Are Automation and Capitalism on a Collision Course?

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.

Brexit, Trump and the Dangerous Condescension of Liberal Elites

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.


Inequality still costing lives in Cancer services

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.

Piketty’s Praise for Social Science in his Criticism of US Economists

His comment on the self-deluding properties of the prestige (symbolic capital) of the US economists and the mention of ‘scientificity’ reminds me so much of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

From page 32 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything. This, in any case, is the charm of the discipline and of the social sciences in general: one starts from square one, so that there is some hope of making major progress. In France, I believe, economists are slightly more interested in persuading historians and sociologists, as well as people outside the academic world, that what they are doing is interesting (although they are not always successful). My dream when I was teaching in Boston was to teach at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, whose faculty has included such leading lights as Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, Françoise Héritier, and Maurice Godelier, to name a few. Dare I admit this, at the risk of seeming chauvinistic in my view of the social sciences? I probably admire these scholars more than Robert Solow or even Simon Kuznets, even though I regret the fact that the social sciences have largely lost interest in the distribution of wealth and questions of social class since the 1970s. Before that, statistics about income, wages, prices, and wealth played an important part in historical and sociological research. In any case, I hope that both professional social scientists and amateurs of all fields will find something of interest in this book, starting with those who claim to “know nothing about economics” but who nevertheless have very strong opinions about in equality of income and wealth, as is only natural.

Note the nod to Bourdieu

Inequality Kills: According to Reports on Cancer in Ireland

Good to see an article in the Irish Times addressing the relationship between inequality and cancer in Ireland according to two recent reports. The article lists several of these reports’ findings :

  • “people living in more deprived areas experience a poorer survival from cancer than those who live in more affluent parts of Ireland.”
  • “breast cancer patients from the most deprived areas were about 30 per cent more likely to die from their cancer than patients from the least deprived areas, having allowed for differences in patients’ age.”
  • “those from more deprived backgrounds were more likely to present late with advanced stage cancers. In addition, they were more likely to present with symptoms rather than through screening and were less likely to have breast-conserving surgery.”
  •  “death rates from cancer in some of the poorest parts of Dublin were more than twice as high as rates in more affluent areas.”
  • “Some of these disparities are due to the difficulties accessing healthcare experienced by the poorest in society”

Unfortunately the article is quite small, far from the symbolism of front page significance, and all too easily forgotten. I fear the class-based, social justice and social environment features behind such cancer rates will become lost again in mainstream media’s tendency towards ‘episodic’ reporting. For an illustrative example see this previous post which highlights how a statement, about poorer people being up to 70% more likely to get some cancers, gets lost in a new report’s classless assessment. Such easy returns to class-invisibility with regard to the reporting of cancer rates is perhaps aided by the media’s bias towards the middle-class experience along with a narrow dependency on a panel of go-to experts wherein the individualising mainstream economist is dominant – although for “softer” social and more lifestyle related issues the individualizing psychologist becomes the consecrated ‘public intellectual’. This narrowness of expertise in public debate and policy-related decision-making is something I will return to in a future post.

A Ridiculous Juxtaposition: The Contradictions of Sustainability and the ‘Good Life’ of the Wealthy


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Ah the contradictions of modern living abound! Here’s one such example from Dublin’s D6 Living publication. This is really just a junk-mail circular targeted towards the lifestyles of the rich in wealthy areas such as Rathgar and Ranelagh. It has next to zero reporting on local community activities and politics or when it does it focuses on elite interests such as preserving Georgian Rathgar. It mostly discusses travel, health, interior design and contains interviews with celebrities in the area of upmarket-living such as celebrity chefs. It is interesting when such views of the ‘good life’,  which often carry higher environmental consequences than that of the average Joe, are juxtaposed against what should be a contrary narrative of sustainability. Take a look at the two-page spread above from its most recent edition. The article featured discusses water conservation while around it are pictures touting the ‘good life’ of bathing and showering. There is an advertisement on wet rooms telling you to enjoy every drop. The top right hand corner features a hot-tub which requires far more water than your average tub. And then there are what appears to be ridiculously joyous poses celebrating showering as some form of leisure (as opposed to functional) activity.

“Citizens need to understand that they are consumers”: Irish Water and the Language of Disenfranchisement


The above slide is taken from a presentation called Building Irish Water. After Kerrigan’s article spoke of its existence I did some googling and sure enough I found the slide in two versions of Irish Water presentations online: one bearing the name of Jerry Grant Head of Asset Management for Irish Water, and the other copy is part of an EPA conference presentation given by Dr John Tierney, Irish Water’s Managing Director. The slide lays out their basic marketing objective which is to shift public perceptions of their relationship to water services from that of citizens with water rights to the more compliant role of “consumers” and then “customers”. So much for civic engagement, sounds more like civic disenfranchisement. Continue reading