Thanks to robots, the glory days of manufacturing are gone – but in a better world, we don’t even need those jobs
When Donald Trump moves into the White House later this month, there will be great expectations resting on his ability to make good on one of the central planks of his campaign: Restoring America’s industrial glory days and “bringing back” jobs. In areas that have been hit particularly hard by deindustrialization, like the Rust Belt – which ultimately gave the election to Trump – working-class swing voters will be anxiously waiting for the president to “make America great again,” which to them means bringing back decent paying jobs along with some stability.
Unfortunately for America’s struggling working class, the majority of manufacturing jobs that have disappeared over the past few decades are never coming back, for one simple reason: They no longer exist. This reality is evidenced by a simple trend in manufacturing in America since the Great Recession ended: while manufacturing output has increased by more than 20 percent since 2009, manufacturing employment has grown by just 5 percent.
In other words, manufacturers have been returning to America in recent years, but they haven’t been bringing a whole lot of jobs with them, as Donald Trump might expect. It hasn’t been poor Chinese or Mexicans who have been taking the majority of American manufacturing jobs, but machines. Of the millions of manufacturing jobs lost over the past decade, more than 80 percent have been replaced by automation technologies, not foreign workers. It is, of course, much easier to scapegoat foreigners and immigrants than to blame robots.
And so the good old days of American manufacturing, when hard-working Americans could reach the middle class by working in the same local factory for 30 years, are long gone. No president, not even a strongman like Trump, can reverse the tide of “creative destruction.” This process – which was first detailed in the writings of Karl Marx – is endemic to the capitalist system. Economist Joseph Schumpeter, who described creative destruction as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one,” called it the “essential fact about capitalism.”
Throughout the history of industrial capitalism, creative destruction has frequently caused social strife and recurrent economic crises; eliminating countless jobs and wiping out whole industries (the “Luddites” famously responded to this in the early days of capitalism by destroying factory machinery – which of course proved futile). In the long run, however, creative destruction has been a supremely positive force for humanity that has transformed our standard of living. Moreover, technological advancements have hitherto created more jobs than they have destroyed by establishing new industries and expanding markets (resulting in globalization).
With this in mind, one might assume that this historical trend will continue unabated, and new 21st-century technologies will end up creating even more jobs, while continuing to improve all of our lives.
But this may not be the case, as new technologies – e.g., robotics, computerization and artificial intelligence (A.I.) – are fundamentally different from past technologies, with the potential to emulate human labor itself, thus making human workers and their human flaws obsolete. In a widely shared article published last month on BigThink.com, writer Phillip Perry warned of this possibility – which could ultimately produce a global crisis so devastating that it would make the Great Recession look like a bad day at the stock market. Perry writes:
Unemployment today is significant in most developed nations and it’s only going to get worse. By 2034, just a few decades [from now], mid-level jobs will be by and large obsolete. So far the benefits have only gone to the ultra-wealthy, the top 1%. This coming technological revolution is set to wipe out what looks to be the entire middle class. Not only will computers be able to perform tasks more cheaply than people, they’ll be more efficient too.
Perry cites a 2013 Oxford University study that found up to 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. are at risk for automation within the next two decades. “Accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, bureaucrats, and financial analysts beware: your jobs are not safe,” insists Perry.
Obviously this is bad news for the majority of working people in the world – whether American, Mexican, Chinese, etc. The worst case scenario may look something like the dystopian world dreamed up by Neill Blomkamp in his movie “Elysium,” in which a small economic elite live comfortably in a luxurious space habitat while the masses live a nasty, brutish and short existence on earth, a planet left completely ravaged by the forces of capitalism, including exploitation of natural resources, climate change and overpopulation.
Perhaps the most famous entrepreneurial capitalist and futurist of our time, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, suggested in November that a solution to this future may be a universal basic income (UBI), which is an increasingly popular proposal among policy wonks that would provide a fixed income to every single human being. (A.I. robots need not apply.) “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation,” said Musk. “I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.”
This is certainly the right way to approach the coming transformation. Rather than attempting to stop the irreversible tide of economic development – a futile and self-destructive approach that might look something like Trump’s economic platform, i.e., waging pointless trade wars and threatening to deport millions of undocumented immigrants who do the work most Americans reject – we must think of viable solutions that could avert a dystopian future where a small class of super-rich plutocrats live a life of leisure and abundance, isolated from the impoverished and exploited masses who live a Hobbesian nightmare.
A basic income has the potential to address some of the challenges, but it could also be used to avoid radical structural reforms. That is part of the reason why some right-wingers, including legendary economist Milton Friedman, have supported a version of it. What good would a basic income be if it were used to justify the massive wealth disparities that would remain? One can imagine the super-rich plutocrats, in their cordoned-off estates, disparaging the poor masses for being ungrateful. (Because it’s not all that different from the world we live in now.) A more radical and sustainable approach would involve promoting economic democracy and the collective ownership of capital (i.e., worker cooperatives), as well as the nationalization of certain industries that are essential to the public good, such as healthcare.
Of course, none of these proposals -in particular the UBI – stand much of a chance unless there is a paradigm shift in how we think about work, leisure, individual freedom and what constitutes a “good life.” The conventional attitude of today, for example, is that life revolves around work, and that work is a virtue in and of itself, regardless of whether it is at all fulfilling to the individual, or simply a means to put food on the table and pay the rent.
For the majority of Americans, of course, work is not fulfilling or satisfying; it is often tedious, frustrating, demoralizing and oppressive. According to a Gallup survey, 70 percent of Americans are not “engaged” in their job, which Gallup defines as being “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to [one’s] work and workplace.” One wonders how many of these people abandoned a calling they were truly passionate about because it was not practical, because it didn’t guarantee financial security or because of parental and social pressure.
This phenomenon is what Marx described as “alienation,” or estrangement. The alienated worker, observed Marx, “does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself, has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. The worker therefore feels himself at home only during his leisure time, whereas at work he feels homeless.” Marx’s dream was ultimately the liberation of all men and women from this alienation – and from wage labor itself – which was to be achieved through socialism.
That word remains contentious, especially in the United States – so it is worth briefly exploring what Marx actually meant when he spoke of socialism. The German philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm undertook this task in his book, “Marx’s Concept of Man”:
Socialism, for Marx, is a society which permits the actualization of man’s essence, by overcoming his alienation. It is nothing less than creating the conditions for the truly free, rational, active and independent man … For Marx the aim of socialism was freedom, but freedom in a much more radical sense than the existing democracy conceives of it – freedom in the sense of independence, which is based on man’s standing on his own feet, using his own powers and relating himself to the world productively.
Depending on how we respond to the coming technological revolution, this kind of freedom could potentially be achieved in the future – or something much more bleak could ensue. The dreams of Marx may finally be realized, or the dystopian nightmares that torment Hollywood screenwriters could instead become our reality.
With Trump about to enter the Oval Office, the latter seems more likely – but it will ultimately depend on whether popular movements unfold in the years ahead. For the foreseeable future, however, one thing seems quite certain: President Trump will fail to restore the good old days of American manufacturing. And when that happens, he will double down on the demonization of minorities, foreigners, immigrants, the media and so on. Perhaps he will even start scapegoating robots.
To combat this dangerous narrative, the left should promote its own narrative that challenges conventional thinking about work in modern life. Rather than dwelling on how to rescue wage labor from new technologies and how to put people back to work doing jobs that provide no human fulfillment – and that could easily be done by robots or computers – one should consider how these new technologies could help achieve Marx’s ultimate hope for humanity: true freedom.