Bill Jordan, Automation and Human Solidarity

Bill Jordan, Automation and Human Solidarity, 3 030 36959 0, hbk, x + 151pp, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, £35.99

This book sets out from the low wage and insecure service sector employment, and a coercive benefits systems designed to stave off the high unemployment that might result from artificial intelligence and robotics becoming cheaper than human labour, and looks to possible futures, one of which might be constituted by new forms of social solidarity facilitated by artificial intelligence and Citizen’s Basic Income.

In chapter 1, Jordan relates the economic history that has led the UK to a particularly fierce example of insecure employment via the relocation of manufacturing industry, the growth of means-tested wage supplements, and the power of the financial sector. He discusses the history of automation, and both utopian and dystopian future scenarios, and asks for a political and social movement able to create both a new culture of social solidarity and pressure for a Citizen’s Basic Income.

Chapter 2 relates the history of employment-replacing automation, the authoritarian regimes that have often enforced new rounds of automation, and the ways in which social policy has adapted to new situations. More recently, the middle class has been losing out to automation, and has seen salaries stagnate and housing costs rise, all of which has provided populist political parties with a new electorate. Jordan concludes that artificial intelligence and robotics replacing human labour in service industries is having significant political and social implications, and will have more of them.

Chapter 3 offers a history of human community, including the communities created by trade and by post-war welfare states, shows how individualism has been fostered by market forces, household debt, and the politics of individual choice, and finds that economics has become the default explanatory mechanism. Following a section on increasing coercion in public policy, Jordan argues that a Citizen’s Basic Income is now essential if we are to rebuild the social solidarity that we have lost, and that a new social solidarity, rather than Van Parijs’s more atomistic social vision, will be needed to accompany and facilitate the implementation of a Citizen’s Basic Income.

Chapter 4 might best be described as variations on themes already explored, and in it Jordan recounts a history of co-operation and conflict, from hunter gatherer communities to nation states, trades unions, voluntary organisations, and co-operatives, in order to ask how the kind of human solidarity that he wants to see might come about, and how a society in which a Citizen’s Basic Income had been implemented might ensure that essential tasks would still be undertaken.

Chapter 5 asks for a non-productivist sustainable development model that would value human wellbeing and social justice above economic growth, and for social reproduction work to be as valued as paid employment. Jordan might here have recognised that only substantial carbon taxes along with a Citizen’s Basic Income or something like it would enable us both to reduce carbon emissions and to protect the disposable incomes of low income households.

Chapter 6 asks for a return to the ‘moral regulation’ by which communities regulate relationships within themselves, for new kinds of social solidarity to replace the more contractual relationships that we now see between members of society, and for an associational and politically participative civil society alongside a Citizen’s Basic Income. The theme is continued in chapter 7, in which the gulf between rich gated communities and poorer neglected ones is discussed, as is the populist threat to democracy.

Chapter 8 recognises both the advantages and disadvantages associated with globalisation; and the final chapter, which contains perhaps a little too much political and economic historical detail, asks how the combination of globalisation and automation is likely to evolve. Jordan argues for the new kinds of social solidarity that globalisation and artificial intelligence have made possible, and that political engagement will be required if institutions are to be remodelled so that they promote human solidarity and reduce currently dangerous levels of inequality.

Some minor errors: Scotland is undertaking a feasibility study as to whether pilot projects might be possible, and there are currently no definite plans for a pilot project; and the experiment in Finland was not discontinued by a new government. The plan was for a two year project, and that was carried out. The Government then turned down requests for an extension. In relation to chapter 2: Jordan has missed recent research from the Resolution Foundation that shows that the wages share of GDP has not in fact fallen in the UK. And there are some instances where it might have been helpful to gather material into one part of the book rather than locate similar material in different chapters: for instance, in relation to the employment effects of automation.

But these are minor complaints. The book is classic Jordan, communicating complexity comprehensibly, handling complex sociological and political concepts with confidence, and revealing the shifting networks of relationships between them. The basic message is one that we all need to hear: that it is essential to create new social solidarities, and that a Citizen’s Basic Income needs that to happen and would contribute to it happening. This, of course, raises an important question: If a new social solidarity is needed for a Citizen’s Basic Income to happen, and a Citizen’s Basic Income is an essential component of such a new solidarity, then how is either of them ever to occur? The only answer to this conundrum is that a Citizen’s Basic Income will have to be argued for and implemented on the basis of today’s social and economic scenario. This suggests that it is the pragmatic administrative case for Citizen’s Basic Income that is required if we are ever to see it implemented, and that once that has happened, the Citizen’s Basic Income will help to build the social solidarity that will ensure its continuance.

It would be easy to criticise this book for being about everything from climate change to automation to politics to Citizen’s Basic Income … . It is: but that is as it should be, because these things really are all connected with each other. And yes, a Citizen’s Basic Income really would make a positive contribution to the kind of human solidarity that we shall need in a more automated world.