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Robots and Liberalism

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People know my beat by now, so everyone has been directing my attention to Paul Krugman’s recent musings on the pace of automation in the economy. He moves away from his earlier preoccupation with worker skills, and toward the possibility of “‘capital-biased technological change,’ which tends to shift the distribution of income away from workers to the owners of capital.” He goes on to present data showing the secular decline in labor’s share of income since the 1970′s.

He then notes that his position “has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism,” but reassures us that this uncomfortable realization “shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts.” The implication of those facts, he says, are that neither the liberal nor conservative common sense has anything to say about our current predicament: “Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society” . . . won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents.”

Meanwhile we have Kevin Drum despairing that the coming decades will be “mighty grim,” as automation means that “the owners of capital will automate more and more, putting more and more people out of work.” And we have the Financial Times publishing Izabella Kaminska arguing that “we’ve now arrived at a point where technology begins to threaten return on capital, mostly by causing the sort of abundance that depresses prices to the point where many goods have no choice but to become free.” This, of course, leads to attempts to impose artificial scarcity through new forms of property rights (with dire consequences for growth and prosperity), but I’ve written all about that elsewhere.

What I mainly find interesting is what all this interest in technology and jobless growth says about the limits of contemporary liberalism. We can all hope that Gavin Mueller’s reverie of Paul Krugman dropping LSD and becoming a Marxist will come to pass, but in the meantime his type seems to have no real answer. Nor do those of a more labor-liberal bent, like Dan Crawford at Angry Bear, who laments being called a neo-luddite and scornfully says: “As if widespread use of automated systems was automatically good for us overall.” As if a world in which we hold back technical change in order to keep everyone locked into deadening jobs is a vision that will rally the masses to liberalism.

In its more sophisticated form, this kind of politics takes the form of Ed Miliband’s “predistribution,” which Richard Seymour glosses as a belief that “rather than taxing the rich to fund welfare, the government should focus on making work pay more.” But if the structure of the modern economy is, as Krugman argues, one which depends on increasing numbers of robots and diminishing numbers of people, this project is bound to be either ineffectual or pointlessly destructive of our potential social wealth. The idea that there is something inherently superior, either politically or morally, about raising pre-tax and transfer incomes, rather than doing redistribution, is one that has never seemed to me to be especially well grounded. At times I suspect that it stems from an uncritical embrace of the historically specific white populist identity politics of the working class, and its accompanying fetish for the point of production, that I talk about here.

Not to say I have all the answers either, but here on the crazy Left we at least have some ideas. Ideas that don’t presuppose the desirability of keeping the assembly line of employment going at all costs, pumping out something that we can call “middle class jobs.” Ideas that get back to crazy notions like working time reduction and the decommodification of labor. These days, the unrealistic utopians are the nostalgics for the Fordist compromise, who see the factory worker with a high school diploma and a middle class income as the apex of human emancipation. But as Lenin said, “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.”


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