Automation & The Threat to the Left

By Graham Davidson.

My previous article for The International Viewpoint on the rise of populism and the decline of the centre-left suggested that the earnings gap between graduates and non-graduates needed to close. However, in as little as 20 years from now, this may come to be seen as a woefully short-sighted strategy. There may be little to no employment for non-graduates (and indeed far less for graduates as well) at all.

It is massively unlikely that Andrew Yang will win the U.S. Democratic nomination, or even gain any widespread media attention. This is a pity. Despite polling at barely 1%, Yang appears to be the only 2020 Presidential Democratic candidate interested in addressing what could be the biggest change to hit western society since the industrial revolution — that of automation. Quite simply, large-scale automation will result in unprecedented levels of unemployment. While a limited number of new jobs will emerge, these will largely be highly skilled (and therefore out of reach of the majority of those losing their original jobs) and far too few in number to replace those positions which will disappear. Furthermore, there may be knock-on effects regarding social status and politics.

Yang’s 2018 book The War on Normal People warns of the potential for a staggering percentage of the current blue-collar and white-collar workforce to be made redundant in the next 5-20 years through automation. Convincingly making the case for the complete mechanisation of manual and modestly paid work, Yang argues that fast food service, factory work, and retail sales may soon become almost entirely human-free. Driving jobs will also all but disappear and take with them many attendant trades. One in 12 people in the U.S. State of Nebraska either drives a truck or works in the motel or truck-stop trade associated with the industry. According to Yang, nearly all of these jobs will be eliminated within 10-15 years.

Notably, graduate jobs are not exempt from this development. Accountancy and some aspects of medicine may fall to automation. Even law-related jobs may not be safe. A 2016 Deloitte report estimated that 39% of legal sector jobs were ripe for automation and warned the industry to expect “profound changes” in the sector within a decade. Yang concludes that even for the professional classes, “if you think your job is safe from computers, you’ll probably be wrong eventually.” To be brutal, it is entirely plausible that this very university is training students up for jobs that may not exist in 10-15 years.

So, what can be done? Universal Basic Income (UBI) seems to be the obvious solution and will certainly ameliorate the most pressing problem of keeping the unemployed out of poverty. However, UBI will do nothing to solve the problem of status. While many people currently don’t like their jobs, they unquestionably bring a sense of self-worth. McJobs provide a great example of the type of repetitive work that few people will mourn the loss of and is prime for automation to take over. However, even if you are apathetic to the loss itself, it is not contradictory to also show concern about the social implications of such a loss given even this mind-numbing work still provides a degree of status and self-esteem. Spending money you’ve earned undeniably feels better than spending money that’s been given to you. In addition, while robots and drones may be far more efficient than humans at carrying out service tasks, they don’t give you eye-contact. In an increasingly isolated, atomised world, it is hard to see further reducing human interaction as a positive development.

Equally pressing is the issue of how mass unemployment — or what we may come to call ‘post-employment’ — will affect politics. Recent indicators are not encouraging. Areas of deprivation and trauma have already begun voting for populists. Post-industrial areas of northern England and the Midlands voted Leave and will vote for the Brexit Party in the future. In the U.S., Trump won what has grimly been termed the ‘oxy vote’ — areas of the Rust Belt hit hardest by opiate addiction. Middle Eastern countries experiencing political upheaval commonly contain large groups of unemployed men. Post-employment may well accelerate what may be euphemistically termed ‘radical’ politics.

Moreover, there is compelling evidence that the right understands the issue of status far more than the left. Donald Trump appealed directly to current and former industrial workers in non-coastal states, promising to not only restore jobs but dignity and honour. Sociologist Max Weber drew a key distinction between class and status, terming status as “a particular way of life and a specific claim to social respect.” It is those who lost a claim to social respect through the decline of once revered jobs and industries that Trump effectively targeted. While some blue-collar industries still exist, they no longer offer the status and importance to the community and nation they once did. Promises to bring large-scale industrial employment back to the Midwest may have been a miserable, cynical lie. However, it showed Trump knew his target audience (many of them former Obama voters), and, more importantly, how to press their buttons. With automation, this group is set to hugely increase in number. The prospect of several million additional unemployed men who subsequently lack a sense of purpose or dignity is not a pleasant one for many on the liberal side of politics.

This may be overly pessimistic. Automation and UBI could usher in a new era of art, creativity, and health, as well as a huge reduction in stress-related physical and mental illnesses. However, it may instead lead to purposelessness, growing addiction problems, and extreme politics on steroids. A globally mobile and highly educated elite may have little to fear in terms of threats to their lifestyle, but they may find themselves hugely outnumbered at the ballot box. While the best-case scenario may see post-employment result in increased community participation and social engagement, the worst-case scenario sees several million people being stripped of status and purpose and looking for someone to blame. Unless the left can come up with a way to engage with this group, the future doesn’t look bright for progressive politics.

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