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Robots are coming for your job. That might not be bad news

The problem with automation isn’t technology. The problem is capitalism.

Do androids dream of a three-day week? This week, Professor Stephen Hawking weighed in on the topic that’s obsessing technologists, economists and social scientists around the world: whether a dawning age of robotics is going to spell mass unemployment. “If machines produce everything we need,” Hawking wrote in an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, “everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared – or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”

As technology advances, the question is no longer whether or not robots are coming for your job. The question is whether or not you should let them take it. 

According to two new books by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the automation of up to 60 per cent of current jobs in America, and by extension other nations, is all but inevitable. This time, as Martin Ford argues in Rise of The Robots, education and upscaling won’t help us. There will simply be fewer jobs to go around, as everything from accountancy to journalism will be done faster, cheaper and more efficiently by machines. The result, as Jerry Kaplan agrees in Humans Need Not Apply, is that billions will be left destitute – unless we radically rethink our way of keeping people fed.

We’ve seen this pattern before. In successive waves of technological innovation from the industrial revolution to the automative leaps of the 1950s, millions of working people found themselves replaced by machines that would never inconvenience their owners by getting sick or going on strike. This time, however, it’s not just working class jobs that are threatened. It seems that Robespierre was right – it’s the prospect of angry unemployed lawyers and doctors that really prompts the elite to panic, or at least to produce urgent hardbacks and suggest to major news outlets that wealth redistribution might not be such a bad idea after all.

There is little to argue with in Kaplan and Ford’s basic predictions. Whatever happens, it seems that by the time most of us reach retirement, machines will be doing far more of the jobs that nobody really wanted to do in the first place. In any sane economic system, this would be good news. No longer will millions of men and women be stuck doing boring, repetitive, often degrading work for the majority of their adult lives. That’s fantastic. Or it should be. Did you really want the job those thieving android scabs are about to take from you? Wouldn’t you rather be writing a symphony, or spending time with your kids, or plucking your nose-hair? All else being equal, don’t you have better things to do than spending most of your life marking time at work to afford the dignity of not starving?

All else, however, is very far from equal – and that’s the problem. Technology is not the problem. The only reason that the automation of routine, predictable jobs is not an unmitigated social good is that the majority of the human race depends on routine, predictable jobs, and the wages we get for them. The rioting textile workers who smashed their weaving machines in the eighteenth century did not do so because they simply loved working twelve-hour days in dangerous, dirty conditions. They did it because they had been given a stark choice between drudge work and starvation. Two hundred years after the Luddite rebellions, most of us, when you get down to it, would not work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for forty years if we had a choice – but the necessity of earning a wage gives us no other option. In fact, advanced automation should for some time have made it unnecessary for any of us to work more than a handful of hours a week, as originally foreseen generations ago by thinkers like John Maynard Keynes – but somehow, most of us are working longer hours for lower wages than our grandparents.

The problem is not technology. The problem is capitalism. The problem is that in order to sell seven billion people on the necessity of globalisation, we’ve created a moral universe where people who do not work to create profit are considered less than human, and used as surplus labour to drive down the cost of wages. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a single parent, an unemployed veteran or an unpaid intern – the logic of late capitalism grants you no right to live unless you are making money for someone else. If our economic system defines the basis of human worth as the capacity to do drudge work for someone else’s profit then the question that has troubled science fiction writers for a century is solved: not only are robots human, they may soon be more human than us. 

The automation crisis need not be a crisis at all – but the simplest solutions are too radical to be raised by anyone but a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a job title with the authority of “Archbishop of Canterbury” under the moral logic of modern economics. Martin Ford is neither an economist nor a political theorist, but I imagine that when he says that in order to save us all from armies of robot scabs, “a fundamental restructuring of our economic rules will be required”, powerful people will listen. Kaplan and Ford’s books propose the same solution, and it’s one that socialists have been suggesting for generations: a universal basic income. This is not a new idea. Campaigners for social justice have long proposed a basic income as a way to solve every social ill caused by the fact we all have to earn a living, from drug trafficking to gender inequality. Kaplan and Ford, however tell us that there’s an even more important reason to consider it – because it might be the only way to save capitalism from itself.

The logic is solid: if nobody can afford to buy the goods and services all these robots are producing, global markets will collapse. World capitalism cannot be sustained, Ford argues, on luxury consumption alone. It turns out that the only way to save the system might well be massive wealth distribution and total reorganisation of the wage system.

That sounds rather a lot like socialism to me. Ford insists that it isn’t – it’s merely common sense, and everyone knows that socialism can’t be common sense. It is perhaps for this reason that neither Kaplan nor Ford push beyond their policy proposals to imagine what such a future – a world where everyone is guaranteed an income, and wage work is a choice – could really look like. This, surely, is the most thrilling promise of an automated future. What could we become, as a species, if most of our useful years were not taken up by working, looking for work, or doing essential domestic and caring tasks to sustain that work? One thing’s for certain: it’s either going to be wonderful, or it’s going to be disastrous. If we don’t get fully automated luxury liberalism, in Ford’s words, “the plutocracy [might] shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.”

Automation offers us two options. Just two. The first is that we finally, collectively, break our addiction to disaster capitalism and do what needs to be done to create a future where human beings can reach their full potential. The second is that we don’t. And we might not. Just because the answer to the “threat of mass unemployment” is obvious does not mean that we will take it. It is just as likely that the magical thinking of market fundamentalists will prevail in the field of automation just as it has in the field of environmental protection and topple us all into a chaos where only the very rich can survive, for a time, alone in their climate-controlled towers of glass and steel. That’s the other solution. Whether it’s the solution we choose will determine, far more than any job-thieving algorithm, what it truly means to be human. As Professor Hawking observed: “So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

If we choose to allow technology to plunge us into a new age of inequity, then maybe we deserve to be replaced by robots. If the human race can’t get it together to fix this basic bug in our collective survival matrix, then maybe it’s time for us to step aside and let the metal guys have a try. Perhaps it would be kinder, if capitalism continues its current suicide canter, to breed our children and grandchildren of sterner stuff than flesh – with hearts that don’t break in the face of inhumanity, because they are made of silicon and steel.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.