Road- and railway-building that once required hundreds or thousands of navvies with their picks and shovels now requires a few earth-moving machines and their drivers. The farm that once employed scores of men at harvest-time now uses a Claas or a John Deere or some other massive machine. The horses that pulled the ploughs and carts and wagons are no more; with them are gone the ostlers, the blacksmiths, the draymen. It's not just manual labour either. Think of the filing clerks and ledger clerks and payroll clerks replaced by computers, and of the machinists replaced by CNC machines or the car-builders replaced by robots. Or the trade I know best: journalism, writing and publishing.
I'd hate to go back to typewriters: word processors are infinitely easier and more convenient, at least when they work, which is one reason why I have several. But I used to pay a copy-typist to make fair copies, and then a type-setter would work from the fair text. What are those people doing now?
The object of the substitution of capital for labour is not just to make more money for the capitalist, or if it is, the capitalist is well deserving of being stood in front of a wall and shot. Rather, it is to make life better for everyone. What profits it the world if the ploughman or the payroll clerk can find no better employment than to polish the rich man's shoes in order to feed his children? Surely, it is not a better world in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, transparency film has been all but wiped out, along with the labs that processed it, the transparency frames, the sleeves, the filing cabinets, the loupes to look at the transparencies, the scanners, the origination houses... Now, it's all stored in a computer. Where have all the jobs gone?
It is all very well to pretend that new jobs always arise to replace the old ones, but on close analysis, this borders on the simple-minded. When it comes to new jobs, the watchword is always “efficiency” which means employing fewer people to do the same work.
Can you name any industry that has created as many jobs as it has destroyed? For many years now, computers have been held up as The Future, with capital letters, but how many jobs do they really create? For that matter, where are these jobs? The machines are built in China; the software is coded in India. The “knowledge economy” of designing either the machines or the software will never employ very many people in any country.
In most countries, national wealth and overall standards of living grew fairly consistently for at least 40 years after World War Two, though anyone honest would have to acknowledge that it grew more through technology than through the money manipulation of present-day capitalism. Even in communist Russia, the overall standard of living grew for most of those who survived the purges and the forced migrations. It grew very fast indeed in post-war Britain, not least because the Conservative governments of the 1950s and 1960s were very left-wing by Thatcherite standards and there was a great deal of slum clearance on top of what had already been achieved by the Luftwaffe.
The underlying question is this. What is the purpose of increasing national wealth? Multiplication of money for the rich, or a better life for all?
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