The election of Jeremy Corbyn has been a massive shock to the UK’s political system. He has clearly managed to engage and inspire many who were seen as having been turned off by the previously existing political choices. Obviously those he inspired were a self selected group of progressives and supporters of the Labour Party.
The big question remains whether he can translate this into a programme of change the wider electorate can get behind. There are plenty confident he cannot. They believe his radicalism will prove too heady for the electorate who will remain with the Conservative Party at the next election as the sensible party of pragmatic common sense.
It may be however that radicalism is about to undergo something of a revival in its fortunes. There are a number of trends in the UK and in the world which are coming together to create the conditions for a perfect storm. Demographics, climate change and information and communications technology (ICT) are just three of the processes, but key ones which have potentially dramatic implications.
Demographics are generating huge demands on stretched social and health services and having major implications for the economy. The radical implications of climate change are well spelt out in Naomi Klien’s latest book “This Changes Everything”. Here I want to focus on IT which may be just as radical.
The BBC is devoting this week to a consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As part of this they are looking at the implications of AI are for employment. A Panorama programme is considering work the done by two Oxford Academics in September 2013 looking at what proportion of jobs in the United States (US) might be vulnerable to automation in the foreseeable future. The paper claims some 47% of US jobs are at high risk of computerisation.
Concern about the impacts of ICT has been growing for some time against a back drop of stagnant income levels, youth unemployment and underemployment, and the growth of poor quality low paid jobs.
In Race Against the Machine, Brynjolfson and McAfee talked about the exponential speed of developments in all areas of computerisation including the development of AI as a result of Moore’s Law. Roughly the doubling of the number of transisters on a chip every 18 months / two years thus doubling the power of computers. That law is now 50 years old. If you had a £1 fifty years ago and applied the same law doubling the amount you had every 2 years you would now have… £16,777,216. Of course that means in 2017 you would have £33,554,432.
The point Brynjolfson and McAfee are making is that with that kind of acceleration it is very difficult to be clear about how rapidly AI might develop. In turn this means it is very difficult to know what jobs are vulnerable to automation and how quickly it might happen.
In their later book, The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfson and McAfee suggested that mankind needs to learn to “…race with machines, instead of against them.” Whilst they maintain an optimitic view of technological development they appreciate that the consequences are likely to be highly disruptibve and very negative for some workers.
A picture of reduced employment and a hollowing out of the good, middle class jobs. Employment becoming something that is either a low paid, low skill occupation in retail or care, or a high complexity, controlling function with very high pay. In response to this they suggest the state is going to have to respond with initiatives like negative income tax, i.e. payments from the state for those on low incomes.
The Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, (clues in the title!) by Martin Ford takes a rather more radical and less optimistic view. Whilst his analysis of the potential for AI and automation follows much of what is in Brynjolfson and McAfee his conclusions are that the social and economic dislocation that this process creates will be much more uncomfortable.
Ford believes that IT has been having profound effects on the operation of the economy for some time. Since World War Two the link between productivty and compensation in the US marched in step. In 1970, something started to happen to break this connection. Technological innovation no longer led to increases in living standards for the majority. The growth of inequality, the stagnation of median earnings the reduction in labours share of national income were all trends that have accompanied information and communication technological innovation.
Ford sees these trends leading to a point where effective demand in the economy is undermined by the absence of employment for many and the low paid employment of the “precariat” for the many more. Without radical initiatives such as a universal basic income civil unrest is likley to grow and ultimately lead to the need for state repression on a significant scale.
Now, if the scenario set out above is in progress some radical new policies in relation to employment or the lack of it will be needed. It wil require a transformation in thinking about the means of distribution which will probably have implications for the means of production also. These revolutionary implications do not follow from some 19th Century political theory, rather they emerge from analysis of the challenges we face as we move into the mid 21st Century.
Mr Corbyn does not have to look backwards for his radical inspiration. The end of labour might indeed be nye but, if it is, it does not mean questions about the distribution of wealth will go away. On the contrary it is likely to throw them into sharp relief.