Thursday, 19 October 2017

Debt: The Last 30 Years

We are marginally less constipated than before. Ideologically speaking. Thanks in large part to Jeremy Corbyn British politics has begun to move on from the mendacious obsession with public debt being the cause of the last financial crisis (and the harbinger of future ones).

Political conservation has started to appreciate the seriousness of enormous levels of private debt, which was always the elephant in the room. The Bank of England has warned of a ‘spiral of complacency’ about growing household debt, while the IMF has cautioned that the ‘rapid growth in household debt – especially mortgages – can be dangerous’. Anthropologist David Graeber says ‘the household sector is a rolling catastrophe’. Around 17 million Britons have less than £100 in savings.  And with the BoE making noises about raising interest rates from rock bottom levels, there are worries that some mortgage-holders could default, precipitating a US-style sub-prime crisis.

The problem is that all attention is directed at one kind of private debt – personal debt. And while its seriousness should not be minimised there are other sorts of private debt that merit just as much, if not more, concern:

Personal debt is not the most extreme form of private debt

Private debt can be divided into three types – financial sector debt (i.e. banks & insurance companies), corporate debt and personal or household debt. All three have grown exponentially since the start of the 1990s. According to economist Michael Roberts, what he terms ‘global liquidity’, a combination of banks loans, securitized debt and derivatives, mushroomed from 150% of world GDP in 1990 to 350% in 2011. And while in some countries, colossal financial sector debt has declined to a degree following the financial crisis, and household debt levels fell before rising once more, corporate debt, nourished by near zero interest rates, has just snowballed over the last nine years.

According to figures released by management consultants McKinsey in 2015, all forms of private debt have grown since 2007 but corporate debt has increased by double the rate of both household and financial debt, which nonetheless rose but in a more subdued manner than before the crisis (see the graphic in this article). Government debt has also exploded as financial debt was transferred to state coffers. “Nonfinancial corporate debt remains the largest component of overall in the advanced capitalist economies at 113% of GDP,” says Roberts, “compared to 104% for government debt and 90% for household debt.”

The forms that corporate debt takes vary but one of the most common is for companies to use debt to buy back their own shares. This practice, which was illegal in the United States before 1982, increases the firm’s share price in a totally artificial manner, giving the appearance of financial health and success in the marketplace. Frequently, it also personally benefits the corporate executives who authorise it as they are paid partly in stock options. In fact the corporate sector has been the main buyer of US equities since the market meltdown of 2008, engaging in what has been described as ‘the greatest debt-funded buyback spree in history’. It was estimated that in 2017 the largest US companies would spend a record $780 billion on share buy backs, though, in reality, the forecast bonanza has apparently hit a snag.

Or possibly corporate debt takes the form of shareholder loans, the practice by which one company deliberately loads another company that they own (they are the main shareholders) with huge amounts of debt which the captive company is then obliged to pay back at high rates of interest; 15 or 20% for example. The Financial Times recently highlighted the case of Arqiva which owns 9/10ths of the UK’s terrestrial TV transmission networks and, in the three years to June 2016, paid around £750 million in interest to its controlling shareholders, payments financed by borrowing.  It is now £3 billion in debt. And that’s just one company.

Household debt did not cause the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis

What household debt did was light the touch-paper. The nationwide implosion of the housing market in America after interest rates were raised signalled the demise of all those mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt obligations but the reason it proved so devastating for the US economy and spread the crisis around the world was because of the fatal combination of household debt with gargantuan financial sector and corporate debt. The Global Financial Crisis was sparked in August 2007 (‘the day the world changed’) when French bank BNP Paribas froze its funds because of its exposure to the mortgage backed securities of the US sub-prime market. The problem wasn’t defaulting French mortgage-holders but the effects were being felt by a French bank. BNP was one of three major French banks who were collectively overleveraged to the tune of 237% of French GDP. That level of indebtedness caused the crisis to spread to Europe as hugely indebted, and now effectively insolvent, European banks called in the loans they had made to southern European governments.

Nobody can say with any assurance what the trigger will be for the next financial crisis. It might be heavily indebted US college graduates or UK credit card borrowers or Australian consumers or Dutch mortgage holders (a country which has the most indebted households in the euro area).
But it’s equally possible that the fuse will be lit from another sector of the economy entirely – massively overleveraged corporations being unable to repay their creditors when interest rates rise, for instance. In that case, households will simply be spectators to the unfolding events.

All the focus is on personal debt because it represents a morality play

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years David Graeber points out that in Sanskrit, Aramaic and Hebrew ‘debt’, ‘guilt’ and ‘sin’ are all the same word. In modern German, the word for ‘debt’ – schuld – also means guilt. “If history shows anything,” Graeber writes, “it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

The existence of enormous level of personal debt in advanced capitalist countries is a sure sign that the individual freedom these societies claim to uphold is skin deep. In reality, they are founded relations of coercion and control. To be in debt is to have someone’s boot on your neck. In the UK, high rates of personal debt are intimately related to the fact that real wages are 10 per cent lower than a decade ago. Rising personal debt is also strongly correlated to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

From another perspective, personal debt is the symbol of our fatal addiction to consumerism, the consequence of an all-embracing need to maintain a modern lifestyle, decorated with the latest products, no matter what the cost to ourselves or the environment. Either way, personal debt unmistakably says something about the current state of society – what drives it and who is in control.

Corporate and financial sector debt, by contrast, is not only opaque, it is frightening neutral. Debt has simply become the way of doing business over the last 30 years. Debtors are frequently also creditors and companies may simultaneously indebt themselves and hoard cash. Indeed, increasing ‘leverage’ (to use the technical term) or loading debt onto captive companies (as in the Arqiva case) is often the primary means by which profits are made. No sense of shame or ‘doing something wrong’ attaches to it.

The question that should arise is why the corporate sector – financial and otherwise – has become so addicted to debt? Why is old-fashioned investment in new products or new technologies comparatively shunned?

It is possible to reduce personal debt but corporate debt is far more of an intractable problem

Theoretically it is possible to cut personal debt to more manageable and less dangerous levels.  Ending austerity, strengthening trade unions, instituting rent controls and directing efforts to raising the level of real wages should see the rates of payday loan and credit card debt diminish. I say theoretically because, interestingly, some of the highest quantities of personal debt, as a proportion of GDP, are in Scandinavian countries – nations that have impressive rates of trade union membership, collective bargaining and high personal incomes. However, those in debt in Nordic countries tend to be higher earners. In the US and UK, by contrast, personal debt often afflicts people much lower down the income scale – people who are much more likely to default given a slight change in the economic winds.

Corporate debt is a different matter entirely. The massive government bail outs of 2008 only succeeded in transferring debt from the financial sector to the state and, even then, only denting marginally the indebtedness of the banks. Corporations, whose debt had risen markedly over the previous twenty years, merely took advantage of the lower interest rate environment, to become even more indebted.

The writer and broadcaster Paul Mason says governments have to do something ‘clear and progressive about debts’. He advocates a policy of ‘financial repression’ – that is stimulating inflation and holding interest rates below the rate of inflation for 10 or 15 years as a way of writing off debt. But we can see the problems that a mild rise in the rate of inflation to the historically low level of 3% is currently causing people in the UK, with wages unable to catch up. Deliberately stoking inflation for a decade or more would surely precipitate the household debt defaults that so many people are warning about – inflation would erode the total amount of people’s debt but interest payments would still need to be met as real incomes plummeted. And if interest rates are below inflation – as they are now – the incentive for corporations to take on more debt is still there.

It is difficult to imagine how this system can gradually and progressively resolve its problems without provoking the economic collapse that everyone is so desperate to avoid.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

'Most economists simply do not understand finance' - An interview with Harry Shutt

Harry Shutt is a freelance economist (he has carried out more than 100 assignments for the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the European Commission) and the author of Beyond the Profits System (2010), The Decline of Capitalism (2005), which predicted ‘an unavoidable financial crisis … on a scale far greater than any previous one’ and The Trouble with Capitalism (1998). Unusually for his profession, he is no cheerleader for capitalism, rather asserting that the profit maximising corporate system is a relic from the past whose continuance is doing immense harm to public welfare. In this interview he reflects on Jeremy Corbyn, the real purpose of Quantitative Easing, why economic recovery under the present system is impossible, the necessity of a basic income and what future economic enterprises might look like in an era of the rapidly diminishing value of capital.

As unlikely as it looked a few months ago, a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government now seems a distinct possibility in the not too distant future. What’s your opinion of Corbyn and Labour’s social democratic programme and where do Labour’s blind spots lie?

From a Left perspective Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership was obviously a step in the right direction, as also was his relative success in this year's general election, based on a relatively radical manifesto and a strong campaign. However, the election manifesto, which was quite widely praised, has some serious drawbacks in my opinion. One of them was on the question of social welfare, where they didn’t promise to reverse the cuts, which was pretty extraordinary. And they didn’t come out with any alternative to the Tory strategy. In that regard, there’s been a further report on the impact of Universal Credit – it’s from the Citizens Advice Bureau and they’ve called for it to be suspended. Labour ought to be calling for this. But they simply haven’t got any other ideas. Even theoretically, Universal Credit is a complete disaster and could never work in practice.

More fundamentally, there is no mention in the manifesto of the problem of the massive national debt – which has doubled since 2010 despite the desperate efforts of the present government to contain it – other than a commitment to bring it down by the end of this parliament (2022). Yet there is no indication of how this is to be done, nor any mention of the macro-economic constraints to action or of the very real threat of renewed financial crisis.

Your position differs from many left-wing economists in that you say that not only has recovery not happened since the crash of 2008, but, in the circumstances of enormous and growing debt (financial, corporate and personal) and ultra-low interest rates, recovery is simply not possible. Hence investors and entrepreneurs are forced into ‘fictitious’ areas of activity – financial speculation – in order to make a profit. But why exactly does a combination of an enormous debt overhang and near zero interest rates preclude any genuine economic recovery?

As noted by at least one other economist (Steve Keen), most economists simply do not understand finance. If they did they would realise that the prevailing low interest rates are the result of massive market manipulation officially orchestrated by the US and other leading world economies. Likewise they would recognise that the main purpose of Quantitative Easing is not to stimulate economic activity but to buy up public debt and other financial securities at prices far higher than their true market worth, thereby holding market interest rates far below what they would be if they were to reflect the true value of financial securities. In other words the current record levels of stock market prices and unprecedented low interest rates are the result of a gigantic state-sponsored fraud (probably the biggest in history). As such it must be recognised that this QE-based fraud is unsustainable and is bound to end in a monumental financial crash, with dire consequences for the entire world. What is most astonishing to me is that other economists (particularly on the Left) are unwilling or unable to recognise this.

Some left wingers regard low interest rates as an opportunity for the government because they mean it is able to borrow money cheaply and, for instance, build social housing or install ultra-fast broadband and free public wi-fi. I know you regard such thinking with disdain. What are your reasons?

Because of the existing or prospective insolvency of most of the borrowers the only institutions likely to lend at such low rates are ones associated with the government itself. So those who use this argument are simply asking for the government to borrow from itself – or print money by any other name.

The three things you mention are all desirable. But why should we borrow even more to pay for them when a) we are already in debt up to the eyeballs and b) the private corporate sector has such huge excess reserves of capital (‘surplus value’)? The LP manifesto was extremely timid in proposing higher taxes on corporate profits; note also that in 2010 the Lib Dems proposed reversing some of the generous concessions on Capital Gains Tax (CGT) given the City by the New Labour government (of course dropped when they entered the Coalition), but the LP manifesto makes only one very vague reference to reversing CGT give-aways. The general point is that there is no substitute for a huge redistribution of income and assets, whether before or after (or perhaps during?) the coming financial collapse.

An American investor said at the start of June that ‘the worst crash in our lifetimes is coming’ - Do you think that it’s just a matter of time before a seismic economic crash happens?


You’ve written that ‘there is no painless way of achieving a transition' to a new economic model. But people are understandably frightened of what a mammoth economic crash would lead to. It might usher in Fascism, war-lordism or even nuclear war. Is there any way of moving to a more rational economic system without the roof caving in so to speak?

No, the point of no return was probably passed in the 1970s.

You’re a strong advocate of a Universal Basic Income. But unlike many basic income proponents, who imagine it as kind of fall-back to enable people to navigate the ‘gig economy’, you’re adamant that UBI should be ‘the primary mechanism of income distribution in the modern economy’. If basic income will largely replace income from work for people does it therefore need to be set at a generous level – much higher than just subsistence?

Not necessarily. People will still have the opportunity to engage in paid employment / self-employment to supplement their basic income stipend. But the UBI must be sufficient to permit people to engage in non-remunerative activities without financial hardship (bear in mind they will also benefit from the NHS and other publicly financed universal services).

Your last book was subtitled, ‘Possibilities for a Post-Capitalist Era’. Under a post-capitalist economic system, if enterprises no longer maximise profit and people don’t receive much of an income from paid employment (they get most of their living costs from tax-funded UBI), how will universal services like the NHS and education be paid for? Won’t tax revenue dwindle to a virtual trickle?

The pattern of employment, value added, income distribution, pricing, taxation etc under a post-capitalist economy remains to be determined as the system evolves. But consider that (e.g.) if it costs little or nothing to produce things (as in the “Zero marginal cost society” – ZMCS) then people won't need much income to procure them. The likely knock-on effects of this on the cost of public services are obvious.

Adam Smith is commonly thought of as the father of market economics. But he was against the corporate form (he thought that ownership and management should not be separated) and advocated small-scale enterprises. Similarly, you regard modern-day corporations as huge vested interests working to the detriment of public welfare. In any case, you believe that the era of the mega-corporation – enterprises that require massive capital investment and employ thousands of people – is coming to an end. So, in future, what will economic enterprises look like?

Again it's hard to foresee. If capital is no longer scarce and its value correspondingly minimal there will be little profit in trying to accumulate it in large quantities. Likewise rapid technological change and the increasing difficulty of restricting access to it will make it hard to capitalise on “intellectual property” as mega-corporations currently do, especially with the advent of the ZMCS. In this scenario I envisage enterprises (whether community or privately owned) as mainly small-scale serving local economies. Note that Shell and other oil companies are already preparing for life after petroleum, though most are not anticipating the equally certain devaluation of most other activities of high capital intensity.

Friday, 14 July 2017

O Robot, Where Art Thou?

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared in The Communist Manifesto. To Marx, capitalism was oppressive, immiserating and dehumanizing but, in the final analysis, progressive because the technological leaps it entailed paved the way for a rational, socialist society.

Nearly a hundred years later another economist, Joseph Schumpeter, made a very similar point, but this time from a pro-capitalist perspective. He referred to the “gale of creative destruction … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one and incessantly creating a new one”.

The sociologist Randall Collins, whose essay on the cognitively astute robots that will progressively decimate middle class employment I reviewed in part one, relies on the same intuition. Capitalist competition dictates that the replacement of human labour with machines will inexorably go on for the next 20, 100 or theoretically 1,000 years, he claims, unless something extrinsic to the system calls time on capitalist competition.

However, capitalist competition isn’t proving as revolutionary as it’s supposed to be. Were the digital/robot revolution to be merrily scything through the analogue economy, this would show up in soaring productivity figures, which measure output per worker. In reality, productivity in the advanced capitalist countries has rarely been lower. It currents stands at 0.3%, down from the 1% of the pre-crisis years. And nothing like the 5% achieved in the 1960s and early ‘70s. In Britain, productivity fell by 0.5% in the first three months of 2017. And the productivity enigma is not limited to advanced economies – regions like Latin America show similar inertia. The gale of creative destruction has turned into an oppressive stillness.

Equally, unemployment shows scant signs of the robot revolution. If robots were stealing all the jobs, thousands of people would find themselves surplus to requirements. The official unemployment rate is 4.8% in the UK and 4.7% in the US. Assuredly, these figures need to be read in the light of the millions who have given up looking for work or are economically inactive, but they do not appear to mask steadily rising structural unemployment caused by technological displacement.

And the jobs being ‘created’ are not ones entailing the supervision of machines; they are menial. The number of hand car washes in Britain now stands at 20,000 while their mechanised equivalent, the rollover cash wash, has halved in number in ten years. In the words of one commentator, this is “a kind of reverse industrialisation”.

Collins himself notes that the “biggest area of job growth in rich countries has been low-skilled service jobs, where it is cheaper to hire human labour than to automate.” In the US, he says, one of the most impressive employment growth areas is (as of 2013 when he was writing) tattoo parlours.

This is not to claim that new technologies are not being conceived or realised. Most people, by now, have heard of 3-D printing, self-driving cars and nano-technology. But they are not being utilised in the economy. This is not a new development, though perhaps it is new for capitalism. The steam engine was invented during the Roman Empire but was not commercially exploited until the 18th century.

David Graeber attributes part of the reason for technological stagnation to the corporate form. In Marx’s London, says Graeber, scientific and technological innovation was the order of the day because individual capitalists, rather than conglomerates, dominated. But in the 20th century, corporations gradually extended their iron grip and creativity declined.

There is something to be said for this. The point of a corporation is not to encourage competition but stamp it out – to achieve monopoly and restrict entry to the market to other firms. Once market dominance has been achieved, you then aim to maximise take-up of your products (two or three of the same gadget for everyone) and to restrict labour costs (by moving your production to China for example). But technological innovation brought by a rival company breathing down your neck is less desirable.

However, I don’t think this tells the whole story. The really glaring declines in productivity have occurred after the 2008 financial crisis. The official story is that government stepped to make sure credit continued to flow through the system and to set the private economy back on the virtuous path of self-regulation. But in reality what emerged was the simulacrum of a competitive system, and one particularly ill-suited to technological innovation. The priority was to preserve the system, and that overriding aim sacrificed what technological dynamism there was.

It’s undisputed that what characterised the world economic system before 2008 was overwhelming debt – debt miring banks, corporations and subsequently governments, debt asphyxiating consumers as wages failed to grow. But far from falling after the crisis, debt has continued to mount. In 2015 it was revealed that global debt had risen by over 40% since 2008, climbing to $57 trillion. Ultra-low interest rates throughout the world have made that debt manageable (by minimising interest payments) even while it continues to mount.

But this ‘preservationism’ has facilitated the after-life of a growing number of ‘zombie’ companies – firms so much in debt that their income only covers the interest payments they have to make. According to the OECD, across nine European economies (including the UK), between 5 and 20% of the total sum of private capital is sunk in zombie companies. It is estimated that there are between 108,000 and 160,000 such undead companies in the UK. And there are presumably many more near zombies. It no accident that genuine technological innovation is the preserve of a few mega corporations, such as Apple, who are awash with cash. Most companies don’t want to risk investment in untried technology.

This might explain the growth of menial, low paid, temporary work rather than robotic technology. Such work guarantees profit but requires minimal capital investment in new equipment. According to Adair Turner, the former head of the UK’s Low Pay Commission, “there is something about the economy which – left to itself – will proliferate very, very low paid jobs.” But, of course, the economy has not been ‘left to itself’ – its financial system has been subject to a multi-trillion dollar bail-out and central banks across the world are still in the process of ‘tapering down’ a Quantitative Easing programme that has created $12.3 trillion out of thin air.

This economic settlement also indicates that the scenario painted by Randall Collins – one where capitalist competition ordains the rapid robotization of the economy, throwing 50 or 70% of people out of work by mid-century – will take much longer to come to pass, if it does at all. A new and deeper financial crisis will almost certainly get their first.

However, there is, at root, something strange about dreading technological progress – desultory or transformative. Collins’ nightmarish near-future – where a tiny elite owns all the automated businesses and computer equipment and the vast majority of people fight over the scant number of jobs serving them – is peculiar to a very particular kind of social structure. One in which a person’s livelihood is dependent on whether they can make themselves useful to the ‘productive apparatus’. In these circumstances, being displaced by a machine is clearly very threatening.

But automation loses its menace if people’s income is divorced from work; if the income they receive to live on has nothing to do with their ability to sell themselves to an employer, or the capacity of a machine to perform a task more efficiently than a human can. Once this practical and conceptual breakthrough has been made, far from being something to be dreaded, technology acquires a very different complexion. It becomes something to be welcomed.

The thinker who most embodied this leap in understanding was Murray Bookchin. Back in 1965 (its five decades old lineage revealing in itself) he wrote an essay entitled Toward a Liberatory Technology that belied contemporary attitudes of ‘deep pessimism’ and fatalism towards the effects of technology. “After thousands of years of tortuous development,” Bookchin wrote, “the countries of the Western world (and potentially all countries) are confronted by the possibility of a materially abundant, almost workless era in which most of the means of life can be provided by machines.”

The real issue to Bookchin was not whether this technically transformed economy could eliminate repetitive and thankless toil, “but whether it can help to humanize society”. Technology, he claimed, did not have to enslave humanity or result in legions of passive automatons mesmerized by gadgets. It could just easily facilitate a revival of craftsmanship, producing products that people can personalise themselves or freeing them to pursue ‘unproductive’ activities.

But the primary liberatory potential of technology lay in the fact that it could give people the free time and energy to manage society themselves. Past revolutions, such as the French or the Russian, had shown tantalising glimpses of this possibility. The Parisian sections of 1789 or the Petrograd soviets (councils) of 1917 were democratic assemblies which everyone could attend and participate in the hitherto privileged act of ‘policy making’. However, the brute fact that these societies were mired in conditions of material scarcity meant, said Bookchin, that the mass of people had to return to the role of mute wage slaves reproducing the means of subsistence, while “the reins of power fell into the hands of political ‘professionals’”.

Future society – and specifically the robotized society predicted by Collins – has no such restraints. It is only the outcome of a perverse social structure that, in a material environment where robots and computers carry out the vast majority of work, people fight among themselves for the right to serve the elite. Nor is it inevitable that, as Collins predicts, that post-capitalist society oscillates between the bureaucratic oppression of central planning and market capitalism. Fully automated luxury communism can not only facilitate a self-managed society but also satisfy myriad wants far better than the Stalinist planned economies of the post-war years. “From the moment toil is reduced to the barest possible minimum or disappears entirely,” said Bookchin, “the problems of survival pass into the problems of life, and technology itself passes from being the servant of man’s immediate needs to being the partner of his (sic) creativity.”

I think three things are becoming increasingly clear: (i) Automation determined by capitalist competition will magnify current inequalities of wealth and power, leading to a dystopian future (ii) Far from revolutionizing the ‘productive forces’, the corporate, debt-riddled, state-reliant economy that has emerged from the 2008 global financial crisis is proving conspicuously bad at instituting technological innovation, preferring old-fashioned exploitation of human labour, and (iii) A post-capitalist society can choose which technologies to expedite, without any concern about the consequences of throwing people out of work. It can also facilitate enduring democratic self-management for the first time in history. Given (i) and (ii) are not remotely desirable and will likely precipitate huge conflict and war, getting to (iii), however difficult, is the only rational course of action.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Will automation spell doom for capitalism?

Capitalism is doomed and, you’ll be pleased to hear, will go the way of the dinosaurs sooner than you think. That’s the conclusion of one of the essays in the book, Does Capitalism Have a Future? The author, Randall Collins, predicts the demise of capitalism in the next 30 to 50 years. So if you’re 20 now, by the time you hit late middle age you may well be living through a tumultuous, revolutionary period or possibly inhabiting a post-capitalist economic system.

The culprit is not one of the usual suspects – not financialisation leading to deeper and more frequent economic crises or a declining rate of profit – but something simpler and even more inexorable. The force in question is automation and Collins says it will seriously eat into ‘communicative labour’ in the near future – his essay is called, ‘The End of Middle Class Work: No More Escapes’.

Mechanisation – labour-saving innovations that enable businesses to produce more at lower cost and thus reduce the need to employ people – has decimated skilled working class jobs over the past forty years, says Collins. Manufacturing employment in advanced capitalist countries has declined from an average of 40% of the workforce, to just 15%.

The Robots are coming

But mechanisation has now been joined by robotization and computerization, which have the potential to automate away not just repetitive, manual tasks, but cognitive work as well. Thus managerial and professional jobs, the provinces of people who have largely benefitted from the changes of the last 40 years, will start to crumble.

Computerization is still in its youth, says Collins, but as it develops the process of technological displacement of jobs will ‘become more extreme with each passing decade’. In time we will see the arrival of ‘humanoid robots that would take over upper working class and middle class skilled work, and then displace managers and expert professionals as well.”

Such developments will cause structural unemployment of 50% or more. In these circumstances governments will undergo a fiscal crisis (a vanishing number of people will be paying income tax of any significance) and there will be mounting pressure for a ‘revolutionary overturn of the property system.’ A tiny elite of robot owners will receive all the profits ‘leaving the great bulk of the population to scrap among themselves for jobs servicing the elite and their machines.’  This won’t be, in John Major’s immortal phrase, a ‘society at ease with itself’.

Will Basic Income come to the rescue?

The lion’s share of Collins’ essay is concerned with rebutting various escape routes from technological displacement that have worked in the past but aren’t going to in the future. These include the replacement of the lost jobs with new ones in different sectors, globalisation or the endless expansion of education. Interestingly, one escape route that Collins doesn’t consider is Basic Income. But Basic Income is precisely the solution that will be tried in the face of technological onslaught. Indeed, it is being advocated now, and not just by itinerant thinkers but by Silicon Valley overlords.

However, there is one conspicuous obstacle that will dog Basic Income if the robot scenario sketched by Collins comes to pass. To actually ensure that this hi-tech future doesn’t turn into a dystopian nightmare, the basic income would have to get at a far higher level than many currently think feasible.  As Collins says, if middle class jobs going to be lost, then so is the income that goes with them. This implies, if it is going to substitute for the vanished spending power, a basic income ‘max’ set at £25/£30k a year or maybe even more.

But that will mean an increased financial burden on the government at a time when its revenue from income tax is being severely curtailed because all the middle class jobs are disappearing. To make that burden bearable, and to avoid the governmental fiscal crisis that Collins says historically has always presaged revolution, the robot-owning corporations would have to be willing to be subjected to extremely high tax rates. This is still the case even if the governments of the mid-21st century develop the spines so obviously lacking now and close down the zero per cent tax havens that currently harbour $32 trillion.

This is possible; enlightened self-interest may hold sway. But it’s also conceivable that the small number of corporations that lay down the law in this future society (and given the capitalist tendency to monopoly, we can safely assume it will be a few behemoths) may decide that it’s in their financial interest to simply repress, through massive police forces and surveillance, the vast majority of people. 

They will be left, as Collins imagines, to ‘scrap among themselves’ for jobs servicing the elite. And kept in line, should they think of rebelling, by state and private security forces controlled by massive resource-rich corporations. There is no guarantee this option won’t be chosen. You don’t have to look into history for long to find examples of slave states that lasted thousands of years.

But the mere fact that the elite running this future society will have this kind of choice before them indicates, to me, a flaw in basic income scenarios. Basic income is usually conceived as a kind of painless balm that is applied to society in order to stop the disastrous scenarios – of mass destitution caused by the disappearance of well-paid work – that would come to pass if things were left develop freely. That is, basic income, of itself, does nothing about vast inequality of wealth and ownership that exist now and will, if trends continue, become ever more extreme. It merely, hopefully, nullifies their effects.

The mirage of capitalist competition

Collins regards the transition to a non-market based, centrally-planned economy in the mid-21st century as almost dictated by circumstances. Reality will ultimately come to govern whatever wayward desires people have. “All the ethnic, religious, lifestyle and other conflicts will only be so much noise, stringing along the crisis until finally an alignment of mobilized political forces comes about that solves the crisis by post-capitalist transition,” he says.

Short of jettisoning capitalism, this looming confrontation cannot be averted. “There is no intrinsic end to this process of replacing humans with computers and other machines,” Collins writes. “The displacement of human work will go on not just for the next twenty years but the next hundred, even the next thousand years – unless something extrinsic happens to change the underlying mechanism driving technological displacement of work: capitalist competition.”

However, there is one problem with this scenario. Far from steaming ahead, as it theoretically should be, technological advancement is crawling along. Productivity measures output per worker and were automation to be busily rewiring the entire economy, productivity would be shooting ahead – machines (if they are ready to be utilised in the economy) being far more efficient than the average human. In fact the opposite is the case. Productivity growth in advanced economies is currently a risible 0.3% a year, compared to 1% before the 2008 crisis, which in turn pales next to the 5% attained in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the UK, productivity fell by 0.5% in the first three months of 2017. Capital investment, often the precursor to productivity growth, is likewise feeble. It collapsed after 2008 and has been falling steadily for the past three decades in any case.

Which leads to a subversive question – if technological advancement, the hallmark of capitalist competition, isn’t happening, are we actually living in a capitalist economy?

Part two to follow