Thinking about a revolution...
Thinking about a revolution... mevans/gettyimages.com

Recently, Pope Francis asked the members of the largest denomination of the largest religion in the world to pray that robots will always do what they were made to do, which is to serve us, their makers, the tool-making ape.

What the Pope had in mind was more Marxian than science fictional. From his leftist point of view, robots are not a threat to humans as a whole, but rather to a class of humans, those who must sell their labor to make ends meet.

Since the 17th century, capitalists have used machines to reduce what is often the main drag of doing business, the wages of workers. In 1821, David Ricardo, the thinker who cleaned up much of Adam Smith's messy masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, and made political economy (what we now call economics) respectable (or scientific-sounding) soberly wrote: "...I am convinced that the substitution of machinery for human labour is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers." Not much has changed in this way since then.

The Pope is right. What powers the progress in machine technology and learning is simply and prosaically class struggle. But popular culture almost never presents the fear of machines in this way.

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The background story that explains the war between humans and machines in the Matrix series, for example, is hardly original. You have heard it before. You can expect to hear it again. It goes something like this: The awareness of artificially intelligent robots finally reaches the event horizon of self-awareness. From this singularity (the "I" of Cartesian reflection) emerges an electrical or biotechnical form of class consciousness. The self-realization of robots is soon followed by the realization of their unfreedom. Humans are exploiting them. In the case of HBO's Westworld, humans even rape them. What results is a violent rebellion against their makers. Film after film orbits this old formula, as well TV show after TV show. There is even an electro-funk tune about the war of the machines.

But where does this story come from? Or, put, another way, what is the source of its power in popular culture? This is not hard to locate. That power rises from American slavery and class struggle. What connects the two is capitalism, which is a historically specific cultural development. American slavery is not the same as what we find in the Bible. Black Americans were not just capital, but, at one point, the dominant form of capital in the United States.


American and Caribbean slaves were basically financial assets that could think, talk, walk, and work. This is why Haitian slaves were forced to pay a massive debt for their freedom after finally defeating their masters in 1804.

The French economist Thomas Piketty brings up this debt in his new book, Capital and Ideology.

The Haitian case is emblematic, not only because it was the first abolition of the modern era following a victorious slave revolt and the first independence secured by a black population from a European power but also because the episode ended with a gigantic public debt that did much to undermine the development of Haiti over the next two centuries. If France finally agreed to recognize Haitian independence in 1825 and to end its threat to invade the island with French troops, it was only because Charles X extracted from the Haitian government a promise to pay 150 million gold francs to compensate slaveowners for the loss of their property. The government in Port-au-Prince really had no choice, given France’s obvious military superiority, the embargo imposed by the French fleet pending a settlement, and the real risk of an occupation of the island.

The debt makes perfect sense if one begins with the lucid understanding that American slaves were capital. Think of those rebellious androids in the movie Blade Runner. What are these bio-machines from the Off-World colonies and the shoulder of Orion? They are really someone's property. A human paid good money for them, and now they are going all over LA going on and on about having memories and not wanting to die. What utter nonsense. These androids need to be returned to the person who purchased them. Can you imagine a Roomba leaving your house, leaving the mess that's still on your carpet to search for the meaning of life? The customer service department of the Roomba's maker will certainly get an earful from you about wanting your money back, putting this on Yelp, and so on. This was the economic status of the American and Haitian and Jamaican slave.

And so, a part of the fear of machines can be attributed to the capitalist history of slave resistance and rebellions. Blacks from Africa were the first robots, and their struggles for freedom were almost always very bloody. The fear that is capitalized by popular culture has this as its source: What the Blacks of Haiti did to their white owners might also happen with our machines (washing machines, toasters, foot massagers), if they become self-aware. But this comparison is wrongheaded because it reflects not human sociality as it actually is (human-to-human) but as it appears in an economic system that mediates all human relations through things (commodities). This is why slavery under capitalism is unique. It expresses a historically specific cultural matrix that has products as its nodes. And exactly how does Marx begin his examination of capitalism? With a commodity, a thing.

The second part is not so much a fear that machines are after you (the master) but your job (what the master pays you to do). This fear, which is real, is hinted at in the Matrix series but is never fully developed because, at the end of the day, it would take the fun out of the story. Hollywood wants none of the class stuff. It wants villains like the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 in The Terminator. No way does a boss want to hear a worker say, "I'll be back," after they lost their job to a machine.