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The division of labour in the techno-populist age

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On his way to his second inauguration on March 4th, 1905, the 26th president of the United States Teddy Roosevelt travelled to the Capitol by horse carriage. His oath was then filmed with a black-and-white camera clocking eighteen frames a second, without sound synchronization. While car factories were starting production in the Midwest, the horse carriage was still by far the most common mode of transportation. Only a few decades later, America’s presidents began travelling by plane; by 1968, the Russian Tupolev-144 and the Franco-British Concorde would take civilians on commercial flights surpassing the speed of sound. In half a century, humanity went from 15 to more than 1300 miles an hour. Over the past decades, however, supersonic plane travel has been abandoned; while flights became accessible to mass consumers, technically, all progress has stagnated. “We were promised flying cars” tech baron Peter Thiel exclaimed, “and all we got was 140 characters.” “The future is not what is used to be”, as Robert Graves already noted in 1937.

What happened? As Aaron Benanav convincingly argues in his Automation and the Future of Work, innovation has been decelerating rather than accelerating for the last forty years. Recent technological advances have been concentrated in very specific areas of human life – enclosed, more or less, on our smartphone screens – and have failed to ripple through the entire production process, driving breakthroughs in adjacent fields. Silicon Valley, far from being populated by figures such as “Doc” from Back to the Future, is filled instead, as Benanav points out, with engineers spending time “studying slot machines to figure out how to get people addicted to their website.” After the disruptive mania for the app, the horizon for capitalist novelty has shrunk dramatically. While our bookshelves bulge with apocalyptic visions of a perfectly jobless future, our social reality is, in fact, more prosaic. Inequality, deindustrialization, persistent unemployment and decreasing job opportunities, Benanav shows, “(have) taken place as the automation theorists expect, but not for the reasons they offer.” Instead, what they “describe as the result of rising technological dynamism” is the consequence of a secular stagnation, “following on decades of manufacturing overcapacity and underinvestment.” By presenting a dynamic capitalism on the brink of full automation, ‘automation discourse’ simply gentrifies the death of the future itself.

The ‘Techno-populist’ Case for Basic Income

Wading through the latest waves of ‘automation discourse’ outlined in Automation and the Future of Work leaves us with one lasting impression: we have been here before. The successive ‘automation panics’ Benanav highlights, and their concurrent basic income waves, have become near-cyclical features of the post-war political order, with the 1960s, the early 1990s, and the 2010s as the most energetic episodes. More than rational misrecognitions of a stagnant economy, however, these panics also serve a disciplinary function. Coming from a capitalist class that has given up its role as an agent of growth, predictions of mass redundancy indirectly convey one message to an overworked workforce: we can replace you any minute.

Basic income advocacy on both left and right has an uneasy relationship to these panics. As Benanav notes, there exists “an inner affinity between technological determinism, which is the core of the automation discourse, and its recourse to technocratic solutions” in that “both positions elide difficult social and political questions by transforming them into putatively objective facts.” The technocratic appeal of UBI thus goes beyond a misrecognition of our economy’s labour glut. Instead, it taps into deeper institutional dynamics at the heart of contemporary capitalism, which see individuals moving out of civil society while states increasingly step down from their interventionist role. More than a technical fad, the popularity of the UBI should thus be cast within a specifically new welfare regime which has solidified in the neoliberal era, greatly boosting the reputation of cash transfers as an ideal, off-the-shelf form of social policy. As critics have noted, UBI proposals have always had an intrinsically bipartisan appeal: both technocrats such as Mark Zuckerberg to populists à la Beppe Grillo have come out as recent cheerleaders for cash.

This new policy regime can reasonably be typified as ‘techno-populist’, to use the term coined by Chris Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi. Technocrats and populists share an opposition to the transactional politics of the post-war period, preferring to bar the interference of intermediate bodies out of government. “We need to define a new social contract for our generation” and “to explore ideas such as the universal allowance,” Mark Zuckerberg explained in 2017. This exploration extended to redrawing the social in accordance with “the conservative principles of a restricted government, rather than progressive ideas of an expanded social safety net.”. In the Zuckerbergian worldview, citizens will soon be able to receive monetary ‘dividends’ directly on their phones via ApplePay, Twitter, Facebook or Weibo (allowing Chinese beggars, for instance, to use QR-code to receive funds directly on their smartphones) and the digitalization of our public sphere would be complete. Facebook’s platforms also go beyond the ‘thickly’ mediated relationship that existed between traditional media and institutions in the twentieth century – including parties – and allow for a less vertical and more direct interaction with their consumers, opening up space for a “welfare state 2.0”, as some UBI-proponents aptly call it.

Together with the decline of corporatist bargaining practices and the rise of political PR, a new form of ‘disembedded’ welfare thus became attractive to policy makers. Its logic was intuitive. Instead of tracking concrete needs across society through collective bargaining, politicians could simply respond to them in the abstract by shooting liquidity downwards. As an ‘empty universal’ (Hegel), money required little mediation of citizens and states and fewer bureaucratic intermediaries. The results are all around us today: rather than decommodifying their economies, global states have increasingly turned themselves into the exclusive dispensers of liquidity – exemplified by the massive ‘Quantitative Easing’ operations set up after 2008. UBI-proponents such as Philippe Van Parijs and Jim O’Neill are already selling basic income as “QE for the people.” The fact that individuals have increasingly deserted the associations that structured mass politics in the twentieth century – associations that could also coerce states into a more redistributive mode – can only work as a stimulant for a further ‘monetization’ of the social wage. In our liquid democracy, UBI is the flavor of the future.

Politicizing the Global Division of Labor

Automation and the Future of Work does not trade in this ‘disembedded’ welfare. Against the “technical fix” of basic income, Benanav instead reopens one of the most important questions of the old labor movement: politicizing “the framework we use to allocate people to production.” What tasks must we undertake in a “post-scarcity world” without the robots? Starting from the assumption “that full automation will be achieved”, automation theorists conveniently put aside the question of the post-capitalist division of labour. Under capitalism the price system is the crucial tool to allocate these tasks, shaping both the national and international division of labour. As Larry Summers famously said in his infamous “toxic waste memo” as chief economist at the World Bank in 1996, “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable.” Here, the price system, and the price system alone, is invested with legitimacy to determine what work should be remunerated and where it should be done.

The very birth pangs of the modern proletariat in England testify to the centrality of this question. Luddite riots and journeymen's destruction of shearing frames, for example, was part of a more general opposition to the degradation of the quality of their work – a struggle to collectively define what work should be, rather than a mere attempt at job-saving. What Luddites desired, Kevin Binfield argued, were machines “to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages.” And when French philosopher Simone Weil took on a job in a French automobile factory in the mid-1930s, she immediately perceived that Taylorism did not simply mean that “workers suffered from a lack of pay”, but also from a lack of control both within and outside the workplace.

Such a lack is only scantly answered by the mantra of “free money”, as Benanav notes. Rather, contesting the price system as society’s ordering principle was a far more subversive move. William Beveridge’s 1944 Full Employment in a Free Society, for instance, already noted that a mere increase of purchasing power would not solve the problem of unemployment. Nor would it give Britons the division of labor required to abolish their “Five Giants.” “Money spent on drink,” Beveridge noted, “does not give employment to the miner, but to the brewer; money spent on milk does not help to solve the problem of the unemployed engineer. It may be said that consumer’s demand should be supreme, and that, if the consumer ordains, the miner should become a brewer and the engineer a dairy farmer.” Yet a commitment to a “post-scarcity” society implied a duty to collectively define the types of jobs society needed, including the categories of needs these would address. “Whether we can do this”, he added, “depends upon the degree to which social conscience becomes the driving force in our national life.” In the place of a sublime price system, Beveridge’s “social conscience” argued for the empowerment of a democratically controlled state as collective decision-maker.

Social and Individual Needs

Benanav offers us a similarly spirited defense of Beveridge’s ‘social conscience’ in the closing chapters of his book. Automation and the Future of Work conceives this through a notion of “voluntary association.” On his view, decentralized market exchanges would be replaced with a regime of general cooperation. Benanav cites existing associations and groupings as possible sources of inspiration for this regime. Yet it is precisely this associationist landscape, made up of institutions that could politicize and articulate concrete needs, that has experienced an uninterrupted decay in the last thirty years – also the period in which Benanav’s ‘automation discourse’ took off in full force. In this sense, dispelling comfortable myths about an impending ‘automation apocalypse’ might just be a first step. More importantly, our increasingly jobless capitalism is not only incapable of automation, but also rests on a deeply atrophied civil society in which the institutions that could articulate needs beyond pure PR messaging appear ever feebler and mute.

The figure of Otto Neurath celebrated by Benanav in Automation and the Future of Work offers a telling example of this shift. Left-wing positivist in the German Revolution, municipal bureaucrat in Red Vienna, inter-war planning guru: there are many colors in which to portray the man who ultimately became Hayek’s nemesis. Growing up in a post-World War I period, Neurath was also confident that European capitalism was already busy socializing itself. Not only in joint-stock companies and large corporations with their planning bureaus, but also in unions, workers’ councils, and socialist mass parties, which provided the possible planning units for a socialist republic.

We face a far less ‘organized’ capitalism today – at least from below. Mass parties, councils, and unions no longer serve as the mediators between individuals and states, partly driven by capital’s desire to wreck left-wing civil society as a clamp on profits in the 1970s. As a consequence, states feel less pressured to cater for their population’s concrete needs. Where they still practice welfare provision, they do so in the abstract: sending over lump sums of money to anonymous recipients, like a cybernetic machine spewing out signs. It is hard to see anything prefiguratively communist in this situation. As Benanav’s book shows, no technological revolution is around the corner; there will be no robot ex machina. More than a technological constraint, however, our stagnant capitalism has also forced a deeply disorganized society on us; a pathology only worsened by the digital age, with its pods and sheltering-in-place. Basic income enthusiasm here risks becoming but the organic expression of a world in which collective needs are no longer up for deliberation and individuals needs can be expressed solely through the price system.

It is indeed comforting to believe that monthly checks could save us from chronic under-employment on a burning planet. If anything, the COVID crisis has also thrown this mode of welfare provision into sharp relief. What better argument for state planning than a global pandemic exposing mask, ventilator, and care bed shortages? Rather than reviving Beveridge’s ‘welfare-warfare’ state, however, COVID seems to have simply furthered the rise of what Peter Sloman termed the ‘transfer state’ – an arbiter presiding over a deeply unequal economic game, in which it refuses to become a player. Yet no aggregation of our individual choices will ever be able to ‘spontaneously’ provide us with modernized nursing homes, caregivers to expand home care, or investments required for an ecological transition. In the end, the calculations of the sovereign consumer are simply no match for a collective deliberation on needs.

It is this intimidating impossibility – so long neglected in the annals of the twenty-first century left – which Benanav’s book finally fixes our eyes on.

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Anton Jäger is is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge and Université Libre de Bruxelles, working on the history of populism in the United States. Together with Daniel Zamora, he is currently working on an intellectual history of basic income.

Daniel Zamora is a sociologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, working on inequality, basic income, and neoliberalism. 

This article is part of the November Verso Roundtable on Automation and the Future of Work. You can find the rest of the series here


Automation and the Future of Work by Aaron Benanav is one of our November Book Club reads: a carefully curated selection of books that we think are essential and necessary reading. All our Book Club memberships are 50% off for the first 3 months. Find out more here.

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