The Lessons of 1917 for the American Revolution

[This article originated in the pages of Rally Comrades! vol. 19.  It makes sense to look at this on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution to learn the lessons for today.]

Communism: Practical resolution to immediate problems

Socialism is becoming more popular in America. According to an April 9, 2009 poll by Rasmussen Reports, only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The same poll found that younger Americans are most favorably inclined with 33% of adults under 30 preferring socialism. Americans today are changing their minds about socialism and capitalism, but without a clear understanding of what socialism is.

At a moment in history when the transition from industrial to electronic production is forcing global economic and social reorganization, understanding the difference between capitalism, socialism and communism helps us envision a future society that meets the needs of all and a strategy to achieve it.

After decades in which socialism has been painted as evil, lawless, and totalitarian to forestall criticism of capitalism as an economic system, people’s minds have been opened by the turmoil of the economic crisis and the government’s bailout of the banks, not the people.

The ruling class has discredited alternative economic systems – socialism and communism – as unpatriotic or impossible by equating socialism and communism with dictatorship while treating capitalism and democracy as one and the same. In fact, both democracy and dictatorship are forms of political systems. Capitalism, socialism and communism are economic systems.

Socialism an economic system

Economic systems are the set of relations between people and classes in social production, essentially who owns the means of production and how the product is distributed.

Under the economic system of capitalism, the capitalist class owns the means of production (factories, transport, etc.) as private property – in contrast to public property (like schools and fire stations), or personal property (like homes and cars). The basic law of capitalism – competition in the production of commodities to maximize profits – results in poverty, war, colonial exploitation, monopolies, and crisis.

Capitalists hire workers to produce commodities, which are socially produced, but privately owned by the capitalists, and then sold for profit. The state provides an infrastructure to assist the capitalist class in maximizing profit and towards this end provides some basic necessities (such as schools, unemployment insurance, and social security) to maintain a workforce and ward off starvation, social chaos, and revolution.

Under the economic system of socialism, the means of production are not in the private hands of the capitalists, but are socially owned by the state or by cooperatives. Production is planned by the state with the goal of satisfying the constantly rising requirements of society through expanding production.

Under socialism, the product is distributed to those who work either directly in the form of payment for work or socially through public goods and services and the development of public industry. Money and exchange based on the value of commodities – which is the essence of capitalist production – continue to operate in some spheres and influence economic planning.

d488e178abdcf68f841e637309028151Under the economic system of communism, the means of production are publicly owned and capable of producing abundance sufficient to meet the needs of all of society. The use of money disappears because commodities are no longer produced for a market, but for distribution on the basis of need.

Socialism a stage

At every stage in the history of society, the development of the means of production make possible certain kinds of economic systems. The basic implements of animal husbandry and seasonal planting of crops made possible the economic system of slavery. The steam engine, factories, and ocean-going ships opened up the era of industrial production, which made possible the economic systems of socialism and capitalism.

The socialist movement was born in the period of transition from agriculture to industry as serfs and peasants were driven off the land to seek survival as wage-slaves in the deae1aecbfebeeb823a15bacb423a061--russian-propaganda-propaganda-artmiserable conditions of the earliest factories. In many countries political parties of the working class organized and led this new class in a political battle for power to control the state and their own destiny.

The Bolshevik Party of Russia was the clearest example of this struggle for socialism. It succeeded in leading the Russian proletariat to victory against the Tsar and the new capitalist class to win state power for the working people of Russia in 1917. This political victory enabled the Russian working class to establish socialism. After taking power they faced the challenge of wrenching a backward, agrarian economy out of semi-feudalism and building a domestic industry in the aftermath of WWI and the destruction of WWII. Socialism in the Soviet Union – and other socialist countries – was understood to be the first stage toward communism.

In the era of industrial production, the vision of a world without exploitation, hunger and war galvanized the working class movement for communism, but industrial production was unable to create the material conditions required for a communist economic system. The idea of communism preceded the possibility.

Today, in this era of electronic production, the reverse is true. Now, the material conditions for communism exist, but the ideas are lagging behind.

Communism possible today

The introduction of electronics into production has created the conditions for this abundance and thus Soviet style socialism of the 20th Century is no longer necessary or possible. In the 21st century, the global capitalist system has reached a stage where goods can be produced with little or no labor. The global capitalist system is no longer growing and expanding and is in a deep crisis as a result. The transition from industrial capitalism to electronic production is forcing global economic and social reorganization.

A level of production has been achieved through electronics that makes communism possible. This is the turning point at which we stand today.

Humanity today faces the choice: will we do away with private property and build a future for all or will a system of private property be preserved at the expense of human beings and the planet? Electronics is reducing a class that was once an essential element of industrial production to redundancy. Attempts to do no more than blunt the worst effects of capitalism may be well-meaning, but they divert energy from the tasks ahead.

More and more Americans are joining the ranks of those dispossessed by capitalism world-wide. A class that has nothing to gain from private ownership of the means of production has to take the reins of power and construct an economic system that can sustain a better world. The struggle today is not the struggle of the last century to expand industrial production. Nor is it the social-democratic struggle to increase the crumbs that fall from the table of the world’s billionaires. Though people may have different ideas about and different ways of describing it, at this moment in history, the essence of every struggle for a better life is objectively the struggle for communism. Communism is not just an idea, but the practical resolution to immediate problems. Nationalization of health care is a matter of survival for millions. The people of Detroit must take over the water corporations or go without water in their homes. Either we control the corporations or they control us.

In the U.S., the working class is skilled and educated. It has one of the highest levels of production in the world. It has two centuries of experience in the world’s first democratic republic. It is the inheritor of the American Revolution, a civil war that ended slavery, and broad movements for labor and civil rights. With the political power to transition private to public property, American creativity, efficiency and “can-do” spirit will make short work of the transition to an economic system in which the abundance we produce is held in common and benefits all.

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Digital Economy: Broad Restructuring of the Economy and Daily Life by Ali Hangan

Ali Hangan writes:

Hi folks,

I hope you are enjoying your Summer. I recently visited my son. He is working in Fortuna, CA. A small rural outpost, located off Highway 101 in Humboldt County, dotted with strip malls and sparse retail establishments. Without a car and few places to shop, I assumed he would have a chance to save a substantial amount of money. He revealed he had spent his entire first two paychecks, but managed to save his money from the last couple of checks he received. Feeling relieved that he had saved some of his money, I asked him how he was able to shop so much without a car? His reply, “I ordered everything from Amazon.”

My conversation with my son illustrates the extent e-commerce’s is taking over the retail space. Any consumer can access a global bazaar of products and services from any location in the world from a smartphone. Secondly, towns with small populations are at a disadvantage in the new age of e-commerce in keeping retail jobs. The more labor intensive retail activities, such as filling orders and stocking shelves, are being situated closer to urban markets to shorten the supply chain to cut cost and maximize efficiency. Another aspect of the process is demographics: My 19-year-old son, like many in his generation, view the smartphone as the first step to engaging the retail environment.

Beyond the shrinking of jobs, e-commerce is impacting broader sectors of the economy related to retail. For instance, commercial real estate and holder’s of commercial debt (i.e. banking) can expect a loss of market value and return on investment, due to the decline of brick and mortar storefronts. Moreover, cities that have long relied on retail taxes to pay for city services, finance capital improvement bonds, and maintain public employee pensions, will confront fierce headwinds to meet their financial obligations as tax revenue withers away.

In sum, the digital revolution cannot be viewed as industry specific, but a broad restructuring of the economy and daily life. The articles that follow illustrate the ebb and flow of the decline of brick and mortar retail, in light of e-commerce, throughout rural and suburban America.

One love,

AH

New York Times

In Towns Already Hit by Steel Mill Closings, a New Casualty: Retail Jobs

Thousands of workers face unemployment as retailers struggle to adapt to online shopping. But even as e-commerce grows, it isn’t absorbing these workers.

By RACHEL ABRAMS and ROBERT GEBELOFFJUNE 25, 2017

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Dawn Nasewicz comes from a family of steelworkers, with jobs that once dominated the local economy. She found her niche in retail.

She manages a store, Ooh La La, that sells prom dresses and embroidered jeans at a local mall. But just as the jobs making automobile springs and rail anchors disappeared, local retail jobs are now vanishing.

“I need my income,” said Ms. Nasewicz, who was told that her store will close as early as

00retail-6-superJumbo

Sporting Goods store going out of business in Johnstown, PA.

August. “I’m 53. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Ms. Nasewicz is another retail casualty, one of tens of thousands of workers facing unemployment nationwide as the industry struggles to adapt to online shopping.

Small cities in the Midwest and Northeast are particularly vulnerable. When major industries left town, retail accounted for a growing share of the job market in places like Johnstown, Decatur, Ill., and Saginaw, Mich. Now, the work force is getting hit a second time, and there is little to fall back on.

Moreover, [read full story here]

* * * * * *

Forbes  magazine/ Bloomberg News

Amazon Robots Poised to Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses

The retailer could bring its distribution technology to the grocery chain
By
Spencer Soper and Alex Sherman
June 26, 2017, 4:00 AM PDT

When Amazon.com Inc.’s $13.7 billion bid to buy Whole Foods was announced, John Mackey, the grocer’s chief executive officer, addressed employees, gushing about Amazon’s technological innovation.

“We will be joining a company that’s visionary,” Mackey said, according to a transcript ofth the meeting. “I think we’re gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we’re gonna see a lot of technology. I think you’re gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds.”

A major question about the acquisition is what Amazon’s technology will mean for those Whole Foods’ workers. Will it make their jobs obsolete?

In negotiations, Amazon spent a lot of time analyzing Whole Foods’ distribution technology, pointing to a possible way in which the company sees the most immediate opportunities to reduce costs, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the issue was private. Amazon, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did Whole Foods.

Experts say the most immediate changes would likely be in warehouses that customers never see. That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe– for now.

“The easiest place for Amazon to bring its expertise to bear is in the warehouses, because that’s where Amazon really excels,” Hawkins said. “If they can reduce costs, they can show that on the store shelves and move Whole Foods away from the Whole Paycheck image.”

Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, [read full article here]

Ali Hangan writes – The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

by Ali Hangan

Folks,

The black population’s history is one of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, the population has suffered over 400 years of slavery and entrenched segregation. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement is considered an American success story. The Civil Rights movement opened up a renewed sense of optimism for the future of the black working class and other oppressed groups. But in the late 1970’s and 80’s, that spirit of optimism began to wane.

American industry confronted with increased competition from abroad, cut costs by outsourcing work and adopting automation. A large swath of black workers in the cities that were once employed became unemployed and ultimately became unemployable. Those families that could move left to the suburbs leaving the remaining population on urban islands with few economic opportunities.

The lack of economic opportunities in the urban black communities provided a fertile ground for a drug economy. Crack cocaine and the culture associated with the drug began to spread at epidemic levels throughout the nation. In the wake of the crack epidemic more intensified policing policies arose in response. The purpose of these policies was not to stop crack per se, but rather to prevent its spread among the more politically organized suburban communities. The tactics to carry out these new policies became the genesis of increased militarization of the police.

The enhanced police tactics entered into the national consciousness by black Hip Hop th-6artists. In 1985, Toddy Tee produced “Battleram” about the LAPD armored vehicle used to smash in crack houses. In 1988, the song “Fuck the Police” by NWA told the story of police intimidation of young black males. And in 1990, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy called upon black communities to defend themselves against the police.

While these songs brought a consciousness to the Gestapo tactics being used to police black communities, it paradoxically renewed old stereotypes about urban black males. With the music industry’s new marketing of music through videos in the 1980’s, they streamed images of black males as gang members into households across the country. This perception of a “black Armageddon” on MTV shifted public opinion toward support of a more comprehensive strategy to police urban black communities.

The new strategy fell under the auspices of the Federal drug enforcement policy, which became known as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs began during the Nixon Administration in 1971. It was a Federal campaign for the prohibition of drugs and enhanced military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a push for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. In 1989, under now, President George H. W. Bush, he authorized the creation of a Federal Drug Czar to oversee the war on drugs. Later, raised to a cabinet-level position by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Currently, the Federal Government spends 51 billion annually on the war on drugs. [citation]

The War on drugs has had a devastating effect on the black population:

“The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black.” —- 40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People, Common Dreams, June 2nd, 2015

“The War on Drugs targets Black people. Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system. Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana. Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six war-on-drugs1times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons. ” [Ibid]

The same process that I have attempted to describe amongst the black population is reaching into much broader sections of the working class. Since the economic crash of 2008, capitalism has transitioned into a new stage of development. The increased demands on American companies to compete in the “Just in time” global economy has compelled each to be more flexible adopting more advanced automation and robots. The results have been increased productivity but at the expense of middle-income and unionized jobs impacting many white workers.

The latest wave of economic restructuring has had strong parallels to the process that began in the urban black communities in the 1980’s. This process of decay amongst the white working class has manifested in two visible ways:

1) The surge in the use of meth among the white population.
2) The groundswell of support by the white working class of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back protectionist policies.

The first two articles that follow focus on the black population but, should be viewed more broadly as a canary in the cage for the entire American working class. In other words, the declining social conditions of the black population provides us with a window into the future for the entire working class as a whole. The flip side is this: As more sections of the working class become equally impoverished it creates a practical basis to move beyond silly notions of race to unify workers politically around a broader class struggle for their common economic survival.

What do you think?

One love,

AH
Excerpt from The incredible crushing despair of the white working class:

“Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup’s data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.

Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.

Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.”

“Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of “a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers,” Graham said in an email. “Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have … they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they.”

And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.”

The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today
KPCC Airtalk with Larry Mantle: The Movement for Black Lives platform and politics

Half of US jobs could be taken by robots in the next 20 years — here’s how likely it is that yours will be one of them

The incredible crushing despair of the white working class
— “The heights by great men [and women] reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” —- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Nelson Peery: Why Is African American History The Heart of American History?

Portrait of David

Illustration from The Future Is Up To Us, Portrait of David, painting  by Diana Berek

This is the beginning of Black History Month, February 1, 2016, and I think it’s appropriate to quote from Nelson Peery’s The Future Is Up To Us:

WHY IS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY THE HEART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?

To suggest such an analysis is bound to make the majority of eyebrows arch upward. African Americans have always been looked upon and treated as if they were at best on the periphery of our coun- try’s history. Their being marginalized in the social and economic sense reinforces this outlook. Nevertheless any serious inquiry into history will show that the control, manipulation and exploitation of the African American was at the heart of every major and most of the minor decisions of state prior to the Civil War, and a good many of them afterwards.

Let’s start at the beginning. For a number of ideological and political reasons, the American colonies resisted African slavery, pre- ferring to populate the New World with European indentured ser- vants. In the Caribbean, the plantation and slave system was being fine-tuned. There, unheard-of fortunes were accumulated on the basis of the most reckless expenditure of human life known to history. A goodly portion of the colonies’ economic intercourse was servicing the slave system of the Caribbean. The colonies were never discon- nected from African slavery. It was not some inopportune landing of a Spanish ship carrying twenty African captives that inaugurated

African slavery in the colonies. As the capitalist system evolved from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantations, capitalism became firmly planted in the colonies and slavery was its inevitable result. Every colony had slavery, and none of the colonies, north or south, could have accumulated and economically moved forward without the brutal working to death of the slave.

Rudimentary capitalist agriculture—that is agriculture for the market, rather than consumption—never reckoned with ecology or preservation of the land. This is especially true of cotton culture. The solution was the constant westward motion for virgin land. I often laugh at these falsifiers of history who wave the flag and talk about the westward move of liberty. In fact, it was the westward move of slavery. Two examples that come to mind are the removal of the five

“civilized” (i.e., slave-holding) Indian tribes from their native lands to the Oklahoma Territory. The “Trail of Tears” is an indelible moral condemnation of U.S. state policy for the expansion of slavery. The Indians suffered terribly on that journey. Can you imagine the con- dition of their African slaves?

The other instance was the annexation of Texas and later the war against Mexico and the ripping-off of half her national territory. There was no other reason for this expansionism but the promulga- tion of slavery. The westward march of liberty is a joke.

Most people understand that the Civil War was fought over the African Americans’ condition as slaves. Few realize that Wilson probably would not have been elected if Blacks were able to vote. Certainly, Roosevelt would not have won his third term without a solid African American vote. This goes for Truman and a number of presidents who changed the political direction of the country.

Take a look at the body of law developed around the control of labor. Every single one of these oppressive laws had their foun- dation in the control of the African American. If we go beyond the written law it is easily seen that the control of a disjointed working class was achieved through uniting the white worker and capitalist to exclude the African American.

In the realm of culture, if it weren’t for the African Americans we would still be dancing the minuet. At the heart of American cul- ture beats the culture of the African American people. They would not have created this culture if not for the isolation, brutality and segregation that lies at the heart of the African Americans as a people. Eleanor Roosevelt put it quite well when she said that apart from the culture of the Indian, the culture of the African American is the only American culture. Clearly everything else was an ethnic culture brought over from the old world. The other aspect is, it is becom- ing a world culture. Every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve been shocked by the breadth of the assimilation of this culture into French, British, Egyptian—what have you—popular culture.

So when we say that the African Americans are at the heart of American history, we don’t mean to imply that they were in control of that history. The sad fact is that up until the integration period, con- trolling and manipulating the Black ten percent was the way to con- trol the white majority. This is the only way we can make sense of a history that gives the world the most exalted visions along with the most brutal and callous exploitation and destruction of human life.

Pedagogy, The Digital Age and The Precariat — Jandric and Giroux in Counterpunch

Critical Pedagogy in and for the Age of the Digital Media
Pedagogy of the Precariat (published in the June 12-14 2015 Counterpunch)
by PETAR JANDRIC and HENRY A. GIROUX
Haunted digital borders and alternative public spheresth

Petar Jandrić: Thank you a lot for agreeing to this conversation, Henry! One of the central concepts in your work is border crossing, which “prompts teachers and students to raise new questions and develop models of analysis outside the officially sanctioned boundaries of knowledge and the established disciplines that control them” (Giroux and Searls Giroux, 2004: 102). This concept gains additional relevance with the advent of another border – the so-called electronic frontier (Rheingold, 1995). Could you please apply your concept of border crossing to learning in the age of information technologies?

Henry Giroux: When I first started thinking about the concept, one of the things that I was concerned with was the way in which various borders operate in various formations and ideological and political locations to basically shut people down from asking dangerous questions or pursuing questions outside of established paradigms. At the heart of that concern was the question of the political. How do you theorise the americas-ed-deficit-300x449political in a world where borders are rapidly increasing? How do you theorise the political in a world where borders are really pushing people back into all kinds of silos – from those organised around prejudice and racism, to those organised around the instrumentalization of knowledge itself? And how are those borders organised in the ways that so limit what intellectuals and academics can do? At the university, academics often end up speaking in languages that are utterly abstract, languages that speak to five or six people. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they have no sense what it means to speak to broader publics. At the same time, I was not arguing that difficult language is not sometimes necessary or that theory does not matter. On the contrary, I was arguing that theory needed to become worldly, unfettered by jargon, and be both accessible while addressing broader publics. Border crossing was a critique of theoreticism, theory for its own sake, unfettered by any interest in the larger world.

So the notion of border really took on several registers. One of the registers was political. How do you want to understand the notion of crossing borders in ways that expand the possibilities of people to be able to narrate themselves and understand the context in which they find themselves in order to, in some ways, both resist and overcome those kinds of barriers that shut down their capacity to be individual and social agents? The second issue is around the notion of social responsibility. What kinds of borders are put in play in ways that separate, for instance, instrumental knowledge from questions of social cost and larger social problems?

And I think, with regards to your question about how this applies to technology, that technologies are haunted by a ghostly presence to public memories rooted in a . . . read the whole article here.

Ali Hangan Shares Ideas About a New Society in Birth

Ali Hangan writes:

 

Folks,

Karl Marx points out in his critique of the capitalist mode of production that, “Capitalism creates its own gravediggers.” In other words, capitalist production rationally leads to labor less production or the replacement of living labor with dead labor. Marx’s basic logic is this: Competition among capitalists compel every capitalist to cut costs by replacing the worker with a machine/robot. Robots are a one-time capital expenditure and do not require wages, benefits and coffee breaks. The worker that is replaced by the robot is also the customer for the product that the capitalist produces. Without an income, the worker/customer cannot shop, and the capitalist has no customer resulting in a negation of the money based distribution system, that provides the grease for the wheels of capitalist production. While at the sametime, the productive capabilities of robotic production create the material possibilities for a post-capitalist society. A society that frees humanity up from the burden of work and toil. Certainly, in the present, the capitalist grave is not being dug just yet, but Martin Ford again lays out compelling evidence that a plot has been reserved in the cemetery for the capitalist system.
AH
:)RR

Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption” is followed by New York Times Book Review ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ and Store Where Robots Sell Robots

 

Excerpts from Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption”:

“Japan’s Kura sushi restaurant chain has already successfully pioneered an automation strategy. In the chain’s 262 restaurants, robots help make the sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters. To ensure freshness, the system keeps track of how long individual sushi plates have been circulating and automatically removes those that reach their expiration time. Customers order using touch panel screens, and when they are finished dining they place the empty dishes in a slot near their table. The system automatically tabulates the bill and then cleans the plates and whisks them back to the kitchen. Rather than employing store managers at each location, Kura uses centralized facilities where managers are able to remotely monitor nearly every aspect of restaurant operations. Kura’s automation-based business model allows it to price sushi plates at just 100 yen (about $1), significantly undercutting its competitors.”
“Vending machines make it possible to dramatically reduce three of the most significant costs incurred in the retail business: real estate, labor, and theft by customers and employees. In addition to providing 24-hour service, many of the machines include video screens and are able to offer targeted point-of-sale advertising that’s geared toward enticing customers to purchase related products in much the same way that a human sales clerk might do. They can also collect customer email addresses and send receipts. In essence, the machines offer many of the advantages of online ordering, with the added benefit of instant delivery.”

“In 2010, David Dunning was the regional operations supervisor responsible for overseeing the maintenance and restocking of Redbox movie rental kiosks in the Chicago area. Redbox has over 42,000 kiosks in the United States and Canada, typically located at convenience stores and supermarkets, and rents about 2 million videos per day. Dunning managed the Chicago-area kiosks with a staff of just seven…. While the jobs that Dunning and his staff have are certainly interesting and desirable, in number they are a fraction of what a traditional retail chain would create. The now-defunct Blockbuster, for example, once had dozens of stores in greater Chicago, each employing its own sales staff. At its peak, Blockbuster had a total of about 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. That works out to about seven jobs per store—roughly the same number that Redbox employed in the entire region serviced by Dunning’s team.”

 

Salon.com
SUNDAY, MAY 10, 2015 10:30 AM PDT
Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption”
Says one builder: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them”
MARTIN FORD
Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption”

Julie Hagerty and Leslie Neilsen in Airplane!” (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

In the United States and other advanced economies, the major disruption will be in the service sector—which is, after all, where the vast majority of workers are now employed. This trend is already evident in areas like ATMs and self-service checkout lanes, but the next decade is likely to see an explosion of new forms of service sector automation, potentially putting millions of relatively low-wage jobs at risk.

San Francisco start-up company Momentum Machines, Inc., has set out to fully automate the production of gourmet-quality hamburgers. Whereas a fast food worker might toss a frozen patty onto the grill, Momentum Machines’ device shapes burgers from freshly ground meat and then grills them to order—including even the ability to add just the right amount of char while retaining all the juices. The machine, which is capable of producing about 360 hamburgers per hour, also toasts the bun and then slices and adds fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and pickles only after the order is placed. Burgers arrive assembled and ready to serve on a conveyer belt. While most robotics companies take great care to spin a positive tale when it comes to the potential impact on employment, Momentum Machines co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas is very forthright about the company’s objective: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” he said. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.” The company estimates that the average fast food restaurant spends about $135,000 per year on wages for employees who produce hamburgers and that the total labor cost for burger production for the US economy is about $9 billion annually. Momentum Machines believes its device will pay for itself in less than a year, and it plans to target not just restaurants but also convenience stores, food trucks, and perhaps even vending machines. The company argues that eliminating labor costs and reducing the amount of space required in kitchens will allow restaurants to spend more on high-quality ingredients, enabling them to offer gourmet hamburgers at fast food prices.

Those burgers might sound very inviting, but they would come at a considerable cost. Millions of people hold low-wage, often part-time, jobs in the fast food and beverage industries. McDonald’s alone employs about 1.8 million workers in 34,000 restaurants worldwide. Historically, low wages, few benefits, and a high turnover rate have helped to make fast food jobs relatively easy to find, and fast food jobs, together with other low-skill positions in retail, have provided a kind of private sector safety net for workers with few other options: these jobs have traditionally offered an income of last resort when no better alternatives are available. In December 2013, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked “combined food preparation and serving workers,” a category that excludes waiters and waitresses in full-service restaurants, as one of the top employment sectors in terms of the number of job openings projected over the course of the decade leading up to 2022—with nearly half a million new jobs and another million openings to replace workers who leave the industry.

In the wake of the Great Recession, however, the rules that used to apply to fast food employment are changing rapidly. In 2011, McDonald’s launched a high-profile initiative to hire 50,000 new workers in a single day and received over a million applications—a ratio that made landing a McJob more of a statistical long shot than getting accepted at Harvard. While fast food employment was once dominated by young people looking for a part-time income while in school, the industry now employs far more mature workers who rely on the jobs as their primary income. Nearly 90 percent of fast food workers are twenty or older, and the average age is thirty-five. Many of these older workers have to support families—a nearly impossible task at a median wage of just $8.69 per hour.

The industry’s low wages and nearly complete lack of benefits have drawn intensive criticism. In October 2013, McDonald’s was lambasted after an employee who called the company’s financial help line was advised to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Indeed, an analysis by the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that more than half of the families of fast food workers are enrolled in some type of public assistance program and that the resulting cost to US taxpayers is nearly $7 billion per year.

When a spate of protests and ad hoc strikes at fast food restaurants broke out in New York and then spread to more than fifty US cities in the fall of 2013, the Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank with close ties to the restaurant and hotel industries, placed a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal warning that “Robots Could Soon Replace Fast Food Workers Demanding a Higher Minimum Wage.” While the ad was doubtless intended as a scare tactic, the reality is that—as the Momentum Machines device demonstrates—increased automation in the fast food industry is almost certainly inevitable. Given that companies like Foxconn are introducing robots to perform high-precision electronic assembly in China, there is little reason to believe that machines won’t also eventually be serving up burgers, tacos, and lattes across the fast food industry.

Japan’s Kura sushi restaurant chain has already successfully pioneered an automation strategy. In the chain’s 262 restaurants, robots help make the sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters. To ensure freshness, the system keeps track of how long individual sushi plates have been circulating and automatically removes those that reach their expiration time. Customers order using touch panel screens, and when they are finished dining they place the empty dishes in a slot near their table. The system automatically tabulates the bill and then cleans the plates and whisks them back to the kitchen. Rather than employing store managers at each location, Kura uses centralized facilities where managers are able to remotely monitor nearly every aspect of restaurant operations. Kura’s automation-based business model allows it to price sushi plates at just 100 yen (about $1), significantly undercutting its competitors.

It’s fairly easy to envision many of the strategies that have worked for Kura, especially automated food production and offsite management, eventually being adopted across the fast food industry. Some significant steps have already been taken in that direction; McDonalds, for example, announced in 2011 that it would install touch screen ordering systems at 7,000 of its European restaurants. Once one of the industry’s major players begins to gain significant advantages from increased automation, the others will have little choice but to follow suit. Automation will also offer the ability to compete on dimensions beyond lower labor costs. Robotic production might be viewed as more hygienic since fewer workers would come into contact with the food. Convenience, speed, and order accuracy would increase, as would the ability to customize orders. Once a customer’s preferences were recorded at one restaurant, automation would make it a simple matter to consistently produce the same results at other locations.

Given all this, I think it is quite easy to imagine that a typical fast food restaurant may eventually be able to cut its workforce by 50 percent, or perhaps even more. At least in the United States, the fast food market is already so saturated that it seems very unlikely that new restaurants could make up for such a dramatic reduction in the number of workers required at each location. And this, of course, would mean that a great many of the job openings forecast by the Bureau of Labor Statistics might never materialize.

The other major concentration of low-wage service jobs is in the general retail sector. Economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics rank “retail salesperson” second only to “registered nurse” as the specific occupation that will add the most jobs in the decade ending in 2020 and expect over 700,000 new jobs to be created. Once again, however, technology has the potential to make the government projections seem optimistic. We can probably anticipate that three major forces will shape employment in the retail sector going forward.

The first will be the continuing disruption of the industry by online retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Netflix. The competitive advantage that online suppliers have over brick and mortar stores is already, of course, evident with the demise of major retail chains like Circuit City, Borders, and Blockbuster. Both Amazon and eBay are experimenting with same-day delivery in a number of US cities, with the objective of undermining one of the last major advantages that local retail stores still enjoy: the ability to provide immediate gratification after a purchase.

In theory, the encroachment of online retailers should not necessarily destroy jobs but, rather, would transition them from traditional retail settings to the warehouses and distribution centers used by the online companies. However, the reality is that once jobs move to a warehouse they become far easier to automate. Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a warehouse robotics company in 2012. Kiva’s robots, which look a bit like huge, roving hockey pucks, are designed to move materials within warehouses. Rather than having workers roam the aisles selecting items, a Kiva robot simply zips under an entire pallet or shelving unit, lifts it, and then brings it directly to the worker packing an order. The robots navigate autonomously using a grid laid out by barcodes attached to the floor and are used to automate warehouse operations at a variety of major retailers in addition to Amazon, including Toys “R” Us, the Gap, Walgreens, and Staples.

A year after the acquisition, Amazon had about 1,400 Kiva robots in operation but had only begun the process of integrating the machines into its massive warehouses. One Wall Street analyst estimates that the robots will ultimately allow the company to cut its order fulfillment costs by as much as 40 percent.

The Kroger Company, one of the largest grocery retailers in the United States, has also introduced highly automated distribution centers. Kroger’s system is capable of receiving pallets containing large supplies of a single product from vendors and then disassembling them and creating new pallets containing a variety of different products that are ready to ship to stores. It is also able to organize the way that products are stacked on the mixed pallets in order to optimize the stocking of shelves once they arrive at stores. The automated warehouses completely eliminate the need for human intervention, except for loading and unloading the pallets onto trucks. The obvious impact that these automated systems have on jobs has not been lost on organized labor, and the Teamsters Union has repeatedly clashed with Kroger, as well as other grocery retailers, over their introduction. Both the Kiva robots and Kroger’s automated system do leave some jobs for people, and these are primarily in areas, such as packing a mixture of items for final shipment to customers, that require visual recognition and dexterity. Of course, these are the very areas in which innovations like Industrial Perception’s box-moving robots are rapidly advancing the technical frontier.

The second transformative force is likely to be the explosive growth of the fully automated self-service retail sector—or, in other words, intelligent vending machines and kiosks. One study projects that the value of products and services vended in this market will grow from about $740 billion in 2010 to more than $1.1 trillion by 2015.Vending machines have progressed far beyond dispensing sodas, snacks, and lousy instant coffee, and sophisticated machines that sell consumer electronics products like Apple’s iPod and iPad are now common in airports and upscale hotels. AVT, Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of automated retail machines, claims that it can design a custom self-service solution for virtually any product. Vending machines make it possible to dramatically reduce three of the most significant costs incurred in the retail business: real estate, labor, and theft by customers and employees. In addition to providing 24-hour service, many of the machines include video screens and are able to offer targeted point-of-sale advertising that’s geared toward enticing customers to purchase related products in much the same way that a human sales clerk might do. They can also collect customer email addresses and send receipts. In essence, the machines offer many of the advantages of online ordering, with the added benefit of instant delivery.

While the proliferation of vending machines and kiosks is certain to eliminate traditional retail sales jobs, these machines will also, of course, create jobs in areas like maintenance, restocking, and repair. The number of those new jobs, however, is likely to be more limited than you might expect. The latest-generation machines are directly connected to the Internet and provide a continuous stream of sales and diagnostic data; they are also specifically designed to minimize the labor costs associated with their operation.

In 2010, David Dunning was the regional operations supervisor responsible for overseeing the maintenance and restocking of Redbox movie rental kiosks in the Chicago area. Redbox has over 42,000 kiosks in the United States and Canada, typically located at convenience stores and supermarkets, and rents about 2 million videos per day. Dunning managed the Chicago-area kiosks with a staff of just seven. Restocking the machines is highly automated; in fact, the most labor-intensive aspect of the job is swapping the translucent movie advertisements displayed on the kiosk—a process that typically takes less than two minutes for each machine. Dunning and his staff divide their time between the warehouse, where new movies arrive, and their cars and homes, where they are able to access and manage the machines via the Internet. The kiosks are designed from the ground up for remote maintenance. For example, if a machine jams it will report this immediately, and a technician can log in with his or her laptop computer, jiggle the mechanism, and fix the problem without the need to visit the site. New movies are typically released on Tuesdays, but the machines can be restocked at any time prior to that; the kiosk will automatically make the movies available for rental at the right time. That allows technicians to schedule restocking visits to avoid traffic.

While the jobs that Dunning and his staff have are certainly interesting and desirable, in number they are a fraction of what a traditional retail chain would create. The now-defunct Blockbuster, for example, once had dozens of stores in greater Chicago, each employing its own sales staff. At its peak, Blockbuster had a total of about 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. That works out to about seven jobs per store—roughly the same number that Redbox employed in the entire region serviced by Dunning’s team.

The third major force likely to disrupt employment in the retail sector will be the introduction of increased automation and robotics into stores as brick and mortar retailers strive to remain competitive. The same innovations that are enabling manufacturing robots to advance the frontier in areas like physical dexterity and visual recognition will eventually allow retail automation to begin moving from warehouses into more challenging and varied environments like stocking shelves in stores. In fact, as far back as 2005, Walmart was already investigating the possibility of using robots that rove store aisles at night and automatically scan barcodes in order to track product inventories.

At the same time, self-service checkout aisles and in-store information kiosks are sure to become easier to use, as well as more common. Mobile devices will also become an ever more important self-service tool. Future shoppers will rely more and more on their phones as a way to shop, pay, and get help and information about products while in traditional retail settings. The mobile disruption of retail is already under way. Walmart, for example, is testing an experimental program that allows shoppers to scan barcodes and then checkout and pay with their phones—completely avoiding long checkout lines. Silvercar, a start-up rental car company, offers the capability to reserve and pick up a car without ever having to interact with a rental clerk; the customer simply scans a barcode to unlock the car and then drives away. As natural language technology like Apple’s Siri or even more powerful systems like IBM’s Watson continue to advance and become more affordable, it’s easy to imagine shoppers soon being able to ask their mobile devices for assistance in much the same way they might ask a store employee. The difference, of course, is that the customer will never have to wait for or hunt down the employee; the virtual assistant will always be instantly available and will rarely, if ever, give an inaccurate answer.

While many retailers may choose to bring automation into traditional retail configurations, others may instead elect to entirely redesign stores—perhaps, in essence, turning them into scaled-up vending machines. Stores of this type might consist of an automated warehouse with an attached showroom where customers could examine product samples and place orders. Orders might then be delivered directly to customers, or perhaps even loaded robotically into vehicles. Regardless of the specific technological path ultimately followed by the retail industry, it’s difficult to imagine that the eventual result won’t be more robots and machines—and significantly fewer jobs for people.

Excerpted from “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” by Martin Ford. Published by Basic Books, a division of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2015 by Martin Ford. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Martin Ford, the founder of a Silicon Valley–based software development firm, has over twenty-five years of experience in computer design and software development. The author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future, he lives in Sunnyvale, California. Follow him on Twitter at @MFordFuture

New York Times
Book Reveiw

Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work

By BARBARA EHRENREICH
MAY 11, 2015
In the late 20th century, while the blue-collar working class gave way to the forces of globalization and automation, the educated elite looked on with benign condescension. Too bad for those people whose jobs were mindless enough to be taken over by third world teenagers or, more humiliatingly, machines. The solution, pretty much agreed upon across the political spectrum, was education. Americans had to become intellectually nimble enough to keep ahead of the job-destroying trends unleashed by technology, both robotization and the telecommunication systems that make outsourcing possible. Anyone who wanted a spot in the middle class would have to possess a college degree — as well as flexibility, creativity and a continually upgraded skill set.
But, as Martin Ford documents in “Rise of the Robots,” the job-eating maw of technology now threatens even the nimblest and most expensively educated. Lawyers, radiologists and software designers, among others, have seen their work evaporate to India or China. Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams. Particularly terrifying to me, computer programs can now write clear, publishable articles, and, as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert’s prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-­generated.
It’s impossible to read “Rise of the Robots” — for review anyway — without thinking about how the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers. First, the job of “close reading,” now commonly undertaken with Post-its and a felt-tip red pen, will be handed off to a scanner that will instantly note all recurring words, phrases and themes. Next, where a human reviewer racks her brain for social and historical context, the review-bot will send algorithms out into the ether to scan every other book by the author as well as every other book or article on the subject. Finally, all this information will be synthesized with more fairness and erudition than any wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus could muster. Most of this could be achieved today, though, as Ford notes, if you want more creativity and self-­reflexivity from your review-bot, you may have to wait until 2050.
This is both a humbling book and, in the best sense, a humble one. Ford, a software entrepreneur who both understands the technology and has made a thorough study of its economic consequences, never succumbs to the obvious temptation to overdramatize or exaggerate. In fact, he has little to say about one of the most ominous arenas for automation — the military, where not only are pilots being replaced by drones, but robots like the ones that now defuse bombs are being readied for deployment as infantry. Nor does Ford venture much into the spectacular possibilities being opened up by wearable medical devices, which can already monitor just about any kind of biometric data that can be collected in an I.C.U. Human health workers may eventually be cut out of the loop, as tiny devices to sense blood glucose levels, for example, learn how to signal other tiny implanted devices to release insulin.
But “Rise of the Robots” doesn’t need any more examples; the human consequences of robotization are already upon us, and skillfully chronicled here. Although the unemployment rate has fallen to officially acceptable levels, long-term unemployment persists, and underemployment — part-time jobs when full-time jobs are needed, or jobs that do not reflect a worker’s education — is on the rise. College-educated people often flounder for years after graduation, finding temp jobs and permanent roommates. Adults of both sexes are drifting out of the work force in despair. All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker. In the wake of the recession, Ford writes, many companies decided that “ever-advancing information technology” allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the people they had laid off. And there should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
Ford offers little hope that emerging technologies will eventually generate new forms of employment, in the way that blacksmiths yielded to autoworkers in the early 20th century. He predicts that new industries will “rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,” pointing to companies like YouTube and Instagram, which are characterized by “tiny workforces and huge valuations and revenues.” On another front, 3-D printing is poised to make a mockery of manufacturing as we knew it. Truck driving may survive for a while — at least until self-driving vehicles start rolling out of Detroit or, perhaps, San Jose.
The disappearance of jobs has not ushered in a new age of leisure, as social theorists predicted uneasily in the 1950s. Would the masses utilize their freedom from labor in productive ways, such as civic participation and the arts, or would they die of boredom in their ranch houses? Somehow, it was usually assumed, they would still manage to eat.
Come to find out, there’s still plenty of work to do, even if no one is willing to pay for it. This is the “shadow work” that Craig Lambert appealingly brings to light in his new book on “the unpaid, unseen jobs that fill your day.” We take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared. As corporations cut their workforces, managers have to take on the work of support staff (remember secretaries?), and customers can expect to spend many hours of their lives working their way through menus and recorded advertisements in search of “customer service.” At the same time, our underfunded and understaffed schools seem to demand ever more parental participation. Ambitious parents are often expected not only to drive their children to and from school, but to spend hours carrying out science projects and poring over fifth-grade math — although, as Lambert points out, parental involvement in homework has not been shown to improve children’s grades or test scores.
“Shadow Work” is generally a smooth ride, but there are bumps along the way. The definition of the subject sometimes seems to embrace every kind of unpaid work — from the exploitative, as in the use of unpaid interns, to the kind that is freely undertaken, like caring for one’s own family. At times the book gets weighed down by an unwarranted nostalgia for the old days, when most transactions involved human interactions. For example, Lambert grants that home pregnancy tests offer women “more privacy and more control,” while also lamenting — as no woman ever has — that they cut out the doctor and thus transform “what can be a memorable shared event into a solitary encounter with a plastic stick.”
Lambert, formerly an editor at Harvard Magazine, is on firmer ground when he explores all the ways corporations and new technologies fiendishly generate new tasks for us — each of them seemingly insignificant but amounting to many hours of annoyance. Examples include deleting spam from our inboxes, installing software upgrades, creating passwords for every website we seek to enter, and periodically updating those passwords. If nothing else, he gives new meaning to the word “distraction” as an explanation for civic inaction. As the seas rise and the air condenses into toxic smog, many of us will be bent over our laptops, filling out forms and attempting to wade through the “terms and conditions.”
Lambert falls short of calling for the shadow workers of the world to go out on strike. But that’s what it might take to give us the time and the mental bandwidth to confront the dystopian possibilities being unleashed by technology. If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will “become nonexistent”: “The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.” We have seen this movie; in fact, in one form or another — from “Elysium” to “The Hunger Games” — we’ve been seeing it again and again.
In “Rise of the Robots,” Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work. His solution is blindingly obvious: As both conservatives and liberals have proposed over the years, we need to institute a guaranteed annual minimum income, which he suggests should be set at $10,000 a year. This is probably not enough, and of course no amount of money can compensate for the loss of meaningful engagement. But as a first step toward a solution, Ford’s may be the best that the feeble human mind can come up with at the moment.

RISE OF THE ROBOTS
Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
By Martin Ford
334 pp. Basic Books. $28.99.
SHADOW WORK
The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day
By Craig Lambert
277 pp. Counterpoint. $26.
Correction: May 12, 2015
An earlier version of the biographical note with this review omitted part of the name of the journalistic initiative of which the reviewer is the founding editor. It is the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, not the Economic Hardship Project.
Barbara Ehrenreich, the founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

 

The Atlantic Magazine
May 12th, 2015

The Store Where Robots Sell Robots

A place where the employees and the merchandise are machines

Arika Bunfill has heard it all.

“Are you real?”

“Will you clean my house too?”

“Will you go out with me?”

It’s hard out there for a robot.

Bunfill works at the Beam store in downtown Palo Alto, California. Scratch that. Bunfill works from her comfortable home in Vacaville, about 90 miles away. But her presence, via Beam, a teleconference robot that looks like the offspring of a computer and a Segway, roams the floor at what Beam reps say is the world’s first and only unmanned store. That’s right, no human beings work at the store—it’s operated 100-percent remotely by folks like Bunfill.

“Hello ladies,” Bunfill says cheerfully to two women walking by the brightly lit shop. They are momentarily stunned by her greeting from a flat panel face, but then walk away, glancing back once. Bunfill is undeterred. She maintains herbonhomie, swivels her wheeled robotic base, and begins to chat up Vish Sastry and Kaval Ali, a young couple on their first date. Ali, a trademark paralegal, is unfazed that she’s carrying on a conversation with a machine. “This is so Silicon Valley,” she said with a dismissive wave.

Tom Wyatt is the store manager but he only stops by about once a week—mostly because he’s a big fan of Cream, the trendy ice-cream shop across the street. Wyatt and a robot, controlled remotely by Michelle Posey, will head over there together. The sight of a man and robot getting banana walnut fudge together is a stunt that draws lots of attention—exactly what Wyatt wants. “Once you see the Beam in real time, it’s easy to understand the value,” Wyatt said.
Inline image 2
“The live environment is really effective,” said Erin Rapacki, Beam’s director of marketing. Effective means sales. The robots, after all, are trying to sell themselves. Posey, 29, joined the 30-person team in December and works four-hour shifts, five or six days a week. At the start of her shift, she simply logs into the system from her home in Monterey. From there, Posey can open and close the front doors of the retail space, adjust lighting and temperature, pilot the Beam around the store, answer questions about the product, and wow curious kids by dispensing brightly colored skittles from a tricked-out candy canister. With a few exceptions, adjusting to an unmanned space was seamless. Wyatt clumsily strapped a leaf blower on a Beam’s base, and when trash clutters up the polka-dotted carpet entrance, one of the pilots will assume cleanup duty and whirl the Beam around the store.

For Posey, pivoting from her job as a blow-dry bar manager was a welcome change. “I used to spend four hours a day commuting in my car to my job,” said Posey. “This allows me to have a life because I work from home and it’s really interesting.”

Standing at five feet two inches, the screen is set on two long legs that jut out of a wheeled base. The Beam slides around as if it were on ice skates. There’s nifty parking assist function that guides the Beam into its charging dock, speed control, and a “party mode” setting that silences the back-facing microphones and reduces the ambient noise—perfect, said Rapacki, for networking receptions and factory visits where loud machinery might interfere with a one-on-one conversation. Shoppers can visit the store to take one of two versions, the Pro or the Plus, for a spin. The Plus is a smaller and less expensive version designed for personal use—just two hours of battery life—while the Pro has eight hours of battery life and is designed for conversations up to 20 feet away. Managers at companies like Power Bright have Beam robots stationed at plants in China.Beam says it has one customer, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, who is able to attend classes remotely and even walk the halls with classmates using Beam.

The robot moves at about two miles per hour, which matches the walking pace of an average human. “The interactive piece is what separates us from traditional video tele-conferencing,” said Posey. “Non-verbal cues, like where we stand for instance, are easy to pick up.”

Meanwhile, back at the Beam store, Ben Day, a pilot who works from his home in Danville, California, is educating a couple and hoping to close a deal. Since the store opened, there have been quite a few sales of the smaller Beam Plus version—Wyatt wouldn’t say how many—but it’s enough to warrant a second store in San Francisco. Bunfill, Posey, Day, and the others bounce between locations when backup is needed but mostly work one shift at one location. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest.

“We get a lively crowd,” said Day, 26. Day sits in front of a backdrop that looks a bit like grammar school picture-day. He’s friendly and laughs a lot when interacting with customers, particularly when he parks the Beam outside on University Avenue, an artery where Stanford University students mix with families and hipsters.“The Beam frees people up to say things they might not say in person,” said Day who, like Bunfill, fields inane questions and requests for dates adding, “it’s changed the way I talk to people too … I’m more outgoing and courageous.”

And there are other perks. Posey beamed into a party at a New York museum and even twirled around the dance floor. “I’ve never been to New York but I feel like I have,” she said.

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: Know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” —- Neil De Grasse Tyson

Time to Go Beyond Petitioning Pharaoh

[My good friend and comrade, Adam Gottlieb, asked me to be part of a unique celebration at the end of Passover this year. He called it, in a scriptural reference, “Love the Stranger.” The celebration, on April 13, 2015, was an artistic performance that reflected on slavery and its modern consequences, and he asked me to reflect on capitalism and slavery. I began by asking people to help me sing the lyrics of “Let My People Go,” a song that I identify with the rich bass voice of Paul Robeson. This was more or less what I said.]

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

In 1861, three slaves escaped from a work detail building defense batteries for the confederate army, and presented themselves at Fort Monroe in Virginia. When Confederate Major John Cary demanded their return, General Ben Butler refused, on the basis that since Virginia, after secession, was now a foreign territory, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, in September of 1861, referred to the slaves as “persons of color, commonly known as contrabands,” and directed that they be paid for their work for the Navy; three weeks later the Army followed suit. In August of 1861, the U.S. government passed the confiscation act, which forbade returning all contraband, including slaves, to the Confederacy. The numbers of escaped slaves increased as this policy became known, and the earliest recorded use of the song was as a rallying cry among the contrabands somewhere before July 1862. It appears to have been sung by Virginia slaves as early as 1853.
I want to take you back to a period a couple of thousand years before 1853, though, to the area from what became fort Monroe to the area that became St. Louis and Chicago and ask you to consider what that area looked like, what was the dominant form

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

of getting your means of survival? What were means of production and survival in those days? I want to challenge you to think of a time before private property, when for the most part people lived in small groups, relied little on cultivation, and “owned” everything in common. When survival was at the mercy of the seasons and nature, where cooperation was essential for survival, where in good years/seasons the means of survival was abundant, where in times of scarcity, survival hung on a slender thread. This is the vast majority of human “prehistory,” in the sense that we have no written records of this, what we commonly call history.
Fast forward to about 500 in what we call the “Common Era.” The largest group of people living together in North America (that we know about) lived in Southern Illinois, in a center we call Cahokia; about 20,000 to 30,000 people we think lived there. And in another 1,000 years, by the time the first European settlers came along the Mississippi in that area, no people lived there. What happened to them? There is no evidence of plague or disease wiping them out. There is no evidence of them having been conquered. What happened?
There are many forms of private property in history. Still, we’ve lived most of our history, tens of thousands of years, in a cooperative or communist form of social organization. Because in North America early communist society persisted so long, some of what happened in Europe, for example, never happened here. Private property began in North America somewhere between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago. Private property begins with the accumulation of means of survival and means of production in some form of agriculture (including the domestication of animals). Slavery is a system of the ownership of private property. It becomes the dominant form of the ownership of private property as agriculture is able to produce enough to (barely) feed the slaves and a surplus product for (the lavish benefit of) the slave owner and his family and household. If you have a choice between being a member of a society that gives you what you need without being owned by someone, under what circumstances would you become a slave? Coercion? What would make such a society attractive?

Map of Fort Ancient

Map of Fort Ancient

I like to think (or fantasize) that in Cahokia, as the town grew larger and possibilities for accumulation grew, the people of Cahokia rejected the direction toward private property and dispersed. Probably they still had oral traditions of their past, even in some cases actual memories. We know that when Europeans did arrive in the Ohio and Illinois River valleys, they found evidence of the past in large effigy and burial mounds throughout the area we now call the Midwest and Southeast. As settling agriculturalists from Europe took and plowed the land, they probably destroyed most of the evidence of the existence of a diverse people we call “Mound Builders” now. However there are still extensive formations, such as the ones at Newark, at Fort Ancient, and at the Great Snake Mound, all in Ohio. And alongside these areas cultures developed that knew warfare, cultivated maize, and were in some transitional phase perhaps toward what we are describing as slavery.
But the Europeans, and particularly the English, brought to these areas a new form of private property, one that was just emerging. The development of trade was fundamental to this new form. Certainly some form of exchange has existed ever since private property existed. But trading societies were rare in antiquity. They were also subject to the dominance of slavery (e.g. Rome and Greece as prime examples) where warfare reduced conquered peoples to the status of slaves on agricultural plantations; or colonies required to purchase the goods produced in the trading society. In Europe that changed as first the dominant form of property ownership changed from people to land, that demanded that the person who worked the land have some stake in producing the product. And then, as the land produced increasing wealth, beyond what would be consumed in Europe; and as means for calculating the wealth changed; and as the means for exchanging the wealth improved with the extraction of precious metals from, and genocide of the peoples of, the Americas; so capitalism began to emerge.
Sometimes we tend to look around us and dismiss capitalism as super-consumption; empire; selling a product for more than you pay for it. Some of all of that is true, of course. But fundamentally, what capitalism does is it reduces everything to the level of a commodity, something made for sale, made for exchange rather than for the use of the maker.
In the case of slavery, where control of the human being is the form of private property that dominates, there is no exchange. The slave owner dispenses the product that the owner owns as he sees fit. There is no exchange between members of the slave owners’ family or between master and slave. Capitalism, however, grafted something new on the body of classical slavery. The French with sugar (Haiti for example) and the British with cotton (in the South of the U.S.) used the old form of slavery to build a world economic system of commodity production. This was capitalist slavery.
In the case of commodity production, the producer is ostensibly free to sell the only commodity he or she owns: the ability to work. Yes it is true that there are other commodities out in the world that the worker purchases. But once that commodity is purchased, it suffices as a substance of use for the buyer. It’s easiest to see this in terms of food, clothing, shelter for example. Capitalism is an economic system in which the worker is personally free; without work, he or she is also free to starve. Capitalists have no obligation to an unemployed worker as the Lord might have had toward the peasant on his land, or for that matter the classical slave owner. It is in this sense that we call capitalism, for the working class, wage-slavery. The worker has no place to turn except to the capitalist for obtaining the means of subsistence which the working class has produced. The capitalist then purchases the commodity that worker has to offer, but finds in that worker’s commodity something that no other commodity has: the ability to produce more means of subsistence than he or she needs to survive.
Slavery is a contract that says: you are mine, you owe me everything you produce. In return for producing for me, I the owner will keep you alive. I own whatever surplus product you make. Only force could compel this kind of contract.
Feudalism is a contract that says: the land is mine. I will let you have a parcel of land to work for yourself on a given number of days during the year. I will protect you from marauders. The rest of the time you must work for me on a different plot of land. I own everything you produce on that plot. Clearly the peasant has more incentive here: it is a system where it is clear what is mine and what is yours, without artifice. But as the peasant plots were reduced in size, the time allotted to cultivating them was decreased, and the forced servitude in the Lord’s armies increased, even this incentive vanished and force became primary.
In capitalism the contract says: I buy your commodity and set it to work in my means of production (factory, school, office, etc). Because I now own your commodity, I can work it as long as the contract says I can (to the limit of 24 hours per day – and that has been the case). Whatever you produce in that time is mine. With the wage that I pay you, you get to buy back from me and my class what you need to survive (food, clothing, shelter). But I get to accumulate the surplus product as mine, and to transform it into money. Not only that; I get to improve your productivity – that is your ability to produce more in the same amount of time for less cost. Thereby I get to make even more money.
A new quality has entered the realm of capitalism. Up until the last 30 years or so, the inevitable demise of capitalism, predicted 150 years ago because of increases of productivity, has been delayed. The main reason for this has been as the intensity of production (and productivity) exceeded the boundaries of each national market, capitalism had somewhere else to expand (meaning make war on, conquer, make part of an empire and export capital to in order to exploit). The intensity of exploitation was matched by extensivity. As capitalism has exported its commodity production from Boston to Bangladesh, from Iowa to India, from California to Chile, it has also streamlined production to eliminate or reduce its purchase of the commodity of the

Getting Back on Track: Service Robots 2010

Transforming what we know as productivity: Service Robots 2010

ability to work. Automation, in the era of electronics, has fundamentally transformed what we know as productivity. So the workers of India are competing against fully automated factories elsewhere (and the workers in the U.S. cannot find jobs at all).
What do we call it then, when workers are totally ejected from the relationship between employer and employed, when wage-slavery is not even an option? What do we call it when a totally surplus population is no longer needed by the owning class? When public housing is torn down, schools are closed, mental health facilities destroyed, water is privatized, school districts get military grade weapons to patrol the corridors, and police departments are equipped with military armored vehicles?
We are faced with a situation similar to many other transformations in society – yet totally new. It is a transformation in which the old form of ownership is attempting to protect its control of private property. But the impulse to transform society is not to another form of private property but to abolish private property entirely, to return it to common ownership. And the impulse is two fold. First and foremost, the impulse is the survival of the species. Secondly, within that, the survival of those cast out by capitalism can only be reached by the transformation to a society that provides for all.
Capitalism globally is moving to find ways to protect private property, which lead to increased use of force and violence. More and more the state merges with corporations and nationalization takes place in the interest of the corporations. We’re talking about fascism.
The people are increasingly and globally finding it necessary to challenge a system which can only destroy them. And that is the challenge of our time, the meaning of “Go Down Moses” today.
We are living in a time of abundance AND slavery, when the choices open to us are narrowing by the minute. Here is the bleak landscape capitalism offers us .Either we exist in a vortex of ever more impoverishing wage-slavery, or we are reduced to actual chattel-slavery or death. .
BUT we have an opening we have NEVER had before. We can choose abundance for all. We really have no option but to develop the revolutionary networks that go beyond petitioning pharaoh to “let our people go.” That is the task that the League of Revolutionaries for a New America has set itself. Please talk to me if you want to know more about the LRNA.