Luddite at the End of the Tunnel?

23/09/2014 17:23 BST | Updated 23/11/2014 10:59 GMT

It is not right to force people into low wages and long hours in order to maintain a decent standard of living, and it is not right to pretend that 'economic growth' or 'higher productivity' will see improvements down the line. Automation is seen a one way out of the grind of monotonous work, but it is also seen as a threat to the very existence of certain types of jobs.

There is no question that machines are more accurate than humans, more reliable and more effective in certain types of work, particularly in the field of miniature technology where the human eye is not adapted to the task, or in heavy lifting where the human body is too weak for the gargantuan task of large scale manufacturing and bulk warehousing. Machines will ultimately become more intelligent than humans, and will perform tasks 24/7 with little maintenance. As competition for a diminishing amount of human jobs increases, wages are driven down, insecurity is driven up.

When the Luddites smashed the spinning frames and power looms of the 19th Century in protest at the replacement of men by machines, they certainly had a point, but they could not stem the tide of mechanisation. Yet there is another way of looking at the problem - indeed turning it into an opportunity.

Marx referred to the Luddites, and noted that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines themselves and "the form of society which utilises these instruments" and he was right.

It is not the machines which deliver poverty wages, job insecurity, the zero hours contract and an inadequate minimum wage. It is not the machines which have created a pervasive sense of insecurity and a pressing need to work more hours to get more money. The society in which we live has created the negatives. The opportunity now is to respond with a realistic and just way to value human beings as more than just hours of work.

Whilst machines are good at large scale number crunching for example, humans will always have the edge when it comes to interpretation, improvisation and interaction. There will always be work for people, the question is: how much work do we want to do, and how much would we like to be paid for it?

Key to answering this question is breaking the link between working more hours for more money, and the value of work itself.

The Luddites may have smashed the spinning frames and power looms of the 19th century in protest at the replacement of men by machines, but they could not stem the tide of mechanisation. Yet there is another way of looking at the problem - indeed turning it into an opportunity.

How many of us would like to work shorter hours, spend more time with the family, more time in self advancement? The answer is most of us.

Creating a society whereby it becomes a pleasure to stand aside and let the machine do your boring work is what will lead us to full employment. This is in no way to confuse the grind of 40 or so hours a week of work with something more fulfilling - such as three days a week of work, financial security and good quality leisure time.

Humans have been treated as machines up until now - dispensable, disposable even - and to add insult to injury only a small part of our individual and collective capability is usually employed.

But we are human. Our capacity for knowledge, invention, interaction and improvisation is almost limitless, but to achieve this potential we need a form of economic and physical security only something like a Citizen's Income can deliver.

If every man and woman received a steady and automatic income it would enable them to make choices. The choice to stay home and look after an elderly relative would save the country hundreds of thousands of pounds; the choice to bring up your child would minimise childcare subsidies; the choice to choose a job nearer home would lower transport impacts and pollution, or to wait for work more suited to your talents and thus increase your social worth, would all be possible.

A Citizen's Income would be financed by all these savings including the phasing out of all tax relief, benefits and allowances. Fraud would be impossible, because everyone would receive the same amount by virtue of being a citizen, bureaucracy would be greatly diminished.

Two hundred years on from the Luddites we have to think about labour and leisure in a more sustainable and hopeful way, and that means abandoning the old models of dependency on working hours for money, with benefits to make up any shortfall. A truly sustainable future means having the courage to transform society into one of greater equality, greater security and greater choice.

If you think these are just fine words, think again. This is Green Party policy and it has been effectively and properly costed. The welfare budget alone costs the country £275billion every year and is rising. The costs of bureaucracy, fraud and social welfare would be on top of that.

The time is upon us when we must think again about the value of work and the needs of the human. The Citizens Income marks out the way to a more hopeful, equitable and positive future.