The techno-utopian myth has already been deeply problematized by environmental sociology, practice theory studies, science and technology studies and the Risk Society debate. Technological developments do not neatly perform to planned expectations. There are often unforeseen unintended consequences and human beings are not the passive recipients of intervention and innovation that is often assumed.
With automation the techno-utopian dream has clear conflicts up ahead. Self-service checkouts, driverless cars and heavily automated factories and warehouses (such as those used by Amazon) already exist. Moreover the threat to jobs is not just in blue collar sectors. A Japanese insurance firm Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance recently made 34 office employees redundant and replaced them with artificial intelligence software. There have even been robotic developments in surgery that could eventually threaten the value of human surgeons.So what will become of the mass of workers that they are intended to replace?
The question asked in the title is a valid one for the public interest and public debate. How is an economic system that distributes vast amounts of income to citizens through the market value of labour going to contend with the masses whose market value disappears? Who are they then going to sell goods and services to? Will there be a sufficient amount of conspicuous consumption from the remaining elites to keep afloat a market of luxuries while the rest of the public are made destitute? Will the breakdown in collective action under neoliberalism prevent a public backlash from occurring or when faced with dire impoverishment will the masses rise up in effective numbers? If they do will police and military hold firm against impoverished millions or will they too be automated and programmed to protect the elite from the unruly mob? I’ll admit that I am pulling most of this stuff out of the sky right now but isn’t it time to ask these questions, especially in regard to the appropriateness of automation for an economic system so heavily dependent on markets and labour-based income.
This extract from Thoughts on the Sociology of Brexit by Will Davies over at the PERCblog provides an alternative take on Brexit and the role of ridicule and condescension that is so often overtly heaped on the culturally and economically marginalized in England:
By the same token, it seems unlikely that those in these regions (or Cornwall or other economically peripheral spaces) would feel ‘grateful’ to the EU for subsidies. Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction (see James Meek’s recent essay in the London Review of Books on Europhobic farmers who receive vast subsidies from the EU). More bizarrely, it has since emerged that regions with the closest economic ties to the EU in general (and not just of the subsidised variety) were most likely to vote Leave.
While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it. This isn’t to discredit what the EU does in terms of redistribution, but pointing to handouts is a psychologically and politically naïve basis on which to justify remaining in the EU.
In this context, the slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect. Farrage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.
This doesn’t necessarily have to translate into nationalistic pride or racism (although might well do), but does at the very least mean no longer being laughed at. Those that have ever laughed at ‘chavs’ (such as the millionaire stars of Little Britain) have something to answer for right now, as Rhian E. Jones’Clampdown argued. The willingness of Nigel Farrage to weather the scornful laughter of metropolitan liberals (for instance through his periodic appearances on Have I Got News For You) could equally have made him look brave in the eyes of many potential Leave voters. I can’t help feeling that every smug, liberal, snobbish barb that Ian Hislop threw his way on that increasingly hateful programme was ensuring that revenge would be all the greater, once it arrived. The giggling, from which Boris Johnson also benefited handsomely, needs to stop.
As this version of Brexit indicates it’s not just people’s pockets that can play a part in decision-making (a view that massively oversimplifies human and social complexity) but an array of emotions informing a sense of dignity and related socially-situated perspectives. A similar vibe is apparent among Trump supporters as detected by the work of Arlie Hochschild and in this fascinating piece by a former member of a rural community where Trump support is strong. Inequality and exclusion it would seem are no longer things the liberal cultural elite can afford to ignore, or worse, ridicule.
From an interview with Roy Bhaskar:
I argued against the stark polarity and contrast between facts and values. There is a dialectical interrelation between facts and values, in which we are never situated in a value free context. Values always impregnate and imbue our social praxis and our factual discourse, but at the same time, facts themselves do generate evaluative conclusions. This paved the way for the refutation of Hume’s law. * Truth and factuality are themselves norms, but that is a presupposition of all factual discourse, and on the basis of that value we can generate other evaluative conclusions.
* Hume’s law separates the factual from the normative and argues that normative statements follow on from factual ones.
Interesting take on the use of the word “fuck” in academia here by Simon Springer whose paper “Fuck Neoliberalism” has over 24,000 views on academiaedu (maybe I should add a few expletives to my own titles in future):
Fuck Neoliberalism. …For a time I had considered calling this paper ‘Forget Neoliberalism’ instead, as in some ways that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve been writing on the subject for many years (Springer 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015; Springer et al. 2016) and I came to a point where I just didn’t want to commit any more energy to this endeavor for fear that continuing to work around this idea was functioning to perpetuate its hold. On further reflection I also recognize that as a political manoeuvre it is potentially quite dangerous to simply stick our heads in the sand and collectively ignore a phenomenon that has had such devastating and debilitating effects on our shared world. There is an ongoing power to neoliberalism that is difficult to deny and I’m not convinced that a strategy of ignorance is actually the right approach (Springer 2016a). So my exact thoughts were, ‘well fuck it then’, and while a quieter and gentler name for this paper could tone down the potential offence that might come with the title I’ve chosen, I subsequently reconsidered. Why should we be more worried about using profanity than we are about the actual vile discourse of neoliberalism itself? I decided that I wanted to transgress, to upset, and to offend, precisely because we ought to be offended by neoliberalism, it is entirely upsetting, and therefore we should ultimately be seeking to transgress it. Wouldn’t softening the title be making yet another concession to the power of neoliberalism? I initially worried what such a title might mean in terms of my reputation. Would it hinder future promotion or job offers should I want to maintain my mobility as an academic, either upwardly or to a new location? This felt like conceding personal defeat to neoliberal disciplining. Fuck that.
An in-depth survey of GPs finds that public patients may have to wait up to 25 times as long as private patients for tests to diagnose cancer. This two-tier system kills. This adds to the existing inequalities in cancer already made visible by previous research here and here. While it is good this stuff comes to light it is unfortunate that the continuous nature of this problem will all too easily be lost again in episodic media reporting and campaigners will continue to be obsessed with the biological existence of the disease while overlooking the additional crucial and deadly social elements.
Other findings point to potential inequality of access based on social networks, which 1 in 5 GPs believe exists. They perceive certain doctors as having greater pull for getting their patients bumped up on waiting lists for CT scans and MRIs through their established connections elsewhere in the health service. This sort of pull reminds me of the penalty points scandals and the clientelism and brokerage that has(possibly still does) existed in Irish politics. If the GPs’ suspicions are correct it serves as a reminder of how inequality isn’t just economic but – as Bourdieu has demonstrated– social, cultural and status-based as well as deadly.