair and caring (will Congress still be a club made up of white, male millionaires?) will only increase.

One should also remember automation's handmaiden, artificial intelligence. The reality that is unfolding around us is very bleak, which is precisely why propagandists are spinning wonderful tales about a "post-capitalist" paradise guided by its own philosophical school that most emancipated citizens can't even understand, postmodernism.

A more precise answer: Automation has already emancipated many people from labor, but it has emancipated an even greater number from jobs.

  • As I said, capitalism and automation are incompatible. At some point when there will be much automation, people won't be able to buy things, since they don't have jobs.
    – rus9384
    May 20 '18 at 8:50
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    Although, I'm in agreement with what you say here about our current predicament; I'm not sure that this really answers the question I'm asking. May 20 '18 at 10:43

Will automation emancipate us from labour?

Depends on the definition of labour. There, indeed, are people who like some kind of non-intellectual labour. There are people who don't like it. Intellectual labour is - arts, science and philosophy. Yes, mere translation of algorithm from human language to programming language is not really intellectual. But development of new algorithms is intellectual labour.

Of course, the word emancipate means those who don't want X, won't need to do it in order to fulfill their desires.

So, why have I started to talk about intellectual labour? As you may think, among those people who do intellectual labour, much higher percentage do it because they want to do it, as opposed to those who do physical labour. Latter majorly do it only to have money, which on their turn, allows people to fulfill their desires. If they were not be in need for money, they would not do it. While artists, scientists and philosophers still would exist and do arts, science and philosophy.

This means that non-intellectual labour is majorly seen as undesirable and should be automated. People strived for this, and do it now. Of course, large corporations, as I see it, do it partially because it allows to get money faster. But that does not negate the fact that people want to get more by spending less.

So, there are a few prognoses possible.

Prognosis 1.

Automation reaches the threshold when further automation is unprofitable for large companies, from the position of currency. So, automation stops. And no emancipation from labour.

Prognosis 2.

This prognosis is really pessimistic one. As we know, money have only instrumental value. When there are only a little money, their value is survival and purchase of some desirable goods and services. But when there are a lot of money, their value turns to hard power. Power itself already can be seen by some people as having intrisic value. And then those people would prefer to have robots and other devices, while depriving others. Just because it allows having more power, which is seen as having intrisic value.

But as I said, it is pessimistic one, if really many people see power as intrisically valuable and not merely instrumentally.

Prognosis 3.

As I said in prognosis 1, there is a threshold when further automation is unprofitable. In the optimistic case people will change current social structure by better one. By current I mean the one that offers only money as stimulus for labour (and automation itself is labour). By better I mean one that is better suited for it's purpose - emancipation from labour. In either case, it won't be capitalistic anymore.

So, as you can see, it won't necessarily result in emancipation from labour, but it is surely possible. Also, I should note that automation of non-intellectual labour is desirable, whatever the consequences people are seeing.

E.g. @jobermark wrote

because the machines might need to be self-aware

Are the persons, who like non-intellectual labour, as I said in the start of my post, dangerous? I don't think so. It would not be better to create people who like non-intellectual labour (take "Brave New World" for example) than to create machines doing it.

because disaster would take them off-line and culture would not pass down the ability to recreate them

There are many disasters that would take humanity "off-line" and machines surely can help mitigate or totally prevent them.

because humans without purpose lose track of sanity

This depends on the definition of sanity. There surely are people who would incessantly use drugs or will just be so bored that they'd commit a suicide. But majority of people wants automation not for these purposes.

I don't see any problems why should automation be banned.


Here's a review of two major books that deal with current trends in automation from a Marxist perspective. These books are PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. A key point raised by both of these works is that the consequences of automation will depend on whether they are accompanied by a universal basic income.

  • Postcapitalism is just about the most wonderful thing I've ever heard of, short of Heaven. I might even start believing it once we've actually started to make it happen. If we were just 1% of the way there, I might say, "Hooray, we're on our way!" In reality, it sounds like nothing more than a big propaganda campaign - totally unbelievable. May 20 '18 at 2:21
  • +1: it's great to see an answer that actually references something. May 20 '18 at 10:16

It depends largely on who owns the automation, for it is the owners who are the primary beneficiaries of automation. If the automation is collectively owned, the collective will benefit. Otherwise, the collective may be simply left to starve outside fortress walls.

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