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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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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum