The second machine age is starting to bite.
First the good news: economic growth is finally picking up, and productivity, though lagging far behind where it should be, is finally increasing. Private sector wages are growing strongly. All of a sudden the clouds of gloom that have long hung over our country are truly starting to lift.
Now the bad news, the UK’s jobs miracle looks like it has finally stalled, with unemployment now on an upward trend.
These sorts of trends are exactly what you would expect during a technological revolution, and the second machine age is certainly that. Fantastic new technologies replace old jobs, in the short term at least making many skills and people redundant, while increasing the productivity of those that remain employed.
As always there is a positive and negative case to be made: optimists like Ukip’s Douglas Carswell say we are living through the most innovative period since the industrial revolution: dull, repetitive jobs will be replaced by new, more interesting and highly paid ones. Moreover, however fearsome intelligent machines prove to be, insightful commentators point out that ‘robots’ are poor at creativity, and likely to remain so.
A Carswellian future would be a kind of cybernetic arcadia where our internet crowd-sourced coffee, wine and even groceries are delivered bydrones or driverless cars to our door, mundane tasks are entirely automated while we educate ourselves on Coursera or make a living selling each other homemade arts and crafts on Etsy.com.
Carswell certainly has very long-term historical trends on his side: clearly humanity has grown incomparably richer since the industrial revolution. No matter how gloomy things have been for the West in recent times, capitalism has continued to lifts billions out of terrible poverty globally.
Now for the Cassandras, such as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who fear that the rise of intelligent machines will make entire sections of humanity completely redundant. Economic growth will rely increasingly on smaller and smaller segments of an ultra-productive, very highly remunerated but extremely hard-working minority. In order to retain any hope of stability, huge redistribution will be necessary from those who can work to those who simply can’t. It would consist of an essentially enslaved elite as well as a redundant bottom. The iron law of the Laffer Curve would necessitate that such a society would have to be ultra-cohesive, as studies show that the well-heeled will only tolerate high taxation if they feel a high degree of cultural affinity with those they are helping.
The Cassandras also have a point. Over the past few decades, earlier phases of automation have increased male structural unemployment markedly. However, those at the top have to work ever-more superhuman hours. Most significantly, the fact that increases in productivity and GDP output per head have been poor across the West in recent history suggests we are not so much augmenting human capabilities but replacing them.
The future will probably lie between utopia and dystopia, but nonetheless trends suggest that a highly socially cohesive society will be essential to make life bearable for those who will lose out. Unfortunately Western societies have been moving in precisely the opposite direction in the past few decades: elites have imposed diversity and stood by as the society of those beneath them became progressively more atomised and resentful: European history shows exactly where that can lead. As social conservatives is our Sisyphean task to rebuild social cohesion while maintaining a free society in these entirely new and uncharted times.