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.

robots

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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