Abraham Baldry is Associate Director of the New Century Institute. He has written for The Huffington Post and The Independent, worked as a researcher for the Red Cross, and was formerly the President of University of Sussex Student's Union.
Progressives the world over are on the back foot. In the face of a seemingly unstoppable assault on the things we value, we fight not for victories, but to prevent further losses. Our rallying cry is one of opposition; we campaign against NHS cuts, against leaving the EU, against forcing the unemployed to work for free.
Fighting to maintain the status quo is an understandable impulse when the cards seem so heavily stacked against us, but this means that the battles we choose to fight are local and smaller in scale. Thus, when we win, so too are our victories. Campaigners ensure their local hospital remains open while the health service as a whole continues to be systematically underfunded.
We protest against these attacks on ordinary people, however our key demand seems to be for maintenance of the world as it is, or as it used to be. We seem to have abandoned the notion that things could be better than they were in the past. The outer limits of our imagination is stuck somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, the so called ‘golden age’ of capitalism.
I believe that ultimately, this is a deeply uninspiring vision of what the future could be. Setting our goal as full employment in bearable working conditions belies the fact that many people hate their jobs and would rather use their time pursuing any number of other activities. Fighting for the right to work for the few years we have on this earth reflects a staggering lack of vision.
Another future is possible: a world without work. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’, automation, and machine learning mean that for the first time in human history, we have the capacity to abolish work - assuming that we do not prematurely abolish ourselves. Advances in technology will eliminate swathes of the economy, not just over the next hundred years but in the next twenty. Few sectors will be left untouched as thousands of jobs will become redundant. Jobs which are repetitive, low skilled and typically poorly paid will be the first to go.
Solutions such as Universal Basic Income may enable us to significantly improve quality of life in the wake of technological social upheavals
This represents both a significant challenge, and a vast opportunity to create a better world. People whose wealth liberates them from the need to work are free to pursue more enriching activities. They spend their time socialising, enjoying culture, and learning new skills, not to mention watching television, listening to music, and playing sports. At university, they choose to study subjects which interest them, not those which most enhance their employability. When they do choose to participate in the labour market, they do so on their own terms. One person I know works as a skiing instructor, another spends much of her time volunteering. Both also spend significant amounts of the year travelling. This to me seems like better use of one’s time than wage drudgery. Although we are not yet at the stage where this is a lifestyle that could be enjoyed by all, we are significantly closer than most people realise.
Without progressive intervention, however, this possible techno-utopia is more likely to become robot-hell. Under the current system of ownership, we would see jobs replaced by machines owned by an ultra-rich minority. Working people, now unable to sell their labour, would be left with scraps.
Thus, we must champion policies to ensure a positive future. We must be the architects of a program to ensure that the benefits of these technologies are shared collectively rather than enjoyed by a super minority. The current state of affairs exists because the regressive forces have played the long game; while we have not. We need to begin now to refine these ideas, to bring them to a wider audience and to put them at the core of what we offer to the voting public.
Without a forward thinking vision of a better future that’s worth fighting for, progressives will continue to win some small battles, lose others, and comprehensively fail to bring about a better world. Our task now must be to paint a picture of what the future could be, and it must begin now.