Election discussion about the economy, employment, and skills, largely avoided any reference to the debate about automation and its consequences for work. Even if it’s accepted that technological progress will eliminate jobs (though there are major differences of opinion about how many) it’s also generally argued that low-paid unskilled work will be replaced by new, more rewarding types of employment and that people should continue to be up-skilled to take advantage of these.
It’s certainly the case that previous periods of technological upheaval have not resulted in prolonged periods of mass unemployment, yet there has been a stream of accounts – admittedly mostly from the more liberal fringes of Silicon Valley – about the future implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for social cohesion, rising social inequality and much higher levels of unemployment.
The Queen’s speech reaffirmed government priorities “My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future” but Labour has also continued to have an equally optimistic view –albeit emphasising the importance of reviving investment levels and replacing free-market forces with much greater degrees of state planning, better infrastructure, improved technical education and free university attendance.
Thirty-five years since Andre Gorz’s essay on the potential benefits of automation in the creation of ‘post-industrial’ socialism, which prioritises self-autonomous leisure rather than imposed work, Labour’s policies (whatever their other merits) continue to be based around the importance of full (time) employment, with the ‘bad’ jobs of the Tories being replaced by Labour’s better ones. In a week that sees the publication of Matthew Taylor’s report on employment practices, Gorz, still vilified by most of the traditional left, is at least worth revisiting.