To manage the latest wave of automation, we must have ends that are more compelling than merely wanting more products and services.
Almost all ‘robots are coming’ stories follow a tried-and-true pattern. ‘Shop Direct puts 2,000 UK jobs at risk’ screams a typical headline. Then, quoting from authoritative reports from prestigious institutes and think tanks, the article in question usually alarms audiences with extravagant estimates of ‘jobs at risk’—that is, percentages of workers whose livelihoods are threatened by high-tech automation. To quote another representative example: ‘A new report suggests that the marriage of [artificial intelligence] and robotics could replace so many jobs that the era of mass employment could come to an end.’
Sometimes, this bleak outlook is softened by distinguishing between ‘jobs’ and ‘tasks’. Only the routine parts of jobs, it is said, will be replaced. In these more upbeat assessments of the ‘future of work’, humans will complement machines, not compete with them.
This sanguine scenario is based partly on what has happened in the past: over time, mechanisation has created more jobs at higher wages than it has destroyed. It is also based on more sober assessments of what robots can do now (though there is disagreement on what they will eventually be able to do). Moreover, automation, some optimists believe, will raise the average level of human intelligence. And a richer and aging population will require ever-larger armies of human carers, nurses, cleaners, trainers and therapists.
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But there is an important caveat to all this: left to the market, the gains from automation will be captured mainly by owners of the technology companies and highly educated ‘knowledge workers’, leaving the rest of the population unemployed or in physical and intellectual servitude. (The need for expert lawyers, consultants, accountants, psychiatrists and human-relations experts will be greater than ever.)
So, the prevailing narrative warns, the process of automation must be carefully managed to avoid massive redundancies and/or widening income inequalities. The analyses usually then conclude with a ringing affirmation that more ‘creative’ jobs and exciting new products such as driverless cars are waiting in the wings. Provided that we can learn as we earn, a utopia of satisfying work and prosperity beckon to all.
If not, the ecstatic prophecies turn dark: professions or countries that fail to embrace automation with sufficient enthusiasm face economic and cultural extinction. In short, while automation is a threat to work, it is a threat that can and must be overcome within the existing wage-labour framework.
There is little echo in this narrative of the older view that machines offer emancipation from work, opening up a vista of active leisure—a theme going back to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle envisaged a future in which ‘mechanical slaves’ did the work of actual slaves, leaving citizens free for higher pursuits. John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes comforted their readers with the thought that capitalism, by generating the income and wealth needed to abolish poverty, would abolish itself, freeing mankind, as Keynes put it, to live ‘wisely and agreeably and well’.
Likewise, in his essay ‘The soul of man under socialism’, Oscar Wilde claimed that with machinery doing all the ‘ugly, horrible, uninteresting work’, humans would have ‘delightful leisure in which to devise wonderful and marvellous things for their own joy and the joy of everyone else’. And Bertrand Russell extolled the benefits of extending leisure from an aristocracy to the whole population.
None of these nirvanic muses disdained work. On the contrary, all of them were workaholics. What they objected to was ‘working for hire’. But, today, ‘working for a living’ has come to be viewed as humanity’s moral destiny, while leisure is implicitly linked to doing nothing. The Protestant work ethic still has us in its grip (and not only in the west).
Economists have always been ambivalent. On the one hand, they regard paid work as a cost for consumption. Machinery lowers the cost of work. As people become more productive and therefore prosperous, they will work less. More precisely, they will have the choice to work less for the same income or as much as before for more income. The historical pattern has been that they ‘traded off’ time and money, so hours of work have fallen as income has risen.
But the concept of growing abundance, articulated by Keynes and others, has been over-ridden by economists’ commitment to inherent scarcity. People’s wants, they say, are insatiable, so they will never have enough. Supply will always lag behind demand, mandating continuous improvements in efficiency and technology. This will be true even if there is enough to feed, clothe, and house the whole world. Poised between the profusion of their wants and the paucity of their means, humans have no option but to continue to ‘work for hire’ in whatever jobs the market provides. So the day of abundance, when they can choose between work and leisure, will never arrive. They must ‘race with the machines’ forever and ever.
A way out
There is a way out of this trap, but only if we make two crucial distinctions: between needs and wants, and between means and ends.
The distinction between needs and wants was central to the older thinkers. But in contemporary economics, preferences are taken as ‘given’, and therefore are not subject to further investigation regarding their value or source. The older thinkers distinguished between the ‘needs of the body’ and the ‘needs of the imagination’, emphasising the irreducible character of the former and the malleability of the latter. If we can be induced to want whatever the advertisers put before us (now online), then we will never have enough.
The older thinkers also distinguished between means and ends. The products of machines are what the economist Alfred Marshall called ‘the material requisites of wellbeing’. Human wellbeing is the end. We invent machines to achieve it. But in order to control these inventions, we must have ends that are more compelling than merely wanting more and more products and services. Without an intelligent definition of wellbeing, we will simply create more and more monsters that feed on our humanity.
About Robert Skidelsky
Robert Skidelsky, professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is the author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes and a member of the British House of Lords.