Welcome To A World Without Work (W3)

A new age is dawning. Whether it is a wonderful one or a terrible one remains to be seen. Look around and the signs of dizzying technological progress are difficult to miss. Driverless cars and drones, not long ago the stuff of science fiction, are now oddities that can occasionally be spotted in the wild and which will soon be a commonplace in cities around the world.

With a few flicks of a finger, we can use our phones to order up a meal, or a car, or a translation for a waiter’s query in a foreign country. Gadgets such as the Amazon Echo are finding their way into living rooms, where they sit listening, ready to comply with a voice command.

W3 – World Without Work

In any future in which technology frees workers of the need to spend most of their daytime hours on the job, many people will opt for much more down time, often spent in rather aimless fashion.

Just a few years ago, one could dismiss the digital age as consisting of little more than social networks and cat videos; no longer. Yet at the same time, many of the world’s fundamental political institutions look dangerously unsteady. Britain is preparing to crash out of the European Union. In America, Republicans have nominated for president a man with no regard for global norms and little enough for the American constitution.

What is important, but far from obvious, is that these two trends, this careening toward a new digital age on the one hand and this descent into political darkness on the other, are closely related.

History suggests that periods of great economic change are also times of political and social difficulty. We must recognise that the present is no exception. It is our failure to recognise and address the difficulties created by the digital revolution that has helped usher us to this troubling political moment. There could be more trouble ahead.

The digital revolution is beginning to teach us what a tectonic economic transformation feels like. It is putting us in the shoes of our great-great-grandparents: those who first experienced the transmission of a human voice across an electrical wire, who watched as the time to travel from one city to a distant other shrank from weeks to hours and who found themselves displaced as smiths or farmhands by fantastic new technologies. We have all found our working lives altered by it.

Will Society develop ways to shore-up Work or find Substitutes

The digital revolution alters work in three ways. First is through automation. New technologies are replacing certain workers, from clerks to welders, and will replace more in the future, from drivers to para-legals.

At the same time, the digital revolution has supercharged a Second force: globalisation. It would have been nearly impossible for rich western firms to manage the sprawling global supply chains that have been wrapped around the world over the past 20 years without powerful information technology.

And while China and other emerging markets might have become better integrated in the world economy even without companies such as Apple scattering production across the globe, such growth would have been much slower and less dramatic. Instead, global employment grew by over a billion jobs over the last generation, with most of the growth occurring in emerging economies.

Third, technology provides a massive boost to the productivity of some highly skilled workers, allowing them to do work that it might previously have taken many more people to accomplish. Technology enables small teams of money managers to run vast funds; it is increasingly allowing highly skilled instructors to build courses that can be taken and retaken by millions of students, potentially replacing hundreds or even thousands of lecturers.

New technology is allowing fewer doctors and nurses to observe and treat many more patients, fewer lawyers to pore over vastly more trial-related evidence and fewer researchers to sift through massive amounts of data and test more hypotheses more quickly.

Yet people of all backgrounds also seem to value narratives of personal ambition and responsibility. People wish to have control over their economic lives and to be seen as contributing both to society and to the wellbeing of their families. People desire agency. They do not wish to be forced into unpleasant work by the need to feed their families, but neither do they want to be written off, or assigned meaningless work as the price of a generous welfare cheque.

It isn’t clear that the digital economy can provide the working conditions needed to extend the possibility of bourgeois comfort and status to a broader class of people. That will not stop them desiring it.

The conflict between what people want and what economic and political systems are able to provide will play out in the political arena. Political battles will increasingly feature narratives about how to restore us all to a world in which people work at purposeful jobs for good pay. Those narratives will be thick with bogeymen: the malevolent forces denying voters access to that “good life”. Conniving foreign governments, job-stealing immigrants, greedy bankers and incompetent politicians, all-star in such roles. Demagoguery can be a compelling political force.

Generous welfare policy will struggle to emerge in ethnically diverse regions

Reformers can compete in this arena. There will be room for leaders willing to say that the “good life” of misty memory cannot be brought back; who promise instead to push forward modest, incrementalist policies, such as more generous state benefits and increased investment in training and infrastructure.

The difficulty the reformers will face is that the global economy will tend to punish such effort. Labour abundance and structural demand weakness are not the sorts of things national politicians working in isolation can fix. They can ameliorate the worst effects, but that will leave voters disappointed. Moderate reformers will find themselves losing ground to politicians, keen to unpick elements of the era of moderation, from the move towards freer trade and capital flows to the elimination of labour-market protections.

Could there be a constituency for a more radical set of policy innovations: for generous, universal basic incomes, for example? Political interest in these sorts of reforms is growing. Yet generous welfare policy might struggle to emerge outside of places where political units are more ethnically or nationally coherent: where an absence of tribal suspicion facilitates the sharing of social wealth. It is no wonder that experimental, generous welfare policy has tended to emerge in Nordic countries, where ethnic and communal ties are strong (but where openness to immigration has begun to tear at the social consensus).

Indeed, the creation of such communally coherent groups in an effort to protect social safety nets often seems to be the point of the new nationalist politics. What separatist quasi-nations seem to want is a world in which they enjoy the economic benefits of global integration, but in which critical political and economic decisions are made by societies with a high degree of national or ethnic coherence: a future of Ireland’s and Estonia’s rather than of Britain’s and Spain’s: larger states with more diverse populations. The institutions of the EU or, indeed, the world economy as a whole are not built to handle waves of fracturing nations.

Italian, Belgian and even German leaders are understandably reluctant to sign off on Catalan independence, given the damage regional separatism could do to their own states. Rich-world ethno-nationalism could destroy the economic integration on which its prosperity depends. Even if it doesn’t fail before it begins, the model of highly redistributive, ethno-nationalist mini-states will depend for its success on the exclusion of outsiders, condemning much of the world’s population to poverty.

Sometime in the future, a wonderful new politics might well emerge that provides a robust minimum standard of living to all regardless of race or nationality, which supports a multitude of different conceptions of the “good life” and which does not rely on some underlying fear of some outside other to maintain its popularity. We are not yet able to conceive of such a system or to understand what balance of political forces needs to emerge to bring it into existence and sustain it. And so, for the time being, we are stuck in a world of nasty political trade-offs. We can but hope this era will prove a fleeting one. History suggests it will not be. But perhaps we will get lucky.

The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Avent is published by Allen Lane, £25

Guardian:       Will Capitalism Survive The Robot Revolution?:

 

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