One Really Simple Yardstick

Throughout the aftermath of The Election, I’ve been hearing the same narrative being offered in explanation by Trump voters and their supporters elsewhere in the world: it’s a backlash from the people who’ve been left behind by globalisation; they’re just ordinary, good people who’ve lost their livelihoods and industries, and so on.

There’re a lot of cases in which this is true. There is a huge amount of inequality in the world, a great deal of injustice, and nothing I’m going to say in this post should be taken to imply that I think life is just a comfy bed of feathers for everyone. Far from it. Somebody may well mention my privilege and tell me I shouldn’t be commenting on any of this because of it but, you know: my blog.

So:

1) Trump supporters argue that they’re not Nazis, not bigots, not bullies; that they’re just decent people who are tired of not getting their fair share.

That’s fine. I’ve no problem with that, and I can understand the anger of those people. Maybe that’s you, reader. If so, I have just one really simple yardstick for measuring the reality: are you kicking downwards? If you are, if your anger and aggression is directed at vulnerable groups – ethnic or religious minorities, LGBT+ people, and so on – then no, you’re a bigot and a bully, and you’re siding with the state and the system you claim to despise against the people. Own it.

If you’re striking upwards, though, directing your anger at that corrupt ‘system’ while standing in solidarity beside your fellow humans, whoever they are and whatever their story, then sure: I’ll accept you’re the person you’re telling me you are.

(So Breitbart, for example, like the Daily Mail, is a Nazi hate-mouthpiece, and not a noble champion for the hard-done-to commoner. That’s because both are kicking downwards: attacking and alienating minorities, rather than standing with all citizens against corruption in government, undermining of human rights, war, and so on.)

More importantly:

2) As I’ve probably said before, globalisation is a consequence of technology. If technology keeps advancing, so will globalisation. It isn’t a policy that you can just have rolled back if only the right populist government or president gets into power. National borders are becoming recognisably more artificial, and more irrelevant, as data flows around the world in milliseconds and translation is more reliably automated and integrated into communications systems. There are effectively fewer and fewer obstacles to the exchange of information and ideas. It is possible to artificially obstruct that exchange, at least to an extent – but as long as technology keeps moving on, it will likely become harder and harder to do so effectively.

Simply put: nations are fading. That frightens nationalists, quite understandably. It frightens me, and I’m actually all for it and more or less the opposite of a nationalist. It’s still a scary thing to contemplate because it’ll mean so much has to change. And the unfamiliar is always scary. But I believe in people, in the worth of people, and in the humanity of people. If we have nothing else in common – not culture, not skin tone, not religion, not political viewpoint – we have at least our shared humanity. That over-arches all else and I try very hard to make it the basis of my dealings with everyone I meet.

3) Globalisation threatens your industry. No, more specifically, the technology that drives globalisation threatens your industry. It will take away your livelihood, and it will leave you out of work.

Do I sound like I’m gloating? I’m not, because I’m in that same boat as you. Or at least in one floating alongside. Maybe you’ll be made redundant first, or maybe I will – but we both will, in the end. Because there are precious few jobs that artificially intelligent machines couldn’t do more efficiently and more cheaply than you or I could, and that number is shrinking all the time. Maybe there will always be a few, but there’ll only be a few. The simple fact is that as AI makes inroads into different fields, more and more of us become irrelevant as workers.

But that’s the key: irrelevance as workers shouldn’t be tied to our relevance and value as people.

Fighting against society to save society from mass redundancy and being ‘left behind’ – the supposed goal of the angry nationalists and right-wing movements around the world – is the wrong tack. It’s stupid and shortsighted and it won’t work in the long run. We have to change the way we’ve trained ourselves to think over our history so far. And it won’t be easy. We have to learn to stop assessing someone’s worth based on how much they earn; or even how hard they work. Because in the not-too-distant future, as more and more of us are displaced by robots and computers, we’re going to see the unemployed become the majority. And what happens then?

I see two choices. We continue to refuse to accept what’s happening, we continue to assess everything we see and everyone we meet on a scale of money, and we create conflict between ourselves, and quite probably destroy ourselves because we refuse to detach our concept of ‘worth’ from our jobs. Or, we accept the shift, and we, as a global society, begin to teach ourselves new ways of thinking. We move away from an economic model we’ve come to view as the natural and only way to live.

Some countries are experimenting with a universal basic income – a benefit paid to all, working or not, as a means to afford the fundamental requirements in life: shelter, food, clothing, energy. Can it work? I’m not an economist – but that it’s being tried suggests someone thinks it can. Perhaps what we need – at the risk of sounding like the dreadful Trekkie utopian I unashamedly am – is to accept that, in a largely automated world, especially one in which fusion power becomes widely useable, should that happen, money simply won’t have much of a use any more.

What will we do then? Well, we could keep on fighting until we’ve destroyed everything and then the winners can stand in the ruins and shout about glory. Or we could grow up and fulfil the potential our species has always worked so very hard to avoid acknowledging.

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