In 2010, UK Conservative ministers Kwasi Kwarteng, the new international development secretary Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and the new justice secretary Elizabeth Truss authored a paper entitled Britannia Unchained, in which they laid out the qualities of the ideal modern worker. This worker, they wrote, works ‘on a freelance basis. They can net £600 a week in take-home pay. But they have to work for it – up to 60 hours a week.’
In an article in this week’s Guardian, journalist John Harris noted this paper in his dissection of the decline of the left in western politics. Many of the causes he set out in his essay were persuasive, but he fell down in one vital area on which the future of politics and the economy hinges - the nature of employment.
Harris argued that the vision set out in Brittania Unchained reflected the realities of the modern age, a sharing economy in which services and consumers are linked directly to one another using platforms like Uber and Airbnb. The left, on the other hand, is stuck with a vision of the world of work that he called either ‘naive or dishonest’. He argued that their failure to recognize that the nature of employment had shifted from that of the industrial revolution - a mass of unionized grunts - to the so-called ’Uber economy’ - individuals working on a freelance basis - had enabled the Conservatives to essentially become the party of the worker. Harris wrote, ’For clued-up Tories, it is time to rebrand as “the workers’ party” – in which the worker is a totem of rugged individualism, not a symbol of solidarity.’ In this world, ’The acceptance of insecurity becomes a matter of heroism, and a new political division arises between the grafters and those – as Britannia Unchained witheringly puts it – “who enjoy public subsidies”. In other words, the “skivers” versus the “strivers”.’
Harris is clearly right to argue that the left’s idea of employment no longer chimes with that of the rest of society. However, his argument that the right better understands it may ring true for now, but fails to appreciate the pace of change. Harris overestimates the durability of the so-called ‘sharing economy’ and underestimates the speed at which technologies such as AI will become reality and change the nature of employment again.
When confronted with the argument that new technologies are destroying jobs, most refer back to history and argue that it has always been the case that jobs lost are soon replaced by jobs in other fields, often better and more enjoyable jobs. There is a simple reason that this argument is no longer valid - Moore’s law. Moore’s law dictates that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles every year. In the 40 years since Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, made that observation, the transistor count of computer processors has risen from 2,300 to more than four billion, and with each doubling comes a leap in the sophistication of the logic the chip can handle. In Erik Brynjolfsson’s book, The Second Machine Age, he argued that ‘The accumulated doubling of Moore's Law, and the ample doubling still to come, gives us a world where supercomputer power becomes available to toys in just a few years, where ever-cheaper sensors enable inexpensive solutions to previously intractable problems, and where science fiction keeps becoming reality. Sometimes a difference in degree (in other words, more of the same) becomes a difference in kind (in other words, different than anything else). The story of the second half of the chessboard alerts us that we should be aware that enough exponential progress can take us to astonishing places.’
We are already arriving at these ‘astonishing places’ and leaving the sharing economy behind. Uber drivers, for example, will soon be replaced by driverless cars. But we are yet to scratch the surface. This speed at which we are advancing is simply too fast for the jobs that are being destroyed to be replaced. Intelligent automation uses machine learning and deep learning algorithms in ways that are making computers better than humans at a number of skilled-knowledge tasks, and enables advances in robotics that are fast making technology better at a wide variety of manual labor roles. Even activities like writing news stories and researching legal precedents are being completed by robots. The ‘strivers’, as the Conservatives called them, simply don’t stand a chance.
Bertrand Russell once argued that ‘modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.’ This is a truism that must be realized by the political parties if we are to stand any chance of surviving the coming AI revolution, and it is the left best positioned to rule such a world.
It has always been the case that the happiest countries - particularly the Nordic countries - are those with low inequality and greater social insurance. Essentially, people are happier when they have a safety net as it means they do not need to worry as much about what will happen should some misfortune occur. In the UK, when the Conservative party came to power in 2010 they commissioned a report into what made people happy, and they found exactly this. They buried the report, as it went against their principles. The US and the UK mostly leave the poor to fend for themselves, and they have been successful in inseminating this idea that welfare is for slackers and is ergo bad throughout the population. As it becomes clear that the ‘strivers prosper’ mantra is no longer valid, this will soon lose its power. And the left is well positioned, as the public has far greater trust in their ability to manage the welfare state and support those unfortunate enough to be out of work. The left is destined to lose elections for the immediate future regardless of who is in charge of the Labour party because, largely, their policies do not suit the realities of the times. But these realities are changing fast, and the left needs to position itself better to exploit this.