The problem is not robotization but who appropriates its results

Some present robotization as the conflict of the future: workers versus machines; grotesque mistake or deliberate attempt to divert the gaze away from the struggle of interests that is produced with robotization. Robotization can and must be better channeled (for example, by providing for the generation of other jobs to replace those that are eliminated by it), but it is not, by itself, a deplorable fact. What is deplorable is the appropriation of the extraordinary profits robotization generates by a handful of large corporations and not by the societies which, in one way or the other, make it possible for the labor, commercial, scientific and technological development that sustains robotization.

Robotization is a wide and complex issue. In these lines we will cover some of its main aspects offering a vision of what robotization provides, who are adversely affected by it, who appropriate its results and how could be advisable to address it if the purpose were to secure equality and promote sustainable development.

What robotization provides?

The automation process with technological robots gives way to a deep productive transformation: it allows the enhancement of productive processes by increasing their speed and controlling eventual mistakes, reducing the risks of doing repetitive or dangerous tasks, allowing the attainment of larger accomplishments than those obtained using only people’s ability.

This labor force replacement by technological robots produces diverse economic effects. One of which is that it increases the productivity of labor as equal or better results are obtained with less labor force. From the corporative point of view, it replaces the labor “cost” by a machine cost with the aim at increasing or at least sustaining, their rate of return. Usually, the human impact that the displacement of workers causes does not condition, and even less forces to submit, the permanent pursue of maximizing results (of course, there are honorable exceptions).

Sectors with greater degree of robotization include automotive, electronics, metallurgy and manufacture of machines; its use also increases inside homes and as support for medical, legal, accounting activities and other professions.

Who are harmed and who are favored?

First of all, workers who are replaced by technological robots are harmed and, if there is no action regarding how the results of robotization are distributed and applied, such impact far from being compensated accelerates the process of concentration of economic and decisional power. If there are no policies and regulations for the reassignment of results of this huge technological leap, the effects can seriously affect the planet and its inhabitants.

What should be clear is that there is not just one way of robotization as, once more, they would have us believe. Robotization is not only a process of engineering techniques but also, and more importantly, a social construction; as such, it can be deployed in various ways according to the correlation of forces that prevails in the world and in each society.

On the other hand, the process of robotization did not start in the last decades but much earlier; what happens is that it got greatly accelerated by the impulse of scientific and technological development. This particular type of technological development, in good part, has been orientated by the pursuit of profit of those who had and have the capability of sustaining it financially. However, what is dramatic is that a large majority of the advances in basic and applied research have been and are being financed with public resources administered by the State. That State is conditioned and frequently controlled by the concentrated economic power; in such a way that it finally manages to appropriate the main results of scientific and technological development that the entire society finances. In addition, large corporations extensively practice tax evasion or elusion, thus bringing larger tax burdens on the rest of taxpayers and making evident the social inequality that is at the base of contemporary concentrating process. It is estimated that large corporations evade 500 billion dollars in taxes every year (see the quotes in section Reflections).

That is, the effect of robotization will be one or the other according to the sociopolitical context in which it develops; a truism that is tried to be covered up by diverting our gaze towards an alleged struggle of workers against machines. It is true that there is a struggle of interests but this fight is carried out among social actors and not between persons and machines.

In the current economic system, robotization favors and reinforces concentrated power; some corporations become more efficient, reduce costs, and increase their rates of return. In that segment of the productive apparatus one fraction of workers is favored, that which has the ability to guide, manage, and secure the maintenance of machines and productive processes. Their productivity increases and with that the possibility of accessing better compensations. There is a growing differentiation between better paid workers and those who do not have access to sectors with growing productivity. If this is not compensated, as it is proposed in the lines that follow, robotization will increasingly accentuate the prevailing inequalities.

How to address robotization in the context of securing equality and sustainable development?

If the objectives adopted by a society were to secure equality and sustainable development, the results from robotization should be redistributed with justice and effectiveness. There are many ways to do that and each country can choose which modality it prefers.

One option is to impose a tribute to extraordinary returns generated by robotization. Bill Gates himself subscribes to this possibility. “Today, the worker that receives 50,000 dollars at a factory pays taxes on his performance at work, pays Social Security, and other agencies. If a robot comes and does the same, it is likely to think that we should also tax the robot.” He states that robotization increases productivity and returns of one enterprise without that profit being spontaneously distributed fairly. Gates places on governments the responsibility of establishing taxes to redistribute, at least just in part, the proceeds of the technological process. He warns us that if no action is taken in line with this type of measures, owners of machines will be richer and richer while workers become poorer and poorer.

Another perspective recognizes that taxes on robotization are hard to implement thus they suggest that the best thing is to secure the effective payment of income taxes, dismantling the mechanisms for evasion and elusion used by large corporations, as well as adding a tax on extraordinary earnings.

Publications such as The Economist even analyze taxing modalities instead of direct taxes on robotization as progressive taxes on wealth (not just on returns), a tax on the property of land, and the fight against fiscal havens/heavens. It also suggests the regulation and dismantling of digital monopolies.

In any option, a critical aspect refers to how to secure that resources levied can be effectively orientated towards the generation of new jobs for displaced workers by robotization but also for large segments that do not have access to decent jobs. Those who control markets usually do not address these challenges but rather they take advantage of the increase in productivities to increase their own rates of return.

On our side, we realize that the particular course and way of functioning imposed to the world is what generates the largest contemporary problems which are, thus, systemic and rooted in powerful interests, most of them antagonistic. Therefore, a fair and progressive taxation according with earnings and wealth should be included in a much wider array of complementary measures orientated towards the general wellbeing and caring for the Planet. The profile of such proactive set would take into account, among other things, important issues such as the following.

  • Eliminating tax evasion and elusion done by large corporations and rich families with a double action: at the local level, fully exercising the collecting authority and, at the global level, attaining consistency between fiscal regimes and the elimination of tax havens.
  • Establishing compensatory taxes for the reduction in personnel in large enterprises.
  • Creating mechanisms and instruments to channel resources towards the generation of jobs in promissory sectors that are not prone to robotization, such as differentiated tax, labor, and credit regimes for popular ventures and small enterprises, as well as the Dignity Trusts that Opinion Sur is promoting.
  • Approving fiscal reforms that tax the rich and reduce tax burden on popular sectors; that is, prioritize taxes on returns, wealth, speculative movements of financial capital, royalties on the exploitation of natural resources, giving a tax relief on popular consumption and increasing taxes on conspicuous consumption.
  • Helping to establish compensatory salaries altering the proportion of income that is obtained by the owners of capital in favor of workers and, when possible, including the participation of workers in the companies’ equity.
  • Including a reduction in working hours.
  • Establishing a universal assignment or specific allocations for vulnerable sectors that ensure the coverage of basic social needs.
  • Strengthening value chains while ensuring equity with negotiation mechanisms for prices and commercialization conditions between large enterprises and the rest of the productive fabric they lead.
  • Transforming the productive matrix of our countries securing their organic growth to avoid recurrent bottlenecks of the external sector and the subordination to foreign centers of decision-making.
  • As the tendency shows that robots and machines will get in charge of an even larger number of tasks, we should rethink the educational system and the centers for professional training to value the contributions that human beings will keep on offering, by reinforcing their dignity, self-esteem, and permanent search for meaning.

It is worth to close these lines insisting on the idea that robotization neither appears from nowhere nor is inserted in empty spaces rather it is part of concentrating processes that we need to transform. Therefore, though there are specific measures related with robotization that can be adopted, we should not lose sight of the fact that these measures will keep on being conditioned by an unfavorable context. To transform it, we must alter the present correlation of social forces, an effort that includes various dimensions among which we highlight the strategic role played by the development of ever more effective social organizations geared towards politics and constant advancement on clarifying what happens or not happens as well as why and how occurs what is going on in present times.


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