I’m sorry to put you through another Trump-reaction think-piece, truly, but I think this is important and within the masses of pieces I’ve read I haven’t seen this addressed much.
The nature and amount of work in the world is changing at an unparalleled pace, and not in favour of workers. Automation threatens the lifestyles of everyone, whether you’re the person being automated or the one who has to interact with the new automated agents. It is not a matter of asking how it will change things, it is already changing things now and rapidly. One need only look at US manufacturing output vs jobs in manufacturing to see the impact: The US produces more than it ever has with fewer people, this is the same in most advanced economies.
So what happens to those unneeded people? Well, they go from having good, secure jobs that they took ownership of and poured themselves into to insecure, lowly paid jobs. Jobs where they’re often the public face of their organisation, publicly marked as the lowest paid person there - because everyone knows the people in those jobs are the lowest paid people in society.
Then along comes someone who promises to make things better. Someone who verbalises their insecurities, who offers them a point of blame. Somewhere to focus all their anger and anxiety, along with a promise that he’ll take care of them and make things as they were - just as soon as he’s fixed that other issue that’s keeping them down.
That person gets elected and everyone in my liberal bubble goes into a shocked tail-spin.
We need to stop navel-gazing and form a positive policy response to automation. It will be impossible to keep people interested in big, important issues such as gender equality and the climate while they still have no idea how long their work will last. They may care about those issues, but they care about good jobs and their livelihoods more.
This policy response needs to have empathy too. Neoliberalism’s cost/benefit nitpicking needs to be dispensed with in favour of generous universal assistance that everyone in society can benefit from. In this vein, a UBI might be the right response, but the way it is pitched now is patronising and insulting to the people who it is meant to help. Too often when I hear people talk about the UBI it is always as a technocratic response to the loss of income caused by unemployment. I think this is patronising in the extreme, even if those pitching the UBI mean well. To me, it is the result of people who live in a bubble trying to solve a problem so they can get back to their good lives. It will be electoral suicide as long as it is like this.
This is not to demonise the UBI as a policy, but to say that whatever policy mix ends up looking like the right one, it needs to be humanised. The UBI essentially says to people who have done what society have expected of them, who have derived their meaning from their work, that when there’s no more work they should just run along, they’ve got their money, what more do they want? This was the wrong response before Trump and Brexit and is boneheaded now.
People aren’t stupid. If one side is saying things like “your anxieties and insecurities are the fault of Syrian Refugees/Mexicans”, and the other is saying “You’re wrong, take your hangout” who do you expect them to vote for?
This is a crisis for the left, truly. I don’t know what the exact policy response is here, but it needs to be developed with empathy for the people it is designed to help, and then pitched to them in the same language. Hell, it needs to be actually developed with the people we’re trying to help. Then, it needs to be presented as a response to their actual problems, not in cold technocratic terms, but in real language that says “We understand the world is changing and here’s how we want to make sure you don’t get left behind”.
This sort of thing isn’t totally absent in the world of the Left today, but we need a hell of a lot more of it, otherwise we’re in for an inevitable spread of fascism across the west as displaced working people look for help in their situations and take the only offer they find.