Rage, a wage, and the machine

In a thought-provoking Guardian article – ‘As robots take our jobs, we need something else’ – George Monbiot argued that the the future for humanity lies in voluntary work, underpinned by a universal basic income (UBI). A slew of economists followed suit. Then the RSA joined in, suggesting that everyone under-55 be given £10,000 (over 2 years) to pursue training or caring activities. They all begin from a premise that, as the RSA put it, “the link between hard work and fair pay has broken”.

It is an argument that is both persuasive and wrong. As Labour too plays with the idea of a Universal Basic Income it should take care not to abandon the case for paid work and decent pay. The real alternatives do not involve accepting that we will be replaced by robots or (at the very least) treated as though we are ones.

Some of today’s technology ‘advances’ are certainly scary. Amazon’s patenting of a wristband to record the hand movements of its warehouse workers – guaranteeing they pack the 250 or so items per hour the company expects – offers a grim picture of how work might be monitored. I’m tempted to suggest that trade unions insist Amazon begins the experiment with its own Board Members, Executives and management. At the very least, it would be interesting to see what hand movements Amazon then count as work.

All new technologies bring political and philosophical challenges. None make humanity irrelevant…or make a UBI the alternative to paid work. The real choices need a more vigorous debate about the sort of society we are trying to build.

We should remember that countries currently trialling UBI are trying to get the unemployed back into work rather than finding an alternative to it. In the UK, the most passionate advocates of UBI as the new ‘voluntarism’ never seem to apply it to themselves. A model that only works for other people will only widen the divide between work and the workless. It will also fail to grasp what employment means… well beyond the wage itself.

Buddhist economics

Ernst Schumacker probably understood this better than most. His three-fold definition of economics set work in a different context; describing it as the relationship

between a person and their own creativity,

between the person and others in the creative process, and

between the collective and the wider environment that sustains them.

Schumacker called this ‘Buddhist Economics’; where creativity and responsibility displace short-term profiteering as our ‘raison d’être’. Conventional politics and economics has consistently failed to grasp the difference.

Humankind does not have to be driven by ‘Taylorist’ beliefs that we are ultimately destined only to deliver menial bits of work surrounding the machines that will replace us. Machines can take the drudge, danger and degradation out of work, but they can do so whilst enhancing human creativity, not replacing it. Ultimately, this is about political choice not evolutionary destiny.

Today’s, employer-provided mobile phones don’t have to carry a presumption of unlimited (unpaid) worker availability. The desire of Uber, Amazon or Deliveroo to turn such technologies into 24-hour tagging systems doesn’t make this inevitable, desirable or acceptable. The political alternative is to make technology deliver greater equality.

Working or volunteering

Those who argue for an alternative future based on voluntary work should tread carefully; it is a cause usually championed by those in secure employment.

Most of my pre-parliamentary life was spent in the voluntary sector; a sector rich in enthusiasm and inventiveness, but also full of people (legitimately) keen to find work. This isn’t just about pay. It includes training, social recognition, contractual rights and defined responsibilities.

For sure, the sector has lots of people who give their time for free. But voluntarism exists at a lesser (more arbitrary) level than employment. Services dependent on volunteers also need networks of paid staff to guarantee the service delivers ‘what it says on the tin’.

Ask anyone in areas ravaged by industrial collapse what they want. Voluntary work may be a vital part of maintaining the social cohesion otherwise being torn apart. But the real hunger is for replacement work, tradeable skills and a living wage. At the centre of this political battleground is the fight for secure employment, decent wages, a shorter working week, an end to zero-hour contracts, access to skill training and long term job security. These are what tomorrow’s inclusive economy must be built around.

No one will be thanked for creating a new division between the working class and the never-working class. Only fascism will thrive in such devalued space.

Chasms of alienation

It isn’t just the RSA’s link between ‘hard work and fair pay’ that has to be repaired. Just as damaged are the links between us as human beings. Technologies that leap across time zones, cultures and continents have also created chasms that separate us from ourselves. Look at any bus stop, any high street, any social event. The main ‘active’ relationships are often between people and their mobiles. Text replaces talk. Internet games replace on-street ones. Virtual relationships become the new ‘real’; real relationships become remote.

Technology advances that create more ‘free time’ than ever before have also disconnected us from ourselves. As slaves to the machine we lose both the routines of socialising and the skill-sets that go with them. Appeals to a future based on volunteering ignore the fact that this too has become a casualty of ‘progress’.

Any sustainable economics – one that gives us some chance of steering through the massive environmental and climate challenges ahead – will have to rebuild the links between people at the same time as rebuilding the economy. Welcome to the Age of Interdependence.

This is what tomorrow’s ‘circular’ economics will have to look like. And in it we will rediscover some of the key contributions ‘waged labour’ makes that robots never can.

‘No automation without taxation’

Let’s begin with the overlooked shortcomings of robotics.

Robots pay neither taxes nor National Insurance. They contribute nothing to the circular flow of money in the economy and are useless at buying goods and services from local shops. Robots don’t frequent local cafes, drink in local pubs, visit local cinemas or turn up for local sports events. They do not socialise with anyone on the street, help children learn to read, write and climb trees, nor do they maintain our parks and gardens. To add insult to injury, robots also fail to deliver your mail, empty your bins, replace your heating system or turn up to do emergency roof and plumbing repairs. We forget all too easily that it is people who do this work.

These are not just jobs waiting to be automated. They are essential roles played by employed human beings; people who bring with them skill sets that are the glue binding ‘economy’ and ‘society’ into a more meaningful whole. Today’s fundamental need is for people to be trained (and paid) properly to do this work. The political debate is how best to deliver it?

One starting point could be a wholesale review of National Insurance contributions.

On opening my first wage packet, I remember my dad explaining that NI was not a personal savings scheme. It was the way in which each working-age generation helped support the generation that preceded it, and pave the way for the one that follows. They called it ‘inter-generational solidarity’; a lovely term we seem to have forgotten.

But the weakness in the NI system was always that it could be undermined in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘growth’. Replacing workers by machines wasn’t just about increasing output. It allowed employers to avoid paying their ’employer’ NI contributions.

Machines that paid nothing into ‘social taxation’ became a front for employers eager to skip out of contributing too. Their erstwhile NI payments were just redirected into personal and shareholder rewards. Machines (and now robots) became the on-shore avatars of offshore profiteering.

One way of avoiding this would be to replace employer NI with a form of ‘turnover taxation’; an approach previously used in Germany. Then, a (say) 1% levy on gross turnover would serve as the employer’s contribution to social welfare, removing any tax incentive to replace people by machines. It is the simplest form of ‘robot tax’.

The City of London would doubtless scream that such a levy would kill off financial trading. Perhaps a lower rate could be set for short-term gambling. The principle, however, would be to make technology pay the same in taxes as workers. Creating such a ‘a level playing field’ between people and machines would be no bad starting point. Then we would discover that all sorts of skill training and social infrastructure investment became much more affordable.

The real threat to society does not come from machines that take the danger out of doing. It comes when politics allows robotics to take the engagement out of being and the effort out of thinking.

Right now, the robots are too close to the policy-making. This is what we should be worried about.

Alan Simpson

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