Technological Unemployment but Still a Lot
Towards Prosumerist Services of General Interest
Journal of Evolution and
Technology - Vol. 24 Issue
1 – February 2014 - pgs 104-112
This article explores the impact of both
technological unemployment and a basic income on the provision of services of
general interest. A basic income may promote the restructuring of production
into postcapitalist forms and projects involving peer production. This change,
as well as technological unemployment, will result in lower state and market
capacities to provide services. Instead, people will create various forms of
self-organization to meet their needs. The paper presents examples of such
models. Some ideas about the new forms of inequalities in this system will be
presented to inspire a further study of this scenario.
Technological development promises to
liberate people from many tasks, including teaching, health care and
governmental decision making. An optimistic vision of technological unemployment
sees it as liberation for humans. In light of a structural analysis of the
introduction of a basic income, however, it does not seem realistic that all
people will be able to spend their entire time on leisure (Pelletier 2013).
While the large part of the population will be liberated from employment
relations, the majority of people will still need to organize a significant
amount of tasks that cannot be replaced by robots. Even if a complete
automation of daily life tasks is possible thanks to technological development,
there are structural constraints to the implementation of such full automation.
For the owners of capital to extract gains from their means of production, the
machines will need to be either very expensive, like real estate, or programmed
obsolescence will need to be integrated in their design. Since technological
unemployment will grow, these machines will not be accessible to those living
only from a basic income. Therefore, a scenario of the way services of general
interest will be organized needs further exploring.
This article argues that the introduction
of a basic income and technological unemployment will result in reorganization
of the realm of production. A significant part of the total work to be
conducted for daily life functioning will be exercised outside of
commodification and therefore will not be taxable. Since the vast part of the
society will not contribute financially to the state, a relationship between
the state and the population will change and public employment will need to be
reduced. This will constitute a challenge for service provision by the state.
While part of the population, such as specialists in technology or the owners
of the means of production, will be able to use commodified services, the
majority of society will need to compensate their limited resources with
prosumerist practices and self-organization. This article presents three
organizational structures that may become dominant models of the provision of
services of general interest. This system of citizen welfare provision will
profoundly transform the state’s role and operation. The new system will imply
new types of problems and challenges. The last section will propose further
questions to study to anticipate the consequences of technological unemployment
and the introduction of a basic income.
The dissociation of work and income
resulting from the provision of a basic income will have a far-reaching impact
on the structure of production. In this section, the transformations of the structure
of production that are already taking place are highlighted because they may
further thrive thanks to a basic income. Three trends in the realm of
production may be fostered by a basic income: 1) the decentralization and
democratization of production, 2) the post-capitalist logic of production and
3) peer-production model and organizational change. These trends are strongly
related to the needs and opportunities of the precariat and proficians – a
growing group of those with unstable employment relations as a result of
technological development (Standing 2011). On the one hand, material security
will enable people to take risks and pursue production outside of enterprises
and with little capital. It will be possible to decentralize production. The introduction
of unconditional income is expected to increase prices due to a scarcity of
laborers ready to work for wages below the basic income. This will foster
production outside of the market. It will motivate the development of
alternative ways of organizing production, involving spontaneous contributions
of a large group of participants, as in the case of Wikipedia or Linux. Basic
income will free up time for the engagement in such projects.
Technological development has transformed
production systems. Formerly, means of production were centralized in the hands
of the few. However, this has changed because the means of production are
cheaper and smaller. Therefore, they are accessible to a broader group of
people. The digitalization of production (products that can be designed on a
computer and produced by a 3D printer) has brought about new organizational
forms. For instance, thousands of makerspaces
have emerged globally and the Obama administration has introduced a program
equipping schools with workshops, where pupils can utilize 3D printers and
laser cutters. This maker movement is generating a culture of sharing and
collaboration. The products can be improved by many contributors thanks to open
source design. To exemplify this emerging production system, Anderson produced
a lawn watering system, which can be sold for US$100, lower than the market
price. Open source production can also promote the democratization of research.
For instance, community DIYbio has several platforms for open source production,
such as Biocurious in Silicon Valley and Genspace in New York, where laboratory
tools are produced to make them accessible to the broader public. Another
online community, Open Source Ecology, works on open source tools and machines
necessary to build a self-sufficient village (Anderson 2012). In addition, 3D
printers can reproduce themselves, which further democratizes the means of
production (Rigi 2012). In the realm of cultural politics, a new structure of
production is based on the principle of radical democratization, horizontalism,
and a decentralized network: ‘The cultural production of peripheral urban areas
is also not formal. It is precarious, informal, fast, and takes place in
collaborative networks, promoting the transference of both symbolic and real
capital while empowering socio-cultural movements without the aid of the
traditional cultural mediators.’ (Bentes 2013, 29)..
Williams demonstrates with survey data that
the market and commodification of production are not as pervasive as is often
assumed. Non-commodified work accounts for half of human production to achieve
subsistence. The introduction of basic income would further foster non-monetary
work and exchanges (Williams 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007; Wright 2010). The more the
illusion of a commodified world and full employment is challenged, the more one
can expect an increase in alternative forms of production beyond market and
state logic. Indeed, as White and Williams illustrate, they are already quite
widespread (White and Williamson 2012, 1640). Peer production also functions
outside of the capitalist logic (Barbrook 2000; Rigi 2012; Söfderberg 2010).
One can observe a different logic in the
organization of production that emerges in alternative production systems
operating outside of the state and the market.
Production is increasingly achieved on the basis of principles other
than coercive and centralized collectivism
such as freely chosen self-selection and distributed coordination. An
interactive ethos is one of the characteristics of modern generations (Tapscott
and Williams 2008, 36). Peer production usually functions as a decentralized
system composed of small modules, on which contributors work at a chosen time
(Benkler 2013). This feature of production seems to be particularly suited to
the realities of life for the precariat, who have limited control over their
time (Standing 2013). Instead of delegating the provision of subsistence to the
state or the market, the precariat may simply engage in self-organized peer
production or prosumerism to meet their needs. Roberta Scarlett (2013) points
to the fact that it is difficult for the state to control this new economy,
even though it will achieve a high level of organization and reliability among
A basic income and a cultural shift
resulting from the new principles underpinning the production system will
privilege use value rather than exchange value in the organization of economic
life. Since income will not depend directly on the exchange value of work and
their produce, a concentration on needs will increase. For instance, instead of
using fast food or other services as ‘time saving’ tools to free time for work
of higher exchange value than these services have, people may prefer to invest
their time in the direct production of services for themselves. A consumption
tax, which is mentioned as one of the financing mechanisms by the promoters of
a basic income, will further scare the population away from the market and
encourage prosumerism. While manufacturing jobs will be automated, there are
still services that cannot be replaced by robots, especially in the domain of
care. Since the possibility of earning money with ones’ work will shrink,
people will need to organize themselves to meet their needs through exchanges.
Time will become a parallel currency. Some peer-to-peer platforms may be
operated by activists for free. Examples of such services are car sharing,
airbnb, and couchsurfing. They decentralize the economy and make services
cheaper because there is less labor and intermediary structures involved in
production than in models based on employment. This implies also less taxable
revenue and consequently a smaller public budget. Even if the state introduces
obstacles to this economy, it would need to dispose of high tax revenue to
finance necessary administrative capacities such as surveying the Internet
networks and inspections at homes. Such an attempt has been undertaken in New
York City, for instance, where authorities tried a provider of a couchsurfing
apartment for violating the illegal hotels law, which makes renting an entire
apartment for less than 29 days illegal (Tam 2013).
unemployment and the state: structural analysis
Technological unemployment limits the
demand for unskilled labor. It will also further centralize capital because the
owners of the robots will be able to extract more profit from their machines in
comparison to production based on human labor where profits need to be shared
with workers. However, the demand for skilled maintenance staff will increase,
as will their salaries. This will divide society into a small group of owners
of the means of production, the specialists in the realm of technology
development and maintenance, the class servicing these groups, and the majority
of population – those who cannot sell their labor on the labor market. Beck
writes about a ‘Brazilianization of the West:’ the active population in
full-time employment being a minority (Beck 2000).
The effect of these changes (induced by the
wage increases for those who work and the withdrawal from the market of a
significant part of the population) will be a re-organization of state-society
relations. Elinor Ostrom (1996) argues that the administrative capacities of the
state are related to the demand for labor. If labor is
not commodified, state capacities are lower as well because a state cannot
extract revenue from taxes. This also implies fewer opportunities to commodify
services (state or private depending on the result of the power struggle between
citizens and market actors) because citizens cannot pay for services, either in
the form of direct payment for services from insurance contributions or in the
form of taxes, which would be redistributed to provide a universal welfare
provision. According to Elinor Ostrom, the implication of underemployment is
that citizens should co-produce services, so that the weakening of state
resources is balanced by the involvement of citizens. When the labor can be
commodified, it makes more sense to shift the provision of public services to
public administration, which can extract more taxes from productively employed
labor. In developing countries, the demand for labour is lower and there is high
level of underemployment, resulting in the under-resourced state having limited capacities and citizens participating
more in the co-production of services managed by the state. She presented
examples of co-production in Brazil (Ostrom 1996). The administrative
capacities that can free citizens from participation in the production of
services of general interest will weaken also in the developed countries
because there is less and less employment and precarious work contracts give
firms a way to avoid paying social contributions. The false assumption that the
current economic system is based on an encompassing commodification and
resulting full employment (Standing 2011; Williams 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007)
conceals the growing provision of noncommodified general interest services.
Since the number of workers will decrease,
the inequalities between those employable and those on basic incomes will grow.
The small group of employable specialists may prefer to live in enclaves to
separate themselves from the rest. The trend towards spatial segregation is
already visible in gated communities. The earning population may relocate to
certain places, which will create deserts of tax revenue. Detroit’s trajectory
illustrates this trend. Detroit’s population fell, which was followed by
cutting its public workforce by more than 30%. Streetlights, buses, and
ambulances have been reduced due to financial bankruptcy (Foroohar 2013).
National level redistribution of basic income may encourage such a spatial
segregation and deprive some local governments of funds and tax revenues. The
lack of revenue from taxes of a large part of citizens will create two
categories of citizens. These trends may foster a development of a two-tier
service and subsistence provision system. The technological elites will
organize their services provision within gated communities (Van der Steen et
al. 2011) and exclusive clubs. The rest will develop a system of service
provision based on decommodification and mutualism. Since classical employment
will be too expensive to provide the services of general interest, which are
labor-intensive but not very lucrative, it will be necessary to provide these
services in an alternative way.
models of service production
The part of society that does not earn
enough to participate in the private sector service provision can shift its
time to producing services instead of paying for them. This would imply no
delegation of services to the state or market. In the social economy model, civil society directly organizes production
of services and goods without transferring them to economic actors dependent on
profit. In the following, I will present three types of such service platforms.
Example I: spontaneous and generalized exchange model
Instead of professionalization and
employment in service provision, voluntaristic and spontaneous forms of
organizing services can be imagined. There are already examples of Internet
platforms which enable people to engage in exchanges. Couchsurfing is the
largest portal, which enables tourists to be accommodated for free at someone’s
place. Other organizations of this type are Servas International, Global
Freeloaders, Hospitality Club, and BeWelcome. These platforms are based on the
principle of generalized reciprocity: offering is not a condition for being
hosted by others. However, offering accommodation helps to build a reputation
thanks to the references left by others. Such a platform for spontaneous and
generalized exchange in providing services may function also in the exchange of
other services (Molz 2007). Actually, the couchsurfing platform is used also
for organizing activities and exchanges
among inhabitants of the same location. This system could evolve further and
enable the exchange of many kinds of services. Market, state, and civil society
actors may provide coordination platforms for such a system to function. Paula
Bialski argues that couchsurfing creates loose and varied “neo-tribal”
relations (a concept of Michel
Maffesoli) (Bialski 2006). These neo-tribes may evolve into more organized and
reliable forms of service provision. Car sharing, Airbnb (providing hotel
services), and time banks enable non-professionals to offer services for
competitive prices, for free, or using time as exchange currency, with quality
and safety ensured by a system of references and reputation.
Example II: time bank model
Henzler and Späth (2011) argue that it is
impossible to ensure services paid by private insurances or the state because
the ratio of elderly to the employable population is increasing rapidly.
Therefore, there will be not enough people to work in this sector and to make
contributions to pension funds. A similar problem is caused by technological
unemployment. These trends operating together will require the development of
alternative service provision systems.
In Germany, where state provisions cannot
meet the demands for elderly care and market services are too expensive for
most pensioners, elderly people have started to organize an elderly care
system parallel to the state and market.
There are over 50 such initiatives in Germany. The Bavarian Ministry of Social
Affairs sponsored two such cooperatives with a starting grant of 30,000 Euros
each (Köstler and Schulz-Nieswandt 2010; Pennekamp 2013).
The Elderly Cooperative Riedlingen (Seniorengenossenschaft Riedlingen) was
established in 1990 in Riedlingen (a village of about ten thousands
inhabitants). The cooperative had 650 members in the beginning of 2013. It
enables people whose time is underemployed but who still are able to work to
‘earn’ services’ before they will need them themselves. One hundred and twenty
meals are prepared every day and distributed to elderly members. The price of a
meal is 5.9 Euro. Active members earn 6.8 Euros per hour and they or their
heritors can withdraw earned money. Services cost 8.2 Euros per hour. If a
service provider decides not to withdraw money for their work, this person can
claim the same amount of assistance time later. The services are guaranteed
because the organization is able to pay for them from its revenues in case
there are no volunteers available in the future (Henzler and Späth 2011,
54-56). Since time is the main exchange currency, it makes the system
independent of inflation and potential wage hikes due to the scarcity of labor.
Example III: subsistence cooperatives model
Activist Enric Duran inspired and founded
the movement of Integral Revolution. He borrowed 492,000 Euros from banks to
finance activist and publishing activities. Resulting from this initiative the
Catalan Integral Cooperative (Cooperativa
Integral Catalana, CIC) started its activity in May 2010 and others have
followed since then. Today the CIC is the most developed one, having 800 active
members and there are similar centers in other regions of Spain and in France
and Belgium. The Integral Cooperative of Toulouse (Cooperative Intégrale Toulousaine, CIT) was established
following the example of the Spanish Catalan Integral Cooperative and uses its
online network for organizing. This organization evolves according to members’
preferences and the interpretation of the main principles. The cooperative is
only a framework for individual and group initiatives. The CIT explains that
the ultimate goal of the cooperative is to establish a parallel social security
system operating according to different principles and values than market and
state provision. The principles are self-management, self-organization, direct
democracy and spontaneous reciprocity. For example, instead of paying insurance
fees, people would be organized in mutual help networks and would help a member
in need. Their health care system will put more emphasis on preventive
measures, such as access to organic nutrition. The production and consumption
takes place based on relations of trust between producers and consumers. For
instance, one of the members of the CIC prepares healthy organic meals for ten
other members. Their price is the same as non-organic options because he buys
vegetables directly from the producers. Up to 20 percent of the price for his
end product can be paid in social money.
The CIT also wants to establish a community
economy (économie communautaire), in
which there is no personal belonging but objects are shared and used whenever
one needs them and then returned (Gavroche 2013; NA 2010). Tasks which are not
attractive for any of the members will be shared by all members. For instance,
instead of having a few people carry very heavy objects, the process will be
organized in such a way that many people can be involved in carrying the
object. Splitting tasks into smaller chunks involving larger numbers of people
could help to redistribute the unattractive work to be done.
The platforms described above represent a
different way that services of general interest can be organized in the future.
Instead of engaging in employment relations and specialization, people can
pursue more flexible ways to meet their needs. While the consumers (those who
could afford them) have much power and choice in the traditional employment and
commodification of services, service providers in the alternative forms of
service provision can choose who they want to work for and when. The engagement
is much more spontaneous. In this system, important principles are
interpersonal chemistry and reputation. The latter may also include features
like friendliness or vibes. Cooperatives for the elderly function in a less
personalized way thanks to the involvement of money. Still, the providers can
choose freely their activities. The entire system is a cheaper alternative to
the market and state provided services. However, the output is much less
professionalized, which may imply lower quality and safety. Much higher numbers
of people are involved in the tasks, which requires more coordination. Internet
platforms provide tools for people to manage the exchanges.
New challenges in
the re-organized state and economy
While basic needs were met within families
in the period of pre-state service provision, in the post-state period service
provision it will take place in affinity groups and based on the principle of
generalized exchange. The weakening of intergenerational ties will force people
to search for assistance within affinity groups. The new system of service
provision will require building many ties with very heterogeneous people. Robin
Dunbar (Krotoski 2010) argues that one can have a maximum of 150 friends. Much time will be spent on coordinating
exchanges, searching for opportunities in online networks, building reputation
by participating in exchange networks and maintaining a network of loose ties.
The reorganization of services poses new
challenges. Further research is needed to anticipate the consequences of a
reorganization of service provision after a basic income is introduced. The
de-commodification of service provision and their mutualization requires a different
way of organizing everyday life. It has implications on the relations between
individuals. This can be illustrated with the example of the communist state in
which the commodification and monetary exchanges had much less importance for
daily life. Access to goods and services was not defined by material resources
solely as it is in the capitalist system. Certainly, those having more money
were able to buy more goods and exchange local currency for dollars, which made
Western goods also accessible. However, shortages of goods implied that people
had to have good relations with the vendors or organize themselves. They needed
to cooperate and exchange – social relations were much more important and
decided one’s quality of life. However, there was also a lot of fraud, for
instance, in the management of housing cooperatives.
The structural change imposed by
technological unemployment will also have an impact on the relations among
people and will require more social capital. Similarly to the present form of
capitalism in which emotions are increasingly exploited, in contrast to the
previous stage of capitalism in which workers’ bodies were mainly exploited,
the emotional burden will grow in the future of declining employment. Samson
(2004) argues that the demand for highly human skills such as friendliness will
grow proportionally to the increase in the automation of work. Also outside of the
job market the relevance of these highly human skills will increase. The
ability to work with other people and form relations within cooperatives will
be required. The ability to make a good impression and be outgoing will be
needed in the generalized exchange services. People will need to invest more
time to work on their personality, working through psychological or emotional
blockades with self-awareness and psychoanalysis. While the lack of hierarchies
and the voluntaristic character of work will liberate people from some forms of
oppression, new types of inequalities will be produced. Those with erotic
capital (Hakim 2011) and more ability to build relationships may meet their
needs with more ease.
If the criterion of success is reducing
inequality, then a well-developed welfare state is a better solution in
comparison to a basic income. Government services can better meet unequal needs
(Bergman 2004). Indeed, one can imagine that those more extroverted and having
social capital and skills will be able to make meeting their needs cheaper
through cooperation, whereas other unemployed people may be left with limited resources
and underdeveloped state services. Further research should focus on the
potential inequalities and the possibilities to deal with the individual
disadvantages once service provision depends principally on mutual exchanges
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