AI, Marxism & productive forces
[Editor's note: Aishik Saham, a researcher in digital and algorithmic labour and data workers in the Global South, will be speaking at a session on "'Artificial intelligence', capitalism and liberation" at Ecosocialism 2023 over July 1–2 in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. Kohei Saito, who is referred to in this piece. will also be speaking at Ecosocialism 2023. For more information about the conference, visit ecosocialism.org.au.]
Many people (including self-proclaimed Marxists) discuss the advantages and disadvantages of artificial intelligence (AI) primarily from a technical point of view and treat it as a kind of neutral technology. Such an approach is the result of the fact that many socialists have a theoretical wrong understanding of the relationship between productive forces and the relations of production.
Basically, such revisionist “Marxists” consider that productive forces have a neutral and objectively revolutionary character. As the productive forces increasingly expand, they clash with the relations of production as the latter become a conservative fetter. Hence, they view the contradiction between productive forces and the relations of production as one between a revolutionary (productive forces) and a conservative factor (relations of production). While advocates of such an approach readily admit that the relations of production also influence the development of the productive forces, they limit such impact only to the possibility to slow down or even to temporarily halt the expansion of the productive forces.
An example of such a one-sided and mechanistic approach is Josef Stalin's well-known essay, Dialectical and Historical Materialism, published in 1938:
[Another] feature of production is that its changes and development always begin with changes and development of the productive forces, and in the first place, with changes and development of the instruments of production. Productive forces are therefore the most mobile and revolutionary element of production. First, the productive forces of society change and develop, and then, depending on these changes and in conformity with them, men's relations of production, their economic relations, change. This, however, does not mean that the relations of production do not influence the development of the productive forces and that the latter are not dependent on the former. While their development is dependent on the development of the productive forces, the relations of production in their turn react upon the development of the productive forces, accelerating or retarding it. In this connection it should be noted that the relations of production cannot for too long a time lag behind and be in a state of contradiction to the growth of the productive forces, inasmuch as the productive forces can develop in full measure only when the relations of production correspond to the character, the state of the productive forces and allow full scope for their development. Therefore, however much the relations of production may lag behind the development of the productive forces, they must, sooner or later, come into correspondence with — and actually do come into correspondence with — the level of development of the productive forces, the character of the productive forces. Otherwise we would have a fundamental violation of the unity of the productive forces and the relations of production within the system of production, a disruption of production as a whole, a crisis of production, a destruction of productive forces. 
Such a point of view has been upheld by Stalinist ideologues long after the death of the dictator. In a standard work on Marxist philosophy, a group of Soviet scholars presented the role of technology in the late 20th century as a beaming picture of technological progress and automation developed under capitalist conditions:
Scientific advances and their technological application by the middle of the 20th century created the preconditions for a new grandiose leap in the development of the productive forces, for the contemporary scientific and technological revolution, which combines revolutionary changes in science and in technology. This revolution introduces the age of automated production and leads to a fundamental change in man’s place in production by creating in the course of its development the actual technical preconditions for the realization of Marx’s prevision. The working machine and motor made it possible to transfer from man to technical devices the function of immediate influence on the object of labor. But man still retained control of the machine and the process of production. Thanks to computer techniques, the machine is today taking over the function of controlling production as well. The direct process of material production can now be carried out automatically, without human participation. This raises the productive forces to a qualitatively new level. At the moment we are still at the beginning of this process, but its prospects are already fairly clear — development is moving from partial to full automation, when there will be not merely a tool, or even a system of machines, between man and nature, but an automated production process. 
It would be completely mistaken to imagine that it is only Stalinism which advocates such a fetishist understanding of the productive forces. Social democratic ideologists have basically shared such an approach, as do various “left-wing” academics.  And in the last decade, several self-proclaimed “Marxist” ideologists have taken AI and other new technologies as confirmation of such an approach. As examples of the latter we can refer to Aaron Bastani’s decadent Manifesto for a ”fully automated luxury communism”, which is based on “the forward march of automation and, ultimately, artificial intelligence”.  Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ concept of a “post-capitalist world without work” is another example of such a trend. 
Kohei Saito, a Marxist scholar from Japan, whose works on ecosocialism have recently gained popularity in Japan and internationally, elaborates a well-founded defense of Marx’s approach to productive forces, which was free of technology fetishism and rather focused on the development of humanity’s social progress. In a new book, he correctly points out that many self-proclaimed Marxists fetishize the productive forces in the form as they develop under the capitalist property relations:
The traditional view fetishizes the productive forces developed under capitalism, regarding them as if they were neutral forces that can be taken over by the proletariat and utilized for establishing a socialist society. What is missing here is an analysis of the real material transformation of the labor process under capitalist relations of production that ‘corresponds to’ the capitalist mode of production. 
Two other renowned Marxist theoreticians who intensively dealt with the relationship of capitalism and environment — Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster — remarked in a similar spirit:
Where technology is concerned, capitalism is far from neutral. It invariably favors those particular technologies that enlarge profits, accumulation, and economic growth. Indeed, it has a history of promoting those technologies that are most destructive of the environment: fossil fuel dependency, toxic synthetic chemicals (arising in particular from petrochemical production), nuclear energy, large dams, etc. In its headlong rush to expand, capitalism systematically gives rise to technologies that produce waste in vast quantities — as long as the costs can be externalized on nature and society and not on corporations themselves. Given that the technological objective is to feed growth, the tendency is to choose those technologies that maximize the overall throughput of resources and energy in the interest of higher overall economic output. 
A fundamental problem with the technology-fetishist approach is its ignorance of the fundamental fact that the relationship between productive forces and the relations of productions is dialectical — i.e. it is not only the first which determines the latter but also, vice versa, the latter shapes the former.
As the ruling class has great interest in warfare to expand its spheres of influence, it makes sure that technological developments take place in fields that are relevant to improve its military power. Since oil corporations had no interest in losing their business, they suppressed for decades technological innovation that could have replaced fuel-driven automobiles. Since humanity is dominated by imperialist powers and monopolies, huge resources are invested to develop high-definition television, ever-faster smartphones, etc. instead of developing technologies that could substantially improve the living conditions of the popular masses in the semi-colonial countries of the Global South.
Or, to give one more example: a growing number of members of the ruling elite in Western countries are eager to achieve the prolongation of their lives. Hence, they finance massive research in molecular biology and genetic modification to extend their lifetime so that they can vegetate as geriatrics. At the same time, the majority of humanity suffers from well-known diseases that could easily be cured if the necessary financial means were made available.
Advocates of a “productive forces fetishist” approach often refer to Marx’s well-known passage in the 1859 Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. 
However, all that Marx did in his 1859 Preface (and other relevant works) was to present a rough and general outline of the most fundamental tendencies in historical development. No less but no more. Unfortunately, various revisionists take such a general outline as the concrete characterization of the relationship between productive forces and the relations of productions and end up in such one-sided mechanistic views.
In contrast to the pro-capitalist fetishists, Marx had a much more dialectical approach to the relationship between productive forces and the relations of productions as he fully recognised how the latter rebound on the productive forces — in particular on the oppressed classes as well as nature:
We are still concerned here only with the way in which the capital realization process is its devaluation process. Out of place here would be the question how, while it has the tendency to heighten the productive forces boundlessly, it also and equally makes one-sided, limits etc. the main force of production, the human being himself, and has the tendency in general to restrict the forces of production… 
Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population … disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. 
Does this mean that we deny the primary role of the productive forces in relation to the relations of production; that we reject the thesis that the productive forces are the driving force in relation to the relations of production? Not at all. We think that those who claim so make an error in an idealist direction.
However, we reject a mechanistic understanding of such a relationship. In fact, both — productive forces and relations of production — influence and shape each other. Most importantly, of course, is the role of the class struggle — as Marx and Engels emphasized in the Communist Manifesto. It is only in the last instance that the productive forces are the more determining, more historical driving force in relation to the relations of production.
The Marxist classics took such a dialectical approach on various issues. Let us give two examples and analogies at the same time. Engels explained in his famous letter to Joseph Bloch that the relationship between basis and superstructure must not be understood as a one-sided relationship where the superstructure is only a passive reflection of the economic relations at the basis. No, he insisted that it is a reciprocal relationship where the basis is only “in the last instance” the determining factor:
According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former proposition into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various factors of the superstructure — the political forms of the class struggles and its results — constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles — legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, jural, philosophical theories, religious conceptions and their further development into systematic dogmas — all these exercise an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form. There is a reciprocity between all these factors in which, finally, through the endless array of contingencies (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection with one another is so remote, or so incapable of proof, that we may neglect it, regarding it as nonexistent) the economic movement asserts itself as necessary. Were this not the case, the application of the history to any given historical period would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree. We ourselves make our own history, but, first of all, under very definite presuppositions and conditions. Among these are the economic, which are finally decisive. But there are also the political, etc. 
It is the same with the relationship between being and consciousness, where the latter is not merely a passive reflection of the objective conditions but rather an active force which intervenes and shapes reality. It is only in the last instance that being is the determining factor in relation to consciousness.
Another important aspect in the relationship between productive forces and the relations of productions is the fact that such relationship evolves and changes in the course of a historic epoch. In the early stages, when a new historical social formation has emerged, the relations of productions are rather favorable for the growth of the productive forces. However, later, the same relations of productions increasingly become a fetter for the productive forces and the larger the contradiction between the two becomes, the more the relations of productions deform and distort the productive forces and, ultimately, provoke their decline.
The naïve advocates of AI under the disguise of “Marxism” completely ignore the fact that we are living in a period of capitalist decay where the contradiction between productive forces and the relations of productions is increasingly intensifying. Trotsky wrote in the Transitional Program about the “stagnation of the productive forces” and that “the objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten”. This was said in 1938 – how much more is this relevant today as we are living in a historic period of catastrophes and climate crisis.
Transformation of productive forces into destructive forces
Such an increasing contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production must have consequences for the development of the productive forces itself. A plant which is caged in a box can not sprout indefinitely — at some point it is forced either to stop growing, to extend sideways or downwards, or to die back.
Hence, the historically outdated property relations necessarily hinder the further development of productive forces — think about long-living bulbs or smartphones which are not produced because that would be less profitable, to name only two well-known examples. Or take the example that the capitalist state pushes scientists to develop new technologies that have an extraordinary power of destruction (e.g. bio-chemical weapons, hypersonic missiles) or that focus on surveillance of the population.
Marx and Engels emphasized this train of thoughts from early on. In The German Ideology, they stated:
It produced a mass of productive forces, for which private property became just as much a fetter as the guild had been for manufacture and the small, rural workshop for the developing handicrafts. These productive forces receive under the system of private property a one-sided development only, and for the majority they become destructive forces. 
And at another point, they wrote in the same book:
We have shown that at the present time individuals must abolish private property, because the productive forces and forms of intercourse have developed so far that, under the domination of private property, they have become destructive forces, and because the contradiction between the classes has reached its extreme limit. 
Modern history has provided us with numerous examples regarding the accuracy of the Marxist thesis of the increasing tendency of productive forces to transform into destructive forces. Think about modern means of warfare; nuclear power plants, which are a permanent risk for the population and which produce highly dangerous waste; cars, airplanes and factories designed in such a way that deplete the ozone layer; genetic modified crops, which undermine sustainable agriculture and have devastating consequences for biodiversity and health.
Hence, the latest development of modern technology, AI, is just another example of such a transformation of productive forces into destructive forces. It should be taken as a serious warning that dozens of leading AI experts have recently signed the following statement: “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” 
Excerpted and slightly edited from Artificial Intelligence and the Marxist Understanding of Productive Forces. Michael Pröbsting is a socialist activist and writer. He is the editor of the website http://www.thecommunists.net.
 J. V. Stalin: Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938), Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1949, pp. 23-24
 F. V. Konstantinov (Ed.): The Fundamentals of the Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1982, pp. 225-226. See also the entry on “productive forces” in the standard work on Marxist philosophy of Eastern German Stalinism (Georg Klaus and Manfred Buhr: Marxistisch-Leninistisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Vol.3, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, Hamburg 1972, p. 978)
 See on this e.g. G. A. Cohen: Karl Marx's Theory of History. A Defence, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2001, pp. 134-171; for a critical discussion see e.g. Wal Suchting: “Productive Forces” and “Relations of Production” in Marx, in: Analyse & Kritik Vol. 4, No. 2 (1982), pp. 159-181
 Aaron Bastani: Fully Automated Luxury Communism. A Manifesto, Verso, London 2019, p. 212
 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Verso, London 2016; see also Florian Butollo and Sabine Nuss (Eds.): Marx and the Robots. Networked Production, AI and Human Labour, Pluto Press, London 2022
 Kohei Saito: Marx in the Anthropocene. Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, University Printing House, Cambridge 2022, p. 154. In this context, we should point out that while we recognize Saito’s contribution for a better understanding of Marx’s work, we do not share his political conclusions which in our view adapt to the vulgar reformist conception of “Popular Frontism”. Neither do we necessarily concur with all his interpretations of Marx’s development of his critique of capitalism (or of Engels’ role in it). In addition to the above-mentioned work, Saito has also published another interesting book on this issue: Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Capitalism, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Monthly Review Press, New York 2017.
 Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster: What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment, Monthly Review Press, New York 2011, pp. 33-34
 Karl Marx: Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Preface (1859), in: MECW Vol. 29, p. 263
 Karl Marx: Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, p. 422
 Karl Marx: Capital, Vol. I, in: MECW Vol. 35, pp. 506-507
 Friedrich Engels: “Letter to Joseph Bloch” (1890); in: MECW 49, pp. 34-35
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The German Ideology, in: MECW Vol. 5, p. 73
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The German Ideology, in: MECW Vol. 5, p. 439. See also: “Finally, from the conception of history set forth by us we obtain these further conclusions: 1) In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being which, under the existing relations, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which is ousted from society and forced into the sharpest contradiction to all other classes.“ (The German Ideology, p. 52) One has to note at this point that Marx and Engels at that time viewed the historical potential of capitalism as too quickly exhausted as Trotsky pointed out in his essay “Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto”. However, this does no harm to the analytical logic of Marx and Engels' argument.
 “Statement on AI Risk. AI experts and public figures express their concern about AI risk”. https://www.safe.ai/statement-on-ai-risk; see also Kevin Roose: “A.I. Poses ‘Risk of Extinction,’ Industry Leaders Warn”, New York Times, May 30, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/30/technology/ai-threat-warning.html; Agence France-Presse: AI poses ‘extinction’ risk comparable to nuclear war, pandemics, say experts, 30 May, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/3222359/ai-poses-extinction-risk-comparable-nuclear-war-pandemics-say-experts?module=more_top_stories_int&pgtype=homepage