by Olivia Hanks
The Labour Party’s deputy leader Tom Watson wrote in The Guardian last week about the challenges posed to society by automation. Rapid developments in artificial intelligence over the last few years have brought this issue to prominence once again, and spawned a proliferation of articles saying, effectively, “We know we said this in the 60s, but this time we mean it — robots are going to take over the world!”
The fact that fears of mass unemployment caused by machines proved largely unfounded in the 19th century and again 50 years ago doesn’t mean that we should ignore this issue. Far from it — it presents us with an opportunity to rethink our entire approach to work.
Whether the Labour Party has the vision to do this is questionable. Watson enthuses about driverless cars, which he says will bring about ‘greater efficiency in our existing road networks as cars become personal trains, driving faster and closer together on our motorways’. In an age where we face the growing imperative to move away from that embodiment of selfish overconsumption, the fuel-hungry motor car, Watson has gazed upon the limitless vistas offered by AI and glimpsed a future filled with … cars on motorways.
Robots cannot bring about the end of capitalism; like any good tool, they will serve the aims of the owner, not change those aims.
If the nightmare vision of automation hasn’t yet become reality, then nor has the dream: the ‘leisure society’ and the 15-hour working week famously predicted by John Maynard Keynes in 1930. Since the hard-won victories of the workers’ movement in the first half of the 20th century, working hours have not declined significantly further, and a long-hours culture is now on the rise.
Robots cannot bring about the end of capitalism; like any good tool, they will serve the aims of the owner, not change those aims. The holders of capital will continue to find new ways to monetise things, creating myriad new jobs to sell products and services we can’t yet imagine we need. Who, 50 years ago, could have dreamt up the social media analyst, or imagined just how many management consultants would appear necessary to the proper functioning of the 21st-century universe?
We as a society must learn to separate these two terms, to understand that paid work has no intrinsic value, and that not all valuable work is paid.
The anthropologist David Graeber, in a 2013 essay, examines the damage done by what he calls ‘the phenomenon of bullshit jobs’. Millions of people feel trapped in jobs they consider pointless, yet most accept this as inevitable. ‘Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the — universally reviled — unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class.’ If we see unemployment as the problem, as AI renders vast numbers of jobs obsolete, we risk seeing the creation of a new wave of ‘bullshit jobs’ as the solution.
This is why Labour will struggle to truly address this issue. The party’s roots in the trade union movement mean its primary concern is always jobs, and economic growth to create more jobs. This is why it can’t bring itself to oppose the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons. It’s why it can’t oppose destructive and unnecessary road-building schemes, or engage properly with the global environmental crisis that is growing by the day.
We all need some form of work in our lives, for many reasons — a sense of purpose, fulfilment of individual potential, social interaction. We need employment, on the other hand, only so we can pay the bills. We as a society must learn to separate these two terms, to understand that paid work has no intrinsic value, and that not all valuable work is paid. The ‘leisure society’ — a society where we all lead healthier lives with time to spend with friends and family, pursue creative interests and contribute to civic life — can only come about when we stop seeing economic growth as the goal of all activity.
In our current capitalist system, where productivity tends to increase as technology advances, constant growth is required in order to keep people in employment. One of the criticisms levelled at proponents of an end to growth is therefore that it will create mass unemployment. Yet it is an indictment of our society that we remain unable to consider a reduction in paid employment in anything but negative terms.
A guaranteed, subsistence-level income would end extreme poverty and allow people time to look for meaningful work
The new wave of automation is the perfect opportunity to finally introduce the basic income (or citizen’s income), an idea that has been around for decades and is currently being piloted in Utrecht. Long embraced by the Green Party (in January, Green MP Caroline Lucas tabled a motion calling for research on the subject), it was also a Liberal Democrat policy until 1994 and has the support of a handful of Labour MPs. A guaranteed, subsistence-level income would end extreme poverty and allow people time to look for meaningful work instead of relying on jobs that are short-term, insecure and exploitative. It would more fairly distribute the wealth created by technological advances, rather than concentrating that wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
Much of what Watson says is entirely correct: government should be addressing the issue of automation from both an economic and an ethical standpoint, and it is doing neither. So what is it in his article that makes me so uncomfortable? It can perhaps be summed up in this statement: ‘We need only look at the past to understand the scale of the change to come.’
This revolution will not look like the Industrial Revolution. The future does not have to look like the past — a relentless stream of cars on the endless motorway of economic growth. This is why the ‘industrial strategy’ advocated by Watson isn’t enough, we need to think bigger. We need to rethink our whole economic structure so that people are empowered to meet their real needs — only then will automation really be able to free us from drudgery, rather than merely displacing us into a new generation of ‘bullshit jobs’.
Featured image © Illustration: Andrew Rae; Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis