Dire Similarities: Marx’s Depiction of The First Industrial Revolution & The One Which Confronts Us Today

O.T. Paynter-Wells
5 min readNov 22, 2020
Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash
  • ‘How did the proletariat originate?
    The Proletariat originated in the industrial revolution, which took place in England in the last half of the last (18th) century, and which has since then been repeated in all the civilized countries of the world.
    This industrial revolution was precipitated by the discovery of the steam engine, various spinning machines, the mechanical loom, and a whole series of other mechanical devices. These machines, which were very expensive and hence could be bought only by big capitalists, altered the whole mode of production and displaced the former workers, because the machines turned out cheaper and better commodities than the workers could produce with their inefficient spinning wheels and handlooms. The machines delivered industry wholly into the hands of the big capitalists and rendered entirely worthless the meagre property of the workers (tools, looms, etc.). The result was that the capitalists soon had everything in their hands and nothing remained to the workers. This marked the introduction of the factory system into the textile industry.
    Once the impulse to the introduction of machinery and the factory system had been given, this system spread quickly to all other branches of industry, especially cloth- and book-printing, pottery, and the metal industries.
    Labor was more and more divided among the individual workers so that the worker who previously had done a complete piece of work now did only a part of that piece. This division of labor made it possible to produce things faster and cheaper. It reduced the activity of the individual worker to simple, endlessly repeated mechanical motions which could be performed not only as well but much better by a machine. In this way, all these industries fell, one after another, under the dominance of steam, machinery, and the factory system, just as spinning and weaving had already done.
    But at the same time, they also fell into the hands of big capitalists, and their workers were deprived of whatever independence remained to them. Gradually, not only genuine manufacture but also handicrafts came within the province of the factory system as big capitalists increasingly displaced the small master craftsmen by setting up huge workshops, which saved many expenses and permitted an elaborate division of labor.
    This is how it has come about that in civilized countries at the present time nearly all kinds of labor are performed in factories — and, in nearly all branches of work, handicrafts and manufacture have been superseded. This process has, to an ever greater degree, ruined the old middle class, especially the small handicraftsmen; it has entirely transformed the condition of the workers; and two new classes have been created which are gradually swallowing up all the others. These are:
    (i) The class of big capitalists, who, in all civilized countries, are already in almost exclusive possession of all the means of subsistance and of the instruments (machines, factories) and materials necessary for the production of the means of subsistence. This is the bourgeois class, or the bourgeoisie.
    (ii) The class of the wholly propertyless, who are obliged to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get, in exchange, the means of subsistence for their support. This is called the class of proletarians, or the proletariat.’ — Karl Marx (The Principles of Communism)

The world today is undergoing what many are regarding to be ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ fuelled by the emergence of ever more sophisticated AI and robotics technologies. Many industries-or rather workers within them- are at risk of being replaced by tech which is steadily becoming more efficient than they are at certain skilled and unskilled labour activities (although the effects of this will disproportionately affect the ‘un/low-skilled’ occupations). The ONS (Office for National Statistics) predicts at least 1.5 million jobs are at high risk of being automated here in the UK ;‘ the three occupations with the highest probability of automation are waiters and waitresses, shelf fillers and elementary sales occupations, all of which are low skilled or routine.’ —( .GOV ) Much the same as the fall of Britain’s manufacturing industries, the affect of this trend towards tech over human labour will be felt disastrously in the north. The ONS predicts >59% of jobs could be lost in some areas, Lincolnshire, Doncaster and Yorkshire to name a few.

The commonalities between our current situation and that which confronted Marx in the 19th Century are clear to see. In place of the steam engine and spinning wheel we have self-checkouts and automated call technologies, an inherent and concerning difference between 19th Century machinery and modern tech though, is that , the robotics and AI of today is capable of replacing the human worker entirely, whereas the machinery of yesterday only reduced their participation in the production of a given commodity. Through our perpetual obsession with technological advancement we have rendered ourselves null in void. ‘[ The industrial revolution] reduced the activity of the individual worker to simple, endlessly repeated mechanical motions which could be performed not only as well but much better by a machine’ — (Karl Marx ‘The Principles of Communism), to Marx, this mechanisation of labour and the workers alienation from the end product of their toils bred unhappiness and an unfulfilled society, the phenomena confronting us today are threatening the structure of society itself.

Jobs, even those deemed ‘unskilled’, give people meaning, responsibility and a sense of contribution to society. What will happen to the masses of people who have been displaced by robotics and software ? What will be their contribution to society ? How will they fill their time and earn a living? The introduction of UBI (Universal Basic Income) is one such solution often provided by those prudent enough to comment on the impending automation of the workforce. However this approach brings with it many complications, any political paradigm which has vast sums of a population entirely dependent on state pay-outs with no means to produce their own capital, is one deserving of rigorous scrutiny and analysis as it has the potential to provoke totalitarianism and eradicate social mobility. Even if UBI was an adequate solution to the issue of subsistence, how would an individual contribute to society or find meaning in their activities? Voluntary work is one such plausible solution which would require a massive shift of cultural thought in regards to work being associated with the earing of capital.

To take a more sinister -but nevertheless realistic- perspective, the gradual progression of technology has been steadily reducing the input and thus necessity of people in society until today where the evolution of software is at such a point where it could eradicate them entirely. How can we be assured that, in our new function-less state, the powerful won’t believe us obsolete and do their best to eradicate those of us who no longer provide a direct service to society? Such a notion is by no means beyond the scope of possibility nor does it exist outside the malevolent capacities of human nature and so much caution should be taken when following this road to automation.