I find it hard to imagine a situation in which all real needs can be satisfied without any work being performed by people. I find it equally hard to believe that we will ever see full employment; understood to mean enough jobs to go around. Automation is real, and it’s inconceivable to me that the future needs all of us. Thus, as long as we are living under a market economy, some of us will be expendable.
Kurt Vonnegut envisioned this scenario in Player Piano, in which people not in-demand enough to merit a paying gig were relagated to the humiliation and indignity of the “Reeks and Wrecks,” a make-work program created to provide the illusion of being a contributing member of society, but the illusion wore thin rather quickly. In Player Piano, the “engineers and managers” are the last dominos left standing. As the nightmare is materializing right now, it looks more like nursing is the hardest occupation to automate.
It seems apparent that somewhere between the staffed economy and the unstaffed economy is the partially staffed economy. With substantiated complaints of “jobless recovery” for at least three economic cycles, I’d say we’re definitely in that middle zone right now. I think we are managing this transition in the least humane way imaginable. Instead of dividing the reduced workload, some can’t get out of mandatory overtime while others can’t get out of part time employment, and the market denies still others any employment at all.
Spreading out among the working-age population all the work that can’t yet be automated or otherwise obviated may mean training a sizeable fraction of the population in those health care fields that somehow manage to be still in demand. There is an obvious inefficiency involved in investing in the training of millions of people, most of whom will subsequently be working part time, but I never accepted efficiency as the yardstick by which all practices should be measured. We have to evolve from a culture in which unemployment is unacceptable to one in which it is unavoidable, without destroying the self esteem of millions. As Marshall Brain tells us, “‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat’ is a core philosophy of today’s economy, and this rule could make a rapid robotic takeover extremely uncomfortable for our society.”
One benefit of widespread automation and resulting decrease in work requirements/opportunities might be what they call a “universal basic income” or “basic income guarantee.” The downside is that most proposals for such a thing posit the government as the agency which disburses these benefits. For the non-market, non-state sector the trick is to create a non-state method for accomplishing this or the equivalent. It probably falls under the general heading of mutual aid. Click here for a review of some of the literature of mutual aid by one Eric Laursen. It’s mostly about secret societies, which is a little troublesome for someone like me who hungers for inclusivity, but there’s a lot there on the treadmill of economic growth, the isolation of suburban sprawl, and so many other social ills. The concluding remarks (emphasis mine):
But the labor movement never succeeded in creating a health and old-age benefit system that provided for all workers, either. Today, mutual aid still appears to be the only way to create a humane, caring, and fully participatory society. But anarchists have not begun to consider their biggest challenge yet: how to make mutual aid universal. This doesn’t mean the movement needs to renounce the autonomist principle—only that it needs to take confederalism just as seriously.