January 2019, Week 4


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 		 [Ultimately, the better advice for workers seeking to avoid
“disruption” is to become the agents of disruption themselves.]



 Adam Simpson 
 January 23, 2019
The Next System

	* [https://portside.org/node/19228/printable/print]

 _ Ultimately, the better advice for workers seeking to avoid
“disruption” is to become the agents of disruption themselves. _ 



Each week workers are confronted with yet another article
touting the threat of technology wiping out their jobs. A recent “60
Minutes” segment
featured venture capitalist and author Kai-Fu Lee predicting that
advances in artificial intelligence would “in 15 years displace
about 40 percent of the jobs in the world.”

The message to workers is clear: the threat of obsolescence is real,
so act accordingly
The advice of the World Economic Forum
the McKinsey Global Institute
and others, is that workers must “reskill” in order to have a
livelihood available to them.

For workers, though, this advice is a trap.

The presumed aspirant tech moguls of the automation age acknowledge
that your current, barely-making-ends-meet job is going to get
squeezed, shortchanged, or wiped out altogether by a robot or an
algorithm. But go back to school (and take on some student debt) and
get training in a new skill, and you will not only be able to weather
the change but you’ll make even more money.

This prescription will only work, however, if workers refuse to
question the paradigms that preserve the wealthy’s control of the
game, and they coded it so they will always ultimately win.
Practically, the “reskilling” that workers achieve will simply
serve to lower the cost of currently existing tech labor without any
assurances that such sectors will be immune from “disruption” in a
few years by the next wave of automation.

Ultimately, the better advice for workers seeking to avoid
“disruption” is to become the agents of disruption themselves.
What 21st-century workers need is what workers have always needed:
power. Organizing unions and developing pathways to ownership is the
best way workers can address the anxiety of the so-called
“automation age,” not chasing the labor market demands of elites.

There is nothing wrong with workers seeking more education, learning
new skills, and increasing their capacity to innovate. The problem is
the system that captures this knowledge and creativity, and
commodifies it for the primary benefit of an elite ownership class.
It’s a system that relies on the threat of impoverishment to compel
people to sell their skills and knowledge to that elite, which
constantly works to buy “human capital
at the lowest possible price.

Without the threat of economic misery, workers could—and likely
would—refuse to participate in an increasingly exploitative system
that exclusively benefits the one percent. Learning to program the
robot that took your last job might be a temporary reprieve, but the
way the system works does not change: It demands that workers be
disciplined by the threat of looming destitution. And it demands that
capitalists maximize their profits, including by decimating workers
with new technology if that’s what it takes. Capitalism can’t
function if workers are liberated from such threats, by skills or

As Ben Tarnoff
and JS Chen
have noted, the purpose of emphasizing tech skills like coding is
ultimately to mitigate or cut completely the increased wages accrued
from such skills. Moreover, reports about the occupational risk of
automation from the McKinsey Global Institute
and the Boston Consulting Group
both assert, rather intuitively, that jobs with higher wages come with
a higher incentive to automate.

Capitalism also relies on what is popularly referred to as
“unskilled” labor. Many forms of labor performed in food systems
and on farms are considered unskilled. So is child care, domestic
labor and sanitation work. The explicit definition of “unskilled
labor” is that such work can be performed without a college
education or more formalized forms of training. It is labor that is
both essential in maintaining society (and capitalism itself) and
simultaneously poorly compensated—if compensated at all.

Given the exorbitant costs of higher education and the debt burden
that often accompanies it, it becomes clear how “reskilling”
increasingly either excludes working-class people or serves to further
discipline them under debt burdens. At the same time, the focus on
skills as a pathway out of low-paid jobs enables “futurists” to
maintain the capitalist tradition of devaluing the difficult and
essential work that makes society possible.

Without food workers who typically face additional discipline from
state violence directed toward immigrant communities, grocery stores
quickly empty out. Without undervalued and often unpaid childcare work
performed predominantly by women, there are likely to be fewer
children with the capacity to learn the skills necessary for
tech-sector work. Without the minimum wage workers in Amazon’s
fulfillment centers, the “high-tech” company’s executives get
nothing—and neither do Amazon’s high-skilled software development
engineers and machine learning scientists.

What that should say to both skilled and unskilled workers is that
neither is being paid based on their value and that the system is
rigged so that either running faster on the treadmill you are on with
new skills or switching treadmills with a different career will not
get you very far.

It’s all about control. Technology adopted without worker control
results in an economy that continues to disempower and devalue
workers. To have agency in their lives, workers must have agency in
the economy. This requires strong labor unions that organize and
exercise workers’ power from below, and policies from above that
open for workers pathways to ownership and control. Finally, even in a
more automated economy, the traditional “analog” labor that makes
society possible will still be necessary. Any desirable future will
not tolerate divides between so-called “high-skilled” and
“low-skilled” workers, and will include all working-class voices
in a more democratic and equitable economy.

_Adam Simpson joined The Democracy Collaborative as a Program
Associate with the Next System Project in October 2016 where he works
on financial and monetary policy as well as an upcoming project on
universal basic income. Adam is also the co-host of the Future Left
podcast, which focuses on a wide variety of progressive issues but
most notably technological impacts on society. _

_This article originally appeared in Common Dreams._

	* [https://portside.org/node/19228/printable/print]







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