Technological unemployment, an existential crisis for capitalism?

Technological unemployment can be defined as unemployment caused by technological change; when improvements in robotics and computing make human-jobs redundant. It is a massively under-appreciated problem and it has the possibility to severely erode the stability of the global capitalist system. Many economists and politicians are vaguely aware of the issue, but it is often shrugged off with a ‘so-far, so-good’ attitude. Apparently, since job-creation has roughly matched technological unemployment up until now, there is little to worry about.

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However, despite the reassurances of many economists, careful analysis of the issue reveals that this optimism is hopelessly naive. Technological advancement (as measured by things such as processing speed of computer chips and memory capacity) has been exponential in its nature, with this exponential growth expected indefinitely. However, human intelligence is limited by the incredibly slow process of biological evolution. This means that there is a rapidly increasing gulf between computers and robots in intellectual and physical capability. The result of this is many human-jobs will soon be redundant as both robotics and computing progress in exponential fashion.

Comprehensive research examining the susceptibility of jobs to automation paints  a very grim picture indeed. In the US it has been predicted that up to 47% of jobs will be lost to automation in the near future with 35% of UK jobs at ‘high risk’ of automation over the next two decades. Those workers most at risk are typically at the lower end of the pay scale, with jobs that are principally routine in nature. However with advancements in AI, jobs requiring cognitive dexterity may ultimately be just as susceptible as more ‘basic’ work, such as in factory-assembly lines.

There is a very long list of jobs vulnerable to automation and plenty more professions which are in the process of being made redundant. For example within a few decades taxi/bus/lorry drivers could all lose their jobs to automation. There are already driverless cars on the road in California and as this technology is perfected and regulatory regimes reformed to accommodate autonomous vehicles, the humans that once were required to drive them will all become superfluous. More ‘intellectual’ jobs are at risk too; indeed innovative software has already automated the process of “discovery”, a pre-trial procedure in lawsuits where potential evidence is analysed. Software is already utilised by some news agencies to write financial news stories. It’s a safe bet that there is at least one very intelligent programmer out there trying to create software to do your job- and once that software is perfected you can wave goodbye to awkward water-cooler conversations at your office.

The replacement of tedious and arduous jobs by robots should be a positive thing, in an ideal world it would free humans from menial jobs and would allow them to pursue more fulfilling and substantive lives. But in the capitalist system the large-scale automation of human-labour represents a severe threat to its stability. The system is based around exponential economic growth, a key component of which is consumer spending; the spending on goods and services by individuals. Consumer spending is driven by those in work; they exchange their labour for wages which they then spend on goods. However, as discussed, technological unemployment will cause large-scale, permanent unemployment  on a scale not seen before and there will be a consequent substantial and sustained drop in consumer spending because of this. This is a significant threat to capitalism. How can it function if a large proportion of the population can’t help fuel its incessant growth with consumption?  Another threat to capitalism comes from the massive social-unrest which would inevitably occur due to chronic high-unemployment. History tells us that this can be a major factor behind significant political and social instability.

If technological unemployment occurs on the scale that academics have predicted, it could be revolutionary for capitalism. If governments don’t restructure societies to redistribute wealth at a scale several orders of magnitude greater than seen today then the re-structuring would come from the bottom-up, i.e. with violent revolution. I’ll end with a rhetorical question. If there are hundreds of millions of unemployed poor (superseded by robots and computers) living in a world of extreme wealth inequality, will they lie dormant or will they try to overthrow the system which perpetuates their poverty?

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My 9 favourite films, 4-6

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

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I was considering only choosing relatively obscure and arty films for my ‘top 9’ list, so as to appear intelligent and cultured to the very few people that will read any of these blog-posts. Despite trying earnestly to stick to this strict criteria I have cracked have decided that I’ve got to put Star Wars Episode 5 into here. Perhaps it is just childish nostalgia. Indeed I vividly remember watching the Star Wars series when I was just a wee lad. In fact, I was so young and weird that I remember having an incredibly retarded confusion about the nature of the medium of film; what happens when the actors need to go to the toilet, I pondered. No, not when they are on set… For a short while I thought that when you pressed play the actors literally started acting live for you, which if you think about it is a rather silly belief indeed. Thinking back on it, I was a very strange child.

Anyway, why is this in my top 9 films ever? Well, to put it crudely it’s just really fucking cool. Here are some pictures which show how epic it is. Below is a clip from the beginning of the film, where the empire assaults the rebel base on the ice planet of Hoth. How could this not arouse childish excitement?

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“No, I am your father.” No more words needed.

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The closing shot of the whole film. Look at that! Phwoar.

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Seriously though, it is an excellent film. It’s also a lot more mature than many people might give it credit. It is far less childish than episode 6 (why did they add midget bears!) and much darker than episode 4 (e.g. the betrayal on Cloud City, the capture of Han Solo and Luke’s tragic fight with Darth Vader). The soundtrack is incredible (although the music is consistent across 4, 5 and 6 to be fair). It is packed full with some of the best science fiction scenes that cinema has to offer. Basically, as I said earlier, it’s fucking cool.

Fargo, 1996

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Although I have actually only ever watched Fargo twice I have absolutely no hesitation putting it into my top 9 favourite films. It is a crime-drama about an indebted car salesman in Minnesota who hires two incompetent criminals to kidnap his wife, with the idea that he will then split the ransom money (to be paid by her rich father) with the hired thugs. Of course, things don’t quite go to plan and as the story progresses, the tragedies start piling up.

Despite IMDB listing Fargo as being just under the three genres of ‘Crime, Drama and Thriller’ it is also a very funny (although admittedly extremely dark) comedy. This is in large part due to the hilariously quirky characters that the Coen brothers did such a brilliant job of creating. Pretty much every person in the film is a slightly exaggerated caricature of personality types that we will all have come across at some point (well, perhaps apart from the two criminals).

Between the major and minor roles pretty much every single one is highly memorable- a testament to fantastic script-writing, acting and directing. There’s the main character: Marge Gunderson, the pregnant chief of police of a small town in Minnesota. She is sweet, a very intelligent cop and like the other characters just a little bit eccentric. Perhaps her best line is when she politely questions the preliminary investigation of a fellow cop into some murders; “I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”. Then there are the two thugs: the rude, idiotic and slightly ‘funny-looking’ Carl Showalter and his silent, psychopathic accomplice Gaear Grimsrud. But as I said, the minor characters  are just as perfectly crafted, for example there is the desperate car salesman’s wife: Jean, who furiously works away in the kitchen, stirring and chopping at a perplexing yet weirdly amusing rate (having just written that, it might seem a bit odd how that could be funny without watching the film- but just trust me!).

As well as its great characters Fargo has an engaging and original plot (& which never gets overly convoluted). It has a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack which helps to set the mood of the film and strongly augments its best scenes. It is wonderfully shot as well, with the barren, freezing cold Minnesota winter brilliantly depicted in all its barren and freezing cold wonder.

Fishtank, 2009

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This is a film that leaves you feeling deeply depressed by the end. In my opinion this is a good thing as it means the film-makers have done their job properly; the movie elicits strong emotional feelings from its audience (and not ‘cheap’ emotions such as disgust (e.g. crappy, gory horror movies don’t count)). It deals with the themes of loneliness, dysfunctional families and hopelessness. The main character Mia is a troubled and socially isolated 15-year-old who lives on a neglected Essex council estate with her alcoholic single mother and unruly little sister. The plot is based around Mia’s increasingly flirtatious relationship with her mum’s new boyfriend, who is keen for Mia to try and pursue a dancing career.

Fish Tank is a perfect example of cinematic social realism, everything about it is so tragically believable- it’s very easy to imagine Mia being the focus of a slick documentary about deprived areas around London, for example. The estate she lives on is dilapidated and its inhabitants are impoverished and angry. Mia’s mum is borderline abusive and is desperately trying to cling onto vanished days of youth by drinking and holding debauched parties for her mates. School is out of the question for Mia due to her volatile and violent nature and so a large amount of her time is spent dreaming about becoming a professional dancer.

The film does a fantastic job of making you empathise with Mia; despite being violently impulsive, rude, a petty thief and a liar you can only feel sorry for her and blame her situation entirely on the unforgiving, hopeless environment that she grew up in. In this way, the film is also important social commentary as it is a piece of entertainment. It should make those opposed to the welfare state and government investment in neglected areas think twice about their viewpoints; people like Mia didn’t choose that life they were born into it.

 

Feminism and male issues, an abusive relationship

Unfortunately, since a white male writing anything to do with feminism is such an offensive act for many feminists, I have to start this blog post with some personal clarifications. It is clear that feminism has been a vital movement in recent times; just in a few decades Western society has been transformed from one permeated with misogyny  into one far more accommodating for women today. Just ask your parents about workplace sexism in the 70s and 80s for example; it’s likely they have many shocking stories about it. And it is true that feminism’s job isn’t totally ‘finished’ yet, there are many areas of society which have a clear need for gender equality to be achieved (e.g. in the House of Commons just 191 MPs out of 650 are women).

However, what I do object to is feminists’ general attitude of total indifference, often scorn, towards men’s issues. I understand that the whole point of feminism is to achieve equality for women- but I don’t understand why this necessitates a collective blindness towards problems that the other sex might be experiencing. People who even hint that there may be areas in life where men are worse off than women are typically ridiculed or discarded in a haze of vitriol (at least, this is true in my experience of surfing the myriad of feminist blogs and websites in recent years).

Statistically speaking, however, there several significant parameters in which men fare far worse than women. In 2013, 78% of all suicides were male in the UK. Homelessness is a male-dominated issue too- around 83% of those sleeping rough in the UK are men. Poor male students tend to do far worse during GCSEs than their female counterparts, with poor white males being the worst-performing socio-economic group academically. Last year, among 18-year olds, 26% of men received a place at university compared to 34% of women– the widest ever gap. Over 95% of prisoners are male (i.e. people that have been totally failed by society, if you believe that your socio-economic environment during youth strongly influences your future life out-comes).

A frequent response of feminists who acknowledge these statistics is that ‘the patriarchy hurts everyone’. This is an incredibly common trope essentially used as a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card’ to escape any sort of critique of feminist ideology. It is a lazy way of maintaining the apparent infallibility of their core agenda whilst discarding men’s issues in a rhetorical flourish. The issues mentioned are extremely complex and have various causes- do feminists really believe that focussing on the parameters where women fare worse (i.e. ‘fighting the patriarchy’) will simultaneously and satisfactorily address the problems that disproportionately affect men? I for one am extremely sceptical about this.

Furthermore, there is a significant opportunity cost to ‘fighting the patriarchy’ and that is fighting neoliberal capitalism, which I would argue is the root cause of wealth inequality, poverty and various other issues. Take, for example, corporations. Corporations are now the dominant institution globally (governments might appear powerful but in reality they are largely under the control of corporate forces). Corporations will institutionally stay the same, no matter how gender-equal they get. For instance, it does not matter if the CEO of Shell, Goldman Sachs or Halliburton is a man or woman- those institutions will still be legally obliged to maximise share-holder revenue- short-term profit will always be the principal driver of their actions. My point here is that a lot of the things feminist’s are pushing for -such as quotas for females in top positions -will not address the true underlying drivers of poverty and exploitation.

To conclude, as I have pointed out, there are many areas in which males objectively fare far worse than females, including the dominance of males among society’s homeless and those that decided to take their own lives. It is disingenuous and illogical to try and blame all these, and other, stats on the existence of an amorphous blob of a concept such as patriarchy. Feminists should come to accept that maybe there are some tragic parameters which men pip them to the post- and that it is acceptable for people to put effort into trying to address these issues without being constrained by the ideology of feminism.

My 9 favourite films. 1-3

Brazil, 1985

This is a film which leaves you feeling deeply uncomfortable and dazed after watching it. It is a surrealist telling of the story of low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry and his investigation into a wrongful arrest by military police. The setting of the story is a dystopian future where a totalitarian state dominates a brutal, dysfunctional world of consumerism and industry. As well as being hugely depressing , Brazil is also hilarious- it is as much a comedy as it is dystopian sci-fi thriller. Director Terry Gilliam was a member of Monty Python & so the humour which permeates this film has a distinctly slap-stick/absurdist feel to it.

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The wrongful arrest (due to an insect jamming a printer)

Throughout the film Sam has vivid fantasies about flying away from the darkly industrial world that he inhabits to join the woman of his dreams. These fantasies make up a large proportion of the film’s content and as Sam’s luck goes from bad to worse, his dreams and visions degenerate into horrifying nightmares. By the end, the lines between reality and Sam’s bizarre dream-world become blurred and the finale is a dizzying and disorientating spectacle.

The world is loosely based on Orwell’s 1984, but there are significant differences. As Slavoj Zizek points out: “Brazil [depicts a society] which will openly hedonistic, half-crazy, it will be like Groucho Marks in power… Orwell is for me way too simplistic, even optimistic. Orwell still believes that free love, authentic human relations and so on serve against totalitarian power. Here Orwell, I think, gets it deeply wrong; you can have a society which is sexually permissive, consumerist blah blah blah… totally different from what Orwell depicts and yet it is still totalitarian… [It is what we have in the West]; enlightened hedonism.”

I agree with this analysis; although the world that Gilliam created is completely bonkers- its underlying fabric reflects a chilling and highly plausible potential future. A world where freedom only exists within the confines of hedonistic consumerism, with a totalitarian super-structure underlying all of society.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

I have lost count of the number of times that I have watched this film and yet the law of diminishing returns has yet to kick in. It is incredibly densely packed with jokes and many of them are extremely subtle; pretty much every time I watch it I’ll notice something new that I missed in previous viewings. The premise of two extremely average friends in suburban London suddenly finding themselves in a zombie apocalypse is used to hilarious effect by writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg.

The reaction of the two thirty something losers to the appearance of flesh-eating zombies is slow, hungover, incompetent and very funny (Shaun- “Ohh, for God’s sake! He’s got an arm off!”). Shaun’s grand idea is to escape to the confines of his favourite nightspot; the local pub. The plot focuses around this farcical attempt to reach ‘The Winchester‘, as Shaun leads Ed, his ex-girlfriend, her two best friends- a moody and pretentious couple- “Daffs is always taking me to see these listed buildings, and I’m always dragging him to the theatre”, Shaun’s mum and his step-Dad, who has been bitten by a zombie- “I’m quite alright Barbara; I ran it under a cold tap”.

It’s not ‘just’ a comedy, though, as there are some more sincere themes in the plot; for most of the film Shaun is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend- not exactly hugely original here but it does not feel contrived whatsoever, there’s also Shaun’s reluctant relationship with his step-Dad contrasted with his fondness of his Mum and then there is the hilariously awkward friendship between Shaun, Liz, David and Dianne.

The film slowly builds up towards a spectacular finale, after they finally reach The Winchester. The later scenes are a brilliant mix of comedy, action and heart-wrenching drama.

City of God (Cidade de Deus), 2002

City of God is a Brazilian film which focuses around the experiences of the residents of ‘Cidade de Deus’, an impoverished suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Although it is mostly fictional, parts of the plot are loosely based on real events  It covers life there from the late 60s to the early 80s and it focuses on the violent, drug-related crime that dominated the neighbourhood from its inception.

Rocket trying out a new camera
Rocket trying out a new camera

The main character and narrator is Rocket, a poor black resident in the City of God who has aspirations of becoming a photographer. As well as following his life the tales of many other residents are told in rich detail.

There are of course a huge number of excellent crime-dramas out there but I think that City of God can justifiably be crowned the greatest (even though you have to watch it with subtitles if you can’t speak Portuguese!). The cinematography is fantastic. The gritty, dog-eat-dog world of favela drug-wars is juxtaposed brilliantly with the stunning beauty of Rio. There are plenty of gripping (and often incredibly violent) action sequences. The acting is top-notch and all the major characters are very much believable and memorable. The story is engaging, not to convoluted and never rushed. It is completely devoid of trite clichés and over-used plot-devices that can saturate Hollywood crime-movies (e.g. there’s no extended stand-off between the villain and heroic protagonist). The soundtrack is original and varied and used to great effect. Overall it is an absolute triumph of story-telling, don’t be put off by the subtitles and watch it if you haven’t already!