Robobacklash: do we even need to worry about automation in the workplace?

Where there's a popular view, there's always a backlash.

The trendy view that robots — or the ever increasing automation of human labour, at least — are going to cause major economic problems in the near future has started getting its backlash.

The argument is that we are entering a period when automation will very quickly replace huge numbers of jobs — some estimates say up to 70 per cent of existing American jobs won't exist by 2100 — and that that shift has already begun, explaining a number of concerning economic phenomena over the last 30 or so years, including the declining labour share of income, increasing inequality, and the decoupling of the median wage from GDP.

That analysis has led to some strange contortions from mainstream economists trying to conceive of capitalism in a world in which work was not necessary, leading some, myself included, to suggest that in that extreme example, it might be worth re-examining the basic tenets of economics.

But once the robots problem hit the mainstream, as evidenced by the Financial Times' Edward Luce writing that Obama must face the rise of the robots, it started being re-examined with a more critical eye. 

The Atlantic's Derek Thompson argues that our problem now is "a deficit of demand", and our problem in the future can be dealt with in the future.

Matthew O'Brien, writing for the same publication, points out that what that deficit of demand means is that in the near term, automation won't lead to job losses, but it will keep pay well below where we'd like it. He concludes that "globalization, mechanization, and the decline of unions have all helped capital and hurt labor, but so has inadequate demand the past decade."

The TUC's Duncan Weldon has addressed the case of robots in the present day, and came to much the same conclusion. He writes that the rising profit share of income is concentrated almost entirely in the finance sector, and argues the likely cause is that that sector managed to ensure that the distribution of risk in innovation was spread widely, while the distribution of the the rewards was increasingly narrow.

Wheldon's conclusion is that the problem in the present day is less of a problem than it seems: with well-targeted redistribution of wealth, the benefits of productivity growth in the sectors where innovation has been successful can be used to pay for decent services everywhere else. What we're seeing is not, then, a crisis in automation, but a simpler crisis in distribution.

I am inclined to agree with Weldon when it comes to the present day. The effect of automation today isn't categorically different from from the effect thirty years ago, but it combines with the receding desire for redistribution and the slack demand stemming from the financial crisis with pernicious results.

But when it comes to the effects of future automation, no-one the attitude that "we'll deal with it when we come to it" strikes me as dangerous. We don't know a huge amount about what the effects will be, but it's clear they'll happen gradually, over the next century; there's the very real risk of a "boiled frog" problem, where we don't realise that the entire system is in crisis until its too late.

At best, if the predictions are accurate, we've got an upheaval of similar magnitude to the Industrial Revolution. That resulted in massive gains the world over, but only after well over a century of struggle. Life for the average factory worker in the 1800s was hardly better than it was for the average agricultural labourer in the 1750s, though you can be certain that the merchant class saw a hefty improvement. It took world wars, nationalised industries, continued worker's struggle and massive redistribution of wealth to temper the distortions down to a level which could be described as sustainable.

Ideally, we should be planning to achieve the gains of the Industrial Revolution without the 18-hour days, sundering of families and massive environmental upheaval that came alongside it. Burying our heads in the sand until the 21st century's dark satanic mills have already arisen is not the best way to bring that about.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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“Brexit is based on racism”: Who is protesting outside the Supreme Court and what are they fighting for?

Movement for Justice is challenging the racist potential of Brexit, as the government appeals the High Court's Article 50 decision.

Protestors from the campaign group Movement for Justice are demonstrating outside the Supreme Court for the second day running. They are against the government triggering Article 50 without asking MPs, and are protesting against the Brexit vote in general. They plan to remain outside the Supreme Court for the duration of the case, as the government appeals the recent High Court ruling in favour of Parliament.

Their banners call to "STOP the scapgoating of immigrants", to "Build the movement against austerity & FOR equality", and to "Stop Brexit Fight Racism".

The group led Saturday’s march at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, where a crowd of over 2,000 people stood against the government’s immigration policy, and the management of the centre, which has long been under fire for claims of abuse against detainees.  

Movement for Justice, and its 50 campaigners, were in the company yesterday of people from all walks of pro and anti-Brexit life, including the hangers-on from former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s postponed march on the Supreme Court.

Antonia Bright, one of the campaign’s lead figures, says: “It is in the interests of our fight for freedom of movement that the Supreme Court blocks May’s attempt to rush through an anti-immigrant deal.”

This sentiment is echoed by campaigners on both sides of the referendum, many of whom believe that Parliament should be involved.

Alongside refuting the royal prerogative, the group criticises the Brexit vote in general. Bright says:

“The bottom line is that Brexit represents an anti-immigrant movement. It is based on racism, so regardless of how people intended their vote, it will still be a decision that is an attack on immigration.”

A crucial concern for the group is that the terms of the agreement will set a precedent for anti-immigrant policies that will heighten aggression against ethnic communities.

This concern isn’t entirely unfounded. The National Police Chief’s Council recorded a 58 per cent spike in hate crimes in the week following the referendum. Over the course of the month, this averaged as a 41 per cent increase, compared with the same time the following year.

The subtext of Bright's statement is not only a dissatisfaction with the result of the EU referendum, but the process of the vote itself. It voices a concern heard many times since the vote that a referendum is far too simple a process for a desicion of such momentous consequences. She also draws on the gaping hole between people's voting intentions and the policy that is implemented.

This is particularly troubling when the competitive nature of multilateral bargaining allows the government to keep its cards close to its chest on critical issues such as freedom of movement and trade agreements. Bright insists that this, “is not a democratic process at all”.

“We want to positively say that there does need to be scrutiny and transparency, and an opening up of this question, not just a rushing through on the royal prerogative,” she adds. “There needs to be transparency in everything that is being negotiated and discussed in the public realm.”

For campaigners, the use of royal prerogative is a sinister symbol of the government deciding whatever it likes, without consulting Parliament or voters, during the future Brexit negotiations. A ruling in the Supreme Court in favour of a parliamentary vote would present a small but important reassurance against these fears.