One of the pioneers of robotics has written: ‘In the next century inexpensive but capable robots will displace human labour so broadly that the average workday would have to plummet to practically zero to keep everyone employed.’
Hans Moravec’s vision of the future may be closer than we think. New technologies are rapidly displacing human labour. The ‘underclass’ of the permanently unemployed is partly the result of poor education and misguided economic policies. Yet it is time that increasing numbers are becoming economically redundant. It is no longer unthinkable that within a few generations the majority of the population will have little or no role in the production process.
The chief effect of the Industrial Revolution was to engender the working class. It did this not so much by forcing a shift from the country to towns as by enabling a massive growth in population. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.
Today the Industrial Revolution that began in the towns of northern England has become worldwide. The result is the global expansion in population we are presently witnessing. At the same time, new technologies are steadily stripping away the functions of the labour force that the Industrial Revolution has created.
An economy whose core tasks are done by machines will value human labour only in so far as it cannot be replaced. Moravec writes: ‘Many trends in industrialized societies lead to a future where humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife.’ That, according to Jeremy Rifkin, does not mean mass unemployment. Rather, we are approaching a time when, in Moravec’s words, ‘almost all humans work to amuse other humans’.
In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.
Industrialization created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to everyone.