Surplus to Society
Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

Surplus to Society

John Lloyd
John Lloyd
8 min read

Workers are scarce and wages are rising. “The relationship between American businesses and their employees,” reports the New York Times, “is undergoing a profound shift: for the first time in a generation, workers are gaining the upper hand.” In the Guardian, John Harris writes that, “As consumer demand surges, hospitality businesses don’t have the staff to keep pace, and shortages are also mounting in construction, road haulage, food processing and fruit and vegetable picking.” Both papers wonder if we are entering “a new economic era.”

We should be so lucky, but it’s possible—though more than rising wages will be needed to confirm it. The good part of this is that employers will be dealing with workers who have more power than before, many fortified by the reflection that, during lockdowns, they kept—and still keep—the medical systems working, the care homes and schools open, the public transport networks moving, the home deliveries arriving, and the social services serving. Britain’s labour shortages are exacerbated by the post-Brexit loss of labour from the European Union, but even that will spur employers to attract and train more native staff. It will also relieve the downward pressure on wages that recourse to cheap labour brings in its wake.

In an April survey about work, the Economist was hugely cheerful:

[Before the pandemic], rich-world earnings were growing by nearly three percent a year … the wages of the worst-paid Americans were increasing 50 percent faster than those of the best-paid. … In the years immediately before COVID-19 the labour share [measured by total pay and benefits, as health care and pension contributions] was rising across America, Britain, the European Union and Japan … Yet by the late 2010s [income inequality] was no longer rising and might even have been falling a little … there were certainly fewer low-paid jobs, defined as those that pay less than two-thirds of the median wage. In Britain, for example, not since 1977 had there been so few.

The survey did permit itself a reservation: the appearance of a new “cleavage” in society, between the professional and creative folk who work at home, and the keeping-the-show-on-the-road majority whom they only meet when opening the door to a delivery driver. This gulf, the author warned, is “unlikely to be benign.” But otherwise, it was onwards and upwards in a post-COVID universe.

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And yet, in a local supermarket in mid-June, I overheard a scrap of conversation between two staffers, busy refilling the refrigerated shelves. One had clearly been telling the other that she’d heard something about employment cuts: “I only just heard about it. It may not be us.” “All the same,” said the other, “it looks like redundancies are coming.” This was no light banter—her voice was grave. They moved on with their tasks. “Look, it may not be us,” said the first speaker, again trying to lighten the import of what she had said.

The speed with which the second staffer assumed the worst offers a reminder of just how insecure those in low-paid jobs now feel, especially in retail outlets. All the small supermarkets on the shopping street near me remain open, but the staff have seen redundancies and closures elsewhere. “When will it be our turn?” must be their daily dread. Some independent shops won’t be coming back. A shoe repairer, started by a former officer in the South Vietnamese army and kept going by his wife, is now boarded up. An elderly Afghan who kept a tiny shop selling trinkets has gone. A couple of restaurants also seem doomed (both served mediocre food, so no loss to gourmets, but both employed between five and 10 members of staff).

We are at an inflection point, and significant change is likely. Even as COVID retreats, and the prestige that essential workers have accrued begins to fade with it, a larger threat to livelihoods comes into view—the threat of being replaced by technology. Admittedly, new technologies are always greeted with gloomy forecasts of mass redundancies, while technological advances often usher in higher productivity, greater wealth, and more (if different) jobs. The British industrial revolution of the early 19th century produced soaring national wealth that helped secure the “British Century” in the mother country and in its vast empire.

Nevertheless, mass redundancies did occur, along with mass immiseration. In a 2019 article for the Financial Times, John Thornhill wrote:

Most of those who lived through this massive economic upheaval were not among its main beneficiaries. It is hard to argue with the Communist writer Friedrich Engels, all too familiar with the dark, Satanic mills of 19th-century Britain, when he wrote that the machine-owning industrialists grew “rich on the misery of the mass of wage earners” … unless we are very careful, our latest technological revolution may well turn out to be a tumultuous rerun of the Industrial Revolution, with dire social and political consequences.

Thornhill was reviewing the work of an Oxford economist, which remains among the most authoritative and alarming analyses of the future world of work. In a 2013 report entitled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” co-written with Michael Osborne, and a 2019 book, The Technology Trap, Carl Benedikt Frey argued that 47 percent of all jobs are “susceptible to computerisation.” The less training and preparation a job requires, the more vulnerable it is to replacement. Bluntly put, the very workers who kept civilisation afloat during the pandemic are now the most likely to find that their jobs have been swallowed by the programmed actions of a robot.

The people who most famously protested the introduction of mechanical weaving were known as Luddites, after a Leicestershire man named Ned Ludd who was said to have smashed his weaving frame in a fit of rage. The name and his response (which may be apocryphal) has tumbled down through the years to be applied to any resistance to new technologies. But Frey takes us away from this facile dismissal. He divides new technology into that which is labour-destroying, and that which is labour-enabling. An example of the latter was the introduction of electric light in factories, which increased productivity, wages (usually), safety, and work satisfaction. Handloom workers, on the other hand, were the victims of labour-destroying developments, and those who could not adapt to machine work or emigrate were reduced to penury. This has been airily passed over in histories as a “short-term adjustment,” but Frey understands that a short-term adjustment for some can be a lifetime for the many displaced from an old skill, and unable to find a new one.

One contention stands out—that the social effect of robotic technology and the application of Artificial Intelligence depend on what Frey calls “the societal distribution of political power.” This is a matter of democratising democracies. An updated Engels version of the technological future can be found in a slim book entitled Work Without the Worker by Marxist author, Phil Jones, which shows an impressive grasp of the tech giants’ tactics. Those in the developing world who scrape a living refining the websites and algorithms of giant corporations like Amazon and Google, are only helping to make their own jobs obsolete. This work ostensibly offers workers “the chance of gaining skills and a better job,” but Jones isn’t buying that pitch. “A more honest portrayal of such work,” he writes, “would need to emphasise that there is little evidence that such aspirations are ever actually met … micro work appears more of a mirage in the desert of current employment than an oasis of opportunity.”

Jones stresses that micro work—thousands of small tasks which may take a few minutes, even seconds, for which (very) small payments are made—is destructive of any real attachment, since the workers are expected to switch continually between different demands: “Short tasks beamed into phones and laptops no longer add up to an occupation, in any real sense of the word, but to radically fractured, highly transient pieces of other jobs, often lasting thirty seconds or less and bearing little relation to the tasks completed before and after.”

He laments the passing of a world in which a worker had the satisfaction of a job well done. My mother, for example, was a beautician and her job was to make her customer’s face more attractive—her pleasure was her client’s pleasure, and though the work (like all work) could become a bore, it had a purpose. My grandfather was a craftsman who worked in ship construction and had the sense, once it was finished and afloat, of having put his skill into the vessel itself. Micro work, which pays little and demands working days of 12–16 hours before anything approaching a living wage can be gained, offers no such gratification. The employee works for remote employers who never appear, to complete or improve systems they never see in operation, and often do not understand more than that part of the system which their minute labour improves.

After a forensic if over-excoriating rehearsal of the dystopia awaiting most of humanity, Jones’s proposed remedy is profoundly disappointing. He recommends a society in which everything is shared equally, including those employments which carry most prestige, such as medicine, engineering, and teaching, which could be attempted by everyone for part of the day. Those trained in a particular speciality, meanwhile, would continue to perform that role, but it would not be “their primary daily activity, but one of many.” Who would want to undergo heart or brain surgery performed by a part-time surgeon, or cross a bridge built by a part-time engineer? Such a society would demand polymaths in a range of complex vocations which presently take much of a lifetime to master, able to understand and work with new advances in their fields.

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Yet some form of accommodation must be found with a world in which AI has made machines so omni-competent that an ever-expanding spectrum of work—including those jobs that require craft, bureaucratic, creative, or scientific skills—are now at risk of obsolescence. If Frey is right and the new technological revolution turns out to be job-destroying, democratic societies (and probably authoritarian ones too) cannot simply subsidise the newly unemployed to do little or nothing, while the rest remain engaged in as-yet-uncomputerisable, satisfying work. The “societal distribution of political power” that Frey sees as essential to a future good society only has concrete meaning if political power can be distributed in much greater measure towards the masses.

A renewed political focus on the majority—especially on those whose work is both essential and ill-paid—demands a revival of democracy through public participation. Responsibility for and control of a wide array of issues will need to be wrested from corporations and governments. The nature of the disillusion and unrest in country after country must be better understood, and the cultural politics of identity which enjoy so much prominence and define so much of public debate will have to be rejected as mostly elitist posturing. Democratic politics must rediscover how the majority live and work and what they believe to be right.

In a new book entitled Postliberal Politics: the Coming Era of Renewal, the scholar Adrian Pabst defines a “new era” like this:

At the heart of it is a vision of national renewal based on a reconstruction of our shared interests and underpinned by principles of contributive justice and reciprocal obligations. Instead of pinning our hopes on a single political leader or party, we need to build a broad communitarian consensus that puts society above politics and the economy, rebuilding the social fabric that binds communities and countries together.

This remains a sketch, albeit a better one than most. It draws sustenance from a variety of sources, both Left and Right. As we emerge from the pandemic, a search for a working, enduring “communitarian consensus” would do well to start from here.

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John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.