Five Provocations

Most politics, at national and international levels, operates on the assumption that the world will continue to be broadly as it is, and that the survival of a relatively prosperous, healthy and happy human population can be achieved by modest political interventions (even if these do not always succeed).

There are a number of reasons why this assumption about the future might not be true. Below are five “provocations”. Each is a debatable statement about a long term change, which might fundamentally disrupt our notions of human societies and how they are managed.  They have been developed in the light of conversations with the Norfolk Fabian Society, and some RSA Fellows in Norwich. However, the views are entirely my own. I am not claiming that any of them is necessarily true, and I am well aware that they are all oversimplifications of very complex issues. What I find most interesting, and perhaps under explored, is how they might interact.

Key points:

  • Each has been proposed in some form by serious people, and reflects a large body of theoretical and academic debate, in some case over many years. Each is in a sense a “caricature” for the purposes of debate.
  • They are happening simultaneously and they interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways.
  • Responding to each of them will require disruptions which will be politically unwelcome, since they threaten the current distribution of resources
  • Responses require solutions which extend beyond the boundaries of nation states, and the timescales of conventional political careers

 

Five Provocations

My question is – are they true, and if so what should “we” do about them.

1.      Work and meaning: what replaces paid work?

Paid employment will cease to be a major part of most people’s lives. Human beings seek meaning and structure. Since the industrial revolution, paid employment has provided this for most people. But within a few decades AI/digitisation/robotics will destroy most of the kinds of work which provide paid employment now, including both manual tasks and those professional roles which depend on large bodies of knowledge and experience. This means that another mechanism will be needed to provide meaning and structure to people’s lives, and a new economic model will be required to share resources fairly. A universal basic income might be that model, but it is difficult to see how we get to it from where we are now.

2.      Artificial intelligence: is it too late to control?

Within the next 50 years AI will outstrip human intelligence. It may already be beyond our control. “Computers” “talk” to each other, they know about us, and “understand” what we say, they access vast and growing bodies of data about the world, they learn from us/each other/experience, they make things, they move, and they program other computers. It is no longer implausible that AI systems will replace or dominate the human species. Some believe that this will happen within the lifetime of people now alive.

3.      The end of capitalism: what will be a new economic model?

Capitalism is dying, but we are not yet aware of it. The deregulation of capitalism led to the crash of 2008. It is doubtful whether political control can be re-established in a way which enables capitalism to survive in its present form. One issue is the way in which technological change in the last 50 years has led to a concentration of wealth which is politically unsustainable in the long term, whatever political system obtains. Globalisation enables the poor to see how the rich live, and they are increasingly unwilling to tolerate it. The non-white, South will demand a fairer share of resources, and will take it, by migration, economic/political pressure, or war. The traditional role of much politics on the left – to defend the interests of workers and disadvantaged groups more generally in the home country, is in clear conflict with the international perspective.

4.      Replacing/reshaping democracy?

The forms of democracy which we have now will not survive. Democracy as we know it developed alongside capitalism, and is failing with it, accelerated by technology. Many of the challenges we face cannot be addressed at the level of the nation state, but international democracy has proved difficult even at the relatively modest level of Europe (the EU is the largest such experiment ever tried)

5.      Growth: can we live within our resources?

The earth does not, and will not, have the resources to enable all its population to have the material living standards which many aspire to (even at the level of the developed Western economies now). Furthermore, climate change is eroding the resources available, as population continues to grow (albeit at a declining rate). Current economic and social models are not sustainable.

All these statements can be challenged in detail. However, the important question is whether they are, in principle plausible, and if so what should we be doing, bearing in mind that many of the kinds of change implied will be deeply unpopular, and many current political trends (both conservative and radical) are intensifying the problems.  One critical issue is how they interact with each other.

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