Au­to­ma­tion puts us in un­char­tered ter­ri­tory

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­press.co.za

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.

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