The Human Economy: Creating Decent Livelihoods In Digital Capitalism

Ever since the Second Industrial Revolution petered out, global capitalism has faced a demand crisis. If you think that all we need now is to stop austerity and spend our way out of the crisis, think again. Over the past few decades, developed economies were kept alive through artificially created demand. The inflation of the 1970s, the public debt of the 1980s, the private debt of the 1990s and the quantitative easing of the 2000s were all strategies to inject future resources for present consumption. Even if the dystopian vision of a world without work does not come true, workers’ waning consumer power can no longer fuel growth. This means progressive hopes for a Keynesian revival or a return to Fordism are misguided.

Progressives must find new answers to the challenges posed by the digital revolution. In a global economy, rejecting technological innovation is not an option. But the new technologies should also be embraced in their own right: the automation of dirty, dangerous, physically demanding tasks is set to improve workplace safety and satisfaction.

Yet, digital capitalism is ripe with potentially fatal contradictions. Mass un- and underemployment could aggravate the demand problem to a point where the world economy implodes. If digital automation continues to threaten the security and dignity of the majority population, the current revolt against globalism will only be a small foretaste of what is to come.

What we need is a new development model for the digital age. Front and centre of this new model must be the need to create decent livelihoods. Our best chance to create decent livelihoods in the digital age is the Human Economy.

The Human Economy is composed of two interwoven economies. The digital capitalist economy, which generates the surplus needed to remunerate work for the common good. And the human commons, which creates the consumption demand needed to keep the digital capitalist economy going.

Decent jobs: Make the workforce fit for the digital economy

In the digital economy, entrepreneurs will hire humans to perform new tasks. Human work also continues to be in demand in the service industries, from tourism to entertainment, from design to fashion, from food to arts and crafts and from research to development. To realise this potential for decent human jobs, the skills of the workforce will have to be permanently upgraded.

Decent livelihoods: Remunerate work for the human commons

The human economy needs to be built around the recognition of human contributions to the common good. Millions of livelihoods could be generated in the human commons, from health services to elderly care, from child raising to education, from providing security to generating knowledge. However, many of these tasks, which are beneficial for society, do not generate enough income in the capitalist economy. In order to create decent livelihoods, remuneration mechanisms for these tasks must be created.

Five policies to bring about the Human Economy

  1. Level the playing field for human work. Under fair conditions, there is still a need for humans to work together with Artificial Intelligence, robots, and algorithms. By shifting the tax burden from labour to capital, the playing field can be levelled for human workers. We need to explore how robots and data can be taxed with the aim of delaying the rationalization of work until new livelihoods are created.
  2. Invest in full capabilities for all. Humans excel at communication and social interaction, creativity and innovation, experience and judgement, leadership and foresight, flexibility and learning. Harnessing these talents is the industrial policy of the Human Economy. To fully explore human talents, our education systems need to be fundamentally overhauled. To allow for the necessary public investment in public goods, the austerity paradigm must be reversed.
  3. Boost consumption demand through basic income. The debate over the best way to boost consumption demand has sparked the first political battle of the digital age. The opposing camps in the debate over basic income run counter to the left-right formation characteristic of the industrial society. On one side, Silicon Valley techies who seek to boost consumption demand, Davos billionaires who fear the coming of the pitchforks, neoliberals who want to cut back the welfare state, corruption fighters who seek to cut out the middleman, and Marxists who dream of the end of alienating work in the leisure society; on the other, unions who defend their role in collective bargaining, socialists who smell a Trojan horse to do away with social security, economists who warn against moral hazard and social justice advocates who fear social exclusion. As the debate shows, the usefulness of basic income schemes will depend on their design, and many alternative approaches are being introduced. The Institute for the Future calls for Universal Basic Assets, e.g. entitlements to open source assets such as housing, healthcare, education and financial security. Yanis Varoufakis calls for a Universal Basic Dividend, financed by a Commons Capital Depository.
  4. Distribute sources of wealth more evenly. If robots replace humans, then the question is: who owns the robots? In an economy where capital increasingly replaces labour, capital ownership needs to be democratized. Richard Freeman suggests a ‘workers share’ could spread the ownership of companies amongst employees to make them less dependent on wage income. An alternative can be Sovereign Investment Funds which could re-socialise capital returns.
  5. Remunerate socially beneficial work. If the digital capitalist economy fails to create enough jobs, the state needs to play the role of employer of last resort. This economic necessity may become politically useful. In the vertigo of change, more effort is required to strengthen social cohesion. The state can encourage such contributions to the common good by remunerating them.

The social democratic path to the human economy

Creating decent livelihoods in the digital age will require massive investment in public goods. Generating the revenue to pay for these investments is not an easy political task. While the rich too often find ways to dodge taxes, the poor cannot afford to pay them. The middle classes, feeling abused by the “self-serving elites” and the “entitled poor,” are in open revolt. This is the political reason why the tax burden must be shifted from labour to capital.

In the political economy of today, however, the proposed policy shifts will certainly be an uphill battle. Whether the political economy of digital capitalism will be more conducive for the Human Economy is an open question. On the one hand, distributed technologies and the networked economy have the potential to democratize the means of production. On the other hand, the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of digital platform companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon points to the opposite direction.

The bizarre alliance around basic income schemes indicates a window of opportunity. Digital capitalism is reshuffling political fortunes, and progressives should go out of their way to build coalitions around the need to boost demand. After half a century of supply-side economics and cost-cutting politics, putting incomes back into the centre of economic thinking is an opportunity progressives must not miss.

Building the Human Economy is not a technical task, but the outcome of political struggles. Only a broad societal coalition will be able to implement the necessary policy shifts. To build this transformative alliance, we need a platform onto which as many communities as possible can come together. This platform cannot be a smorgasbord of policies, but a narrative which explains how we can make the digital transformation work for everyone.

What could this narrative sound like? Amidst the conflicts over sovereignty, identity and distribution transformation, we need to strengthen the foundations of solidarity among all members of the society. This can only be done through a new social contract for the digital society. This social contract needs to be brokered around a compromise between all stakeholders.

The Human Economy offers such an inclusive compromise. In essence, it transcends the conflict between capital and labour by making human capital the engine of the economy. For capital, the Human Economy offers a solution to the existential threat of collapsing consumption demand. For the working population, the threat of mass unemployment is mitigated through decent livelihoods. And for political decision makers, the looming threat of social unrest is relieved.

The social democratic path to development, in other words, creates the necessary demand to sustain the digital economy, the social security people need to embrace permanent change, the political stability required for the implementation of disruptive reforms. The social contract for the digital society, in a nutshell, is to provide full capabilities to everyone who is willing to contribute to the common good.

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