Not so long ago, a person got a job right after high school, stayed with the same employer until retirement at age 65, then pottered around the family manse for a few years before dutifully shuffling off this mortal coil about a decade later. Since then, the nature of work has been upended.
Today, it is not unusual for a person to have multiple careers and more people work from home than ever before. Artificial intelligence is making machines that can do most of what people do better and cheaper. Even though Elon Musk now says humans are underrated, the trend is for more machines and fewer workers in the future. Some see alarming parallels between the dystopian future depicted in the Disney movie Wall-E and the way human employment is developing in real life.
Against this backdrop, the World Bank is preparing its latest World Development Report, due to be unveiled this fall. A spokesperson for the World Bank tells The Guardian, “To stimulate debate and draw attention to critical issues, the report will present a range of ideas for how governments can create the conditions for workers to benefit from huge shifts in technology, demographics, urbanization and other factors. To end poverty and boost shared prosperity, it’s vital that we consider new initiatives to meet the disruption that will surely come from these structural changes. We encourage and look forward to comments and an evidence-driven discussion on this important topic.”
Check Out The Details
That sounds rather benign, doesn’t it? The devil is in the details, so they say. Let’s take a closer look at some of those devilishly delicious details. “High minimum wages, undue restrictions on hiring and firing, strict contract forms, all make workers more expensive vis-à-vis technology,” the report says. If workers are expensive to get rid of, fewer will be hired. “Burdensome regulations also make it more expensive for firms to rearrange their workforce to accommodate changing technologies. Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets,” the draft says.
Just five years ago, the 2013 version of the World Development Report concluded that wages have little effect on employment, but since then the bank has done a complete about-face on that issue. Peter Bakvis, a representative of the International Trade Union Confederation, says the vision of the future world of work presented by this latest report would see firms relieved of the burden of contributing to social security, give them the flexibility to pay wages as low as they wanted, and the ability to fire at will. The changes would greatly diminish the power of labor unions
In other words, according to the World Bank, workers need to be more like robots — expendable and disposable adjuncts to the production process who can be switched on and off at will to suit the needs of employers. It’s as if the World Bank has adopted every policy position promulgated by the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Heartland Institute, enshrining trickle down economics as the official mantra of international commerce.
Marx, Engels, And The Communist Manifesto
Writing in The Guardian, Yanis Varoufakis argues that Marx and Engels predicted exactly this turn of events in 1848. Varoufakis is the former finance minister of Greece and co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement. The Communist Manifesto proclaimed that “constantly revolutionizing … the instruments of production,” would transform “the whole relations of society” and bring about “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation.” In other words, the world as we find it today.
“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other,” Mark and Engels wrte. In Varoufakis’ view, as production is mechanized and the profit margin of the machine-owners becomes our civilization’s sole driving motivation, society will split into non-working shareholders and non-owner wage earners.
“From feudal aristocracies to industrialized empires, the engine of history has always been the conflict between constantly revolutionizing technologies and prevailing class conventions. With each disruption of society’s technology, the conflict between us changes form. Old classes die out and eventually only two remain standing: the class that owns everything and the class that owns nothing — the bourgeoisie and the proletariat,” Varoufakis writes. Doesn’t that sound like the situation we find ourselves in today?
Capitalism Is Irrational
Is there any hope? Varoufakis says yes. Marx and Engels’ manifesto posits that capitalism is like a cancer that eventually devours its host. The trick is to accelerate the process so capitalism burns itself out like a meteor passing through the atmosphere. Ultimately, he argues, capitalism is irrational.
“Capital fails to make rational use of the brilliant machines it engenders, condemning whole generations to deprivation, a decrepit environment, underemployment, and zero real leisure from the pursuit of employment and general survival.
“In short, the manifesto’s recommendation is that we push capital to its limits while limiting its consequences and preparing for its socialization. We need more robots, better solar panels, instant communication, and sophisticated green transport networks. But equally, we need to organize politically to defend the weak, empower the many, and prepare the ground for reversing the absurdities of capitalism.”
“The problematic nexus of capital and waged labor stops us from enjoying our work and our artifacts and turns employers and workers, rich and poor, into mindless, quivering pawns who are being quick-marched towards a pointless existence by forces beyond our control,” Varoufakis writes. To put it simply, at some point, capitalism will consume itself, leaving fertile ground for new social norms that enshrine respect for all members of society as paramount. And that is the point at which concerted efforts to protect the environment from the excesses of ever expanding acquisitiveness will have a chance to succeed.
Are The Tmes Really A’changin’?
Is Varoufakis correct? It’s impossible to predict the future with any certainty, but there is a sense that tremors are occurring in the foundations of modern society. Young people feel empowered by the example set by the students at Parkland high school in Florida. Many are enraged by the “all for me, none for you” policies of Donald Trump and his acolytes. There is a ferment occurring in American politics which suggests significant changes are imminent.
The transition to renewable energy and the battle to slow the pace of climate change are uniting people and giving them a sense of common purpose that has been absent in society for many decades. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the challenges presented by a warming world may be the catalyst we need to come together in search of a more just and sustainable world. In the end, the alternative may simply too horrible to contemplate. For as Bob Zimmerman counseled us years ago, “Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin’.”
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