To whom are we indebted for this new term "Automation", applied to the progressive mechanisation of productive process which has been a constant and familiar element of industrialism since its earliest days? Surely it's sudden and universal adoption requires some explanation? Is it too much to hope that it may herald the dawn of a change in the official attitude towards the chronic state of internal economic crises to which modern society has been compelled to accustom itself? Is it possible that under the immense pressure, in Great Britain, particularly, of the need to export, in combination with the crippling handicap placed upon our efforts to compete in the world market by the internal inflation, orthodox political economy is preparing to loosen-up in its views on national accountancy?
To take the recent case of the Standard Motor Works as a significant example of this new atmosphere — superficially there was nothing sufficiently novel to account for the sudden increase of public and official interest it caused. Employees to a considerable number were to be laid off while the tractor-plant was being completely re-equipped with automatic machinery at a huge capital cost, and except for the unusual scale of the operation, and the request on the part of the displaced operatives for a guarantee of re-employment, there seemed little that was exceptional in the situation. But what was, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely unprecedented, was the particular form in which Mr. Dick, the managing director of the Standard Co. refused to comply with the men's request — as in view of the conditions imposed on both parties by the system under which they operate, the was forced to do.
Instead of the customary economic equivocations and assurances regarding the value of automatic machines as a means to creating additional work for those in search of a job, Mr. Dick is reported to have replied, "We don't instal £4,000,000 (roughly $10,000,000) equipment to employ the same number of men."
Now that statement may be blunt; no doubt there are many to whom it appeared tactless and undiplomatic, even brutal, but beyond all possibility of contradiction it is relatively factual statement, and to be welcomed as such by all who love truth. It provides a firm basis, however apparently small, for the hopeful examination of differences between the contending parties; admitting a draft of fresh air into the positively suffocating atmosphere of orthodox economic discussion.
In speaking as he did for organised capital, American scientific business management really, Mr. Dick enunciated a valuable truism.
Generalised, it might read: "The ultimate object of installing labour-saving machines is to save labour."
It requires considerable courage to pronounce this truth publicly, and Mr. Dick is to be congratulated, even if this is to some extent the courage of desperation; a condition that applies equally to the men, confronted by this enigmatic word "Automation", which, read backward, that is in terms of our present monetary system, spells redundancy, unemployment.
It is only a step from this to another far-too-long ignored truism pronounced by Adam Smith some hundred and fifty years ago, to the effect that, "The sole object of production is consumption" — not the provision of jobs, be it observed. With these two truths alone inscribed on its banner, and interpreted with realism, modern industry, with its almost incredible technological facility, could go almost anywhere, and have almost anything it chooses.
(Norman F. Webb, in a letter to "The Belfast Newsletter"., June 4, as quoted in the "New Times, Sept. 21, 1956)