The Fourth Industrial Revolutionary: The Universal Basic Income is an inevitability. Not only because ordinary people all over the world are daily growing more determined to end inequality through a fairer distribution of wealth, but also because the more-than-human intelligence of the super-machines destined to manufacture our future will recognise what capitalists have always struggled to acknowledge: that people are at their most human when they work at their own pace and for their own purposes.
“THE FUTURE OF WORK” was the name Labour gave to its recent conference. All very forward-looking, I’m sure, but a much more appropriate title would have been “The Future of Capitalism”. Because, at this present point in the long march of human civilisation, work and capitalism remain inextricably intertwined. One cannot consider the future of one, without examining the future of the other.
The reaction to Labour’s conference from the two political parties most dedicated to capitalism’s defence – National and Act – would suggest that the free market’s future is not very bright. Strangely, capitalism’s least effective defenders appear to be the capitalists themselves!
Take the Prime Minister’s reaction to the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). “Barking mad!” was John Key’s response to an idea that is already being trialled in a number of overseas jurisdictions. (Including the “barking mad” nation of Finland, whose GDP per capita ranking, at 22, was five places ahead of New Zealand’s in 2014. Source: World Bank.) Is it really asking too much to expect our Prime Minister (and the leader-writers of our largest newspaper) to keep abreast of international thinking on income distribution?
Our Prime Minister would also, presumably, hurl the “barking mad” epithet at the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab. Earlier this year, at Davos, Professor Schwab told the gathered One Percenters that “we are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to one another”. This “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, said Professor Schwab, is “fundamentally different” from the previous three industrial revolutions:
“It is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.”
Now, ordinary New Zealanders, whose future employment prospects will likely be put at risk by technological, economic and social change on this scale, are probably assuming that the Government, no less than the Opposition, is doing its best to ready the country for the onset of this Fourth Industrial Revolution. That the Prime Minister is already asking himself how a population becoming increasingly incidental to the processes of production, can possibly continue participating in the processes of consumption? And whether the creation of purchasing power, currently the near monopoly of the international financial system, might not, more sensibly, be restored to the democratic nation state? Because, surely, securing the future of Capitalism – and hence the future of work – is their Prime Minister’s Number One priority?
Then again, according to business journalist Fran O’Sullivan, the Prime Minister is seized with his own vision of New Zealand’s future. Apparently, we are to become the Switzerland of the South Seas: a bolt-hole for free-floating capital and capitalists; a secure refuge for those with the resources to escape a world teetering on the brink of irreversible chaos. Quite where New Zealanders fit into this world of hunkered-down plutocrats is left rather vague. Perhaps those of us not employed to satisfy their every whim, will be deployed to keep out less disreputable refugees.
Who did the Prime Minister say was “barking mad”?
Casting a backward glance over modern history, it is relatively easy to see that what has saved capitalism from its own internal contradictions is not the impetuous avarice of the capitalists, but the determination of ordinary people to share in the bounty which capitalism’s long-term love affair with technological innovation inevitably generates. Generally, this has taken the form of extracting a greater share of the surplus than the capitalists, unprompted, would have felt obliged to give them. Without this forced redistribution of wealth, the capitalist system would not have progressed much beyond William Blake’s “dark, satanic mills”.
If Professor Schwab is correct about the unprecedented character of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, then the UBI is an inevitability. Not only because ordinary people all over the world are daily growing more determined to end inequality through a fairer distribution of wealth, but also because the more-than-human intelligence of the super-machines destined to manufacture our future will recognise what the factory-owners and bankers have always struggled to acknowledge: that people are at their most human when they work at their own pace and for their own purposes.
Anything else is barking mad.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 April 2016.