top of page

Real Wages Falling Amid Tech Breakthroughs

Paul Shepard

Apr 11, 2023

"...there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve" – Oscar Wilde, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism"

There is a very old folk song from England celebrating the liberatory potential of technology. Its perspective is that of happy farmers, who assert that "it's all very well to have a machine to thresh your wheat and barley clean." The song imagines the possibility that workers might benefit from the development of labor-saving technology instead of being thrust into competition with it. Of course, the conceit of the song is that the threshing machine, wheat and barley all belong to the workers themselves.

The Infernal Role of Technology

Karl Marx recognized back in 1867 that "machinery in itself shortens the hours of labor, but when employed by capital it lengthens them," that "in itself it lightens labor, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity," that "in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of those forces," and that "in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital it makes them into paupers."

Evidence abounds of the contradiction between what technology ought to mean for our lives and its infernal role under capitalism. Consider the adoption of self-checkout: I know first-hand how soul-crushing the service sector can be, because I've been a cashier. But however menial and mind-numbing such jobs are, I still lament their loss when self-checkouts appear at the grocery store, because being broke is much worse. Self-driving cars also serve to illustrate the whole hideous situation: Under a sane system, we would welcome self-driving cars and rejoice at the new abundance of freedom and ease that their introduction would mean. Instead, we fret about our country's multitude of truckers and professional drivers, for whom self-driving cars would be an utter catastrophe.

Wall Street doesn't need to care whether mechanical or human power is used in the production of goods and provision of services, because its goal is generating profit and reinvesting capital for more of the same. An employee on an assembly line and a robotic arm are interchangeable and indistinguishable to the capitalist; he will use whichever costs the least. There is perverse irony in the fact that the higher pay and better benefits workers manage to attain, the more feverishly Wall Street dreams of making them superfluous; the faster it races to replace them with machines.

Competing with Robots

It is with more than a little skepticism that we read retail giant Walmart's recent claim that mass layoffs are not expected to follow from the company's vow to service 65 percent of its stores with automation by the end of 2026. Walmart is the largest private employer in the US, with about 1.7 million US workers. It announced its ramped-up commitment to automation mere days after revealing ostensibly unrelated plans to lay off more than 2,000 people in five e-commerce facilities.

"One of the outcomes [of automation] is roles that require less physical labor but have a higher rate of pay. Over time, the company anticipates increased throughput per person, due to the automation while maintaining or even increasing its number of associates as new roles are created," Walmart said in a filing, according to Reuters.

The company contends that the low-paid work rendered unnecessary by automation will simply give way to higher-paid and more sophisticated work. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) pointed out in a January speech that despite the explosive technological growth of the last 50 years, "computers, robotics, artificial intelligence – you name it," having caused increases in productivity "unparalleled in human history," the real weekly wages for an average American worker today are 54 dollars per week less than they were in 1973. Meanwhile, the income differential between top-earning CEOs and average US workers has climbed from 20:1 in the 1950s to 399:1 today.

When it comes to people staring down the barrel of joblessness, the conversation naturally turns to retraining. Speaking about the dying US coal sector, then-presidential candidate Biden alleged back in 2019 that "anybody who can go down 3,000 feet in a mine can learn to program."

But those who insist that job security lies in "learning to code" should consider the growing and ominous reality of artificial intelligence and its looming usurpation of myriad white-collar jobs. Particularly at risk are jobs like coding, computer programming, data and market analysis, research, accounting, teaching, finance, customer service, graphic design, advertising, technical writing and journalism, according to a recent list compiled by Business Insider. Who honestly believes that jobs like these won't be just as callously discarded as those on assembly lines and in warehouses, as soon as Wall Street deems it profitable to do so?

bottom of page