The Future of Work Conference sponsored by the Labour Party last week was a stimulating look at a range of ideas for dealing with the challenges that the current system is preparing for people in the 21st Century.
However, for many speakers there appeared to be a technological determinism that I believe should be resisted. This involves a belief that change is inevitable, the outcome will be widespread loss of jobs and increased insecurity, and all we can do is try and minimise the damage.
While it may be true that 40% of current jobs won't exist in 15 years time, it is most likely there will be others. The danger is that there will be a social and political elite monopolising all the gains while those losing their jobs are forced into low-paid unskilled labour with few rights or protections.
While it is true that there will be rapid technological change over the coming decades, it is also true that politics, social movements and class struggle will be essential elements in what the outcome of that technological change will be.
To take one example, the technology behind Uber can be used to turn workers into slaves bidding their time on the spot market for drivers, or it could be used to empower a cooperative movement of drivers that shared work, guaranteed at least the minimum wage and ensured their legal rights and complied with appropriate health and safety laws. The driverless car, if it proves successful, could also eliminate all taxi driver jobs and create new public transport possibilities.
Technological change, including accompanying social upheavals, have been present for the entire 250-year history of capitalism.
Capitalism is a system of expanded reproduction. It grows in cycles that expand the production of commodities with each cycle. As a system, it has a growth rate of around 2-3% a year. That has also been true for 250 years. The ultimate purchasing power of consumers, “aggregate demand” in the lingo of economists, appears to have laws that limit its growth.
There is a wide-ranging debate over why that may be so. I adhere to an orthodox Marxist view that purchasing power is ultimately determined by the production of the money commodity gold.
This view is defended by the authors of the Critique of Crisis Theory Blog and summarised in this article: “History has shown that the existing global hoard of gold and its rate of increase ultimately governs, through the mechanisms of price, interest rates and monetarily effective demand, the growth of the global capitalist market. These must be taken into account in any analysis of the general crisis of capitalism.” .
That is also why there are business cycles – they are the periodic clashes between the powerful forces to produce commodities without limit and the actual limit of the market.
This Marxist explanation may not be correct. But there must be powerful objective laws operating in the capitalist system of production to limit its growth rate to 2-3 percent given that the system itself, because of competition, is driven to expand production to the absolute limit possible. Pro-capitalist economists of both the Keynesian and Monetarist varieties favoured the removal of "paper" currencies from having any formal relationship to gold. They got their wish in the 1970s. But there has been no escape from the objective limits to growth whatever the monetary policy that may be being followed by a particular government.
That is also fundamentally why there will remain limits to the application of machinery to production - under capitalism. Capitalism produces commodities – items for sale at a profit. If there is no one with the income to buy, there is no sale. If there is no prospect of a sale there will be no production. With a limit to the expansion of the market, all that can be achieved is intensified competition with a further division and redivision of the existing market.
History disproves “Says Law”, one of the fundamental “theories” of pro-capitalist economists, which is that production creates its own demand. If that were true, capitalism would never have crises. Instead crises recur with monotonous regularity every 7-10 year. It also seems that there is a period of prolonged depression every four or five business cycles. These have occurred in the 1840s, 1870s, 1930s, 1970s, and it seems we have another on our hands today.
The US economist Anwar Shaikh uses the movement of wholesale prices measured in gold.
The crisis appears to restore order to the system through disorder.
The potential price of that disorder is now exponentially larger than any previous period of human history because of capitalism's complete conquest of the globe. Billions of people are now connected through markets and the dependence on money for every social transaction. This makes this system increasingly complex and dangerous. That is why we have the desperate attempts to manage the crisis that exists by the world's central banks and the “unorthodox” measures being taken to keep the system turning over and hold off a new collapse.
We have actually already several decades of social, political and economic change in the advanced capitalist countries like New Zealand that has seen millions of jobs eliminated in the traditional industries like steel, textiles, clothing, footwear, car manufacturing and the like. Most have been relocated to China, Mexico or other low-wage countries. Replacement jobs have usually been less well paid and less likely to have union protection. Some remain a form of manufacturing like fast food. The companies may be huge and highly profitable like McDonald's, but the workers remain poorly paid with few rights.
Capital is always seeking to beat its competitors. That is what drives productivity growth. That is what ultimately drives technological change. There has been a permanent drive to replace living labour with “dead labour” in the form of machines. Robots are merely the latest manifestation of this trend.
Capital also is always looking for ways to turn all human activity into the production of commodities for sale. This includes takeaway prepared meals (McDonalds); music (LP's. CD's, Itunes); art (prints, copies, forgeries); sport (stadium tickets, TV rights, souvenirs); films (Videos, DVD's, Netflix); medicine (privatisation, pills, pills, pills); education (privatisation, fees, loans). Debt (and the extraction of interest) has also become a mass phenomenon. These are simply the most recent arenas for conquest by big business in the advance of capitalist “civilisation”.
What is different today, is that the last few decades saw a gap develop between the advance of productivity and the advance of median or average incomes.
The figures for the USA below are courtesy of Anwar Shaikh. They could be essentially reproduced for most advanced capitalist countries. I strongly recommend an article by UK academic Matt Vidal which discusses this trend called What’s Behind the Rise in Income Inequality? Technology or Class Struggle?
Nearly all of the benefits of the productivity advance has been captured by the one percent in society.
This was the product of a social and political class struggle where the working class was defeated in a series of battles and then pushed down and marginalised. This has been reflected in huge declines in rates of unionisation. Private sector union rates in New Zealand have declined from around 40% to less than 10% today.
Technology can't be stopped. But who controls that technology will be the product of social and political struggles to come.
The battle to defeat zero hour contracts proves that it is possible to turn back the tide of defeat and demoralisation that afflicts much of the working class . It is possible to win fights to improve the social, political and economic position of working people under capitalism. We don't need to see the future as one where we are turned into slaves of a technocratically privileged and empowered elite.
The proposal discussed at the conference of a Universal Basic Income would also have benefits for working people. We must fight for such reforms under the existing system even if we want to ultimately replace it. The more we can protect and empower working people the greater the chance that more fundamental social change can be put on the agenda.
Some of the speakers had a bleak view of the future with working people powerless and defenceless. But we don't need to accept that future as pre-determined.
However if we want to change the future we need to fill working people with a new vision that sees them being able to take charge of the technological and economic changes that are coming so we can liberate humanity from degrading drudgery and servitude.
We need work to be a safe, creative and shared practice. We need future lives where wealth and work are shared. We need access to lifelong learning. Everyone needs to be able to develop our creative identities to the fullest extent possible and desired.
And the planet on we want to lead these rich and varied lives must be protected to the fullest extent possible for being raped and pillaged in the pursuit of profit.
Capitalism's relentless pursuit of growth and profit is incompatible with these goals.
The central problem with the Future of Work Conference was a refusal to acknowledge that fact.