Steve Jobs said about the work Apple Computer shipped out to Foxconn in China, “These jobs are not coming back”. But Foxconn was able to satisfy Apple’s needs quickly by rustling half a million workers out of their dormitory beds in the middle of the night and seating each at a bench with a pile of parts and a couple of tools to make iPhones, to be delivered that day. Hardly high tech. The skills required are really no greater than those for sewing shirts, maybe less. And maybe these jobs are coming back.
The tectonic disruption of the past half century has been economic globalization. Capitalists have been forced by circumstance and profit-seeking to outsource manufacturing to cheap labor places that can produce for pennies on our dollar, and that has cost American workers dearly while at the same time making a lot of capitalists very wealthy. In Foxconn’s case, and in virtually all cases where clothing and many other items are made, the work is essentially low-wage labor, not skilled, not high-tech. The money goes to capitalists, not workers.
The new generation of industrial robots
destroys jobs wholesale.
But a new age is arriving, and the US once again is again looking competitive in manufacturing. Like other recent improvements, this one comes from computerization, particularly robotics, which improves national productivity by using far fewer workers for the same output. Unfortunately, the other half of the equation is that the new generation of industrial robots destroys jobs wholesale.
These new robots are far more adaptable, far more accurate, and much faster than the previous generation. They can autonomously perform precise actions endlessly without rest. They are so versatile that it’s even conceivable that “universal factories” could be built, requiring only repositioning of machines and reprogramming to produce entirely different products—without workers.
The workers who used to do these kinds of jobs are no longer needed. The new products may be cheap but who will have the income to afford them?
The coming disruption will be immense, affecting manufacturing the world over. The all-important question is, Where will the money go? These machines are enormously expensive, but enormously profitable to capitalists. The people who invest in them well deserve to be rewarded for their investment. But if the investor is one person out of 1,000, what will happen to the other 999?
The coming disruption will be immense.
What will happen to “The 99.9%”?
We seem to be building a new system in which “The 99.9%” are once again left out, on a steep downward slide that crashes at plutocracy and poverty. That’s no more than the transformation of American society already underway, only it will be much more extreme. It is an unacceptable erosion of democracy that must be addressed.
Some writers point out that the fault is not in the modernization, which is inevitable in any case. The problem, they say, lies with lack of leadership in government. Not quite. The problem lies in the nature of capitalism. All profit goes to the owners, therefore the only way the non-rich can avoid poverty is to somehow become part-owners of these worker-less factories. That won’t be easily done.