Automation puts us in unchartered territory
The debate about a minimum wage continues to rage as we head towards an austere festive period. But this debate concerns only the diminishing numbers of people who have work, and not the growing ranks of men and women with no hope of finding jobs.
Even leading capitalists such as Johann Rupert recognise this as a serious problem. In a recent interview, he noted: “We’re in for some bad and dangerous times.”
This is caused, he said, by the increase in the wage and welfare gap, and in the “ranks of the unemployable”.
Many people are unemployable not because they lack skills, but because they have skills that are rapidly becoming redundant as the march of automation gathers pace.
Yet most socially liberal commentators tend to still support the notion, promoted by mainstream economists, that the technological revolution will, somehow, miraculously open up new avenues for work.
Focusing on the past, they quote how changes from one form of production to another resulted in one form of work giving way to another.
This was, for a seller of labour, sometimes better and sometimes worse, but at least it was a job.
However, in recent years, there has been a wider appreciation of the fact that the new era does not require people with new or different skills – because most work can now be done by machines.
And the machines, like the rest of the economic and productive processes, are in the hands of a rather small and generally very rich minority.
As the technological future unfolds, business owners only have to employ a core group of specialists to “work” in the classic sense.
But under the current system, those who have only their labour to sell cannot survive without work. One current estimate is that every automated job, on average, puts 60 people out of work. There’s nothing new in that notion. As far back as 1949, the “father of cybernetics”, Norbert Wiener, warned about this in precise terms. Others also did so in a more general way as far back as 1848.
Belatedly, it seems that the message is finally getting through in some quarters.
In Finland and Holland, for example, there is now talk at official level of the need to introduce a “universal basic wage”.
And Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, has also started agitating for a “universal basic income” as part of a wider system of social security.
What this means, as Unite’s assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, noted, is that it will provide “a decent income for those locked out of work”. And such an income for all would clearly be in the best interests of society as a whole.
This is a view that came through clearly at a Black Sash seminar in Johannesburg last month. The seminar revealed the plethora of benefits that flow from social grants that help lift people out of destitution and poverty, which is obviously a goal to aim for.
The main question is: Can it be achieved under the current system by means of handouts? Or is a more radical restructuring necessary?
Whatever the case, there is clearly a long way to go.