It’s a pity that Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Karl Marx (1818-1883) never met — which they could have done so easily. For one thing, they shared 64 of their years. For another, for much of their lives they lived little more than a modest hackney drive from each other. They could have had a fascinating conversation because, each within in his own sphere and expressed in his own terminology, they had reached exactly the same conclusion. The environment is all-important. This is that, in Darwin’s ecological view, it is the (climatic) environment that’s the major player in selecting the more efficient genes* and thus, subsequently, in the overall choice and balance of species on earth. In Marx’s economic hypothesis, it is the (widescale factory) environment that shaped the genes* that have to do with rank-ordering and thus, subsequently, the class structure. (*In their time, of course, neither Darwin nor Marx were aware of genes as deterministic entities. Mendel was nearest to understanding genes at that time but his discoveries were confined to an obscure journal.)
In retrospect, we can easily see the Gargantuan changes that took place over the course of the industrial revolution during which 80% of the population, leading wretched, under-nourished lives in the countryside migrated to the growing cities where, ultimately, prosperous factory workers of the 1960s were then able to enjoy the sort of consumer products and the lifestyle that only royalty had experienced in previous times. But it was too early for Karl Marx to see those changes clearly in his time.
However, since the 1960s a new crop of Gargantuan changes had been burgeoning. These were quite a different crop that Marx, or even Keynes (60 years later), could never have possibly foreseen. Software-led automation had already arrived in commerce and was already nibbling into job numbers. In every year since then, automation has bitten deeper and deeper into the economic machine, whether it’s in extractive jobs or transportation, manufacturing or retailing. Because each new ‘generation’ of automation is more energy efficient and thus creates profits for further investment, it is impossible to guess just where and when it will end. We are only seeing the beginnings of it so far. In due course, every conceivable repetitive job, whether physical or mental, will be replaceable by machinery. No employer would dream of delaying automation in the slightest for fear of being pipped by another firm.
Critics may protest that with declining work-forces there’ll be declining consumer markets and thus declining profits and thus declining investments. However, because of its software nature, automatic machinery is able to be profitable with shorter and shorter production runs. Investment machinery doesn’t have to be larger in incremental size or number. So long as the software algorithms are able to become smarter than ever, then the machinery can be versatile enough to produce profitable single items (and to turn immediately from one product or service to another).
Critics might also protest that incentives will be taken away from ‘greedy’ entrepreneurs (or, today, bankers!) who will therefore be deprived of great wealth. But ‘greedy’ individuals are not Dickensian caricatures who start businesses or operate there merely in order to count up his earnings at the end of the day. No, they are individuals who have strong creative needs, or who have been given a lucky opportunity and decided to run with it, or who wish to be wealthy in order ro be able to pick among the best experiences and products that the world has to offer, or who desire high social status (not necessarily in wide public view).
The consumer market had already begun to shrink 30 years ago quite besides the onslaught of automation. Increasingly in Western advanced countries, parents have already been deciding on less than replacement sized families. For this reason alone populations will be declining very steeply well with two generations. Within three or four generations, we will be heading for extinction.
But will we want to go extinct? It’s most unlikely. The lower the population becomes, and the more the natural world re-beautifies itself, the more enjoyable it will become for the smaller numbers of those who remain. And among those will be the designers of automatic equipment, backed up by equally gifted and educated specializations. In this new economy, all is not at all likely to be perfect. There’ll be competition and trading between all the different highly skilled power groups and political differences, too. But this time, being all the more dependent on one another they’ll be more content with modest differences in wealth and income differentials as they occur and not the outrageous ones of today. Each of tomorrow’s specialized services would have the power to veto any assumption of privilege that militarists, industrialists, politicians and, most recently, bankers, have been able to do throughout history so far