Is Capitalism Morphing Into Communism?
Under communism you buy everything from a single state outlet, whereas under fully mature capitalism you buy everything from Amazon. Karl Sharro
I once dreamed of a socialist utopia devoid of hate, fear, anxiety, poverty and interpersonal rivalry with common ownership of the means of production. This fantasy comes in two main flavours, idealistic anarcho-communism based on small cooperatives with no central states or organised means of coercion in a tangled maze of hippie communes converging miraculously on a carefree lifestyle of fluid relationships. The other kind of socialism assumes a strong state responsible for regulating every aspect of our communal lives and overseeing our private behaviour, lest we act in an unduly selfish or hateful manner. While anarcho-communism takes a fundamentally Rousseauian view of human nature, assuming that without the oversight of higher authorities, we will revert to our natural state of peace-loving and inherently altruistic creatures, state socialism relies on a complex web of organisations to enforce social conformity and solidarity. Marx foresaw that a workers’ state would gradually transform human nature over several generations until the institutions of surveillance and coercion could eventually disappear.
It is easy to dismiss the great socialist experiments of the 20th century in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, North Korea and Cuba either as deformed workers’ states or state-capitalist. The latest catastrophe is Venezuela that failed to diversify its economy to free itself from the grip of multinationals. These regimes relied on technology developed in advanced capitalist economies and could not deliver their people with the kind of living standards millions of ordinary working class people enjoyed in Western Europe and North America, because state coercion and engineered solidarity failed to motivate creativity and innovation. However, now capitalism is failing too. It cannot survive without subsidised mass consumerism and debt-driven economic growth. Until recently advanced mixed economies relied on the salaries of skilled workers to keep the consumer economy afloat. Now most manufacturing jobs have been either migrated to low wage regions and/or undergone substantial automation, workers can only aspire to service sector careers that either require a high level of analytical intelligence or exceptional people skills. As the artificial intelligence and robotics revolution progresses, businesses will need to hire fewer and fewer ordinary people with mediocre skillsets. Today large corporations need consumers more than workers. As AI and robots displace monotonous manual and clerical jobs, big business will rely on governments to subsidise their customers. Arguably this has been going on for years in the UK. Most jobs are now involved in people management, social surveillance, retail, entertainment, education, infrastructure inspection or banking.
If big business needed creative, resourceful and independent-minded workers, you can bet they would lobby government to improve academic standards in schools and invest billions in STEM. Alas big business only needs the best and brightest. They may complain that they can’t hire enough seasoned programmers or bioscientists and have to import specialists from abroad, but they know only a small minority of graduates have a high enough IQ to be worthwhile employing and rewarding with handsome salaries. Many have criticised modern schooling for focussing too much on socialisation and attitudes than on the practical skills young adults might need in the workplace. Customer relations has suddenly become more important than fixing someone’s car or washing machine. While a good mechanic may lose business by insulting his customers, an incompetent mechanic may be blessed with a wonderful sense of humour, but cannot compensate for shoddy workmanship through soft skills, at least not for long. If smart robots supplant human beings in practical jobs like mechanics, plumbers, drivers, bricklayers and farm labourers, people within the median IQ range can only aspire to tasks that require a degree of human authenticity, mainly in the persuasion and care sectors. Persuasion encompasses a very wide range of modern professions, anything from marketing to social work, teaching and charities. I’ve long argued that schools should refocus on practical skills, but I’ve not been a lone voice. Every consultation about secondary education in the UK yields similar results. Small businesses and parents alike want smaller class sizes and greater emphasis on vocational skills. There is virtually no grassroots movement calling for more lessons on gender theory or more mental health screening. Such calls inevitably come from well-funded lobbies and spurious charities that seem to appear from nowhere and suddenly have articulate spokespersons on TV shouting down traditional naysayers.
The left has correctly in my view accused both New Labour from 1997 to 2010 and then three Tory-led governments ever since of colluding with big business. Yet if big business is in the driving seat, why would they support an education system that has clearly failed to train a new generation of conscientious workers able to accomplish all the practical jobs we have traditionally needed. Is it because the government is totally incompetent or driven by ideological concerns at odds with the needs of big business. I’m sorry to admit, but we really have to consider another more disturbing explanation. Large corporations do not need workers. They need consumers.
A combination of outsourcing and automation have boosted productivity to such an extent that a few hundred highly skilled technicians can manage a manufacturing facility capable of supplying sophisticated products to millions of consumers. Most of the auxiliary jobs around manufacturing such as shipping, quality assurance and accounting can also be automated. Much of the marketing and sales operation has already moved online, requiring human input only for client-facing roles, but if you’ve interacted with automated help lines or online sales chat bots, that’s about to change. Not only do we now have more car sales representatives than automotive product line operatives, we probably have more high street charity awareness raisers than solar panel technicians. More people are employed to persuade others to adapt their lifestyles and embrace new ways in our dynamic interdependent globalised society than to provide the products and services we really need.
Whether your electricity supply works or you can afford transportation to your places of work, study or socialisation are no longer viewed as mainly technical challenges, but have become human rights issues. However, capitalism can no longer guarantee the minimum living standard to which we have become accustomed without significant state intervention. The political debate has moved on from how to generate wealth to how to persuade big business to share more of its wealth with the advanced welfare states of affluent countries. However, the state will only subsidise your lifestyle if you play by its rules and big business will only be prepared to bankroll the public sector if it grants them special privileges. Let us just consider your typical provincial town in early 21st century UK. The biggest employers are the local council, the National Health Service , the large supermarket chains and increasingly the distribution warehouses of major online retailers, which in practice means mainly Amazon. Other big employers include charities, banks and insurance brokers, whose role is either to manage your indebtedness or raise awareness for various social transformation initiatives. Hard work, as we traditionally understood the concept, seldom reaps substantial rewards. Instead we rely more and more on social networking and delegation of responsibilities to other human or technical resources.
This is perhaps the biggest paradox of the early 21st century. Just as capitalism seems invincible, its most powerful exponents seek to phase it out and replace it with a command economy, managed by global corporations with the illusion of brand choice for the masses and healthy competition for the professional elites. The ensuing socio-economic model may resemble an amalgamation of Swedish welfarism and Chinese authoritarianism much more than late 20th century North America. The captains of high tech industry have finally realised they do not need many workers, only compliant consumers.