Universal Welfare vs Individual Freedom

Cybernetic servant
Saturday, 17th September 2016

Would global corporations bankroll a universal welfare system without seeking to control our lives?

Imagine a society that not only provided all your existential needs, but also gave you wide-ranging lifestyle freedoms and did not compel you to hold down a mundane job just to afford the necessities of life. This usually means clean water, food and shelter, but nowadays we could probably add a few more goods and services to our list of bare essentials. In Western Europe a minimum viable standard of living would include a cooker, fridge, washing machine, a shower with hot and cold running water, heating and last but not least telecommunications devices to enable everyone to stay in touch and enjoy 24/7 access to the world’s media. In the not too distant past many ordinary Western Europeans had to make do without all the latest mod cons just so we could afford the basics, like food. If you couldn’t afford a washing machine, you could always take your dirty clothes to a laundrette. If you couldn’t afford a television set, you could always listen to an inexpensive radio or read a book borrowed from the library. If you could not afford to buy or rent a place of your own, your employer might provide temporary digs. Indeed the whole concept of a universal right to a minimum standard of living via state welfare is relatively recent. Until the early 20th century the church would have provided emergency accommodation for the respectful needy, but by and large the destitute only had two escape routes. They could find casual work at the going rate or, in the case of attractive young women, seek an affable husband. In either case the underlings had to show deference to the hand that would feed them. The only way to free oneself from the tyranny of bosses or financially dominant spouses was, and I suggest still is, to have the means to feed oneself. A smallholder may own just a few fields, work long hours to raise livestock and tend crops, but at least he’s his own boss and, in a country that respects personal freedom, may lead his life as he chooses provided he respect the privacy and freedom of his neighbours and adheres to common etiquette of decency and courtesy when engaging with the wider community. I use the third person male pronoun here because historically women from humble backgrounds would aspire to motherhood rather than self-sufficiency without a husband. Nonetheless, most smallholdings were family concerns. Husbands and wives worked as a team and although men tended to work longer hours outdoors and do more of the heavy lifting, few could doubt the pivotal role that women played in raising the next generation.

For most of human history, unless you inherited considerable wealth, your only route to greater personal freedom was through hard work and dedication. All most people expected of their state was to safeguard their acquired rights and protect them against raiders who may seize the fruits of their labour. Before the industrial revolution the greatest liberation for most peasants was to unshackle themselves from the burdens of slavery or sharecropping and to cease being in debt to a feudal master. However, with the advent of capitalism and the growth of a working class wholly dependent on their employers, the downtrodden embraced the appeal of collectivism. If technological progress demanded extreme specialisation, growing interdependence and massive infrastructure that only large organisations could conceivably provide, then our future freedom logically depends on our ability to control the levers of power for our collective good. Most early workers’ struggles focussed on bread and butter issues of survival, primarily working conditions and wages. Workers demanded the right to withdraw their labour and called on their governments to enforce minimum health and safety standards. Nobody denied that everyone had a duty to pull their weight and contribute to wider society by working to the best of their ability. Few anticipated that the underclasses of the future would not be 8 year old boys sent down coal mines or 13 year old girls working as chambermaids, but workless welfare claimants trapped in a cycle of psychological dependence on external authorities who may regulate every aspect their lives. While workers may always withdraw their labour to reassert their rights, welfare dependents are the mercy of their benefactors.

Extended Childhood

Traditionally two main groups of commoners were exempted from the onus of work: the very young and the very old. While children have to mature physically and mentally and learn some core skills before their induction into the adult world, the elderly have earned their keep through a life of dedication to their family and community. Even in primitive societies young children play and the old relax and share their wisdom. As the industrial age progressed, businesses began to rely more on technical and intellectual skills and a less on sheer muscle power. Capitalist countries expanded mandatory schooling not just to appease demands for greater social justice, but to equip industry with a literate workforce better able to meet the challenges of greater technical complexity, which even in relatively low-skill jobs involved reading and understanding detailed instructions. Not until 1921 did the UK implement the Fisher Act raising the compulsory school age to 14. It took another 52 years for the school leaving age to rise to 16. Today over 90% of British teenagers remain in education or training at least until the age of 18, while those advancing to further education, has risen from around 10% in 1970 to 45% today. While the needs of business have changed, the UK has a massive undersupply of engineers and technicians and an oversupply of graduates in people management, marketing, psychology, law and humanities in general. Yet employers still complain about graduates with poor writing or number-crunching skills. Not surprisingly we’ve seen a fair amount of grade inflation and degrees from all but the best universities have been greatly devalued. As a result most graduates do not pursue their desired career. Not everyone can be a sports journalist or an equality and diversity training officer. Long gone are the days of secure permanent jobs where one could progress from an apprenticeship and work one’s way through the ranks to attain well-remunerated senior role. Now many university graduates find themselves in a similar position to that of schools leavers only 30 years ago. They have to try their hands at a series of uninspiring low-paid jobs before they find an opening in a role vaguely related to their degree. Many may have to retrain in something more practical, such as nursing or plumbing, once they become aware of the limited commercial value of their sociology degree. Only a small minority of graduates, and it’s hard to quantify just how few, have acquired the kind of scientific excellence we will need in the coming artificial intelligence revolution. We now employ more people to manage other people or to create ephemeral media campaigns than to develop and produce the technology we will need to survive and overcome environmental constraints on human development in the coming century. Today we have more persuaders than doers or more talkers than walkers.

The future of work

Much of Britain’s manufacturing base has migrated abroad since the 1970s. Today’s factories are more automated and mainly assemble or just repackage components made elsewhere. Owing to rapid technological innovation, product lines tend to have short lifespans and production facilities are regularly retooled along with their workforce, who are now viewed as expendable free agents. This helps explain the rise of agency workers and employers’ preference for itinerant workers without local roots. As soon as advances in robotics can automate operations in a cost-effective manner, management can lay off most human workers. Driverless vehicles are already a reality. We merely need to perfect artificial intelligence to ensure their reliability in challenging and unpredictable traffic conditions. The writing is on the wall for long distance truck drivers and for millions of other skilled workers, whose monotonous occupations follow a programmable set of routines and respond to a predictable range of environmental stimuli. I suspect in the not too distant future smart vacuum cleaners will be versatile enough to climb stairs and automatically adapt to different floor types, reach into nooks and crannies and potentially call another robot to move furniture. In all likelihood most robots will not resemble human beings at all, but will be polymorphic with a multitude of attachments and tools for different jobs. Unlike human beings they will be easily serviceable and reprogrammable. Even the world’s oldest freelance profession, often not so euphemistically categorised as sex work, now faces competition from lifelike erotic dolls.

However, the main stumbling block to the adoption of robotics is not the theoretical feasibility of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, but the collapse of our underlying industrial infrastructure due to our gross mismanagement of finite resources and our inability to develop safe renewable energy able to meet our growing demands. We have probably already passed peak oil and over the coming 50 years we’re likely to hit a peak human population of 10 billion. If we factor in the threats of climate change, clean water shortages in the areas of fastest population growth and insatiable demand for cars and other consumer goods in the developing world, we clearly face unprecedented environmental challenges that can only be addressed by taming human behaviour or significantly boosting industrial efficiency. Short of colonising other planets, the alternative may well be a world war over control of mission-critical resources.

Work and Society

Many think of work as drudgery we endure to earn a living. We would rather relax or pursue hobbies that inspire us. Few of us would enjoy getting down on our hands and knees to scrub the kitchen floor or crawling through narrow underground tunnels to mine coal. Yet during the early industrial revolutions millions of working class women and men had to endure these conditions just to fend for themselves and their children. When millions lost their jobs in the great depression of 1930s, the fledgling welfare state offered little consolation. Without work millions felt completely unfulfilled and would go to extraordinary lengths to relieve themselves of the shame and stigma associated with joblessness. The Jarrow March of 1936, ironically as the economy was picking up again in Britain, exemplified social attitudes of the era. Workers did not expect luxuries or endless charity, they just demanded a chance to earn a living to restore their dignity. The post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s was built largely on a skilled working class whose earnings and leisure time rose as technological advances began to favour intellect and proficiency and over muscle-power and perseverance. It was a short-lived age of full employment, stable families and a narrowing social divide, unfortunately reliant on state subsidies and trade barriers to protect workers from unfair competition and unregulated market forces. Big business soon realised it could no longer boost its profits and expand markets in such a protectionist environment, holding it often at the mercy of militant trade unions. By the early 1970s UK industry had become both outdated and notoriously inefficient compared to their German, Japanese or Korean competitors. As the pendulum swung from protected markets and state-subsidised industries to free market economics, much of British manufacturing moved abroad. While some former manufacturing workers moved to the growing service sector, many were left behind. While material living standards have continued to grow, since the 1980s we’ve seen a widening gap not just in terms of wealth, but in education and personal attainment. The emergence of the trendy professional classes as the mainstay of our economic and cultural activity may well be but a harbinger of things to come. By 2012 over 60% of workers were tax-negative, i.e. received more benefits and direct services than they paid in tax. If we take into account indirect services consumed, the situation is even more unequal and this disparity is growing. By 2014 the top 25% of earners paid 75% of income tax and the 1% alone paid over a quarter. The only way of closing the income gap is to close the education gap, not in terms of nominal qualifications or years of formal schooling, but in terms of ensuring a much larger proportion of the population acquire the kind of intellectual and social skills we will need in the cybernetic age.

Today the descendants of the old Labour movement not only champion welfare rights, but assume a great many working age adults will never be gainfully employed owing to mental or physical disabilities, concepts which are now much more loosely and widely understood than in the recent past. In the future most work will be either intellectual or social, requiring us to focus our creative and emotional skills and effort on endeavours that serve the wider social good rather just satisfy personal desires. An ideal job is one that you both enjoy and can help others. Your material or financial reward for your effort is a direct measure of its utility to the current socio-economic system. If you possess a rare talent the reward for your creative endeavours may be substantial. Thus an elite of sportspeople and entertainers can earn a fortune simply due to the inertia of market forces. While Premier League footballers may have to train regularly and exert themselves for 90 minutes on the pitch before chanting fans, a hospital cleaner will typically exert much more effort for a fraction of the income. Yet people’s lives may depend on clean hospitals, but not on the outcome of a soccer match. Your salary is mainly of a function of your expendability. To what extent is your role mission-critical to your employer. If your employer is a major football club earning tens of millions of pounds in advertising revenue, broadcasting rights and ticket sales, their main concern is your ability to help win games and keep their investors and customers happy. While millions can play football, only a few hundred in the whole wide world possess the kind of rare talent that can make or break a sports entertainment business and a handful can command eye-watering sums, such as the record £89 million Manchester United paid for French international, Paul Pogba. That figure could employ around 4700 hospital cleaners on the national living wage and is a staggering 280 thousand times greater than the mean GDP per capita of Paul Pogba’s parental homeland of Guinea. A hospital cleaner can be replaced literally at the drop of a hat, while a world-leading football striker cannot. Gone are the days when hospital cleaners could go on strike for more pay. These services are now predominantly outsourced to agencies. Back in 1960s and 70s public institutions saw it as their duty not only to provide public services, but also to employ local workers who might get a much worse deal in the private sector. These days a hospital does not employ cleaners, it has a contract with an agency, which in turn procures the best human or indeed technological resources for the job at hand. I recall working in the BBC’s plush open plan offices in London’s White City. At 7pm every weekday evening when most staff had left, a team of mainly Portuguese speaking cleaners would mop up the mess left by higher-paid BBC staffers. I know this because on one occasion their supervisor had to impart bilingual instructions to accommodate an agency worker from Ghana, who didn’t speak Portuguese, but this was in the heart of English speaking world. Yet the same BBC struggles to admit the impact of globalisation on lower-skilled native workers (most of whom deserted the capital decades ago and could not afford to return). Currently machine-assisted human cleaners are still more cost-effective than robots, but as robots become smarter and more versatile human workers will focus more on supervisory and engineering roles. That leaves very little for those of us who do not possess exceptional analytical, creative or people management skills.

Most of us are what social researchers might call semi-skilled, i.e. we’ve acquired many practical skills through hands-on experience, but lack outstanding talents that sets us apart from the crowd. In the recent past some semi-skilled labourers, without formal qualifications in their line of expertise, honed their skills to such an extent as become invaluable to their employers or clientele, but with outsourcing and automation we’ve lost much of that traditional skills base for good. Many semi-skilled workers may well have much more experience than a someone who has been formerly trained, but their skills can be easily learned not just by millions of other workers, but by machines. Millions of us enjoy cooking from fresh ingredients, but it’s often much more cost-effective just to buy a ready-made meal. Once we rely supermarkets to supply food, it makes little difference if a machine prepares a complex recipe from fresh ingredients or we buy the ingredients separately and do it ourselves. Indeed in many practical instances ready-made meals are both cheaper and healthier as otherwise you’d have to buy much larger quantities of the source ingredients, which may well go off before you have a chance to eat them. Fast food outlets have already automated most aspects of food preparation. In the near future human chefs will be a luxury available only to the affluent professional classes, but with more leisure time many will still prefer to engage in a little culinary therapy.

More disturbingly the two dominant narratives of public debate on economics and employment could both prove wrong. Global optimists keep reminding us how our growing economies, reliant on extreme labour mobility, can provide new opportunities for all, while identitarian populists from Donald Trump in the USA to Marine Le Pen in France pretend manufacturing jobs can somehow be repatriated. In reality outsourcing menial tasks to low-wage workers is just a stop-gap solution until robotics becomes more competitive. However, if big business no longer needs semi-skilled labour and only requires a select group of engineers, creatives, managers and entertainers, who is going to buy their products?

Universal Welfare

The answer, so the wishful thinking trendy left tell us, is a universal basic income. I fully appreciate its appeal and take on board the argument that by guaranteeing everyone a basic income we remove not just the stigma associated with joblessness and the humiliation of holding down low-paid non-jobs (burger flippers, shelf stackers or call centre operatives), but we also greatly reduce the immense administrative costs of our current welfare system. Essentially the government would just give everyone a basic income that guarantee a minimum standard of living. If you want more you can undertake paid employment or may be inspired to volunteer in the ever-expanding third sector (charities, campaign groups, NGOs etc.), a great CV-booster when you do decide to get a real job. If you just want to take it easy, you can still survive on your basic income with no questions asked. It would also prevent people from claiming disability status due to some perceived relative handicap, which is really just a natural variation in the human condition or the result of acquired behaviour. However, short of a global revolution bringing all multinationals into public ownership and guaranteeing full transparency and accountability of all organisations responsible for our wellbeing, I think we need to take into account human nature. The strongest basic income evangelists insist it would allow people to unleash their creative minds without fear of losing their salary. Such idealists imagine the world as an extended high-tech hippie commune cum university campus. Were we all sandal-wearing bicycling vegans taking time off to write a book on the history of Mesopotamian basket weaving the basic income would be a great idea. Alas deprived of any motivation to focus one’s creative efforts on something useful, most adults will succumb to a blend of junk culture and social gaming, no longer competing on skills, but on personality and worthiness. Our aim in life will no longer be to provide for our family through hard work, but merely to ensure we can gain the same emotional privileges. This helps explain the rise of social justice warriors with a bloated sense of entitlement. The great struggles against real injustice of the past (against slavery, imperialism, starvation wages, misogyny, racism etc.) will descend into a farce as most citizens will become mere beneficiaries of corporate welfare enjoying an extended childhood and just like children, their freedom will be at the mercy of their guardians, the technocratic and managerial elites. If the masses remain blissfully unaware of the activities of the regulating classes, they will be lulled into a false sense of security and treated like children, i.e. rewarded for good compliant behaviour and penalised for antisocial behaviour. Until the late 20th century most societies relied on the labour of the underclasses. Without ordinary workers, crops would not be harvested, houses would not be built, machinery would not be maintained, food would not be processed and distributed, infrastructure would crumble and people would starve. If the underclasses cannot produce a surplus of food, housing and tools, the ruling classes cannot accumulate the wealth they need to maintain their power and privilege through a network of administrators and security forces. In theory the working classes could hold their rulers to ransom. If their rulers failed to allocate enough resources, the underclasses could either rise up and overthrow their masters or switch allegiance to a rival faction or neighbouring fiefdom, especially if they possessed superior technology. Parents care for their children not only through strong emotional bonds, but also because of their future role as purveyors of the family’s wealth for they would soon become workers and parents themselves. By contrast in the age of robotics, the workless underclasses will be mere consumers whose only duty will be to conform to social norms. We may well retain the illusion of democratic control via online elections for the most affable middle managers, but effectively we will be beholden to a technocratic upper caste responsible for programming and administering our cyberservants. Over recent decades we’ve seen a steady transfer of responsibilities from viable two-parent families to a maze of service providers. If something goes wrong, we tend to blame external agencies whether they are suppliers, manufacturers, safety regulators, doctors, nurses, social workers or teachers, because we have learned to accept that many aspects of our lives are out of our direct control. We have internalised the notion that one has to have special training to perform any task not deemed safe for laypeople. We have lost touch with mother nature to such an extent we are unable to accept its limitations. As robots evolve to undertake forever more complex tasks, we can expect the range of safe jobs to narrow to all but a few closely monitored human activities performed in controlled environments, such as eating, drinking, exercising, relaxing, playing or making love. For years officialdom has tended to discourage the old do-it-yourself attitude, while encouraging people to seek specialists. This may be preparing us psychologically for a future when robots replace technicians, decorators, builders, cleaners, nurses, police officers and other social surveillance officers. However, if only the gifted intelligentsia have any understanding of the inner workings of our high-tech world, how will the rest of us hold them to account? The people of the future could well split into distinctive castes along the lines the dumbed-down Eloi and Morlocks in H.G. Well’s Time Machine. Slowly but surely we seem to be sleepwalking towards a Huxleyan future of human beings genetically engineered to assume different roles in a chain of command that only members of alpha caste understand.

Visions of the Future

The current rapid pace of technological and economic progress could lead in two apparently divergent but equally dystopian directions. One the one hand technology fails to meet the insatiable demands of a growing number of consumers either through limits to growth, such as peak oil or climate change, or through cataclysmic technical failures such as nuclear power plant explosions, or indeed a combination of both. Such a scenario may kill hundreds of millions of people, but may also forestall a cybergenetic dystopia of complete submission to technology out of the control of ordinary global denizens. On the hand technology may evolve so fast to control the excesses of human behaviour and thus render both itself and humanity compatible with our planetary life support system. In other words technology will determine our living standards and, indeed, our procreative potential. Arguably it already does. Only last week the London Telegraph reported that Motherless babies are now possible as scientists create live offspring without a female egg. As always the neoliberal press presents the next step in human genetic engineering as a great advance enabling more couples, such as gay dads, to conceive. The next logical step is an artificial womb, whose development is way beyond the realms of mere science fiction (See Men redundant? Now we don’t need women either ). No doubt artificial uteruses will liberate women from the pain and responsibility of pregnancy, but soon biological genders may become obsolete binary categories that belong to a past age of primitive dependence on messy and inconvenient organic procreation. The affluent cyber-managerial classes will inevitably be able to afford better fertility treatment leading all too predictably to the emergence of a super-race, meaning the underclasses will simply lack the intellect to outsmart their rulers, whether humanoid or not.

The Alternative to Basic Income

If you thought the basic income sounds too good to be true, you’re probably right. That’s what a majority of shrewd Swiss voters concluded earlier this year. They understood that unless you contribute to the functioning of society, you cannot expect to have any meaningful say in the way it’s run. You may well have the illusion of democratic control, but it will more like children choosing which flavour of ice-cream they want or which games they want to play during their birthday party. If they misbehave their true masters will drug them or confine them to their bedrooms. If their life support system fails, all they can do is follow instructions to wait for cybernetic technicians to repair the faults. However, a Huxleyan dystopia is not an inevitability if we wake up to its very real likelihood early enough and ensure all working age adults are directly involved in developing and regulating human-friendly technology. In other words robots should serve us and not vice versa and bioengineering should only ever assist natural human beings as we’ve evolved over eons. This means preparing the next generation for a high skill future where everyone will have a part to play in the development of our engineered environment. We must be fully aware of the consequences of new technology as the toys of today may become the prison wardens of our near future.