Can we count on utopian dreamers to change the world?
Colin Anderson/Getty By Ben Collyer Aristotle wrote in his Politics that if machines could be made to obey or anticipate the will of humans and then function untended, “chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves”. The ancient Greeks were pretty handy with labour-saving devices, and although Aristotle was not predicting the imminent end of slavery in the 4th century BC, his logic remains impeccable. Yet history has revealed barriers to the adoption of automation: if human labour is cheap, why invest in machines? And when technology is adopted, what happens to the servants or slaves? Throughout the medieval period, the only investments that interested squabbling feudal landowners were related to war. It took the profit motive of 18th-century capital investors to sponsor innovators and weigh the fine financial balance between machines and humans in producing everyday goods. But as we know, the gains made by ordinary workers in the industrial period came only through bitter struggle and upheaval. Now in 2017, we are struggling again with newer disruptions and inequalities brought on by imbalances between humans and machines. Enter Dutch thinker Rutger Bregman, whose debut book Utopia for Realists has become an unexpected bestseller. Bregman accepts that many new jobs have emerged since early automation in the 1800s, but suggests that the pace of technological advance has now passed a threshold – and the rate of creation is now falling. He cites Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who coined the term “the great decoupling” to describe this most recent phase, in which wages no longer even partially keep step with technical productivity. How is it that real incomes have barely risen since the 1970s, despite the most rapid technical advances in human history? Instead, inequality has grown to levels similar to those of the Roman Empire. The answer, suggests Bregman, is twofold: the output of modern automation is not met by adequate purchasing power, and labour has been drawn increasingly into administrative and transactional work that delivers no direct improvement in living standards. To resolve these problems, first, if machines increasingly make more of the things that meet our needs, then a universal basic income (UBI) is no longer a pipe dream, but essential to permit us to buy those machine-made goods. It’s an old idea, toyed with by such unlikely fellow proponents as the 18th-century author of Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, and US president Richard Nixon. Now, argues Bregman, its time has finally come. Second, the advantages of technology would be enhanced still further if futile admin could be reduced, and labour mainly refocused on activities that directly meet human needs. Bregman makes the argument vigorously, if perhaps a little unsympathetically, to those who, in search of a job, have found themselves in the financial sector. In the banks, he says, clever minds concoct myriad, complex financial products that “don’t create wealth, but destroy it. These products are, essentially, like a tax on the rest of the population. Who do you think is paying for all those custom-tailored suits, sprawling mansions, and luxury yachts?” Bregman’s Utopia is light on discussion about how the UBI is to be funded, though. Money creation by central banks is already practised through “quantitative easing” (QE), but it goes to the commercial banks, in a largely futile effort to stimulate the economy with yet more debt. As a result, the idea of “QE for the people” is already appearing in political manifestos, in line with Bregman’s argument, as a source of UBI. If all this happens, we will need to watch for inflation. When the new UBI is spent, what will people buy? Will the industries that produce these goods or services have adequate investment to gear up? And can progressive governments ensure an orderly reorientation of labour, especially in the corporate sector? As with previous historic efforts at imagining UBI, the changes that Bregman proposes will meet political resistance from vested interests and risk popular alarm if not carefully planned. Global corporations and their owners, the pension and insurance funds, will need to be persuaded by the economic restructuring implied – the shrinking of bank profit and transactional activity, and the need for capital assets, training and recruitment to be redirected to productive sectors. The questions that Bregman poses must be addressed, and urgently: thought-through projections will be essential soon. It is possible that a modest UBI alone might jump-start a move in the right direction. Too large an amount, and an unprepared productive sector will not have enough capacity to meet the new demand, resulting in inflation and disappointment. A more detailed treatment of the history, theory and political prospects for UBI is offered by Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght, who also believe its time has come. They begin to address the complex social issues it raises in their book, Basic Income – who receives UBI, at what age, and can we avoid triggering unwanted cross-border migration? Their work will be essential for the ongoing debate, but by their own admission, leaves much to tackle with regard to macroeconomic and corporate governance issues. So, to guarantee that UBI doesn’t become a flash in the pan and ensure the smoothest possible transition away from dysfunctional modern economics, writers and thinkers will need to engage the public and professional imagination. These authors make a brilliant start though — after all, how on Earth are we to pay for goods made by robots, and wouldn’t a world composed entirely of “wealth-creating” bankers starve to death? Utopia for Realists: And how we can get there Rutger Bregman Bloomsbury Publishing Basic Income: A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght Harvard University Press More on these topics: