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Culture and technology
23 January 2013

How the rise of the robots could give socialism a second chance

One of the things that the right hates about the left is its top-down, state-led vision for the ordering of human endeavor. Even if we assumed that the state were capable of such far-reaching technocratic competence, we’d still shudder at the thought of such a society. 

However benevolent in its intention, the socialist dream is de-humanising because it leaves so little place for voluntary action. 

In any case, and as most leftwingers now accept, it is a dream that had no chance of becoming reality – except, of course, as the nightmare of communism. But even communism succumbed to the power of free enterprise, which has – up to a point – enabled people to realise their own dreams independently of the state.

And yet we must be on our guard. New economic forces are at work that could give socialism a second chance. Consider the following article by Noah Smith for the Atlantic:

  • “For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor's share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America's growing inequality.”

There are various explanations for this phenomenon. One of them is the “recent entry of China into the global trading system”, which, “doubled the labor force available to multinational companies.” As Chinese incomes rise – along with global transport costs – this effect should diminish, but, Smith warns, “there is another, more sinister explanation”:

  • “In past times, technological change always augmented the abilities of human beings. A worker with a machine saw was much more productive than a worker with a hand saw. The fears of ‘Luddites,’ who tried to prevent the spread of technology out of fear of losing their jobs, proved unfounded. But that was then, and this is now. Recent technological advances in the area of computers and automation have begun to do some higher cognitive tasks –think of robots building cars, stocking groceries, doing your taxes. 
  • “Once human cognition is replaced, what else have we got? For the ultimate extreme example, imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.”

Obsolete as a horse? Perhaps. But before we’re sent off to the knacker’s yard (or to the burger factory), we’ll get to vote. And the more that wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a capital-owning minority, the more we’ll vote to redistribute that wealth.

Thus the rise of the robots could mean a new era of leftwing ascendancy. Only, this time, it wouldn't be about the state controlling the means of production, but, rather, the means of consumption.

Fortunately, there is an alternative agenda:

  • “...it should be easier for the common people to own their own capital - their own private army of robots. That will mean making 'small business owner' a much more common occupation than it is today (some would argue that with the rise of freelancing, this is already happening). Small businesses should be very easy to start, and regulation should continue to favor them.”

Noah Smith may not be a conservative, but this is, nonetheless, a conservative vision. If the spread of automation drives an increasingly capital intensive economy, then it is vital that we achieve our dream of a capital-owning democracy.

In the 20th century, socialism failed to turn us into robots. In the 21st century, we must ensure that robots do not turn us into socialists.


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