Art by Richard Borge
We are told that this is a new age. Yet all that is new are the gadgets we are sold—and the prospect that those gadgets might put many of us out of work.
The schemes of fabulously wealthy monopolists to increase their wealth are certainly not new. They are ancient. They were ancient more than a century ago, when labor leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Victor Debs decried “the old ethic that man’s business on this Earth was to look out for himself.” That, complained Debs, “was the ethic of the jungle; the ethic of the wild beast. Take care of yourself, no matter what may become of your fellow man.”
Just as monopolists and monopolies are not new, neither are the responses to the schemers and their schemes. It is good and necessary to demand jobs for the unemployed and wages for the underpaid. It is good and necessary to fight to maintain the rough outlines of civil society through public education and public services. There is nothing new about these fights, nothing modern about these demands.
Unfortunately, in a digital age, some responses are less sufficient than they once were. There is even, in specific circumstances, a danger that incremental responses may fit rather too easily into the business plans of the new monopolists—who meet demands for fair pay for human beings by spending more to develop the apps and robots that replace human beings.
It’s a vicious circle, and most of us are running in it. The way out is not to run faster. The way out is to seek a new politics that is adapted to our times; a politics that asserts a social and human agenda in the face of rapid technological change and raging inequality; a politics that puts people in charge of economic decisions.
The crisis of the twenty-first century is that digitally defined and driven automation, combined with the race-to-the-bottom ethic of multinational corporations in a period of rapid globalization, will lead to dramatic displacement and dislocation of workers.
European Commission technology commissioner Neelie Kroes explained in 2014 that “a shortage of jobs is a pending social disaster.” For millions of workers already displaced by failed trade policies, rapid globalization, and automation, this disaster is already a reality. And experts at the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology have concluded that almost half of U.S. jobs (47 percent) are at high risk of being eliminated by advances in computing and automation over the next two decades.
“It’s a societal problem,” Laura Tyson, a professor of business administration and economics at Berkeley-Haas School of Business, told Fusion magazine earlier this year. Tyson, who chaired the President’s Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton Administration, worries that most job growth in recent years has been in the low-wage sector, as workers are forced out of higher-wage factory jobs by automation and offshoring. “I tend to worry about the quality of the job that will be available for them in the long run,” she said.
People who have been in the forefront of technological development are also fretting about the coming crisis. “There is quite a bit of research that middle class jobs that are relatively highly skilled are being automated out,” admits Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who predicts this will be the “defining problem” of the next several decades.
“The race is between computers and people, and the people need to win,” says Schmidt, who counsels that “it is pretty clear that work is changing and the classic nine-to-five job is going to have to be redefined. Without significant encouragement, this will get worse and worse.”
Or it could get better and better.
The question is whether the terms of the debate will be set by corporate CEOs and billionaire campaign donors or the people who “need to win.” One scenario has the great mass of Americans fighting over the jobs that remain, working longer hours for less pay. In this scenario, monopolistic technology companies grow ever more powerful as a new generation of high-tech robber barons live large and the rest of us struggle to get by.
It does not have to be that way, however. Another scenario could have Americans sharing the benefits of technological progress, living healthier and more rewarding lives in which digital progress and automation eliminate workplace drudgery. Here we would work fewer hours with fairer pay, embrace educational opportunities and creative endeavors, spend more time with our families, and generally realize the promise of a better future.
What is needed for this future are big ideas and big movements that break an existing political consensus that invariably errs on the side of wealth, privilege, and the immediate gratification of speculators. If ever there was a debate that would benefit from the bolder visions that American socialists, social democrats, and radicals have historically presented, this is it.
Timid supplications will not win this fight. They will not organize enough of us to upset the calculations of the new robber barons and their political pawns; they will not excite enough of us to make necessary change inevitable. There is no small way out. There is only the big change suggested by the founder of this magazine, Robert M. La Follette, when he said: “The supreme issue, involving all others, is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many.”
La Follette proposed, as a radical presidential contender in 1924, to “break the combined power of private monopoly” and replace it with a genuinely democratic order in which “the people shall rule.” There was nothing timid, nothing tepid, about that demand. Though La Follette was not elected President, his campaign was sufficiently influential and inspirational to provide the underpinnings for the reforms of the New Deal era.
Norman Thomas, as a social activist and as a Socialist Party presidential candidate, also spoke of the challenges posed by a new machine age. “The task will be harder because of the complexities of modern industry,” he said. “This much is certain: The unity we seek cannot be the coercive unity of political imperialism in which one nation exercises power over others, or of big business in which workers are but cogs in machines.” In 1932, FDR met with Thomas and other Socialist Party leaders to discuss how to address the political and corporate imperialism that led to the Great Depression.
Roosevelt listened—to the arguments for economic fairness and to the arguments for strengthening democracy with an embrace of labor rights, cooperatives, and the popular-front politics of big, bold coalitions.
The point here is not to celebrate Norman Thomas or Franklin Roosevelt, although both deserve celebration. The point is to suggest that the radical ideas advanced by socialists, social democrats, and others on the left can transform mainstream politics. And that transformation is going to be necessary as America experiences a digital revolution that will be every bit as disruptive as the industrial revolution.
Ninety years after La Follette’s insurgent campaign, eighty-five years after Thomas and Depression-era radicals ramped up the pressure, eighty years after the New Deal hit its stride, we are again in a moment when the demand must be made for political and economic democracy.
It will be associated, as always, with demands for labor rights, wages hikes, and public investment. But there will be bigger demands—for new and more humane work structures, for cooperative enterprises, for a national industrial policy, for worker involvement in decisions about work. There will be, as well, serious demands for taxing the rich, breaking up of monopolies, and moving away from the narrow notion that a nation ought to be measured only by its gross domestic product.
There is a balance to be struck between the need to go big and the need to address immediate pain; the fight for the future cannot neglect the fight for the present. But, make no mistake, the necessary demands for a more humane and equitable society, which have always been urgent, will become dramatically more so in a digital age when so much is changing so rapidly.
And the core demand must be for a renewal of American democracy that is sufficient to make real change possible. Getting money out of politics, doing away with the Electoral College and gerrymandering, developing robust public broadcasting and independent media; these are just first steps in a process of democratic renewal that must be as sweeping as anything we have seen since the Progressive Era gave us direct primaries, a ban on corporate donations to campaigns, an elected U.S. Senate, and votes for women.
The point is to think big. To think radically. Unfortunately, that does not happen enough in our politics—despite the best efforts of Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, Mark Pocan, Kshama Sawant, and a few others.
The United States has not, in this moment of challenge and opportunity, developed an adequate response. The left still lacks a coherent narrative regarding the changes that are taking place. At this point, there are not enough broadly recognized agitators positioned to outline the necessary response. The radicals of old performed many duties, but the most important was always to alert the American people to the danger of being mere spectators to changing times. In so doing, they initially framed the debates and eventually provided the language and the agendas that mainstream political figures would adopt.
Articulating what is at stake is a big deal. To speak with the necessary sense of urgency, there must be more than a mere statement of facts and figures. Data is important, as it underpins the understanding of the crisis. And the data of this time forms a cry for action: Poverty is epidemic, wages are stagnant, income inequality is overwhelming, and Americans who once thought they had safely arrived in the middle class feel the economic landscape shifting beneath them. Yet what matters more is putting the experience of our times into perspective as part of an economic and social critique that seeks not just explanation but change.
Radical activists know when they propose bold critiques and agendas that they are not ending debates. The point of militant ideas and activism is to expand the debate so that those with bully pulpits and power recognize the necessity of abandoning worn-out talking points, tossing aside the script, and beginning to speak the new language of a new era.ω
John Nichols, who writes about politics for The Nation and is the associate editor of The Capital Times, adapted this article from the new edition of his book, The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism (Verso). In March 2016, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy, by Robert W. McChesney and Nichols, will be published by Nation Books. This story originall appeared in the December 2015/January 2105 issue of The Progressive magazine.