The Road to Digital Serfdom?

iLabour We need to redefine labour instead of asking if digitalisation leads to a growing precariat
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Oscar Wilde dreamt of reconciling two antagonistic forces: individualism and society. His romantic hopes were rooted at that time in socialism: ‘the chief advantage is relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others’. Today it is not a new intriguing ideology but modern technology that is seeking to deliver the urgently sought answers of our time. However, most controversies on the digitalised economy oscillate between Doomsday scenarios of mass unemployment and a naive belief in technological progress. Public debates concentrate only on the potential outcomes of digitalisation instead of looking into labour as such.

Labour has been defined very differently through the ages. In Antiquity, manual work and commerce were held in low esteem. Aristotle even sees a contradiction to liberty. Those who work are always subject to the will of someone else thus “the end of labour is to gain leisure.”Finally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, scholars of the Enlightenment hailed it as the source of private property, wealth and self-determination. Until the eighteenth century, labour also encompassed social aspects not directly related to profit. This changed dramatically with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From then on, society has associated it only with paid work. Today labour markets face a revolution due to digitalisation and the rise of new forms of autonomy.

The emerging gig economy is a prominent example of this new trend where thousands of freelancers seek new assignments through digital platforms. The dimension of this phenomenon is still, due to a lack of data, little understood. While many enjoy their freedom, others are forced to work as independent contractors with low wages and no social security. Gretta Corporaal from the University of Oxford's ‘iLabour’ research project points out that it is nevertheless misleading not to consider the lucrative online markets for specialists. They are growing by 30% every year. The gig economy's impact on society still needs to be researched. Since the 1980s labour’s share of income has fallen as wages have grown more slowly than productivity. The IMF admits that technological advancement is a key driver in improving global prosperity, but national politics need to find ways how to ‘spread those benefits more broadly’.

More social innovation is necessary as a response to the disruptive forces of technological progress. One answer could be redefining labour – or better broadening its current definition. Jürgen Kocka, who taught at the University of Berlin, stated in a research paper that society is currently opening up the traditional definition of labour. Raising children, caring for elderly or voluntary community services are increasingly regarded as vital contributions to society, demanding a kind of compensation. Finding the right balance between defending individual freedom while preserving social cohesion is strongly linked to the question of human nature. Keynes was misreading the latter as he assumed that people who had more spare time due to technological advancement would suffer as the ‘idle rich’. He could not imagine that one could find a satisfying occupation not necessarily linked to income. His prediction that a society liberated from ‘work’ (paid labour) would lead to a ‘nervous breakdown’ was more a dystopian nightmare than an analysis. Digitalisation will force us to think more thoroughly on key issues defining our current society, economy and human nature on an unprecedented scale.

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10:10 19.12.2019
Dieser Beitrag gibt die Meinung des Autors wieder, nicht notwendigerweise die der Redaktion des Freitag.

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