The Robot Economy

We live in a world in crisis. Comparisons to the 1920s and 1930s are inevitable, but the crisis, similarly to the ones before it, conceal not economic, but political roots: It is a crisis born of the fallacies of a world governance, world economy and global priorities decided by and enforced upon the world by a few powerful states and corporate groups that more or less dictate the rules of the game. This time the rules of the game, rigged from the beginning to suit whatever interests were at play at the time of their introduction, were flawed. Flawed, and — as it turned out — dangerous.
It is hard for anyone in touch with reality not to be concerned about the repercussions and the destructive potential of this crisis. If the situation was to be summarised in one word, a pointless endeavour no less, I would say that the elevation of profit as the basic and dominant metric that largely defines modern civilization and the governing policies affecting people, environment and — ultimately — life on this planet was central to this crisis. There is nothing wrong, of course, with individuals, organisations and countries being profitable or aiming to make a profit of coursed. This is true, as long as there is a fair, stable and reasonable system of rules in place that prevents conditions where profit yields unlimited power over other values. Everything is wrong with elevating profit to the sole determinant of social policy, of allowing finance to override sovereign and international institutions. The fallacy with this crisis stems from allowing profit to become this central metric, displacing others, arguably more important to life, culture, long-term prosperity, peace; many, both in Europe and elsewhere are spending huge amounts of time and effort in studying the detailed economic reasons. Such efforts are ultimately irrelevant, a lower level of discourse that is only seemingly important because of the underlying social decision to elevate the importance of trade, finance and profit to such a high place; no, this crisis is a deeply political, social and philosophical one above all. Economists striving to coat every single issue in a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-rational economic explanation are wasting their time — and would be extremely amusing if the current social environment did not empower them with considerable social policy influence.

A Global Capitalism

The decades after WWII were those of rebuilding and progress. Decades of remorse and of introspection. Most people in Europe tried to build a better society for themselves and their children, with a wider scope of values and a reduced importance on profit. Even in the dominant superpower, the US, where most products were manufactured and wealth was accumulated, there was a 90% tax-rate for the ultra-rich at some point in the 1960s. Exploitation persisted of course, in many parts of the world, the superpowers fought a dirty cold war that ignored many peoples’ needs and disrespected their right to life and a decent living, yet a society where people were treated like animals would be, by most accounts, considered abhorrent. A society where employees are increasingly viewed as automata, performing a single repetitive task on a production line, until they are not longer useful to the company and are left to die. Remember that this wasn’t always the case; slavery was a largely accepted phenomenon in many parts of this world, including the currently sole superpower on this planet, the United States, up until quite recently in historic terms. A society where stifling peoples’ creativity, their dreams and their passions are not only omnipresent traits, but accepted ones. Where people are openly described as ‘production units’ that are ‘flexible’, ‘efficient’ and ‘useful’ as long as they are ‘turning a profit’. Whose life is absolutely quantifiable according to logistics, financials and risk management models and their personality, their interactions, their imagination is absolutely irrelevant.
Sadly, we’re not so far away from this society today. Reading this article at the New York Times that sketches how the fundamental pillars of the post-industrial revolution global financial system that’s been evolving for more than a century, and a fundamental part of the western civilization for many decades, made me think that it — inevitably — is nearing its end. Its basic tenets, its axiomatic principles and structures upon which it exists and has evolved, its appeal to individual freedom, its willful ignorance of the flawed dynamics, the corruption, the exploitation that have gave birth to the modern western consumerist society have been crumbling under the weight of extremes: extreme demands, extreme conditions, extreme rationalisations. A global environment that does not eliminate or even dampen social and economic volatility, but amplifies it. A dated, practically inapplicable conceptual and ethical foundation whose promises are as unlikely as the obstacles and enemies it imagines and projects to reaffirm itself. A world full of unfairness and an economic jungle that places profit above all, under a make believe token layer of democracy and civility. But, mostly, its the failure of the system itself, with its unsustainable amounts of spending and debt in Europe and the US, an inefficient resource management economic that ignores not only the well-being of the people, but that of the environment.
Take for example Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned company that makes a large chunk of computer related components and peripherals. Foxconn employs in the order of a million workers in China. In massive city-sized compounds where workers sleep, eat, go shopping and — of course — work. A lot. In repetitive, brain-dead jobs aimed at maximising production. Foxconn’s competitors have similarly sized workforces and facilities. Most of the computers, electronics, consumer goods in general are assembled in such factories. The people working there believe they’ve got it good. They are so devoid of anything close to a dignified life that they choose to admit themselves to those modern employment gulags, so that they can send part of their meager salary back to their families; relatives who live in unimaginably worse conditions in the countryside without food or proper clothing or shelter. Every once in a while, something pretty horrendous happens which upsets the western corporations employing those companies; someone dies, or something blows up. Or the environment is hurt to such an extent that whole villages and small towns are evacuated. Then things change; slowly, insignificantly, marginally. Last year several suicides caused concern in the western corporate world (and the media orbiting it) that — until that point — happily accepted the output (and savings) of those factories without much concern for the well-being of the workers. Apple responded as did many other companies, forcing the owners of Foxconn to raise the salaries of its workers. They were still incredibly cheap, they still had to do twelve hour shifts and work six or seven days a week. Only a few months later, Foxconn’s parent company, the Taiwanese Hon Hai Precision Electronics, announced that it would be increasing its workforce by several hundred thousand. This time they wouldn’t be human, but robotic. Actual robots, machines with increased precision, speed and lower costs than even the $1/day worker at Foxconn’s factory-cities.
I recently finished reading Confessions of an Eco Sinner by Fred Pearce, a British journalist that attempts to track down the source of his possessions; from food to electronic, clothing to jewelry he goes around the world, meeting the people and the communities that produce, cultivate, manufacture and distribute the ‘stuff’ we use (and need) everyday. The book is far from the most eloquently written piece of non-fiction I’ve read; in fact I found it repetitive in style and somewhat longwinded at times. Yet it is — by and large — a fascinating read simply due to the sheer significance and value of the facts; its content. For many of those in the West that are blissfully unaware of the source, the method and the cost of the lifestyles they’ve had for decades, the book is eye-opening. For those already sensitive to the social, cultural, economic and — of course — ecological effects of the materialism that has pretty much defined Western societies after the 1950s, it is depressing. No matter which group you belong to, I found the book to be extremely valuable and informative.

Turning Around

Even if the current situation in China, Indonesia, India, most of Africa, Brasil, Mexico and countless other places lies in ‘acceptable’ territory in someone’s mind (although I can’t see how it could if they are being honest with themselves), an even more extreme world, where production lies in robots, where the individual is de facto unable to attain a dignified level of existence among his or her peers, no matter how much they try, are gifted or determined, where wealth is accumulated in even smaller groups of people and opportunities are simply nonexistent for the rest, couldn’t be justified even for the most extreme of the ‘free-market’ supporters. It’s not the technology’s fault; the robots are not to blame. They should be embraced, as technology should in general; it’s the envrionment, the pathetic institutions and the social norms that, along with technology, showcase the flaws of our ‘system’.
With a fragile world as backdrop to remind us of the effects of our civilization on the conditions that have allowed us to flourish as a species on earth, a global Robot Economy seems to be the evident successor to the exploitation-in-disguise of the majority of the world’s population, under the thin veil of a globalised economy and economic development and opportunity. This, along with the global crisis stemming from the debt-laden economies of the West should serve as the undisputed proof that the premise was wrong in the first place, that consumption should be decoupled from monetary capability, that new values should replace the flawed profit-based economic model the world has been operating upon for decades. The challenge is determining those values and transitioning to them without condemning humanity through war, famine or poverty. And this seems to be a tall-order for anyone to fill, let alone the myopic, self-centered and incompetent group that constitute the leading politicians across the globe today. Hopefully, the slow death of the middle class and the post World War II social net that was established in Europe (and to a lesser extent the US) will create the circumstances for a reversal of the insane social policies that currently trouble the West before they reach a point where social cohesion, ecological disaster and mass revolt cause irreparable damage to the current generation and beyond.