Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

To Understand Polarization, Look at the Software

-- ShayBanerjee - 6 May 2017

It is no coincidence that workers most affected by automation are rejecting economic liberalism. Machines, after all, are not governed by market forces

The liberal economic establishment is shocked at the increasing polarization between the Left and Right. "The center must hold!" moans Tony Blair. "Extremists!" decries the New York Times. "The middle is vanishing!" whines the National Review.

To socialists, the trend is unsurprising. Karl Marx prophesized that capitalism would eventually split the world into "two great hostile camps," a prediction taken by contemporary socialists to describe the disruptive effects of automation. As machinery replaces labor, the socialist opines, affected workers lose faith in liberalism. Increasingly, these workers embrace either socialism or fascism.

Yet this explanation is unsatisfactory for liberals, who are intuitively skeptical that political attitudes are socially conditioned. Sure, automation creates economic insecurity, but why does it necessarily follow that economic insecurity results in socialism or fascism? There was plenty of economic insecurity before capitalist automation, after all, and this kind of polarization was not happening then.

A fair objection, but perhaps also reflective of the internal anxiety of the modern liberal. For, as much as we prefer treating dispossessed workers as refuse of the past, in a way they are a lens into our own future. Automation is taking over all parts of the economy. Already, it is affecting even lawyers, doctors, and bankers. If vulnerability to automation is compelling workers to discard liberalism, does that mean we will all do the same?

The answer, to be blunt, is "yes." As automation takes over, polarization will only increase and the liberal center-of-gravity will continue to crater. To understand why, we must link automation's economic consequences to its social implications. While automation creates economic strife, its more decisive impact is that it raises questions about how the machines should be governed. Liberalism, an ideology designed to govern an economy of humans, is ultimately incapable of answering these questions. The dispossessed thus turn toward socialism or fascism because, at some level, they recognize that those are the only viable options left.

Automation as Dialectic: Who will push the button?

The terms "socialist'' and "fascist'' largely did not exist before capitalism. The ideologies are reactions to capitalism---specifically to capitalist automation. The 19th-century electrification of factories began the wide-scale mechanization of labor. Socialism arrived at around the same time as a methodology for society to consciously reinvest human activity back into the commonweal. Later, Henry Ford, who Adolph Hitler called his "inspiration," introduced sequential assembly techniques to optimize production of standardized outputs. Fascism emerged as the straightforward application of Fordism to the State: a procedure to dispose of unnecessary labor and reorganize society in the image of centralized management.

Software-based automation is the synthesis of these two developments: the electrification of assembly line management, the replacement of consciously planned labor with consciously planned machinery. When executing a decision no longer requires labor, all that remains is to determine who pushes the button. This is where socialism and fascism clash. Socialists want to democratize control of the button; fascists want to centralize it.

Software and Governance: The Case Study of Autonomous Driving

No development better embodies the contradictions created by the software-ization of the capitalist economy than the impending rise of self-driving vehicles. On the one hand, the automation of transport and distribution will produce enormous economic consequences. The professional driving industry is one of the most worker-intensive on the planet. Society will need to determine what to do with all that surplus labor. The necessary reconstitution will likely require another recession.

Liberals, to varying degrees, have always recognized this. John Maynard Keynes, the center-left liberal icon, would describe the problem as effective demand undercutting productive capacity. Autonomous driving will create mass unemployment, while also increasing supply far beyond that which can be validated by the resultant lag in consumer spending. Frederich Hayek, Keynes' center-right counterpart, would describe the issue as one of intertemporal coordination. The plunge in the price of transport will reconstitute the average consumer basket, and it takes time for investors to redirect credit toward these new preferences. Both theories are superficially accurate, but simply re-articulate the ``epidimec of over-production'' that Marx identified in 1848. The bottomline is that when machines replace humans, the economy must correct. Socialists advocate redistributing wealth to favor consumption and human capital. Fascists advocate expelling, militarizing, or purging from existence a subset of workers. In crisis, liberals simply implement watered-down variations of these two basic prescriptions.

Liberals, however, do not follow up their economic diagnoses with social analysis. Equally important to this discussion is the deep normative questions that arise from technological change. As analysts note, the software-ization of the steering wheel comes with profound ethical quandaries. Hit a person crossing the street or swerve into a crowd of onlookers? Run over a dog or brake and be hit by the vehicle behind? These are human questions that require a human system of governance.

Who, under liberalism, governs the the realm of the machine? Who decides what rules automated drivers must follow? Corporate CEO's? The head-of-state? An independent commission? A consumer survey? Any way you slice it, the answer basically comes down to democracy or autocracy. Either the inner logic of production must open itself to the collective input of society, or all power concentrates to the privileged few.

A Concluding Thought (Experiment)

To the disinterested observer, these two effects of software-ization---its economic impact and normative implications---may seem disconnected. Perhaps it is useful to put ourselves in the shoes of the dispossessed worker. Soon, tens of millions of truck drivers will confront a reality in which their livelihoods are taken by a machine. Many will have spent years working hard, keeping their heads down, and contributing what they could. At this point, is it illogical to question why society has abandoned you, without a plan to get you back on your feet? Is it illogical to contemplate whether the lessons you were taught might be lies? Is it illogical to start listening to those who say that perhaps that machine is serving someone other than you?

Immanuel Kant, one of the great liberal thinkers, famously proclaimed that all knowledge begins with experience. Perhaps Blair and others would be less confused if they started taking that lesson to heart.

As a political opinion piece, there doesn't seem to me much new here. Anything that could be said to have to do with us in our learning process here comes in the last paragraph, where you are offering, apparently, an "end of work" claim about the effect of digital technology on the economic future. That's more last-semester than this one. But if you can expand on it---turning it from a mere proclamation that doesn't have any analytic value into an actual argument offering some information and extrapolating from it in at least a plausible fashion, perhaps even dealing with the evident counter-arguments---we will have taken the piece from marginal to valuable.

I fully agree with your criticism of the structure/content of the first draft and have rewritten to hopefully address your concerns. However, I strongly disagree that this subject can be said to be either more or less appropriate for one semester or the other. First, the conceptual severance of economy from governance is not something I am particularly eager to entertain. Second, I think Orwell and Foucault proved pretty decisively that mass surveillance is the primary instrument through which fascism takes over liberal society from the inside, and I don't feel the need to prove it again in 1000 words. Thus, I did not find it useful for my purposes to write a piece on some variation of how (A) our society possesses the tools of surveillance (obvious), (B) fascists like to surveil (also obvious), (C) there is a risk fascists will actually use the tools of surveillance (obvious since last November), or (D) the bourgeoisie possesses a solution to (A),(B), or (C) (obviously not). I found it more personally fulfilling to prove that there are discernible, materialist reasons why these things are happening now and that, for these same reasons, it is possible to imagine a better world.


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r4 - 08 May 2017 - 01:12:02 - ShayBanerjee
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