Automation Isn’t the Cause of Unemployment — Capitalism Just Can’t Generate Enough Jobs

Aaron Benanav

Social theorists identify automation as both the main cause of unemployment and the future launchpad for a high-tech post-scarcity world. But, Aaron Benanav argues, the problem is the stagnation of global capitalism and its inability to generate enough jobs.

Workers debug the equipment in a production line in Hai'an City, Jiangsu Province, China. (Costfoto / Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

Science fiction has traditionally depicted a robot takeover as a conscious bid for global domination by our mechanical offspring. From The Terminator to The Matrix, we’ve been invited to picture a war to the death between man and machine.

More recently, however, figures like Elon Musk have spoken about the rise of the robots as a more insidious threat to humanity. The machines may bear us no ill will, but they’ll cast us on the scrap heap of technological unemployment anyway.

Aaron Benanav is the author of Automation and the Future of Work, a book that takes aim at the conventional wisdom about the impact of technology. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

Your book is intended as a response to what you call the automation discourse. What would you say are the main arguments of that intellectual tendency?

Aaron Benanav

When I talk about the automation discourse, I’m talking about a perspective that you find, not just in academia or in Silicon Valley, but across the political spectrum and in the media space. I would say it is defined by the basic intuition that today, science fiction is becoming a reality. Science-fictional technologies are quickly becoming part of our everyday life.

The automation theorists point to developments like machine learning, neural networks, and advanced robotics. They say that these technologies are quickly transforming everything about the economy, to bring about what they sometimes refer to as a post-scarcity world. This would be a world where there’s so much abundance of everything we want and need that the characteristics of the economy are fundamentally transformed.

In the book, I described the automation discourse as having four core propositions. The first one is simply to say, “Look around you — workers are already being replaced by ever more advanced machines.” The second proposition is that what we’re seeing today around us is just the first sign of a real technological revolution that’s going to eventually result in the end of work. The time frame and the scale on which this is happening is not always clear in the argument, but it appears to be something that’s going to happen in the next few years or over the coming decades.

The third proposition is that this world without work should be a beautiful utopia — it should be the achievement of all our hopes and dreams for the economy. However, because people need to work in order to survive, it could well turn out to be a nightmare — the return of an aristocratic, robber-baron society of tech elites, with everyone else becoming digital peasants, fighting for scraps to survive.

The fourth proposition, which makes the automation discourse into a political project, is the argument that in order to reach the good technological future and avoid the bad one, we need to implement a universal basic income (UBI). UBI would give people more and more money without asking anything from them in return as far as work goes. It would push us toward the positive tech future and away from the dystopian one.

Daniel Finn

Moving away from the discourse around automation, what has really been happening in the world economy and in patterns of employment over the past few decades? And what developments do you think we are likely to see over the coming years?

Aaron Benanav

It’s very important to emphasize that we do live in an era of broad-based and even radical technical change, which has occurred under the rubric of the information and communication technology revolution. The most important aspects of that relate to the internet — everything to do with computers being in our pockets or in the goods that we’re purchasing, as well as organizing and making possible vast, complex, international supply chains.

Those breakthroughs are incredible: you can pull a device out of your pocket that your parents could never have dreamed of owning. But they haven’t resulted in a radical rise in productivity growth. Productivity growth is the standard economic measure of how technological change is affecting the work we do. To what extent are our technologies making it possible for us to produce more goods and services with fewer hours of work?

In reality, the era we live in has seen a radical slowdown in rates of productivity growth. Since productivity growth is a big part of how economic growth happens, we have also been living in an era of secular economic stagnation with a radical, persistent slowdown in economic growth rates. You have an apparent paradox of technological acceleration combined with measurable economic and even productivity decline.

To resolve this paradox, we need to think more deeply about changes in the kind of work that people have been doing since the 1970s. In the past fifty years or so, we have seen the process of deindustrialization. People tend to think about that in terms of factory closures and the loss of industrial jobs. In the social-scientific literature, deindustrialization is usually defined as a decline in the share of the workforce that is employed in manufacturing.

In that sense, it’s a relative concept, because you can have deindustrialization in countries where there is rapid growth of the total workforce and even some growth of the industrial workforce as a result. For example, if we say that China is deindustrializing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the total number of industrial jobs is declining. It means that industrial employment isn’t keeping up with the overall growth of the workforce.

In any case, in countries like the United States, Germany, the UK, Japan, and South Korea, we have seen a significant decline in the number of workers in industry. That has huge consequences. Anyone interested in the Left and the history of socialism knows that the industrial working class was supposed to be the vanguard of the class bringing about a new future. We’ve now lived through half a century, in many cases, of the decline of that part of the workforce.

That means we really need to analyze where workers are going. There has been a big shift in the past few years. In the entire global economy, the world labor force of well over three billion adults has reached a turning point where more than half are now employed in services.

The service economy is so heterogeneous: it includes everyone from stock traders on Wall Street to a guy cutting hair in a back alleyway in Shenzhen. It is a huge, variegated sphere of activity, with an amazing diversity of jobs as well as income and education levels. One defining feature of this global service workforce is that their situation is constrained by what economists called Baumol’s cost disease, after the famous economist William Baumol.

Baumol identified a general trend whereby services see much lower rates of productivity growth. It’s not a feature of all services at all times. But in general, it’s very hard to continuously raise the efficiency with which service workers do their jobs in comparison to industry.

Industrial development has been constrained in a world market that is increasingly oversupplied with industrial goods, in which the rate of growth of the demand for industrial products is limited. With overcapacity and intense international competition, there’s not as much expansion in the industrial field. More and more work and more and more activities are taking place in the low-growth, low-dynamism service sector. That is the main thing causing the stagnation tendency to get worse and worse around the world.

It swamps all of the gains from these new technologies. However much fanfare there has been around machine learning, neural networks, and robotics, which suggests that they are going to change everything about the economy, we don’t see them having that effect across the broad service sector. That might be because information and communication-heavy work only makes up a small fraction of the entire service sector. The effects of productivity growth in that smaller sector aren’t diffusing as the boosters suggested they would across the wider economy.

Daniel Finn

A number of left-wing theorists have put forward an action program based on the challenge of automation as they understand it to be. They rely in particular on the idea of a universal basic income, as you’ve alluded to before. What are your disagreements with that school of thought?

Aaron Benanav

I think that the debate over basic income has been very important on the Left. It’s good for people to come up with new, big ideas about how to get to a world without poverty. The basic income idea is appealing because it represents such a new and interesting way to think about the question of how we get to a world where people are not going experience economic insecurity and poverty anymore.

One of the main criticisms of basic income is that it’s very much a market-based, individual solution. The problems of insecurity that people experience are only partially to do with their inability to get money as individuals. They’re often connected instead to larger infrastructural questions such as access to public transportation or clean water and sanitation. There’s a whole range of problems that people face where the solutions they need are big and collective in nature. Those problems are difficult to solve just by giving people money and telling them to figure it out themselves.

But that’s not exactly where the debate goes when it comes to automation, technological boosterism, and the role that UBI plays in that story, with the idea that basic income can be a highway toward a radically different, socialist future. That idea depends on the automation discourse being true.

That discourse is telling us that we live in an era of incredible productivity growth due to technology. According to automation theorists, the problem we face is that we can produce more goods and services than ever before, but people don’t have jobs so they can’t earn money to buy all those goods and services.

From that perspective, the problem that we face as a society is really a distributional one. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have lots of money because they’ve invented a lot of cool products and technologies, and there’s no way as of yet to get that money into the hands of the masses of people who would buy the things that are being produced. In that regard, the left-wing current of the automation theorists come in and say: “We can get to socialism and do all of the things that the Left wants by rolling out a basic income and using that to respond to automation.”

However, what the automation theorists say is just not true. The problems that we face are not merely distributional. They have to do with the organization of our production system and the way that the engine of economic growth has been breaking down. That engine was tied to industrialization and a continuous, incremental, and (over time) exponential growth of productivity.

What we see in that context are massive struggles over distribution. There is a major effort on the part of business owners and governments to implement austerity programs, push down wages, and reduce the amount of income being distributed to workers as a way to keep the system going as it’s losing steam.

That’s why I think that the UBI idea, particularly on the left wing of the automation discourse, just doesn’t represent a viable strategy for us. The facts about the world that it would have to be based on just aren’t an accurate depiction of what’s going on in the world economy today.

Daniel Finn

Your own view of the world economy is close to that of Robert Brenner, as expressed in his book, The Economics of Global Turbulence, which first appeared as a special issue of the New Left Review (NLR) in the late ’90s. The book stoked up a lot of debate on the Left when it first appeared, and it remains a landmark in the field, so I want to put to you some of the counterarguments that have been made in response to Brenner’s overall thesis.

The first argument is that it’s unhelpful to conceptualize the whole period since the 1970s as a long downturn. According to this viewpoint, we shouldn’t compare growth rates or profit rates in that period to the so-called golden age of the postwar decades, because those decades were the ones that were exceptional in the history of capitalism. If we compare the most recent period to what came before the “golden age,” it appears to be quite typical. How do you respond to that argument?

Aaron Benanav

There are two ways that I respond to it. First of all, I think it’s absolutely true that the period from 1950 to 1973 or so was an exceptional period, and there’s broad agreement that the postwar period isn’t coming back. It’s very important to take that critique of Brenner’s thesis seriously, but I think that it misses the mark for two reasons.

One is that what was so special about the postwar period and its rapid growth was the claim of that era to have fully neutralized politics — to have brought about a world where capitalism could grow so quickly that everyone could get what they want. We could have high profits and high wages, and we could sidestep some of the thorny distributional questions and questions of control that defined earlier eras. The end of the golden age period has seen a return of politics — a return of distributional struggles and the emergence of different varieties of populism or even fascism.

What seems so odd to me about the claim that the golden age was the exception and that we should look back to earlier periods to see the norm of capitalism is that the pre–golden age norm was defined by incredible economic and political turbulence. You saw the building up of massive campaigns by socialists and others for dramatic social change.

It was a remarkably turbulent era, and that was what the golden age was supposed to resolve. Now we’re being thrown back into a time of chaos and political turbulence. I think there’s something mistaken about the political upshot of what that critique is supposed to indicate.

I think the other problem with that criticism is that it overlooks what has been happening over time. If you take the entire period from 1973 to the present and you average the growth rate, then you would say it is more or less similar to what pertained in the past. But what that perspective misses is that in many places, there has been a decade-by-decade decline in the economic growth rate since the 1970s. If you look at the period since 2000, when we’ve had particularly slow-growing economies, the growth rate is much lower than during the pre–golden age eras.

This secular decline and loss of dynamism over time is something that anti-Brennerian Marxists had a lot of trouble recognizing. Based on a kind of metaphysics of long cycles and a belief in the ability of capitalism to inevitably regenerate itself, they kept predicting that the cycle of stagnation would simply end, and we would enter a new period. That often led them to misread a series of economic bubbles as if they were the emergence of green shoots of growth.

It was only when figures like Lawrence Summers and Robert Gordon started to debate the causes of secular stagnation in the present, albeit from very different perspectives, that perspectives like those of Brenner gained much currency (without referencing him, unfortunately). I don’t think that the debate over the causes of secular stagnation has been resolved. But more than twenty years after Bob wrote that initial piece in NLR, I think that the existence of the problem — the idea that there’s some factor or factors causing long-term stagnation — is something that people can agree on.

One point upon which what I do differs from what Bob does is that his story of the long downturn is one of decline in a broad set of quantitative indicators of growth. My account focuses on the moment when quantitative decline becomes qualitative. What I’m interested in is not just a decline in economic growth rates, for example, or a decline in rates of industrial dynamism, but rather the moment at which that decline results in deindustrialization — the moment when rates of industrial expansion fall below rates of industrial productivity growth, with the result that the economy begins to shed industrial workers.

At that point, we enter a new era in terms of employment structure and the evolution of the economy. Sometimes the focus on the quantitative story misses the big qualitative shifts in the composition of the class or the composition of the economic structure.

Daniel Finn

The second argument that I want to put to you is about global manufacturing overcapacity. That’s the main factor that has been cited as an explanation of the long downturn for those who broadly agree with Brenner’s view of the world economy.

One response is to say that the addition of new manufacturing centers, especially in East Asia, is not simply a zero-sum game — while it creates new competitors for existing centers, it also creates new markets. For example, German manufacturing firms can now export to China on a massive scale. What’s your view on that point?

Aaron Benanav

Bob does describe what was going on as an increasingly zero-sum game. However, his story also emphasizes the fact that you have had wave after wave of new entrants into global manufacturing production: Germany and Japan, then South Korea and Taiwan, then the Southeast Asian countries, and finally the Chinese behemoth and to a lesser extent India.

The massive push into the field of these new entrants has been creating more and more overcapacity and driving down growth rates. It’s important to say that this reduction in rates of growth is not the same thing as saying that there’s no growth. What’s being identified there is a general downward trend in the growth rate, which allows for much more complexity in the story.

Yes, as China has been growing, it also forms an important market for German production. Yet even as the world market structure is changing and globalizing in certain ways, in other respects, the general story has been one of lower rates of growth in the advanced capitalist economies and a very strong secular decline, especially if you look at the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] economies as a whole. That remains the case even if Germany, for example, has achieved somewhat higher growth rates in the recent period than in the two previous decades, when it was perceived as the sick man of Europe.

China has achieved an economic growth miracle by following — and in some ways adapting and transforming — the East Asian model that Japan and South Korea had established beforehand. But China is now facing the middle-income trap problem. It’s caught up with the wealthier economies in Latin America and some other parts of the Global South. It’s now facing much stronger competition and greater difficulty in making the further leap from that position toward being an advanced industrial economy.

The Chinese growth rate has been slowing at the end of its thirty-year period of rapid growth. My account, which I think builds on Bob’s account, suggests that as China ceases to be a growth engine for the world economy, that is going to make the stagnation tendencies stronger. It’s no accident that the era of decline in Chinese growth rates came alongside the onset of deindustrialization in China since 2013.

I feel confident that the long-term tendency of the system is toward stagnation. As China began to deindustrialize, so did the entire world. According to the UN, the world economy has been deindustrializing since around 2013. I think that tendency is going to become an overriding one.

One of the other ways in which I’ve extended and developed Bob Brenner’s analysis is by focusing not only on why industry is declining, but also on why the service sector isn’t replacing industry as a source of dynamism. I rely on what is in some ways a very mainstream account of Baumol’s cost disease and the tendency for services to be characterized by low productivity growth. I think that’s a fundamental part of the story that we miss by focusing on industry alone.

Daniel Finn

You argue in the book that the analysis of the capitalist system which Karl Marx put forward in Capital in the late nineteenth century has greater relevance for the world today than it did for much of twentieth-century capitalism. Could you tell us a little about your thinking on that point?

Aaron Benanav

Marx’s analysis feels so current for a number of reasons. One is that he didn’t analyze capitalism in the way that twentieth-century neoclassical economists did, as a static market system that generates the best welfare outcomes on the basis of an unrealistic but mathematically beautiful set of assumptions. Marx was very much influenced by the classical economists. He laid out an account of capitalism in which its dynamic tendencies toward growth were the key part of the story.

For Marx, however, as for some other critics of the system such as Joseph Schumpeter, capitalism also contained within itself tendencies toward stagnation and a loss of dynamism. He believed that many of the advances that capitalism had produced would fail to generate positive social outcomes as the system fell into stagnation, giving rise to different forms of economic and political turbulence. I think there is a lot to be said for a dynamic analysis of the system that also makes room for its loss of dynamism.

My take on Marx is that his understanding of what would lead to that loss of dynamism was deindustrialization, although he thought it would happen a century sooner than it actually did. He predicted that the industrial economy that was sucking in all the labor in Europe and the United States was at a certain point going to start ejecting labor from industry. The result of that would be the proliferation of what he called surplus populations.

Marx’s analysis of this tendency was fundamental to his account of why capitalism was going to tend to immiserate the workforce. He argued that it was going to expel workers from employment. They would face low demand for their labor, with the result that they would not be able to increase their wages as quickly as productivity growth.

What I find so interesting is that his analysis, which really fits the time in which he was living, suggested that workers would not become unemployed. He thought that unemployment would be one part of how workers experienced the slow demand for labor — in particular, there would be some workers who would spend part of the year unemployed before being pulled back into industrial employment through the cycles of demand and industrial growth. But he believed that the main tendency of the system would be to generate what he called a stagnant surplus population.

If you read the passages where he described what they would look like and what the stagnant surplus-population workers would be doing, it closely resembles workers in the informal sector today. They’re doing little jobs, working for themselves, and selling what they can on the market. On the whole, what defines their condition is that their wages and other earnings are far below the norm in the industrial system for workers who are normally employed as wage laborers.

That’s what he thought the final result of capitalism would be. You would have a system generating incredible productivity growth and industrial productive capacities far beyond what anyone could have imagined in an earlier time. Yet instead of using those capacities to reduce the amount of work people did and to create a world based on the fulfillment of many-sided human needs, we would get the expulsion of masses of people from work and a process of setting those still employed against the surplus workers who would exist in a variety of conditions, but mostly in the form of the stagnant surplus population.

One Marxist thinker who has had a huge influence on me is Mike Davis. Reading Planet of Slums made me think that the world we live in is very close to the one that Marx described. It’s a world where the majority of adult workers locked up in the informal sector look a lot like the stagnant surplus population that Marx described. The economy is deindustrializing, industry is throwing off employees, and we are living in a world of economic stagnation and turbulence, marked by rising economic inequality.

From an empirical standpoint, it’s a very powerful analysis of the dynamics of capitalism. Marx imagined that this outcome would materialize a hundred years earlier than it did. He thought it was already happening with the decline of the industries of the first industrial revolution. He anticipated that the industries of the second industrial revolution would tend to absorb much less labor than they actually did.

Instead of happening in 1870, the story that Marx had told began to unfold from 1970. The history of attempts to adapt Marxism and Marxist thought to the period from 1870 to 1970, when most of what he said empirically wasn’t coming true, has made it very difficult for people after 1970 to go back, look at the text with fresh eyes, and say “this describes what’s going on in the world today much better than it describes the world of fifty years ago.”

Daniel Finn

How would you assess the prospects for a recharged form of Keynesianism, which is an idea that has been put forward not just by people on the more traditional center-left or social democratic left, but also by people on more radical sections of the Left as well?

Aaron Benanav

I think it’s great that Marxists are taking Keynesianism more seriously and not just batting it away. I think that kind of intellectual engagement will prove to be very productive. It’s important to note that a lot of people who thought Marxism was right in the early twentieth century abandoned that perspective over the course of the century — not just intellectuals, but whole parties, like the European social democratic parties. They abandoned the idea of taking over the means of production and moved toward some kind of Keynesian welfare-state perspective.

That wasn’t only true in the West. In Eastern Europe, you had many economists who started off thinking about what it would take to carry out democratic, decentralizing reforms of Soviet-style state socialist economies. Over time, they increasingly decided that there was no way to make it work and became advocates for some form of capitalism with a human face. It’s important for us to engage with that.

I think the talk about Keynesianism and its possibilities today runs into some real trouble because, as with Marxism, there is no precise meaning of what Keynesianism is. When people talk about Keynesian solutions to the long downturn and secular stagnation, what they have in mind is often what Joan Robinson called bastard Keynesianism, which is what reigned in the US after the war and spread from there to Europe and many other parts of the world.

The basic idea is pump priming: when the economy starts running down, or when it’s stuck in a rut, you can improve economic conditions through state spending with a stimulus to consumption that then feeds back into the production system. People argue that from the 1980s onward, Keynesian demand stimulus of this kind was abandoned in favor of neoliberal policies and “letting the market decide.” In their view, we should return today to the Keynesianism of the 1960s and ’70s and see if we can use that to combat secular stagnation.

I find that perspective wrongheaded for a number of reasons. Firstly, the people who put forward that view tend to have no real account of why everyone abandoned Keynesianism in the 1970s. They make it sound as if there was some trick that the neoliberals played to change the frame. In reality, there was a real crisis of Keynesianism at that time.

There was a massive attempt to stimulate the economy during the 1970s that resulted in inflation but not in the uptick of economic growth rates that people were expecting. The proponents of Keynesianism seem not to have any agreed upon explanation for why that happened: they think it had something to do with contingent features of the OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] oil crisis.

Another reason why I find that perspective wrongheaded is that it suggests the period since the 1970s or ’80s hasn’t been one of Keynesianism, when the opposite is true. Ronald Reagan tried to let the markets take their course during the first two years of his presidency, but then he lost the midterms and was very scared about the political consequences, so he went right back to spending money.

If you look at the advanced industrial economies as a whole, you find something that appears paradoxical from the perspective of the Keynes revival. Between 1950 and 1973, state debt levels steadily declined. The share of government debt as a percentage of GDP radically declined over the course of the Keynesian era, but then it started to rise dramatically and has now reached very high levels. This is evidence that Keynesianism has continuously been tried and retried as a solution to the crisis.

China initially responded to declining growth rates by pumping huge amounts of money into stimulating consumption as a way of stimulating production. But what you see in China and everywhere else that this approach has been tried is that stimulus can slow the process of decline, but it can’t reverse it. Everywhere, Keynesianism has been part of the story of secular stagnation. It’s not a plausible alternative response — in fact, it’s the standard response that has already been deployed. It’s part of the story of decline.

There’s a rather more complex story to be told here about how the stimulus, precisely by pumping up asset values in the stock market and preventing them from declining, has in some ways actually made stagnation worse by not allowing for a revival of profit rates that would come about as the result of a truly dramatic shakeout. For good reasons, governments have been unwilling to let that shakeout happen politically.

They’re worried about what it would mean to have a lasting depression, but also in geopolitical terms. The countries that didn’t do it and kept their manufacturing capacity intact would probably be the ones that would benefit the most. There’s a coordination problem in abandoning those Keynesian policies.

Having said that, there are more radical versions of Keynesianism that are closer to what Keynes himself said, which wasn’t that we should use government debt to stimulate the private economy, but rather that we should imagine different forms of state-led economic development, with the state taking over the role of making investment decisions. That is a very technocratic vision of a public economy, which is what I think more radical left-wing Keynesians have to offer.

I think that vision is a very good foil for socialists to develop their thought. The more radical public-investment Keynesianism is both powerful and dangerous as a perspective. In some ways it recognizes the failures and inabilities of capitalism to go beyond its stagnation tendencies, but what it offers as an alternative is a technocratic vision in which a group of very smart people gain control over the economy and direct it toward a place that’s supposed to make us all happy.

In my opinion, that kind of technocratic vision is a fantasy. It wouldn’t work. But I also think that contrasting our own thinking with that vision is a real opportunity to develop a much more vibrant and exciting account of what the democratization of economic decision-making would look like.

What would it mean to take power away from technocrats, who are increasingly mistrusted in our world, for good reasons? What would it look like to put power into the hands of the masses of working-class people and allow them to make decisions for themselves? What’s our real democratic alternative to that Keynesian technocratic vision?

Daniel Finn

You conclude the book with a discussion of what a post-scarcity society might look like, and also with a consideration of what social forces and social struggles would be needed to create it. Obviously, that’s a huge subject — a matter for a whole interview, or a whole book, indeed. But could you give us a brief outline of what you have in mind in that part of the book?

Aaron Benanav

I took the term “post-scarcity economy” from some of the automation theorists. It’s important to recognize that those theorists are utopian thinkers in the good sense of the term. They’re trying to imagine a realistic future for humanity where we would be happier and freer. They’re trying to inspire us to think our way through the disasters and catastrophes of the present moment toward a better world.

In the last chapter of the book, I point out that the automation theorists stand in a much longer line of utopian thinkers going all the way back to Thomas More and Utopia. But what distinguishes the automation theorists is that they are very skeptical — or even despairing and dystopian — when it comes to the pathways to post-scarcity that come from social change and social reorganization rather than from technological breakthroughs.

In other words, they look to technology to solve social problems. They effectively say that none of the social and political solutions worked or got us to the post-scarcity world, so perhaps the technologies will suddenly come down from the heavens — or from the engineers’ laboratory — and push us into this beautiful world without the need to think about how to reorganize society in a more substantial way to generate this post-scarcity outcome.

If you’re like me, you don’t believe that automation is going to deliver the goods. There’s no realistic future where technology is suddenly going to bring us to this post-scarcity world. When I talk about social alternatives in the book, I point out that the utopian social thinkers, going all the way back to More, were not talking about getting beyond scarcity or getting to a world of abundance in the way that the automation theorists are.

They weren’t full-fledged productivists — they weren’t aiming for a world where anyone could have anything they wanted at the push of a button. They were more focused on the idea of getting to a world where everyone has what they need and feels fundamentally secure that they’re going to be able to meet their needs and won’t have to worry anymore about their survival.

That applies to Marx as well as a whole range of other left social theorists, going back to a time before the term “left” even had any meaning. They had the insight that a world like that would be one with an incredible opening of human possibilities and an expansion of the very idea of what it is that people need.

Pushing toward a post-scarcity economy in the social sense requires that we focus on changes that would allow people to feel secure about what they need. That includes pushing for what is now called universal basic services, whereby everyone is guaranteed a level of health care, education, and housing, along with a whole range of other things that they need to live. That would be something that people receive without question.

UBI could definitely be part of that story, so long as it’s part of a much broader vision about how we get people access to the things that they need. Of course, those broader needs would include things like ecological as well as social sustainability, the overcoming of both fossil fuel dependence and endemic loneliness.

The idea is that if you can get to a world like that, you’ll see that human beings are incredibly inventive and capable of pursuing a whole range of passions. They can develop a broader range of civic and political associations and create a diverse, interesting, and beautiful world for them to live in.

That’s something very positive that we should think about more. The big problem to solve is that in this social alternative, you have to figure out how to reduce and redistribute the work that will still be necessary for people to do. If you don’t have the idea that technologies are going to ensure that no one has to work, then you have to come up with an answer to the question: How do we share the work that remains to be done?

While we can benefit from all the technologies that reduce the amount of work we need to do and make it possible for us all to have a lot of free time, we need to find a way to share and distribute that work fairly as well. I think that’s something we can envision. But figuring it out would involve a way of organizing social and economic life beyond money and beyond capitalism that we still have to develop.