Technological unemployment isn’t the point

I.

At the moment there’s a huge debate over whether or not advancing robotics and artificial intelligence is likely to lead to ongoing technological unemployment- a permanent increase in unemployment due to automation.

For the most part though, I think this discussion over technological unemployment elides the scarier prospect- technological marginalisation. By technological marginalisation I mean a process in which human workers are necessary for fewer and fewer of the critical tasks that elites need for society to run – agriculture, construction, health, defence, electricity generation, transport and so on. To get a handle on the sort of tasks we’re talking about here, think of the kinds of functions you really wouldn’t want to stop working during a social crisis- the kind of roles civil planners worry about.. Under these conditions, the total political and economic eclipse of the working class is a real danger.

Technological marginalisation can happen even in the absence of technological unemployment, if jobs critical to keeping things running are replaced with dispensable luxury positions, or even if the critical jobs could be replaced by robots, but are not for contingent reasons, overall employment can remain constant while the number of truly indispensable workers falls.

As a political realist and a materialist, it’s my belief that the reason non-elites in rich countries usually do pretty well for themselves is because they have bargaining power. They have bargaining power in large part because they run critical infrastructure- they are nurses, builders, engineers and train drivers drivers. The sheer interdependence of everyone on everyone, and the way that shares the power around, sustains the limited political, civil and economic rights we have.

Perhaps the scariest single case of automation here is the automation of military forces. While it is strange for a leftie like me to think of the military as a democratic bulwark, a volunteer army made up largely of the working class is surely safer for democracy than a military made up of countless drones and a small cadre of elite humans.

II.

The only option is to act quickly to create, and lock in, authentic worker’s democracy while we still have the power to do so.

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