Anxiety, Automation & the Future of Work

Gregory Diamant


By Gregory Diamant


A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Two specters are haunting Earth in the twenty-first century: the specters of ecological catastrophe and automation.”

Peter Frase. Four Futures

I start with two quotes that bookend my thoughts on the current crises and the collective need to reclaim and shape the future.

Anxiety is not just an individual pathology but a social one as well that has deep roots in our political/economic system. For as long as we have been wage laborers insecurity has been gnawing at our entrails; we have been alienated from the work that takes up more than a third of our lives (if we are lucky) and an existential dread often sits like a grey cloud over us. Of course, in many ways we are better off (well, some of us) than many characters in Dickens’s novels but the goalposts of expectations have shifted and our perceptions, in line with reality, are that we are falling behind.

For the past forty years the media have fed us a diet of fear: fear of immigrants, the others, crime in the streets and killer bees. One must add to these tropes, the grounded fears of falling wages, climate disasters and the loss of jobs through outsourcing and other disruptions. The threat of increasing automation intensifies the anxiety and couple this fear with the authoritarian push for more and more austerity with the continual shredding of the social safety net and it is no wonder that we have a population that is politically confused and looking for solace in drugs, consumerism and the desire for a secular savior to wave a magic wand and fix all of our problems. All of this social existential anxiety makes the world ripe for more and more racist and misogynistic outbursts accompanied by a blaming of the other for all of our cultural, political and economic deficiencies.

In many Western countries the excesses of consumerism (that contribute to ecological and cultural waste) often fill a spiritual void that once, for better or for worse, was filled by religion. “The Protestant work ethic” (though enshrined in one way or another in most of the major religions) adds another level of understandable stress to our collective lives. We have to toil so that we may eat: a not unreasonable proposition but is an imperative by necessity a good? The rise of occasional or precarious work, jobless recoveries and the like exacerbates the tensions we feel for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren. Many political and social outbursts can be seen as existential cries, desperate pleas for answers to questions that are hard to grasp and frame.

Our capitalist economy is unhealthy: long term stagnation and deflation underpin a worldwide rise in inequality of wealth and opportunity. It seems that the aggressive financialization and globalization of the past 30 years have been masking a slide into a declining old age of the world capitalist economy. The rule of finance has proven itself to be unable to deal with mass unemployment and underemployment: its domination has taken the form of a race to the bottom for most people while sending increasing levels of wealth to the one percent. Between 1993 and 2011 the share of US national income that goes to wages has been steadily shrinking while the share that goes to capital has been continuously increasing. While productivity has jumped by 80.4% the real hourly compensation of the average worker has increased only 10.7%. No wonder so many people are looking for change, any political change, as a relief from the stresses of their daily lives and as a vision and a way through a cloudy future.

Our declining and unhealthy society sees its metaphorical image in old age and this increases stress and anxiety; a feedback loop is created that intensifies negative tendencies at the personal and social levels. One can see the slide into old age in the US as it is reflected in a waning culture; a culture of vulgarity allied with a perception of failing power that engenders an appeal to a blinkered nationalism. One of the artefacts of old age, both on a personal and a societal level, is the wish to cling to things as they are or were (or seem to be or seem to have been). There is often a tension we individually and collectively experience between resignation as one ages and anger at thwarted dreams for ourselves and our offspring. Lashing out, the wish to shake things up, often becomes a political stance that can harden into an ugly blaming of others for our misfortunes. It is much easier to blame people collectively and unconditionally than to do the heavy lifting needed to examine the workings of an abstract system. Our lack of access to an educational system that teaches critical thinking allied with the daily pounding by a crude media universe that exists only as a profit making entity, militates against critical analyses of our political/economic challenges. This lack of critical thinking affects both those on the right and the left of the political spectrum.

We see the forces of reaction gaining in power, chewing away at the social safety nets that were erected after wars and years of struggle. Progressives all too often seem to be back on their heels; taking steps forward in retreat and confusion. We mobilize mass outrage but the effect all too often seems to be mass impotence and frustration. How do we move forward with visions of the future that are based upon strong bonds of friendship, love, solidarity and community: emotions and ideas that are so inimical to capitalism’s singular drive to accumulate profit, no matter what the cost to the biosphere or human health?

But before we tackle that challenging question we need to examine our future as it may be shaped by automation.

Using machinery to make work more productive and efficient is nothing new in human history. In the past two hundred years under the capitalist system we have seen innumerable technologies applied in manufacturing that have significantly led to an improvement in the return to capital while having mixed results for the humans who have had to work with the new machines or been displaced by them. The Luddites in Britain, who have been usually caricatured as mindless enemies of progress, broke machines not because they were against the application of new technologies per se but because they and their jobs were then seen to be superfluous and the redundant workers were dismissed with nowhere to go. It was not uncommon in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for the application of new machinery and technology to lead to the diminution of adult male labor and its substitution by child and female laborers who would tend to the machines at a lower wage scale. Obviously, this put additional stress on the family, further hindered childhood development and health, and often increased resentment toward women. All too often men (and not a few women) took to drink to deal with their anxieties; the cost of this pernicious balm ate away the meager wealth of working class families and it led to an increase in crime. Opioid use today seems another expression of this type of stress and we can see the class nature of drug use then and now: two hundred and fifty years ago rum and other spirits were for the use of “the lower classes”; opium and laudanum were generally reserved for “the better sort”. Today, meth amphetamines, crack cocaine, heroin and prescription drugs such as Oxycodone (hillbilly heroin) are generally for those on the lower rungs of society. Powder cocaine and pricey champagne are often the drugs of choice for the denizens of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

In our time, we have experienced a mass movement of populations from the land to urban areas with the subsequent creation of mega cities and their attendant slums. This phenomenon has been well described by Mike Davis in his book, Planet of Slums. On the one hand, one can see, most vividly in China, the lifting of people out of rural poverty and their integration into the global capital cycles of exchange. In other areas, this integration has taken on different forms with work of a precarious nature, occasional in form and seemingly solely mediated by the market as many of these workers are not formally wage laborers working in the classically structured form of the factory. These new type of workers, primarily concentrated in the Global South, are sometimes characterized by the proponents of global neoliberalism as entrepreneurs, tying a lofty word often used to describe the creators of Silicon Valley type start-ups working in healthy environments to those making simple commodities or scratching out a living at highway crossroads selling inexpensive goods such as telephone cards or medicinal creams; commodities often acquired through the use of usurious credit lines.

In one example, in the state controlled capitalist economy of China one can see that a vigorous industrialization has taken place under a mixture of a form of state planning aligned with neoliberal market forms. In other locales, the industrialization has not been so widespread and more and more of the displaced population (displaced from the land) have been left to its own devices, a form of malign neglect.

But even in China and in other countries where industrialization has grown, a creeping deindustrialization is appearing. Two primary factors are at work here: outsourcing from China to other nearby areas and the increasing introduction of industrial robots. The relation of outsourcing and automation can here be seen in stark relief. In China, as an example, real wages have been rising accompanied by more and more industrial strife, thus increasing the need to look for more inexpensive labor (outsourcing) and the introduction of technological improvements and productivity enhancements (industrial robotics). China will soon surpass, if it has not already done so, Europe or North America in the application of robotics.

But let us now turn to the classic triad of countries in North America, Europe and Japan that make up the so-called advanced capitalist countries.

There is no question that automation can have many positive benefits. It can, of course, relieve the burden of unhealthy working conditions: anyone who has worked in a factory can attest to that. Much of the work we do is rote work, deadening us with its continual repetition of tasks that can damage us physically as well as mentally. This holds true not only in the classic factory environment but in many service jobs as well. Poll after poll finds that a significant part of the working population finds their work to be unfulfilling or even unnecessary. Recent conservative studies in the UK and USA project that in the next twenty years or so as many as 47% of jobs will be eliminated and not replaced by a similar amount of new jobs due to automation. These forecasts predict that for every new job created several will be eliminated. Of course, these are prognostications but serious economists and business people (who engage in planning!) are basing their corporate decisions with these studies in mind. They are also taking climate disruption as a factor as they make their plans (so much for the climate deniers).

Robots and automated procedures have already been developed for use in transportation (self-driving vehicles); local delivery services; warehouse services; shelf stocking in retail outlets; legal services; medical services; restaurants (McDonald’s in NYC, etc.); digital coding and too many more to mention. Simply put, automation creates more wealth with less labor cost and along with offshoring and outsourcing allows a greater return on capital invested. Let’s take a look at some of the areas mentioned.

In transportation in the US alone there are some 600,000 Uber type drivers; 181,000 taxi drivers; 168,000 transit bus drivers; 505,000 school bus drivers and close to one million truck drivers. As an example, it is estimated that there will be a onetime investment of $30,000 to retrofit a truck so that it becomes a driverless vehicle. If we estimate that the annual payment to a driver is $40,000 and even if we include the cost of a handler/guard (remunerated at a lower rate than a driver) it does not take an accounting genius to see the increased profit that can be realized in this scenario. Apply automation to the other transportation jobs and we can see a gigantic disruption/displacement taking place. The State of California is now the fifth largest economy in the world, surpassing Great Britain. It is also the home of Google and Uber and the State has been very amenable to relaxing and revising its regulations regarding driverless vehicles. So goes California, so goes much of the US and other countries. I do not think that driverless vehicles are a bad thing as long as they can be made to be safer than human driven ones: they can be a great boon for many people. Think of an elderly person, for example, who really should have the car keys taken away but still wants to go out and do the necessary shopping, see friends, go to a restaurant or a movie, etc. Wouldn’t having access to a driverless car, perhaps shared with others (and thus reducing our carbon footprint) help to maintain the dignity and independence of an ageing population? I prefer to keep an open mind but certainly how and who can use this potential boon comes up to the question of cost and equity.

As another example, there are driverless trucks being developed for local delivery of items. Even pizza chains are working on trucks placed in neighborhoods that would have automated pizza makers aligned with driverless delivery, thus cutting down the cost and time needed from order to delivery with an increase in productivity.

Automation will most likely eliminate many low level legal jobs by reducing the need for a human to search legal files, thus reducing a boring, time consuming task. Similar uses will be applied in the medical field.

In Japan, robot companions are already at work at old age homes; robot service animals are being developed and we even have robot cow milkers in use that allow the cows to come to the robot when the cows are ready to be milked. O brave new world!

An Amazon warehouse is arguably one of the worst places to work. However, sooner than one expects, that may no longer be a problem as the humans will be replaced by robots that will pick and pack items and then send them off to the driverless vehicles or the drones that will take care of the delivery. Of course, that leaves the humans without a job, albeit a crappy and unhealthy one. In a related field, robots can now be seen in supermarkets, checking the shelves and restocking them as needed.

Even Silicon Valley, that marriage of frat boy culture and Calvinistic work ethic and its worshipped offspring, the supposedly caring entrepreneur, is not immune: the coders are being replaced by automated coders! However, one cannot say that there is not room for continual growth for humans in that area.

About eight million people in the US work in retail and as cashiers: Macy’s is already retrofitting its stores and eliminating floor salespeople. Cashiers may become a dying breed with the advance of self-checkout services. Approximately 14 million people work in restaurants and fast food chains are leading the way in automating ordering, production and delivery of food items.

These are just a few examples of current trends. But who can predict what the future will hold (if we don’t first destroy the biosphere)? After all, how many of us could have predicted the digital revolution, the creation of the Internet and billions of smartphones that are being used daily?

Now we must turn to the future of work. How can and will we live in a world that will be radically changed by climate disruption and automation, the twin specters that are haunting the earth? What are the political and social challenges we will be facing? They are enormous, will affect all of us and will not be met by merely retreating to pockets of resistance.

The goal of the future is full unemployment. – Arthur C. Clarke

If increasing automation is our future and we can more or less successfully deal with the climate challenges we are facing, what must we do to transcend the robot capitalism that seems to be on the horizon? How can we create a post-capitalist future in which wealth is owned by the many and not by the few? If we don’t struggle toward and achieve that goal we may be condemned to a form of exterminism due to malign neglect, wars, lack of resources, epidemics and climate disasters resulting in oceans of want surrounding islands of walled off wealth. It is a bleak, dystopian image and I don’t mean to say that that is the only or sure choice facing us. In fact, a first step for us is to reclaim utopia and hope, and free them from the ideological neoliberal bonds that often enclose them.

If fewer people are going to make the goods necessary to sustain life, how will we collectively design a system that satisfies needs? How do planning for our needs and engendering real democracy fit in this new post-capitalist world? What is the most equitable and ecologically sustainable way of producing the good life? If consumption remains the driving force in our society, how can we tame or redirect it as it comes up against ecological limits? Can we or should we enshrine the right to be lazy? I can’t claim to have the answers; many of them will come about though prolonged political struggle; but posing the questions and looking at some possible solutions will help us on our way. If we don’t have a vision for the future (call it socialism, communism, post-capitalism or what you will) our political project will be dead in the water. In order to transcend capitalism we need to be not just against various forms of injustice but for new types of relating, creating and working that we can successfully communicate to ourselves and our friends who will be engaged in the transformation of our societies.

Let’s deal with one possible solution to the problem of increasing unemployment and underemployment that is being explored on all sides of the political spectrum. It is called Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Mainstream solutions look at it as a possible amelioration of our deflationary situation that will allow consumption to remain steady or grow. These more or less conservative or neoliberal solutions envision some sort of taxation (a case of taxing Jill to pay Jack) and a reduction of welfare, unemployment and other social or pension benefits in proportion to the amount received. Those amounts are usually not enough to pull people out of poverty and it is assumed that on some levels the recipients will become “entrepreneurs” with additional cash amounts coming from activities solely mediated by the market. These neoliberal UBI schemes are currently being tested in parts of Finland, The Netherlands, Scotland and other areas. The inequities in these schemes are glaring and not something that progressives should fight for.

On the other hand, there are progressive versions of UBI that we should be considering that do not involve taxing the recipients or diminishing other benefits such as pensions and universal health care. Tobin taxes, Universal Basic Dividends from IPOs and other forms of taxing corporate wealth could be used to fund UBIs. After all, society has invested in corporate capital through our taxes that support infrastructure creation and maintenance, and government and university funded research that is appropriated by the corporate sector. We the people create wealth collectivity and that wealth is garnered by corporations and the wealthy with minimal return to the mass of people: hence our ever growing inequality. Every citizen must have property rights over machinery so that the wealth created contributes to a shared prosperity. We should embrace machine automation and a progressive UBI as prerequisites for liberty (Yanis Varoufakis).

We need to always keep in mind the two specters mentioned at the beginning of this talk and their attendant anxieties: the fear of too little (loss of habitat and natural resources) and the fear of too much (an economy that is fully robotized and automated with so little need for human labor that we don’t need workers).

Can we implement a progressively shorter work week alongside a robust UBI that will allow us a fuller, more creative and less alienating lifestyle? Is this pie in the sky utopianism, contrary to human nature and the religious and moral teachings that have been handed down to us for untold generations? Perhaps, but what I do know is that the world is changing in many new and unforeseen ways and the 99% will continue to get the short end of the stick if they do not rise up and shape the world as they would like it to be.

Our youth, of course, will be at the forefront of the struggle. What keeps us together and cements friendship in youth is the common expectation of a common future. On the basis of that commonality grows solidarity. In a society that is confronting the main questions, in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation, the elderly can serve as guides to watch over things and contribute their shared knowledge and experience. It becomes more about giving than taking (Ernst Bloch). But for both young and old, simultaneously trying to reproduce themselves and change the world, the stresses are enormous. It brings to mind Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lovely poem, First Fig:

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives a lovely light!

Youth and old age: courage and experience need to work hand in hand to shape our future. In closing, I am sharing one of my favorite sayings from Ernst Bloch:

Thinking means venturing beyond.

Thank you.