Robotization and Ideology

What would happen if full blown economic robotization occurs? This question is usually approached in a purely technical way. Commentators opine on who all would be disemployed by it, how the dynamics of capital and labor income would change, and what would need to be done to avoid certain catastrophic consequences. But the prospect of robotization poses equally interesting ideological challenges. Put simply: it's hard to imagine that the prevailing frameworks and concepts that currently animate economic normativity, which are already quite flimsy, would survive robotization. An entirely new economic ideology would have to be invented to provide legitimacy to the robot world and whatever systems of power and distribution the robot world creates.

Capitalism's Weakness

The chief weakness of capitalism, both practically and ideologically, is that, in its purest form, it distributes income 1) to all of the factors (i.e. capital, land, and labor) and 2) to nobody else.

By distributing to all of the factors, capitalism provides huge amounts of income to landlords and capitalists who do not produce anything, but merely own land and capital. The first problem with distributing income to such people is that it's very difficult to justify doing so within dominant ideological frameworks that emphasize work, effort, and earned success. Landlords do not work for their rent and capitalists do not work for their dividends and gains. The second problem is that ownership is a purely legal/social construct and so expropriation is a non-trivial threat, especially in light of the first problem and the angers it might arouse in those who do work.

By distributing income to nothing but the factors, capitalism denies income to enormous portions of the population. Anyone who is not a worker, a landlord, or a capitalist gets nothing. Also those who only work some or who only own a little (e.g. a small sum in a retirement account) receive very little. The problem with this is that it leads to severe deprivation of a non-trivial number of people in society. Disabled people, elderly people, unemployed people, and children often do not own any factors of production and are not personally a factor of production (i.e. they do not labor much if any). Capitalism, by itself, would starve these people, and any other non-factors, to death.

Overcoming the Weakness

Marx predicted that these problems (especially the first one) would lead to capitalism's unraveling. Since there are more workers than capitalists and landlords, and those workers were increasingly concentrated into the same urban areas, it was only a matter of time before they rose up and snagged ownership of land and capital for themselves. From there, they could administer an economic system where workers planned production that also took care of everyone, including those not able to work.

There is a compelling argument out there that Marx was half-right, at least in Western Europe. Marx-inspired socialist and social democratic parties did sweep into power and did proceed in many cases to socialize large portions of industry and create welfare states to take care of everyone. But this shift ultimately did not break the back of the ideologies that prop up the capitalist institutions, especially those ideologies that emphasize earned income through toil and the like.

Ideologists in support of capitalism have dealt with the problem of capital income being unearned mostly by ignoring it altogether. The capitalist has been redefined as the entrepreneur, who does actually work for their income, not the passive owner of equity and bonds who doesn't. You can see people like AEI's President Arthur Brooks bounce around the country and op-ed pages talking about the deep importance of "earned success" which he defines as "defining your future as you see fit and achieving that success on the basis of merit and hard work." This formulation is weaponized to beat up on welfare income but is conspicuously never applied to capital income, which is equally not the result of "merit and hard work." Not only does he never apply it to capital income, but more importantly for our purposes here nobody ever asks him to do so. Capital income is a dark spot in mainstream day-to-day discourses on the economic system. It's almost as if it doesn't exist, despite being roughly 30% of the national income.

Capitalism's failure to distribute income to non-factors has been practically dealt with through the construction of welfare states. But the ideological threat of welfare states has largely been neutralized, in the US at least, by deceptively recasting the largest and most popular benefits as being earned. Society treats old-age benefits, disability benefits, and unemployment benefits as if they are basically deferred compensation that you "pay into" and then "get out of." This is pure fiction (as any fiscal technocrat will tell you), but it nevertheless incorporates the benefits into a capitalism-friendly ideological regime. More marginal welfare benefits paid out based on means are only defended (if at all) as necessary pity-charity that ideally wouldn't exist. Indeed even liberals often bemoan the usage of things like Food Stamps and Medicaid when arguing for things like higher wage floors and birth control. So their threat to the overarching ideology is neutralized by tarring them as bad.

Robotization Changes Everything

In sum, our current system is now host to three kinds of income: labor income, capital income, and welfare income. Of the three, only labor fits into the dominant ideological framing that is used to legitimize the capitalist system. Capital income is in tension with the dominant ideology because it is money that is not the result of merit, hard work, or indeed any kind of personal poductivity. But that tension is smoothed mostly by backgrounding its existence. Welfare income is in tension with the dominant ideology for the same reason as capital income. But that tension is smoothed by recasting many welfare benefits as quasi-labor income ("earned benefits") and describing the other benefits as fundamentally bad and non-ideal but unfortunately necessary for the moment.

Robotization would dramatically shrink the only kind of income (labor income) that fits squarely within the prevailing economic ideology. In so doing, it would also increase the need for welfare incomes that are going to be hard to describe as earned and also hard to denigrate as essentially bad. At the same time as it is dramatically shrinking the workforce and increasing the welfare rolls, it would also dramatically increase the share of income going to capital, which would unavoidably put capital income at the new center of the economic discourse. In these circumstances, the trivial fact that robot owners do not do anything for their riches would be very difficult to ignore and even more difficult to justify or explain away.

For these reasons, I have to think that full blown robotization would require a total ideological revolution in how we think about and legitimize the economic system. It's hard to know what that revolution will be because imaginations are so constrained by the current horizons. Will ideology reform to somehow validate the robot owners as important stewards deserving of their riches, like modern-day lords? 

Will ideology reform to demand socialization and egalitarian distributions of the wealth nobody alive really has much hand in producing? Or will it be something else completely alien and incomprehensible within our current ways of conceptualizing the economy? Your guess is as good as mine, but something must give.

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