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For an enlightened Luddism

At Jacobin magazine, Peter Frase notes that among workers, the fear of being rendered obsolete by technology is at an all-time high:

Worries about the obsolescence of the worker have reached a fever pitch. The confluence of wage stagnation, a jobless economic recovery, and rapid improvements in automation and artificial intelligence have stoked the fear of mass unemployment that has always haunted discussions of technology.

Widely circulated studies project that up to 80 percent of current jobs are susceptible to automation in the near future. Some of this is hyperbole, but it is clear that automation is moving out of the factory and into the realm of intellectuals and writers — the very people responsible for producing much of the literature of techno-skepticism.

Noting that opposition to technological obsolescence too often takes the form of a crude anti-technology stance, Frase suggest a different way to frame the problem:

The question, then, becomes how to incorporate technology into social thought and political strategy without treating it as external to social relations or falling into the crude techno-utopian versus techno-skeptic dichotomy, all the while recognizing that the technical mediations of labor and capital do have some relatively autonomous existence. Sometimes political struggles turn on the use of certain technologies, but they are never just about those technologies; they are ultimately about the balance of class power. What’s needed might be called “enlightened Luddism,” if that term can indeed be reclaimed.

Frase argues that a first step towards blunting the impact of automation in the workplace is a universal basic income:

Winning a share of the fruits of automation for the rest of us requires victory at the level of the state rather than the individual workplace. This could be done through a universal basic income, a minimum payment guaranteed to all citizens completely independent of work. If pushed by progressive forces, the UBI would be a non-reformist reform that would also quicken automation by making machines more competitive against workers better positioned to reject low wages. It would also facilitate labor organization by acting as a kind of strike fund and cushion against the threat of joblessness.

A universal basic income could defend workers and realize the potential of a highly developed, post-scarcity economy; it could break the false choice between well-paid workers or labor-saving machines, strong unions or technological advancement.

Read the full essay at the Jacobin website.

I’ve been talking about “techno-utopian luddism” for some time. A concept imbued with paradox, this much is true, but also equipped with the necessary theoretical tools to examine technology as perpetually intermezzo: changing, dynamic, hierarchical, distributed, vertical, and horizontal. While it is certainly true that technology can be used as a tool for the ruling elite to exert greater Orwellian systems of control, patched on to this framework is a system that allows networked resistances to take shape (think for example the Zapitasta movement which made use of the radio and early internet, building a resistance movement upon the very imperial communications infrastructure the group sought to undermine in the first place). Indeed, the ability to formulate networked resistances is wholly ingrained in the discourse of ‘disruptive technologies,’ nonetheless built upon fibre optic cables which are owned, leased and controlled by large governments and corporations. This realization ultimately led me to reconcile luddism with techno-utopianism, as as a sort of Deleuzian paradox of difference and repetition…

On this topic, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams of #Accelerate fame have been advocating UBI in conjunction with full automation for some time. Nick just posted an article on technological unemployment over at Novaramedia today: http://wire.novaramedia.com/2015/03/4-reasons-why-technological-unemployment-might-really-be-different-this-time/