The estimable John Lanchester has been at it again – reading things the rest of us are too dense or lazy to wade through then writing about them in the London Review of Books. This time the subject is work and the threat to employment from robots and computers. In fact the real targets are the ones he skewered in previous essays on the financial crisis – the incredibly rich who will at the present rate become even more incredibly richer. But more of that in a moment.
The evidence for the trends Lanchester itemises is compelling: the rate of growth in processing power and in the profitability of companies working in that field (with Apple’s latest, record-breaking profits still fresh in the mind); studies which predict with convincing levels of detail the types of jobs that will be replaced by machines (mostly unskilled or semi-skilled, you will not be surprised to hear); particularly egregious examples of automation such as the Kiva robots in Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres ‘and Google’s driverless car.
Fortunately Lanchester returns unscathed from his visit to Geekland and puts all this gadgetry and wirelessness into unfashionably human and historical terms. The direction of travel being taken by the world economy threatens to bring about extremes of unequal wealth that make our present dispensation seem fair and even-handed. More, that bitch who worked for Margaret Thatcher has returned. I mean Tina (There is no alternative), whose message dominates the headlines and the airwaves. But Lanchester points out a fly in the neo-liberal ointment. Whereas societies have adjusted to previous spates of technologically-driven job losses by creating new opportunities and having time to smooth the transition, the next round of blood-letting may prove too much, too fast for even our comatose populations to stomach. And in any case, Lanchester asks: who will buy the products of this new industrial revolution if so many people are made poor?
A number of thoughts occur. Firstly, haven’t we been here before? The central contradiction in capitalism pointed out by Marx goes as follows: if capital reaps all the surplus value and labour goes begging there is insufficient demand for the goods created. A number of developments put off that crunch point, imperialism for starters, then democratic socialism’s efforts at redistribution: but perhaps now we are reaching point where the chickens finally come home to roost.
Secondly, whatever happened to the dialectic? The Chinese (and the Russians before them) thought you could go straight from feudalism to socialism, skipping the bit in-between, only to find this wasn’t possible. Similarly the strain of anarchism I used to espouse believed the state could be made to wither away without needing its commanding heights to be seized by a vengeful proletariat. I still have my copy of Post-Scarcity Anarchism by Murray Bookchin which reckoned the bourgeoisie had created the pre-conditions for communism even before computers shrank from the size of restaurants to lunch boxes. Might this yet come to pass or must we still endure the violence and power-grabbing of revolution?
The trouble is we lack persuasive visions of what a better future might look like. Lanchester invokes William Morris, but if he is known at all it is mostly as the name behind some nice wallpapers. Marx himself died without giving a clear picture of where we should be heading, so that when his disciples got the chance to implement his ideas, most notably in the Soviet Union they made a virtue out of the need for a wartime command economy. In more recent times arguments for the Left have been driven from mainstream culture. The message, therefore is clear. As well as the activists who work to bring about change we need theorists to show us how superfast processing and robotic drudges can be used to make society more, not less democratic. And we need dreamers to imagine a new world worth struggling for.