January 30, 2004

The New Economy and the Death of the Proletariate

The crew over at Crooked Timber are reviewing Doug Henwood's new book After the New Economy. There are also some productive posts on it at Bred Delong's blog and over on Calpundit.

I haven't read the book yet. I'm still in the process of finishing my review of European Integration: 1950-2003. With some luck, it'll be done before business closes in Europe today, and maybe I'll try to score a copy at Waterstone's tomorrow. I like Doug Henwood's stuff, at least what I've read, and if he's debunking the utopian capitalist rhetoric of the new economy wonks, well, it's because it deserves it. I worked in the trenches of said new economy, and it is a good deal less than advertised.

But, one of Kevin Drum's remarks on the book struck me:

I'm not going to try and make the whole case here, but I'll add my — not my two cents, perhaps, it's not worth that much — I'll add my one cent to a particular facet of the debate. I do believe that advances in computer technology are revolutionary and are likely to become even more revolutionary over the next few decades as increased computing power finally makes artificial intelligence genuinely feasible. Unfortunately, I also think that one of the results of this will be to increasingly marginalize unskilled and semiskilled workers in a way that has never happened before: they will be permanently marginalized. There will be no new industries for them to move to.
It occured to me to wonder if the same wasn't once said about the peasantry. Like Kevin, I do think there has been a change over the last generation or so in the most economically advanced countries, and I think it's a substantial change. As symbolic as computers are of this brave new world, I'm not convinced that they are the principle cause. Enormous increases in manufacturing productivity preceeded the computer, and their role in undermining traditional employment patterns strikes me as a more important factor in what is going on.

The thing is, this is the same transformation that took place in agriculture a century ago, just much slower. What happened to the peasants? In the end, they were marginalised, and the then-new economy had no place for them.

Unfortunately, that thread on Calpundit has been colonised by a bunch of free-market wankers and technotopians who will always tell you either that artifical intelligence will make labour unnecessary or that it's the government's fault in the first place, and reading von Mises and Hayek would make you realise this apparent truth. So, except for Matt Young's comments, there's not much more of use there.

Posted 2004/01/30 10:13 (Fri) | TrackBack