The Cooking the Books column from the June 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, seems to be haunted by the spectre of Karl Marx. In December 2016, when discussing the current longest period of stagnating wages since the 1860s, he referred to Marx’s ‘scribbling’ the Communist Manifesto. This April he again referred to Marx scribbling in a speech to the Canada Growth Summit (he is also a Canadian Liberal Party politician). This time, according to a headline in the Independent (14 April), he was concerned that ‘robots taking jobs could lead to a rise of Marxism’. He was reported as saying:
‘The automation of millions of jobs could lead to mass unemployment, wage stagnation and the growth of communism within a generation. He warned “Marx and Engels may again become relevant”.’
This, because ‘increases in artificial intelligence, big data and high-tech machines could create huge inequalities between high-skilled workers who benefit from the advances and those who are sidelined by them.’
His argument is that this is what happened after the industrial revolution in England that began in the second half of the 18th century: production increased but wages didn’t because the new jobs that were created were low-paid; it was only in the second half of the 19th century that workers began to benefit. According to him, it was the prolonged period of inequality and stagnant wages that paved the way for the rise of Marxism.
This can be disputed as a historically accurate account of the spread of Marx’s views. While it is true that the empirical examples in Capital are taken from England in the 1860s, Marx’s views did not begin to penetrate sections of the workers’ movement till the end of the 19th century, during a period when Carney says the benefits of the industrial revolution in terms of higher wages and better conditions began to be felt by workers. Marxism was in fact embraced not so much by low-paid unskilled labourers as by higher-paid skilled engineering and building workers.
Be that as it may, will Carney’s fears come true? He himself doesn’t appear to really believe that robotisation will lead to ‘mass unemployment’ – that’s been predicted about mechanisation since the industrial revolution but has never materialised – but advances, rather, the lesser argument that it will lead to an increasing proportion of lower-paid jobs. He advises office workers, whose jobs are now threatened by artificial intelligence, to retrain for jobs ‘which require a higher emotional intelligence, in sectors such as care and leisure’, both of which are notoriously low-paying.
This does seem to have been happening to some extent as, although the statistics show record employment levels in Britain, they have not been showing any increase in average wages. In positing a direct link between increasing poverty and opposition to capitalism Carney comes across as a ‘vulgar Marxist’. The link between the conditions of the wage and salary working class and the emergence of socialist consciousness is rather more complicated. Even in times of ‘prosperity’ capitalism is based on the exploitation of wage labour for the profit of a minority and is as unacceptable then as in its lean years. Which is why Marx and Engels are relevant as long as capitalism lasts and whatever state it is in and even if Carney’s fears are not realised.