[Marxism] Is the Populist Revolt Over? Not if Robots Have Their Way

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 31 06:50:26 MST 2018

NY Times, Jan. 31, 2018
Is the Populist Revolt Over? Not if Robots Have Their Way
by Eduardo Porter

Does President Trump represent the new normal in American politics?

As the world’s oligarchy gathered last week in Davos, Switzerland, to 
worry about the troubles of the middle class, the real question on every 
plutocrat’s mind was whether the populist upheaval that delivered the 
presidency to the intemperate mogul might mercifully be over.

If it was globalization — or, more precisely, the shock of imports from 
China — that moved voters to put Mr. Trump in the White House, could 
politicians get back to supporting the market-oriented order once the 
China shock played out?

But for all the wishful elucidations, the cosmopolitan elite can’t rid 
themselves of a stubborn fear: The populist wave that produced President 
Trump — not to mention Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, President 
Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and former Prime Minister Silvio 
Berlusconi in Italy, as well as Britain’s exodus from the European Union 
and the rise of the National Front in France — may be here to stay.

China’s shock to American politics may be over. Its entry into the 
market economy at the turn of this century cost millions of 
manufacturing jobs in the United States. Workers and communities were 
ravaged, and political positions were pushed to ideological extremes.

But few manufacturing jobs are left to lose. And rising wages in China 
are discouraging some companies from relocating production across the 
Pacific. What’s more, the spread of automation across industries 
suggests that the era of furious outsourcing in search of cheap foreign 
labor may be ending.

Immigration pressures are likely to persist across the Atlantic, 
continuing to drive the populist revolt against the establishment elite 
in Europe. But in the United States, the population of unauthorized 
immigrants is declining, disproving one of Mr. Trump’s core claims to power.

Economists studying the changes in the nature of work that produced such 
an angry political response suggest, however, that another wave of 
disruption is about to wash across the world economy, knocking out 
entire new classes of jobs: artificial intelligence. This could provide 
decades’ worth of fuel to the revolt against the global elites and their 
notions of market democracy.

As Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted this 
month in an analysis on the potential impact of artificial intelligence 
on American politics, “Given globalization’s effect on the 2016 
presidential election, it is worth noting that near-term A.I. and 
globalization replace many of the same jobs.”

Consider the occupation of truck drivers. Mr. Levy expects multiple 
demonstrations of fully autonomous trucks to take place within five 
years. If they work, the technology will spread, starting in restricted 
areas on a limited number of dedicated highway lanes. By 2024, 
artificial intelligence might eliminate 76,000 jobs driving heavy and 
tractor-trailer trucks, he says.

Similarly, he expects artificial intelligence to wipe out 210,000 
assembler and fabricator jobs and 260,000 customer service 
representatives. “Let’s not worry about the future of work in the next 
25 years,” he told me. “There’s plenty to worry about in the next five 
or six years.”

These may not be big numbers, but they are hitting communities that 
expressed their contempt for the status quo in 2016. White men and women 
without a four-year college degree accounted for just under half of Mr. 
Trump’s voters — compared with fewer than a fifth of Hillary Clinton’s. 
Seventy percent of truck drivers, 63 percent of assemblers and 
fabricators, and 56 percent of customer service representatives share 
these characteristics.

To be sure, economic dislocations don’t have to produce populist 
politics. Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. notes that geography makes a 
difference: If the dislocation from A.I. is concentrated in big cities, 
where workers have more options to find new jobs, the backlash will be 
more muted than it was when trade took out the jobs of single-industry 
company towns.

What’s more, Mr. Acemoglu added, the political system can respond in 
different ways to workers’ pain: The Great Depression not only led to 
Nazi Germany, it also produced Sweden’s social democracy.

It’s not immediately obvious that artificial intelligence will produce 
the same kind of reaction that trade did. Sure, machines inspired the 
most memorable worker rebellion of the industrial revolution — when the 
Luddites smashed the weaving machines that were taking over their jobs. 
The word “sabotage” comes from the French workers who took to destroying 

Unions are suspicious of technology. The United Farm Workers loudly 
protested tomato-harvesting machines after they were introduced in 
California in the 1960s. In New York, the local of the “sandhogs” who 
dig subway tunnels negotiated a deal where it gets $450,000 for each 
tunnel-digging machine used, to make up for job losses caused by 
“technological advancement.”

Yet though automation has displaced many more jobs than trade ever 
could, robots have never inspired the fury that trade routinely does. 
“By all accounts, automation and new digital technologies played a 
quantitatively greater role in deindustrialization and in spatial and 
income inequalities,” wrote Dani Rodrik of the Kennedy School of 
Government at Harvard University. “But globalization became tainted with 
a stigma of unfairness that technology evaded.”

It’s easier to demonize people — especially foreigners — than machines, 
the children of invention. What’s more, imports from countries with 
cheaper labor, weaker worker protections and threadbare environmental 
standards will be seen as unfair. Thea Lee, a former deputy chief of 
staff of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. who now heads the Economic Policy Institute, 
notes that workers’ anger is directed against “the particular set of 
rules about globalization that we chose,” which spreads benefits among 
financiers and corporations while disregarding workers.

This time could be different, though. “That sense of unfairness can be 
attached to technological changes, too,” Mr. Rodrik told me. “It’s not 
Bill Gates, who came out of nowhere, but big corporations that are 
getting bigger and becoming monopolists.”

Indeed, artificial intelligence could move populism in a different 
direction. Mr. Rodrik proposes two varieties, of right and left. The two 
share an anti-establishment flavor and claim to speak for the people 
against the elites. Both oppose classic liberal economics and 
globalization. Both are often authoritarian.

But right-wing populism — like that harnessed in Europe — is provoked by 
immigration. Its clan consciousness exploits cleavages of race, religion 
and nationality. On the left, by contrast, the “us versus them” 
narrative focuses on the economic divide between the capitalists and the 
working class. Populists of the left mostly take aim at trade.

The United States was ripe for both reflexes. Over the last 50 years, as 
the nation opened its markets to foreign trade, it never set up a social 
safety net to help workers dislodged by change, as Europe did. It also 
experienced large-scale immigration across the southern border. And it 
was walloped by a financial crisis that proved to typical workers that 
Wall Street would always get a better deal.

Mr. Trump’s discourse straddles the divide between the ideological 
domains, vilifying both trade and immigration. But his policies — tax 
cuts and immigration restrictions — hew decidedly to the right.

It is not a great fit for a big-tech future. A world in which 
immigration is on the decline yet some Google technology is taking the 
jobs of truckers and cashiers sounds compatible with a leftist policy 
platform that takes on Wall Street and corporate behemoths.

That is a world in which, say, Bernie Sanders would thrive. And that 
alone could give the cocktail class that gathered in Davos something to 
worry about.

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