Go with a smile!

Saturday, July 09, 2011

The end of work

I remember when I was a kid in the mid 80s, and I was reading books about the world in 2000. Well we all know what the world in 2000 was like, so the prediction was way off. But a lot of the futurists were thinking about a world where robots did all the work of human beings. Then there would be much fewer working hours in a day for each person.

Well, there is something fishy about that picture, isn’t it? That picture is not something that corresponds to the labour economics as you and I know it. In the world that we know, at least the one that we’ve lived in for a long time, people compete for jobs, so that they can earn a salary, so that they can buy things for people to eat. You know the picture in economics where the entire labour force provides their labour to the system, and the system pays everybody back in salary so that they can consume goods.

But what if this system is fundamentally imbalanced? Suppose, in the whole world, all the labour in the world will produce far too many goods and services for people to consume. Therefore, some people will always have to remain jobless. Some people will always need to be left out of the economy. Because all the businesses in the world will have to shut down production of excessive goods and services.

In a way, this is something that Marx predicted a long time ago. He talked about technology development leading to inequality in society. A few people will own the rights to a disproportionate amount of the “means of production”. Then we have surpluses being accumulated by a wealthy few at the expense of the masses. In the end, what the labour class has to offer to the bosses becomes deprecated. The rich people get richer simply because they have the property rights of all these means of production. Corporations get more efficient all the time, they can afford to hire less workers, and therefore the poor people, they only have labour to offer, and since the value of the only thing they have to offer is deprecated, they become poorer.

From the macro perspective, everything looks great. All the things that ever need to get done will get done with lesser human effort than before. But all the benefits of this go to those sneaky enough to get their tabs on this “means of production”. Today, in America, the top 1% of the people own 40-50% of the wealth. This is a ridiculous amount of wealth inequality that needs to be addressed. Was this the proportion in the feudal ages?

Now, Marx is abhorrent to many because he is credited with creating a system – communism – that was so horrific in practice. Never mind that he had been dead for 30 years by the time 1917 came around. Everybody thinks that communism is the logical outcome of his ideas. It needn’t be the case. After all, what was the biggest criticism of communist countries? Inequality of wealth. Ironically, a system that started off trying to make everybody equally wealthy ended up benefitting a select few at the expense of everybody else.

What we need now is a different kind of society. Something that can redistribute the wealth of society. Surely there must be enough to go around. It’s true that winner takes all capitalism is great at spurring technological advancement in our society. But it is far from certain that technological advancement works for the benefit of most of the people in society. What we need is to think up of some social system which is good at spurring technological advancement, like western style capitalism. And at the same time it’s good at redistributing the fruits of labour to all people.


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