Automation, Basic Income and Post-Capitalism
A lot of my work, in both public speaking and private consulting, is rooted in foresight and anticipatory research. Unlike “futurology” I’m less interested in predicting the future than anticipating different scenarios based on social, political and technological trends. If this sounds like semantics I should point out that they’re really different disciplines.
Futurology, as practiced by the likes of, Google’s Chief Futurist, Ray Kurzweil is typically based on technological determinism, a reductionist theory that presumes a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. Hence a classic futurology talk or book will include a set of graphs that show exponential performance increases in, e.g. microprocessors, over time cross-referenced against rapidly falling costs and so on. The suggestion is that as a result of this shift in technology then society changes as a result. Futurologists will often cite the landlord and his windmill, the steam engine and the industrial capitalist, to support this argument. But the reality is more complex. Technology is just part of a broader spectrum of human activity, and social change is driven by society rather than machines. We have agency to act independently and make free choices.
The path of innovation and its social consequences are almost entirely shaped by society as a result of numerous social factors such as culture, politics, regulatory mechanisms and economic arrangements. The latter one is particularly apposite given the post-WWII obsession with neoclassical economics, as taught in most universities. Political decisions supported by economic frameworks have excluded citizens from the discourse and, as a result, are now unravelling across the western world. It turns out that the things we value most are the things that are difficult or impossible to measure.
This obsession for economics and measuring what could be measured and ignoring what it couldn’t gave us global agencies such as the World Bank, IMF and OECD. But these organisations have been unable to apply their frameworks, wedded as they are to a single metric of GDP, to the worlds most pressing challenges such as climate change, increasing population or growing inequalities, rather they have exacerbated them.
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Quite simply the economy is whatever we decide it to be and it exists to serve society rather than the other way around. One might hope that the disruptions that we are now seeing around the world are part of a structural reform that, despite the possibility of dark years ahead, will ultimately deliver a new status quo. It’s up to us to exert our agency to decide what this new status quo looks like and the kind of society that we want.
So this brings me to my first and most obvious megatrend.
Automation and AI
The logical conclusion of the industrial revolution and the metrics of capitalism is that anything that can be measured or based on rules will be automated.
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This means that the only jobs available in the future will be the ones that machines can’t do. The arrival of self-driving vehicles, as just one example, will replace tens of millions of jobs as well as the collateral employment currently conducted by humans. The Uberfication of everything is essentially removing any sense of craft as humans, acting as organic intermediaries on zero-hour contracts, carry out instructions delivered to them by mobile device. Having deskilled the human workforce it is only logical to replace them with a machine that doesn’t unionise, take breaks or suffer from depression. This is the triumph of the deliverologists, the disciples of the McKinsey Way and other 20th century manufacturing process consultants / dinosaurs who measured what was easy and ignored what was important.
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We already know now that it isn’t only the blue collar jobs like transport, construction and manufacturing that will evaporate but a vast swathe of “safe” middle-class professions like accountancy, journalism, law and even teaching that are all being datafied by deliverologists so that they can be rolled out like software.
But what about all the new jobs that will be created as a result of this innovation?
Pretty much the same as what happened the last time employment was decimated by market forces and neoliberal free market economists viewing the world through the prism of a spreadsheet and frameworks that they can’t explain. Although this time on a frictionless exponential scale where corporations like Uber are described as unicorns as they devour everything in their path to the sweet cacophony of disruption.
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This is the game of Monopoly writ large where the aim of the game is to be the last one on the board with all the property and all the money. Palo Alto dreamers and hipster TED speakers pitched us their fable of “abundance” where the cost of everything would be free but it seems unlikely that the winners of the game will change the rules to let everyone win. Is it the power of love we seek or the love of power? History always has the answer.
We are not preparing society for this future. Our education systems, driven as they are by the $multi-billion measurement industry are still training kids for a world that doesn’t exist. Learning how to code isn’t going to help that much when machines are coding themselves.
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Universal Basic Income
“A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement”
Bill Gates recently made the headlines when he suggested that machines like robots and AI could be taxed to offset the social impact of automation. The money generated via this automation tax could be used towards financing a universal basic income (UBI). Gates’ fanciful suggestion provides an insight into aspects of capitalism and human nature given that the whole point of automation is that the machine doesn’t require a salary or an employment contract. Thus to simulate an income tax it would need a reference salary and a machine that has never been operated by a human means there will be no prior human income to act as a reference for calculating the taxes this machine must pay. This is before we get into how we decide which machines should be taxed.
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In fact this kind of woolly thinking is typical of the world view from someone at the top fixed on maintaining the status quo that got them there. It assumes that machines taking human jobs is something to be discouraged whereas the opposite is true. We should welcome robots doing more tasks for us, freeing us up to engage in other, more fulfilling activities and work.
With all the talk of automation there is a justified concern that the private corporations who own the robots will accumulate most of the wealth, with the rest of us left behind outside the gates of Elysium. After all this is pretty much what’s happening with the pre-automation giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, etc who are vacuuming up all the worlds money by commercialising our data whilst depositing comparatively little back into the system.
Taxing automation, even if feasible, delays the inevitable whereas a universal basic income addresses the cliff before we rush headlong over it taking capitalism with us.
Something has to give. It seems bizarre that we’re blessed with so much innovation that makes us more productive and yet many of us are working longer hours for at least 5 days a week. The social impact of such punishing schedules is quite possibly as bad as having no schedule at all.
Is it possible in the future that humans will be able to scale back their work hours, while still receiving a comparable income through UBI if machines performed the bulk of humanity’s work? Citizens could spend more time on volunteering, entrepreneurship, family, civic engagement, and creative endeavours. Today’s neoclassical economists don’t have a place in their frameworks to show the value of parenting, looking after our elderly parents or contributing to the common good and yet surely these are some of the most important things to our societal well-being?
Automation has the potential to disrupt the status quo of the live to work society and opens new possibilities for what people can do with their time.
As with the societal impact of automation education will be of vital importance to equip present and future generations to be a productive part of this new world.
Post-Capitalism / Progressive Mutualism
Post-capitalism is up there with “abundance” as one of those nauseating buzzwords used by those who have plenty to describe a utopia where capitalism has gracefully declined and delivered us to a world of collaborative production as part of a social movement.
It gives me the same feeling that I get when I think about Sir Ken Robinson telling us that if we do what we love we’ll never work a day in our life. Which sounds lovely until you say it to a single mother who is holding down three jobs to pay the rent, buy food and put her two kids through school.
I intellectually understand post-capitalism but no-one has convinced me of a route to get there without an interim catastrophe. The existing super-structures of society just aren’t going to give up without a fight and hand over the status quo that easily.
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It seems the argument over where we go as a society seems to be polarised between Darwinist capitalism or retrograde socialism. Quite frankly neither is particularly attractive based on historical performance and I wonder if there isn’t a better way. It strikes me that a society where everyone might possess a means of production, either individually or collectively, and where trade is conducted within the free market could be a way forward.
This isn’t an original idea and is based on the writings of French theorist and philosopher, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who died in 1865. Proudhon, who was the first to call himself an anarchist, favoured workers’ associations or co-operatives, as well as individual worker/peasant possession, over private ownership or the nationalisation of land and workplaces. As a result of his beliefs he considered a social revolution to be achievable in a peaceful manner, i.e. without a catastrophe that normally precedes structural reform.
Such a transition isn’t beyond the realms of reason or possibility and to me would be preferable to the kind of leaping of the chasm that is required to reach the utopia of post-capitalism.
There are already numerous examples of large, successful businesses who are owned by the workers or partners as they are often called. The John Lewis Partnership, a UK retail business, and ARUP a renowned international construction company are owned by their employees. Gripple, a steel manufacturing company in Sheffield is an immensely profitable company where the founder insisted that all of his employees bought shares in the company and where the result is a happy, well rewarded collective without the oppressive nonsense typically found in McJobs.
Where workers own the business it changes the whole dynamic, for the better.
But how to drive such a change within the business community?
I would suggest that taxation is the key and, rather than the taxation of machines as proposed by Bill Gates, that tax is used to nudge our behaviours away from undesirable outcomes where we, for example, might tax activities that are damaging to the environment. To encourage business to adopt a mutualist approach to their enterprise where it is then owned by its employees a simple ratchet via corporation tax might be effective. A lower corporation tax would be applied to business who are employee owned whereas those companies who wish to continue using the traditional industrial capitalist approach would pay a significant higher corporation tax. The justification for such differences in taxation would be the societal impact of happier, healthier and wealthier employees.
Now I don’t for a moment pretend that I have this all figured out, I like to think of myself as more of a compass than a map, but I believe that we have entered a period of massive global disruption where the status quo as we know it is going change. We can either let someone else choose our destiny or we can exert our agency and be part of a positive change to design the new status quo for the society that we want tomorrow.
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