Labor in the Roboconomy

The FT continues its excellent series of thought experiments on the potential effects of radically increasing productivity.  The brief summation of Izabella Kaminska’s argument seems to be this: while mechanically-driven productivity gains will make society richer as a whole, the political economy of the robot economy will serve to impoverish labor while enriching capital.  The key graf here, in my opinion, is this:

As technology proceeds in a patent-obsessed world, the fruits of innovation flow to the owners of the capital and invention, forming a whole new rentier class. The financial assets/debts that back the innovation technology, meanwhile, get disproportionally valuable as their purchasing power gets completely out of whack with the output they radically accelerate.

Thus the patent wars between Apple and Samsung (among many others) aren’t just the consequence of some poorly-written patent legislation, but are an emergent feature of the digital economy.  As mechanization takes off, we can presumably expect the same dynamic to filter downwards from digital markets to more “real” ones regarding business method patents in fields like manufacturing and logistics.  The economic elite will war between each other over the merits of specific patents, but the push for greater patent recognition and enforcement overall will unite these patent rentiers.  Returns to capital would accelerate as labor is more and more impoverished in an economy where it is needed less and less.

This ultimately prevents a political issue for the left.  While I have previously suggested that a universal income is the natural core issue for the left in a roboconomy, perhaps patent reform or abolition could serve as the crucial economic justice issue.    As a high-tech employee, I have learned that awareness of the patent mess has spread across the entire industry.  Even low-level workers like myself are informed on patent issues and the increasing drag on innovation it is exerting in one of the most innovative sectors of the economy.  I think it is at least possible that as it becomes more visible, patent reform will no longer seem quite as abstract an issue as it does today.

I also must admit some charm in the idea of patent abolition as a central cause for the next-generation left.  “Let us throw open the floodgates of innovation” sounds rather better-suited for America than “Let us take from the rich and give to the rest”.  If you can have mass movements of simple farmers based entirely on metalism and monetary policy, this seems hardly more wonky.  Given the slow death of labor unions in the United States, labor will need a fundamentally new way to organize against the political power of capital and entirely new goals.  In the hypothetical roboconomy, fighting to end rule-by-rentier will make more sense than any attempt to gain labor power within an enterprise given how replace laborers will be.

“Workers of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but your license fees!”

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