Don’t fear technology, it could yet set us free – if we get the politics right

by Paul Connell

I joined Labour shortly after Thatcher’s election in ‘79 so my political education was in a period dominated by slogans and chants.

‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!’ That one worked; took 10 years, mind you.

‘The workers united will never be defeated.’ Well , that was also true; we weren’t united and we were defeated.

One I never quite got was ‘fight for the right to work.’ Work seemed an obligation, a duty, something that ate into all the other things you wanted to be doing but necessary simply to pay for all those other things. But a right? Nah.

Some people love working; they can’t wait to get in there. Good for them, but they are, I would suggest, a statistical abnormality. The best most of us can hope for is to enjoy most  of our job, to find it stimulating and challenging, to have decent colleagues and to be paid enough for a reasonable lifestyle with, perhaps, a liveable pension at the end.  At worst a job is drudgery that robs us of the time and energy that we could be using far better elsewhere. Work is, for most, a means to an end.

As driverless vehicles,  artificial intelligence and advanced robotics begin to move into areas of work long considered ‘safe’ from technology,  we are all going to have to consider our relationship to work and, together with the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), replan our work ethic and how the competing rights and duties  of the labour market are managed. Traditional working class jobs in industry and manufacturing have already been exported or mechanised out of existence in the past few generations. As traditionally white-collar, middle-class jobs begin to disappear down the same gaping maw, the casualties can expect the same level of sympathy, protection from market-economics and solidarity that working class communities were accorded in the 80’s and 90’s, bugger all.

Sympathy, and particularly protectionism, is not what’s needed. Solidarity? maybe. We should, together, be grasping this opportunity. Drudgery can, at least partly, be banished. If a machine can do most of the 3 ‘D’s – that which is dull, dirty or dangerous, then let it. What will be left is what is necessary for people to do and what they enjoy doing. A new work ethic is about sharing out and rewarding essential services and purposeful leisure.

Essential services – that‘s rather more than what happens on Christmas day, isn’t it? If it’s a dirty/stressful/exhausting job but someone’s gotta do it, it’s essential.  It’s care of the very young , ill, old or vulnerable, it’s face to face commerce, maintenance of transport links, clearing away the rubbish we create, ensuring community security and safety. You can supplement that list as you see fit.

Some of these jobs require long training and dedicated skill; they can’t be done by just anyone and so market forces dictate they should be well paid. So, pay them well. Some are more menial and plain unpleasant; in the job market anyone can, apparently, do them and so they are not well paid. Well, if anyone can do them, everyone should do them. Every single one of us should, at some point in our lives, undertake some of these chores. Every graduate’s CV should flaunt as a badge of honour, much more valuable than a stint at McDonalds or Deliveroo, a spell emptying bed-pans, recycling bins or portable toilets. If the drudgery is shared out equally, those who do it might have time and energy left for something more fulfilling.

By purposeful leisure I mean the sorts of things that some people call work but that we would do anyway, even if we aren’t being paid. A range of activities fall under this banner but let me suggest a few:

  • Low-intensity agriculture and artisan food production, with the produce sold through a network of farmers markets, and co-ops, bringing derelict land back into production as allotments, crofts and small-holdings.
  • Environmental activism and maintenance, anything from RSPB volunteering to badger surveying or tree-planting.
  • Doing, organising and coaching sport.
  • Culture for all, based on participation not consumption. In future every writer can be published, every musician can have material online. There will be far fewer people making big money from creativity but access will be universal. That’s a good thing.

Parents can have more time to spend with their kids, young people more time with their elders. We can all have more sex, which is always a good thing and, you know what? Our chronically sleep-deprived society can catch up on its zzz’s and we can spend some time doing not very much. Idleness can be a virtue. While we’re at it, let’s turn down the intensity of tourism a notch or two. How many pretty towns, historic sights and architectural marvels are there in your locality that you have never visited? Do that before you add to Barcelona’s saturation.

Who pays? State support from taxation will be necessary for priming and regulating such activity but more than state intervention, it will require a regeneration of the (inappropriately named) voluntary sector. Local and national NGO’s, co-ops, community enterprises and a host of alternatives exist to centralised statism.  This is where UBI comes in. UBI allows people to take risks with their time, disengaging work from survival, allowing us to give without the obligation to take quite so much.

We all live in a variable economy. Every activity in which we engage is subject to a different economic model – whether market, community, collaborative, or family. The idea that the same rigid set of economic rules applies to all our activities is, empirically, false. In the morning you might be doing some freelance contract work for a multinational, later you might browse some item in the high street then go home and buy it more cheaply online. Over lunch you discuss with your daughter her educational and career plans and what of that can and can’t be afforded, how it might be subsidised and what she might do to help, such as a bit of care-home work. Later still you have some friends round for dinner, using veg from your allotment and a few bottles of wine they provide. Each of these activities is subject to its own economic dynamic; each has its own cost-benefit and risk analysis. Se a vida e, to quote eminent economists, the Pet Shop Boys.

That all this might also foment new forms of political and community involvement might well be scary to traditional parties and structures. Good. Professional politicians, the PPE-clever zombies, and the dead hand of self-appointed ‘community leaders’ have all had their day. Our democracy is currently based on the assumption that the vast majority have no time or energy for much more than a vote every few years. That would change and if it produces more populism, we need to deal with that.

Education has to change too. It’s a truism that schooling prepares children for today’s or, more usually, yesterday’s job market, the parameters and demands with which teachers and parents have grown up. Tomorrow’s labour market will need true lifelong learning. In the past school schedules echoed the methods and time demands of the factory, organising classes and qualifications to fill the production lines and their administration. In future we will have to learn a more autonomous and critical approach to our own time-management.  We need to learn when to give and when to take. It’s not dependent on pure altruism. Greed, if not good, is kinda eternal and the desire for more than in the past or more anyone else will persist. Consumerist capitalism is kinda effective at rewarding initiative, risk-taking and creative thinking. So, use that.

Active citizenship in exchange for UBI is a quid pro quo deal. Something for nothing is charity, not socialism, perhaps a necessary component of socialism but no more than a small part. How this balance is adjudicated is problematic; I fear the prospect of Job-Centre Plus officials licking their metaphorical pencils as they assess the value of one’s efforts coaching junior football or selling veg from a High St stall. A fair system is not beyond us.

I’ll admit to a degree of post 60’s hippy dippy bull about all this but none of it is fantasy; the elements are all available or about to be. The alternative? Fewer, and even more frazzled, folk in ‘full time’ work, envying the obligatorily leisured who, in turn, press ever more onto their pitch.

Who needs that? Chill.

Paul Connell is a former social worker who worked for 30 years in the public and voluntary sectors and now lives in Spain

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3 Responses to “Don’t fear technology, it could yet set us free – if we get the politics right”

  1. john P reid says:

    There’s a view among some older on the left that hyper inflation caused by the pay rises in the summer of 74 was right, and repealing the industrial relations act and the closed shop ,causing the winter of discontent were right, the public were wrong to vote tory in 1979, when they came in promised to scrap labours policies, So labour was right to stand on a manifesto in 1983 reversing what Thatcher had done, then when labour lost it was viewed over the next 2 elections the public could be won round into realising they were wrong to vote For Thatcher,
    then after 1992 Labour had to accept the Tory policies on unions

    there are those on the left who post 2010 thought they could still save face, by convincing the public that thatcher was wrong on the economy and the unions, but ed Miliband saying he’d change a few of the Tory union laws and Austerity was wrong saw him lose, then The worse Tory campaign ever in 2015, and labour promising the Earth,saw a hung parliament

    here’s the thing the majority of labours vote are two young to recall the winter of discontent, and wouldn’t want it if it happened, yet a few older hard lefties still hang on to a romantic view that the Wilson.Callaghan Government on 19741979 was right to have high inflation let the unions run wild, and still refuse to accept it was rejected in 6 elections and the other 4 new labour fought 1997-2010, saw the public trust labour not to let the unions get out of control

  2. john P Reid says:

    many working class people form London bought their council homes, moved out of London,thought they were middle class and voted tory, so labour had to try to appeal to those people to win in 1997, Labour thought those who didn’t buy their council homes, were still called working class, would be put off by labour appealing to those,who now thought they were middle class
    arguing they had no where else to go

    as such, those who felt labour didn’t appeal to them anymore, who were classed working class, either abstained, or thought labour was too “liberals” as labour a party for the working class wasn’t a liberal party , as such they voted ukip

    Ed miliband saw middle class public sector white collar workers, who’d had a pay freeze ,under the coalition (teachers/Doctors) thought would vote labour if he promised them a pay rise, Corbyn convinced the party, the working class who’d recently voted ukip ,stopped voting labour as we weren’t left wing enough, now he thinks he can get back, middle class ,liberal, university educated, remain voting public workers, trouble is its those sort of people who despise blue collar working class voters, who wet over to ukip,basically the people the party was set up to represent, and the middle class liberals who dislike the blue collar working class, will only win, with momentums help to get hold of the party and drive away the blue collar working class even more so, eventually labour will lose a lot of its working class seats, while winning middle class ones

  3. Paul says:

    The issue of automation raises two important questions for me.

    1. If we could, is there a limit to what we should automate. Auotomation will create a fundamental shift in society and it isn’t simply the skilled factory worker who will feel it. Many white collar tasks are being automated. We even have intelligent systems that can do some of the work done by a solicitor (maybe I have answered my own question).

    As human beings will it really be good for society? What are the evidence from previous ‘revolutions’?

    2. How will we pay for this? Taxation and income are based on work. We live in a world where capital moves freely. If the conveyancing for my house sale is done by an intelligent system based in Far East, who collects the tax on this transaction.? Do I simply collect my income from the state, unable to earn my own living and dependent on redistribution? There are very real problems in all of this and the Ludditess and Little Islanders might have an audience.

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