The internet, smartphones, and social media have transformed the way we interact with each other and the world around us. What would happen if these digital technologies moved off the screen and further integrated themselves into the physical world?
Advanced industrial robotics, self-driving cars and trucks, and intelligent cancer-screening machines presage a world of ease, but they also make us uneasy. After all, what would human beings do in a largely automated future? Would we be able to adapt our institutions to realize the dream of human freedom that a new age of intelligent machines might make possible? Or would that dream turn out to be a nightmare?
The new automation discourse asks just these sorts of questions and arrives at a provocative conclusion: mass technological unemployment is coming, and it must be managed by the provision of universal basic income, since large sections of the population will lose access to the wages they need to live. Do the automation theorists have this story right?
The resurgence of automation discourse today responds to a real, global trend: there are too few jobs for too many people. Chronic labor underdemand manifests itself in economic developments such as jobless recoveries, stagnant wages, and rampant job insecurity. It is also visible in the political phenomena that rising inequality catalyzes: populism, plutocracy, and the emergence of a sea-steading digital elite—more focused on escaping in rockets to Mars than on improving the lives of the digital peasantry who will be left behind on a burning planet.
Pointing with one hand to the homeless and jobless masses of Oakland, California, and with the other to the robots staffing the Tesla production plant just a few miles away in Fremont, it is easy to believe that the automation theorists must be right. However, the explanation they offer—that runaway technological change is destroying jobs—is simply false.
The Demand for Labor Is Permanently Depressed
There is a persistent underdemand for labor in the United States and European Union, and even more so in countries such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, yet its cause is almost the opposite of the one identified by the automation theorists. In reality, rates of labor-productivity growth are slowing down, not speeding up. This phenomenon should have increased the demand for labor, except that the productivity slowdown was overshadowed by another trend: in a development analyzed by Marxist economist Robert Brenner under the title of the “long downturn”—and belatedly recognized by mainstream economists as “secular stagnation”—economies have been growing at a progressively slower pace since the early 1970s.
The cause? Decades of global industrial overcapacity killed the manufacturing growth engine, and no alternative to it has been found, least of all in the slow-growing, low-productivity activities that make up the bulk of the service sector. As economic growth decelerates, rates of job creation slow. Slowing growth, not technology-induced job destruction, has depressed the global demand for labor.
If we widen our view from the automation theorists’ focus on shiny new automated factories and ping-pong-playing consumer robots, we can see a world of crumbling infrastructure, deindustrialized cities, harried nurses, and underpaid salespeople, as well as a massive stock of financialized capital with dwindling places to invest itself profitably.
In an effort to revive increasingly stagnant economies, governments have spent almost half a century imposing punishing austerity on their populations, underfunding schools, hospitals, public transportation networks, and welfare programs. At the same time, governments, businesses, and households took on record quantities of debt, encouraged by ultra-low interest rates.
These trends have left the world economy in a dire state as it faces one of its greatest challenges ever: the COVID-19 recession. Dilapidated healthcare systems have been overrun with patients, and schools have closed that were vital sources of basic nutrition for many children, and of much needed daytime child care for parents. Meanwhile, the economy is tanking. In spite of massive monetary and fiscal stimuli, weak economies are unlikely to bounce back quickly from the shock.
With Low Rates of Investment, There Is Little Reason to Fear Automation
It is for this reason that predictions of a coming wave of pandemic-induced automation ring so hollow. Although technological change was not itself the cause of job loss—at least this time around—automation theorists like Martin Ford and Carl Benedikt Frey argue that the spread of the pandemic will hasten the transition to a more automated future. Lost jobs will never return, they say, since cooking, cleaning, recycling, grocery-bagging, and caretaking robots, unlike their human counterparts, can neither catch COVID-19 nor transmit it to others.
Here, automation theorists have mistaken the technical feasibility of widespread automation—itself more of a shaky hypothesis than a proven result—for its economic viability. Undeniably, some firms are investing in advanced robotics in response to COVID-19. Walmart has purchased self-driving, inventory-scanning, and aisle-cleaning robots for its U.S. stores. Expecting online ordering to continue to expand exponentially, some retail shops are testing out robotics-assisted micro-fulfillment centers to help pickers assemble orders more quickly.
However, the use of these technologies will likely be an exception to the rule for the foreseeable future. With little reason to expect demand to rise strongly following a deep recession, few firms will undertake major new investments. Instead, firms will make do with the productive capacities they already possess: achieving cost savings by shedding labor and speeding up the pace of work for the remaining workers. That is precisely what firms did after the last recession.
Too often, commentators simply assume that automation accelerated in the 2010s and base their predictions for the future on this false reckoning of the past. In reality, the demand could not be found to justify such investments. In the United States, the 2010s saw the lowest rates of capital accumulation and productivity growth in the postwar era. COVID-19 will only intensify these trends, leading to another round of jobless recoveries in the 2020s.
Jobs Are Still Disappearing Even Without Automation
Around the world, recessions associated with COVID-19 are leaving legacies of mass unemployment and underemployment from which it will be difficult to recover. The International Labour Organization estimates that in April, May, and June of 2020, 14 percent of work hours were lost worldwide, equivalent to 480 million full-time jobs out of a global labor force of 3.5 billion people.
Long-unfolding transformations in the world of work amplified this pandemic shakeout. Over the past half century, service work has come to account for 70 to 80 percent of employment in high-income countries and 50 percent of employment worldwide. Recessions usually affect services least of all; unlike spending on consumer durables, such as cars and computers, spending on services usually remains buoyant during a downturn. As economist Gabriel Mathy argues, pandemic lockdowns had the opposite effect, hitting services hardest.
As spending on services collapsed, and with it, the incomes of many workers, a decline in consumer demand reverberated through the economy with devastating consequences for workers worldwide. The destruction of work has been particularly bad for women, who are globally overrepresented in activities such as retail trade that the lockdowns affected most. Women are overrepresented among frontline healthcare workers, too, and they have undoubtedly been forced to undertake the majority of the increase in unpaid care work demanded by the pandemic—not only taking care of the sick and the dying, but also minding the more than 1 billion children who have been kept out of school since March.
The transition to a majority service-work world amplified the pandemic’s destructive consequences. It will now slow the pace of recovery. As economist William Baumol explained in the 1960s, services are in large part a stagnant economic sector. Unlike manufacturing during its heyday, services generally do not exhibit dynamic patterns of expansion driven by high rates of labor productivity growth and falling prices. Instead, increases in the demand for services generally depend on spillover effects from productivity-enhancing innovations occurring in other economic sectors. There is a clear link between the global expansion of the stagnant services sector and the worsening stagnation of the wider economy.
After the onset of deindustrialization—which began in the United States and the United Kingdom in the late 1960s and then came to affect much of the rest of the world in the following decades—no other sector has proven an adequate replacement. With the running down of the formerly robust industrial growth engine, the global economy has been left without a driver.
Rising Underemployment Will Make Economic Inequality Worse
Despite the weakening of the global economic-growth engine, workers will still have to find some way to earn wages in the pandemic (and post-pandemic) era. Over time, unemployment will therefore resolve into various forms of underemployment. In other words, workers will find that they have no choice but to take jobs offering lower-than-normal wages or worse-than-normal working conditions. Those who cannot find any work at all will set up shop in the informal sector or else drop out of the labor force entirely.
As was the case following past recessions, the vast majority of the world’s underemployed workers will end up in low-wage service jobs. Services that see persistently low rates of labor-productivity growth and pay low wages have become the premier sites for job creation in stagnant economies. In those jobs, workers’ wages make up a relatively large share of the final price paid by consumers. That makes it possible for service-based firms to raise the demand for their products by holding down workers’ wages relative to whatever meager increases in labor productivity can be achieved in the wider economy. The small-scale family operations that comprise the world’s massive informal labor force use a similar strategy to compete with highly capitalized firms. They compress their own household wages as much as humanly possible.
As underemployment rises, inequality must intensify. Masses of people can find work only as long as the growth of their incomes is suppressed relative to the average. As economists David Autor and Anna Salomons note, “Labor displacement need not imply a decline in employment, hours, or wages,” but can hide itself in the relative immiseration of the working class, as “the wagebill—that is, the product of hours of work and wages per hour—rises less rapidly than does value-added.” Such immiseration has contributed to the 9 percentage-point shift from labor to capital incomes in the G20 countries over the past fifty years. Worldwide, the labor share of income fell by 5 percentage points between 1980 and the mid-2000s, as a growing portion of income growth was captured by wealthy asset holders.
An Economy of Abundance
Life in stagnant economies has come to be defined by intense employment insecurity—all the worse in recession years like 2020—which has been artfully represented in recent science-fiction dystopias like In Time, Children of Men, and Ready Player One, populated by a redundant humanity. Most people are scraping by, earning additional minutes of life one at a time, while the richest asset owners have amassed such large quantities of capital that they are endowed with the monetary equivalent of immortality.
It is precisely for this reason that it is so important to reflect on today’s automation discourse—not only to combat its mistaken explanation for chronic labor underdemand, but also to inspire efforts to resolve the world’s chronic labor problems in a utopian direction.
In a world reeling from a global pandemic, rising inequality, recalcitrant neoliberalism, resurgent ethnonationalism, and climate change, automation theorists have inspired people with a vision of a future in which humanity advances to the next stage in our history—whatever we might take that to mean—and technology helps to free us all to discover and follow our passions. As with many of the utopias of the past, these visions need to be freed from their authors’ technological and technocratic fantasies as to how constructive social change might take place.
In fact, we can achieve the post-scarcity world the automation theorists evoke, even if the automation of production proves impossible. At stake is the question of what achieving an “economy of abundance” actually entails. According to the automation discourse, abundance is a technological threshold that we will one day cross with brilliant new technologies. We should understand abundance differently, not as a technical overcoming but as a social relationship we can put into practice without needing more technological breakthroughs, while remaining within the bounds of ecological sustainability.
To live in a world of abundance means to live in a world where everyone is guaranteed access to housing, food, clothing, sanitation, water, energy, healthcare, education, child and elder care, and means of communication and transportation, without exception. The steadfast material security implied by such a principle is what allows people to ask “What am I going to do with the time of my life?” rather than “How am I going to keep on living?” Instead of waiting around for a technological fix, we can get to the world of abundance by cooperatively taking on the work that remains necessary for our lives and cannot be automated away.
It is more urgent to do so now than at any time in the past. In the midst of the COVID-19 recession—and facing a much larger climate crisis in the years to come—we must inaugurate a post-scarcity world by providing every human being with access to the basic goods and services they need to make a life, regardless of their labor contributions.
The Only Solution Is to Democratize Production
Achieving this world of abundance will require that we radically reorganize production. Today, people have little say in how their work is done. Many show up to work each day only because they would starve if they didn’t. In a world where people’s needs were guaranteed to be met, work would have to be democratized. Sharing out the work to be done, while making allowances for aptitudes and abilities, would lessen the amount of necessary labor demanded of any individual, while ensuring that all had access to ample free time.
W.E.B. Du Bois once estimated that, in the “future industrial democracy,” just “three to six hours” of necessary labor per day “would suffice,” leaving “abundant time for leisure, exercise, study, and avocations.” Instead of making some engage in “menial service” so that others might make art, he said, we would “all be artists and all serve.” This vision of post-scarcity was what “socialism” and “communism” meant before their later identification with Stalinist central planning and breakneck industrialization.
The pathway to the post-scarcity society is currently blocked by a tiny class of ultra-wealthy individuals who monopolize decisions about investment and employment—and have little interest in democratizing the economy. For forty years, this tiny elite has used the threat of disinvestment from an already fragile economy to force political parties and trade unions to capitulate to their demands: for looser business regulations, laxer labor laws, slower-growing wages, and—in the midst of economic crises—private bailouts and public austerity.
Insofar as sections of this wealthy elite, particularly in Silicon Valley, feign support for proposals like universal basic income, or UBI, it is only because UBI does not threaten elite control over the levers of investment and employment. For UBI to serve as a pathway to the post-scarcity economy, the automation theorists’ analysis would need to be correct: today’s low labor demand would have to originate in a rapid automation of production. Were that the case, the main issue society would confront would be one of reorganizing distribution, with rising economic inequality rectified by distributing more and more income as UBI payments.
If instead labor underdemand is the result of global overcapacity and depressed investment, driving down rates of economic growth, then such a distributional struggle would quickly become a zero-sum conflict, blocking progress toward a freer future. Given the opposition of elites who retain the power to throw the economy into chaos by disinvestment, we will have to get to the economy of abundance through social movements and struggles that seek to transform production itself.
Large numbers of people are already fighting the symptoms of a long-term decline in the demand for their labor, including rising inequality, employment insecurity, austerity measures, and police murders of poor and racialized communities. Over the past ten years, waves of strikes and demonstrations have unfolded across six continents: from China and Hong Kong to Iraq and Lebanon, from Argentina and Chile to France and Greece, and from Australia and Indonesia to the United States. Protests erupted again in 2019 and have recently resurged in 2020.
We need to immerse ourselves in the movements born of these struggles, helping to drive them forward toward a better world—in which the infrastructures of capitalist societies are brought under collective control, work is reorganized and redistributed, scarcity is overcome through the free giving of goods and services, and our human capacities are correspondingly enlarged as new vistas of existential security and freedom open up.
Only highly organized movements, cohering both internally and among each other, will be able to complete this historic task, the conquest of production, and to break through to a new synthesis of what it means to be a human being—to live in a world devoid of poverty and billionaires, of stateless refugees and detention camps, and of lives spent in drudgery, which hardly offer a moment to rest, let alone dream.
If such movements fail, maybe the best we will get is a modest UBI—a proposal governments are now testing out as a possible response to the present recession. We should not be fighting for this limited goal, but rather to inaugurate a more sustainable, post-scarcity planet.
Aaron Benanav is a researcher at Humboldt University of Berlin. This article has been adapted from his first book, Automation and the Future of Work, forthcoming from Verso Books in November 2020. He is writing a second book on the global history of unemployment.