The coming jobs massacre and a more violent world
The elephants in the room lumber about, undisturbed by politicians or people of vision.
The hard issues of the economy are well known. Politicians, bureaucracies, CEOs and trade union leaders have dealt the the issues of productivity, unemployment, competition from east and west, the collapse of industries through the decades of the 20th, and now the 21st, centuries. Yet these are harder now. Intelligent systems, robotic manufacturing, driverless vehicles, online services, all carve deep into established trades.
In the post-war decades, every time a new technology came along, the feared bonfire of jobs didn’t happen — or only briefly and not everywhere. It’s different this time. The jobs massacre that super-intelligent machines and systems presage, doesn’t — for now — seem to leave many large areas of human work.
My son settled, in his mid-teens, on the trade of an actor as his life’s work: and in his mid-twenties, became one. I was glad, yet felt obliged to issue the warning that this was a trade renowned for unemployment, and frustrated hopes.
But acting is not yet a candidate for automation. Maybe he was wiser than his co-evals who studied law, engineering and business studies. Maybe, if automation relieves us of much physical and mental toil, the old utopian dream of leisure and cultivation of the mind and body could be realized, and actors will be in short supply and highly rewarded.
Maybe: but what a massacre of jobs to get there! And as that comes closer, the political world has to simultaneously come to terms with a possibility rapidly becoming a fact. That is, the likely end to Western Europe’s long period of peace.
As the Soviet Union was disintegrating a quarter of a century ago, the “evil empire’s” foreign affairs advisor Georgy Arbatov said to the then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott — “we are doing something terrible to you: we are depriving you of an enemy.”
That’s no longer true. Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor state, is now an enemy, if still a cold one. Its seizing of parts of Ukraine; its threats to the Baltic states; its probing of NATO defenses at sea and in the air; its relentless propaganda against the West — all at the bidding of President Vladimir Putin — leave no doubts.
And if there is legitimate debate about how dangerous Russia is, there is none about the Islamist movements whose virulence and power appears presently unstoppable. In just a week, Islamic State has taken Ramadi in Iraq, and now Palmyra, in Syria. Jihadists rule large parts of Libya, Saudi Arabia is trying to wipe out the Houthi rebels in Yemen and extremists on both the Sunni and Shi’ite sides of a now murderous divide strengthen their positions.
In all of the states of Europe, their recruiters and websites beckon young Muslim men and women to join them in the mission to create a new caliphate to rule all Muslims and put their enemies — mainly other Muslims — to the sword. Thousands of Europeans have joined the cause.
No sense now in shrugging this off as a fantasy. Even if the caliphate could never be realized — the forces that could be massed against it would be vast — yet still the vision sucks in the young, and renders helpless the Muslim communities of Europe and elsewhere who do not share the vision but fear their children might.
The killing of Jews, of Christians and most of all of Muslims opposed to the vision is making of the Middle East a place of war, in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen; of defensive repression, as in Egypt; and of fear everywhere. This is a region, as Steve Coll wrote this week, “descending into what looks to be a long, intimately violent war.”
Europe must become less liberal so that liberal democracy is protected. France has a bill extending surveillance before its Senate; Britain will table one soon. Italy, beset with immigrants from North Africa, cannot cope and fears that jihadists are among those washing up on Italian shores. This last fear is not an idle one: Abdel Majid Touil, suspected of being one of these who planted a bomb in a Tunisian museum which killed 24 (four of them Italian) last March, was arrested in Milan earlier this week: he had been saved from drowning, when his migrant boat sank, by the Italian navy in February.
These worsening events and movements confront Europe’s politicians: in sum, they make up a world in which the promises of ever more comfortable living recede, and are replaced with anxiety. No wonder, on the campaign trail, political leaders stay with platitudes and generalities. But sooner or later, they must draw their citizens into a mature debate on what the world now holds for us.