The previous post in my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future discussed the section on political economy (pp.53-73). Much as I’d like to dwell on various other issues raised therein, I feel I should probably move on to the next part of the book. But fortunately, having just read Aaron Benanav’s stimulating new book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso, 2020), an engagement with it in this post enables me to sweep up a few further issues from that section while simultaneously moving on. Always good to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

I did, in fact, cite Benanav’s work in the aforementioned political economy section of my book, but when I was writing it he hadn’t yet published his own one, which I’ve found helpful in further clarifying my thinking. In this and in a later post, I’ll suggest that his analysis strengthens the case I make for a small farm future, even though that’s not a direction he goes himself. But, as I’ll shortly argue, it could be … and maybe it should be.

Let’s start with Benavav’s appraisal of the present global labour market: many fewer people (proportionately) working in agriculture than previously, many fewer people working in manufacturing than previously, many more people in precarious and low paid employment or underemployment in the service sector than previously, and a very small but growing number of people amassing unprecedentedly stupendous wealth.

A common explanation for these trends is the ‘automation theory’ that argues they arise from labour-shedding technological development. This occurred first in agriculture with what Benanav (p.42) calls ‘the major destroyer of livelihoods in the twentieth century’ in the form of agrarian ‘nitrogen capitalism’ (so named because of agri-industrial reliance on manufactured nitrogenous fertiliser, though in truth it involved a suite of fossil fuel-based developments, so perhaps it’s better seen as another variant of fossil capitalism).

Whatever the terminology, it’s refreshing to see Benanav call agrarian industrialisation for what it is – a destroyer of livelihoods – rather than resorting to the usual upbeat euphemisms of ‘labour saving’ or ‘agricultural improvement’. Now that automation threatens livelihoods across a swathe of other employment sectors – including such bastions of white-collar privilege as medicine and law – perhaps it becomes easier to make the case that in agriculture as in other sectors ‘labour saving’ isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But actually, the main thrust of Benanav’s book is a critique of automation theory. If the present stagnation of the global labour market were really caused by automation, he argues, we’d expect to see a spiralling growth in labour productivity, whereas the trend is better explained by falling global manufacturing output that he imputes to industrial overcapacity and underinvestment. This leads to his important claims that, during the 20th century, manufacturing was “a unique engine of economic growth” and that modern governments have found no other ways to sustain growth when manufacturing output has faltered (pp.34-5).

A minor point to draw from all this in relation to my own book is that I largely ducked the question of future technologies in agriculture because too much attention to drones, robots, GM, GPS, vertical farming and all the rest of it seemed something of a diversion, but I wasn’t 100% comfortable with this evasion. So I find Benanav’s analysis reassuring in suggesting that these really aren’t the main questions before us. For this reason, I’m not going to discuss in this blog cycle the things I do have to say about automation, ‘progress’ etc. in Chapter 2 of my book, which in any case we’ve discussed at length on this website over the years.

So if emerging technologies aren’t the main question, what is? Benanav’s analysis suggests that the faltering growth engine of manufacturing output underlies the present worldwide economic malaise, with more and more workers pushed into necessarily labour-intensive and low-paid service industries. Sometimes this involves small-scale family operations competing successfully with large and highly capitalized firms on the basis of involutionary job creation strategies. It also involves industrial corporations favouring monopolistic competition, the asset bubble of financialization and squeezing worker pay and conditions. And it seems likely that these trends represent a limit or endpoint to the present structure of the global political economy that’s inherent to its internal logic, regardless of wider issues like climate change, energy futures or resource drawdown.

The main question, then, is how might the global political economy escape this impasse once we abandon the fruitless idea that the answer lies in technological development? As I see it, there are four main options, three of which Benanav touches on in his book, and one of which (the most promising one, in my opinion) he doesn’t.

First, there’s the possibility that the global political economy will find a way to barrel through the present crisis and restart the growth engine of industrial development. There are, after all, multitudes of poor people globally who would be only too happy to lead lives of industrialised plenty of the kind many of us lead in the richer countries and the richer parts of the poorer ones. As China increasingly takes over the reins of global economic leadership from the USA, developments like its Belt and Road Initiative may provide exactly the kickstart that’s needed. But I think it’s unlikely. China’s industrialization, like the ones of the western powers preceding it, is based on a coercion of labour that’s unlikely to sustain growth long-term and is already displaying the morbid symptoms of late-stage western capitalism. Throw in the effects of climate change and resource crisis, and it’s hard to see the locomotive of global industrialization escaping the siding where it’s currently languishing and getting back onto the main track.

Second, there’s the possibility of ‘our country first’ economic nationalism. On this point, Benanav is surely right to suggest that “a chronically low demand for labour will not be alleviated by tariff barriers or walled borders” (p.65). I’d argue nonetheless that it would probably be a good way to go for the poorest countries experiencing a net outflow of assets in the globalized economy if they were able to make it happen, but economic nationalism operating at large across the world certainly isn’t going to usher in a new cornucopia of surging global growth and prosperity. I guess Brexit Britain has just started a small experiment on your behalf in this respect. You’re welcome.

Third, there’s the possibility of redistributing the product of the global economy more fairly between rich and poor, young and old. To me, this seems ethically right and will probably happen quite widely one way or another anyway if governments don’t act, because too much inequality sustained for too long prompts political movements geared to restitution. But for all its necessity, it seems to me that a fairer redistribution of economic product doesn’t strike to the root of the problem much more than the other possibilities, because it likewise doesn’t provide the means for radically creating more product and transcending industrial overcapacity and low labour demand.

Here’s where Benanav’s analysis gets, for me, most interesting, but also most problematic. There are different ways in which a fairer distribution of product might be delivered politically. The one Benanav explores is a propertyless socialist utopia in which people collectively divide the necessary work of social reproduction between themselves on a fair and democratic basis, devoting the rest of their time to pursuing their personal passions and pleasures.

There’s much I find appealing in his vision, and some of it covers very similar ground to my own discussion of utopias in my book (pp.85-8). Benanav and I agree that it’s not OK to expect subordinated categories of labour to do the hard work of domestic and social reproduction, and nor is it plausible to expect new developments in automation to ride to the rescue and do it for us. The main point of his brief utopian exercise isn’t to provide some fully realized blueprint for the future, but to suggest that it’s possible for us to create congenial lives for ourselves with existing technology in the here and now, rather than waiting for future technological developments to deliver us into a fantasy future world without work. On this point I wholeheartedly agree.

All the same, there are aspects of his utopia that I find either implausible or unappealing. I won’t expound on them at length here because I hope to come back to this in later posts, but in brief I think he puts too much faith in people’s ability to smoothly divvy up the work between themselves and deliver on what’s expected through ill-defined democratic processes. This is all the more problematic inasmuch as Benanav acknowledges there are kinds of work that can’t be widely shared because they require specialist skills (he mentions farming in this connection) and inasmuch as it would be necessary to somehow hold producers accountable if they failed to come up with the goods.

As for the unappealing, the freedoms that Benanav accords people in his utopia seem to me overly individualistic, disconnected and intellectual. His examples include painting murals, learning languages, inventing things and ‘choosing to explore nature’ (pp.91-2) – this being the only mention I noticed in his book of the extra-human ecological world. It all sounds a bit like a university professor dreaming up a quiet suburban retirement for himself, which – as I suggest in my book (p.85) – is essentially what most written utopias are. And I use the word ‘himself’ here deliberately, because there are some interesting gender framings involved in all this. But we’ll come to that in a later post.

Benanav nevertheless contends – correctly in my opinion – that “feelings of autonomy, mastery and purpose are what generate the best work” (p.89), yet it seems to me hard to reconcile this with the highly generalized collective divvying up of work and the holding of producers to account that he identifies – a point that, again, I’ll develop in another post. Rather than drifting around in an agreeable but ultimately somewhat vapid and probably unrealisable ‘post-scarcity’ world, I think true autonomy, mastery and purpose arise through experiencing resistances to one’s agency, partly in relation to other people (the points where collective agreements fail) and partly in relation to the necessary practice of creating a livelihood out of the extra-human world of nature, rather than the option of simply exploring it. In both cases, a sense of autonomy, mastery or purpose arises when one feels equal to the challenge, which is usually only possible through an intimate, grounded, personal, local knowledge of the social and natural landscape.

In other words, the fourth way to address the impasse of the present global political economy may be to embrace the possibility – so admirably implied by Benanav throughout his book, but never confronted head on – of creating a labour-intensive, semi-autonomous livelihood through farming, homesteading or gardening largely on one’s own account, within a wider society which is collectively oriented to enabling people to live that way. Agricultural involution of this sort is far more generative of a sense of purpose than creating involutionary service sector jobs, far more compatible with a low or no economic growth society (a point Benanav makes on p.38), and far less ecologically destructive. It would amount to a small farm future – not a panacea, not a utopia, but a plausible goal to aim at. In my forthcoming posts I’ll continue to outline its contours.