This is part 1 — on the economics of industry
It’s been widely report that Donald Trump owes his ascendancy to rhetoric of economic troubles felt by middle-Americans, and to some extent that’s certainly true.* (I’ll leave as an aside the fact that President Obama repeatedly attempted to jump start those economic sectors through public works, but he was stymied every time by a Republican Congress that couldn’t be bothered to care about the people, the country, or democracy as a process.) Unfortunately for these voters, however, economic and production forces are going to prohibit the kind of recovery that Mr. Trump has promised. Sending labor overseas might have put us in the immediate position where we find ourselves, but ultimately it’s automation-as Mohandas K. Gandhi warned-that will disenfranchise every worker unless we rethink our economic models and our relationships to one another.
It’s generally cheaper when machines do work for us because they can be built to do it better, do it all night and all week long, and do it without any rest breaks. In the long run, any industry that can automate its labor is an industry that will automate its labor. And, as we’ve been hearing for the past couple of decades, most industries can find a way to do that. It’s possible that they’ll all find ways.
Gandhi was famous for his objection to machinery. He declared modernity to be “soulless” and argued in Hind Swaraj (1909) that “it is necessary to realize that machinery is bad. We shall then be able to gradually to do away with it. Nature has not provided any way whereby we may reach a desired goal all of a sudden. If, instead of welcoming machinery as a boon, we would look upon it as an evil, it would ultimately go.” For Gandhi, machinery marked the loss of individual strength and self-rule. Machinery was inherently bad precisely because it stripped an individual of his or her capacity to govern individual life. It made people dependent upon forces outside their control and on resources outside their domain.
It has taken awhile, but the American public is likely to see the truth of this in very real fashion, and in ways that engineers have already predicted. Early in my research, I discussed the imaginative and influential work of Hans Moravec, a roboticist who predicted that in the first half of the 21st century we would see transcendently intelligent machines and that we would upload our minds into robots (you can get his books on Amazon). He also predicted that machines would surpass human beings at pretty much every conceivable form of labor. Even if he’s wrong about the godlike machines, every year makes him look more right about automation and the human economy.
As machines take over earthly work, more and more human beings will be pushed to the side. No amount of “bigly” talk or anti-immigrant rhetoric is going to change that. There are no “secret plans” or “great plans” in the background to halt this impending crisis. Moravec wanted universal ownership of robot companies, a kind of socialist paradise where machines do all the work and human beings reap sufficient profit to live happily ever after. But the corporations that build robots aren’t likely to hand over the profits willingly. And Donald Trump, who will already own stock in most of them, sure isn’t going to make them do so.
We need a Gandhian intervention, but not Gandhi’s rejection of modernity. We aren’t going to stop automation, that simply won’t happen. We won’t just reverse course and focus on village life either; so a complete turn to Gandhi’s vision won’t do. But we need to recognize that if human beings are to live well, they must reverse the process where mass unemployment and mass disenfranchisement accompanies mass automation. Maybe we need to take Moravec seriously and think about how to socialize industry, but maybe there’s another solution. Very soon I’ll be reading New York Times science writer John Markoff’s (relatively) new book on the subject, Machines of Loving Grace, and perhaps I’ll find some hope in it.
In any case, we will not solve the problem until we recognize along with Gandhi that human beings must not be left to drift in the wind while machines continue squeezing them economically and socially. We must build up in people the ability to control their own lives, and from there we will see a new nation rise. We must stop blaming people and start lifting people up instead. Just as Gandhi sought for Indian villagers to have true self-rule over themselves, their industries, and their lives. We must work together and give everyone a genuine chance whether that person lives in the rural south, a rustbelt town, abandoned coal and oil country, or urban poverty. Folks all across the country need a chance to govern their own lives, and it is the responsibility of all people in the country to ensure that right for all of us. Self-rule must be the goal for every person and self-rule of every person must be the goal of our nation. What we need from our government is to pass laws that enfranchise people rather than corporations; we need it to build up the institutions and infrastructures that enable each of us to prosper whether we’re bankers or farmers, teachers or welders.
*FWIW, I don’t doubt that racism, misogyny, and other social evils also led to the Trump victory, perhaps even in greater significance than the failed economic recovery experienced by some segments of the American population.