An Interview with Aaron Benanav - Believer Magazine

An Interview with Aaron Benanav

by Maxwell Neely-Cohen
December 9th, 2020

Aaron Benanav’s new book, Automation and the Future of Work, is a concise and erudite argument that artificial intelligence and robots are less responsible for our labor crises than older and broader economic forces. I found myself fascinated and entranced by it, even as someone with limited experience reading economic texts. It’s an engaging and accessible invitation to think seriously about the problems that face us, and to dream of possible worlds we could one day inhabit. I spoke with Benanav on a call from New York to Berlin.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen

THE BELIEVER: In this book you reassess the role technology and automation are playing in the global economy and its future, arguing that while technological advance plays a role, so much of the bad we see—unemployment, underemployment, low wages, inequality, stagnation, artificial scarcity—is driven by other forces.

How would you explain concepts like industrial overcapacity and low demand for labor to people who have never read any economic theory or history before?

AARON BENANAV: People intuitively understand that we live in a hypercompetitive world. And part of that is intense competition for jobs. People feel the immense pressure of competition. There’s an intuition that this intense competitive environment has something to do with globalization, has something to do with the fact that countries and firms all over the world are competing with one another to produce goods and services. There are a lot of producers out there with much cheaper labor than ours, pushing a race to the bottom. 

What I would want readers to understand is that when they think about deindustrialization in the United States, or the UK, when they think about factories closing and jobs disappearing, those same things are happening in other countries. And not just in places like Germany and France, but in Mexico, Brazil, and even China and India. There’s been hypercompetition at the global level that we experience as a scramble for work. A growing abundance of goods feels like a scarcity of jobs. Everywhere. This isn’t just something that American manufacturing has been a victim of, it’s a global story that affects all countries.

BLVR: What got you interested in studying work and labor as a subject? What got you interested in looking at technology?

AB: My family moved around a bunch when I was younger because my dad was in computers. He worked on automation in the 1980s. There was a big bubble in that field that then popped, which is how cycles of investment in automation and artificial intelligence ebb and flow. Investors get excited, they think there’s about to be a breakthrough and then when they discover it isn’t forthcoming, they flee from the market. My dad got caught up in one of those bubbles, and then worked at a telephone company, and then a series of Internet companies. I spent summers in high school working with him. 

It was a time when just knowing HTML was enough to get you a job. And for me it was horrible to watch how a bunch of MBAs, business people with no understanding of how computers worked or what they’re capable of, were trying to manage these technical workers in ways that were just nuts. I worked at a different company with my dad every year. He’s changed jobs frequently because all these startups would go bust pretty quickly. My father was working for this company that flew whole families on a chartered jet to Disney one summer, and then the next summer laid off most of its programmers. Our family experienced both the up and the down of the Internet bubble in the late 90s, which collapsed in 2001. Those experiences made a big impression on me. 

When the 2008 crisis, the next crisis, hit, I was a graduate student at UCLA studying economic history. They raised tuition in the UC system and I was part of a ragtag bunch of radicals who raised hell, occupying university buildings up and down the system. That was a real political education for me. Both about how difficult it is to change anything in the world we live in, and the power and joy of taking part in a social movement. 

BLVR: I’m amazed at the breadth of the science fiction that’s name-checked in the book, all done without it seeming out of place. What role did science fiction play in your life, as a serious academic and a person? How did it inspire your interest in looking at the future of something like work?

Science fiction was incredibly important to me growing up and shaped my politics in a serious way. Some of the first sci-fi I read was Douglas Adams, the more humorous side of science fiction, and later on I discovered this Russian sci-fi duo the Strugatsky brothers, who are well known for writing Roadside Picnic, which became the basis for the movie Stalker.

Influenced by Nikita Kruschev’s declaration that the Soviet Union would achieve communism in twenty years, they penned a series of very humorous science fiction stories in the early 1960s about astronauts who go through a time warp and find themselves in a communist future and just wander around and nothing works as they expect. Those stories may have influenced Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as a series that I only encountered later but had a big influence on me, The Culture series by Iain M. Banks. In any case, Star Trek: The Next Generation in particular had a huge effect on me growing up. The idea of a bunch of citizen scientists exploring the galaxy without having to worry very much about student loans or how they were going to afford to buy a house.

BLVR: I’m amazed how often the arts pops up in arguments about post-scarcity economics, universal basic income, utopia, etc. As an aspirational idea: “Think how much time we’ll have to write novels if we don’t have to worry about work!” But also as a serious subject for study. The labor of artists has always been fertile ground for economists to look at, like Baumol’s Cost Disease was based off of classical orchestra musicians right? I’m wondering, among many other things, how artists and writers should think about the future of work? The future of what they do and its value?

AB: When you read the literature on what comes after capitalism, that attempts to find a better way to organize society, a lot of authors, going back to Peter Kropotkin, this Russian Anarchist, emphasize a unity of art and life. A world in which artistic endeavor is allowed to shape much more of the built environment around us. To create a more fulfilling and luxurious existence. John Maynard Keynes, when he talked about what comes after the present capitalist society, emphasized a similar point, that human beings are capable of so many great pursuits, but in our world, whatever you want to do, you have to try to make a career out of it. In other words, you have to show that you can make money. Keynes said that in a future world a lot more of society’s resources would be devoted to things like art, music, and science, pursuits that are ends unto themselves. I think that the post-scarcity world has a lot to offer artists. They should sign up to the program. 

We live in an age when people are becoming excited again about the future. Obviously there’s a lot of catastrophic and apocalyptic thinking, but proposals like fully automated luxury communism, or the Green New Deal, both of which I’m critical of in the book, still suggest that we live in an era where people are trying to dream up future worlds. 

I’m against the idea of coming up with a single blueprint for the future. But I like the idea of drawing different kinds of maps of what the future could look like. Different imaginings that don’t cohere into one set vision of the world. I think that the role of fiction, art, music, et cetera in that process is important. Otto Neurath, who is a big influence on me as a socialist thinker, stressed the role of art, music, and literature in the science of utopia and the need for utopian thinking. Twentieth century socialists in their search for respectability tended to deemphasize that. But we clearly live in an era now where that is incredibly important, to dream up a positive vision of a future world.

BLVR: Speaking of things you’re critical of, my favorite thing about this book is how generous you were to those who you were arguing against. Again and again you’re generous to people and ideas you’re critiquing. And I wonder, where does that instinct come from, for you, as a writer?

AB: It’s important to recognize that even the strongest arguments have weaknesses. We only arrive at a better understanding of the world through conversation among people who disagree. It’s important to treat your interlocutors with respect. 

But also, a lot of the people that I criticize in the book, they want to make a better world. The book criticizes universal basic income as a proposal, but I try to make it as clear as possible, that many of the people who are trying to promote UBI—although far from all of them—are well-intentioned. They want to make a better world. It’s important to emphasize that we are in agreement about that. Even if we disagree about how to get there. I would like to promote, as much as possible, a kind of generous conversation about these questions, rather than turning it all into an antagonistic argument.

BLVR: Well, let’s talk about UBI a little—the direct payments during the pandemic certainly made me reassess it. Given failure at almost every level of government and institution, what if UBI is the best we can get from those structures? 

AB: It’s not unreasonable. It would be much better to live in a world where there’s free payment of money to people than one in which payments are going mostly to very wealthy corporations. However, my argument is that in order for UBI to lead to a much better life, in order for it to lead toward a substantially different kind of society, it would have to be true that automation were happening in the way that the people who promote it say it is. The economy would have to just be becoming so productive, so efficient, and generating so much, that the last remaining problem we’d have to solve would just be this problem of distribution. How do we get it all into people’s hands? If that were the case, simply handing out money to people would be the best way to do it. If instead, we live in a world where automation or productivity growth is happening at a slower pace and the economy is growing very slowly, then proposals for UBI run into the same kind of problems as expanding the welfare state. In the end, trying to do that, in a stagnant crisis-ridden economy, is very difficult. It involves intense political trade-offs. It threatens the operation of the central mechanism that guides the society we live in, which is private investment. 

We live in a society that’s under the stranglehold of private investors and their demands. Governments everywhere are working overtime to entice these private investors to actually invest in expanding the economy, and what those investors do time and again, is that they just take their profits and redistribute them as share buybacks and dividends, or they retain them, like Apple sitting on a huge war chest of money that it’s not doing anything with. Recognizing that this investment problem is a big problem for society, and transforming not just how we get income into people’s hands, but how we organize production—that it’s not just a distribution problem, it’s a production problem—that’s the key. So UBI could be part of a story about transforming production, but it has to be integrated into that larger process. Even if what you want is a UBI you should see that fighting hard for a wider transformation, and scaring the powers that be, will be fundamental, even to winning that reform. Even if that’s what you want, you should fight for a broader vision of social change. It’s a ‘maybe if we shoot for the stars, we’ll land on the moon’ sort of thing. But I’m with the sci-fi writer Alfred Bester. The stars are my destination.

BLVR: You outline an impressive array of challenges in this book. What if the nation state, as a structure, is simply not up to these challenges? The same way it might not be up to the challenge of climate change, or apparently, pandemics. What if we need something else?

AB: We’re probably going to have to make decisions at a much larger or broader level than the level of the nation-state, especially around issues like climate change. We’re also going to have to make decisions at a more local level than the nation-state as well. I think it’s pretty clear that any vision of social change today has to be highly democratic. It has to find ways to incorporate people into making decisions about their lives. I think that people will be much more willing to make sacrifices, or consider issues of justice, whether that’s issues of racial justice, or ecological sustainability, if they feel like their voices are being heard and they are part of a collective decision making process. To get to a world like that, we’re going to have to figure out not only how to produce things in an efficient and ecologically sustainable way, we’re also going to have to figure out how to make work itself more enjoyable, how to transform urban living, and a whole range of other things that currently aren’t really a part of the economy we have today, which doesn’t seriously consider those issues. It doesn’t really promote universal security and free time and enjoyment of work and fairness in the distribution of work. But it’s also true that many of the experiments in getting out of capitalism, in existing socialism, also fail at that level to successfully tackle those issues. We have to think up new solutions that are adequate to our time. 

BLVR: Your book came out during a global crisis which has already dramatically shifted the nature of work and labor? What was it like to be working on this for I assume, a long time, and have that happen?

AB: In general, I think that the pandemic forced people to think very seriously about work. It’s brought us to a place where the choice between protecting human life and keeping the economy going has been made more stark. I think it’s also clarified, if you needed more clarification, how irrational our society is. The incredible irrationality that governments could suddenly make huge changes in order to deal with this problem, that they had punted for decades when it comes to climate change. 

BLVR: Futurists tend to be wrong a lot of the time when talking about what technologies will change the world. Technological breakthroughs, especially those that have far reaching economic and social consequences, tend to be unpredictable. While you’re coming at all of this as a historian, describing what already has happened as opposed to predicting what will happen, does the potential of the unknown, of uncertainty, throw a little bit of a wrench into how you approach your work?

AB: Even if I don’t think the automation theorists are right about the recent past, the issues they identify, like a characteristically low demand for labor, underemployment, and unemployment, are still hugely important problems facing us. And maybe we are on the verge of the singularity or the breakthrough. Who knows? It could really happen at any time. 

There are also jobs that historically have been resistant to the kinds of technological transformations that if something changed would result in massive job loss. For example, sewing has always been an incredibly difficult thing for robots to do. There’s been very few innovations past the sewing machine. As more and more clothing has been produced and distributed around the world, as people have come to wear ever more fast fashion type clothes that they throw away all the time, the number of people employed in sewing apparel has grown enormously across the world. It could totally be the case that something like a sewbot becomes more advanced and is able to make sewing look like other parts of the production process that are more highly mechanized than they were in the past, and that would result in dramatic job losses. The more familiar western example is self-driving cars, where a breakthrough would cause big changes, but there’s global versions of that that would be much more significant if they were to be suddenly automated.

The point is, that if those changes occur, they will occur in a world where it’s already difficult for people to find work. It would only make that situation worse as it were. Unless the breakthrough that occurs is the general artificial intelligence singularity that changes everything. And I suspect if we did have superintelligent machines, they would be surprisingly communist. If they were asked how to end poverty, how to stop wars, they would say that providing everyone with access all of the basic goods and services they need to make a life, and giving them freedom to make choices about their lives, that’s what I think superintelligent computers would quickly realize. 

But in the absence of a world shattering advance like that, even with some of these big new technologies coming online, I don’t think it will change the basic story. That the economy is not growing fast enough to absorb changes in the way that it used to. It’s not growing fast enough to make new jobs for all the people who are losing their jobs, and that does mean that the result will be more inequality, more strife and struggle, and more fight for broader social transformation. But, those things are going to happen even if those hypothetical breakthroughs don’t take place, they already define the world that we live in.

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