Labour in the second machine age

by Jonathan Todd

I’ve admired Thomas Paine throughout my adult life. But I didn’t expect to find a discussion of his ideas towards the end of a book subtitled “work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies”, The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

In the second machine age, the world that digital technologies are creating around us, as steam enabled the first industrial revolution, “we need to think much more deeply about what it is we really want and what we value, both as individuals and as a society,” Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, which is why reflections on Paine and other philosophers are brought into the book’s concluding section.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are to be congratulated for bringing these debates out of the reflective corners of Silcon Valley and Tech City, and to a wider audience. But public and political debate should be more urgent. Labour has been guilty of not contributing as fully as we might.

While debate among economists has raged for two decades as to whether globalisation or technological change does most to explain widening inequality in advanced democracies, Labour has tended to put more rhetorical and policy emphasis on adapting to globalisation. Research reproduced in a new Policy Network book (see Figure 1, page 8) makes clear that economists see technology, rather than globalisation, as the bigger driver of inequality.

According to a recent speech by Dan Jarvis, “New Labour didn’t see – with sufficient clarity – the downsides of globalisation.” In critiquing New Labour, Jarvis persists with the New Labour error of explaining too much with reference to globalisation and too little with reference to technology. When decisions about UK steel production are made in Mumbai boardrooms, this is understandable.

But the force of technology as a driver of economic and social change has for too long been understated in Labour debate and policy. To do better, we should keep in mind “the bounty and the spread”, concepts that Brynjolfsson and McAfee develop.

The bounty are benefits of digitalisation that are widely shared and abundant. The proliferation of wonderful and freely available apps is just the tip of this iceberg. Brynjolfsson and McAfee see it stretching – among other things – to “heart surgeries performed without cracking the sternum and opening the chest cavity”; “households (spending) less of their total budget over time on groceries, cars, clothing, and utilities”; “more opportunity for creative and interactive work”.

The spread, however, might explain why we stand on the precipice of this brave new world with such pronounced social pessimism and anxiety. It is digitalisation’s contribution to widening inequality via the creation of more winner-take-all-markets and displacement of traditional middle class jobs as aggressive as that suffered by the working classes over a century of increasingly mechanised production lines. New forms of accountancy software, for example, rapidly make their inventors rich, giving them a thick slice of the spread, while adding to the bounty and imperilling the employment prospects of accountants, leaving that supposedly steady profession with a thinner slice of the spread.

Here are three things Labour might focus on:

First, remember John Rawls, not Karl Marx. Marxist determinism encourages fatalism in the face of such profound change in our economic base. Reforming socialists, in contrast, have always believed that change can be managed toward justice, which should now be guided by a recalibration of Rawlsian principles: unequal spreads, which are enjoyed by the few, are only justified to the extent that they enable larger gains in the bounty, benefitting the many.

Second, not only must we close the digital divide, enabling all to access the bounty, we must give all the skills and attributes necessary to have the best possible chance of reaping the higher returns of the spread. But a UK Steve Jobs will not emerge from one of our council estates simply by improved coding skills. In an era when Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) give anyone with a digital connection access to some of the world’s best learning opportunities, the rise of a British Jobs from humble beginnings will require wider cultivation of the self-discipline necessary to absorb these learning possibilities.

Third, while coding skills and self-discipline can open doors to the greatest rewards for more of us, we have to ensure workplace fairness for those with a leaner serving of the spread. As Community are providing robust representation to steelworkers now suffering globalisation’s inequities, we also need trade unions capable of meeting the new challenges to workplace fairness posed by technological change.

In her last word on Radio 4 on Friday about the recently deceased Asa Briggs, Jean Seaton said of Briggs and the post-war generation of which Harold Wilson was also a part, “they were determined to make clever people like them rule Britain.” The second machine age poses great challenges but calls for a new generation of Labour reformers as confident as those of the past in their ability to remake their world.

Jonathan Todd is deputy editor of Labour Uncut

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2 Responses to “Labour in the second machine age”

  1. paul barker says:

    Fair enough but its a bit pointless calling on a Party to turn away from Marx when its already been taken over by Marxists.

  2. While debate among economists has raged for two decades as to whether globalisation or technological change does most to explain widening inequality in advanced democracies…

    Why the pretence that widening inequality is an accidental result of something else. If not pretence could it be that recent events occurring just before the age of New Labour are ignored.

    There is no accidental cause whether Jarvis’s globalization or technological advances. Neither of these automatically cause inequality. What happened in the mid-1970s was a planned change in the economies of Britain and the US to stop the post-war decline in inequality. Keith Joseph was giving speeches at British universities before Thatcher’s election saying that we needed more inequality to save the economy. What Hayekian economics brought wasn’t accidental, it was deliberate. If Todd’s new Labour had really wanted to change this they would have had to break with the economic consensus. Still I guess it is always easier to blame something or someone else.

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