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A thought experiment to warm up with. Imagine that Google was an entirely corporeal phenomenon, like the National Library of Scotland. Imagine that there were human staff searching vast underground libraries for information and instantly translating documents for Google’s users. Had Google existed when I was a child, then it could have done so only in this nigh impossible form. It would have needed to employ billions of people in order to be even half as fast as it is today.

Google is feasible today only because it is liberated from the limitations of human labour. The automation that makes most of the knowledge in the world accessible to you on any handheld device will have probably also undercut your wages and reduced your employment prospects. If automation is now eating cancerously through vital tissues, this is hardly a dystopian deviation from the normality of capitalism. Indeed, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels might have been describing it in the Communist Manifesto:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

It is just this imagery, of sobering up and being “at last compelled” to face reality, that is motivating the current campaign for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a uniquely unconditional form of social security in which all citizens or residents receive regular payments from the state. This is in effect a nationalisation of wage provision, with remaining “private” incomes being taxed steeply to support the public wage. 2016 saw a setback for the UBI, with almost 77% of the voters in a Swiss referendum turning down the free money. Supporters of the UBI would no doubt maintain that the Swiss had voted against a specific model rather than the concept in itself. With 2017 came another setback. In February the European Parliament voted against recommending the Commission to “seriously consider” the UBI (328 to 286). The democratic tail could thus not wag the undemocratic dog into barking for the idea.

It is still springtime for the UBI. The lobbyists are as squeakily optimistic as campaigners for Scottish independence were at the same point in their story. No government in the world has ever paid out a fully universal Basic Income, but many countries now have their noses in the policy. Scotland this year joined them, with pilot schemes planned for Glasgow and Fife. UK Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell has commented that the UBI might be an idea “whose time has come.”

Two canonical works in any bibliography of the UBI are Guy Standing’s The Precariat (2011) and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots (2015). Both make a formidable case for the UBI largely by showing what a disaster capitalism will soon be without it. Capitalism may have enriched, or bought off, enough people in the past, with the postwar generation of “Baby Boomers” receiving good wages, free education, cheap houses and big pensions. But the mojo has now faded and our ailing economic system requires a supplement. Standing and Ford both conclude their books by turning to the UBI, which leaps out, just when everything seems hopeless, to save the day.

Standing is a professor of Development Studies at the University of London and a co-founder of the Basic Income Earth Network. The precariat is his great discovery. This is a relatively new social class whose experience of capitalism comprises short-term employment, “zero hour” contracts, low pay, scarce housing, atrocious pension arrangements, and “a pandemic of status frustration.” Although the precariat includes older workers who have taken low-status jobs rather than retiring, it is otherwise as much of a generation as a class. A precarian has, almost by definition, a lower income and social status than their parents. The Precariat is a sequel to the Baby Boomers which is so much darker in tone that it goes under a different title. And this new class can only expand, as today’s jobs become ever more precarious.

Standing assures us that, “Jobs will not disappear. To think otherwise is to accept the ‘lump of labour fallacy’.” Four years on, in Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, and the proportion of precarious jobs is increasing whilst the overall number of jobs remains stuck as an unrising lump. The latest robots are driving cars and writing newspaper articles, sifting through data and marking students’ exam papers. These robots’ computer minds are significantly more developed than their physical bodies, though factory work and driving are amongst the menial tasks that they have decisively mastered. It is nevertheless the middle class’s source of capital – sellable administrative and analytical skills – that is being rapidly frittered away.

Within decades, paid workers look set to become as tiny a minority as the aristocracy is these days. The irony is delicious: in the past, the privileged did no work and now they are left in sole possession of this dwindling resource.

The reader may often agree with both books but retain the niggling instinct that things really aren’t as bad as the two say they are. Both books remain admirably clear and sensible and yet each seems to get slightly tipsy on its own argument.

Standing asserts that it is in the obvious interests of capital to push for precarious jobs, when the costs of hiring and training endless new employees are far from universally low. Perhaps this might slow down his economics? Ford anticipates the riposte that “labour-saving technology in an industry like fast food… may remain relatively stable for long periods” as automation, in pushing down wages, disincentivises further investment in automation. He is still working on the assumption that it is logical to invest in automation, and when has technological development ever been pursued logically? Corporate investment in R&D is typically infuriatingly piecemeal – a context in which electric cars and safer cigarettes have inched towards their full potential over many decades. Google Glass is the latest world-changing technology that now appears to be going nowhere fast.

Standing and Ford are flexible when it comes to the difficult question of democratic or consumer consent. Standing concedes that many precarians are not just “victims” and that they actively seek job insecurity, to keep at bay the boredom that is as common to most jobs as bad coffee. For these choppers and changers, it is not so much precariousness as promiscuity. An upside for Ford is that many of the jobs that the robots are invading are palpably beneath the dignity of human beings. Cleaning toilets and hosing out abattoirs are not privileges that need to be withheld from our future overlords. It is the income, not the labour, that has to be secured.

I confess that, like the New Left Review’s Jan Breman, I struggle to differentiate Standing’s new precariat from the old proletariat:

… the notion that those on temporary and part-time contracts will be forged into a single class—one with interests radically distinct from those of full-time or unionized workers—is so patently untenable that at times Standing himself hardly seems to take it seriously… The idea that manual workers even in the wealthiest capitalist countries enjoyed a life of well-furbished security demonstrates a lamentable ignorance of actual working-class conditions.

Indeed. Having discovered the precariat, Standing finds that he has to nominate himself as their spokesman because, in a vast revolutionary oversight, the post appears to have been left vacant. “The precariat wants this…” and “the precariat demands that…” are encountered often in his prose, and they usually seem to want or demand these things purely because Standing says so. For example he insists that the precariat “wants to see the future secured in an ecological way, with the air clean, pollution in retreat and species revived; the precariat has the most to lose from environmental degradation.” In fact, the poor are normally hit hardest by the high prices that any prioritising of the environment invariably achieves.

Is the precariat significantly different to former manifestations of the working class, or is any distinction between them ultimately cosmetic? Standing argues that globalisation is “generating a new class structure that is far from a simplistic division between capitalists and ‘workers.’” From his analysis, though, it seems that the workers are just being swindled more effectively out of the value of their labour. One might conclude that capitalism has just become a bit more like itself, with the various checks and balances of labourism being kicked away. Why, therefore, cannot the usual combination of unions and social democratic parties tool up to fight back?

Standing initially judges unions to be too small and narrow: “whenever there is a clash between the financial interests of their members and social or ecological issues, they will opt for the former. Progressives must stop expecting unions to become something contrary to their functions.” Despite this, his subsequent descriptions of “worker cooperatives, modernised to allow more flexible involvement” and “guild socialism” resemble slightly-altered versions of the same, albeit with far shallower roots in the history of people-power.

The problem is becoming steadily clearer – it is young people! This inexplicable depoliticised generation, who bloom in “safe spaces” and who are characteristically distressed because political decisions are being no longer contracted out to the EU. Powerful unions are not possible any more, it seems, because the precariat have a weird inability to identify with previous generations of workers. They might be simply uneducated about power politics, but hey, Standing shrugs, you cannot make them interested in wielding the sort of power that unions had once wielded. At one point he is mildly chiding: “They share a vision of life as an unfolding drama of status frustration yet reject the drabness of the labourism that was the lot of their parents’ generation. There is some rethinking to be done.”

The easiest response, he suggests, is to just appeal to a new and shinier sensibility. I can imagine his young readers feeling like atoms who have learned what shape they make up, but this shape is too small and actually wrong. The precariat does not have its own media, literature, and culture. Even within the forums of national languages, the precariat does not exist as an independent imagined community. It typically appears from Standing’s portrayal of them that the precariat are young, trendy, environmentally-attuned, and altogether happier under a less stodgy title than “the proletariat.” With this rebranding, we are left with a term which sounds indistinguishable from all of those other multiplying euphemisms for the low paid (e.g. the gig economy, hard-working families, the squeezed middle, and the just-about-managings).

Ideally, for Standing, the precariat is situated between self-serving organised labour and a “dangerous” undercurrent (his book is subtitled “The New Dangerous Class”). Fairly, Standing recognises that “tensions” about migration “cannot be dismissed as racial prejudice. They reflect abandonment of universalism and social solidarity.” Yet, in writing before the Brexit and Trump votes, he looks to a wilting student culture of street protests and mobilised “grassroots” to represent the disempowered. In one surreal passage, he fancies that the precariat’s “intellectual heroes included Pierre Bourdieu (1998), who articulated precarity, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas… [and so on].” Never has the word “heroes” been so devalued.

Standing proposes that paying out a UBI will help us all to overcome existential angst, the alienation of modernity, and that “danger of feeling a sense of constant engagement but of being isolated amidst a lonely crowd.” So far the masses instead appear to want affordable houses and decent incomes. The stated mission here is to tame rather than lead, to undertake crowd control rather than pump up the people power. Sounding unfortunately like an opponent of Chartism, Standing fears that “the “neo-liberal” agenda” has created “an incipient political monster” – yikes! – that might “come to life.” Far better that these dark urges be toned-down, managed, organised, combed and dressed for church: “There is a need for a new politics of paradise which is mildly utopian and proudly so.”

What do we want? Mildly utopian! When do we want it…?

Standing’s analysis is nonetheless conventionally leftist, in its ambitions for the freedoms and dignity of the majority. Whilst he has a ding-dong with Jan Breman over the exact status of the precariat, and I cannot help feeling offended by his implication that the most organised part of the working class has the least authentic voice, the hugeness and universality of his solution – the UBI – leaves room enough in his book to render these local disputes. There is always an attractive libertarian edge to Standing’s writing – which might be simply common sense – and he is alive to the danger of empowering a controlling state with the UBI. He can see how family and communal ties have been “weakened by the growth of state and enterprise benefits.” He is particularly good when chronicling the humiliations that are inflicted upon benefits claimants. These days it is rare to encounter feisty left-wing libertarians and they should be never taken for granted.

By contrast, Rise of the Robots is conventionally liberal in worrying about whether there will be enough demand left in the economy to keep capitalism going. Those robots aren’t big spenders. In common with Standing, Ford is aware of how momentous his argument is, and therefore, as with Standing’s, it is waged with a persuasive bombardment of statistics and data. Ford needs to be ultra persuasive, because the idea that robots are taking over is a road which has repeatedly led everybody to nowhere. His tactic is an effective one: to maintain that a lot of the takeover has already occurred under the surface; and that its progress can be surprised in the long-term suppression of wages. On corporate profits, he comments that, “the old adage that a rising tide lifts all boats gets pretty tired when you haven’t had a meaningful raise since the 1970s.”

Ford rootles out the fact that, “a colossal, billion-dollar data center built by Apple, Inc., in the town of Maiden, North Carolina, had created only fifty full-time positions.” WhatsApp, when purchased by Facebook in 2014, had “a valuation of a staggering $345 million per employee.” This is so compelling to read because it is an argument conducted by someone who understands capitalism, and appreciates it, but who is being forced to chart just how destructively it is performing. Yet since Ford does not consciously write in the language of the Left, his pitch for the UBI is far cleaner and more businesslike than Standing’s. His attitude remains one of “full speed ahead!,” but he accommodates the prospect of surpluses being stretched to pay off those who have been dislodged from under capitalism’s aegis. He notes that the classic free-marketeer Friederich Hayek had once endorsed a UBI. He even predicts that a UBI will lead to more risk-taking and entrepreneurialism, from youngsters who will still receive an income if their start-ups suddenly stop.

Standing and Ford both place the UBI in contexts that make it look unexpectedly sensible and fair. Standing notes that, “Had one-half of the money spent on bailing out the banks been allocated to economic stabilisation grants, a decent monthly grant could have been provided to every citizen for years.” This would be more convincing if it was a book rather than a sentence, but when considered in light of the economic stagnation of the last few years, the ball remains in the air. Ford gamely contends that, “much of the basic research that enabled progress in the IT sector was funded by taxpayers. In the US, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created and funded the computer network that ultimately evolved into the Internet.” Corporate profits are therefore not the earned rewards of private innovation but the results of public investment, and these people owe us.

So like the French Revolution, the UBI has both a left and a right wing. Superbly, Standing locates a quote from the economist Milton Friedman, a right-wing proponent of a guaranteed income whose neoliberal ideas had once seemed just as untenable: “Our basic function is to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

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