The Automatization of Jobs: What Rising Populist Leaders Have Failed to Explain

The Automatization of Jobs: What Rising Populist Leaders Have Failed to Explain

By Raul Ruiz

Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad”.Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Today, one could arguably state that in the light of recent electoral events and tendencies in several countries, we are living something of a populist world movement: From Brexit and Nigel Farage to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Norbert Hoffer and Geert Wilders, populist movements have gained votes, seats and public resonance in many European and American countries. Several studies reveal how these movements have gained more and more momentum, leaving the public in general with a fearful sense of déjà vu. Hopefully, atrocities against mankind that were committed in the past to preserve the interests and supremacy of one nation, will never happen again.

But, are we really witnessing a rise in the number and success rates of populist movements today? According to (Inglehart & Norris, 2016) the average share of votes obtained by populist movements across Europe has doubled since the 1960s and their share of seats in parliament has tripled from 3.8% to 12.8%.

Now, why should people be concerned with these kinds of leaders and their rhetoric? Does it really matter? Well, the potential dangers that can be brought about by the rise of populist leaders are nothing unprecedented. The attacks towards the human rights of minorities, speeches filled with misplaced hatred and resentment and in the case of the US, a worrying reversion to the country’s historic isolationism are only some of the consequences we can perceive. However, this piece will focus on the myth of the job-stealing immigrants and how some populist leaders have—willingly or unwillingly—failed to explain their electorate why they have been losing their jobs and not precisely to immigrants.

Populist movements today seem to be metastasizing and spreading through several regions of the globe. Threatening to reverse our world back to a realist epoch—when cooperation and cross-culturalism were nothing but wishful thinking. It is fundamental for electors to have a strong sense of news literacy, to question and judge what they’re being told and promised. Moreover, events like the electoral results in the Netherlands some days ago—where Mark Rutte efficiently surpassed the far-right candidate Geert Wilders—give other countries a sense of relief and hope. Well-informed, empathic and open-minded citizens are undoubtedly the aqua vitae of democracy.

The Challenge of Modernity
Our world has gone through several stages of modernization. Each one, has shaped the world we live in today. Furthermore, the experience of modernity has the capacity to create powerful tools to boost industrial production, scientific insights to upgrade the quality of products and living standards and bureaucratic innovations to overcome slow-paced and unproductive processes. However, the experience of modernity can also be traumatic. It may come with what (Afsah, 2016) called, “the fear of destruction of old communities’ values and individuals. And the fear of uncertainty in material and spiritual terms”.

The industrial revolution that began in the late 18th century in Britain changed not only the effectiveness and rapidness with which goods were produced, it also changed the way people lived their lives—for instance, moving from rural areas to urban areas to take part in the industrial process. Although, it should be noted that the rise of mass production and the insertion of new technologies—such as the steam engine—also brought about negative consequences, in terms of unemployment, sanitation and labor exploitation. In this respect, John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1930 that:

We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick.

Just like Keynes describes it and just like it happened during the first industrial revolution, today, we have not been able to come to terms with the social consequences of technological advances. In the late 18th century the steam engine became a driving force for change. Later, in the late 19th century electricity and labor division revolutionized completely the industrial realm. From 1969 until today, we live the so-called third industrial revolution, which through electronics and information technology, has achieved to automatize certain branches of production. Hence, a fourth industrial revolution is yet to come, and many argue, that it will be an extension of the third revolution—where cyber-physical systems will play a starring role.

Source: Tiger Stone Paving Machine

Today, during the third industrial revolution, the debate regarding unemployment touches several sensitive fibers. On the one side, some argue that remaining manufacturing and service-sector jobs are being automated and taken away from the people. Meanwhile, some others believe that due to the intense level of interconnectedness between countries today, many jobs are being lost to immigrants, who are coming from other regions where low wages, insecurity or any other push factors hinder them from satisfying their needs. So, who’s got it right?

The Populist Promise
Increasingly, we have heard populist leaders—like Donald Trump—direct all the resentment of people whose working conditions and economic prospects have changed towards immigrants. However, in electoral terms, it is easier for a candidate to focus all this resentment towards a minority rather than explaining them how automatization has played a very important role in the change of their economic status.

Many jobs that belonged to the blue-collar middle class are now being performed by machines. According to a study made by Oxford University and Deloitte if you are a retail cashier and check-out operator there is a 90% likelihood your work is being and will completely be automated and computerized. You name it: healthcare, insurance, architecture, journalism, finances, teachers, human resources, lawyers and paralegals, the risk expands.
Nevertheless, the narrative of this work is not against innovation and the progress of mankind, but to demystify the stereotypes created by populism. I would argue, populists today have relied on what Dr. Tereza Capelos calls “reactionary politics”. That means the “desire for change, but the change is not against the old toward something new, it is against the new toward the old”.

Conclusively, democracies today are increasingly affected by this reactionary phenomenon, and to some extent, it is a comprehensive—but quite disliked—response to the challenge of modernity we mentioned previously. This phenomenon requires analysts and policy-makers to start viewing the world with different lens. It requires us to start analyzing elements such as emotions and values, to come up with holistic approaches.

Finally, there is enough evidence to debate the fact that immigration is the sole factor that has affected the economic prospectus of many individuals. Conjuring this kind of rhetoric is nothing but harmful and nearsighted. The consequences of polarizing the public opinion can be more than regretful. We must come to terms with our ever-changing reality and although the benefits and upgrades brought by technological advances have made our lives better and simpler, they also come with a stealthy cost that has been quite hard to distinguish. A stealthy cost that bears no name, nationality, religion or skin color.

Afsah, Ebrahim (2016). Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World. University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen, Denmark.
Capelos, Tereza (2017). Political Psychology and International Relations. Global Affairs Mexico: March 2017. Birmingham, UK.
Inglehart, Ronald & Pipa Norris (Eds.) (2016). Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash. Harvard Kennedy School. Boston, USA.
Keynes, John (1930). Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Yale. New Haven, Connecticut.
Nassos Stylianou, Nurse, Fletcher, Fewster, Bangay & Walton (2015). Will a Robot Take your Job? BBC.

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