it's time to get above ourselves

Automation

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.

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18 Comments

  • Alistair Taylor 7 months ago

    Can’t we all just be happy and get along with each other?
    Maybe not…
    But that is the challenge.

    Ok, off to plant some kale.
    Happy Sunday.

    Reply
  • Alastair McIntosh 7 months ago

    This is a brilliant analysis, possibly the best I’ve read post-Illich. But it still begs a fundamental question that hardly anyone broaches: “Beyond work, what is human life for?”

    We may have moved or for many (not for all, globally) be moving into an era where work is not necessary for survival. But what then? Whither the meaning of life? Or do we just yield to the nihilists who say – “There is no meaning” – and kill both time and the spirit going train spotting?

    I have my own views on that question. We’re not necessarily in a nihilistic impasse. But I’d be more interested to hear the views of others.

    Reply
    • Kevin Williamson 7 months ago

      Thoughtful and timely essay on a subject our political elites seem to be ignoring.

      Taxing capital fair and square is a viable route through the automated landscape. Taxes that socialise profits and reduce the overall load on the workforce.

      The concepts of fair taxation and socialisation of wealth are the cornerstones of any viable alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. We need to have the erosion of inequality as a primary goal rather than running blind after economic growth targets.

      Any viable future iScotland simply can’t proceed with “business as usual” when structural change is necessary or the same corporate & financial elites who have captured the UK will take control of Scottish democracy (already done in the UK) and syphon off the wealth of the people. Make technology and wealth work for everyone. New baws please.

      Reply
    • Jamie 7 months ago

      My personal view is that the meaning of life is to improve the self and society. This is best done through exploring our own talents, be it exploration of new frontiers such as science or space or exploration of culturally significant things such as music and art.

      The truth is even in a “post work” society there will still be plenty “work” to do, just that people will choose what they want to do instead of it being forced on them. Sounds pretty good to me. That is the ideal though, and there are plenty people out there who would find such an idea give them a cold sweat of fear.

      Reply
    • Wul 7 months ago

      “Beyond work, what is human life for?”

      actually a very hard question to answer. I think human life is most definitely not just for work.

      I don’t think human beings were created, or evolved, in order to hold down a job. The idea that we all must “work” in a “job” is a fairly recent construct in human society. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors “worked” cooperatively to gather food and build shelter and when they had enough to meet their needs, they had the rest of the day(s) off.

      If we want to know what human life is for, maybe we could ask “What makes humans feel happiest and most satisfied?” I think some of the answers might include:

      A feeling of belonging in a community and being cared for when we are weak
      The company of other humans
      Giving hospitality or care to someone who really needs it
      Sharing good food
      Learning a skill and using it to solve a problem
      Teaching a skill
      Music
      Being loved & returning love to others
      Feeling healthy, fit & able
      Knowing that we have positive regard from our fellow humans
      Having a laugh and recognising our own absurdity

      A good job can provide some of these things, but for very many people it doesn’t.

      Maybe our lives are just for enjoying ourselves & enjoying others? ( En-joy; put joy into)

      Reply
      • Alastair McIntosh 7 months ago

        Thanks for the reflections, folks. Always strikes me as interesting that the idle rich have never fretted much about “beyond work”. Also, there’s massive scope for decent child care, elderly provision, ecological regeneration, creative pursuits, and dare It be suggested, spiritual development. However, so as not to be the provenance of just the rich or monastics, a new sense of commonwealth is needed.

        Reply
        • Wul 7 months ago

          Depends what you mean by “beyond work”.

          If you mean how is someone going to fill their time (& wallet) if they suddenly have no job, that’s a different question to how is society going to re-organise around there being much less demand for people to spend 40+hrs/week in a workplace.
          People have a profound need to do something meaningful and to have an effect on their environment (seeing the results of your labour).

          I think some kind of guaranteed income would be needed in order to avoid even worse inequality and to recognise that by being part of society, a person has a right to share in the wealth of that society.

          There is plenty of good work to be done (as you listed above) and maybe volunteering or civic service would be possible on a much larger scale. If a person were to be guaranteed say, £6-8k/yr they could (if debt free) decide to live a low-cost lifestyle and supplement their income with some kind of small business.

          There would need to be a shift away from housing and land as investment/speculation and towards seeing a warm, dry, truly affordable, debt-free & decent house as a citizen’s right. Also a change away from taxing people’s income to taxing land ownership. (so that “ordinary” people can live cheaply)

          One problem is the increasing individualisation of our culture. We would all need to get out more & help each other instead of sitting alone battering computer keyboards.

          It sounds pie-in-the-sky but its all highly doable with the right attitude.

          Reply
  • Jim Sramper 7 months ago

    This is a superb analysis of a complex issue. Taking it down to the role of the individual, how are your actions contributing. A simple example is stores increasingly have self-checkouts and less people than are really required at check-out counters. So queues inevitably build up at manned check-outs and you fall into the trap of working for free for the super-rich using their self check-out in the misconception that you might save 5 minutes waiting in a queue at a manned check out. If you refused to use self check-outs then queues would build and they would need to open another manned checkout or better take your business elsewhere. Or are check out jobs not worthy of your consideration. Do you buy bakery items mass produced and full of additives to make them survive the environment destroying journey to the shops? If you are lucky enough to have local bakers why not treat yourself to better food and support local jobs. Don’t use tax avoiding companies like Amazon if you can buy locally. Use locally owned cafes instead of tax avoiding chains. Small changes can help. If your local bank branch closes move to a bank who retains branches if there is one available. All these people who serve are a part of the community of human contacts which you risk loosing. If you can’t be bothered with any of that, if you don’t have the time then don’t be surprised if your job is next to go. The up side is you’ll have lots of time but little else.

    Reply
  • Mathew 7 months ago

    ‘Can capitalism manage to adapt to encompass the technological (not to mention the social, climatic, and demographic) changes, within a private profit system, or is it near the end of the line?’
    It is near the end of the line but it’s the climatic changes that will bring the whole show to a crunching halt, not the technological ones. Our use of robots, the number of people employed/unemployed, what we do with our time, are really just a sideshow.

    Reply
  • Daniel 7 months ago

    A couple of paragraphs are duplicated. Here’s their first few words:

    As citizens, we justly mistrust the ‘unprecedented times’ mantra.

    Our awe of the latest technological advances, with robots like Baxter, Watson and Kiva being given the C3PO/R2D2 media treatment

    Reply
    • Bella Caledonia Editor 7 months ago

      They’re called ‘call-out’ quotes Daniel – sorry if they dont render clearly as that

      Reply
  • Mark Rowantree 7 months ago

    A superb analysis of perhaps the greatest, the environment not withstanding economic and social problem that confronts future generations.
    That is if we are not beginning to experience the first signs of human redundancy already. Personally, I would argue that in the many millions of people forced to work in low wage environments, with little hope of home ownership and scant social housing provision: Welsh’s dystopian vision is already amongst us.
    This necessitates as he suggests a fundamental redrawing of our concepts of work, leisure and society. Unless, we propose a permanent helot-like class, to be kept in their place by neo-Spartan warriors, it will require serious thought and reflection. For those on the political right who may be attracted by the concept of a latter day Sparta: it is worthwhile bringing to mind the fate of the original Greek polity.

    Reply
  • IDL 7 months ago

    Despite acknowledging/mentioning the problems of climate change, and consumerism, the article seems to gloss over these problems seeming to point to a future populated by both technology (ever evolving) and people with access to the products of technology.
    Technology may deliver productivity without people, but it doesn’t deliver it without energy and it does not escape the problem with consumerism which is intrinsic to the second law of thermodynamics and leads to the inevitable undifferentiated ‘kipple’ world described by PK Dick.
    The problem is that technology will not answer all the problems despite the imaginings of sci-fi. At some point the technology will fail and fail badly. It may well be already failing(indeed much of what we think of as ‘uninventable technology’ reflects the internal contradictions it creates by having the seeds of its own obsolescence and irrelevance and ‘kippleness’ built in, both wittingly more unwittingly.
    The problem remains- we will not outrun our own selves. We will never have the technology to recover that which has been kippled, such as the phosphate required to maintain a high population. Whimpers not bangs.

    Reply
  • Alan 7 months ago

    Glad to see more writing from Welsh here. His writings here have always been interesting and thought provoking. A few thoughts, maybe a bit jumbled:

    I think one might say the same of Smith as you write about Marx: Smith “despite…the relentless distortion of his ideas, was primarily interested in human freedom”. Marx took much from Smith.

    In Wealth one finds a historical account of the division of labour, an ideal version of how the economy might work under perfect liberty, and the reality of how it actually worked in different places, and particularly under the mercantilist system. It’s not particularly complimentary of merchants (especially the big global corporation of the time) or politicians.

    In Book IV he attacks mercantilism, the economic theory and practice of his day. Institutions that promote justice are central to Smith’s argument about a wealthy nation. In a more just system the population is likely to create more economic wealth that benefits more people. Although the constant march of progress continues, and more opportunities become available to more people in the long-run, rich and powerful factions are bend political and legal systems to their own ends against the public interest. The “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” could be a Smithian description of the East India Company.

    “…dreaming of returning to the pin factory of Smith and perfect competition”. Smith himself never believed in perfect comptition. He wrote:

    To expect, indeed, that the freedom of trade should ever be entirely restored in Great Britain is as absurd as to expect that an Oceana or Utopia should ever be established in it. Not only the prejudices of the public, but what is much more unconquerable, the private interests of many individuals, irresistibly oppose it. Were the officers of the army to oppose with the same zeal and unanimity any reduction in the numbers of forces with which master manufacturers set themselves against every law that is likely to increase the number of their rivals in the home-market; were the former to animate their soldiers in the same manner as the latter enflame their workmen to attack with violence and outrage the proposers of any such regulation, to attempt to reduce the army would be as dangerous as it has now become to attempt to diminish in any respect the monopoly which our manufacturers have obtained against us. This monopoly has so much increased the number of some particular tribes of them that, like an overgrown standing army, they have become formidable to the government, and upon many occasions intimidate the legislature. The Member of Parliament who supports every proposal for strengthening this monopoly is sure to acquire not only the reputation of understanding trade, but great popularity and influence with an order of men whose numbers and wealth render them of great importance. If he opposes them, on the contrary, and still more if he has authority enough to be able to thwart them, neither the most acknowledged probity, nor the highest rank, nor the greatest public services can protect him from the most infamous abuse and detraction, from personal insults, nor sometimes from real danger, arising from the insolent outrage of furious and disappointed monopolists.

    “Milton Friedman himself gave the game away, when he described monopoly as a ‘reward for efficiency.’” The Chicago School stole Smith as a one of their own. George Stigler, declared on the 200th anniversary of the publication of The Wealth of Nations, in Glasgow no less, that Smith was alive and well at the University of Chicago. Cheeky, thieving, lying bastards the lot of them. Smith was deeply opposed to monopoly but the Chicago Law and Economics School under Aaron Director destroyed monopoly controls as they existed in the US and later Europe by reducing law to economics (a typical neoliberal move in which all social relationships are understood as market or quasi-market relationships–an impoverished view of what it is to be human that would have appalled Smith).

    In Smith’s account the feudal lords undo themselves through their own greed. And a new form of lord appeared. And so it goes. A central social problem for Smith, Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment was the problem of factionalism. Feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, communism, neoliberalism –whatever the label and system– the issue of factionalism remains. And it will remain with whatever comes after neoliberalism and in the new world of automation. One group will gain an advantage and try to use it to abuse everyone else. There is no solution but constant vigilance and resistance to keep whatever system rules as open and fluid as possible.

    “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.” Quite so. Remember when the Internet was supposed to bring about a democratic revolution? That hasn’t worked out so well. In many ways quite the opposite has happened. Here’s an interview with Foucault in 1980 that’s good background reading on “wising up”.

    Reply
  • William 7 months ago

    Interesting to read this article side-by-side with a parallel text from ‘The Economist’ this week which proclaimed, ‘The World’s Most Valuable Commodity is no Longer Oil But Data.’

    I’d like to add something to the debate. I wonder what would happen if we paid closer attention to the complicating role that technical obsolescence plays. Obsolescence – whether as software, hardware, media or representation information – is intuitively understood at a personal level. We upgrade, move on, save and migrate as we go. But it is relatively poorly understood at the larger scale. More accurately there has been a lot of effort to act or compute our way out obsolescence (cf the Digital Preservation Coalition, Digital Curation Centre in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively as world class examples of people working together to ‘solve’ the issue) but because much of that has focused on academic or memory institutions there has been little analysis of the impact of obsolescence on social or economic outcomes. Lurid but unconvincing hype about the ‘Digital Dark Age’ notwithstanding.

    If, as The Economist and others say, a new capitalist economy will be built on data, doesn’t the practical experience of obsolescence mean that such an economy is built on sand? Data and software just do not seem robust enough to take the weight. Alternatively, if technology and innovation really are provoking the end of capitalism won’t the same processes simultaneously yield the technological obsolescences that saves it?

    Two examples from recent press…

    The German technology agency Frauenhoher IIS recently announced that it was not renewing its patent for the MP3 audio file format. This is good news since it means that developers can use or manipulate the format without having to license it from them. It reduces by a small factor the cost of building your own MP3 device. But most of the technology press reported, inaccurately, the death of MP3 inviting readers to migrate from MP3 to the AAC codec of MPEG. An obscure detail you may think: except that the patent for AAC is alive and well. That means development is constrained and licenses can be bought and sold. MP3 is alive and well. It still does what it was designed to do and does it very well. Rumours of its death have been exaggerated and, perhaps predictably, the widely favoured solution subtly draws music lovers back into a largely invisible web of patent and property rights.

    In the recent NHS cyber-attack there was much concern about medical infrastructure working on Windows XP which was denounced as ancient, and the NHS left vulnerable through lack of investment. Let’s be clear about this: Windows XP is barely 10 years old. One might be tempted to reply that it only seems ancient to a lucrative IT industry intoxicated on its own exhaust fumes. But one way or other the result are plain to see: lives are put at risk and the public purse is asked to put more good money after bad code.

    I am not sure if this is good news or bad; whether it supports the argument or defeats it. But technological obsolescence is an authentic challenge for many and a powerful weapon for some. It has some paradoxical qualities and can all too too easily be overlooked. IMHO a detailed and thoughtful economic analysis is long overdue.

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  • Paul Codd 7 months ago

    Assuming we all have a “Universal Basic Income”, which given that money is entirely a figment of our collective imagination, and UBI would cost less than the utter shambles that is “quantatitive easing”, is hardly difficult for us to do – what about starting a company?

    Join or form a startup and you’ll soon find there aren’t enough hours in the day. We certainly need more dynamic startups to generate and commercialise the technologies the world will use to upvalue our time. And there are no shortage of species engulfing problems for us to sort out with our new companies. A new business idea occurs to me several times daily, it’s just a case of looking out for them. Somebody pass me a trillion dollars I’ll gladly set up all the companies, but it’ll be more fun if we’re all doing it. Scotland’s been at the heart of global contemporary philosophical and industrial thought before. No time like the present to don the hat and take up the mantle. If you need any hints where to get started (in no particular order): block-chain, internet of things, energy efficiency and storage, circular enconomy, distributed governance, smart cities, permaculture. Right there you’ve got more than 7 billion lifetimes of work before even mentioning IT or robotics. Adaptation only sucks if you’re not really willing to adapt. Stop complaining or making excuses. Let’s get started.

    Before you shoot me down in flames remember I am assuming that we all have our basic living expenses met through a Universal Basic Income. There’s time to put that in place if we start now – the article paints a picture of a near future with 10,000,000 newly unemployed low skilled workers. I am very aware that without a UBI it can be extremely difficult to take the first steps that take a business idea to the point where you can draw a living wage from it if you are not already blessed with money or connections at the outset. And sometimes there is no way to go tentatively – it’s a leap of faith. However even then, in some cases there are government grants or enlightened investors willing to take a punt if you understand your own business well enough. It ain’t going to be worse than working for the man – and we’ll make the world a better place in the process.

    My point, if we get creative we needn’t be worrying what we’ll do with all that free time we’ll supposedly have on our hands. There’s energy efficient internet connected pumps to man, 3D printers to crank, and we’ll need all hands on deck if this ship’s going to stay afloat.

    Reply
    • Wul 7 months ago

      I like your thinking Paul.
      So many things become possible if we genuinely put people’s wellbeing at the heart of our planning.

      Sounds much more fun and much more interesting than drab austerity.

      Reply
  • Pogliaghi 7 months ago

    Automation has always been part of the dynamics of capitalism going right back to the 19th century with power looms etc.. The difference today is we already live in a post-scarcity world of far-too-much stuff and a paucity of other opportunities or needs for innovative new forms of production, for which surplus labour could be retrained. Marxists’ rule of thumb is of course, always to go straight to cooking up a recipe for “how-does-this-end-capitalism?”… or at least, bring about universal basic income, a world where work is optional. Well, as a Marxist but also an Ecomodernist, I’m of the view that straining to see the latest anti-capitalist critique coming over the horizon is a fairly traditional leftist hobby that hasn’t achieved much for about 25 years. With a bit of lateral holistic and non-luddite thinking though you can reconcile the angst about “machine driven consumerism” to the very pressing reality of climate change. Simply, all the surplus labour freed up by automation is going to get soaked up many-fold by the need to think, act and build our way out of climate change. Work like tree planting, research and construction of nuclear reactors, conservation research, geoengineering, improving agricultural practices, cycling, taking trains and sailing places we used to drive and fly. Oh, and then there’s that wee elephant in the room that farmers are an aging demographic. Robots growing food? Possibly not entirely.

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