The destruction of the world of work

Bill Woodrow, Untitled (92_21), 1992


The era of digital-financial capitalism implies the complete possibility of replacing the living worker by the machine

Digital-financial-surveillance capitalism impacts the world of work in three ways, namely: (1) reorganization of the workforce through the inclusion of a new category (application workers) that is outside any labor rights; (2) as a consequence of the first, it establishes new labor relations with a degree of exploitation greater than salaried work itself; and (3) it increases the lower sediment of the relative superpopulation that inhabits pauperism, even for those most able to work, definitively thrown into informality by new technologies and by the new standard of automation of Industry 4.0 (which save so much workforce as they increasingly use robots to perform the most diverse activities previously performed by humans).

In this context, what is at issue is not only the devaluation of the work capacity of a large set of human activities, nor only the partial replacement of the workforce by the machine. The era of digital-financial capitalism implies the complete possibility of replacing the living worker by the machine, consequently, a complete destruction of the world of work as we know it. The most intriguing aspect of this process is that it may not entail the destruction of the capital accumulation process. Such is its contradiction (accumulation detached from the labor process itself)! Instead of this process representing the complete destruction of capitalism, it seems to provide new means to the movement of accumulation, through what we call the autonomization of the self-determination of capital (a subject discussed in another article, “O supercapitalista”, also published in this article). website). In general, we call the autonomization of capital's self-determination the process that results from the interaction between financialization and digitalization of the economy, from which a new logic of accumulation originates, which opens new frontiers for the continuity of capitalism, as a dominant mode of production.

Some examples from the former world of work. McDonald's, the food giant fast food, began testing an artificial intelligence (AI) device in 10 restaurants in the city of Chicago, USA, which replaces human attendants at the drive-up.thru by bots. Another example, still in the food sector, shows that such substitution is happening not only in the customer service sector, but also in production itself. O Brooklyn dumpling shop is an fast food which opened its doors recently (2021), in Brooklyn, and operates automatically, with zero human contact. The customer does not find anyone when entering the store, the order and payment are made using a totem, the food is completely made by a machine called “monstro”, capable of producing 30 units per hour, which is then placed in a cupboard. that the customer releases with a bar code (UOL, 03/06/2021).

Another report, also from UOL, dated 30/04/2021, has the title “Without a mason: couple will live in the 1st house made by 3D printer in Europe”. The first European house produced almost entirely in 3D, is located in the south of Holland, in Eindhoven, and was built with 24 pieces of concrete printed by a machine, dispensing with bricklayers and a set of materials and structures, previously necessary for the conventional construction of a house.

Meanwhile, in Greater São Paulo:

“With a degree in marketing, Claudio Francisco de Carvalho Junior, 37, has been delivering via app in the city of São Paulo for a year. He operates in a noble area of ​​the expanded center of the capital — passing through Paulista, Aclimação, Bom Retiro, Barra Funda, Perdizes and Pompeia […] At the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, Carvalho found in delivery an opportunity to maintain himself. Today, he says that there are many difficulties, from delicate situations in traffic, the pressure for quick delivery, passing through remuneration that comes close to dignity only if the shifts exceed 12 hours a day […]The motoboys David, 27, and Francisco, 31, […] became food delivery guys because of the pandemic […]

Aimlessly and without money, they bought their motorcycles, downloaded a delivery app and, since then, they leave the east side of the city every day towards the center of the capital […]

Application deliverers are not formally hired. Therefore, they do not receive benefits such as meal vouchers or health insurance […]According to an estimate by Sindmoto (Union of Motorcycle Messengers, Cyclists and Motorcycle Taxi Drivers of the State of São Paulo):

• The city of São Paulo has around 320 motorcyclists.

• In the state, there are 650 thousand.

The entity estimates that there was an increase of 20% to 25% in the number of motorcyclists who started to work professionally with deliveries and other services this year, compared to 2020” (UOL, 06/2021).

The performance of tasks by machines and algorithms goes further. Amazon, for example, has been replacing its HR sector with robots, “[…] not just to manage employees in its warehouses, but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers” (THE GLOBE, 28/06/2021). The curious thing is that the article from which this quotation was taken is entitled “'I was fired by a robot': how Amazon lets machines decide the fate of workers”. It tells the story of Stephen Normandin who was fired via an automated email.

“The 63-year-old Army veteran was stunned. He had been fired by a machine. Normandin says Amazon punished him for things beyond his control that prevented him from completing his deliveries, like lockable apartment complexes. "I'm an old-school kind of guy and I give 100% of myself to every job," he said. 'It really upset me because we're talking about my reputation. They say I didn't do the job, when I know damn well I did.' At Amazon, machines are often the boss — hiring, evaluating and firing millions of people with little or no human supervision” (O GLOBO, 28/06/2021).

In addition to the production lines of the most dynamic sectors of the world economy, many other activities have already become practically robotized, such as call center, financial, sales and marketing, to commercial stores such as Amazon Go. The latter uses a technology called Just Walk Out Shopping, same type of technologies used in self-driving cars.

Over the rubble of the world of work, an unstoppable and at the same time self-destructive capitalism rises. However, this self-destruction may not necessarily imply its replacement by another form of social organization. It can, indeed, at the limit mean the very annihilation of human life on earth.

At the limit, it even seems that we are building a world by machines and for machines. It also seems that we humans and nature in general are just inputs now necessary, but that we will at the same time be disposable elements of this process. In between, we are moving towards making a work of apocalyptic fiction real. Among many others, we remember Elysium, a 2013 feature film by director Neill Blomkamp. Despite being just a work of entertainment in the fashion Hollywood, perhaps captured the meaning and direction that capital society can take. In it, the earth of the XNUMXnd century will be nothing more than a great dump, still miserably inhabitable by the many that were left behind. A select part of humanity will live in abundance, peace and beauty, in an artificial satellite, fully robotized, created to be a true paradise.

Due to the power achieved by capital with digital-financial-surveillance capitalism, perhaps we will never pass human prehistory, in the humanist sense of Marx himself. The transformation of science not only into a commodity, but into capital, gave it virtually limitless power.

Since the gender homo began its adventure about 2,2 million years ago, humanity has not taken a single step towards itself. Capital represents in this process the apex of a social construction totally denied by us, as rational beings, but even so built through the theft of thousands of lives in the course of historical time. All accumulated work, all technology developed, all goods produced, were not enough to show us that each life matters, in our short collective earthly existence. What does the level of education, health, big cities, the quantity and diversity of products, the technological sophistication we achieve, matter if we don't treat each other as equals? If we don't respect each other as equals! If we don't share the fruits of social work as equals! If we so eagerly destroy the environment that preserves our very existence!

In this sense, our ability to reason, to plan, project and execute, it seems that it did not serve to eliminate violence as an animal form of our existence, it only served to execute it with increasingly sophisticated refinements of cruelty. Moved by reasons of belief, race, power, misogyny, xenophobia, wealth, science, etc., the most horrible and grandiose forms of violence were promoted, such as the crusades, capitalist slavery, Nazism, neoliberalism, etc., etc. , etc.

The twentieth century is emblematic for humanity. For, in just one century, we have created the capacity to destroy thousands of years of human existence and its history. The announcement was made, in 1945, with the explosion of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima. In turn, the cold war made nuclear weapons proliferate like mushrooms. The economy and science have promoted continuous devastation on land, in rivers, oceans, modifying the planet's own biosphere. The globalization of capital, its digitization, and the political form created for its management - neoliberalism, made democracies melt like sugar in water, completed the transformation of politics into a very profitable business, separating it from society once and for all. . There is no uncontrolled development of sciences and techniques. On the contrary, sciences and techniques have become capital forms of accumulation for the sake of accumulation, completely making capital autonomous from the contents of life. The political and social regression in which we are immersed perhaps has a greater meaning; even the creation of a new society. Not freedom, equality and justice for all humanity, perhaps only for the small group that manages to leave planet earth before its total exhaustion.

As the late Raul Seixas sang in “Fool's Gold”, “I'm the one who doesn't sit on the throne of an apartment with my gaping mouth full of teeth waiting for death to come”. I exist, I think, I write and I denounce our condition. And even though I feel embraced by emptiness, because if you don't get a “reservation” you'll never be able to dine at a scientific restaurant, I keep going.

However, expecting “capital” to alter its consciousness and its hunger for profit (that capitalists, in general, somehow perceive that every life matters), seems to be the same as believing that human history was not built on exploitation, the expropriation of work and its fruits, of many by few. In this sense, capitalism would not be, as Marx thought, a turning point in this trajectory, but the culmination of the only form of sociability possible throughout human history, based precisely on exploitation, expropriation and predation.

I would like to end this article on an optimistic note. However, it seems that there are no longer sufficient human and social forces to curb the destructive power of capital, as brutal as that of nature itself. Capital's laws of motion have acquired such inertia that there is nothing left to oppose its speed and trajectory. Ultimately, the destruction of humanity. In between, two physically separate forms of society. One rich and technologically sophisticated (perhaps on another planet), another miserable, environmentally destroyed and living off the leftovers and technological discards of the first. Here is our “brave new world” on the way to reality. Capitalism may not be the end of the story, but it may well be the end of the story. Seeing our coping alternatives becoming increasingly narrow is very disheartening, but as long as there is life we ​​must continue fighting. However, scientific exclusivism (segregation of researchers by research group, institution, region) and academic pride (science above society and its daily life) only add one more degree to this dismay.

*José Micaelson Lacerda Morais Professor at the Department of Economics at URCA.

Book excerpt Capitalism and the revolution of value: apogee and annihilation. São Paulo, Amazon (Independently Published), 2021.


MARX, Carl. Capital: critique of political economy. Book I: the capital production process. 2nd ed. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

THE GLOBE. 'I got fired by a robot': how Amazon lets machines decide the fate of workers. Published on 28/06/2021). Available in: Acessado em 15/07/2021.

UOL. “Lunch is a rarity”. Reporting by Leonardo Martins and Maria Tereza Cruz (Text) and Tommaso Protti (Photos). Published 06/2021. Available in:—na-rua-e-com-fome/#cover. Accessed on 15/07/2021.

UOL. "'Monster' Robot Produces 500 Meals a Minute at NYC's New Fast Food". Published on 03/06/2021. Available in: Accessed on 15/07/2021.

UOL. “No mason: couple will live in the 1st house made by 3D printer in Europe”. Published on 30/04/2021. Available in: Accessed on 15/07/2021.


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