May. 15th, 2017

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One of the causes bandied about for the current wave of political malaise is the loss of jobs which frequently gets blamed on immigration but on closer examination is generally more a result of the automation of manufacturing and other unskilled labour tasks. There is, however, some evidence that the drivers behind Trump's increase in the working class vote were more to do with identity and change in culture than with having become actually poorer. The two are not incompatible: even keeping up economically in a context where older types of labour are being eliminated on a wholesale basis is to be living in the centre of a storm of change.

We are already seeing political strain as an older (but not really very old) social and political model governing labour and the organization of one's life starts to give under the stresses of the post-modern, internetworked, world.

If I were a politician or a civil servant, this would be at the top of my list of concerns (along with climate change and how to handle the collapse of the petroleum bubble), because we're soon going to move into utterly unprecedented territory (barring some disaster which moves us somewhere unprecedented even faster.)

From an Atlantic article on a study estimating the near future effects of automation:

"Still, the authors estimate that almost all large American metropolitan areas may lose more than 55 percent of their current jobs because of automation in the next two decades."

( ).

Even if that's off by 30% (which would mean only 37% of jobs to be lost), it's massive. Even taking into account that some of the lost jobs will be replaced by new ones (probably in low-level IT support), it's massive. Barricades-in-the-streets massive, if you're a politician.

These figures assume, by the way, that society as a whole will remain at least as well off. The job losses result from gains in productivity. (Other unrelated factors may cut into our surpluses - crop failures from climate change, major earthquakes (overdue), costs associated with mass migration - but let's just consider this on its own for a bit.)

The first big issue is the distribution of wealth, requiring a considerable increase in the welfare state and almost certainly a minimum guaranteed income. Along with this problem comes that of preventing profit-taking via rents. (If the general minimum income rises then, absent controls, the amount of available money to extract from tenants rises as well; this is like the one-time jump in house prices which benefitted existing owners when middle-class families switched from typically being based on one income to bring based on two.) Purely practical considerations will require a far more economically interventionist government.

Secondly, a shift in how people define who they are becomes critical. A very few generations ago, everyone wanted to be leisured, and even the working classes aimed at as much leisure as possible (work for the minimum needed to live and take the rest of the week off, essentially). It took much indoctrination via advertising to create our society of workers who want so much they work as hard as they can. In a world where much of what many people can "do" will be on a volunteer basis, or very, very part-time this sort of self-identification through work fails in many cases.

The assumption that everyone defines themself by what they do is much older than the Twentieth Century, but it was limited to the Second and Third Estates ("knight", "gentleman", and "baron" weren't what one does so much as pure statuses), which is why we have so many last names like Smith, Webster, and Farmer. (It's actually a bit more complex with those names, as they originated as nicknames to distinguish this Thomas from that Thomas, and the range of differentiators went well beyond what one did. For that matter, Thomas is a pure nickname itself, being the Aramaic for "twin". It's still true that identifiers like "Nick Bottom the Weaver" go back well before the modern period.)

If large swathes of the population become either jobless or involuntarily displaced into another job because the jobs they once had no longer exist as a category there will be even more reaction against, to put it generally, changing times. Deracinated voters may not move in the direction of Trumpism or the easy xenophobia represented by Brexit, but they are unlikely to continue to back a centrist, don't-rock-the-boat-too-much, "standard" political party, unless the polities within which they live are visibly taking some sort of realistic action to deal with the shifts.

One corollary of this is that we should worry not so much about Trump and May but what comes after, when their promises fail to come through for their followers and things continue to get worse (from that point of view).


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