On Future Automation

First, it was Blue Collar workers whose occupations were susceptible to outsourcing and the first waves of manufacturing automation, just as they were (and are) susceptible to high levels of illegal immigration. But these Blue Collar workers were (and still are) predominately non-college-educated whites, so no one really cared about them. (Trump has put this gap on clear display.) This was followed by the rampant abuse of the H1-B visa program, which is essentially the flip side of the illegal immigration coin, only this time white collar workers the ones being affected. Again, because they are also predominately white, no one cares.

Now, however, in addition to the above dynamics, we have a qualitatively new degree of automation taking place which will affect both blue collar and white collar workers to a disruptive degree we have never experienced before. Things like driver-less cars are on the horizon, not as a pipe dream but as all-but-certain reality within 20 years. Automated delivery trucks will have an efficiency that no human can match; automated trucks don’t need to take bathroom breaks or lunch breaks, and they don’t need 8 hours of sleep. Think of how many jobs this alone will eliminate.

With the prospects of driver-less cars and all sorts of functional A.I programs designed to do cognitive white collar tasks and routines formerly reserved for office workers, the next generations will see an ever increasing array of job categories literally disappear from under their feet, due to automation. We can expect this next stage of advanced capitalism to see an increased bifurcation and stratification between the super rich and… well… everyone else. The dynamics that James Burnham outlined 70 years ago, in his writings on the ‘managerial state’, will sharpen and metastasize into something else, the details of which we can only guess at.

Will the worldwide resurgence of populisms we are currently witnessing only sharpen and reach more heightened levels of urgency, accompanied by social unrest? Will they take an Alt-Right turn or an Alt-Left turn? Or both? Or will such urgencies be satiated and counteracted by the spread of opiate-addled anomie as an equalizing ‘social force’?

What will become of the great unwashed masses, the bulk of our population that is currently the ‘middle class’? Will calls for a guaranteed basic income gain favor, even among the nationalist right? Through a mechanism like this, will everyone become, essentially, a ‘government employee’, each such employee being paid to do nothing?

In Aeon, James Livingston, professor of history at Rutgers University, has a piece titled “F*ck Work”. He comes at the dynamic from what is fundamentally a Marxist perspective:

[T]he Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerisation within 20 years. They’re elaborating on conclusions reached by two MIT economists in the book Race Against the Machine (2011). Meanwhile, the Silicon Valley types who give TED talks have started speaking of ‘surplus humans’ as a result of the same process – cybernated production. Rise of the Robots, a new book that cites these very sources, is social science, not science fiction.

The cumulative effect of years and years of a mutually beneficial relationship between government power brokers and corporations has been to essentially mute, at the institutional level, any real outrage at the widespread ‘moral hazard’ accompanying the longstanding tradition of lobbyists and bureaucrats creating and feeding corporate variations of the ‘transfer payments’ concept:

When I see, for example, that you’re making millions by laundering drug-cartel money (HSBC), or pushing bad paper on mutual fund managers (AIG, Bear Stearns, Morgan Stanley, Citibank), or preying on low-income borrowers (Bank of America), or buying votes in Congress (all of the above) – just business as usual on Wall Street – while I’m barely making ends meet from the earnings of my full-time job, I realise that my participation in the labour market is irrational. I know that building my character through work is stupid because crime pays. I might as well become a gangster like you.

One thing the recent Trump victory has arguably demonstrated is that a wide swathe of the conservative electorate has thrown overboard the purist, libertarian, ‘free market’ philosophy, the principles of which, when guiding one’s actions and politics, are hopelessly idealistic. So what comes next?

Certainly this crisis makes us ask: what comes after work? What would you do without your job as the external discipline that organises your waking life – as the social imperative that gets you up and on your way to the factory, the office, the store, the warehouse, the restaurant, wherever you work and, no matter how much you hate it, keeps you coming back? What would you do if you didn’t have to work to receive an income?

And what would society and civilisation be like if we didn’t have to ‘earn’ a living – if leisure was not our choice but our lot? Would we hang out at the local Starbucks, laptops open? Or volunteer to teach children in less-developed places, such as Mississippi? Or smoke weed and watch reality TV all day?

I’m not proposing a fancy thought experiment here. By now these are practical questions because there aren’t enough jobs. So it’s time we asked even more practical questions. How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?…

Because work means everything to us inhabitants of modern market societies – regardless of whether it still produces solid character and allocates incomes rationally, and quite apart from the need to make a living. It’s been the medium of most of our thinking about the good life since Plato correlated craftsmanship and the possibility of ideas as such. It’s been our way of defying death, by making and repairing the durable things, the significant things we know will last beyond our allotted time on earth because they teach us, as we make or repair them, that the world beyond us – the world before and after us – has its own reality principles….

Adherence to the principle of productivity therefore threatens public health as well as the planet (actually, these are the same thing). By committing us to what is impossible, it makes for madness. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton said something like this when he explained anomalous mortality rates among white people in the Bible Belt by claiming that they’ve ‘lost the narrative of their lives’ – by suggesting that they’ve lost faith in the American Dream. For them, the work ethic is a death sentence because they can’t live by it.

Writing in VDARE, the always excellent James Kirkpatrick has a piece titled “Automation + Immigration = White Identitarianism: Have Our Rulers Really Thought This Through?

Nearly half the jobs in Idaho will be automated in the next 20 years. The difficult but well-paying jobs in the oil industry are gone forever. Truck drivers will soon be under threat. Even industries like construction may no longer need workers

In China, vast robot factories (right) are being constructed for manufacturing, which have the potential to replace “millions” of workers. [China is building a robot army of model workers, by Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, April 26, 2016] Almost 70 percent of jobs in India are threatened by automation, with an astonishing 77 percent in China slated to go. As the president of the World Bank observed, the traditional path of development “from increasing productivity of agriculture to light manufacturing and then to full-scale industrialization may not be possible for all developing countries”. [Automation threatens 69% jobs in India: World Bank, The Hindu, November 1, 2016]…

A major part of the Trump coalition were factory workers, coal miners and other working class voters worried about their jobs being eliminated or outsourced. When almost everyone becomes a part of that threatened class, populism will increase even more.

The crisis that ensues will not be limited to a crisis of capitalism, but a crisis of democracy. Echoing Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Kirkpatrick writes:

However, the implications go beyond populism. Ultimately, democracy itself will be called into question. A remarkably small number of people will be contributing anything in terms of technological progress or economic growth. In the post-work world, the vast majority of people will simply be consumers, passively absorbing increasingly degraded cultural products which cater to their worst instincts. But because of universal suffrage, these masses will still have the political power to direct more public goods their way, even as the entire System becomes financially unsustainable. A major crisis is all but inevitable.

And adding to the instability: mass immigration. Even if we concede, for the sake of argument, that automation not immigration is the real threat to jobs, adding millions more Third Worlders onto Western infrastructure and social safety networks which are already buckling is practically a guarantee of permanent social conflict. It also increases the amount of competition for those few jobs which will be left.

And because all men are not created equal, class distinctions will also largely be racial and cultural differences and interpreted as such. After all, those liberal arts college graduates the Left loves so much don’t really know how to do anything else [Burn Down the Colleges, by Gregory Hood, Radix, May 20, 2014].

In our secularized age, such alienation-from-work will lead to a deeply ‘identitarian’ turn among the West’s indigenous populations. The human yearning for meaning and purpose is universal, and will find some means of expression. With people no longer obtaining personal pride from their work, they will turn to other areas to obtain personal pride. (For the West’s non-indigenous populations, namely Islamic immigrants, identity will increasingly be found in religious identity and, among the younger generations, more radical religious zealotry.) Kirkpatrick notes:

“Alienation,” as Marx defined it, will be even worse because individuals won’t even be contributing to the production of commodities. Added to this economic alienation: cultural alienation, as Western nations will be filled with an ever-increasing number of economically-useless Third Worlders eager to claim public goods through the ballot box and sharing nothing in common with Europeans.

The only outlet First World people will have left: identitarian movements. They will reclaim their dignity and reassert their identity as human beings by going “back to blood” and seeking meaning through religious, cultural, and ethnic activism

History is about to restart. The end of work, mass immigration, mass unemployment, and the primal need for human recognition are likely to explode in a worldwide Age of Identity. It will confront every Western nation with unprecedented challenges. Preventing the ethnic and cultural conflicts which will rip our civilization apart is the defining issue of the next century.

So, where to Western Man?

In “The Dark Benedict Option”, Rod Dreher points to Adam Tooze’s review of the German economist Wolfgang Streeck’s new book How Will Capitalism End?. Tooze notes a public battle between Streeck, himself a leftist, and the vaunted European leftist intellectual Jurgen Habermas. What we have here is an argument between a more traditional leftist (Habermas) and an ‘Alt Left’ figure (Streeck). Tooze writes:

In one disarming passage [Streeck] describes capitalism as a ‘a non-violent, civilised mode of material self-enrichment through market exchange’. What makes capitalism toxic is its expansiveness, its relentless colonisation of the rest of society. Drawing on Karl Polanyi, Streeck insists that capitalism destroys its own foundations. It undermines the family units on which the reproduction of labour depends; it consumes nature; it commodifies money, which to function has to rest on a foundation of social trust…

It didn’t take long for [Jürgen] Habermas to pick up the gauntlet. In 2013 he accused Streeck of ‘nostalgia’ in favouring a retreat to ‘national fortresses’. Earlier this year Streeck retorted that Habermas favoured a ‘political universalism’ that vainly tried ‘to match the infinite universalistic advance of money and markets’; apparently Habermas regarded ‘the predetermined course of historical evolution [as] normatively desirable and technically necessary at the same time’. Why, Streeck demanded to know, should we fall in with ‘Angela Merkel and her frivolous claim that, “If the euro fails, Europe fails” – identifying a two-thousand-year-old cultural and political landscape of grandiose jointly produced diversity with a trivial utilitarian construction that happens to serve above all the interests of the German export industries’.

Tooze notes that, for Streeck:

We should be bracing ourselves for a prolonged and agonising decomposition of the entire social fabric. It has been said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: Streeck believes we may one day witness the proof of that. Capitalism will end not because it faces serious opposition but because over the course of the coming decades and centuries it can be relied on to consume and destroy its own foundations. We should expect ever intensifying stagnation, inequality, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and the escalating risk of major war, all of this accompanied by a pervasive erosion of social order, generalised social entropy. Indeed, according to Streeck we have at least since the 1970s been living in what he refers to as a ‘post-social society … a society lite’. We cope individually with conditions of increasing uncertainty, while at the macro level both society and economy become increasingly ungovernable. ‘Life in a society of this kind,’ he writes, ‘demands constant improvisation, forcing individuals to substitute strategy for structure, and offers rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age.’

Now, none of the above is new to paleoconservatives, who have been saying essentially this for quite some time. But what is new is that such sentiments are now coming from the Left. Dreher writes:

Notice what’s happening here: Wolfgang Streeck is taking on the Eurocratic postmodern, globalizing left (e.g., Jürgen Habermas) from the left, in defense of the nation. Similarly, we are seeing people emerge on the right taking on the globalizing right from the same standpoint. What is so difficult for many on both sides of the spectrum to understand is that the libertarian market über alles ideology that seeks to obliterate borders, and that cares nothing about the individuals, families, and communities disrupted by the “creative destruction” of capitalism is the same ideology that, applied in the social sphere, seeks to obliterate customs, traditions, and institutions like the family, for the sake of giving maximum liberty (“liberty”) to the atomized individual.

In the years to come, I believe we will see an Alt-Left grow in the West, which will have substantial overlap with the Alt-Right. (A budding example of this is the significant overlap that existed between Sanders and Trump on the issue of trade.) The emergence of an Alt-Left is already happening in certain European countries, most notably France. In the U.S., such a movement can only come about if the Democratic Party overcomes its deeply entrenched Identity Politics quandary.

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