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A Post-Work Proletariat? Marxist Thought and The End of Labor


In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could. — Rüdiger “Rudi” Dornbusch


Technology fundamentally changes the relationship between labor and capital. As machines get better producing the things that people need and want, humans may find it difficult to generate economic value from their work. In a future where this connection has been entirely severed, capitalism and economic self-interest cease to provide structure for society. New organizing principles are needed. Utilitarianism is well suited to fill this vacuum and Marxist thought offers a pragmatic framework for implementing utilitarian impulses in the political and economic domain.

In his seminal work, The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx popularized the notion of the proletariat as an impoverished class of industrial wage-laborers. By his definition, the class of people that compose the substrate of the proletariat has not existed in developed countries since the early 1900s. Furthermore, the potential for a worker’s revolution seems to be rendered inert if we posit that the end of labor itself is near.

However, the etymology of the word, rather than its Marxist usage, suggests something different. The origins of the word ‘proletariat’ can be traced back to the Latin, proles, a word used in the Roman census to describe the lowest class: those whose only contribution to society was having children. In a future where human labor has been entirely divorced from economic productivity, most individuals in society would have no utility beyond passing their genes on to the next generation. Severing the link between economic productivity and human labor threatens to create an idle class, a new proletariat, who are incapable of providing economic value to society. This post-work proletariat will not be defined by wage-labor, but by an idleness brought about through labor market inadequacies.

Will this idle class be destitute and penniless: abandoned by a system of resource allocation that made their labor an anachronism? It is not difficult to imagine, in a society such as this, an elite class, that controls the means of production, consolidating an unprecedented degree of power and wealth. This Luddite vision of the future conceives of automation as a profoundly destructive force, one that could transform inclusive democracy into a bourgeois oligarchy.

However, to others, automation is a panacea. These proponents of technological innovation envision a type of fully-automated “luxury communism” — the means of production owned collectively and operating autonomously — where every material desire can be made real (for free!) by an intelligent robot. For these people, the end of labor is not a harbinger of collapse, but rather a freedom so elusive that humanity had myopically believed it impossible. Should we dare to hope for such an outcome? What should be our aspirations for a society without work and what principles should guide us?

Outcomes are important. This is the lesson taught by utilitarian thinkers. Actions, individuals and societies should be judged upon their consequences, their outputs. Society should aspire to produce the best outcomes for the greatest number of its citizens. When viewed through this lens, success is merely a maximization problem. How should society allocate finite resources in a manner that maximizes the quality of life of individuals living in it?

Marx provides a utilitarian theory of allocation: communal ownership. Rather than following the capitalist model, in which certain individuals are entitled to the immense wealth spun off from their private enterprises, Marx contends that the profits of industry should be distributed “to each according to his need.” In The Utilitarianism of Marx and Engels, Derek Allen discusses the utilitarian underpinning to Marxist teleology:

Marx contends that, since wages and profits vary inversely, “the interests of capital and the interests of wage labour are diametrically opposed.” Whatever enriches the capitalist impoverishes the worker. … Whatever is in bourgeois interests is against the interests of the majority of society. To secure freedom for the majority wage labor must be abolished

The nature of the accumulation of capital results in an expanding underclass of laborers and a shrinking bourgeois minority. The end point of capitalism, as Marx understood it, is extreme wealth inequality. When a vast majority create no economic value and are therefore incapable of providing for themselves, the system is broken. Utilitarianism does not privilege the rights of the minority at the expense of the majority. Thus, the utilitarian response to this inequality is to strive for a more equitable distribution of wealth.

However, there is no use in pining for a utopian society that only can exist in theory. Progress is path dependent. Humanity’s future is a function of today’s conditions. Rather imagining the elements of an ideal society, pragmatism suggests looking for sources to guide the development of an attainable one. The work of Karl Marx not only provides a theoretical optimum — communal ownership of the means of production — but also a realistic pathway to its realization. While his original theory of an industrial working class rising up against its capitalist oppressors has proven false, an updated teleology predicated on the end of labor regains intellectual vitality.


Automation and Society After Labor

Automation ultimately renders human labor obsolete and magnifies the return on capital. While vast swaths of workers face declining wages, a small class of capitalists capture the growing profits that previously were spread more broadly. The end of labor centralizes wealth, while simultaneously seeing the emergence of an idle proletariat.

The age of automation became inevitable the day the first computer was created. The steady march of innovation has reduced the typical computer’s physical size, lowered its price, and simultaneously increased its computing power. For decades, this ongoing technological innovation complemented, rather than replaced, human labor. Computers could not perform the physical tasks done easily by humans. Basic intuitions about cause and effect were out of the reach of machines. In the words of Steven Pinker “hard problems [were] easy and the easy problems [were] hard.” This paradox seemed to be an inviolable law of artificial intelligence. However, in recent years skills that were once considered deep within the domain of human expertise, such as vision and the language processing, have been replicated by deep learning programs.

“The Great Decoupling” that Andre McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson describe in The Second Machine Age is the manifestation of the shift from technology that enhances human labor to that which supplants. While economic productivity continues to increase, wages stagnate. The wealth generated by artificial labor is captured by a tiny fraction of society, those who control capital, rather than the broad middle class that used to work for wages.

The dynamics that Marx witnessed during the industrial revolution now play out again with greater intensity. Marx, while wrong in many ways, was prescient in others. In Wage-Labor & Capital, he outlines the cyclical force of competition, the tension between the wage-laborer and the capitalist, and the teleology of capitalism. He describes the dynamics of automation: “Machinery produces the same effects [as competition between workers], but upon a much larger scale. … [W]here newly introduced, it throws workers upon the streets in great masses.” Automation is the process by which capital is substituted for labor. Automated machinery replaces human labor at a fraction of the cost, often with greater accuracy and speed. Human workers simply cannot compete. In discussing how machines reduce the wages of workers, Marx also explains how automation expands the size of the new proletariat:

In addition, the working class is also recruited from the higher strata of society; a mass of small business men and of people living upon the interest of their capitals is precipitated into the ranks of the working class, and they will have nothing else to do than to stretch out their arms alongside of the arms of the workers. Thus the forest of outstretched arms, begging for work, grows ever thicker, while the arms themselves grow every leaner.

Automation devalues labor and multiplies capital. Economies of scale and winner-take-all effects sharply bifurcate society. The winners, who control the automated machinery, win big. Yet the losers, far greater in number, are left with virtually nothing. This includes the middle and upper-middle class that succeeded in a society where labor retained its value. The lawyers, the doctors, the civil engineers that composed the professional class will also join “the forest of outstretched arms, begging for work” as their jobs are automated.

Eventually society reaches an inflection point. Without new rules, the end result is dystopia. With new rules, utopia is possible. The outcome depends on whether society adopts inclusive, redistributionist policies or chooses to continue traditional practices of laissez faire capitalism. If the political economy can adjust to the realities of automation by providing for the idle class, the future will tend towards “luxury communism” rather than Luddite dystopia. However, if no changes take place, the gap between the richest and the poorest will continue to grow.

Marx would predict that the new proletariat, by nature of its majority, should be able to enact socialist and redistributionist policies. Though he foresaw the need for violent revolution, it is possible that an inclusive democracy might make such extremism unnecessary. If these changes are enacted, society might look radically different than it does today, but the outcomes would be broadly beneficial. The immense wealth generated by automation could be shared with the workers whose labor has been replaced. The means of production do not need to be seized, but the profits generated would redistributed to those made idle.

From this perspective, the post-labor society should be judged by how effectively it implements utilitarian principles. To be sure, such redistribution infringes on deontological property rights and would be judged harshly by libertarians. However, a utilitarian would see that, while a minority is dissatisfied when their wealth is taxed, the benefits to society overall outweigh their concern.


Criticisms of Teleology & Marxism

Of course it is necessary to defend any teleology against events that change fundamental assumptions. Teleology is merely an extrapolation from present trends that seems to lead inexorably to a singular outcome. Marx’s original teleology suggested that industrial manufacturing would be the final iteration of the capitalist system — he did not foresee the shift among western nations to a service-oriented economy or the massive wealth that would be unlocked by the Internet revolution. In presenting a similar, albeit updated, teleology, it’s important to outline the most important assumption that are necessary for its realization: human labor must become, for all intents and purposes, obsolete. If there were still ways for a critical mass of individuals to engage in economically productive behavior, transitioning from capitalism would remain difficult.

It’s also important to address the criticisms of Marxism more generally. Marx’s revolutionary teleology has proven incorrect in many ways. The industrial collapse envisioned by Marx failed to occur. His imagined legions of revolutionary workers never materialized. His ideology of revolution coopted by professional revolutionaries, rather than the workers who it was meant for. Criticisms of Marxist thought tend to fixate on its inability to forecast the broad prosperity that would spring from capitalism.

This is a misunderstanding of Marx’s argument. The proletarian revolt is but a revolution deferred. Marx believed that the worker uprising would come at the peak of capitalism, as the system imploded — not that worker’s could never benefit under a capitalist system. Indeed, in Wage-Labor & Capital, he writes that “the rapid growth of capital is the most favorable condition for wage-labour” as the growth of capital implies increasing employment, other externalities of capitalism notwithstanding. By replacing labor entirely with capital, automation will bring about both the peak and the end of capitalism. This is the critical moment when the capitalist system could evolve or be replaced. Whether this development takes the form of abrupt revolution or incremental change depends on how the transition is managed.

Beyond Marx’s failure as a prognosticator, further criticisms of Marxism attack the expropriation and redistribution that is inherent in the theory. This is the libertarian critique. Property rights are at the core of libertarianism. To philosophers like John Locke and Robert Nozick, the defense of such rights is the sole legitimate purpose of government action. A strong defense of property seems to preclude redistribution. Yet a reexamination of Locke’s Labor Theory of Property, under the assumption that human labor is economically irrelevant, shows that Locke’s and Marx’s views are quite compatible. The Labor Theory of Property, which provides the intellectual underpinning for the libertarian conception of property rights, states that property is derived through mixing personal labor with a natural resource:

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Without labor, the libertarian understanding of property breaks down. In a future where robot automatons can  produce any good, who owns their output?  If no labor input was required, by what principle should the capitalist be the sole beneficiary? There is no obvious justification for property rights. Indeed, An elite bourgeois minority that captures all the economic output without mixing in their (or any) labor is an easy target for redistributionist efforts. Separating human labor from economic productivity debases the Lockean justification for property rights. In this context, the abolition of property rights is hard to criticize when the institution of private property itself has been rendered obsolete.

This paper is not intended as a broad defense of Marxism as it could exist in the world today, but rather an exploration of whether Marxist principles have anything to say about organizing society after the end of labor. Automation, by substituting human labor for capital, accelerates the centralized accumulation of wealth. Those who control capital stand to benefit disproportionately, while workers who are replaced lose their income. The structure of society must change if it is to withstand the economic shock of the end of labor. Marxist thought is relevant as it suggests a vision for society, undergirded by sound utilitarian logic, which would be capable of doing so.

While “luxury communism” seems somewhat fantastical, I am hopefully optimistic that, in the short term, redistributionist policies such as a negative income tax or a universal basic income will ease the transition from a labor to a post-labor economy. A socialist society, where the economic benefits of automation are distributed more broadly, will be better equipped to manage and mitigate wealth inequality than a capitalist society that refuses to address the problem.




Allen, Derek P. H. “The Utilitarianism of Marx and Engels.” American Philosophical Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1973): 189-99.


Merchant, Brian. “Fully automated luxury communism.” The Guardian, March 18th, 2015.


Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in the time of brilliant technologies. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.


Marx, Karl. 1978. Wage labour and capital. Foreign Languange Press Peking.


Locke, John, 1632-1704. The Second Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Oxford :B. Blackwell, 1948.



  1. As If

    May 7, 2017 @ 3:49 pm


    Nice essay. A couple edits: [FIXED]

  2. mattschrage

    May 7, 2017 @ 6:22 pm


    Thanks for the feedback! I made the changes you suggested.

    I should probably post my essays here before I submit them. Then I can get crowdsourced proof-reading. 🙂

    Hopefully the TF grading this won’t read it as closely as you.

  3. daniel brown

    May 7, 2017 @ 11:09 pm


    Hi, good stuff. I have a tumblr blog about FALC you might be interested in.

    Re: Basic Income over seizing. Matt Bruenig makes good points here

    There is also the point that even with a healthy UBI paid out to everyone, with privately owned automatons we would still be living in a neo-feudalistic society where the macro decisions of people’s lives will be made by whichever capitalist owns their town.

    Even some crucial decisions about production and how we produce, when we consider climate change for instance, would be better if they were democratised through common ownership of productive property than left to the market you’d imagine.

  4. Tara

    July 9, 2017 @ 11:18 pm


    Very interested in this topic and so came upon your article. I like the content very much and am looking for more ways to discuss and contribute to the discussion.

    A couple of critiques on tone:
    1) It is very “Ivory Tower”-esque, which can be off-putting and less accessible. I don’t know the purpose or setting of the paper, though, so if it is purely academic, it’s probably spot on!

    2) (See caveats in #1 and apply here) There is a lot of real estate devoted to how right or wrong Marx was wrt our current environment. Again, if that was the point of the paper, well done. If not, then I might recommend focusing more on the current application of his theories and less on those strategies and philosophies that don’t or can’t apply today.

    Finally, re: content and applicability to today, Marxist and utilitarian predictions, as you pointed out, did not occur, as (I believe) they required levels of education and passion that did not come to pass in the U.S. proletariat (see: Idiocracy). A more useful discussion would include solutions that are politically possible in the nation where capitalism is the most crystalized. I wish I could offer them, as I have only stumbled across your paper via Google since I don’t yet have the answers myself.

    Here’s to a future where we can discuss those solutions! Congrats and good luck.

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