14th May 2017
Irvine Welsh on the automation of work and what this means for our social relationships.
The media and politicians will often blandly inform us that we are living in unprecedented times, usually without any real explanation of what this actually means. The basic answer, that we are approaching a technologically driven end of capitalism, doesn’t on its own suffice. We have to look at the changing relationships between key factors that characterise this inchoate era. One of the most important of these is automation, and its recently altered association with productivity and employment.
That capitalism, in its post-industrial phase, has evolved into a very different beast from its depiction in the oft-idealised pin factory of Adam Smith, is now universally accepted. It’s also becoming widely consensual that this economic system of production, distribution and exchange has a technologically determined lifecycle. Industrial capitalism, which manufactured physical goods, explicitly supported the development of a market system. Now human activity produces mainly information, often counterintuitive to private profit. Monopolistic corporations, which owe their strength to economies of scale, increasingly produce the remaining tangible goods and services. This corporate preeminence is both progressed and cemented by defensive, statist and supranational legal strategies, rather than being the outcome of any successful competition in the market place.
So the end of capitalism’s natural life has been promoted by neoliberalism, which has exacerbated technology-led deindustrialization. Technology cannot be un-invented. But its development can be phased in for the social good of the community, rather than the rapacious desire for bigger profits. This wasn’t done; in the 1980’s and 90’s, neoliberals seized every aspect of the state, including the media and the main political parties, in order to promote the shift of wealth from the broader community to the already rich. In Britain, the Conservative and Labour governments of the 80,’s 90’s and 2000’s saw it as ‘modernising’ to erode the traditional blue-collar unionised basis of socialism. But this approach now seems based on a misunderstanding of what the state and free market actually constituted within a capitalist society.
It used to be fashionable to think of capitalism and socialism as two antagonistic forces: battling for supremacy in a pluralist democracy. The neoliberal ascendancy of 1984-2008 established the notion that capitalism (or at least a warped facsimile of it) had triumphed in this struggle. It could therefore do nothing more than impose a hegemony of ideas and practices, which circumvented and negated a democracy that had come to be covertly regarded as inefficient and wasteful by elites, with its potential to produce outcomes beneficial to citizens but detrimental to profit margins. All of progressive post-war institutions, from the BBC to the Labour Party to the Universities, were co-opted into this dominant paradigm.
“Our awe of the latest technological advances, with robots like Baxter, Watson and Kiva being given the C3PO/R2D2 media treatment, bizarrely means that the notion of ‘machines taking our jobs’ still retains a sci-fi extravagance in our imaginations. However, this is simply the historical reality of industrialisation. What is totally unprecedented is the scale and speed at which this is happening. In Britain, Deloitte and the University of Oxford have predicted that 10 million unskilled jobs could be taken over by robots.”
But having an ascendant end-of-history ‘there is no alternative’ mode of thought, encompassing all political parties, the media and the education system, isn’t just intellectually limiting. In a more practical sense, it’s also disastrous. Economist Steve Keen recounts the Queen calling outraged bullshit on Britain’s sheepish top economic experts at a meeting at the London School of Economics, where they meekly argued that nobody could have predicted the 2008 crash. In fact, a substantial number of them (including Keen himself) had done exactly that over the years. The truth is that only those classical, neo-liberal economists, hopelessly trapped by the prevailing wisdom and their groupthink, had marginalised their more critical colleagues over the years. Of course they themselves proved to be as useful as chocolate fireguards when the crash came along, simply because their self-regulating schematic model of capitalism permitted no room for such crisis.
But the underlying reality is that capitalism and socialism were always complimentary as well as competing forces. Both are the children of industrialisation, and both are now in secular decline in face of a relentless technology, which is destroying the paid employment offered to labour, and the profit awarded to capital. Neoliberalism’s ‘solution’ to this problem was privatisation, the transfer of state assets to the rich, and financialisation, the transfer of the middle-classes assets to the same elite, in exchange for debt, and of course, the steady reduction of worker’s wages through the erosion of union power, in order to bring them down to the levels of the emerging economies.
The ironic truth that neoliberalism has not only destroyed industrial socialism, but in it’s rapacious greed, failed to protect an ailing capitalism, is a hard one for many to swallow. The right-wing’s more libertarian advocates of full-throttle privatisation and attacks on union power, failed to recognise that that the system had scientifically developed into a monopolistic, global, corporate concern. Therefore, dreaming of returning to the pin factory of Smith and perfect competition is Pol Pot style nostalgia. By ‘deregulating’ capital and ‘regulating’ the labour market (by putting constraints on the personal freedom of workers to assemble), far from increasing competition and making the market function more efficiently, the ascendant right-wing were helping to erode it, by building a transnational corporate state of the superrich. Milton Friedman himself gave the game away, when he described monopoly as a ‘reward for efficiency.’ It was this reward that paved the way for the mergers and acquisitions fever of the Thatcher and Reagan era, where profits were boosted, not by increasing competition in the market place, but by eliminating it through the development of monopoly power, and solidifying this through the co-opting of democracy by the lobby system and the transnational bodies like the IMF and the World Bank. While such elites would prefer to use these globalist institutions to maintain their power, the bailout of 2008, a response to their failed policies of financialisation, illustrates how much they see national taxpayer’s money as their own.
As citizens, we justly mistrust the ‘unprecedented times’ mantra. After all, it would seem to give implicit emergency powers to elites whose behaviour has precipitated such crisis. Most people, justifiably, want to simply get on with life and make progress without being burdened by external threats and upheavals. Indeed, much of Conservatism’s power as a political creed is that it taps into the compelling illusion of this possibility. But in an era where we face species-threatening imperatives on population, climate, a broken financial system, flatlining growth and real wage reductions, it’s fanciful to imagine that we can sustain this delusion.
These factors, in conjuncture with our information technology revolution, are pushing us towards a different set of social relationships and a new type of society. Now the dispassionate view is one that used to be reserved for neo-Marxists; it sees Western capitalism in technologically driven decline, with its ability to provide economic growth and employment prospects for its citizens rapidly receding.
Our awe of the latest technological advances, with robots like Baxter, Watson and Kiva being given the C3PO/R2D2 media treatment, bizarrely means that the notion of ‘machines taking our jobs’ still retains a sci-fi extravagance in our imaginations. However, this is simply the historical reality of industrialisation. What is totally unprecedented is the scale and speed at which this is happening. In Britain, Deloitte and the University of Oxford have predicted that 10 million unskilled jobs could be taken over by robots.
Automation, the reduction of the need for people in jobs, was once seen as a positive process, liberating us from backbreaking, mind-numbing routine work. We could enjoy more leisure and holidays, make love and write poetry, go canoeing and abseiling. Karl Marx, despite the grim Soviet experience of communism, and the relentless distortion of his ideas, was primarily interested in human freedom: the removal of external dictates by other individuals and systems. The principal flaw in Marx’s analysis of industrial capitalism was the belief that the urban proletariat had to be the agents of political and social revolution. It fact they were beneficiaries of capitalism’s superiority over central planning in solving problems of economic scarcity. Yes, capitalism did promote obscene inequities, wars, conflict and poverty, and it was an unfair lottery that cemented advantages of birth. Yet it also gave a majority of working people in the western world a better shot at leisure and comfort than anything that had preceded it, or would rise to challenge it. Marx saw that the automation, which was the foundation of this wealth, was alienating, but part of a process that would eventually lead to revolution. In the heady 60’s there was great interest in automation and alienation, when the studies of writers like Robert Blauner gained prominence. Now automation, once identified as both the route to a possible anarchist utopia and the destruction of the worker’s consciousness and psychological wellbeing, is increasingly associated with a future of stagnant income and worsening inequality under a crumbling capitalism.
“As citizens, we justly mistrust the ‘unprecedented times’ mantra. After all, it would seem to give implicit emergency powers to elites whose behaviour has precipitated such crisis. Most people, justifiably, want to simply get on with life and make progress without being burdened by external threats and upheavals. Indeed, much of Conservatism’s power as a political creed is that it taps into the compelling illusion of this possibility. But in an era where we face species-threatening imperatives on population, climate, a broken financial system, flatlining growth and real wage reductions, it’s fanciful to imagine that we can sustain this delusion.”
Advanced automation has been common in many types of manufacturing for decades. It has now developed to a level of flexibility and cost where it’s viable to have industrial robots, like Baxter of Rethink Robotics, perform manual jobs for small manufacturers in a variety of sectors. What goes for modest companies is even more expressed in big ones. The orange Kiva robot scurries across the hanger-like warehouses of its parent company, Amazon, and other e-commerce enterprises, grabbing racks of goods for the clerks who package the orders. Now super-Kiva’s have already made thousands of their poor old prototypes redundant. High profile sensations like Google’s driverless car, suggest what automation soon might be able to accomplish. As I write this, Amsterdam is introducing the unmanned ‘roboat’ onto its network of canals.
Until recently blue-collar jobs took the brunt of the personnel decimation, as technology relentlessly automated assembly-line work. Now artificial intelligence, robotics and new disruptive technology are having a devastating impact on previously inviolable white-collar professions. IBM’s Watson, best known for its dazzling performance in a TV game show (Jeopardy!) has already shown a much more accurate diagnosis rate for certain cancers than human consultants: 90 percent versus 50 percent in some tests. Watson’s diagnostic edge comes from the robot’s voracious assimilation of newly released medical data, which would take a Doctor up to 160 hours a week to match.
Automated systems are already in use to aid surgeons in low-invasive procedures. In more complex operations, the doctor remains in control, but we’ve already seen demonstrations of how a robotic system can remove a tumor from tissue. And at least one hair transplant robot is on the market, allowing a solitary surgeon to oversee multiple procedures on a group of pop stars, or even an entire team of footballers.
Reviewing the thousands of documents required in big legal cases was traditionally one of the lower-level tasks lawyers or paralegals could face. Now this can be done by new software systems, which comb through emails, texts, databases, and scanned documents, sourcing the relevant material using syntactic analysis and keyword recognition. In the near future a legally-trained Watson will be able to construct a system with a vast store of cases and precedent, creating drafts of briefs, the sort of work usually handled by associates in law firms. Even senior lawyers, highly paid for knowing which arguments are most salient to win a particular case, assessing past court rulings and even the peculiarities of a judge, are potentially under threat as quantitative legal prediction is another virgin territory that information technology is now encroaching on.
The main difference between the present and previous periods of technological advance is that now there are no signs of this trend reversing. As technology is evolving faster than ever before and with almost zero regulation, the likelihood of more jobs being replaced by new tech is at an all-time high. An Oxford University study in 2013 concluded that some 47% of present jobs in the US could be computerised in the next 10 to 20 years.
The crux of the argument is a straightforward one. In economics, productivity (the amount of value created by any given unit of input, such as an hour of labour) is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation – a measure of progress, if you will. For years after World War II, productivity and jobs closely tracked each other, with increases in one corresponding to rises in the other. As businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, fuelling further economic activity and creating even more jobs.
In 2000, divergence started to occur; despite a robust rise in productivity, employment had started to wane. By 2011, the “great decoupling”, as described by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, had taken place. We now have a significant and increasing gap between productivity and employment, with economic growth resulting in no parallel increase in job creation.
A view as to the permanence (or otherwise) of this phenomenon is dependent on how one sees the development of capitalism. Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, improvements in technology have changed the nature of work, in the process destroying certain types of jobs. Agriculture employed 41% of all Americans in 1900, but by 2000, this had shrunk to a meagre 2%. The proportion employed in manufacturing decreased from 30% after World War II to around 10% today, mainly because of increased automation. The biggest increases were recorded in the Reagan years of 1980’s wrecking ball neoliberalism, a trend mirrored in the UK under Thatcher.
Structural changes can obviously destroy the livelihood of citizens whose skills no longer match the needs of employers, and the communities on which a traditional industry is based. But will ‘technological unemployment’ ease over time? Harvard economic historian Lawrence Katz, takes the orthodox line that no long-term historical pattern indicates that such changes lead to a net decrease in jobs. Indeed, Katz’s research on how technological advances have affected patterns of work over the last few centuries is a testimony to the adaptive powers of capitalism. While it may take decades for workers to acquire the expertise needed for new types of employment, Katz argues that in the long-term we never have run out of jobs.
But even Katz won’t dismiss the notion that there is a different quality to today’s digital technologies; features that might adversely influence a much broader range of work. The question he posits is whether past evidence will serve as a useful guide. As a discipline, economic history is, and has to be, largely the narrative of feudalism and capitalism. Can its extrapolations be applied to the conceptualist society, where the prime activity of production is intangible information? Can capitalism, in its risk-aversive era, where entrepreneurs have been replaced by corporate elites who use monopoly power, manage to adapt to encompass the technological (to say nothing of social, climatic and demographic) changes, within a private profit system, or is it near the end of the line?
Wendell Wallach, from Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, claims that robotics, 3D printing, and other emerging technologies are fueling technological unemployment, (the concept of technology killing more jobs than it produces) and promoting global wealth disparity. Wallach offers the example of how, in 1990, GM, Ford, and Chrysler generated $36 billion in annual revenue and hired over a million workers in America. The present day big three of Apple, Facebook and Google, bring in over a trillion dollars but employ around only 137,000 staff. Such social changes, taking place under neoliberal regimes where wealth redistribution remains a taboo concept, have ironically created a revival in Marxist ideas, as capital increasingly concentrates in the hands of a smaller percentage of the population. According to Wallach, the USA is approaching 70% of stock ownership owned by 5% of the population. “When people no longer receive the money from wages they need to support their families, it is hard to know what they will do, but in the past and in other countries this has been thought of as a situation ripe for a revolution.”
Against this background, simple pragmatism dictates that we prepare for a world without paid work. But this means that those who enjoy great power and wealth will have no hold over the populace. This partly explains the existential rage of the rich and privileged classes. Despite having everything in terms of wealth and power flowing relentlessly in their direction for the last thirty odd years, they remain as angry as the former ‘aristocrats of labour’; the skilled white workers in post-industrial regions of the west, who have been lain to waste by the same technology and politics that has so benefitted their masters. This angst of the elites and their cheerleaders comes from the sense that nobody will listen to their vainglorious, self-aggrandising nonsense, when they can no longer pay wages. The problem for them becomes: how can you control people and maintain dominance over them when you can’t offer them anything? It’s not easy to relinquish long-held power, especially when you can divide citizens by appealing to the tawdry status that racism, nativism and imperialistic nationalism offer. Moreover, politicians are creatures of the present, and few votes are available in stating the basic truths; you are not going to have a job, and if you do, you are going to be paid next to nothing for doing it. In such an environment, we are inclined to turn to the elites reserve figureheads of loud-mouthed ignoramuses peddling their false certainties, from the arrogance and stupidity of minds unfettered by abstraction.
The crunch for the elites may come when it dawns that these technological developments are, in the long-run, against profit too; that the workers late capitalism grinds into debt-dust are also the consumers it needs to buy its products and sustain the profits of its corporate enterprises, the tax base of its co-opted states and the legitimacy of its governments and supranational institutions. The concentration of wealth has created a post-democratic caste of business and political elites whose primary interest is their own welfare and perpetuation. They have been and are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the needs of the rest of us. If citizens want the benefits of the liberation that technology offers, it’s incumbent on us all to wise up and start mapping out the kind of world we want to live in. You can rest assured that those who have no interest in these freedoms are doing just that. The alternatives that elites and other power seekers offer, as supported by history, and clearly visible in the weeds sprouting through the increasing cracks of a failing neoliberalism, are fascism and war.