Robots and volunteers: a letter to George Monbiot

Dear George Monbiot,

I found very interesting your 7 February column in the Guardian on the robotisation of work, occasioned by Amazon’s new patent for a wristband that can track what workers are doing throughout their shift.

I agree with your observation, “Digital Taylorism, splitting interesting jobs into tasks of mind-robbing monotony, threatens to degrade almost every form of labour … The robots have arrived, and you are one of them”.

You propose that at least some of us can “find identity, meaning and purpose, a sense of autonomy, pride and utility” through volunteering.

You cite the examples of a woman raising large sums of money for the fight against breast cancer, a man raising funds for the British Heart Foundation and volunteer groups in hospitals providing unofficial support to the official National Health Service, support without which you “suspect the official system would fall apart”.

Such actions are highly commendable, and I hope no-one will consider it a criticism of them if I say that this is not a practical suggestion for winning what you call “the battle against workplace technology”.

For a start, most working people, after a day of enforced drudgery, lack the time and/or the energy to carry out more than token amounts of such volunteer activity. More importantly, while making up for hospital shortcomings undoubtedly helps particular patients, it does nothing to force the government to improve the functioning of the NHS. It might even persuade the government it can get away with continuing its underfunding of health services.

For most workers in capitalist economies, paid work was drudgery long before the beginnings of automation. Computers and robots are spreading that drudgery to ever wider layers of the working class, but they are not its cause.

The problem is not technology but a system, capitalism, that requires the vast majority to conduct most or all of their productive activity at the direction of a tiny minority that has no concern for the welfare of the rest of society. While that system survives, nearly all work will be boring, alienating and mind-numbing. Much of it will also be socially harmful.

An appreciation of this convinces some of us to volunteer for a more ambitious activity: by joining a movement or organisation to get rid of this rotten system and replace it with one in which all work becomes a source of meaning and purpose, of a sense of autonomy, pride and utility, because it is directed by us, the majority, for the majority.

No-one can guarantee that such volunteering will achieve its goal. But we only have to win once, while propping up the NHS under capitalism could go on forever.