Monday 26 September 2016

Work and the Second Machine Age

Albert Dock has seen a bit in its time. A centre piece of the industrial revolution, the goods of trade and the spoils of empire were offloaded, stored, and transported from here to all over the country. Long after the dockers had gone, it symbolised the sort of go-getting regeneration Thatcher and friends pined for in the 1980s - at the same time Liverpool was making headlines for the city's defiance of the government and all its works. Showcased by Richard and Judy, and the weatherman we can't really talk about anymore, Albert Docks was now a place for media companies, cafes, entrepreneurialism, and reinvention. Apt that it should play host to a joint TUC/Fabian fringe on the future of work. Titled 'A second machine age or business as usual?', Jim Waterson of Buzzfeed presided over a discussion with TUC Genereal Secretary Frances O'Grady and Yvette Cooper. Readers may recall that rather late in the day, Yvette tried seizing the white heat of technology mantle from, well, no one to distinguish her 2015 leadership campaign. It's something she has variously associated herself with since.

In her opening remarks, she suggested that the new wave of automation is here and, for a movement with work at its core, presents us a series of difficult challenges. Part of this is understanding the intertwining of opportunities and threat, of understanding that new, exciting businesses can dissolve existing power structures and offer the potential of greater autonomy for workers, such as self-determination of work hours and control over work/life balance. The positives, however, cannot be fully harnessed if we ignore the fact networked workers face new forms of exploitation, a fragmentation of solidarity, and new levels of precarity - Yvette cited a report that stated up to 15 million jobs could be at risk, concentrated primarily in white collar occupations. With a two-tier workforce pretty much a reality already (and the subject of much forecasting in the 80s), the policy and organising challenge is looking at new laws, the use of investment, and thinking about what constitutes new, fulfilling jobs (and how to encourage their creation).

Frances noted that our discussion about change is nothing new. In the 1930s there was talk about leisure-based societies in which the fruits of technology are shared out. The 80s saw a different kind of industrial change driven by political calculation, and one in which our communities were left to rot. What's worrying now is not just the pace of change, which seems to be intensifying, but how they're multiplying exploitation and unjust working practices. The new business models are all too often about increased surveillance at work, zero hours, and making workers slaves to their apps. This is just not sustainable. From the standpoint of social security, how can people access support when their incomes are so unpredictable? And what happens when workers can neither pay into a pension, nor acquire a property that could later be sold to provide care in their old age?

Asked whether demand would be enough to create new jobs and this is an ado about little, for Yvette the problem is the pace of change is so fast that workers cannot acquire skills fast enough. And where is the opportunity for them to do so? We've also seen that left to its own devices, the market prefers to churn out lower paid, insecure jobs in greater numbers. However, where there is one area of work that will appear resistant to automation for some time is care - it is massively undervalued and needs to undergo a huge expansion. On the perennial question of training, Frances notes that we already have an over-trained, over-educated workforce. If there was an industrial strategy in place, the kinds of mismatches whereby graduates are undertaking unskilled work because there's nothing else on offer can be overcome.

Other unintended consequences of the new economy is the concentration of these kinds of businesses in cities, not towns, even though they could be done anywhere. As such towns are getting left behind, and this was one of the feeders into the Brexit vote. Another consequence is the combination of old school with new organising techniques. Citing the example of North Sea divers, who recently won a hefty pay hike from the employer, this variegated and otherwise atomised group of workers networked and discussed matters through Facebook. Likewise, social media was and is a useful adjunct to organising in Sports Direct.

There followed a number of questions about education at school, the nationalisation of robots, industrial democracy, care, and our old friend the basic income. For Frances, the robots question forces us to focus on where the state should intervene and where it shouldn't: if infrastructure is essential, be it digital or automotive, then isn't there a case? On industrial democracy, having elected workers on boards would only bring Britain into the mainstream of European policy, and it has a proven track record of ensuring businesses make more rounded investment decisions that tend to benefit the company as a whole. On the basic income, for Frances it's pretty clear the jury is out. While passed at the latest TUC congress, it was with the proviso of undertaking a detailed consideration of what it would mean. Yvette was more dismissive. Acknowledging the problems raised by the sceptical questioner (she noted how it wouldn't address unpaid domestic labour, which still falls heavier on women, nor how the poorer would lose out), she didn't think it would be helpful for the party of work "to give up on work". i.e. Because there won't be enough jobs to go around doesn't mean Labour should give up and opt for what amounts to a welfare solution instead. As far as I'm concerned, while there are difficulties attached and more work has to be done about the level it should be set at, affordability, impacts on existing social security recipients and so on, I don't think leaving millions at the tender mercies of the DWP and capricious employers is much of a starter.

Overall, a very interesting discussion. It seemed to me Frances showed greater awareness and radicalism than our future-facing Yvette, perhaps because her bread and butter is organising and attending to the concerns of working people. For Yvette, unfortunately, while absolutely right on care and the creative destruction wrought by the new technologies, her unthought dismissal of the basic income shows she's not just strait-jacketed by the old politics, she's grown snug and comfortable in it.


BCFG said...

I agree with the criticism of Yvette Cooper as being someone stuck in the old mentality and not quite grasping how policies are shaped in a post wage slave world, which is what we are talking about. To give up on wage slave work is not to give up on work! Yvette Cooper cannot imagine anything beyond the status quo, not surprising given her Tory lite political career, where Thatcherism is accepted pretty much without qualification (no really). Of course under capitalism those who do not have wage slave work will have autonomy (or unemployment as we used to call it) but if we imagine beyond the narrow limits of Yvette Coopers dreary world we could imagine productive work being shared out. Imagine a society where we had basic hours of say 15 hours of ‘specialised’ work per week, with 5 additional hours for ‘community’ work and then another 3 for ‘voluntary’ work.

The New Economic foundation have indicated this society is now possible, all that is holding us back is our worst and most disgusting enemy, I speak of those smiling reasonable monsters of the centre left. The monsters who tell people that anything which stands outside the status quo is idealistic, fantasy and madness.

We cannot imagine the future while those planet destroying, nation destroying, limb chopping fanatics of the status quo stand in our way!

richard yot said...

Full employment is a better approach than a basic income guarantee. There's many reasons for this, but fundamentally the main problem with basic income is that it is inflationary because people are being paid an income without necessarily adding to output and production, which means that there is more money chasing fewer goods, hence inflation.

A Keynesian style full employment policy is a much better approach because the state can use idle labour for productive purposes, of which there are legion: climate change, public services, infrastructure etc... This has tangible benefits to society, and adds significantly to output and productivity while also generating demand in the economy without the inflationary bias of a BIG.

Finally, a full employment policy pays for itself, as Keynes said: "look after unemployment and the budget looks after itself".

David Timoney said...


The job guarantee (the full employment approach) only makes sense if employment is cyclical - i.e. we move from periods of natural full employment into temporary depressions when a lack of business confidence leads to hands being idle. This made sense in Keynes's time but it makes no sense if we are now in an era of structural unemployment caused by technology

While the JG can result in the use of "idle labour for productive purposes", it is inherently inefficient. This is because the JG must be paid at a sufficiently low wage to encourage migration to private-sector jobs once the economy improves - i.e. below the minimum wage. This is a poor incentive that discourages commitment. A basic income is a better driver of pro-social work as the motivated are self-selecting (i.e. volunteers rather than conscripts).

A basic income isn't inflationary because it does not increase the money supply. It simply changes the distribution of income. In simple terms, everyone gets the UBI (whether in work or not) and this is offset by an increase in taxes on higher incomes and capital (so a net redistribution from rich to poor).

The job guarantee is a solution to the problem of a surplus of labour. Basic income is a solution to a problem of a surplus of capital. You first need to determine what the problem is.

richard yot said...

@david, I personally don't believe we are entering an era of structural unemployment or secular stagnation, because there are in fact enormous tasks and problems for us to tackle: clean energy, climate change, healthcare, caring for an ageing population, developing the 3rd world, improving infrastructure etc... The list of productive things we can do is almost endless.

The problem is that we rely on the private sector to tackle our problems, where in many (most) cases it is I'll-suited to the tasks. Could the private sector have put a man on the moon in a decade when Kennedy made the famous speech? No, because it would have lost a lot of money in doing so. Can the private sector solve the problems of climate change and clean energy? Probably not, and for the same reason.

Also, I can't imagine that funding the BIG via taxation will ever be politically feasible, because you will be taxing workers to fund people who are not working, political poison IMO. An MMT-style job guarantee funded via functional finance does not carry the same stigma of "punishing workers to reward shirkers", even if the economics will be hard to sell to a public that thinks in household analogies. At least full employment is a positive thing to offer.

Paul Ewart said...

Seems to me its all about ideology. In the 1970s and 80s i.e. before the straitjacket of TINA geographers looked forward to a future determined by leisure and freedom. Then, robots and machines were utopian, today they are dystopian. It's all about the narrowing of expectations and the closing of utopian futures. The future is ours to shape.