This is the text of the planned talk for Friday Room which I placed on my blog. It has a particular style which is perhaps not in keeping with the general tone of this WordPress site, but after some consideration I decided the most straightforward way to present this would be simply to post it again here. I see this more as an opening to discussion than anything else, and in view of the facts that “a week is a long time in politics” and the pace of technological change, this could become quickly outdated. I am also continuing to research the subject as I’m fairly fresh to it. Anyway, here it is:
This is a map of the proposed North American Technate, one goal of the Technocracy Movement of the 1930s, whose symbol was the Monad:
The crucial things to remember about automation are that it ought to be a solution rather than a problem, and that as technology it’s not new, but part of our nature as hominins since we were Australopithecines. Hominid tool use is primarily motivated by a drive to ease life and raise living standards and automation is just a continuation of this. Any illusion of scarcity is artificial and unnecessary. The corollary of automation should be something like a basic income scheme or a technocratic social order, and to be frank I can’t understand why everyone isn’t outraged that this still doesn’t exist and isn’t demanding that it happen immediately. The fact is that there is simply no reason for anyone to be exploited or to have an unacceptably low standard of living. It’s hard to imagine a bigger scandal than this in the whole of human history, and this scandal isn’t even new. I can only imagine there is a psychological need for some people to imagine they’re superior to others.
Technological change through the Palaeolithic seems to have led to increasing population and life expectancy, suggesting that the advent of new technology increased hominid fitness to survive and thrive in its environment. The adoption of agriculture has a number of drawbacks in this respect, such as the possible emergence of a more hierarchical society, patriarchy and the problems of managing infectious disease and malnutrition due to the change to a lifestyle to which we are adapted, but in some ways there was a further increase in living standards brought on by technology, at least for some. However, inequality grew and there was a drift away from providing for the common good.
The Industrial Revolution brought fear that means of livelihood, now substantially centred around factories, would be lost with increasing mechanisation. It was actually suggested quite early on that those who were put out of work by machinery should simply be paid enough to live on, although I can’t track down a source – it may have been late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
An argument frequently deployed against basic income is that it’s psychologically damaging and another is that it could lead to unrest or lack of motivation. People are seen as benefitting from paid work with employers and as primarily motivated by monetary gain. However, if work is worth doing, literally, i.e. it is heart work which fulfils a fundamentally useful social function and cannot be automated well, then it’s worth doing without pay. The wages paid for work have the function of supporting someone financially who doesn’t have the time to support themselves by pursuing a hunter-gatherer way of life or self-sufficiency in other ways because they’re working for someone else. This compensation needn’t be from the actual employer. Much unpaid work is already done, such as parenting and housework, and the motivation to do those tasks doesn’t come from the prospect of monetary gain. There is also much work which simply should not be done. Financial services come to mind, and there’s nothing to be proud of in being a citizen of a nation which is a world leader in swindling people out of their income and forcing them into debt, which is basically what financial services amount to much of the time. As far as mental health issues are concerned, much work is seriously deleterious to happiness and the constant anxiety and depression which emanates from the symbolic estimation of people’s lives as worthless and expendable and the removal of meaningful work from their lives definitely constitutes a mental health hazard. These factors need to be set against the supposed dignity of “work” in the restricted sense of the word, namely paid work with an employer. A change in the relationship with income could also free parents up from having to organise childcare in the form of state schooling, which is clearly now superfluous as a means of relevant or efficient education. Incidentally, education needs also to carry the message of self-motivation in its delivery, which is currently impaired by societal factors.
It should also be borne in mind that there can be virtue in useless employment. If your job involves providing essential goods and services there is a sense in which you are holding the beneficiaries of those services to ransom by asking to be paid for doing that. Work which is “useless”, such as in the creative arts and entertainment, is more interchangeable. It can “say” something important but an audience can prefer Ben Jonson to Shakespeare or the Stones to the Beatles. Consequently it makes sense to ask for money in such a situation. If the work is something like providing adequate sanitation, growing food, putting out fires or life-saving medical treatment, that work needs to be renumerated in a way that is unconditional in order to prevent the ransom situation from arising. This is another way in which basic income could address the problem. It may of course also be that such essential work is more likely to be replaced through automation than less vital work, which is another reason for basic income.
There are in fact both left and right wing arguments for basic income, each providing a counter-argument for the other side. The right wing case is that it simplifies the welfare system. Milton Friedman argued for it as a “negative income tax”, i.e. a tax which is paid to individuals below a certain income threshold. This would make it means-tested and thus introduce bureaucracy. It’s also seen as reducing the incentive to work, and in this scenario work is seen as an unequivocally good thing because considerations are primarily in terms of traditional economics and work is not seen as an intrinsic part of human nature. This potential disincentive could be seen as a bad thing from a left wing viewpoint because it could reduce the potential number of trade union members. Another right wing argument is that it could completely remove the need for the lowest paid employees to be paid at all by an employer, and lead to abolition of the minimum wage. Friedman also questioned whether those relying on basic income should still have the right to vote, since he saw them as inevitably voting for increases in basic income, making the scheme impractically expensive.
A number of potential problems have been raised regarding basic income. One is that it could lead to inflation of accommodation costs. Since everyone would then have a certain guaranteed income, rent and other costs might then rise according to market forces, thereby wiping out any advantage it might have. Possibly for this reason, some people advocate that the level of basic income should be set slightly below subsistence level. It’s also possible that those with greater needs such as the disabled would not be provided for because the welfare state would potentially have been dismantled.
One of the most obvious objections to basic income is its affordability. This would depend on it being initially unaffordable because the cost of not having basic income is enormous. If you consider, for example, the expense of dealing with mental illness, homelessness, physical ill-health and crime resulting from poverty, if unaffordability is the strongest argument against it, it would have to be that it would be too expensive even to be considered as an investment in the future. Some people also believe that new jobs will arise as automation proceeds, a phenomenon seen as having occurred throughout history.
Leaving the objections aside, I see basic income as a solution to many problems. It removes the motive to do harmful work just for the money. It means the lowest-paid employees needn’t be paid at all. It reduces the bureaucracy of the welfare state. It means that people will work for its own sake rather than for money. It will also save money because of the cost of crime, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and poor physical and mental health. However, I consider the reasons it isn’t implemented to be unconnected to any of these things. Not having a basic income is cost-effective, I think, because it means the poor live in fear, which has both social and psychological functions. The fear of penury prevents poor workers from demanding better working conditions and job security, meaning that a frightened and ground-down workforce is cheap and disposable. This means that the vast investment necessary to ensure the existence of a large number of desperate, hopeless people pays for itself many times over. I’ll come back to disposability in a minute. It also performs an important psychological function, although at the cost of preventing a generally happier society. It isn’t enough for some people that they succeed in their own terms of wealth and possessions. It’s also important to them to know that there are many other people living in misery and want, not knowing where their children’s next meal is coming from or if they will die of hypothermia tonight, because it makes them feel more secure and valuable as individuals themselves. Against this can be placed the issue that the happiest societies are the most equal in terms of income. These are the reasons, I think, that basic income will never be implemented.
On the matter of disposability, it occurs to me that the response of the rich and secure to an automated society would not be so much concern for the physical needs of the poor and unemployed as fear that these idle hands are expensive to maintain and yield no return, and that they may rise up against them and overthrow the system. Consequently, the rational response may be to drive them to an early grave either through their own decision to kill themselves or simply by not bothering to take care of them at all, which is of course very cheap. Maybe what the rich really want is for most poor people simply to die. Basic income doesn’t achieve that, so that’s another reason it may not be implemented.
This is the belief that society is best managed by experts in the likes of engineering and science rather than by politicians. This idea was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s but was overtaken by events such as the Great Depression and Second World War. As can be seen from the map at the top, technocrats in North America believed in the unification of the North American continent and nearby areas into a unit they referred to as the “Technate”. They had what they referred to as the “Energy Theory Of Value”, which was that the basic measure common to all goods and services is energy, so the sole scientific foundation for the monetary system is also energy. Therefore they would issue energy certificates to individuals instead of money which could be exchanged for the equivalent energy use. To take a simple example, someone who shifted sixteen tons two metres vertically during a day would then be entitled to use the same amount of electricity or fuel, or to buy food providing that amount of energy, having taken the work done to provide that, to the same amount, so they would be another day older but they wouldn’t be deeper in debt unless they were using more energy than they were expending.
Technocracy could be seen as the extension of automation all the way up to government. There are, however, various problems with it. It’s not clear, for example, which kind of expertise, or within that which theory, is more appropriate. It’s notable, for example, that educational theory and the psychology of learning are quite different in nature, so which system would be applied to educational policy? Theories are not free of value or political bias either. Evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and social Darwinism all spring to mind here, as does Lamarckianism on the other side of the political spectrum. Technocracy was also used recently and controversially in Italy to implement neoliberal economic policies. Technocrats are also distant from popular opinion, although the two may sometimes coincide. Technocracy is not democracy. However, it also strikes me as potentially quite left-wing because it doesn’t rely on “the school of hard knocks”, which may or may not be a bad thing. Right wing anti-intellectualism would seem to be opposed to that.
The Venus Project is a modern manifestation of technocracy. This is a long-term project started by the architect Jacque Fresco and featured in the film ‘Zeitgeist Addendum’. Fresco’s view, which I happen to agree with in general, is that the alternatives for the future are utopia or oblivion, with utopia in the form of technocratically-organised sustainable cities. Like other forms of technocracy, however, there appears to be little room for non-conformity. The main problem as I see it with the Venus Project is that the will to save the world is not there. I would argue that the laws of thermodynamics, particularly the tendency towards entropy, mean that there is a drive towards self-destruction in all living organisms, which is of course balanced in part by evolved homeostatic feedback mechanisms but cannot be completely eliminated. This is what Freud called Thanatos, and although his ideas are largely discredited this one in particular is useful. There may be a tendency for people to turn against positive, life-affirming and optimistic ideas and plans precisely because they have those features. Therefore, to me the optimism and positivity of both technocracy and the idea of basic income are the precise reasons why they will inevitably fail.
The Gig Economy
Before I get down to discussing this, I should define what I mean by this currently popular term. The “Gig Economy” is a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work. The likes of Uber and Deliveroo are often focussed on in this respect, where people are nominally self-employed and have none of the recently acquired entitlements which employees normally have because of this but also get all of their work from one source. In other words, it seems to be a ruse designed to get round legal requirements for employers to provide their employees with such things as pension schemes, sick pay and the like. Zero-hours contracts are another common feature of these situations where people are employed by others.
Two things strike me about this. One is that this sounds like the kind of situation with which working class people have long been very familiar. The difference, I suppose, is that people from a middle class background have greater social capital and are therefore able to make more visible fuss about it, and also their mind set may have been less ground down than working class people’s, although it will shortly probably be down there. In other words, the middle class is disappearing for this reason as well as automation.
The other thing about this, to me, is that it sounds a little like an inferior version of what’s been called the “Catholic Economy”, and that there may be a connection there. There is a somewhat convoluted link between the concept of the catholic economy and the coalition government which formed after the 2010 election.
The catholic economy, although initially associated with the Roman Catholic Church, is now probably better referred to as distributivism. This is the idea that private ownership is important to all members of society and a basic right, and that the means of production should be distributed as evenly as possible throughout society. As such, the idea is not easily categorisable as either right or left wing. A distributivist society would be one in which most people are self-employed sole traders, though they may be organised into guilds. It sees both capitalism and socialism as products of the enlightenment and prefers to hark back to a mediaeval system, though I would see that as very idealised. Against that, of course, it could be said that my own description of pre-agricultural society itself partakes of the myth of the Noble Savage.
Distributivism goes hand in hand with the theological position of Radical Orthodoxy, which rejects modernity via postmodernity to arrive at a position where the world is interpreted theologically, science and similar disciplines being seen as essentially secular, atheistic and nihilist.
The reason this is relevant is that Phillip Blond, a proponent of Radical Orthodoxy and distributivism, was a key figure in the construction of the “Big Society” agenda of Cameron’s Conservative Party, one of whose slogans held that “there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same as government”. This is presumably meant to emphasise the idea of the organic growth of customs and institutions into a society which works for all without state intervention, but also notably without the intervention of monopoly capitalist corporations. This seems however to be largely a rhetorical device. To illustrate, consider the coalition government policy on free schools. The idea seems at first to be about giving parents, religious groups and others the legal right to establish their own educational institutions. However, education need not be carried out in specific physical premises or locations. It could be online, achieved via home tuition, take place in rented rooms or in people’s homes. However, legislation required free schools to have physical premises, which immediately prices poorer people out of the situation and involves property or building firms quite heavily in the establishment of such schools when it is in fact entirely unnecessary.
I suspect that the gig economy is in fact what’s become of the catholic economy in the hands of Conservative pragmatism and realpolitik. Hence a lot of people are nominally self-employed now, and in purely technical legal definitions of the situation there are now a lot of self-employed sole traders just as there are supposed to be under distributivism. However, these people own precious little and are fragmented, having little recourse to professional bodies, trade unions or guilds, and consequently they have few rights and little power. The situation, nominally, does however seem to have quite a lot in common with Phillip Blond’s ideas even if he would himself wish to dissociate himself from them.
This dissociation, however, could be key to the success of a more left-wing approach. Just as New Labour in government didn’t do what many Labour members and voters wanted it to do, it seems to me equally possible that the current Conservative government isn’t doing what its own members and voters wanted it to do either. This dissatisfaction, which I believe must exist, is probably fairly typical of the disillusionment felt by ordinary voters and party members when their party is in office. It could also potentially be exploited by the Labour party as it is now. It’s been clearly demonstrated that the practical result of the Big Society is just business as usual and the permanent government rather than anything like distributivism, and I suspect there is a strong groundswell of dissatisfaction among people who voted Tory and are now repenting at leisure. I suggest therefore that this is something which other groups could capitalise upon, and obviously I have Labour in mind here.