Planet Manchester on autopilot

Guy Rundle, Crikey

There’s nothing worse than the article written in the airport departure lounge – found variously in The Economist, Monocle, the Financial Times, and the full text of Niall Ferguson’s last three books. The desperate opinionista in the postmodern flux, having spent the evening before in the hotel bar, listening to the minimum wage bartender diss Paul Allen (“that guy was a wanker — Bill Gates owned him, man”) and eventually, and inevitably, getting onto the subject of Hitler, who was, apparently, not that bad at the beginning — when the article shoulda been written.

Lazy, reflex opinionation … I thought, as I checked in for the Sydney-Melbourne this morning, prepared for the usual rigmarole. Automatic check-in, and then a bag drop that takes as long as the check-in would — but that still involves some sort of human interface. But as it turned out, that’s gone too — check-in and bag drop are automated, and you slide through the gates with only the security check.

To anyone who started flying more than 10 years ago, this feels very strange indeed. The process used to have such an air of solemn deliberation about it — handing over the ID, the attendant checking the computer, the slight wrinkled brow, the whish of procedural paranoia (“why isn’t she smiling? Have I been mistaken for Sheikh Khalid?”) and the eventual relaxing smile and passage through. Now it’s the same as getting on a tram (in fact, it’s more automated than buying an intercity train ticket, that process apparently having been listed by the National Trust).

But what’s even more striking is that the process in Australia is running ahead of airport automation elsewhere. Few airports in Europe have totally automated check-in in that manner, and in the US it’s years behind. Yet in other fields it’s the reverse.

In the UK, supermarket check-out has been wholly automated with breathtaking rapidity — indeed Tesco’s, the largest chain, has now virtually abolished a seated check-out aisle at all, preferring automated check-out with a few floating staff to assist bewildered oldies and anyone trying to buy booze.

In the US, online shopping for books, ebooks, etc, has left not merely Borders, but bookshops chains per se, teetering on the edge of disappearance. In Europe, they’re skipping the Starbucks stage of mass cafes entirely, and going to “Nespresso”-style outfits — essentially serve yourself cafes (using a sealed process, so no one gets burnt or whatever), with a single staff member on hand in case someone gets burnt or whatever.

Thus, the technological revolution in service delivery is happening — but so differentially and partially that we are not really noticing how epochal it all is. Yet a moment’s thought would realise that this is one of the greatest transformations of economic life in centuries — as far-reaching as the industrial revolution itself, and as significant as the globalisation of production, and the shift of industry from west/north to east/south from the 1970s onwards.

Presumably the industrial revolution was like this. If you were around Stoke-on-Trent or Dudley in the Midlands round the late 1700s, you would have noticed steam engines, iron bridges, freight trams, etc, being introduced here and there, against a background of horse and human power, wood and sweat.

But at some point such changes gather together, and figure and background swap places — industry becomes the context within which life is lived. That seems likely to be the process under way here. At some point in the next decade, the different process of service replacement will cross-fuse, and in the space of a year or two, everyone will suddenly noticed that large sections of the Western world have categorically shifted. The texture of the world will have changed — and more significantly, the structure of employment.

Under some circumstances that would be a good thing. These service occupations are boring and tedious jobs after all, just as the industrial jobs they replaced were frequently boring and exhausting. Were there a process by which the multitudes no longer required for this work could access training, education, more interesting work, etc, etc, then it would be a boon.

The pollyanna-neoclassical theory would be that a whole range of new products, businesses, services will emerge as automation creates greater productivity in existing services, retail, etc, etc — just as the previous dissolution of labour in one sector has made new economic sectors possible.

Yet the very fact of repetition does not guarantee that the process is indefinitely extendable. Three factors may give the pollyannas pause: the first is that the dissolution of service jobs is occurring barely a generation after they became the main repository for people (or their children) for whom industrial jobs were no longer available.

The second is that rising inequality creates an under-consumption crisis — a small group of people have more money than they can spend, a larger group have nothing to spend on stuff they need; and the third is that so much of an economic burden is placed on the act of private consumption that it reaches the cultural and existential limits of the human being.

These difficulties are exacerbated by the reduced power — politically, culturally, procedurally — of the state to redistribute money in order to overcome under-consumption/overproduction crises. States where it retains that power, such as the northern European social democracies, are in much better shape to shift working populations that are suddenly surplus to requirements into new sectors — aged and social care, education, science, etc.

The more that economies — the Anglo-American ones in particular — have allowed redistributive power to wither, the more this massive technological revolution becomes a dual problem: raising structural unemployment and reducing demand — essentially sidelining a whole social class from membership of the economy.

This, one suspects, is part of the reason why real recovery in these economies has proved so elusive. The brief, thin sunshine of the post-2008 stimulus had a paradoxical effect — consolidation and closing down of retail chains, greater automation of existing chains. Now in the UK, ahead of the next quarter of statistics, it seems clear that it has slipped into recession again — high street shop closures are up, demand is down. Businesses that had been holding on through the bad times hoping that the recovery would refloat them, have found that it couldn’t, and given up the unequal fight.

But of course this has all been said before. It’s easy to find foolish quotes of “what is there left to invent”, “the wheel will never catch on”, etc, etc. Experience tells that the one thing you can’t anticipate are new ways to carve up and commodify human experience, and sell it back to people.

Indeed one result of the rise of service automation may be a giant step backwards, as the West experiences an enormous downward pressure on wages. Unable to compete with the east/south, and with few other options, the disappearance of work combined with the new inequality may create a new servant class. The ultimate new luxury would be someone’s entire attendance — which we currently buy in portions at the cafe, dry cleaner, etc — wholly oriented to the needs of the rich.

Nevertheless, such a development would be far from stable, for that new “Guatemalanisation” of social life would occur in the context of our current predicament — under-consumption, overproduction, inequality, automation — becoming greater.

It would become obvious to people how much labour is no longer necessary, how much of it had become part of the luxury sector of society — and increasingly, what resources such new technologies offered for reorganising social life.

For it may be that should automation reach a critical point (presuming the world economy does not slump into depression and war that sets us back decades or centuries) then what it will make clear is what Marx spoke of in the Grundrisse — that such economies are no longer governed by labour, but by time, and permit vast reductions in the working day.

We have always known that — we, who think about such things, anyway — but the implicit assumption has always been that automation would come to industry first, visions of robot factories making bubble cars. Instead, the world as a whole is as capitalist as it has ever been — the planet resembles one vast Manchester. But in the most advanced (and crisis-ridden) areas of it, the beginnings of post-capitalist forms are beginning to show through.

Mind you, they did lose my luggage.