By: Ian Ocx, Red Phoenix correspondent, Texas.
In Fort Worth, Texas, a few miles outside of Dallas, McDonald’s announced the opening of the first ever “fully” automated fast food restaurant, where customers place and pick up their orders without interacting with any human workers, despite the necessity of the workers in the kitchen who prepare the food and drinks. Shortly after the opening of the store, videos on various social media platforms including Twitter and TikTok went viral. Several of these videos made reference to the demand of workers within the US for a $15 per hour minimum wage, and claimed that this automation of a fast food store is the obvious corporate result of the ongoing struggle of workers for living wages. In essence, this is true. Rather than pay their workers — the source of their profits — enough to live on, McDonald’s would instead invest in replacing them altogether, save for the kitchen staff that cannot yet be replaced with technology. Representatives of McDonald’s claim that this experiment in automation is to help improve the customer experience and is geared towards those customers “planning to dine at home or on the go.” This excuse must not be believed.
An essential part of capitalism is the constant need caused by market forces to create surplus value, of which capitalists hoard a percentage as profit and recirculate another percentage in the quest to produce even more surplus value. The accumulation of capital through the production of profits for the bourgeoisie essentially takes on two distinct forms: the struggles over absolute and relative surplus value. Absolute surplus value refers to the amount of time that the worker spends laboring to create the surplus value. This method of accumulation usually occurs in one of three forms. The capitalist will keep wages of the worker low, extend the number of hours worked, or control the rate at which the worker produces. Relative surplus value is usually accumulated through technological advancements employed by one individual or business, which allows for the depreciation of the cost of production while still selling the product at the socially accepted price. It is relative because as soon as other capitalists employ similar technologies in their industries which make similar products — depreciating the cost of production overall — the market price of the commodity is expected to fall in correlation with the necessary labor time needed to produce it.
McDonald’s, in the process of automation, has engaged in both tactics of surplus value production. They have entirely eliminated the wages of now-obsolete workers (increasing their absolute surplus value) and they have employed new technologies to lower the cost of production without adjusting the sale price of their products (increasing their relative surplus value), at least until other companies do the same. Of course, McDonald’s and any competitors who mimic this model could artificially keep prices high based upon the speculative value of the brands. This is nothing more than a complete and outright attack on the working class. However, the elimination of positions in the labor force at the restaurant in question leads to the development of a very dangerous contradiction within the drive to accumulate capital.
It can be safely assumed that if the experiment currently taking place at the Fort Worth location proves to be a success then McDonald’s and other fast food industry giants will invest more heavily in automation, leaving more and more workers unemployed. As of the most recent data provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS) there are over 3 million people laboring in the fast food industry who now stand to lose their jobs to mechanical replacements. It can be safely assumed that others in the capitalist class, outside of the fast food industry but in other service related sectors, are also eagerly awaiting the results of this experiment to potentially develop their own ways to implement automation. If we leave it to all workers involved in food preparation and service of some kind the USBLS estimates a workforce of 11 million people nationwide. If that is expanded to include other sectors of the service industry then the number grows steadily.
If continued automation proves to be a profitable investment, then countless millions of workers risk unemployment or underemployment. This is of course the contradiction that becomes inherent with automation under the exploitative laws of capitalist relations. The capitalists may be initially saving themselves money by reducing the necessity of human labor, but without a sustainable source of income for the workers, who will be able to afford to buy the products and services these businesses bring to market? The initial savings of automation will inevitably lead to a greater crisis of unemployment, overproduction, and all the poverty and misery that comes with it along with a crisis of capital accumulation for the bourgeoisie. Perhaps for a small time the crisis could be averted through the circulation of anti-value through the extension of credit, as was done leading up to the 2008 international financial crisis, but eventually the credit lines and debt accrued would need to be paid. Credit would be a temporary delay to the impending crisis of automation, not a solution. When all is said and done, it will be the workers who bear the burden of the crisis, just as has always been the case with capitalism.
It is worth noting that even with automation’s present status as a looming threat and contradiction within the socioeconomic relations of capitalism, this does not mean that automation will always have an adverse nature. During socialist construction the expansion of automated labor will benefit the working class as a whole by eliminating various forms of superfluous labor tasks, leaving more time for workers to engage in other fields for their betterment. It is only under the corrosive laws of the market that we see this inherent evil in automating fields of work.