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Who owns the future? How the prophets of Silicon Valley took control

In an era when politics is bereft of grand visions, bioengineers and Silicon Valley tech geeks are claiming the mantle of leadership and prophecy. But what do they want and where are they leading us?

For much of the 20th century, politics was a battle between grand visions of the future. Communists, fascists and liberals sought to destroy the old world and build a new one in its place. Lenin, Stalin and Mao tried to dismantle the structure of human society, and to engineer scientifically something far better. In the process, they treated communities, families and human beings as mere clay, killing tens of millions of people while explaining that “in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs”.

Hitler and his minions employed even more ruthless methods in the service of even more ambitious plans. The Nazis aimed to remake the human animal ­itself, rather than just human society. They planned to re-engineer human biology, speed up evolution and create superhumans. Whatever you think about people such as Lenin or Hitler, no one can accuse them of being narrow-minded.

Liberals were perhaps more moderate in their ambitions but not by far. Custodians of utopian Enlightenment visions, liberals hoped to create paradise on earth through mass education and technological progress. They overturned millennia-old hierarchies, empowering women, minorities and the young. Even more astonishing, after millions of years of evolution during which families and communities were the stable building blocks of human societies, liberals gave centre stage to the individual. They freed people from parents, neighbours and elders, creating a new “society of individuals”. In the process, they might have condemned us to hitherto unknown levels of alienation and loneliness. The liberal vision was more benign than the communist and fascist visions but it wasn’t less radical. It seems to us unremarkable and even trite simply because we live in it.

Whatever their disagreements about long-term visions, communists, fascists and liberals all combined forces to create a new state-run leviathan. Within a surprisingly short time, they engineered all-encompassing systems of mass education, mass health and mass welfare, which were supposed to realise the utopian aspirations of the ruling party. These mass systems became the main employers in the job market and the main regulators of human life. In this sense, at least, the grand political visions of the past century have succeeded in creating an entirely new world. The society of 1800 was completely destroyed and we are living in a new reality altogether.

In 1900 or 1950 politicians of all hues thought big, talked big and acted even bigger. Today it seems that politicians have a chance to pursue even grander visions than those of Lenin, Hitler or Mao. While the latter tried to create a new society and a new human being with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and supercomputers. In the coming decades, technological breakthroughs are likely to change human society, human bodies and human minds in far more drastic ways than ever before.

Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and ­intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.

On top of that, we are also developing the ability to create cyborgs. Cyborg engineering does not limit itself to using only
organic structures but makes use of inorganic parts as well. It merges the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and fix damage. This may sound like science fiction but it is already a reality. Monkeys have recently learned, using electrodes implanted in their brains, to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies. Paralysed patients are able to move bionic limbs or control computers by the power of thought alone. If you wish, you can control the electronic devices in your house using a “mind-reading” headset. The headset does not require any brain implants, because it functions by reading the electric signals passing through the scalp. If you want to turn on the lights in the kitchen, all you need is to put on the headset, imagine some pre-programmed mental sign (your right hand moving, for instance) – and the lights turn on. You can buy such headsets online from around £200.

Yet even cyborg engineering is still ­relatively conservative, inasmuch as it assumes that organic brains will go on being the command and control centres of life. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software that can surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds free from the limitations of organic chemistry.

Life scientists have recently come to believe that life is really just data-processing and that living beings are a collection of biochemical self-replicating algorithms that natural selection improves ever so slowly. Computer scientists and mathematicians have simultaneously honed their skills in deciphering and writing algorithms. If organisms are indeed algorithms (a big IF, but this is the current orthodoxy) then it should be feasible to create non-organic life. After all, algorithms are algorithms. As long as the maths works the same, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon, silicon or plastic? This opens the possibility that after four billion years of milling around inside the small pond of organic compounds, life will  suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up unimaginable new shapes.




In science fiction ruthless, Hitler-like leaders are quick to pounce on such new technologies, putting them in the service of this or that dangerous political vision. Yet flesh-and-blood politicians in the early 21st century, even in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, are nothing like their Hollywood counterparts. They don’t seem to plot any Brave New World. The wildest dreams of Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei don’t go much beyond atomic bombs and ballistic missiles: which is so 1945. As for Barack Obama and David Cameron, they can barely manage to enact health and education reforms. Creating new worlds and new human beings is far beyond their agendas.

Hence, the novel technological vistas notwithstanding, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early 21st century, politics is bereft of grand visions. No political party has any far-reaching conception of transforming the world. No political party aims to turn society upside down, let alone create superhumans. Compared to the ideological wars of the mid-20th century, present-day debates seem like scholastic hair-splitting. While one needed a telescope to follow the visions of a Lenin or a Hitler, today, when it comes to the basic outlines of human societies, you need a microscope to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or between Labour and the Conservatives.

Yes, Ed Miliband and David Cameron had somewhat different visions of the European Union, the NHS and tax policies. But the differences are nothing like those between the communist and fascist visions a century ago. No party is in favour of creating a British empire, abolishing private property or gassing minorities. This sounds so obvious that we never bother to note it. But that’s the point. A century ago it was anything but obvious. There were powerful political parties with millions of followers that openly preached imperialism, genocide and the abolition of private property.

One very good reason politicians lost their appetite for grand visions is the terrible outcome of the ideological wars of the 20th century. If thinking big leads to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, humankind is far better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats.

Another factor is that the biggest 20th-century achievement weighs down on politicians of all shades and colours. The mass education, welfare and health services now demand enormous resources and constant care and attention. Moreover, any attempt to achieve some new grand vision would likely upset this behemoth. So politicians play it safe and devote most of their efforts to just keeping the system running. They tweak here and there but are afraid to make any real structural changes.

Third, after the smoke of the 20th-century
ideological wars cleared, neoliberalism was left standing as the ultimate victor. And neoliberalism, having shaped the economy and society to its own taste, now preaches inaction. Like Zen gurus, so the neoliberal masters advise the politicians: just do nothing. Each person should focus on his or her immediate job, without losing sleep over the long-term consequences. Builders should build, singers should sing, engineers should engineer – and let market forces take care of all the rest. They will chart our way forward better than any philosopher or statesman. Governments and political parties generally follow this advice and focus on managing the state and its day-to-day crises, without giving much thought to the more distant future. Governments manage – and, generally speaking, they are doing a fine job of it – but they no longer plan or lead.

Yet the mantle of leadership and prophecy has not gone unclaimed. Abandoned by politicians and political parties, it has been picked up by business entrepreneurs and corporations. If you want to hear grand visions about the future of humankind, you will waste your time in Downing Street, the White House or the Kremlin, but your ears will start ringing once you approach Silicon Valley. That is where you will find the Lenins of our time. Let me make this absolutely clear: the tech wizards of Silicon Valley aren’t communist. Nor are they anything like as ruthless as Lenin. I am comparing them to him only in the audacity and scope of their visions, and in their aspirations to tear down the old world and build a completely new world in its place.

For when it comes to audacity and scope, even Lenin couldn’t hold a candle to the silicon prophets. Lenin and his followers still thought and operated within the confines of existing economic models and realities. They took for granted that resources are scarce, that demand must be balanced with supply, that human beings are essential for the economy and that work is a vital ingredient of human life. In contrast, today’s visionaries are looking towards a post-scarcity future, in which algorithms replace human beings in the economy, supply no longer puts the lid on demand and life no longer revolves around work.

At the core of this vision is the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or killing terrorists. However, Google, Apple, IBM and other tech companies are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence – based on machine learning and big data – that can outperform human beings in all of the above tasks and many more besides.

This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important for the economy –intelligence or consciousness? As long as the one always went hand in hand with the other, this question was a pastime for philosophers. In the 21st century, it is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for the economy, intelligence is mandatory but consciousness by itself has little value.




In 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, published The Future of Employment, in which they surveyed the likelihood of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years. The algorithm developed by Frey and Osborne to perform the calculations estimated that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 per cent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 per cent chance that the same will happen to sports referees, 97 per cent that it will happen to cashiers and 96 per cent to restaurant cooks.

For paralegal assistants, tour guides, bakers, bus drivers, construction workers, veterinary assistants, security guards, sailors, waiters, bartenders, archivists, carpenters and lifeguards the probability of redundancy ranges from 67 per cent to 94 per cent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, and for occupational therapists it is 0.3 per cent.

Even if new professions come along to compensate for the losses, they will probably require much more creativity and flexibility. It is far from certain that a 50-year-old cashier or bus driver will be able to make the necessary readjustment. Whereas the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a vast new class of urban workers, the 21st century might witness the rise of a vast new class of economically useless people.

If this indeed happens, it will pose a far bigger challenge than the Industrial Revolution and will demand new social and political models far more ambitious than those offered by Marx, Lenin or Mao. Socialists and communists tailored a new ideology to answer for the novel needs, hopes and fears of the industrial proletariat. The 21st-century class of useless people will also generate new wants, dreams and worries. To answer them, the silicon prophets are coming up with fantastic socioeconomic models, fit for a post-scarcity society in which human beings no longer produce anything and are merely consumers.

Yet the silicon prophets don’t stop there. They dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness. Google recently established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is – drums please! – “to solve death”. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In an interview last March Maris said: “If you ask me today, ‘Is it possible to live to be 500?’ the answer is yes.” He backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. The Google Venture fund is investing 36 per cent of its $2bn portfolio in life sciences start-ups, ­including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an analogy from American football, Maris explained that in the fight against death, “We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.”

The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has confessed that he aims to live for ever. “I think there are probably three main modes of approaching [death],” Thiel explained. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” Many people are likely to dismiss such statements as teenage fantasies. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. His private fortune is estimated at $2.2bn and he is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

As a historian, I am in no position to ­comment on the feasibility of such visions. Yet, as a historian, I know that what people hope to achieve is often far more important than what they can actually do. The 20th century was shaped by the communist attempt to overcome human inequality, even though this hope was never fulfilled. Our century might be shaped by the attempt to upgrade human beings and overcome death, even if this hope is a bit premature. The spirit of the age is changing. Equality is out, immortality is in.

This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

Yuval Harari is a historian and the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (Vintage). More info:

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Amazon's picking warehouses. Credit: Vincent Boisot/ Riva Press/ Camera Press
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Less than zero: six months working in low-wage Britain

Going undercover in low-pay jobs, the author discovered a fearful and atomised working class that had lost its pride and dignity.

Rolling over in bed in South Wales at half past six one frost-bitten November morning, I switched on the radio. As I turned the old-fashioned dial, through the crackle a heated argument boomed out. The outraged tone seemed to capture the mood of the times. An hour or so later I picked up a newspaper, which five months after the vote for Brexit was awash with recriminations, post-mortems and fleeting despatches from parts of the country that were said to feel bitter and “left behind”.

South Wales marked the penultimate stop in my own six-month journey across Britain. I had set out in February 2016 to gather information for a book about the low-pay economy. Having wandered around this world in my early twenties – I had worked in a yoghurt factory, as a casual labourer and as a postman – I wanted to go back and examine something that was for the most part concealed from prosperous Britain. The aim was to offer a window into a hidden land in which work had gone from being a source of dignity to a humiliating assault on a person’s self-respect.

The first stop on my journey was Rugeley, a former colliery town of 24,000 people in the West Midlands. I had got a job via an employment agency at Amazon, and was subsequently put to work for ten-and-a-half hours a day, four days a week in one of the huge “fulfilment centres” that processed items sold by the world’s largest retailer. Everything at Amazon had a euphemism. We didn’t work in a warehouse and we were not employees; rather we were “associates” on temporary zero-hours contracts. You weren’t sacked at the end of nine months; you were “released”. We were pawns in an algorithmic system of management that was a throwback to the theories of Frederick Taylor, who believed in the scientific perfectibility of labour activity.

Everything you did during a shift was carefully monitored and categorised, from how long you took to go to the toilet to how many items you picked off the shelves each hour. The job itself was fiendishly exhausting. I would clock off at close to midnight. With suppurating feet a dozen of us would traipse over frozen ground for the mile or so it took to get back to the poky dwellings we rented from local landlords. We filed past the murky waters of the Trent and Mersey canal and down rows of red-brick terraces that once served as the barracks of local industry. The stomp of steel-shod boots on the tarmac and the movement of the winding gear had long since fallen silent, replaced by the Romanian curses of my co-workers.

The Lea Hall Colliery, once the biggest coal mine of its type in Europe, had closed on 25 January 1991, two decades before Amazon arrived. The closure of the pit immediately threw 1,250 men out of work. In reality the total was far higher, for it also included the support industries and the corner shops that the miners frequented at the end of their long shifts underground. Alex, a former pit mechanic who drank at the Lea Hall Miners Social Club, told me one evening that Rugeley had “never recovered” from the closure of the pit. “There are no jobs,” he said glumly, “or they’re minimum-wage jobs and they’re jobs based on short-term contracts and fear”.

Towns like Rugeley have “merely replicated their economies” since the crash deindustrialisation of the 1980s and early 1990s, according to a 2015 report from the Centre for Cities think tank. They had “swapped cotton mills for call centres and dock yards for distribution sheds”. Despite some initial excitement whipped up by Amazon’s PR people and complaisant local newspapers when the warehouse first opened in Rugeley in 2011, there were few British order pickers by the time I arrived in 2016. Many of my co-workers were eastern European migrants, transported in on coaches from nearby towns such as Wolverhampton and Walsall: an invisible army that came and went while most people in Rugeley slept. Desperation had brought many of them to these shores; it was now their job to service the shopping whims of Britain’s middle class. As one young Romanian co-worker put it to me: “You can work here like an animal; you work four days, you know, and you have £240. I am a nobody here, yes; but back in Romania I am a nobody without enough money to eat.” Alex, who for years had got up every morning to face a terrifying coal seam 300 feet under the ground, told me that he wouldn’t work at Amazon because of “how they treat people”.

I encountered something similar as I left the Midlands and travelled down to the Welsh Valleys. At the end of a long and undulating street in the town of Cwm in Blaenau Gwent the imposing Marine Colliery had once employed over 2,000 men. It was the last large deep mine to work in the Ebbw Valley and closed in March 1989, one year and eight months before Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. Apart from cars on the bypass close by, the only sound you can hear standing at the top of the hill in Cwm today comes from the hundreds of tiny birds in the pines, oaks and Sitka spruce that form a patchwork of green on the surrounding hills – hills that were once synonymous with a modest prosperity.

“There’s no work around here, there’s nothing,” an elderly woman named Anne in a beige overcoat told me as I made my way down from the old pit one cold December afternoon. “There’s a couple of workshops down the bottom, but I don’t think they employ many. Nothing where you can say there’s ten or 20 people working or anything.”

Britain’s former mining areas are home to about 5.5 million people – about 9 per cent of the population. The scorched-earth policy enacted by the governments of the 1980s left a legacy that can still be observed today. Indeed, the Welsh Valleys offer an aperture into the “post-work world” that has become a talking point now that middle-class jobs are threatened with automation (a recent report by Deloitte found that over 100,000 jobs in the legal sector are at high risk of being automated in the next 20 years). The unemployment rate in South Wales is one of the highest in the country and has been ever since industry was wound up abruptly by Conservative governments intent on crushing Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers. “When Maggie Thatcher beat the miners’ union a lot of people in this country didn’t give a damn about it,” said Selwyn Williams, a former miner I met in the Merthyr Tydfil Labour Club. “But it affected everybody that’s working, even up to this day.”

In Blaenau Gwent, one in six residents in a population of 60,000 was collecting a prescription for antidepressants, according to NHS data from 2013. In nearby Ebbw Vale, a town whose steelworks once produced the material used to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Stockton and Darlington Railway lines, five food banks operated within an area of about 42 square miles. Streets named after heroes of the labour movement were full of rent-to-own stores, betting shops and arcades. On the short Ebbw Vale high street I counted three pawnbrokers. In the Wetherspoons a portrait of the late former Labour leader Michael Foot was squeezed incongruously between two flashing fruit machines.

To get a job you often have to move away from towns like Ebbw Vale and Cwm or commute to bigger cities – Cardiff is an hour and a half away on the train. I was selling car insurance in a call centre in Swansea – a sleek and streamlined world all but impenetrable to those without the language skills or cultural capital required for the customer-focused “service economy”. In 2012 in the South Wales coalfield area, the number of jobs per 100 residents of working age was estimated at 41.

 Family values: wives and children at a miners strike picket line in Rudeley, Staffordshire, 1972.

Other towns I visited were beset by different challenges, albeit with similar consequences. I spent six weeks in Blackpool over the summer months, where I worked as a home carer. The job was physically and emotionally consuming and poorly remunerated. From early morning until late at night an overwhelmingly female workforce of isolated, harried and cobalt-uniformed workers dashed through the cluttered terraces of Blackpool’s South Shore. It was our job to wipe bottoms, give baths, administer medication and, occasionally, to clean up piles of sick (“Extra Strong Mints are the best thing to get rid of the smell of poo and sick,” one carer told me).

Most care visits had to be completed within 20 minutes, resulting in what has been accurately described as “clock-watch care”. At a time of punishing cuts to local authority budgets, the care companies that promised to empty the most catheters and change the most sanitary pads at the lowest cost invariably won the contracts from the council. The result, as one care worker put it to me, was that Britain’s elderly resemble “units parcelled up and sold to the lowest bidder”.

Beyond the front-of-town façade of rock shops, bouffanted crooners, stag parties and lager tops, Blackpool is a forlorn place, far from the “abode of health and amusement” it was described as in 1789. On my first night in town I stayed on Central Drive, a street that begins near the promenade a few blocks from the 19th-century Winter Gardens complex and snakes for about a mile until it reaches Bloomfield Road stadium, home to Blackpool FC.

It is the poorest area of Blackpool and one of the most deprived in England. There is an off-licence for every 250 residents and half the population smokes. Half the children in this part of town live in poverty. The homeless population is huge and very visible. The highs and lows of seasonal work in Blackpool have been exacerbated by the recent recession and subsequent government cuts. Between 2008 and 2012 the level of peak winter claimant unemployment in Blackpool doubled. “People come here for the day and think, ‘Oh, what a nice place; everyone must be buzzing’… All it is is zero-hours contracts,” said Gaz, an unemployed man whom I found traipsing desperately up and down the promenade hawking a glossy magazine for £3.

The final leg of my journey was spent in London among workers in the burgeoning “gig” economy, in which self-employed contractors are sent jobs via apps on their phones. For several months I drove an Uber taxi and was directed through the city by the capricious instructions of an algorithm under the pretext of “being my own boss”. Behind this euphemism I found a familiar story of exploitation masquerading as liberation.

Much of my job flexibility as an Uber driver was illusory. At a training session I was told that I could not “pick and choose” which fares I accepted. “The reason you’re online is to accept any job that’s given to you,” I was told by the representative of a company that was supposed to be my “partner”. Such was the level of control exercised that I was even told what conversational subjects were off-limits with passengers – politics, religion and sport, for example. A tool that allows passengers to award drivers between one and five stars at the end of every journey was sometimes abused, with passengers leaving poor ratings if you didn’t let them put loud music on or offer them free bottles of water. If your rating fell below 4.4 Uber threatened to ban you from using the app altogether. As much as Uber liked to say the passenger was your customer, it felt like they were Uber’s. It was this purported “freedom” for which gig workers had sacrificed most of their employment rights.


Much of the inequality and division I witnessed on my travels had been there in the background for some time, like the engine under a car bonnet whose whirrings you ignore until you find yourself broken down in a dingy layby. What was different about 2016 was that discontent began to percolate up to the surface, whether in the vote for Brexit, the dramatic swing of the Labour Party to the left, or in the rise of demagogues, like Donald Trump in the US. It would be naive to call Brexit a working-class revolt, yet as every one of the depressed towns I visited went on to vote overwhelmingly to leave the EU, it seems clear that the outcome was about more than a rejection of foreigners and European regulation. To many of the people I met, Europe was a target for their resentment of the pain inflicted by the untouchable hand of the market. Whether in Blackpool, Rugeley, Ebbw Vale or Cwm – all over there were persuasive reasons to want to “take back control”. “My personal view,” said Brian, a former miner at Bryn Colliery whom I met in Port Talbot, “is that it all started [to go downhill] as soon as we joined the EU… Look at this country [Wales], and look at how it was thriving in the Fifties, Sixties, even up to the Seventies, but since we joined the EU it’s just gone down”.

Britain is wealthier than it was in the 1970s, but much of today’s wealth is extracted from an underclass whose penurious existence is characterised by an almost total subservience to the whims of their employers. Trade unions have little power in this world. “Like Maggie Thatcher said when we were on strike – when I finish, she said, I want ten men chasing one job,” Selwyn told me over a pint back in Merthyr Tydfil. “And everyone thought she was talking pie in the sky. But it’s right today, isn’t it?”

When I left London early in 2016 Britain was not expected to leave the EU and it was assumed that Hillary Clinton would be a shoo-in for the White House. By the end of that year the complacency of four decades had given way to a powerful sense of dread. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a flurry of introspection and a renewed interest in those citizens who were said to feel “left behind” by globalisation.

This empathetic about-turn was short-lived. The backlash that created so much political turmoil two years ago has produced a further backlash: the working class have again become maligned caricatures or, worse, invisible. Despite a series of unpleasant shocks, the liberal capitalist order clings on. There is little understanding – at least in the communities I visited – of how change might come about. The mood there was characterised by a doleful apathy as much as by anger and resentment at the status quo. Few expressed voluble enthusiasm for the Labour Party, despite its recent transformation.

As I drank a mug of strong tea in a South Wales bedsit, it struck me that, almost 40 years after the curtain was violently brought down on the social democratic consensus during the bitter miners’ strike, there was a great deal in Britain to be in revolt against. Indeed, it took a certain type of affluent liberal hubris not to see it. The road to 2016 had been paved by several generations of politicians who believed not only in the fantasy of the “end of history”, but who had assumed that the market would guarantee the good life for just enough people to ignore those who failed to grasp the levers of social ascent. The result of this complacency has been the rise of demagogues who promise, in common with the fascists of the 20th century, to replace the invisible power of the market with the visible power of the infallible leader.

For all its dirt and danger, the old world of pits and steelworks at least offered the chance to join a trade union and take charge of your own destiny. It also gave birth to valuable neighbourhood associations – the factory became an extension of the wider family. In contrast, employment for a diminished and cowed working class today is often characterised by its antipathy to either pride or dignity. Both qualities were absent from the world I occupied for six months – a fearful and atomised domain in which the balance of power had been firmly tilted in favour of management. Of all the hardships facing the working class, I suspect it is this erosion of self-respect and solidarity that is the hardest to bear. “People actually say, ‘I’m only at Amazon,’ and in the past they would’ve never said, ‘I’m only at the pit,’” Alex told me over a drink at the Lea Hall Miners Social Club one evening. “You’d have said, ‘I’m a collier,’ because that’s what you were and you were proud of it.” 

“Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain” is published by Atlantic Books

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?