Posts Tagged ‘Flooding’

Brian Stableford and David Langford on Automation, Unemployment and Retraining in the 21st Century

January 5, 2017

Over the past year there have been a number of warnings that within the next three decades, 2/3 of all jobs could vanish due to mechanization. The science fiction writers Brian Stableford and David Langford also cover this projected crisis in their fictitious history of the thousand years from the beginning of this century to the end of the 29th, The Third Millennium (London: Paladin Grafton Books 1988). They predict that governments and society will find a solution to this in life-long learning and direction of the unemployment into the construction industry for a massive programme of public works.

They write

Massive Unemployment in the West
By the year 2000 automation was having such a significant effect on manufacturing that unskilled and semi-skilled workers were being made redundant in large numbers. Less skilled holders of ‘white-collar jobs’ were also being displaced by information technology. There seemed no immediate prospect of redeploying these workers, and their increasing numbers were a source of embarrassment to many Western governments. In the Soviet countries, where employment was guaranteed, jobs were found, but it was becoming all too obvious that many of these were unnecessary. The communist countries had other problems too. The political power to redeploy labour easily was there, and the educational system was better equipped than in the West for practical training, but there were no economic incentives to motivate the workers.

In the West the real problem was p0artly economic and partly educational. Allowing market forces to govern patterns of employment was inefficient. It was not that there was no work – there were chronic housing problems in most of the affected nations, and the need for urban renewal was desperate. Unfortunately, there was no institutional apparatus to divert unused labour to these socially desirable but essentially unprofitable tasks. To pay workers to do such jobs, instead of doling out a pittance to compensate them for not having jobs, would have required massive and politically unacceptable increases in taxation. The educational part of the problem was the absence of effective retraining to allow people to switch easily from one semi-skilled task to another, thus allowing the movement of labour into the new areas of employment.

With hindsight, it is easy to see the pattern of changes that had to occur in both systems, and it may seem ridiculous that it was not obvious what had to be done. In fact, it probably was obvious to many, and the patterns of change were directed by common sense, but there was much superstitious resistance to the evolution of the economic system away from the capitalist and communist extremes.

Lifelong education
The educational reforms were easier to implement in the West than the economic reforms (though even education tended to be dominated by tradition, and was certainly not without its superstitions). it became accepted in the course of the early twenty-first century the adaptability of labour was a priority. It was simply not sufficient for an individual to learn a skill while still at school, or during an apprenticeship, and then to expect his skill to remain in demand throughout his lifetime. By the year 2010, the idea that a man or woman ought to have a single ‘educational phase’ early in life was becoming obsolete in the developed nations, and educational institutions were being adapted to provide for people of all ages, who would visit and use them continually or periodically, by choice as well as by necessity. By 2050 there was an almost universally accepted opinion in the West that ‘an education’ was something that extended over an entire lifetime. The old familiar clich√© ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ was now beginning to take on a musty air, like something in Chaucerian English, approaching its near-incomprehensibility to the average citizen of today.

Enforced growth of the public sector
Despite the robotization of many manufacturing processes, the demand for manual labour did not decline markedly during the twenty-first century. To some extent, displaced factory-workers were shifted into various kinds of building work in the private sector. But it was the expansion of public sector construction and maintenance that kept the demand high. There were, of course, special opportunities created by the building of the information networks, and much manual work as a result of flooding, but there was a more fundamental reason for the state’s increased need for manual workers. As society became more highly technological, depending on an ever-increasing range of complicated artefacts, more and more work had to be put into reconstructing and repairing the artificial environment. Because maintenance work, unlike most manufacturing processes, is occasional and idiosyncratic rather than ceaseless and repetitive, it cannot – even to this day – be whole turned over to machines. Machinery is vital to such work, but so are human agents. Governments employed more and more people to do centrally organized work, and collected the taxes they needed to do it.

There were no such redeployment prospects for the redundant white-collar workers. As their jobs disappeared, they had to undertake more radical retraining, and it was mostly these workers who moved into such new jobs as were being created by the spread of the information networks. Their skills had to be ‘upgraded’, but the same was true of the manual labourers, who had a least to become more versatile. The working population as a whole needed to be better educated, if only in the sense of being always able to learn new skills. Relative few individuals lacked the capacity for this kind of education, and the vast majority adapted readily enough. (pp. 98-100)

I’m not sure how realistic the solutions Stableford and Langford propose are. Looking back, some of the book’s predictions now seem rather dated. For example, the book takes it for granted that the Communist bloc would continue to exist, whereas it collapsed in eastern Europe very swiftly in the years following the book’s publication.

I also think the idea of lifelong learning has similarly been abandoned. It was very popular in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when higher education was expanding rapidly. But there has certainly been a reaction against the massive expansion of university education to the extent that half of the population are now expect to acquire degrees. Critics of the expansion of graduate education have pointed out that it has not brought the greater innovation and prosperity that was expected of it, and has served instead to take jobs away from those without an academic background as graduates are forced instead to take unskilled jobs.

I also think that it’s highly debatable whether the expansion of the construction industry on public works would compensate for the jobs lost through further mechanisation. Even if the government were to accept the necessity of raising taxes to finance such ‘make work’ programmes. My guess is that they’d simply carry on with the ‘workfare’ policy of forcing the unemployed to work on such projects as were strictly necessary in return for their unemployment benefit.

As for the various retraining programmes, some schemes like this have been tried already. For example, back in the 1990s some councils ran programmes, which gave free computer training to the unemployed. But I can see any further retraining schemes launched in the future being strictly limit in scope, and largely cosmetic. The point of such programmes would be to give the impression that the government was tackling the problem, whereas in fact the government would be only too eager for the situation to carry on as it is and keep labour cheap and cowed through massive unemployment.

I also don’t believe that the jobs created by the expansion of information technology will also be adequate to solve the problems. To be fair, the next paragraph from the passage above states that these solutions were only partly successful.

Of course, this situation could all change over the next three decades. But I can see no real solutions to the increasingly desperate problem of unemployment unless neoliberalism is completely discarded along with the Tories, Lib Dems and Blairite Labour, which support it.

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Meme: Reforming Ideas for the American ‘Next Deal’

February 10, 2016

This is another American political meme I found over at the Tumblr site, 1000 Natural Shocks (Over 18s only). I don’t know who the American Reformers are, but looking at the points on their meme, I’d say that they were similar to the Bernie Sanders’ radical Left of the Democrats, and wished to transform their country’s political system into something like that of Europe’s.

American Next Deal

It’s clearly American, but there are some points which would definitely benefit our politics over here. For example:

* Ending gerrymandering
* Strengthening trade unions
* Dealing with student debt
* Ending lobbying (And not the pathetic deception Cameron pulled, which actually ended democratic access and strengthened the professional, corporate lobbyists)
* Raising the minimum wage.
* Shifting the tax burden fairly so that the rich pay their proper whack
* A proper commitment to the NHS: Reverse and end privatisation.
* Ending privately run prisons.
* Actually strengthening the welfare state, so that the sick, the disabled and the unemployed are genuinely supported.
* Make a secure commitment to genuine human rights. Retain membership of the EU and its human rights legislation. David Cameron wants to replace these with a far weaker version that would not give British citizens anywhere near the same level of protection.
* Make a genuine commitment to real environmental protection, including against flooding, rather than the derisory token gestures of Cameron’s cabinet.
* 50 per cent renewable energy over here sounds pretty good as well.
* Increased spending on infrastructure.
* Genuine, proper support for small businesses. Make sure the big boys pay their smaller contractors on time. This is driving many to the wall. The Tories have been putting it off since Major’s day. It’s time this ended.

Chris Hedges on the Pathology of the Super Rich

January 20, 2016

I’ve written a number of pieces about the psychology of the rich, and how they seem driven by a deep psychological desire to degrade, humiliate and harm those less fortunate than themselves. In this video below, the American Socialist journalist Chris Hedges and the programme’s host, Paul Jay, discuss that same issue, which they term the pathology of the super rich. The video comes from the TV series Reality Asserts Itself, which seems to be partly funded through donations from the public, for which Jay appeals at the end.

The programme begins by looking back to a previous programme, in which Hedges and Jay discussed the weakness of the modern Socialist and labour movement in America. They stated that part of this was its failure to articulate a viable Socialist vision of an alternative to the corporate system. They go on to suggest that one of the gravest weaknesses in this lack of vision was the inability to grasp the pathology of the rich. They talk about how American society magnifies and practically deifies the rich, and state that we need to recover the language of class warfare. We need to reject the lie, repeated by Obama, that if we work hard enough and study hard enough we can be one of them. The issue isn’t intelligence. The present economic mess was created by some of the most intelligent, best educated people in the country. It’s greed.

Hedges states that his hatred of authority and the elite comes from his own experience of winning a scholarship to an elite school. He’s middle class, but part of his family were lower working class. One of his grandfathers even at times lived in a trailer. The rich have the best education, but its aim is teaching them how to rule. He states that if you’re poor, you only get one chance to make it. The rich are presented with multiply chances. He cites George Bush, and his history of failure, and how, after he managed to get an academic career despite poor grades, he finally got a job at 40: running the country. There is a small, tight elite circle which protects itself and promotes mediocrity. We are now utterly powerless before them, because the oligarchic elite own the broadcasters and the press.

In their world, everyone is there to serve them. When Hedges was at school, he saw how his friends, themselves only 11-12 years old, spoke to adults, ordering around their servants and parents’ employees. He talks about the fabled quip of Hemingway to Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had said ‘The rich aren’t like us.’ To which Hemingway replied, ‘No, they’re richer’. But this was an instance where Hemingway was wrong, and Fitzgerald right. And Fitzgerald saw it, as he himself had made his way up from the mid-West and saw how decadent and corrupt the elite were. Hedges states that when you have their vast amounts of money, you see people as disposable, even friends and family, and now the citizens, who are required to fight in wars. They live in a bubble where only working class people they see are those, who work for them. They don’t even fly on commercial jets. They’re thus extremely out of touch, and retreat even further from everyone else into enclaves like Versailles under Louis XIV and the Forbidden City under the Chinese emperors. They will continue to extract more and more from society, because they have no idea of the harm they’re causing.

Hedges talks about the Occupy Movement, and the impoverishment caused by student debts that now can never be repaid, which students facing higher interest rates than if they’d gone to a bank. Half of America is officially on or below the poverty line. Yet the government is helping Goldman Sacks by buying junk bonds, which are so worthless they’ll eventually wreck the economy. The government’s response, on behalf of the rich, is to cut unemployment benefits and food stamps and close the Headstart programme. Some of the children of the super rich are waking up to the reality, and joining the Occupy movement, but it’s a tiny minority.

The two also discuss Gore Vidal’s comments about the amorality of the super rich. They state that he should know, both from his own life and the world he moved in. Hedges states that when he was at the boarding school, most of the fathers actually had very little contact with their sons. But they would turn up in their cars, sometimes with their mistresses, and their staff photographers to show them playing happily with their sons. He states that there’s a type of racism there, in that while they were happy to create this illusion for their own family, they treated the working class very differently. They believed that they should have to send their sons to fight foreign wars. Jay makes a comparison with the British enslavement of the Irish, and states that this shows you don’t have to be Black to be enslaved.

Apart from hating the working class, the rich also have a great disdain for the middle class, which Hedges himself found quite shocking, himself coming from a middle class background. The rich on their part have a very sophisticated PR machine, and polish their image with very well-publicised acts of philanthropy, while the reality behind the scenes is very different. Hedges talks about Karl Marx’s statement that the dominant ideology is really the idealisation of existing class and economic relationships. The free market ideology now dominant across America is just a very thin rationale for the elite’s greed. This is now taught right across the country, but is just used to justify the hoarding of immense wealth by the elite. The lie of globalisation – that it will give further prosperity to the middle class, give proper, just remuneration to the working class and lift the people’s of the Developing World out of poverty is a lie that has already been exposed multiple times. This ideology and the intellectual class serve the system. Those economists, who don’t teach the lie, don’t get jobs.

He talks about how the corporate system is ‘socialism for the ruling class’. The corporations loot the treasury, but demand to be bailed out by the taxpayer. There is a complete disconnection between language and reality, as America has been robbed of the very language and discourse to attack this process, even though the corporations are predators on the taxpayer’s money. The bonds now being bought up by the US government include mortgages for foreclosed properties. On paper these are worth perhaps as much as $600,000, but they would need a lot of work to realise that amount due to damage to their electrical systems and flooding.

Hedges and Jay also talk about how, although America now thinks of itself as a centre-right country politically, this wasn’t always the case. Before the Second World War there was a proper liberal, working class movement and debate in the country about what kind of society it would be. This was destroyed through McCarthyism and the House Committee into Un-American Activities. And it was very successful, as Hedges himself has documented in The Death of the Liberal Class. Hedges talks about how he states in one of his books that Karl Marx was right, and that the class struggle does define most of human history. And yet one cannot discuss this on any other American channel. If you did so, you’d be accused of being un-American. Hedges states that the class struggle is at the heart of American corporatism, and that if he were head of a Wall Street company, he would only employ Marxian economists as they understand that capitalism is all about exploitation.

Hedges then states that America is the most ‘illusioned’ society on the planet. The system is such that it whitewashes and humanises even idiots like Donald Trump to disguise what they’re doing to us. The corporations spend an immense amount – billions upon billions – on PR. From their publicity, you’d think BP were Greenpeace, despite the devastation they’ve cause in the Gulf of Mexico, including the poisoning of the fish and seafood, which is then sold to American consumers. No broadcaster, however, is going to make a documentary on this because the corporate elite own the broadcasters.

The only choice in Hedges’ view is go back to Aristotle, and revolt, as the mechanisms for incremental change are no longer functioning. FDR’s New Deal for a time acted as a safety valve, but his has been destroyed. Change for the working and middle classes can’t be done through the existing political parties or the courts. What is needed is to create new parties and mass movements. The elite can’t even stop the dangerous speculation that threatens their own prosperity. He states that the people, who run Wall Street know that another, worse collapse is coming, and are just intent on stealing as much as they can before they run out the door. The head of the private healthcare company, Universal Healthcare, last year (2013) made over $100 million. All the elite are interested in is amassing their tiny empires.

Hedges states that this is symptomatic of a dying civilisation. He quotes Marx on the psychology of the super rich. When asked what it was, Marx said, ‘Apres moi, le deluge’ – ‘After me, the floods’. They know society is going to be toast, and are just concerned to loot as much as they can before it goes under. Then they think they can retreat to their gated communities, and survive. Well, they might live a little longer than everyone else, but even that’s debatable to the damage to the Earth’s ecosystem and massive climate change. The ecological harm may already be too much to avert the extinction of the human race.

Hedges views are a little too extreme for me. I don’t think the opportunities for resistance within the system are already too far gone. Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn over here offer some hope of effecting radical change within the system. But apart from that, I agree with just about everything he said. The rich are rapacious and completely uncontrolled, as you can see from the behaviour of Cameron, Osborne, IDS and the rest of the Tories.

But listen to Hedges yourself, in the video below.

Shock! Horror! Northern Mosque Gives Money to Somerset Church

January 20, 2015

And now a bit of good news. Last Sunday’s Songs of Praise contained a little bit on Muchelney, one of the villages in Somerset. It’s on the Somerset levels, and so suffered from the flooding last year. Much of that part of the county is reclaimed land, and until it was drained from the Middle Ages onwards, the area around Glastonbury was marshland. Several of the villages in the area, like Muchelney, have place names ending in ‘ey’. This is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ieg, meaning an island. Muchelney and other villages like it got their names from the fact that they were originally islands of firm land amongst the bogs and marshes.

Muchelney is one of the most historic villages in Somerset. It has the remains of an abbey, and the church itself contains a beautiful painted ceiling from the 17th century. It shows angels in the ruffs worn during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I, with speech bubbles urging the onlooker to ‘fly hither’ and ‘com to Jesus’. It ain’t the Sistine Chapel, but it is a fine example of the kind of art that adorned British churches before the Reformation. I recommend anyone with an interest in medieval, ecclesiastical or folk art to have a look at it if they’re in that part of Somerset, whether they’re religious or not.

Muchelney was one of the villages affected by the floods. According to Songs of Praise, however, they received ¬£16,000 from one of the mosques ‘oop north’ to help them repair the damage. It was the largest single donation they’ve ever had, and was obviously very gratefully received by the church.

I mention this because it shows two things. Firstly, it clearly demonstrates that not every Muslim organisation in this country is a hotbed of terrorism, no matter what Farage and Murdoch may say. Actually, not by a very long chalk. One of the newsletters of one of the organisations devoted Christian-Muslim interfaith dialogue pointed to a community of nuns that continued to live and worship together after their premises had been taken over by a mosque. It also makes a more general point that people of faith generally in this country aren’t out to slit each other’s throats, despite the attacks on mosques carried by the stormtroopers of Britain First in the name of Christianity. As regards them, Hope Not Hate has made the point that despite their boast that they are protecting Christians and Christianity from Islam, none of their members seems to have put their foot in a church.