Human-Machine Autonomy for Digital Socialism

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* Article: Rising With the Robots: Towards a Human-Machine Autonomy for Digital Socialism. By Christopher M. Cox. TripleC, 2019



"This essay is concerned with conceptualising digital socialism in two ways. First, this essay typifies digital socialism as a real utopian project bringing together the utopian potential of “full automation” as tied to socio-economic imperatives indicative of socialist aims. Second, in recognition of a critical gap between full automation and an emerging technological autonomy, this essay argues for a human-machine autonomy that situates autonomy as a shared condition among humans and machines. By conceiving of humans and automated technologies as autonomous subject aligned against capital, pursuing the aims of digital socialism can anticipate and avoid capitalist ideologies that hinders possibilities for autonomous pursuit of digital socialism.)."


“Full automation” has become increasingly central to imagining life beyond capitalism and thinking through the material means of reconstituting the production and provisioning of labour, goods, and services.

To better understand the relationship between contemporary automation and socialism, this essay teases out critical strands among recent scholarship to, first, define the imperatives of “digital socialism” and, second, interject concerns for technological autonomy otherwise neglected among full automation debates. In doing so, the essay argues for digital socialism to be understood as a “real utopian” project, outlines the imperatives of digital socialism, and stresses the opportunity to conceive of autonomy as a shared condition among humans and machines to better solidify and anticipate class solidarity amidst the struggle to achieve socialist ends. The essay proceeds as follows:

· Digital Socialism: Full Automation as Real Utopia (section 2)

· Socialist Imperative 1: Shifting Values and Ethics Associated with Labour (section 3)

· Socialist Imperative 2: Centralised Planning (section 4)

· Socialist Imperative 3: Basic Services (section 5)

· Digital Socialism: Strategic Imperatives and Critical Opportunities (section 6)

· Dualities of Autonomy: Oppositions Between Human and Technological Autonomy (section 7)

· Becoming AutonomoUS: Human-Machine Autonomy (section 8)

· Human-Machine Autonomy and Solidarity Against Capital (section 9) "


Operational Autonomy

"For all that the illusory concept of autonomy as the purview of the self imparts about the politics of domination, one of the most critical points is that humans and technology share the same root conception of autonomy. Human and technological autonomy is not a matter of “here” and “there” but a shared condition inadequate to delineation along lines of a human or machine and, instead, invokes the same questions around the pursuit and application of power, freedom, and control. As Haraway notes, technology is not an object to be “animated, worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment” (Haraway 1990, 222). Where autonomy “cannot simply be understood as freedom from others” (Baker and Hesmondhalgh 2013, 40), these “others” include both human and machine counterparts. Moreover, instead of conceiving of autonomy as self-set life against or apart from an “other,” recognizing that we are “socially constituted by others beyond themselves” (Baker and Hesmondhalgh 2013, 40) imparts of a sense of how our autonomous potential is truly a question of our autonomy. In other words, conceived in opposition to dualistic conceptions, autonomy is always a shared condition among humans and between humans and machines, even though autonomy is not equitably afforded or experienced. This does not entail a deterministic relationship, however, as economic relations, culture, legal frameworks, and other vectors constitute the circuity that gives human-machine autonomy its variable charge. Notions of autonomy with respect to capitalist relations and technology underscore human-machine autonomy as a shared condition among humans and machines the way capitalism organises and patternises possibilities for autonomy among ownership, workers, and machines.

Notably, Andrew Feenberg describes “operational autonomy” as a facet of capitalist ownership that incorporates autonomous potential into organisation, machinic, and workflow processes:

Operational autonomy is the power to make strategic choices among alternative rationalizations without regard for externalities, customary practice, workers' preferences, or the impact of decisions on their households. Whatever other goals the capitalist pursues, all viable strategies implemented from his peculiar position in the social system must reproduce his operational autonomy. The ‘metagoal’ of preserving and enlarging autonomy is gradually incorporated into the standard ways of doing things, biasing the solution to every practical problem toward certain typical responses. In industrial societies, strategies of domination consist primarily in embedding these constancies in technical procedures, standards, and artifacts in order to establish a framework in which day-to-day technical activity serves the interests of capital (Feenberg 2002,76).

Understood in this light, capital implants self-serving notions of autonomy into processes that carry through to the fabric of material existence so that the autonomous potential of capital is reproduced and enhanced. To the extent that operational autonomy is a hegemonic imposition of capital, workers possess a counterhegemonic potential, a “reactive autonomy” that Feenberg (2002, 84) otherwise refers to as a “margin of maneuver”. This reactive autonomy entails the ability of workers to leverage capitalist technology for the purposes of “controlling work pace, protecting colleagues, unauthorized productive improvisations, informal rationalizations and innovations” (Feenberg 2002, 84), and otherwise countervailing the operational autonomy of ownership. Reactive autonomy is a margin of manoeuvre because the degree to which workers exercise autonomy can expand or contract, as can the operational autonomy of capital. Much like autonomy among humans and technology, operational, and reactive autonomy are not bracketed off from one another and instead exist as co-constituted forms of autonomy inflecting upon on one another even though it is not supposed that reactive autonomy ever exceeds operational autonomy or reactive autonomy is the exemplar way for workers to attain and experience autonomy. Automation plays a variable role in this dynamic, as it

increases management's autonomy only at the expense of creating new problems that justify workers' demands for an enlarged margin of maneuver. That margin may be opened to improve the quality of self-directed activity or it may remain closed to optimize control (Feenberg 2002, 96).

To the mind of the capitalist, regardless of the degree of freedom or control afforded to labour, capitalist exchange “maximizes autonomy in general, promising liberation of the human essence from fixed definitions” (Feenberg 2002, 162), since ongoing acquisition and accumulation are infinite and therefore entail a range of shifting arrangements that increase both operational and reactive autonomy in the aggregate."


"Key works emerging during this timeframe include Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Srnicek and Williams 2015), Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Frase 2016), The Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Stiegler 2018), Xenofeminism (Hester 2018), Fully-Automated Luxury Communism (Bastani 2019), and Inhuman Power: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Capitalism (Dyer-Witheford, Kjøsen and Steinhoff 2019). All of these monographs in their own ways and to varying degrees – engage with full automation in conjunction with describing socio-economic conditions necessary to imagine a postcapitalist world."


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Bastani, Aaron. 2019. Fully Automated Luxury Communism. London: Verso Books.

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Dyer-Witheford, Nick, Atle Mikkole Kjøsen and James Steinhoff. 2019. Inhuman Power: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Capitalism. London: Pluto Press.

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Swartz, Lana. 2017. Blockchain Dreams: Imagining Techno-Economic Alternatives After Bitcoin. In Another Economy Is Possible: Culture and Economy in a Time of Crisis, ed. ed. Manuel Castells, 82-105. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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