Commentary. Automation has produced a conceptual separation which we have not yet properly examined: human labor is no longer synonymous with production, because this is increasingly being performed by machines.

Human labor changes, but leftist thought is stuck in the past

What I’m proposing is not a “thoughtless” Left, but one that is finally thoughtful, able to think about the difficulties that humanity is going through today, and, through reason and analysis, able to find the solutions—which must be diverse, just like the world itself.

I admire Roberta De Monticelli, which is why I was a bit displeased that her article treated my proposal of a digital welfare like something of a joke. I was not joking at all. Roberta embodies the noble wing of the Left, which holds fast to principles and rights. Necessary and indispensable, certainly, but unfortunately it’s easy to dismiss it nowadays when the first inflammatory tweet about migrants pops up.

At the other pole, there is a conspiracy-minded wing of the Left that talks about exploitation and alienation as a result of the sinister machinations of Big Capital—a cry of protest that the Right has managed to capitalize on quite well. In between, there is a third group, whose perspective we can see in many of the articles that were published on May 1, in which they denounced the disappearance of work—however, they are still talking about the 20th century model of work.

I’d say to the conspiracy theorists going on about Big Capital that such a thing simply does not exist, and that “capital” is all of us, as part of a social world that is more complex and interrelated than it was possible to envision in Marx’s time. And I’d have to say to the “aristocracy” of the intellectual defenders of human rights that the only way to protect rights is to deal with reality as it is. To the third group, concerned about work, I’d say that they are right, work is indeed the main issue, but it has not disappeared: it has, however, changed in a radical way, and this radical aspect is precisely what is missing from our understanding of the present.

Since we’re talking about the welfare of the future, it’s fitting that we start from the welfare of the past. The simple intuition of Keynes, which lay at the basis of the 20th century model of welfare and which has allowed the Left to socialize the added value of industrial capital, was that we should think of saving and investment as two sides of the same coin.

If we look at how capital works as a whole, we have no choice but to abandon the moralistic belief that someone who deposits money in a bank is rewarded because they are saving it. Not true: they are rewarded because they make money available to be invested, while supporting long-term consumption, which is the ultimate goal of any process of production of goods. And investment is the royal road to achieve what used to be the basic goal of welfare, in the era of still-nascent automation: namely, the achievement of full employment. Keynes wrote that in order for that to happen, the carefree individuals of tomorrow were absolutely necessary to provide the raison d’être for the serious and thoughtful people of today. In other words, the only reason you save today is to spend tomorrow, and saving without ever spending makes no sense.

What is required for digital welfare? What is certainly not useful is the demonization of Silicon Valley as a den of thieves. Even China has understood this well, although it is implementing this insight in its own way, i.e. with little respect for civil rights and individual freedoms.

The idea is very simple. The ever-more-prevalent automation, much more advanced compared to the times of industrial welfare, has produced a conceptual separation which we have not yet properly examined: human labor is no longer synonymous with production, because this is increasingly being performed by machines—and artificial intelligence, if we instruct it to carry out our commands, works better for production than any human agent, just like a mechanical arm is going to beat any NBA star at making 3-pointers.

However, no human being would be willing to watch robots playing a basketball game. And we can’t build a robot audience, as that makes no sense. This is where the contribution of human beings becomes essential, which, as I stressed in my April 19 article, is called to give meaning to a shared activity that by itself doesn’t make any sense—and it can do so because human beings are the ultimate goal of the whole process.

This is how we can grasp the intuition behind a digital welfare fund. When work no longer coincides with production, it is necessary to acknowledge, at the macroeconomic level, that consumption is the real work, just like the New Deal in the 1930s was based on the fact that investment was the real saving. Consumers are absolutely necessary to create the raison d’être for the machines: the latter are Keynes’s “serious individuals,” entirely “thoughtful” and boring. And the ultimate goal of welfare, full employment, can be secured in a much better way through consumption, which involves everyone, as opposed to through production, which is the purvey of an increasingly small minority.

This was not possible before, as consumption didn’t leave traces and didn’t generate knowledge. Today, however, the enormous power of storage and calculation that computer networks have, which makes possible, in principle, automation in its perfect form, is also what allows us to collect information about use and behavior, which is produced by us when we are moved to action.

The web giants don’t care about our secrets: they just want to know what we buy, what we watch, what we believe. What matters is that there is a humanity capable of consuming, which is the unmoved mover of the whole process. This enormous production of value is the true human capital, the foundation for digital welfare, and something that the digital giants should pay for.

In order to actually make them pay, however, we need serious thought: the very opposite of thoughtlessness. The crucial thought here is the recognition that consumption is work. In her article, Roberta argued that this world where everyone is a consumer reminded her of Huxley’s Brave New World—but I would point out that Auschwitz was, at its core, a factory, with conscientious workers and an impeccable work ethic, typical for the 20th century model of work: sadly, the end goal it was actually working for was extermination.

Fields and workshops are not inherently noble. They are so if and only if they produce human flourishing. Conversely, consumption is not the equivalent of a false and mindless form of happiness, but constitutes the real goal of a humanity that recognizes itself as having needs, desires, and, as a consequence, ends. That is what no automaton will ever be able to have.

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