Like expensive clothing, the world of political ideas has its fashions and in the circles of the intelligentsia it is hard to be fashionable, hip or generally up to date without making occasional references to the "post-work world". The idea has become a driver for policy, too. in particular it lies behind the proposal from French presidential candidate Benoît Hamon that everyone should be paid a fixed basic wage whether they work or not. Now it is true that Mr Hamon is not as yet favourite for the Elysee, but the concept is a growing one and worth a little thought.
First, let's do the background. The hypothesis is that, before long, computer-driven robots will be able to do everything which the human race can do and, what is more, do it better. Thus it will be possible for all the work necessary to feed our citizens, run our services and keep the fabric of society in repair to be done by machines and none of us will have to raise a finger. Our role will be to enjoy ourselves and make use of the opportunities available. Inevitably there will be some competition for those opportunities because there are finite limits to things like space, raw materials, permitted pollution levels, etc. Choices would, therefore, have to be made and that means that we would have a continuing need for money and a way of allocating it. Perhaps one would combine a basic wage for everyone with a system for those engaging in particular activities to get get more. That would produce an outlet for natural ambition and,indeed, avarice.
It all gets much stickier when you introduce the human factor. Evolution has dictated that the human being is an animal which reacts to challenges and purpose and one only needs to look at those seeking jobs to see how depressing they find unemployment. How then would you satisfy this need at a time when all physical needs can be met without effort? There are a number of possible answers.
The first is based in economic orthodoxy. Satisfy existing demand and new demands will be made. The basis for this is that society's ambition is insatiable and so always expands to just beyond what is available, an application of Browning's aphorism that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp" to society as a whole. Give them proper loos and they will want electric light. Give them electricity and they will want television sets. Give them a television sets and they will want computers. I am not sure how the chain develops from there, but driverless cars and robotics slaves are clearly not very far away.
It is not hard to see how this theory has created capitalism with demand feeding back to the producers through market mechanisms and pushing endeavour into new channels. But always, until now, the result has been to make demands on the producers and provide increased employment. In a society where everything done by a human being can be done by machine, those demands may produce new goods but they will not absorb labour.
A second possibility, of course, would be to introduce new threats which had to be combated - perhaps a perpetual state of war as envisaged in Orwell's "1984". We would be talking robotic soldiers, of course, and it is not quite clear how the fighting would absorb human energy but no doubt some sort of "painting coal white" activity could be created. We could use up the surplus human energy by spying on our neighbours and insisting on absurd levels of "correct behaviour". Hmm, it might work but it is not particularly attractive. Ok, so what is left?
Well, what about work which, although it could be done perfectly efficiently by machines, is reserved to human beings. That could be achieved by regulation:
"You appear in this court charged with using a robot as a therapist. That is a role reserved for humans. What have you to say? That your problems are so boring that no human could possibly stand more than five minutes of them .... Well, I can see that that is a mitigating factor."
Or by fashion:
"Darling, our Greens have a real human leader, not like the Hampstead Greens who are led by a robot. Of course our subscription is higher. Yes, I know the robot is cleverer, but then it's so, well, robotic, isn't it, and, well, I don't want to be racist but I prefer real people."
However it is achieved, this is essentially a Luddite approach because it eschews the use of progress in favour of a less efficient but more socially acceptable outcome. I do not know whether this is the system which will come through eventually because, let's be honest, we haven't got to robotic loo cleaners yet. Still, there are already straws in the wind. To illustrate that let's try an experiment.
First, ring a government agency and try to get hold of someone who can deal with your problem; try getting hold of your Inspector of Taxes, for example. You will find that a very difficult thing to do, with many a transfer to an automated line along the way. That isn't because of any intrinsic reluctance to speak to you but because in the interests of efficiency they have reduced the number of human beings they employ and entrusted more to machines. Now try the same experiment with a commercial concern - your bank, for example. It will probably be easier to get through now because the bank is prepared to pay for more people in order to keep its customers satisfied. That recognises a pressure from the market to increase human participation in the administrative process. One would hope that as the machines take over more jobs, the surplus labour will be used in de-mechanising where there is a demand or need for personal service.
Ideally, for example, in an old peoples home one would expect to see machines helping the patients go to the lavatory but humans sitting round the tea table chatting to them. In such a society it would be regard as very downmarket to have computer-based art on the walls.
Goodness knows how this will work out, but clearly there are bound to be some mistakes and blind avenues along the way. What we need is a laboratory where different routes can be tested and we can all watch to see whether they work or not. If Mr Hamon wins the French elections he will be able to experiment with economic policies attuned to the post work age. For us, situated a little way away across the Channel, it will be interesting to watch. And what will France get in return for taking the risks and sticking its neck out where none has stuck before? Well, "La Gloire" of course. That is something which has always appealed to them.
First published in the Shaw Sheet.