Our economy is going to experience a radical transformation in the very near future. By “our economy” I’m not just talking about the economy of the United States, but rather the globe’s economy. Historical trends and critical analysis of current economic conditions foretell a different revolution which can foster either mass progress or crippling setbacks for the whole of humanity. We will soon face a choice that many of us never before wanted to consider about whether or not we are ready to adapt.
The arc of human history has portrayed a story of a species which is never content with stagnation. Our ancestors were always persistent in exploring new ways to conquer the elements and bend nature to our will. This fact about human ingenuity remains the case today. There is nothing wrong with our spirit of exploration and problem solving, per se, but we are increasingly facing a risk where our previous mastery of the art of adaptation – which has been essential to our evolution in societal and biological terms – will be confronted with a refusal to accept our collective responsibilities to facilitate such this time around.
From the primal state of humans as small groups of hunter-gatherers to the advanced state of civilized humanity we see now, we did not leap from using sticks and stones to a reality where we can visit neighboring worlds by refusing to largely abandon obsolete tools and methods along the way. Much work that was once highly labor-intensive has been reduced to a simple task performed by a single person operating a machine. For the past two centuries – at least – the onset of automation has been forecast by economists and politicians alike. Each successive generation has been warned with increasing urgency that a world without the need for labor is looming, because doing more with less effort has been the underlying pursuit of our species from the beginning.
With the advent of capitalism this trend towards easier production took on a new role: maximizing profitability. The industrial revolution magnified human potential beyond what we had accomplished before and it made possible the goal of automation in certain segments of industry. With the technological revolution in the Twentieth Century, a world where labor is unnecessary became probable. In fact, these dual revolutions in conjunction with capitalistic intentions have made the realization of a world of total automated production inevitable; so long as we stay the course.
So, what’s the choice with which we are faced? Truthfully, it is a set of choices with the first (do we adapt?) opening the path to the next (how?). It may be too simplistic to suggest a purely binary set of options, but the reality is that it will ultimately come down to two possible paths forward. On the one side, we – the people – can stand up and demand that this trend be restrained. We can rise in total opposition to the automation of production and insist on a permanent preservation of the role played by human labor. This approach is not impossible and it can be accompanied by a partial automation wherein machines continue to act as a complementary piece of the production pie.
On the other side, we accept the inevitability of total automation. This seems out of whack, for sure, especially when many of us – myself included – actually enjoy working. However, if we are able to fulfill this goal of removing the obligation of humanity to toil for the things we need then the only thing left for us to figure out is the satisfaction of those needs via an equitable system of distribution. In essence, getting out of the way of automation and letting it take our place requires that we adopt a “universal income”.
None of these options are possible or permissible whilst preserving laissez-faire capitalism (which doesn’t exist right now, anyway…but I digress), but maintaining our present course wherein profit is the only thing which matters to the economy’s chief benefactors will certainly bring about the collapse of the entire system. This is because automation – which, again, is currently being promoted for the purpose of creating an easy profit – is depleting the consumer base. With the present trend, the working class (including the so-called “Middle Class”) is set to lose all economic clout over time all across the globe. Not even the laborers in the Third World – which are exploited by First World multinational corporations for their inhumanely cheap cost – will be safe in the long-term. Honestly, the trend will not even have a chance to replace humanity’s poorest workers if we don’t adjust soon because a failure to adapt collectively in the world’s wealthiest nations will result in a monstrous crash.
How can I say that? Well, think about it: the United States and the rest of the Industrialized World are the leading consumers of goods produced on this planet by our global economy. Eventually, if all working class jobs in the advanced parts of the world are automated then the ability for the wealthy nations to consume the cheap products from the exploited nations will be extinguished. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that would mean for the economy.
Between the aforementioned choices, the most sustainable is the adoption of a universal income. Reason being, that while social democracy can maintain a pseudo-free market wherein partial automation exists alongside a workforce with living wages, this will prove to be unstable over time unless no individual is permitted to amass the economic power and political influence necessary to undo or circumvent the reforms. Basically, the only way to ensure that the trend doesn’t resume towards consolidated economic and political power is to decentralize economic (and political) decision-making from any one person or faction and to spread that authority democratically to the entire community.
A universal income is a utopian fantasy. Let’s just say that without hesitation. Yet, not every fantasy is unattainable or should be dismissed. Liberating humanity from the necessity of labor is a possibility, but that objective is not the driving force behind the present push for automation. Instead, the oligarchs of the world are using automation as a “nuclear option” to threaten workers organizing for better treatment, benefits, and pay. The corporate executives like to dangle this possibility of replacing workers with a machine to remind us that we should be grateful to even have a job. It is an attempt to silence dissent across the board and to influence unquestioned obedience to the regular order.
They don’t want us to realize that our fates are one and that automation without societal adaptation is not possible lest we are willing to descend into total chaos. Of course, the smarter ones among them with the ability to think long term realize the unsustainable nature of the future the oligarch class envisions. In the twisted imagination of those serving the top 1%, the future consists of a third additional option to what I listed above: where the working class relinquishes all claim to economic and political power, works as long and for as little as we are told, and consumes whatever crap we are told to consume.
Realistically, this horrid nightmare view of the world can not survive because humanity – like all animals – can not be easily restrained. Force naturally produces rebellion and struggle is the feeding ground of desperate actions. The world where profit of the few predominates – the reality in which we live now – is a world devoid of hope. To automate for the purpose of controlling the masses and accumulating wealth is a crime against humanity. If we are to automate, then it should be to enable all of us to realize our full potential as a species.
The choice before us is not one between accepting and rejecting automation, because that is coming whether we like it or not. Our obligation is to choose between adapting and ignoring the need to do so. If we elect to adapt, then a second set of choices on how we should adapt – as enumerated earlier – will be placed at our feet. If we say that we would rather ignore the responsibility to adapt then we will be ill-prepared for the economic turmoil that our futile resistance will precipitate.
Accepting impending changes empowers us to get ahead of it and to navigate such in a productive way. Dismissing what we need to do plays into the hands of divisive figures ready and willing to use our fears so as to create wedges and weaken our collective resolve for justice. Before you roll your eyes and walk away from this plea for action, ponder something for a second: there is not a single job – especially where intensive labor is required – which can not conceivably be replaced by a machine. Depending on when and where you were born, it is probable that you will live to see a time when most of the people working today will see their jobs become obsolete.
For the time being, automation has its limits. The economic laws of supply and demand look as though they insulate the system from an overload of machines replacing consumers. Yet, the corporate world – with its extreme emphasis on statistics and profit margins irrespective of the living, breathing people involved – is constantly contemplating a means to boost those positive numbers with as little investment as possible. In the big picture, it appears as though the need to maintain a strong base for consumption will protect us, but our economy operates on a company by company basis with each boardroom making decisions which seemingly work out best for their bottom line.
Turning our collective backs on the reality that automation is coming means giving the power to determine the terms of its arrival to the few looking to utilize it for their enrichment. If we act together and accept the inevitable, then we can begin to plan how we adapt and collectively benefit from it. Otherwise, the only benefits from this will be reaped by the few and it won’t last. Alas, this choice is fast approaching.
The great age of automation looms on the horizon and we can either ride this wave together or drown in its undertow.