My near philosophical musings about the world in general its problems and possible ways out.


A case for Meta-Politics

When you want to engage in politics you first need to make decisions, where to position yourself. Are you more inclined to the libertarian side or the authoritarian? Do your principles and preferences better fit to the left or to the right, or even far left or far right? Do you consider any change as inevitable anyway or are you more of a conservative or even a retro-enthusiast? Do you envision religious belief as a driving political force? Or would you better like to keep religion and politics apart? If change, do you envision modest evolutionary adjustments to a societal system, otherwise working fine? Or would you rather advocate radical change even if it requires taking recourse to a violent overthrow of the existing order - in short a revolution?

You have to decide. You have to position yourself.

But will this really be sufficient?

What if you are not just seeking to defend and maximise your personal comfort, your peer group's advantage or just some convenient status quo?

What if you are inclined to pursue your goal in a larger picture, if your time horizon is more secular than quarterly of spanning a legislative period, if you have survival of mankind in mind for example?

Well, yes, I know in times were money talks and great 'unrealistic' visions give way to real-politics and to doing sound business, even voicing such ideas has become unfashionable. Those who don't comply with the imperative of short-term economic 'reason' will soon be branded daydreamers, fantasists or even evil communists. They'll be considered useless for serious business and will be kept out of it. Friends will turn their backs on them, leaving them as bitter lone wolfs. So this is obviously not a viable way and is in no way recommended.

And yet for those who interrupt their rush for a moment, take a deep breath and look around, there are compelling reasons to take exactly this broader perspective.

And if this view still appears a bit fuzzy and unfounded to you, let me entice you phantasy by giving you some insight into the concerns of those whom in the above drafted logic you should admire most, the likes of Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel or Marc Zuckerberg of this world.

The report given by Douglas Rushkoff in "Survival of the Richest", making the point that "the wealthy are plotting to leave us behind" as they are firmly convinced that either of the expectable catastrophes is inevitably looming, is not even the first evidence, that we will eventually hit the wall, if continuing the way as we pursue it now.

Earlier this year already The Guardian's Mark O'Connell wrote "Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand", hinting at an extreme libertarian tract, which inspired the likes of Peter Thiel to buy up property across the Pacific. This disturbing prophecy, written by Jacob Rees-Mogg's father, is predicting the collapse of liberal democracies.

Obviously, then, there is something going on that worries even those, who are otherwise in charge of leading medium to large economic empires and thus decisively controlling the development whose results they seem to fear.

And they are not alone. Besides those prominent danger signals from the corporate top, there are occasionally some experts voicing unease with the imperative of exponential economic growth while at the same time facing the prospect shrinking resources. I have compiled some thoughts on this topic earlier this year.

Without the need of invoking doomsday scenarios it can easily be demonstrated that political positions, as firm as they may appear at a given point in time and as ultimate the stance with which they may be defended, turn out to be rather fluid when viewed over a longer term.

The influence of the respective zeitgeist on the prevailing political views can be nicely illustrated by the example of a particularly broad political trend, Liberalism.

Initially it was about the struggle for civil liberties and against the traditional authorities, who derived their legitimacy from some of God-given, mythical primeval states. But later the orientation took on different characteristics.

Inseparably linked to the ideas of the Enlightenment, the Liberals initially took it for granted that the moral foundations of human coexistence should also be rationally derived from the requirements to a functioning community. They thus stood in stark contrast to the conservative traditionalists. As for those this morality could only be religiously motivated and brought directly from their respective God to us earthworms.

This contrast was later blurred. Whether only religious conservatives became receptive to liberal ideas or liberals without spirituality felt an inner emptiness, in the end Christian conservatives, such as the long-standing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, were declared liberals (see "Liberalism: The Life of an Idea", by Edmund Fawcett).

Many flavours of this movements later popped up like national liberal, leftist liberals, neo-liberals and several more. Driven by the perceived necessities of a particular period they skewed more to the right or to the left, adopted alien ideas, narrowed the focus of their reflections to the salvatory promise of uninhibited market forces or widened it beyond recognition.

In particular, the attitude of liberals to the eternal dispute over whether more community or more individual freedom was appropriate was subject to constant adaptation to the needs of the times. As the above mentioned Douglas Rushkoff concludes his contemplations with the wise words: "Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It's a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together."¹

The politics to pursue in this sense will always result from an attempt of optimising conflicting interests, counteracting forces and strained resources in ever changing force fields. So how can they ever be as static as the current political practices may appear to the naive observer?

Maybe our political goals are just too fine-grained and / or too short-termed. So, do we need goals at all? Or will some well-crafted algorithms suffice?

Although I envy personalities like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is quoted with "With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now", in politics it is all about goals. Even the conservative approach of preserving a current situation can be perceived as a goal. So the "The best goal is no goal"-Approach will not be applicable here.

But maybe for the start one goal should suffice as the saying goes "More than one goal is no goal". So let's choose the most eminent one: Survival of Mankind.

This certainly is an inherently genuine goal for all of us and it can be safely assumed that survival on individual level as well as on community level is one of the deeply inscribed purposes of (not only) human life - if not the main one.

One may object that it is so obvious and intuitively accepted by everyone, except maybe some ill-advised suicide bombers, that it is not a well suited goal for a political discourse and pursuit.

That's the point where opinion sets in: I don't believe that. Mankind rather looks like being on the brink of collective suicide as contemplated about elsewhere before. We thus better set this goal explicitly.

Since secondary objectives should be allowed as long as they are subordinate, I would add: while respecting the civil liberties for which our ancestors fought so fiercely.

On the basis of this starting point, we should then perhaps actually formulate carefully selected principles - in other words algorithms - which can lead to further secondary objectives. More on this in my above mentioned contribution: "Let algorithms rule - not politicians!".

In detail and at the lowest level, these secondary objectives will certainly feed into day-to-day political business, where they will be able to provide tangible answers to current pressing questions.

However, these answers can then vary depending on the environmental conditions. Not really a new idea - I agree. What is new about this idea however, is rather the transparency, traceability and derivability from unchanged basic principles - without these being influenced by human predilections and propensities:

Meta-politics, in other words.

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¹Author of the upcoming book Team Human (W.W. Norton, January 2019) and host of the podcast.

The coming bright dark ages

But you Tiresias, blind old man, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest

McKinsey, well established Consultancy for those for those who don't shy away from high prices for at times good value, did it again:  Capturing the Zeitgeist in one of their recent surveys about automation. 

1    Lights out on the factory floor

Hello darkness, my old friend - the lights will get out - for good?

Business as usual, better known by those routine-blinded by its acronym BAU, often is characterized by its very purpose to "keep the lights on" - the daily operational business. When the lights go out usually the time of the end has come.

"Are your factories and warehouses operating in the dark? They might be soon." The top-consultants ask their audience rhetorically. You already suspect it: This is about automation, or the upcoming digital transformation, to use the more fashionable term. And of course, in this context, the key and buzz word "disruption" must not be missing, as if it were associated with a positive connotation.

But let's put aside the trenchant irony. Let us close our eyes and imagine how developments may continue and what there will be in for us in the near future.

Will ordinary factory workers soon at their assembly lines be replaced by soulless robots?

2    The robot revolution

An insurgency of subdued robots? No, it's not that kind of fiction - not yet at least. Nevertheless it may be considered as a revolution, taking the first of Webster's definitions, as a sudden, radical, or complete change.

So why, what will likely happen and what exactly is a robot?

Robot - the nearly 100 year old term by the way was coined in K. Capek's play R.U.R 'Rossum's Universal Robots' (1920) and is derived from Czech, robota 'forced labour'.

During the following epoch of belief in progress, the idea of autonomously acting intelligent machines inspired people's imagination. In fiction robots have been capable of independent thought, emotions, even a little cooking and sewing. In practice however the results were initially sobering as scientists found that endowing a mechanical being with even the most basic human functions was and still is a monstrous task.

Although theoretically not impossible, such robotic properties are not required for the more mundane tasks left behind by the segmentation and fragmentation of the work initiated by the 100-year-old scientific management. That movement in the wake of the works of Frederik Winslow Taylor has prepared the factory floor processes well to be performed by still rather dump machines.

In fact, as Gary Hamel states in his landmark book "The Future of Management" that during the century of industrialization we created a work environment in which expected humans to act like machines.

To the extent that machines will be able to take on these simple one-step tasks that we had previously expected people to do, these people could turn to more humane tasks again.

Apparently there is an urgent necessity for that as corporations are desperately striving for innovation requiring the ingredients initiative, creativity and passion, which (still) only humans are capable of.

Therefore, if robots can now solve tricky tasks that even intelligent people often despair of, for example assembling IKEA furniture, then humans will be no longer necessary on the assembly line. At the same time some more human traits are required from us, which some of us might have to re-learn again.

That's true in principle. However the idea, to find its incarnation, needs to undergo some evolutionary steps: The technology must have matured enough to withstand the harsh conditions of a factory floor - as humans can. Then there needs to be a market with some competition, and the robot prices must be such of nature to be able to outcompete us humans on those less inspiring operational tasks.

Well, this is exactly, what the McKinsey survey suggests.

So does this development spell the end of off-shoring? And isn't - for different reasons - globalization on the brink of collapse anyway? Will outplaced manufacturing jobs finally return to their origins?

3    The return of blue-collar jobs - a futile hope

The whole picture, you may have suspected it already, is quite a bit more complex. The job exodus was driven by several factors. One very prominent is the China effect. Bloomberg writes: "Thanks to China's extremely low costs for labour, capital, land and energy, its undervalued exchange rate, and the lure of China's vast domestic market, production shifted to the country en masse in the 2000s; everyone else just couldn't compete."

This China effect kept wages low and considerably put otherwise appropriate automation attempts on hold across entire industry sectors. Estimations go that some 5 million US jobs in manufacturing and related activities this way voluntarily migrated across the Pacific towards China since year 2000.

Now, many of China's cost advantages have disappeared. Also access to those billion Chinese consumers, as Joe Studwells excellent research suggests, looks like a fading dream. Other effects being deferred and superseded for the past 30 to 40 years by the massive impact of a major player re-entering the world stage come into view again.

In his 2015 book Rise of the Robots², Martin Ford cites "Seven Deadly Trends" that began in the 1970s-1980s and by the mid 2010s appeared set to continue:

  1. Stagnation in real wages
  2. Decline in labour's share of national income in many countries (breakdown of Bowley's law), while corporate profits increased
  3. Declining labour force participation
  4. Diminishing job creation, lengthening jobless recoveries, and soaring long-term unemployment
  5. Rising inequality
  6. Declining incomes, and underemployment for recent college graduates
  7. Polarization and part-time jobs (middle-class jobs are disappearing, to be replaced by a small number of high-paying jobs and large number of low-paying jobs)
He sees automation and information technology as the major drivers. He in particular expects new technologies including narrow AI threaten to destroy jobs faster than displaced workers can be retrained for new jobs, before automation takes the new jobs as well. This includes many jobs categories, such as in transportation, which were never threatened by automation before. According to a 2013 study, about 47% of US jobs are susceptible to automation.

There are contradicting analyses around, trying to explain the obvious and making attempts to predict, what is still hidden deep in the fog of uncertainty. But we can safely assume that the wages will stay low, robot prices will continue falling lower, automation will enjoy a major boost.

4 Meanwhile, the rust belt quietly continues to rust.

Will manufacturing jobs suffer the same fate like agricultural jobs?

Yes, but even more than we have seen so far, as agricultural jobs had been just reduced to that core where sensors, autonomy and some reasoning were still essential. Now however we will have the potential to eradicate the remaining jobs there as well - and so we will do in manufacturing.

With no compelling reason to outsource manufacturing to off-shore locations any longer, manufacturing may return nearer to the markets. The manufacturing jobs however will remain vaporized. While the value creation may return to some extent, it is however not quite clear for whom. Maybe it will be the lucky few, who will benefit in a "the winner takes it all" fashion, not being dependent on blue collar workers like in the past.

Then there will be no more exploited and oppressed working class to stand up and fight for its legitimate interests. Then there may only be left the insiders and the excluded. However, the latter then have the disadvantage that they no longer represent a market with purchasing power. That would be a pretty stupid story then, wouldn't it?

Maybe we may join Franz Kafka, who is (a bit abbreviated) quoted with "There is hope, but not for us".

"Hello darkness, my old friend - I've come to talk with you again". Again? Yes, it's not the first time in history that things for some parts of the society look bleak. Not keeping the lights on on the factory floor needs not to spell disaster for those currently working there. However the solution may not just be left to technology, to market forces or short-sighted economical reason.

Sorry for taking the McKinsey article one step further out of their traditional domain. But solutions may again come from a changed societal paradigm, a new consciousness, which expresses itself - well - in a radically changed perception of the necessary political steps to be undertaken.

Anyway we may conclude already now: The future is not for the faint-hearted.


¹modified quote taken from "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot

²Ford, Martin (May 5, 2015). Rise of the Robots. Basic Books. pp. 29-30. ISBN 0465059996.