Will Capitalism Survive the Robot Revolution?

The tech revolution is here and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. The only question is: how will we learn to cope with its negative effects?

What if, in fifty or so years, 90 percent of jobs were replaced by robots?

While this sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel, it’s also disturbingly plausible; experts are genuinely worried that most human jobs will eventually be replaced. They also fear that because of the way that our economic system benefits capital (owning stuff) over labor (making stuff), the economically disadvantaged will suffer enormously for it.

For example, truck driving is one of the most prevalent jobs in America; There are 1.7 million truckers in America, and another 1.7 million drivers of taxis, buses, and delivery vehicles. That compares with 4.1 million construction workers. The threat of automated truck drivers eventually putting nearly two million people out of work is a possibility we should take very seriously. In fact, self-driving trucks have already been invented and are poised to take over the roads withing the next five to ten years.

Within the next twenty to thirty years robots will likely replace most (if not all) pharmacists, ground soldiers, sportswriters, accountants, bookkeepers, reporters, commodity salespersons, factory workers, bank tellers, paralegals, surgeons, receptionists, telephone salespersons, construction workers, librarians, administrators, and the list goes on and on…

Steven Hawking warns that, “if machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be moving towards the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

One might argue that this is just the nature of capitalism. Competition is inherent to the system and some people will ‘lose’ and others will ‘win’. The problem with this argument is that those jobs that are replaced will never be regained; the truck drivers and waiters will not easily find other jobs. And if we do not find a way to educate, retrain, or provide for this increasing large population of angry and disaffected people with an unlimited amount of free time, there will, without a doubt, be social upheaval.

My claim here is not necessarily that capitalism is a bad economic model. I’m saying that it’s about to be a very precarious one.

History shows again and again that unemployment triggers participation in insurgencies, prompts people to join violent gangs, drives people to extremism, and that it is the primary reason behind domestic violence. It’s a long understood principle that idle hands tend to gravitate towards Molotov cocktails.

The social-economic reasoning behind this concept is that unemployed young men have a low opportunity cost for engaging in violence and joining armed groups. Therefore, where there is high unemployment, especially among young males, the likelihood of social unrest, violence, and civil war is very high.

Technology is making skills and knowledge the only source of sustainable strategic advantage. Capitalism will succeed or fail based on the investments it makes in human capital, even if its theology continues to be one of individualism, consumerism, and greed. Paradoxically, at precisely the same time that capitalism has no major social competitors it will be forced to undergo a profound metamorphosis.

What does the future hold for alternative socio-economic systems? For Capitalism 2.0? For radical social, cultural, and economic change?

It’s easy to get discouraged looking at the day-to-day developments in global politics. News media is inherently pessimistic—focusing attention on ratings-boosters like war, famine, conflict, and strife—and today it seems as if social change is moving at the pace of a particularly sluggish glacier.

But social change is not going to come like the earthquake we’ve been waiting for; it’s more like waves hitting a rocky coast.

In the daily struggle for the shoreline, the rocks get the better of the waves every single day. The waves thunder and crash against the coast but never seem to make any significant difference. The waves press on and the rocks stand tall. But, in time, every coastal rock will eventually become bits of sand. The waves lose the day but, because they are persistent, they always win out in the long run. Always.

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