‘Joblessness’ In The Post-Employment World – Urgent Need for Paradigm Change

Job seekers at a job-fair in Chinchwad, 2019, Image courtesy Reuters/ Danish Siddiqui

The ‘unemployment’ question, let us put it bluntly, is not just an innocent and neutral question today but a key arena of class war – the war of Capital on society at large. Capital has its plans but does “society” have one?

Enter the Post-Employment World

It was reported last week that top IT sector companies like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL, Tech Mahindra and Cognizant are likely to slash 3 million jobs by next year. With large-scale resort to Artificial Intelligence (AI) based “robot process automation” (RPA), these companies, by shedding these jobs are expecting to “save a whopping USD 100 billion, mostly in salaries, annually” says the Indian Express report linked above. Citing NASSCOM (National Association of Software and Service Companies) the report tells us that the domestic IT sector employs around 16 million, of whom “around 9 million are employed in low-skill and BPO roles.”

Of these 9 million low-skilled services and BPO roles, 30 per cent or around 3 million will be lost by 2022, principally driven by the impact of robot process automation or RPA. Roughly 0.7 million roles are expected to be replaced by RPA alone and the rest due to other technological upgrades and upskilling by the domestic IT players, while it the RPA will have the worst impact in the US with a loss of almost 1 million jobs, according to a Bank of America report on Wednesday.”

Even more revealingly, we are told of the incentives that under-gird such a move thus:

“‘This is a USD 100-billion in reduced salary and other costs, but on the flipside, it offers a likely a USD 10 billion boon for IT companies that successfully implement RPA, and another a USD5 billion opportunity from a vibrant new software niche by 2022. Given that robots can function for 24 hrs a day, this represents a significant saving of up to 10:1 versus the human labor,’ says the report.”

Now, as we all know, this is not a story that has come to light only now, with this revelation of impending AI related job-losses. For many decades, scholars, thinkers and policy analysts in the West have been writing of the “end of work” and “jobless growth”. In his 1995 book End of Work, American economist Jeremy Rifkin had argued that tens of millions of jobs across the manufacturing, service and agricultural sectors would be lost over the coming period, thanks to the advent of information technology. But some thinkers like Andre Gorz had been warning about this for at least over a decade before that. Scholars have argued too, that over the past few decades, especially since the time Rifkin wrote, even the high-income western societies have been seeing the disappearance of “good jobs” and “the rise of low-wage, temporary and precarious employment.” (Of course, for a brief while “developing” low-income countries benefited from the relocation of jobs from the West but that is a separate story and cannot be discussed here). Since the 2008 crisis and the slow recovery of the employment situation, the advent of AI has accelerated the situation to such an extent that Rifkin’s “end of work” prophesy seems to be becoming a reality, at least in the West. But as we can see from our story above, this is not a West-specific development. The phenomenon is as pervasive as the corporations that dominate the scene and we can say, in a manner of speaking, that we have entered the a post-employment age. (Note that “employment” refers to “doing a job” either in a government or a private/ corporate concern and not to livelihoods as such.)

In 2018, a study by Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment, State of Working India 2018, had confirmed the longer term trend. Amit Basole, who led the team that conducted the study, underlined that in comparison to the 1970s and 1980s, when a 3-4 percent GDP growth delivered about 2 percent employment growth, the ratio of GDP growth to employment growth at the time of writing the report was less than 0.1 percent – that is to say that a 10 percent increase in GDP delivers less than 1 percent employment growth. What we are staring at now is most likely a phase of losses of jobs on a scale that may even mean an overall negative growth.

Technological developments clearly drive these transformations, now leading to the very elimination of the notion of work and employment – defined here as waged-work or salaried employment. Technological development rapidly and repeatedly reshaping the “relations of production” is nothing new – though Marx had actually thought that there would come a time when the contradiction between the two would be “resolved” in a revolutionary way. What we are seeing is the the relentless onward push of technology that reduces social relations to its mere effects! Interestingly, such development of technology does not happen – and is not happening on its own, out of some objective process but constitutes, as it were, another level of Capital’s class war. Technology is not neutral; it is the weapon that corporations wield in their war on labour.

Class War and “Autonomy

The aim of corporations is quite clear – it is to maximize profit and accumulate on an ever expanding scale. Cutting down on the ‘wage-bill’ is a key element in the direction of achieving that aim. As we know, within the firm, it is done by continuously, frenetically upgrading to more and more labour-saving technologies. However, saving on labour costs is hugely aided by the existence of armies of unemployed outside. Elementary economics tells us that this helps depress salaries and wages overall. The capitalist corporation is not interested in “creating employment” – even though this is the basis of its claim to “serving public interest”. Whenever the central and state governments in India (regardless of which party runs them) are confronted with the “unemployment problem”, their one and only response is to “invite industry” to provide jobs – and industrial corporations are only too happy to oblige.

Everyone in this game knows that eventually profits are what drive the corporations and no one really cares about the jobs produced. How many? And for how long? And at what cost: how many livelihoods (of farmers, artisans, small shopkeepers) will be destroyed? Marxists in India still sneer at such questions for they seem to suggest that those asking want to keep poor, illiterate farmers and small entrepreneurs at their appalling existing levels of existence. Who does not want the children of adivasis and peasants to go to school and improve their lives? Who does not want them to also become reasonably rich and enjoy the good things in life? We all do – but you cannot really “force them to be free” of their land and their livelihoods and become slaves in factories where they are reduced to automatons. If peasants and adivasis resist this dream of a new life that is sold to them, it is because they know that the people who are dispossessed and the people who prosper are not the same.

They never have been. Not in England – that classic land of private property – where the “enclosures of the commons” and mass dispossession reduced and masses of people to either become criminals and eventually be transported to penal colonies in Australia, or forced them to become labourers, thrown into Poor Houses and forced to work like slaves. Nor have the slaves who were transported en masse from Africa to the New World, been the ones to benefit from the colonization of the Americas – not to speak of the Native Americans who were killed en masse. But if all that is in the remote past and in faraway lands, our own contemporary record is no better.

As it happens, the story of the 40 to 50 million-plus people displaced by large dams and other developmental and corporate projects is pretty much the same. The beneficiaries of “development” and the ones who are dispossessed are never the same. This is a very well documented story – both in the decades of state-led developmental projects as well as later in the neoliberal era, when it actually explicitly acquired the dimensions of class war of a kind. For it is one class in its mission to destroy everything that comes in the way of its profits, launching war now on the peasants and indigenous people – in the name of providing employment.

The peasants who resist being thus dispossessed and transformed into the industrial proletariat are not just being stupid and foolhardy. Among other things, they also defend their “autonomy”, their control over their own lives. Even when their lives are susceptible to caprices of the market and the changing climate, they still retain some control over their lives that the industrial worker simply does not have. So the first revaluation of our values that is required in planning and thinking about the future is as follows: There is no higher virtue in perishing or becoming a property-less proletarian as compared to the tenacious desire and the will to fight to preserve one’s autonomy. This valuation that sees the latter as a reactionary drive to resist the forces of History while valorizing the former as the essence of proletarian being, is based entirely on a determinist and teleological view of history.

The “Employment” Question Now

The unfortunate situation is that while Capital has always planned decades in ahead, the organizations of the working class and the Left parties who claim to speak on their behalf seem to have remained blissfully unaware of what has been coming for some decades now. The crisis of the old working class movement from the 1980s on has been one story, which I have discussed on earlier occasions. Right now, however, I am interested in another story. This is not really concerned with something we might call “working class strategy” but rather a question that possibly arises more from our needs of survival as a society in the face of ever massive and newer attacks by Capital. In that sense, this story is less concerned with “the Left” alone – of whatever description – but with thinking a future that is already here. It is not really a question of holding an occasional demonstration here or there to “demand” employment, while remaining unconcerned about questions pertaining to what kind of jobs, what kind of livelihoods and what kind of future we might want. I will just present a few points below which can serve as points of departure for thinking through some of these key issues.

  1. The first point to underline here is that there is no socialist honey-pot at the end of the capitalist road. In fact, there is nothing after capitalism for it is the end of the road.
  2. That means pretty much that we need to get off the bus now. The road to “elsewhere” – to the land of equity and justice – can only be reached once we get off this highway to nowhere, on to the alleys and pathways that lead to other possibilities.
  3. In terms of employment and livelihoods, we need to start with the revaluation of our values suggested earlier: a dispossessed worker, living at the edge of the precipice is not by any stretch a higher and more evolved being in comparison to the small property owning peasant or adivasi who fights of his/her collective autonomy.
  4. Once we accept (3), we can begin to see the other possibilities than the two forms of state and bourgeois property that we have so far understood as the most evolved – and therefore only legitimate- forms (which naturally implies that all others must be expropriated and made into proletarians).
  5. Where we do have to think of employment, we need to move outside the logic of private corporations and plan for green jobs. This alone will delink the question of jobs from the caprices of Capital and bring the climate question in centrally. We can seriously learn from the steps being contemplated in the United States of American and the debates the idea of the Green New Deal has initiated. As Amanda Novello and Greg Carlock observe: “The movement toward a Green New Deal policy platform1 has become the predominant idea for addressing climate change. It would involve a massive government investment in equitable decarbonization, which would create millions of “green jobs.” The impact would be this large not only because greening the economy will be labor intensive across all sectors, but also because a green jobs guarantee would be required in order to ensure that all workers would be supported throughout this green transition.” A labour intensive transition to a greener economy stands quite deliberately in opposition to the AI-dominated fantasies of a technologically driven world.
  6. Other like Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek, cited above have argued forcefully that while the rise of AI and high degrees of automation have led to massive disappearance of jobs, certain kinds of jobs are simply resistant to that kind of automation. These are mostly jobs related to care giving and the most important among the care economy is the health sector, for instance. In the post-pandemic context, the health care sector is likely to expand significantly in future. Once can think of many other such instances that will always require human beings to perform the work.

To conclude then, we need to not only think of these issues on an urgent basis, it in fact important to underline here that they need to become the concerns that will have to be addressed by different political formations in the states as well as those aspiring to provide an alternative in the next parliament elections.

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