From robots to UBI: is capitalism digging its own grave?

Saturday 13 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher Auditorium 2Battle for the Economy

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s, there has been a broad political consensus that capitalism is here to stay; ‘there is no alternative,’ as Margaret Thatcher put it. Even in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, there was little doubt or imagination that anything could replace capitalism. But are we now seeing the arrival of capitalism’s ‘undertaker’, in the shape of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation?

A slew of books, from Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism to Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future, have argued that technological innovations have opened up a new opportunity to transcend capitalism, as opposed to the old, state-planned socialism of the twentieth century. Techno-optimism is becoming a popular standpoint and left-wing activists and writers have coined the slogan ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’. They hope that advanced technology can not only undermine capitalism, but provide the basis for its replacement, with robots freeing people from the drudgery of work to pursue better and more fulfilling uses of their time, just as Marx envisioned.

The appetite for an alternative of some kind seems strong. Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise performance at the 2017 general election, with particularly strong support from younger voters, led to pundits talking about the return of socialism. Many decried the supposed historical ignorance of the young when it comes to communism in the 20th century. There are parallels with the success of Bernie Sanders in turning the US Democratic Party primaries in 2016 from the expected coronation of Hillary Clinton into a closely fought battle, with Sanders drawing huge crowds to his rallies.

But alongside the techno-optimism, there is an increasing sense of dread around the advance of technology. From Silicon Valley to the ivory towers of academia, there is increasing talk of what such trends mean for the future of capitalism. From right to left, this has taken the form of talk in panicked tones about the ‘coming of the robots and mass unemployment’, the social impact of the ‘gig economy’ and the decline of the ‘home-owning middle class’. Far from changing the world for the better, many see new technology as impoverishing the majority of people with big business pocketing an ever-greater share of society’s resources.

Are we really living in a watershed moment for capitalism? Is a new way of organising our economy really on the horizon? Far from ushering in a new society, will the internet and corporations simply result in Digital Capitalism 2.0 – and if it does, is that a bad thing?