Do machines create value? (CU 2021 talk)

Answer: no.

But if you’d like to understand precisely why then my talk will be useful. I briefly review the core structure of Marx’s theory of surplus-value, describe an important objection to it in the form of a Turing test, review some of the (bad and frequently stated) Marxist responses to this objection, and then explain that human labour is the unique cause of profit in virtue of its actual material powers.

This was an invited talk at the Communist University Summer 2021, organised by the CPGB and Labour Party Marxists.

The clip I play from the movie “Jabberwocky” was cut from the talk perhaps for copyright reasons. Here’s the clip I used:

3 Comments

  1. I’m not totally sure your answer is adequate either. The way I see it, one could create services permanently monitoring market signals in order to predict new needs and command new courses of action to the (using your example) autonomous taxi fleet. Just as capitalists can automate the drivers’ labour, they can do the same to the labour of their managers, business experts and engineers.

    The way I see it, the only reason why human labour creates value and dead labour doesn’t, it’s because *we* (the humans who constitute our society) only care about what humans do. In that scenario, the only thing machines can do is to reduce the labour (time) needed to do a task, but once that machine becomes generalized (and if it is effective, it will), it becomes cheaper, making the tasks they do approach to worthlessness. A robot, once generalized, can’t add value because *we* perceive their products as something we don’t need to strive for, that we can acquire it effortlessly. Of course, potentiated labour (via technology) and extraordinary surplus value exist, machines can aid to increase the creation of surplus value as long as they have a certain degree of exclusivity (as long as only a few capitalists own them), but only in the sense that they allow labourers to produce in time spans below the socially necessary labour time to produce a commodity. That socially necessary labour time is always at the core of our perception of value, of the worth of things.

    (note: Last time I try to comment this, I’m not sure if it is waiting for approval and I’m spamming, or if the comment isn’t being sent)

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    1. Hi Diego

      Thanks for your comments!

      > one could create services permanently monitoring market signals
      > in order to predict new needs and command new courses of action
      > to the (using your example) autonomous taxi fleet. Just as
      > capitalists can automate the drivers’ labour, they can do the same
      > to the labour of their managers, business experts and engineers.

      I agree, and I give this example at the 50 minute mark in my talk (under the rubric of “hybrid capital”).

      The materialist hypothesis is that, in principle, all possible human capabilities could be reverse-engineered and replicated in our machine creations. And this implies a hypothetical asymptote where machines have either identical or superior causal powers to us. If (and this is a big if) production remains organised under the rule of capital then, at this point, it will make sense to state unequivocally that such machines also create value.

      But all our machines, which exist today, and for the foreseeable future, merely have particular not general causal powers. They are particular fragments of our causal powers. In consequence, they lack the powers to *change* the conditions of every production process.

      The core argument why machines don’t create value is presented at the 37.59 to 40.26 minute mark. In essence, machines fail the Turing test for the creation of new surplus-value.

      > The way I see it, the only reason why human labour creates
      > value and dead labour doesn’t, it’s because *we* (the humans
      > who constitute our society) only care about what humans do.

      Your argument that humans create value because of what humans choose to care about would seem to directly contradict Marx’s theory, and reduce one of his core claims (that human labour is the material cause of profit) to a subjective or conventional choice.

      Regardless, it’s not true that humans only care about what humans do. We care a great deal about the precise functioning of natural and artificial machines in the production process.

      > A robot, once generalised, can’t add value because *we*
      > perceive their products as something we don’t need to
      > strive for, that we can acquire it effortlessly.

      This perception isn’t generally held. And even it it was, it would be false because machines need to be produced, maintained and eventually replaced. That’s a lot of human effort.

      > That socially necessary labour time is always at
      > the core of our perception of value, of the worth of things.

      This perception isn’t generally held either. At any moment, the subjective value of a commodity, and what people are willing to pay for it, may bear no obvious relation to its value (the socially necessary labour-time required to produce it). Many people find subjective theories of value initially appealing precisely because they are consistent with their commonsense perceptions of economic reality.

      So I think your explanation for the “reason why human labour creates value and dead labour doesn’t” isn’t consistent with Marx’s theory, and reduces to either subjectivism or conventionalism.

      A major aim of Marx’s theory of surplus-value is to understand the growth in the causal powers of society and its accumulation of wealth (under the rule of capital). From this point of view, the causal powers thesis becomes very simple to understand. Take a look at the example I give at the 46.54 to 47.59 minute mark. Consider a person (variable capital), and consider a pen (constant capital). Which one of these material elements of production is more likely to work harder or smarter to produce more output for less inputs?

      Best wishes!
      Ian.

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  2. Hi Diego, thanks for your comment. I checked and, yes, two of your previous comments got automatically sent to the wordpress spam folder. Sorry about that. I’ll reply to your point when I get a moment. Best wishes, Ian.

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