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The Internet has transformed our economies, our culture and politics, and our very way of life to such an extent over the past four or five decades that we are by many accounts in the midst of a communication revolution on a par with the invention of writing or the printing press; perhaps speech itself. Arguably, it’s that important. But what we have experienced to date is only the warm-up act.
In the summer of 2015 the CEO of one of the largest industrial corporations in the world gave a speech at an exclusive private dinner for the wealthy and powerful in Germany. In the question-and-answer period, the CEO was asked about the use of robots in manufacturing and whether they were a realistic prospect in the future. The CEO informed the audience that his company already had one fully automated factory, and had the technology in hand to immediately convert all of its factories worldwide to being fully automated. The major factor that deterred them from doing so was not economic – it made perfect economic sense to do so – but political: converting to fully automated factories would throw at least 40 per cent of their total workforce, much of it still based in Germany, into the unemployment lines. “If we did that,” he said, “the middle class in Germany would burn.” The audience was astounded, because the implication was that this was coming soon – very soon – and even one of the world’s most powerful CEOs could not keep his finger in the dyke much longer.
An audience of computer scientists would not have been surprised – the science of robotics has exploded with revolutionary developments in the past few years and many more previously unimaginable breakthroughs are now on the immediate horizon. Consider the analysis of Gill A. Pratt, until 2015 the Program Director at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he oversaw work on robotics. DARPA has been at the centre of technological innovation throughout the digital era. Pratt argues that humanity may be on the verge of experiencing something comparable in effect to the Cambrian Explosion, referring to the relatively brief period 540 million years ago when life underwent an astonishingly rapid diversification, including, arguably, the evolution of vision. It was crucial for the subsequent development of complex and intelligent life. Pratt outlined a series of related and complementary breakthroughs in robotics and computing that will make it possible for machines “to replicate the performance of many of the perceptual parts of the brain,” including, fittingly enough, vision itself.
At the very least, Pratt observes, “the effects on economic output and human workers are certain to be profound.” He refuses to predict when exactly this will occur, “as the timing of tipping points is hard to predict,” but it is on its way.
The transformation of employment wrought by robots and digital communication is not restricted to manufacturing. Those who study the matter believe something in the order of one-half of existing jobs will be eliminated in the coming one or two decades, and that no sector will be immune to automation. In 2014 another prominent CEO announced at Davos that most traditional white-collar jobs were also on the digital chopping block. And no one foresees any new employment sectors opening up that are sufficient to swallow the displaced workers or the hundreds of millions of people entering the workforce across the planet. Not even close.
Even the prospect of ever-lower wages cannot compete with the gigantic promise of the new technologies. Based in China, the world’s largest manufacturing firm – employing over one million workers – is among the largest purchasers of industrial robots. It is planning for a day in the not-too-distant future when it, too, will have fully automated factories.
These developments are going to pose direct and mortal challenges to both capitalism and democracy. It is not like US capitalism is well-positioned to receive a wave of automation; it is hardly firing on all cylinders. The system is mired in long-term stagnation with slow growth, unemployment, underemployment, trillions of dollars in savings incapable of locating profitable investments, declining real wages, and radically escalating inequality – all markers of our economic times. For those under the age of thirty, the labour market is hardly superior to that of the Great Depression. And to this we are now poised to introduce a revolutionary wave of automation that will aggravate all of these long-running tendencies, perhaps exponentially.
Barring reforms not yet visible or known, the system would appear to be evolving more into a decaying feudal order than providing the basis for an affluent society with social mobility. If no one has sufficient income to buy new products, then there is no incentive to invest for profit. Under stagnation, the revolutionary advances in technology are hardly a panacea; they only seem to promote ever-greater talk about the need to slash living standards and cut back on social services.
That this is a supreme irony – at the exact moment far less human labour is necessary to produce more than enough to satisfy human wants and needs, the system that fostered that abundance is incapable of adapting to it – has been understood by economists from Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill to Thorstein Veblen and John Maynard Keynes. They all understood that capitalism as we know it will eventually need to be superseded with a post-scarcity system that is built around the new economic reality.
As Keynes put it in 1930, humanity was only a century away from solving the “economic problem” that had defined the species from the beginning; it would no doubt bring about a period of considerable turmoil and angst, but the eventual destination would be one of human bliss. Mill wrote elegantly about a “stationary state” society, where economic growth was unnecessary, commercialism would be reduced, human nature would evolve, and all people could develop their talents and faculties as only the wealthy few could do in the impoverished past. And Marx, of course, regarded it as the material basis for a genuinely free and egalitarian society – which would be impossible in a world of poverty.
The immediate place these tensions will play out is in the political realm, as citizens will demand political solutions to the great problems of stagnation, unemployment, underemployment, and poverty. As with capitalism, political democracy has hardly been experiencing a golden age of informed citizen participation and public service-minded leadership in recent years. The economic reality of extreme inequality and personal greed translates into increased corruption and cynicism in the political sphere, and that undermines effective self-government. The United States is an extreme example, with money-drenched campaigns and abysmally low voter turnouts – especially among the poor, the young, and the dispossessed. As the crisis deepens, however, people will return to the political realm, and it is an open question as to whether the system can respond with democratic and humane solutions. Those who greatly benefit from the status quo will likely battle against progressive change as if their lives depended on it. It could just as easily degenerate into propaganda, militarism, and tyranny. Everything rides on the outcome.
We are not in entirely uncharted historical territory. In the 1930s most of the nations in the capitalist world experienced widespread severe unemployment, and it appeared resistant to elimination by traditional policies. A new scourge emerged and proved victorious in several nations: fascism. This was the result of an unprecedented development: a mass movement against democracy. Fascism claimed democracy was ineffectual and outdated; it said there were ‘solutions’ to unemployment, solutions which invariably involved the role of militarism as the only legitimate form of government stimulus. All fascist movements invariably played upon racism and chauvinism of one form or another, depending on the nation, to gee up support. It ranks among the ugliest and most shameful developments in history, and we see it re-emerging as the crisis deepens, even in nations where the scourge of fascism made that notion unthinkable for generations.
In contrast to fascism, the great anti-fascist movements of the 1930s and 1940s produced a strong commitment to invigorating democratic institutions, ending militarism, and guaranteeing all people a secure standard of living as the bulwark against fascism and the only way for humanity to proceed. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt went as far as to argue we needed an “economic bill of rights” to end poverty and to be certain fascism would never return. It is a good place for us to begin the necessary discussion as we move toward the abyss.
From the ‘technology’ edition of New Philosopher – you can buy a copy from our online store.
Robert W. McChesney is an award-winning author of several books on media and politics, professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, host of the weekly talk show Media Matters, on WILL-AM radio, and co-founder of the media reform organisation Free Press. His books include Digital Disconnect, Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century, Dollarocracy, Rich Media Poor Democracy, and Communication Revolution.