Benjamin Franklin claimed that the only two certainties are death and taxes, but I think there’s a third certainty as well, and that’s change. The nature of that change is far from predictable, of course; and even those changes which are planned and controlled tend to have unforeseeable effects. Those effects mean, in turn, that we can have quite different perspectives even on changes which are entirely foreseeable in themselves.
Yesterday, there was an item on the BBC news previewing the new presidency in the US, and asking which of his promises Trump could or could not implement quickly. Specifically, there was a reference to his promises to return jobs to the ‘rust belt’ of America. The reporter pointed out that one of the problems he faces is that these jobs haven’t been moved overseas, and native workers haven’t been replaced by immigrants; in large measure the workers have been replaced by robots.
Last month, I blogged on the probability that machines and computers are going to replace humans in many spheres as technology continues to develop. That such a change will happen appears to be certain to me – the questions about how we react to it and what the effects will be are far more open. Our response to the threat hinges on whether we believe that the change will create a myriad of new opportunities for businesses and work, or whether we believe that it will mark a permanent shift away from the idea that anything resembling full employment is possible.
The default position for most of those leading our society at the present is to adopt the former position – to assume, in effect, that there will be plenty of new opportunities (albeit ones which we can’t fully define or envisage at present) and do our best to position ourselves to take advantage of them. The new AM for Llanelli, Lee Waters, wrote a piece along those lines for ClickonWales just before Christmas. I understand – as I noted above – that the precise nature of any opportunities which will arise is inherently unpredictable, but I still found this piece by Lee to be disappointing. It read to me more like a series of sound bites and slogans rather than an acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge facing us.
In fairness, perhaps that’s the best we can hope for from politicians, stuck as they are in the current paradigm and having no real influence on what is going to happen, whilst trying to pretend that they are managing events. But I tend to the alternative position; the one that expects this shift away from a requirement for human labour in a huge range of fields to be a permanent one. I wouldn’t argue that there will be no new opportunities; but the numbers are likely to be much smaller than the numbers of jobs lost, and the work highly specialised – and there’s a whole world out there competing for them. Even if some countries (possibly even Wales) are successful in attracting those new jobs, that’s at best a local solution; the global problem would still exist.
We tend to forget that the idea of work as the definition of what we are as individuals and the central purpose of our lives is, in human terms, a relatively recent one, and a direct result of the move to a capitalist system of production. Certainly, that paradigm has increased the material well-being of the developed world’s population, but there is no necessary reason why it should be any more permanent than those paradigms which went before. What if the logic of increasing automation does indeed permanently replace the need for much human labour? Where does that leave our whole sense of identity and purpose?
The idea that automation would ultimately replace human labour is hardly a new suggestion; Marx was talking about it 150 years ago. But the fact that previous predictions about the demise of human labour have proven premature doesn’t mean that it won’t happen at some point, and it may be nearer than many are assuming. Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic (or optimistic – it depends on how we see the change and respond to it; Marx certainly saw it as a liberating possibility); perhaps it won’t happen this time either. But little or no thought has been given to this by most people – and especially by those who need to take the decisions if we are to adapt.
We can’t simply blame ‘immigrants’ (although no doubt some will try) for a change in the mode of production which the economic system itself has driven. What would a society with enough work only for a minority look like? Is it even possible to share that work out – can everybody be trained for the increasingly specialist roles? How would we share the product of such an economy? There are choices; we can share the available wealth more equitably or simply accept the growth of an increasingly large underclass of unemployed people, and there are degrees of sharing between those extremes.If we don’t start to imagine a different type of economy and shape its development, it will happen anyway – but not necessarily in a controlled way which reflects the needs and wishes of the majority.