A failing economic model, a health crisis, and mass joblessness — the Covid crisis shows we need to radically harness technology to remake our economy, now—
As the 2020s got underway, citizens around the world faced a panoply of crises: a broken economic model, political stagnation, climate change, and demographic aging. In isolation, each presents a historic challenge, necessitating a shift in social consciousness and a new political settlement. In combination, however, they pose an existential assault on our civilization. And this was before the coronavirus catalyzed the worst global downturn since the 1930s — making it clear we need a systems change: what I call Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
Before the virus, the neoliberal economic model was failing, with societies around the world experiencing low productivity and stagnant wages — something particularly conspicuous in wealthier societies. In both the United States and Britain, rates of homeownership have fallen over the last decade while poverty is ever more stark. The number of Americans on food stamps nearly doubled in the years after the financial crash of 2007 — and even now are historically high. The U.K., meanwhile, has seen millions use food banks just to get basic groceries — something unheard of even a decade ago. Importantly, the experience of poverty in the U.K. is increasingly defined by having a job rather than being unemployed, retired, or sick. For many, work no longer pays.
Then there is the climate crisis. Warming of two degrees this century, widely anticipated by the scientific community, could mean hundreds of millions of climate refugees by the century’s midpoint. A single degree warmer, however, and large swaths of the Amazon rainforest would disappear and the glaciers that supply clean water for a third of the planet, not to mention the Greenland ice sheet, would melt. Worse still, anything beyond two degrees will likely trigger a sequence of feedback where three leads to four, four to five, and so on. In a world six degrees warmer than today, the planet’s troposphere — which we all rely on to breathe — would contain so much methane that anything with lungs would die.
Then there is demographic aging — less heralded than ecological collapse, perhaps, but no less real a disaster. Though its causes, falling birth rates and improving life expectancy, are both positive, its primary consequence will be our species gaining an almost unique status in the natural world, with the old outnumbering the young. The economic and political consequences of this are significant, from high public debt to low rates of economic growth and unprecedented pressure on welfare systems and public pensions.
Grasping this broader, antecedent context matters. While the pandemic is already an event of historic importance, its principal legacy will be in exposing how unprepared humanity is for the challenges ahead. Demographic aging means a never-ending barrage of budgetary crises — but these will now arrive even sooner as states run pandemic-related deficits unprecedented in peacetime. Britain has already suffered 65,000 excess deaths, and the coronavirus has claimed more American lives than the First World War. So how will both countries cope when temperatures dramatically rise, with Britain regularly experiencing heat waves and California’s ever-worsening drought? The evidence of the last several months indicates they simply won’t and, if there is a significant response, it will arrive too late.
Yet the coronavirus also constitutes the best opportunity we’ll have to bring such hitherto ignored challenges into focus. In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, I identify that while ours is an era of crisis, a series of simultaneous shifts are apparent in the realm of technology.
At the core of FALC is the claim this technological revolution — oriented around automation, renewable energy, A.I., and ever more objects resembling “information goods” — runs parallel to the great challenges set to define this century. This revolution will be as transformative as the industrial age, with A.I. and solar power analogous to the steam engine and fossil fuels in the era of Watt and Boulton. Under the current trajectory, automation will only lead to job losses and increased inequality, but with a systems change it could underpin a shorter working week, a higher quality of life, and allow vast amounts of labor to go into care work and engineering a green economy.
Then there are areas like health care, and even food, becoming information goods, as their primary value no longer depends on traditional factors of production, like land and labor, but information. In health care we see this with synthetic biology and the falling cost of genomics, with both fields intensifying trends already observable in pharmaceuticals — where information is, without doubt, the principal source of value. In food it applies with the emergence of cellular agriculture and cultured meat, with these sectors also resembling information goods and thus experiencing similar price falls — what I call “extreme supply.” The world’s first “beef hamburger without cows,” produced in 2013, cost $325,000. By 2021 that figure will have fallen to around $10, and cheaper prices will only accelerate with widespread adoption.
This is a problem for capitalism, whose core presumption is that there will always be scarcity. Indeed the Oxford Dictionary of Economics defined the field itself as “the study of how scarce resources are or should be allocated.” But extreme supply means permanently falling prices, which means falling rates of return. Under our economic system, whose core ideological presumption is the permanence of scarcity, this erodes any incentive to produce goods and services in the first place. In response, we will likely see an intensification of that which already prevails: monopolization, greater intellectual property rights, and excludability. Confronted with unprecedented abundance, capitalism — which for two centuries has so relentlessly created value — will resemble a system of rationing whose basis is a secular theology that few continue to believe.
The coronavirus is intensifying all of this, not only leading to mass layoffs and closures but also emboldening nonmarket demands and hinting at how technology might be deployed differently. One example is with vaccines, an area which — quite rightly — is increasingly understood as a form of shared global infrastructure. Here it’s in the common interest for everyone to be vaccinated regardless of their ability to pay. Taking that logic further, others have argued the coronavirus means we need a global standard for health care which is both universal and free. In other words, humanity can’t afford for health care to be a commodity.
Meanwhile China’s Alipay and WeChat payments system, both used by approximately 900 million citizens, allowed the rapid diffusion of an ad hoc infrastructure to manage epidemiological risk. This demonstrates the potential for publicly owned payment systems, allowing not only easier tax collection but also the capture of socially valuable data. As A.I. is operationalized en masse in the coming years, such data will be vital in creating deep learning applications — from predicting real-time demand for public transport systems to monitoring local outbreaks of flu. A key demand for the 2020s should be that given we collectively create this data, it should also be collectively owned.
Then there is the issue of internet connectivity. When Britain’s Labour Party proposed a national broadband service last year — universal and free at the point of use — it was derided as hopelessly utopian. Yet as millions falter online, while struggling with everything from remote working to homeschooling, it’s inarguable just how important the internet is as public infrastructure. So important that it should be free.
Finally, the coronavirus is accelerating a crisis of commercial models. Already before the pandemic, 2019 was the worst year on record for retail in Britain. Yet the last several months have seen that slow withdrawal become a hasty retreat, with consumers flooding online and monoliths like Amazon and Microsoft almost unique in seeing their market share, and value, rise.
Alongside the online giants, the businesses set to benefit from the coronavirus will be those able to reduce head count through the adoption of new technology. Britain’s PureGym, an industry leader that had already embraced a model based on minimal staffing, plans to reopen while allowing members to see real-time updates of how busy their local gym is. From a public health perspective these frictionless, data-led interactions are great, but for many businesses, they spell the opportunity to reduce staff and, in the long term, enhance their market share. If businesses modeled like PureGym can survive the next 12 months, they could rapidly move to a position of monopoly. Most importantly, lower staffing levels than remaining competitors will leave them, at least relatively speaking, pandemic-proof.
This situation, of market consolidation and a lack of competition, will be accompanied by technological unemployment. This means that even after a vaccine is found, the days of significant job creation in the old economy are over. Rather than deny that, the best policy response is to generate work in socially necessary sectors like green technologies, public infrastructure, and care. This should be directed by publicly controlled bodies while we simultaneously reduce the working week.
The coronavirus is accelerating the various crises that will define this century — but it also offers an opportunity to engage with the necessity of systems change. The economy we might build in its wake can address such challenges, from aging to climate change, while finally putting the technological dividend of modernity at the service of people rather than profit. That isn’t inevitable, however, and will require substantive demands, popular pressure, and bold political choices. If nothing else, the pandemic must be humanity’s wake-up call.
Puke if you must
This bloodsoaked monster is probably the most evil person on planet earth https://t.co/nGq2H1EPHt
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) April 9, 2020
^5000The mainstream imperialist media lie CONSTANTLY. Literally 24/7. And it's getting worse.
All of them do it: radio, tv, the newspapers, the movies. The internet. No exceptions.
The corporate Big Lie is pervasive and totalitarian. CBS does it. NBC does it. ABC does it.
CNN does it. FOX does it. NPR does it. And of course the NYTimes and WaPo do it.
Thousands of "diverse" voices telling you the same lies. Enough to convince anyone.
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