A Jobless Future Everyone Can Love

Capitalism was supposed to create enough wealth to make jobs obsolete. Unfortunately, we're moving in the opposite direction.
By Malcolm Harris,
Robots serves beer at the Hanover Fair in Hanover, Germany, on April 24th, 2017.

In 1930, famed British economist John Maynard Keynes made a prediction about job automation. As he watched industrial production catapult worker productivity ahead, Keynes wrote that "We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come—namely, technological unemployment." Today we're living in those years to come, and it's hard to go a week without some story about how all the jobs will soon belong to artificial intelligence or machine learning or however else we're describing the automatons. Keynes was right to see it coming, but he didn't exactly nail the implications.

Keynes wasn't a left-wing radical, but he saw capitalism as a limited-time phenomenon, even a short-term one, relatively speaking. In fact, based on his predictions, we should be coming up on capitalism's peaceful end in a decade or two. And how are we to achieve the kingdom of heaven on Earth? Why, technological unemployment of course! "All this means in the long run," Keynes writes of automation-induced idleness, "is that mankind is solving its economic problem." In this particular case, he figured that the "long run" was about a century. Granted, Keynes stipulated some conditions about wars and population growth—i.e. not doing them—that humanity hasn't lived up to, but we hardly even seem headed in the right direction. Instead of celebrating the robots that are liberating us from drudgery, we're worried about whether families will be able to feed themselves, or if they'll be overtaken by a national wave of despair. That is some shortfall.

Where did we go wrong? Going wrong was actually part of the plan the whole time: that's what capitalism is. "We must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not," Keynes wrote. "Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight." Keynes described the rich—perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek—as the "advanced guard," whose job it is to "spy out the promised land for the rest of us and pitch their camp there." Imagine all the financiers and technology magnates faking it day after day on Instagram, beset by guilt but knowing they must persevere for the greater good. Once we've automated all the jobs, everyone can use their time to follow their passions. When we do work, it won't be for ourselves, it will be for each other. Profit will disgust us, and, with our values improved, we'll spend our time doing truly useful things, like smelling flowers. (Keep in mind this guy is one of the most influential capitalist thinkers of all time.)

Every dollar of capitalist waste is another fraction of a second the rest of humanity will be forced to labor unnecessarily.

I think some capitalists, particularly in Silicon Valley, believe something along these lines, or at least say that they do. Guaranteed minimum-income plans have passionate proponents in the tech community, and it's hard to find billionaires who don't also conceive of themselves as engaged in social engineering, whether through their work or through "charity." Our tech overlords have set their sights high: They want to colonize Mars, network every person in the world, conquer disease, and even challenge death. And yet, none of them seems very interested in solving the economic problem, or even checking to see if we might be as close as Keynes predicted we could be by now. Their innovations have mostly gone the other way, combining software and hardware systems with abundant low-wage contract labor. Behind every Blue Apron delivery there are people chopping and packaging; behind every Facebook newsfeed there are workers screening the photographs. Our innovators and entrepreneurs are not behaving like people who value our society's potential flower-smelling time.

There's a contradiction between the two things Keynes is asking from the capitalists: On the one hand, he wants them to build an economy that produces enough for everyone, freeing all humanity from servitude. On the other hand, they themselves are already liberated from the necessity of labor, able to smell the flowers all day if they so choose. Their leisure, however, still comes from other people's work, not from a multitude of flittering bots. Keynes hopes we'll do better than today's capitalists with our impending freedom, but it's not clear we can ever get there if the capitalists keep blowing everyone's work-time on frivolous nonsense. In 1930, it was possible to think the state would manage the market (rather than the other way around), separating the people responsible for developing our social productive capacity from the rich profiteers. Government planners would make sure to guide this powerful engine in the direction of collective progress by managing the greed of individual market actors. But the capitalists figured that the planners were just getting in the way, and they've been successful at nudging them out.

John Maynard Keynes.

Capitalists have the easiest gig in the world, what could they possibly do to blow it? Eventually we'll solve the economic problem and get rid of all the jobs; the only thing the profiteers really have to do is not take us backwards. Capital isn't just money, it's money that's supposed to make more money: It's money with a mission, and, if you're Keynes, that mission is to generate an abundance so vast that there's no point in fencing it off any longer. The ownership class can undermine this tendency by pissing away money faster than they're investing it in future production. Economist J.W. Mason suggests that private corporations now worry about payouts to stockholders first, and productive investment later, if at all. And President Donald Trump's tax plan looks like it's only going to exacerbate the problem.

Still, these stockholders should be reinvesting in the economy regardless, just by buying things. It's hard to truly waste value, but one way capitalists can manage it is to gather huge masses of people's expended labor-time (in the form of money) and then light it on fire just to see what that looks like. Expensive music festival failures, for example. Gold on food. Another way capitalists can put our society in reverse is to invest in projects that can never offer anything to humanity, whether they succeed or fail. Take this month's goat: the Juicero juice-delivery platform. Small bags of chopped produce that press into small glasses of fresh, nutritious juice are ridiculous and extravagant, but they're the kind of extravagance we might all hope for under future conditions of abundance. A $400 bag-squeezing machine that will never ever save a consumer the amount of time that it costs to produce one is, however, a straight-up waste. And every dollar of capitalist waste is another fraction of a second the rest of humanity will be forced to labor unnecessarily.

The problem with our 21st-century economy isn't that we have too few jobs, it's that we have too many. Capitalists said they were going to take care of it, but as we get closer to the end of Keynes' century in 2030, it's getting harder to believe them. Instead, we get the Juicero: workers squeezing for hours so the ownership class can avoid squeezing for minutes. If humanity is to solve the economic problem, it looks like we're going to have to try something else.

Join the Conversation