Saturday, 6 June 2015

I Don't Know Anyone Who Voted For Disintegration

Content Warning - This should have been published a month ago, but I decided it was shit and didn't finish it. Have now edited and improved, but it's probably less topical.

Over the past few years we've seen the splintering of public discourse. In the past this tendency was held in check by geography and technology. If you wanted to talk about politics, there was a limited number of people you could talk to, and a limited number of outlets through which it could occur. Local and national politics had to proceed in a common sphere of discourse, since there simply wasn't the space for anything more. There were local and national newspapers, which segregated slightly on ideological lines, but still basically had to attract a mass market. Radio and television, equally, formed an essentially unified forum for public debate.

Today, this is no longer the case. I can easily construct my own bubble to protect myself, curate my facebook list, my twitter feed, the websites I read, to ensure I don't have to come into contact with anyone who disagrees with me. I can even outsource this. The ongoing clusterfuck of the blockbot notwithstanding, the future is filters.

Things are going even further than simply constructing bubbles though. While Pauline Kael didn't know anyone who voted for Nixon, at least she was confused by it. Nowadays people are proud. Rebecca Roach, last seen suggesting we torture prisoners for thousands of years, proposes we not only protect our online political selves from badthink, but also disown everyone in our lives who doesn't agree with us. This is really just showing off to her team, though. She's a philosophy academic, she probably doesn't have any conservative friends to disown in the first place.

The discourse around safe spaces and free speech on campus is the same. Any equal platform, to postmodernists, is inherently compromised by power dynamics, and so an open marketplace of ideas is an oppressive construct. I suspect some motivated reasoning is going on here. It is a pain in the arse to have to talk to people who disagree with you, no need to be pretentious about it. Conservatives so far have only gone for similar tactics in a mocking way (though see here), but I suspect in the future they will retreat more and more into themselves. For a better example on the right, take a look at the reproductive worker ants. Elements of the gaming community had become 'safe spaces' for socially awkward young men with pretty un-kosher political views. When people from outside this bubble tried to enter, things got nasty.

People don't really hate each other like this, not in person. Nice, socially conscious, middle class kids wearing 'Hated by the Daily Mail' t-shirts aren't really hated by the Daily Mail. Their Aunt Ethel is really proud of them, and they love her back. Tories aren't really disgusted by Sharon down the road and her disabled son claiming benefits, they hate a largely imaginary bogey-man from well outside their filter. The hatred is for an imaginary outgroup they have never met, and lack of contact only intensifies it.

At the same time as the public sphere of discourse is disintegrating, we see society more generally following suit. The left and right merely phrase differently, Pikitkitkietty and his 99% versus Charles Murray and his Coming Apart. Choose your poison. While immigration has many benefits, it contributes to this lack of shared identity, especially in the context of an emphasis of multiculturalism over integration. Inequality, likewise, while it has may have benefits, could erode this social trust. Culturally, economically, and maybe even biologically, we are becoming more and more diverse, in every sense of the word, and less and less of a singular nation.

We can see this mirrored in the election results. The two party share actually went slightly up on 2010, but it seems very unlikely it will ever reach up past 2/3 of the electorate again. Gains for all the minor parties at the expense of the Liberals put us firmly in the age of six party politics. Sixty years ago there were two tribes, now there are many.

What hope for democracy, even less social democracy, without a society or a demos? And what happens to democracies which evolve past it? The prospects don't seem good for the old-fashioned left, hence Labour's defeat. Much of this is encapsulated in what David Goodhart termed the progressive dilemma, the idea that the very social liberalism promoted by the left will ultimately sow the seeds of it's own downfall. The very idea of solidarity is eroded, who on earth would we be solid with? Our nation of atomised individuals pushes a form of progressivism supremely unthreatening to the prevailing neoliberal order, and one which may well increase it through its unrelenting focus on splintering.

In terms of what this means for the future, it seems pretty likely to me that over the next few decades we'll see the Tory party slowly realise the truth underlying this, and wholeheartedly embrace at the very least a watered down version of the liberal social justice agenda. Ukip, on the other hand, represent the absolute rejection of it, in every sense, and would do well to acknowledge it. They have no hope of gaining votes on a Thatcherite libertarian platform, and a hard swing to the left economically, the seeds of which we are already seeing, seems like a prudent tactic, especially in the post industrial North where they are already making inroads. Labour almost seemed to be getting the gist with their Blue Labour trend of a few years ago, but we'll see how things go. I almost wrote a piece entitled 'What Labour Can Learn From Online Social Justice' and submitted it to the student press as a troll, but never quite got round to it sadly. Regardless, none of these trends look like doing anything but accelerating in the next few years, fragments of fragments of fragments. Neoliberalism is amazing.

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. Marx via Seumas

Work After Work

As automation of the economy proceeds, there are two possible outcomes. One is that more and more jobs are lost, as the marginal product of low skilled labour becomes less than the minimum wage. The other is that we continue to improve human capital and come up with more and more jobs that people could possibly do. So far in human history, it has mostly been the latter. Most jobs that existed hundreds of years ago in the west are now performed by machines, and yet we are not seeing massive increases in unemployment. Some jobs may not ever be amenable to automation, or at least be automated very late in the process. In this vein, I think it is likely that in the next century we may see a revival in domestic servitude. 

We may also be able to increase human capital through genetic engineering or other eugenic methods in order to stay one step ahead of the machines. It is not certain, however, that this will always be the case. It is at least a possibility that at some point, the vast majority of people will not be able to produce enough economic value for it to make sense for anyone to employ them.

In this situation, clearly the mass unemployment requires some sort of government action in order to prevent civil unrest and extreme poverty. Some sort of citizen's income seems the simplest solution, and people with more economics knowledge than me can speculate over exactly what such a society would look like. 

What would we do in such a future? Would a population of people who were comfortable but unproductive be happy? Many people would gain meaning from family, or through endless education for the sake of itself. Most unemployed people, however, are very unhappy. This must partly be because of the short term setback of becoming unemployed, the fact they have little money, and the stigma attached to unemployment. It is also possible, however, that the structure and purpose of work helps give people meaning and happiness. I'm not some sort of Stakhanovite or calvinist, I usually dislike work and can happily find things to fill my days without it, but I don't know if this is the case for everyone, it is at least worth entertaining the idea that work is in some sense necessary.

How do we square this circle? It may be necessary for the government to provide some sort of make work scheme. These jobs may be similar to those we do today, we could employ people to dig holes and fill them in again, or even create whole potemkin industries of fake customers, products and supply chains. This doesn't sound like much fun though, and shows a lack of ambition. Today many people hate their jobs, the hours are long and the conditions poor. Free of any of any of the forces that cause this, however, jobs might be very different. We're not producing anything, so productivity is irrelevant. We can instead attempt to optimise jobs so that people actually enjoy them. Most paperwork would presumably be eliminated, everyone seems to hate that. Working hours would be obscenely flexible and likely shorter than now. Many countries by convention take more weeks of holidays than others, and they certainly don't seem unhappier for it, so holiday time would longer. Jobs may require a lot of travel, and variety would be greater, since specialisation and skills are irrelevant. Perhaps some sort of pressure is helpful for people, so arbitrary deadlines may by invented in order to give a pleasant ebb and flow to the rhythm of life. Rather than looking at it as a make work scheme, it may be better to think of it as an adult daycare centre, though even better not to ever call it that.

It is possible that in spite of all this variety and fun, if people knew deep down that it was all unnecessary, they would still be very unhappy. Would it, in this case, be right to lie to them, to tell them that they were helping? If I were a super benevolent artificial intelligence entrusted with maximising human happiness, it's possible that I wouldn't even tell them. Just secretly outsource all the real work over time, while the old jobs inexplicably get a lot more fun, their boss is suddenly a lot nicer, and everyone suddenly has a lot more holiday time. If this inexplicably starts to happen over the next few years, I recommend we all keep quiet about it.