Franco "Bifo" Berardi

Quantitative Easing for the People

Technology unemployment and the superstition of salaried work

The post-modern explosion of racism that is spreading in Europe is one the effects of the neoliberal aggression on the labor market, and of the massive impoverishment that financial capitalism is bringing about everywhere.

The Economist (February 2016) worries for the central bankers inability to further support the economy, as they have run out of ammunition. Surprisingly enough, the suggestion emerging from the most orthodox neoliberal magazine, is to launch money from the helicopter. Quantitative easing for the people is the only way to come out from the prospect of deflation, after decades of forced austeritarian reduction of the demand.

So far that keynesian suggestion, however, is wishful thinking: the neoliberal predation accelerates as the abyss approaches.

Workers must wait until they are 75 to retire” is the title of popular newspapers on March 2nd. The chief of the Confederation of British Industry declares that the further postponement of retirement age “is necessary to keep the system sustainable and affordable.” Okay, we realise: workers must die before retiring, so the burden of paying for old people will be relieved.

Problem is that while governments are prolonging labor time, unemployment rises and precariousness rages among young people. Labor time and unemployment are obviously rising together, and technology is reducing the time needed for the production of goods.

Not only industrial jobs, but also cognitive jobs that used to be highly rewarded only ten or fifteen years ago are being replaced by automation.

We are creating a very small number of high-paying jobs in return for destroying a very large number of fairly high-paying jobs. (Nathaniel Popper: The Robots Are Coming for Wall Street, The New York Times, February 25 2016).

A startup incubator named Y Combinator has recently published a text titled

Why a bunch of Silicon Valley investors are suddenly interested in universal basic income

The text emphasises the necessity of launching a program of basic income as a response to technological unemployment. In the future, the reasoning goes, work will be automated more and more. As a consequence skilled jobs will be less and less needed, so employment will generally collapse, leaving a small group of programmers and capitalists with all the coconuts and most people with nothing.

YC’s president, Sam Altman, announced an experiment wherein Y Combinator will “give a basic income to a group of people in the US for a 5 year period. At some point in the future, as technology continues to eliminate traditional jobs and massive new wealth gets created, we’re going to see some version of [a basic income] at a national scale, Altman writes.”

If you give people money in exchange of no work they will not sleep all the day long, they will rather emancipate their minds from the link between survival and work: therefore social energies will expand.

Salaried slavery might have been necessary in the age of industrial work based on repetition. But robots are taking the place of humans in that kind of boring and tiring jobs. Activities like food preparation, children education, culture, healing and self care cannot be entirely replaced by automata, and do not need the blackmail of salary. People do not need the mediation of money in order to cooperate and teach things each other, and care for the health of their friends, and invent new techniques and new aesthetic forms.

According to Altman the concept of usefulness will be totally reframed, when people will no more work under the blackmail of starvation. What will people do when they will be free from the salaried obligation?

“Do people sit around and play video games, or do they create new things? Are people happy and fulfilled? Do people, without the fear of not being able to eat, accomplish far more and benefit society far more? And do recipients, on the whole, create more economic value than they receive? “

These are harder questions to answer. If someone relies on their basic income to create a gorgeous sculpture, how do we measure if that “benefits society far more” than what they were doing before? What if the sculpture is super ugly but it brings the person who made it incredible amounts of joy? Figuring out reliable, non-bullshit metrics for the criteria Altman’s proposing is really tough.” (Y Combinator).

The idea that one must lend her time in exchange of survival is not based on a natural necessity. Within conditions of scarcity that are often artificially engendered, people are obliged to cede their time in exchange of the money that is necessary to buy basic survival. But today the scarcity regime is unnecessary, as technical evolution has enabled an expansion of productivity that results in abundant products that should be differently distributed.

Salary therefore is now a superstition that turns technical innovation into a tragedy for society: when reduced to a tool for competition and profit, knowledge becomes a cause of unemployment.

High technology companies – Google first – are massively investing in the field of research for replacement of workers with intelligent automata: in an interview published by Computer world in October 2014 Larry Page speculates that next steps in technology are hardly compatible with the work week of 40 hours. The liberation of time is at hand, but if we want to emancipate time we must emancipate the survival from the blackmail of salary: this is the goal of political inventions like basic income, that I prefer to name “existential revenue”.

Existential revenue should not be considered as a provisional support for marginal people. It should be conceived as a stimulus to be free, and therefore to offer the best of ourselves to the community.

While human labour is replaced by machines, we’ll be finally allowed to do what we really like. The emancipation of knowledge from the economic paradigm is the only key that may open the door out from the hell, however we seem unable to see this way out.

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