It has been many decades since I have read anything about Karl Marx but a recent Guardian article made me think about his writing again. The article by John Harris was about the failure of British political leadership and suggested, perhaps unfairly in the case of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, that both major parties had lost their way and were not even thinking of the inevitable societal change being caused by new technologies.
The article starts off reviewing a conversation between Barack Obama and Joi Ito who is the director of the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology’s Media Lab. The article then sets out how Obama thinks a universal basic income may become a necessity:
Obama’s contributions are all about an acute, worldly kind of cleverness being tentatively applied to things he probably regrets not having enough time to think about. And when he turns his attention to the mess of stuff usually subsumed under the increasingly cliched heading of “automation”, he gets interesting. “As AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated – the computers are doing a lot of the work,” says Obama. “As a consequence, we have to make some tougher decisions.” One is whether it is time to consider a universal basic income, “a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years”.
Harris then sets out demographic change that may mean that the UK society is less able to achieve radical change which may be required. He also hints at reasons why social media may not be heralding in a new participatory democracy despite our wishes to the contrary.
The electorate is growing older, and politics is clearly being reoriented accordingly. And in any case, Britain – or, rather, England – has long had an ingrained conservatism, there in everything from our eternal fondness for the idea of some lost Arcadian age, to the clarion call of the great English radical William Cobbett, which suits the time of Brexit as well as it fitted the late 18th and early 19th centuries: “We want great alteration, but we want nothing new.” But something more insidious is also going on. Increasingly, the orthodoxies of government and politics are so marginal to the way advanced economies work that if politicians fail to keep up, they simply get pushed aside. Obviously, the corporations concerned are global. The amazing interactions many of them facilitate between people are now direct – with no role for any intermediate organisations, whether they be traditional retailers or the regulatory state.
The result is a kind of anarchy, overseen by unaccountable monarchs: we engage with each other via eBay, Facebook and the rest, while the turbo-philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates superficially fills the moral vacuum that would once have pointed to oversight and regulation by the state.
He then sets out starkly the level of change that is occurring and why urgent radical decisions are needed now.
I wonder whether May, Corbyn and others – including, it has to be said, most of the media – grasp that the realities of what Obama talks about are already here. When it comes to automation, do they understand the incredible symbolism of the new Rolls-Royce factory near Rotherham, which covers 150,000 square feet and produces some parts for jet engines in a quarter of the time the processes used to take, but needs a mere 150 people on site?
Do they get the bracing view of the future contained in the same company’s claim about a plant in Tyne and Wear, where the machines run for “between 12 and 45 hours without any [human] intervention, compared to every half-hour before”?
With every turn of those machines and each bleep of a self-service checkout, we get nearer the future in which the Bank of England’s chief economist has said that technology might take 15 million jobs. If that sounds too abstract, try the projections of the Israeli sage Yuval Noah Harari: “Billions of people are likely to have no military or economic function. Providing food and shelter should be possible but how to give meaning to their lives will be the huge political question.”
The article feeds neatly into Labour’s future of work project and shows why the work is so important.
So what did Karl Marx think about technology? He was not against technology per se, he foresaw a future where everyone would own the means of production and share in the wealth generated so any machine that lessened the need for work was a good thing. But concentrating the advantages of technology in the hands of the few he thought was retrograde and a continuation of the problem that pure capitalism poses.
Karl Marx, from a rather different perspective, also argued that technological unemployment was a serious problem in the short run, in the broader context of the immiseration of workers under a capitalist system. But for Marx as well, technological improvement was part of a social and political process that would lead eventually to widespread prosperity. (Of course, the Marxist vision of progress also eventually required a wholesale over- throw of the existing capitalist economic system.)
Before anyone writes me off as a card carrying member of the Communist Party can they say how providing universal basic income is so different to the state owning a larger part of the economy. It is possible that we can achieve one by increasing taxation but multinational corporations have proved themselves to be very adept at avoiding paying their fair share.
Maybe Marx was right after all.