Will the Post-Scarcity Robot-Driven Economy be the End of Capitalism or the New Libertarian Utopia?
A few weeks ago, the excellent Brian Garst, on this very website wrote an article on the robot-driven future and why people shouldn’t fear robot workers. Now, in general I agreed with his premise and share his basic optimism for the future. But I do think he underestimated (or under-reported) the trickiness of our transition; and more importantly just how radically it will change the way our economic system functions. The future is going to be weird, and we won’t be able to keep doing almost anything the way we do it now, in terms of how to make money. How do we get through such a huge change without huge social upheaval, violent revolution or the collapse of civilization? Will the future belong to the anti-capitalists? Was Marx right? Or will we just have to change how we understand capitalism?
I’m a great believer in the future, and I WANT that future where robots and computers end up doing most of the work. But it doesn’t make sense to downplay the massive chaos that such a change could cause. Because really, just saying “everyone can just get service jobs” is not that different than Brian’s “building a highway with shovels” example. It would only possibly make sense if it was an intentional idea: everyone works at McDonald’s only because we force McDonald’s not to use robots. And why would we even want that?
Let me put something into context here: this isn’t something that’ll happen someday to your grandkids. It’s possible that 30% of all jobs will be taken by robots within 10 years. And pretty soon after that, the ONLY jobs that will be safe from robots will be those that require human elements that robots cannot effectively imitate: and we know this won’t include sex (so even the world’s oldest profession will be at risk; because you know as soon as we can make robots that look just like us, or even ‘good enough’, there’ll be sex-robots everywhere, or emotional support (because we know people can already end up feeling emotional support from inanimate objects, so as soon as we can make robots that really seem to care for you and be your friend, the ‘carer’ professions are gone), or the vast majority of academic or creative jobs (because we will very quickly get to the point where it will be impossible to judge if some work of art or research was created by a person expressing the “indomitable beauty of the human spirit,” or just a machine following a very clever program – only comedy might last a bit longer, because apparently it’s really hard for machines to figure out how to imitate sarcasm or comedic tone). Just about the only type of profession I can think of that might be safe (for a while longer, at least) is the real “world’s oldest profession” – religion. And even that will last only for as long as until people start to feel that machines can have souls or can express spiritual wisdom or revelation (which may or may not need to wait until AIs come along). I mean, imagine if you can get an android that can quote scriptures flawlessly, correct your yoga posture within one-tenth of an inch and won’t even diddle the altar boys!
And we’re still missing the most important technological advancement of all: 3D printing, which is just a toy right now but in very few years will mean that anyone can get any kind of garbage they like, put it in one end, and create almost anything they want out the other end. We already effectively have that with information, thanks to the internet, and now we will very quickly be getting to the point where the old ‘anti-piracy’ ad campaign “you wouldn’t download a car, would you?” will be answerable with “Just you f*cking watch me!”
It will be a society where not only intellectual property, but the whole concept of scarcity itself will be radically altered. And the ability of corporations to control the means of producing not just TV Shows, but basic manufactured goods, will disappear.
Therefore the real answer HAS to be that in some form or another, we will have to move to a society that thinks of work-for-money as optional. Does that mean the dreaded Socialism? Well, no, because socialism as we understand it now would make no more sense than Capitalism as we apply it now would under the coming post-scarcity high-automation future. Nor is the answer necessarily in Big Government. On the contrary, a lot of the great advancements will mean enormously greater persona independence: solar power means you’ll be able to make your own energy without depending on the Government Grid to give it to you, 3D printing means you will be able to produce your own…well, anything! And the internet already means you could theoretically educate yourself and receive culture and wisdom (rather than just porn and cat videos, not that there’s anything wrong with either) entirely by yourself without needing Leftist-Indoctrinating State Universities or Publicly-Funded Government-Approved Art-Centers to do it. Though it will also mean that almost anything you make will have near-zero value post-production. Copyright is already meaningless, except that the institutions are just desperately trying to pretend otherwise, soon all IP law will be as unenforceable as copyright.
So the coming future must be one where “working to eat” is not the core of the system. Work can still exist, you just won’t need to do it to survive (it’s that or else billions of people just won’t survive the transition). Money can still exist too, and there will still likely be richer and poorer people, and undoubtedly new and interesting ways to make money (or spend it) will be invented (luxury items, probably, but of a different sort than now; and “hand-made by humans” will be the new version of the current “organic/fair-trade” marketing scam that fools all the hippies into paying twice as much for products that are half as good). But when we get to a society with this level of automation, we will have to have some kind of a system by which the providing of basic survival needs are no longer tied to work; a Universal Basic Income, or its equivalent in stuff. That’s not an inherently leftist idea; a lot of great libertarian thinkers – including Friedman – thought it was a good idea for the future. And it may be the only way to get to this future without enormous upheaval and risk of civilizational collapse.
One thing for sure: the more we cling to the old ways of doing things, to the old ways of making money as these fail and become meaningless, the more social chaos that the transition into our post-scarcity future will cause. When we have music/movie companies trying to get Big Government to give someone who downloaded an ABBA song or the new Avengers movie a bigger prison sentence than we would a rapist or a guy who helps Al Qaeda try to build a Nuke, that is a recipe for social collapse (either because the government won’t enforce it, in which case our entire legal system becomes a joke, or WILL try to enforce it, in which case it becomes clear that they can’t without putting a majority of our citizenry in jail/bankruptcy, etc.).
We don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where obsession with outdated ways of doing things (including economics), leads to having millions of people whose only option is violent bloody revolution. Marx wasn’t right, when he saw that as the natural endgame of industrialization; because we can all now see that future where everyone can have a better life, without giving up any of our freedoms, so long as we don’t let assholes with a vested interest in The System (of Big Government and Monopolies over outdated trade models) try to force us all into a dystopia to hold on to their personal power. We will have to choose, between backward authoritarianism, societal collapse, or the promise of a grown-up model of Libertarianism.
That just might mean accepting a world where people don’t have to work to live. Not because we think they shouldn’t, but because there will literally be nothing for them to do that isn’t artificial made-work. And accepting this might be a lot easier if you realize that there’s about a 99% chance that eventually YOU will be one of these people whose entire work qualifications will cease to exist (assuming you’re not a priest, meditation teacher or Louis C.K.).
It’s the biggest leap we’ve ever made, as a species – the leap into not just working for survival. They’ll be interesting times. But if capitalist theory teaches us anything, it’s that ultimately we won’t need subsistence as a goad to force us to keep working. We’ll find – even in post-scarcity, even in a world where we can literally make anything we want from raw dirt – some way to compete with each other and to become more prosperous than our neighbor because that’s our nature, and our genius as a species. There will always be people who are wastes of oxygen, and a bunch of other people who will become creative masterminds that get rich and famous for their ability and discipline. Only now, the system will finally not depend on having to force anyone with the threat of starvation. It’s not the end of capitalism; it’ll just be the next level of it.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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