As we are beginning to experience the real substance of the digital revolution and the Information Age, we are becoming increasingly aware that automation and computerisation will, unlike the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions before it, permanently erode a vast swathe of the labour market, making a considerable level of unemployment a permanent fixture of our economy and society. If this trend is left unaddressed by society, the issues currently experienced in our economy and society will become further exacerbated and accentuated. If, alternatively, this trend is addressed by society and met by effective government policy, we could well be at the inception of a radical shift in and reimagination of how we perceive work, productivity, and societal contribution, ultimately improving people’s lives substantially.
For many centuries now, our society and economy have been built upon the idea of wage labour, the relationship wherein an employer pays an employee to conduct some productive activity for them. This is because the production of goods and services has been fundamentally dependent upon the labour provided by the human workforce of an economy. Whether that production is cultivating farmland, being stationed at a cash register, or operating a machine, humans have been an indispensable part of the economy, without which the economy would cease to function. Moreover, owing to this economic imperative for labour, society has been structured in a way that makes people dependent upon employment to live well, and more fundamentally, to survive. (In this sense, European welfare states are notable in that they have traditionally provided a safety net to prevent poverty and destitution. However, it is not possible for welfare recipients to enjoy a dignified existence, as welfare is not designed to be permanent and does not extend beyond providing for the very basics of life. Although the right likes to suggest it is, it is simply not possible – except in a negligible number of cases – to live comfortably on contemporary welfare.)
With the advent of the Information Age, this long-standing fact of life, wage labour, is changing, dramatically. Some estimates suggest that up to half of all occupations are under threat of automation, removing the need for humans from numerous lines of work. Significantly, these technological encroachments do not merely affect supposedly menial lines of low-paid work, but also threaten well-paid and traditionally middle-class professions, such as paralegals and public transport operators, such as train drivers. Automation and computerisation will have a dramatic impact upon all but the highest levels of society. Additionally, those professions which are difficult or impossible to automate are currently generally undervalued in the economy – such as nurses, teachers, and healthcare assistants – leaving the very real possibility for average wages to remain stagnant or possibly even become reduced. While many waged occupations will remain, undoubtedly a considerable number will be lost.
At first glance, the erosion of such a vast portion of our labour market appears daunting and highly unsettling. Indeed, if the economy is left to its own devices, mass unemployment, stagnant and falling wages, and exponentially increasing wealth inequality are inevitable. The result of such trends would be human suffering and the growth of a deeply unjust society.
There is an alternative direction of travel, however. As a society, we could seize this opportunity to harness automation and computerisation to afford people the choice of waged employment, allowing them to pursue what is most valuable to them in life.
The current socioeconomic model places too great an emphasis on the conventional profit-driven economy, to the detriment of innumerable avenues of human endeavour which while having little or tenuous economic benefit, are hugely beneficial to society and humanity itself. Take, for instance, the spaces of academia, philosophy, and creativity, areas of human endeavour which characterise and punctuate our very existence as a society and civilisation. These things are the very essences of life, yet are so easily brushed aside by the unrelenting and often impassive profit-driven market forces which drive our current reality.
The current socioeconomic model also brings about a less compassionate and more self-interested society, particularly amongst the more affluent elements of society who live comfortably and find it difficult to relate to or acknowledge the standard of living experienced by millions at the lower end of society. This is particularly evident in the dispiriting stigma surrounding welfare, unemployment, and immigration. Those with a comfortable standard of living too often condemn less fortunate individuals, rationalising them as being the product of their own incompetence and lack of work ethic. In the case of immigrants, they fail to recognise that they are humans, seeking a higher standard of living which they have a right to, and that they contribute greatly to the diversity and quality of our society and culture.
Significantly, there has grown a strong school of thought within society that is bound to the idea of wage labour and monetary self-advancement being at the apex of society. Society simply does not facilitate, to a desirable degree, alternative means through which citizens could contribute to the betterment of society outside the scope of profit-driven economics. In fact, such alternative contributions are often derided, as they do not conform to what many people have come to conceptualise as being work and societal contribution. In many ways, this overzealous attachment to conventional societal contribution in the form of wage labour has come to undermine the very essence of existence and life in its disregard for anything that is not economically valuable. People are expected to work hard, work long, and increasingly work for very little remuneration. In doing so, many people have been forced by the sociocultural climate to invest their time too heavily in conventional work, to the detriment of their personal wellbeing and that of those around them. Moreover, the commitment of so much time and effort to conventional work results in a dearth of societal and cultural productivity, diminishing our society and increasingly reducing it to a mere economic machine lacking in emotion, thought, and enjoyment. Doubtless, we are lucky to live in such a diverse society which has produced manifold cultural gifts. Nevertheless, society and culture would benefit from a loosening of our emphasis on conventional work, in favour of a greater emphasis on the essences of life – culture, art, philosophy, academia, thought, social relations, innovation, invention, exploration, and others.
The principal means through which we could move towards a much more cultured, healthy, and intellectual society, is the concept of a basic income. This idea has long been mooted, but never adopted by mainstream thought or implemented in any significant manner. The idea is simple: every adult citizen would receive an income from the state, a sort of “Citizen’s Wage”, as some have put it. At its most abstract definition, a basic income can be any amount of money, though in reality for it to be viable and achieve its aspirations, it would need to be ample, equivalent to or greater than the living wage, so as to provide all those who would rely on it with a dignified and comfortable standard of living. There are also further questions to be asked concerning the technicalities of a basic income. Questions include whether the income would supplement that already received from wages by those in work, or whether it would be, in essence, taxed away. However, one of the basic income’s greatest advantages is its pure simplicity at both the conceptual and practical levels, compared with the famous European welfare states where their immense complexity is a distinct disadvantage.
Welfare states have developed over decades of different governments and changing socioeconomic conditions. This has led to the creation of myriad welfare schemes, requiring the development of vast administrative infrastructures necessitated by the often complex conditionalities of welfare schemes. The troubled implementation of the Universal Credit by the current government is a testament to this. Worse still, the complexity is only increasing, owing to the current political climate, in which politicians have withdrawn from the universal principle, instead advocating ever greater amounts of means testing, whereby welfare schemes must meet an array of exhaustive criteria, such as a person’s physical condition or financial state. This is increasing the size of the welfare state’s bureaucracy substantially, cumulatively costing more to operate than before, and damaging social cohesion in the abandonment of the universal principle. The introduction of a basic income would remove the need for many welfare schemes, transforming the welfare state into a form which would be much simpler to understand, monitor, and modify, and would reduce administrative infrastructure costs dramatically, allowing more money to have a tangible and meaningful effect, rather than be bogged down in bureaucratic and administrative costs. The welfare state would be streamlined, with its schemes being distinct and visible.
The immediate effects of the introduction of a basic income would be hugely beneficial to society in many ways. There would be a renaissance in art, creativity, philosophy, and academia. We would experience a significant upsurge in occupations which the economy greatly undervalues, such as parenting and familial activities, political activism, philanthropy and volunteering, and the open-ended pursuit of ideas, innovation, and invention.
There is also a strong ethical case for the introduction of a basic income. Under current policies, it is simply not possible to lead a dignified existence and enjoy a comfortable standard of living without waged employment. Many people, through no fault of their own, are placed in the demoralising position of unemployment with minimal prospect of respite. Without the support of family and friends, these people are forced to rely solely on the meagre income provided by the welfare state. This comes principally in the form of Jobseeker’s Allowance, the very name of which explicitly reveals its basis in wage labour, as opposed to having a grounding in basic human compassion and the wellbeing of people. It should be embarrassing that a modern and developed 21st century nation does not afford all of its citizens a comfortable standard of living. From an ethical perspective, a basic income would enshrine as a fundamental right for all people a dignified existence and a comfortable standard of living – something all people have a right to, regardless of employment status.
The introduction of a basic income would also yield powerful economic dividends. The economy would be provided with the space and impetus to move forward with automation and computerisation at great speed, unrestrained by the current social concerns of governments which expect the economy to supply full employment. The government would be free to invest heavily in developing modern technology, fostering a highly technologically advanced economy. This economic transformation would represent a firm alternative to the current agenda of racing to the bottom in terms of living standards, working conditions, and regulation in the obnoxious “global race”, instead advocating a race to the top, both in terms of economic activity and in terms of the social, economic, and cultural wellbeing of all citizens. The existence of an ample basic income would also raise questions over the future of the minimum wage. It may need to be raised above the level of income provided by a basic income. Alternatively, a different approach entirely could be taken. Either way, a discussion would need to be had over the future of the minimum wage in a basic income era.
Clearly, the provision of a basic income equivalent to or greater than the living wage for every adult citizen in a country the size of the United Kingdom would hardly be inexpensive. Moreover, a basic income would not remove the necessity for strong public services such as the National Health Service or the BBC. In fact, the public sector should in the future encompass more areas fundamental to life, such as, but not limited to, rail transport and the provision of energy, water, and broadband. However, the challenge of arranging the public finances in a manner which would accommodate a basic income would not be insurmountable. Firstly, a basic income itself would mean more people having more money to spend in the economy, which is generally a good thing for economic activity. Secondly, our tax revenue as a percentage of GDP currently rests somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, while in Scandinavian countries, this figure is closer to 50 percent, indicating the need for the UK to raise its tax revenue closer to, and possibly beyond, Scandinavian levels. Moreover, the UK tax system lacks progressivity – notably, the wealthy contribute less than they should – and is hemorrhaging revenue due to tax avoidance and evasion. Thus, it is completely within our grasp to achieve an ample basic income if we set our minds to it.
Looking forward into the long-term future, the introduction of a basic income would, in all likelihood, expand and improve the quality of discourse in society concerning equality and the distribution of wealth. This is because society, manifested in democratic governance, will have much greater control over the income of a considerable portion of the general population. Moreover, unlike the myriad arcane schemes of a traditional welfare state, a basic income would be clear and visible, leaving little room for misrepresentations or misconceptions in discourse.
As an aside, the benefits of automation outlined in this piece do not negate the risks to society of other aspects of automation, and the Information Age more broadly. The Information Age has delivered countless innovations, but such innovations are rarely forensically analysed with a healthy degree of skepticism. In the space of warfare, the rise of autonomous drones is a disconcerting spectre on the horizon. In the space of social media, some individuals hide behind the cloak of anonymity to blurt vile vitriol against others, privacy is frequently breached and poorly understood by people, and the impact of online social networking on social relations more fundamentally is considered by some to be pernicious. These are just some of the issues provoking nascent discussion. The Information Age provides at least as many negative opportunities to society as it does positive ones. There is almost certainly an imperative for societal introspection in this new area of life, something which we are currently lacking.
Ultimately, the Information Age is presenting society with an opportunity not previously available to it. For centuries, economic activity has been inexorably dependent upon the labour of humans. This inexorable dependence is being eroded by the rapid evolution of technology in recent times. If this trend is met by compassionate social policy, principally in the form of a basic income, it can afford people the choice of waged employment, and ensure a dignified standard of living for all as a fundamental right. Many people will remain in waged employment, but a considerable number of others will be free to contribute to society in ways that are usually marginalised under the current economic model, allowing all people to pursue what is most valuable to them in life. Such a change in society has the potential to release the real essences of humanity in an explosion of culture, creativity, knowledge, philosophy, discourse, social relations, philanthropy, and numerous other human endeavours. We will soon be presented with a socioeconomic and technological climate in which the idea of a basic income can be realised, and as such, the idea should come to form a central component of modern social democratic movements.