More than half a century ago, two dystopian satires posed, in strikingly similar terms, a central problem of our own time. Player Piano (1952), Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, and The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958), by the English socialist Michael Young, envisioned futures where the mass of people had been made superfluous by automation. Both described societies ruled by a cadre of highly trained (and highly paid) technocrats, while everybody else lived boring, meager, meaningless lives of quiet desperation. I needn’t stress the renewed relevance of these visions. But Vonnegut and Young were writing during the rise of the welfare state. They assumed the fruits of automation would be distributed to all, however unevenly and with whatever cost in dignity. They imagined people feeling useless, but they didn’t imagine them starving.
But that’s the prospect that we face today. It’s fine to talk about the virtues of creative destruction, but from now on we are likely to see a lot more destruction than creation, at least when it comes to jobs. Go to a postindustrial city like Detroit or Camden, N.J., if you want to know what the social consequences look like. As for the political consequences, we’re already seeing them. Those “aging white men” people were so keen to sneer at after the election have not been rendered obsolete in cultural terms alone. The Republican base is concentrated in regions and demographics that the new economy has left behind. Our technocratic president was right: they cling bitterly to guns and religion—the illusion of power, the old certainties—because they have so little else. Xenophobia and vigilantism, conspiracy theories and demagogues: this is how people are apt to respond when they feel that they’ve been left behind by history.
So what then? Are people to be cast aside like worn-out pieces of machinery? Will we continue to allow the gains in productivity that automation is enabling to go exclusively to the few? The welfare state reproduces on a societal scale the reciprocal obligations of feudalism, the idea that we have a duty to take care of one another. The dilemma of automation, of human beings made redundant by machines, comes down to Vonnegut’s question: What are people for?
But Vonnegut and Young could not foresee another looming crisis: resource depletion. We can’t sustain a system that is predicated, as capitalism is, on endless expansion. But do we have to? A hundred years ago, even 50 years ago, economic growth was still a moral issue. But now, in the developed world, at least, it’s hard to say that we really need more, as opposed to sharing what we have more equitably. In any case, it looks as if we won’t be able to have much more, not for much longer.
So our long-term survival depends on overthrowing two of the main pillars of our economic morality: that how much you get should be proportional to how much you work, and that a growing GDP is the ultimate measure of social health. Whether we can free ourselves of these convictions is a different question.
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