Chanting down the new capitalism

John Nichols

John Nichols

Stanely Mushava Literature Today

Multinational companies investing in knowledge-sharing schemes are looking to replace universities and phase out the arts, humanities and poetry courses with programmes that train workers for a task, not a career.

Book: People Get Ready

Authors: Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols

Publisher: Nation Books (2016)

ISBN: 978-1-56858-522-2

Set fire to the earth and redeem the gold: It is hard to think of a deeper intersection between capitalism and science fiction than this mutual template.

In science fiction, conquest by fire could mean civilisation running down to ground zero under an alien invasion.

It could equally be a dispatch of robots in the service of a few rogue scientists rounding up and wiping out lives and livelihoods.

In the latter scenario, the conspirators would be hunched over running programmes, engineering annihilation from the control room, and looking to preside over a post-apocalyptic world.

According to Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols, if you know where to look in the real world, you no longer have to imagine this because it is already happening.

The conquest of mankind by commercially engineered machinery is no longer a figment of dystopian imagination but the grim reality of capitalism in the 21st century.

Climate change, nuclear proliferation and biological warfare have been among the prominent tentacles of capitalism in the glare of dissenting scholarship.

And now McChesney and Nichols are bringing up an unlikely tentacle, digital technology, particularly debilitating because its disarming charms are universally eulogised rather than questioned.

The title of their new book, “People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy”, weighs in the rallying urgency of the latest storm warning.

Released on Tuesday last week, the book throws a wet blanket on the feverish eulogisation of digital technology with a few uncomfortable truths.

The duo argues that rather than the promise of the hour, the new technology is the peril of the hour, unless workers and citizens stand up to reclaim their future from the retooling phase of capitalism.

“The changes that define the future that is now have nothing to do with job creation. Why would they? They are being developed and implemented by behemoth corporations that seek to maximise profits, not employment,” the duo faults the dark side of technology.

If the premise sounds like a hard sell, McChesney and Nichols waste no time to demonstrate how much of a menace commercially driven and ethically morally agnostic technology is to the workers.

They point out that not just the civic space but also human agency are under threat, with millions of jobs bound to be lost to automation.

In the US, corporations have already enlisted new technology to displace millions of workers and millions more jobs are in jeopardy.

“If a multinational corporation makes its product or delivers its service without having to pay as many human beings, all the better. That’s why the value of the corporation’s stock rises when it shutters factories and lays off workers,” McChesney and Nichols point out.

The robots are coming, people get ready to pull your weight and defend your space, warns the duo.

The technology-enabled future is here but does not belong to the workers and the citizens. It belongs to the wafer-thin minority shoring up huge profits by making whole sectors obsolete.

More than democratising the cultural and economic space, as its evangelists maintain, digital disruption is wiping out traditional industries, piling unforgivable collateral damage in its trail.

It may be re-flowing work from drudgery to efficiency but its motive is not people but profit, disenfranchised workers and demobilised citizens have no part in the spoils.

Corporations are retooling in order to dispense with labour costs, and maximise their profits.

Those who now maintain the traditional routine may also be forced to sacrifice humanity too so they can keep up with the moving cheese.

The first chapter opens with Google chairman Eric Schimdt before the World Economic Forum in 2014.

Shmidt acknowledges that rapid advances in technology, including projects Google is working on, threatens countless middle-class jobs that had previously seemed beyond the reach of computers and automation.

Shmidt reveals that as more middle-class workers are bound to lose their jobs to trending technology, there is little on the horizon to suggest there will be new jobs for them.

The Google chairman predicts that this will be the defining issue of the next two or three decades.

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford notes that there is no sector of the US economy big enough to absorb all the workers being phased out by the technology revolution.

“Every day a virtual reality becomes just plain reality. There are miracles and there are marvels, but there are also reminders of what made those old science-fiction films so scary,” observe McChesney and Nichols.

McChesney and Nichols insist that a few billionaires must not be allowed to turn economies on their heads for extra profit while the rest of the world remains consumers, spectators and victims.

Among these marvels are grain-sized microchips to be inserted in fingers for automated functions in the hope of better employment prospects.

Centralised ordering systems are being developed that could phase out cashiers and robots are being created to prepare meals in fast food outlets to slash labour costs.

Multinational companies investing in knowledge-sharing schemes are looking to replace universities and phase out the arts, humanities and poetry courses with programmes that train workers for a task, not a career.

We reviewed in these columns Fareed Zakaria’s 2015 book, “In Defence of a Liberal Education” which emphasises, on good reason, education for developing the critical faculty and civic competency rather than just mechanical utility.

As profit-driven multinational companies maintain their crusade against culture, it is pertinent that governments hedge what there is to redeem for their nations.

“The Internet is not the Answer” by serial cyber polemicist Andrew Keen also shows how culture industries which used to be rewarding have been destroyed in the trail of disruptive technology.

It will not be useful to invoke the good old days but it is important for countries to actively mediate the changes in their own interest instead of being passive receptacles.

The duo advocate for the consolidation of a democratic infrastructure which allows a hundred flowers to bloom, to use Ngugi wa Thiongo’s metaphor, as opposed to the present where a few unicorns are beneficiaries of the winner-take-all revolution.

The duo argues that while technological change is inevitable, it must be managed in the interest of society.

“A core responsibility of the democratic state is to provide the ground rules and basis for an economy that will best serve the democratically determined needs of the people,” the duo argues that it must be a matter of policy to see that technology is deployed to serve human needs.

And for human needs to take precedence over capitalist interests, there is need for a democratic infrastructure to be firmly in place.

It is still necessary, even with the blinding pace of changes diffusing from the new centre of capital, to insist on fundamentals like employment for all people who require income, and human conditions on the jobs.

Technology can be guided to enhance the quality of life, shelter, food, education, and health care without encroaching on human agency and the civic space.

“People Get Ready” provokes governments, institutions and indviduals worldwide to wake up to the next big challenge of the century.

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