by Michael Roberts
Last week I spoke on a panel that debated De-industrialisation and socialism. The panel was organised by Spring,
a Manchester-based group in England that has become a forum for the
discussion of developments in capitalism and their implications for the
prospects for socialism (http://www.manchesterspring.org.uk/).
The main theme for this panel discussion was the evident fact that
the industrial sector (manufacturing, mining, energy etc) has declined
sharply as share of the output and employment in the mature capitalist
economies during the 20th century. The question for debate
was: does this mean that the working class has also declined and is no
longer the main force of change in capitalism; and also that a socialist
or post-capitalist society will be a world without industry or
employment of industrial workers?
The first point I made in the discussion was that the world is not
de-industrialising. Globally, there were 2.2bn people at work and
producing value back in 1991. Now there are 3.2bn. The global
workforce has risen by 1bn in the last 20 years. But there has been no
de-industrialisation globally. De-industrialisation is a phenomenon of
the mature capitalist economies. It is not one of the ‘emerging’ less
developed capitalist economies.
Using the figures provided by the International Labour Organisation
(ILO) we can see what is happening globally, with the caveat that there
is a serious underestimate of industrial workers in these figures and
such transport, communication and many hi-tech workers are put in the
Globally, the industrial workforce has risen by 46% since 1991 from
490m to 715m in 2012 and will reach well over 800m before the end of the
decade. Indeed, the industrial workforce has grown by 1.8% a year
since 1991 and since 2004 by 2.7% a year (up to 2012), which is now a
faster rate of growth than the services sector (2.6% a year)! Globally,
the share of industrial workers in the total workforce has risen
slightly from 22% to 23%. It is in the so-called mature developed
capitalist economies where there has been de-industrialisation. The
industrial workforce there has fallen from 130m in 1991 by 18% to 107m
The big fall has not been in industrial workers globally but in
agricultural workers. The process of capitalism sucking up peasants and
agro labourers from the rural areas and turning them into industrial
workers in the cities is not over. The share of agricultural labour
force in the total global workforce has fallen from 44% to 32%. So
should we not really talk about de-ruralisation, as Marx did in the
mid-1800s? That is the great global phenemonon of the last 150 years.
Of course, most workers globally work in the services sector. This
sector is badly defined, as I say, and is really anybody not clearly an
industrial or agricultural worker. This sector was smaller than
agriculture in 1991 (34% to 44%) but now it is biggest at 45% compared
to 32% for agriculture.
As I was speaking in Manchester, the centre of the industrial revolution in Britain in the early 19th
century, I was reminded of the work of Friedrich Engels, Marx’s partner
in crime, who was managing his uncle’s German firm in the city at the
time. As a young man (29 years), Engels wrote The condition of the working-class in England in 1844
and described the horrendous conditions of squalor, disease, sweat shop
conditions, injury and poverty that rural men, women and children were
subjected to as they came to work in the fast industrialising and
urbanising cities of northern England. It’s the same story now in the
likes of India, China, south-east Asia and Latin America. Engels
concentrated on the conditions for labour, but in a preface to a new
edition of his book in 1892, he commented that Britain was fast being
replaced as the major industrial capitalist power by France, Germany and
the US. “Their manufactures are young as compared with those of
England, but increasing at a far more rapid rate than the latter. They
have reached the same phase of development as English manufacture in
1844”. And so it is now for the so-called emerging economies of
Asia, Latin America and Africa compared to the mature capitalist
economies of Europe, Japan and North America.
But it’s true that the share of industrial workers in the mature
economies has fallen from 31% in 1991 to 22% now. Indeed, according to
McKinsey, manufacturing employment fell 24% in the advanced economies
between 1995 and 2005.
So does this mean that the future of capitalism without an industrial
proletariat capable of being an agency for change and, for that matter,
‘post-capitalism’ will a society without industry, where people can
expect to reduce their hours of work for a living and have increased
periods of ‘leisure’?
This was the theme that my fellow panellist Nick Srnicek posed. Nick
is a Fellow in Globalisation and Geopolitics at UCL. He is the author
with Alex Williams of Inventing the Future (Verso, 2015) and the editor with Levi Bryant and Graham Harman of The Speculative Turn ( , 2010) – see
Nick explained that, while new economies were being industrialised,
their peak of industrialisation came earlier than for economies like
Britain in the 19th century. Indeed, no economy had achieved
more than a 45% share for industrial employment. So the future is not
industry and an industrial working-class. And it was no good advocating
a return to manufacturing and industry as the way forward for a better
I am sure that Nick is right in these points. Where I differed was
that he was not clear if a post-capitalist, non-industrial society would
be achieved gradually as capitalism expanded globally and technology
replaced heavy industrial work and people worked less hours and could
use their time for themselves. The idea of a steady move to a
post-industrial, leisure society was the concept of Keynes back in the
1930s, arguing for capitalism as the way forward to his students at the
height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, when many of his students
had started to look to Marxism as the explanation for crises and the
alternative of socialism (see my post, http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/keynes-being-gay-and-caring-for-the-future-of-our-grandchildren/ ).
Keynes reckoned the capitalist world would achieve huge per capita
GDP growth and enter a ‘post-capitalist’ leisure economy without
poverty. Well, this blog has regularly revealed data that show poverty
remains a terrible spectre over the globe, an inherent feature of
capitalism, and that far from moving to a leisure society, working hours
have hardly fallen much in the mature economies and remain very high in
industrial sectors of the emerging economies. We are all still
‘toiling’ for a living (apart from the 1%), in increasingly precarious
I don’t think we can get a ‘post-capitalist’ leisure society through
gradual change. It will require a revolutionary upsurge to change the
mode of production and social relations globally, even if the potential
productivity of labour through new technology and robots etc is already
there globally to deliver such a transition to freedom from toil.
Capitalism remains in the way as a fetter on production, with
capitalists as a class force opposed to freedom.
The reason that the mature capitalist economies have lost their
industrial base is that it was no longer profitable for capital to
invest in British industry in the late 19th century or OECD industry in
the late 20th century. So capital counteracted this falling
profitability by ‘globalising’ and searching for more labour to exploit.
And profitability fell because capitalist accumulation is
labour-shedding. Capitalists compete against each other to get more
profit. Those capitalists with better technology can steal a march on
others by boosting labour productivity and reducing labour costs by
cutting the workforce. So the drive is always for reducing the amount
of labour power to boost profits. The central contradiction here, as
explained by Marx’s law of profitability, is that the reduction in
labour power relative to mechanisation leads to an eventual fall in
profitability. This reduces the industrial workforce in the mature
economies and leads to expansion of industry globally. Capitalism is a
mode of production for mechanisation, but mechanisation will also lead
to its demise as it is a mode of production for profit not social need
and more mechanisation eventually means less profitability. That shows
that as we move towards a robot economy: profit for capital and meeting
social needs will become more incompatible. And the leisure society
just an impossible dream.
Employment growth is falling in the advanced capitalist economies.
Employment growth is way less than 1% a year in the 21st century.
Computer engineer and Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, Martin Ford puts it this way: “over
time, as technology advances, industries become more capital intensive
and less labour intensive. And technology can create new industries and
these are nearly always capital intensive”. The struggle between capital and labour is thus intensified.
It does depend on the class struggle between labour and capital over
the appropriation of the value created by the productivity of labour.
And clearly labour has been losing that battle, particularly in recent
decades, under the pressure of anti-trade union laws, ending of
employment protection and tenure, the reduction of benefits, a growing
reserve army of unemployed and underemployed and through the
globalisation of manufacturing.
According to the ILO report, in 16 developed economies, labour took a
75% share of national income in the mid-1970s, but this dropped to 65%
in the years just before the economic crisis. It rose in 2008 and 2009 –
but only because national income itself shrank in those years – before
resuming its downward course. Even in China, where wages have tripled
over the past decade, workers’ share of the national income has gone
down. Indeed, this is exactly what Marx meant by the ‘immiseration of
the working class’.
Will it be different with robots? Marxist economics would say no: for
two key reasons. First, Marxist economic theory starts from the
undeniable fact that only when human beings do any work or perform
labour is anything or service produced, apart from that provided by
natural resources (and even then that has to be found and used). So,
crucially, only labour can create value under capitalism. And value is
specific to capitalism. Sure, living labour can create things and do
services (what Marx called use values). But value is the substance of
the capitalist mode of producing things. Capital (the owners) controls
the means of production created by labour and will only put them to use
in order to appropriate value created by labour. Capital does not
create value itself.
Now if the whole world of technology, consumer products and services
could reproduce itself without living labour going to work and could do
so through robots, then things and services would be produced, but the
creation of value (in particular, profit or surplus value) would not.
As Martin Ford puts it: the more machines begin to run themselves, the value that the average worker adds begins to decline.” So
accumulation under capitalism would cease well before that robots took
over fully, because profitability would disappear under the weight of
‘capital-bias’. This contradiction cannot be resolved under capitalism.
We would never get to a robotic society; we would never get to a
workless leisure society – not under capitalism. Crises and social
explosions would intervene well before that.
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