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15 June, 2017

Automation and the planned obsolescence of the Proletariat

Garry Glass discusses how advances in automation are disrupting class relations.

Part 4 - Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the proposition of a new social contract whereby states essentially print money and give it to citizens in order to keep money circulating through the economy. This is also known as a negative income tax.

Jobs for all was a slogan of organised labour yet under Capitalism unemployment is a necessary part of maintaining an abundance of cheap labour. UBI is surely an advance on the current system of welfare where people are forced into the humiliation of pretending to be actively seeking employment in a labour market where there is often not any meaningful work.

UBI is being hailed by many on the left as a progressive measure, which when compared to workfare and austerity it undoubtedly is, yet UBI citizenship is little more than an allegiance to a system of rationing. With higher unemployment comes the loss of the bargaining power of labour. Whilst UBI may be a valid concession for the left to aim for, it must not be an end goal.

The power workers have established through union militancy has been eroded over the course of the 20th century through Thatcher’s anti-union policies, globalisation and the restructuring of industry. Automation and UBI point to what is essentially the planned obsolescence of the proletarian subject. The Transport for London dispute is a case in point where driverless trains are being introduced removing what leverage unions such as the RMT might have had by resorting to industrial action.

Similarly the ‘Uberisation’ of the service sector whilst it has lead to huge profits for those in the business of peer to peer networking of service users and providers has diminished the power of workers to demand decent pay and conditions.

The strategic challenge for the left is to get beyond stop gap measures such as UBI and advance a critical public discourse around the way money mediates our lived activity as a society. Prior to 2008 it was anathema to even discuss the illusory power of money, nowadays it is commonplace to question it from fundamentals, not least in the capitalist metropoles themselves. The printing of new money is an exercise in typing a number into a computer and being confident you have the correct order of magnitude before pressing enter.

It is undoubtedly an ethical imperative to remove the drudgery of hard labour where machines are available to do the heavy work. With this comes the question of towards what productive ends it is oriented. Industrial production has been a revolutionising process that results in the reshaping of our world towards yet more industrial production. Ultimately industry, left unmitigated, will leave a world littered with derelict factories.


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