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.

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

How Creative Accounting Hides the Environmental Impact of Countries

State accounting practices are quite flimsy when it comes to measuring a country’s impact on the environment. The national figures on greenhouse gas emissions that we often hear bandied about exclude emissions from imported goods and international shipping and flights – known as “international bunker fuel emissions” – which are reported separately (UNFCCC, 2013).

Claims towards more efficient use of natural resources or ‘resource productivity’, which are used to support important claims of ‘decoupling’ resource use from economic growth, are similarly inept. In calculating how much material is used up in an economy state economists:

“take[] the raw materials we extract in our own countries, add[] them to our imports of stuff from other countries, then subtract[] our exports, to end up with something called ‘domestic material consumption’” (Monbiot)

What’s missing from this are the raw materials in other countries used to manufacture the imports. When these are included rich country claims to recent improvements in “resource productivity” prove false. In fact a country such as the UK is shown to have been “becoming less efficient in its use of resources”prior to the financial crisis (Monbiot).

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