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26 April 2017
Looks like robots are going to replace humans at work in the not too remote future. In some cases, they have done so already. In some retail banks in Japan a client is greeted by a robot the minute he crosses the threshold. But it is not just jobs in banking, hi-tech, pharmaceuticals, precision engineering and mass production that robots will take, as many people seem to imagine. According to futurologists, mundane tasks such as house cleaning or cooking will soon be done by robots. The same goes for social care and even medical diagnosis and the treatment of disease. According to a recent UK study, the full impact of this new wave of automation is expected to be felt by as early as 2030.
[The word “robot” (from the Czech word robota meaning drudgery or hard work) is the name given to the mechanical creatures in the 1920 play R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots”) by the Czech author Karel Čapek (1890-1938). Ominously, the robots revolt against their masters.]
Two recent letters from readers to London’s Guardian newspaper highlight the likely economic repercussions.
Yesterday (25 April 2017), referring to an article published in the paper on 15 April, Dr Derek Rowntree of Banbury in Oxfordshire wrote: S0, “Rise of robots puts one-third of UK jobs at risk, warns thinktank”. At what point in this progress towards robots taking over everyone’s job and leaving them without income is someone going to notice that demand is falling off so precipitously for the goods and services that the robots have been producing (because not enough people can afford them) that the robots are becoming redundant? And what then?
This was followed by a letter from John Richards of Oxford in today’s Guardian (26 April 2017): Walter Reuther, the US union leader after the war, was shown around a Ford plant in Cleveland in 1954. A Ford official pointed to some automated machines and asked Reuther: “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?” Reuther replied: “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”
The advantages of robots over human workers to our economic overlords are so obvious as hardly to need mentioning: no pay or pensions, no holidays or sick leave, no tea-breaks, no time-off to go to the loo, etc. To a neoliberal ideologist – or even an opportunistic money-grubbing thick-as-two-planks businessman – human workers have always been a troublesome but necessary fly in their ointment. Getting rid of them completely would be free-market nirvana. Or what 19 C Liberals called “Progress”. Nothing – least of all human beings – must stand in the way of “Progress”.
However, in theory at least, there is no divine law stipulating that the mass robotisation of work must necessarily take place. Robots will not take over the jobs of human beings unless those in power allow them to do so. However, we live in a world where those in positions of political power (governments) act as servants to the global captains of industry and finance and ignore the wishes and interests of the mass of the people – including, in so-called “democracies”, those who have elected them. Thus, until the great unwashed come together and succeed in getting rid of the political elite that faithfully translates into practice the instructions given to them by the business mafia, there is no likelihood that our economies will be run in the interests of the people. Unfortunately, there is fat chance that the populations of the world, cowed and supine after centuries of oppression, will rise up and topple their slave-masters any time soon.
It is p0ssible, of course, that a few brave souls will follow the example of the Luddites who took direct action to impede the introduction of new technology in Britain in the early nineteenth century. These were bands of English workers, active between 1811 and 1816 during the Industrial Revolution, who destroyed mechanized looms in cotton and woollen mills, which they believed were threatening their jobs. They are said to have been named after a militant called Ned Ludd. However, the fate of the dissidents should perhaps give pause for thought to latter-day would-be Luddites. After a mass trial in York in 1813, many Luddites were hanged or transported as convicts to Australia. [Hanging was quite common in those days, even for minor offences, but sending those found guilty to Australia? Isn’t there a law against “cruel and unusual punishments” ?]
The authorities today are likely to take an equally dim view of such dissidence. The deployment of massed police phalanxes by the vicious anti-unionist Tory government of Margaret Thatcher to violently suppress the Great Coal Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 is a cautionary omen.
Another less incendiary reaction to the perhaps unstoppable march of the robots could be the introduction of a universal basic income.
This is the start of an article on the subject in Wikipedia (Basic Income):
A basic income (also called basic income guarantee, citizen’s income, unconditional basic income, universal basic income, or universal demogrant) is a form of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, in addition to any income received from elsewhere.
An unconditional income transfer of less than the poverty line is sometimes referred to as a partial basic income.
Basic income systems that are financed by the profits of publicly owned enterprises (often called social dividend and also known as citizen’s dividend) are major components in many proposed models of market socialism. Basic income schemes have also been promoted within the context of capitalist systems, where they would be financed through various forms of taxation.
Similar proposals for “capital grants provided at the age of majority” date to Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice” of 1795, where it is paired with asset-based egalitarianism.
The phrase “social dividend” was commonly used as a synonym for basic income in the English-speaking world before 1986, after which the phrase “basic income” gained widespread currency. Prominent advocates of the concept include Rutger Bregman, André Gorz, Ailsa McKay, Guy Standing, Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, Philippe Van Parijs and Milton Friedman.
Pilot basic income programmes have been tried in the USA, Canada, Namibia, Brazil, India, the Netherlands and Finland. In the Finnish trial, a two-year basic income experiment that started in January 2017, 2 000 unemployed Finns are receiving, unconditionally, a fixed sum of money each month. The income replaces their existing social benefits and will be paid even if they find work.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
- Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)
- Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)
- The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)
- Capitalism in practice (4 July 2012)
- Ladder (21 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (1) (6 June 2012)
- A tale of two cities (2) (7 June 2012)
- Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)
Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.