Filed under: Analysis, Capitalism, Civilization, Critique, Technology, US
In Donald Trump’s first months in office we have seen unprecedented resistance from all directions. Anti-authoritarians have been joined by many unexpected allies in opposing the least popular U.S. President of all time, ranging from Democrats and progressives to even many moderates and conservatives who are repulsed by Trump’s lack of investment in the Republican Party. More importantly for the purposes of this article, Trump is making many people in the world of tech capital very unhappy.
In response to the travel ban in late January, huge numbers of people took over airports and streets to protest the policy. Notably, among those protesting were a significant number of tech workers. January 30th saw a walkout of thousands of Google employees, while many tech CEOs denounced the ban publicly. While the antagonism towards Trump is not unanimous—UBER’s willingness to break a taxi driver strike against the travel ban being one example—it seems that much of the tech capitalist elite are attempting to position themselves as the progressive leaders of the future, in contrast with Trump’s backwards incivility.
We hate Trump, of course, but we have never been satisfied with critiquing the evils of today if it means overlooking the insidious tomorrow.
If, before now, tech capital has largely ignored the traditional political arena it is because it has operated under the assumption that it could develop its own paradigms of governance parallel to the advance of neoliberalism, without any interference. Trump’s unexpected victory has thrown this plan into disarray. Trump represents a step backwards in terms of modern governance, reversing trends in policing as well as economics:
“The tech industry’s opposition underscores a chasm between a workforce highly concentrated on the coasts and workers in Middle America, where Trump won handily in the election, say academics. Silicon Valley, which is pioneering technologies and automation that will eliminate American jobs, has been blamed for being perilously out of touch with what matters to much of the country.” (USA Today, “Tech’s latest start-up: Anti-Trump activism” 2/7/17)
Not only do Trump’s xenophobic policies threaten to interfere with Silicon Valley’s ability to recruit top programming talent from across the world, his attempts to impose a return to America’s white supremacist heyday by brute force threaten to upset the unstable veneer of multicultural tolerance that more progressive elites are especially invested in preserving, as they know that a prerequisite for the smooth functioning of the economy is a well-maintained illusion of social peace.
So, if Trump threatens the advancement of Silicon Valley’s projects, it follows that the political arena can no longer be ignored as it once was by this new class of elites. We might even go so far as to wager that 2020 or 2024 will see political campaigns from tech CEOs; how terrifying would a Mark Zuckerberg vs. Elon Musk race be? Yet if trends continue as they are, this reality would be enthusiastically welcomed by many who wish to be rid of Trump in order to get their country back on track. This is not a track we’d like to get back on.
Automation in particular is a complicated subject. First of all, who wouldn’t prefer to have a robot do their job, freeing up time for us to pursue what truly makes us happy? We have no interest in seizing the means of production, in becoming our own exploiters in the self-managed factories of a socialist utopia or anything of the sort. We’d prefer to do away with work entirely. So why then do we feel a creeping unease when we hear of the futurist schemes of Silicon Valley? Because the neoliberal abolition of work only replaces work with a more refined form of social control.
If the population must dedicate the majority of their waking hours to a job (or three) simply in order to survive, they have little flexibility to do anything that might subvert the established order. Even less so if subversive activities are criminalized and an arrest could cost someone their job or apartment. This has been one of the basic strengths of capitalism ever since peasants in Europe were first driven off of the commons that sustained them and were forced to sell their labor for a wage, yet capitalism has been attacked by insurrection after insurrection for much longer than any of us have been alive. From this perspective eliminating work from the equation does not make immediate sense for the stability of capitalism as a whole, even if it makes short-term sense for each individual firm to boost its profit margin as much as possible by replacing workers with robots. If people have more free time, would they not also have more opportunities to spread revolt, to build lives outside of capitalism’s control? Certainly they would have more incentive to revolt, excluded as they are from the usual means of providing for themselves.
That is where Universal Basic Income comes in. Universal Basic Income, or UBI, is essentially the idea that everyone should be paid a certain amount to cover the basic costs of survival. It has long been a progressive dream—supported even by Martin Luther King Jr.—but has more recently been taken up by many tech capitalists. This is not because they have any sense of moral kindness towards the human race (indeed whether or not they do is irrelevant) but because it eliminates the human component from the functioning of the economy.
“The underlying economic rationale is that as industries from transportation to food production become more automated, there will be less demand for labor overall, while automated systems create a consistent surplus of value. In the absence of redistribution systems, that dynamic would rapidly accelerate income inequality, which can threaten both social and economic stability.” (Fortune, “Elon Musk Thinks Automation Will Lead to a Universal Basic Income” 11/6/16)
Starting earlier this year, the founder of eBay and co-founder of Facebook have both invested large amounts of money in a study of UBI that will provide basic income to several villages in Kenya over the course of twelve years, with the behaviors of participants closely monitored by economists. After this colonial—excuse us, philanthropic—experiment proves successful, it is only a matter of time before UBI is deemed safe for the so-called Western world. Minnesota already has an active chapter of the Basic Income Earth Network.
While the idea of getting paid to do nothing obviously doesn’t sound half bad, it is important to keep in mind that such programs will only be implemented in order to prevent those for whom the modern economy has no place from rebelling and toppling the whole pyramid. Universal Basic Income advocate Andy Stern admits as much, arguing for UBI on the grounds that it is the only way for the elites to avoid “the guillotine.”
Furthermore a basic income program would work hand in hand with the state’s counterinsurgency efforts against native people fighting to reclaim their traditional lifeways, radical environmentalists fighting the destruction of the earth, and all others whose idea of a fulfilling existence is in no way compatible with the continued existence of capitalism. Universal Basic Income would serve to drive a wedge between those who want a more comfortable version of the world we have now and those who want something else entirely, draining the swamp of potential sympathizers so that when the state moves in with brutal force it will not face widespread opposition. We can already see the face on the smug partisan of progressive liberal democracy: “What, we give you $600 a month, enough for food, rent, maybe even a trip to the movies every now and again and you still aren’t happy? You people are never satisfied.”
It is particularly telling that one precedent cited for UBI is the Alaska Permanent Fund, a program in which all residents of so-called Alaska receive dividends from the state’s oil revenues, thus discouraging them from interfering with the industry’s murderous goals. In offering dividends from the destruction of the earth to the residents of not just one state but the whole country or even the world, UBI will serve to further weld our chances for short-term individual survival to the survival of late capitalism, at a time when our chances for long-term survival demand precisely the opposite.
It is easy to see that that in a world where people are not forced to work to survive, there would be fewer reasons to revolt. But despite the alluring sheen of a job-free existence, this crumbling techno-utopia is not life. It is not the anarchy we dream of. This hyper-designed future will not lack for beautiful insurrections, and life will manage to burst forth in the face of the repressive apparatuses arrayed against it. If we spit in the face of the most progressive programs, it is because we recognize them as nothing more than the avant-garde of domination, and refuse to barter our autonomy for comfort.