As the professional classes lose their jobs to technology, opportunities arise for the leftby Ben Judah / December 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
Oldham is a good place to think about the future of Labour. But not for the reasons that you’d think. The important thing here is after all the punditry, there was no Corbyn effect in Oldham. Nothing particularly positive; nothing particularly negative.
So why is Oldham interesting? Because this town, that has long since ceased to matter to Britain economically, is important to our understanding of Labour because it is one of the sites of Britain’s last great jobs disaster. Oldham was once Britain’s Shenzhen: at its zenith the town spun more cotton than France and Germany combined—making it the most productive cotton town in the world.
The industrial disaster in Labour’s north is something that haunts the Corbynites: what could have been done to save the factories? Could the mines have been kept open? What could Labour have done to keep these communities going? It always informs their sense of the future. The new Labour leadership is acutely worried that technological change could once again put millions of low paid Britons out of work and status.
“In the social democracies of the 1960s there was intense excitement about technological change,” says James Schneider, one the organisers of Momentum, the pro-Corbyn group which was campaigning in Oldham. “Now there is fear. What’s changed isn’t the Left’s attitude to technology. Nobody has become a Luddite. It’s the fear that in a much more unequal society the benefits and the burdens of technology transforming the nature of work will not be distributed evenly.”
After Oldham, Corbyn looks here to stay. This is why, however silly it sounds, the recent speech by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell promising “Socialism with an iPad” is a must listen if you want to understand—and not just argue—about the Corbynite agenda. So what did McDonnell say?
Bank of England research, he warned in this 20th November speech at a shiny new Imperial College incubator, says automation risks 15m British jobs and those in the front-line were the low-paid. Over the Atlantic, the Bank of America has warned that 45 per cent of all manufacturing tasks were facing automation by 2025. “For those who own the robots, it will of course be a different story,” said McDonnell, lamenting what he had seen on a recent trip to Teesside. This is where the speech trailed off as he wishes for “a new economy where technology liberates rather than traps.” Labour’s proposals of state-private investment partnerships, however worthy, seemed nowhere near enough to answer this historic shift in employment.
So what should McDonnell download onto his iPad to turn this fear into a proactive agenda? The answer, I think, is warn the professionals of Wimbledon that they are as much at risk of automation as the workers of Teesside.
Yet Labour is not thinking or engaging with the professional class. If Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are really interested in thinking through the automation revolution they must download The Future Of The Professions by Richard and Daniel Susskind, a brilliant father and son combo from Oxford University. The Susskinds—whose book is reviewed by Giles Wilkes in the new issue of Prospect—argue that what McDonnell sees happening to the low-paid is about to happen to the professions. They demonstrate that the dreaded “technological unemployment” is not only something that happens to the undereducated. Most of the tasks that lawyers, accountants, academics and doctors actually do could easily be taken over by increasingly sophisticated software. These jobs are not about to go extinct, the Susskinds argue, but in the decades ahead the routine of what they do will be automated and their numbers could shrink radically. If they are right, high street solicitors looks set to follow high-street travel agents into history. And thus, if John McDonnell gets his messaging right, they could start voting Labour.
My first reaction to this argument was shock. Impossible to imagine Britain without a fat caste of lawyers, doctors and accountants! But the Susskinds masterfully show the professions as we know them are not a permanent feature of society. Rather the current sociology of lawyers, doctors, accountants, and architects is a nineteenth century product, thrown up by the emergence of a print-based industrial society. The professions, argue the Susskinds, still operate on the basis of a largely outdated grand bargain. Individuals lack specialist knowledge, and because society needs it so desperately, it is willing to allow—and to a certain extent venerate—a caste of the self-regulating knowledgeable. In the old print-based industrial society, the grand bargain was summed up in these simple face-to-face encounters, where the expert, who has studied the textbooks, sells his time to those who have not.
Today, the grand bargain is falling apart. The Susskinds give several examples. Accountants are already in danger: “in 2014,” they write, “the US tax authorities received electronic tax returns from almost 48m people who had used online tax preparation software, rather than a tax professional to help them.” Lawyers are imperilled: “three times as many disagreements each year among eBay traders are resolved using ‘online dispute resolution’ than there are lawsuits filed in the entire US court system,” the Susskinds claim. Regular GPs, too, are in for a cull: “there are a greater number of unique visits each month to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all doctors working in the United States.” Each of these cases are related. In each instance, specialist knowledge that was once only found in difficult to access books, with trained professionals as its gatekeepers, has gone online—undermining the old role of the expert. Reading the Susskinds’ introduction I was skeptical. By the conclusion after extensive studies and examples, I found myself convinced. Mr. Robot Q.C. and Mr. Accountant App are already here. The only thing holding them back is the right user-friendly software. What, after all, in most legal notes or tax forms is truly immune?
This is why McDonnell must download the book now to his iPad: because the decline of our old professions will reshape society and undermine the middle class. The Future Of The Professions leaves the reader worried. A society where technology has hollowed out the professions could be a more unequal one—reverting to its pre-industrial norm without a strong, powerful middle class. The new landowners could be the firms and individuals who own the intellectual property of technology.
What does a future with a drastically reduced professional class mean for social mobility and immigrant integration? It was the social lifts of the flourishing professions of the 20th century not the expanding welfare state that were the essential driver of both in modern Britain. But the Susskinds also sketch out a liberating promise. A future without the old professional caste, but where all can access the finest expertise as easily as they can now search Wikipedia. A radical blow to the essence of privilege. The best lawyer as an app for everyone.
How should John McDonnell’s policy team respond? The Susskinds argue that this transformation of the way people access expertise is not to be feared. The professions, they show, are deeply inefficient and unfair institutions. Only the very few are able to access high-quality expertise, while most of us cannot even dream of affording such access. The opening-up of access to expertise could be a deeply liberating moment for society—imagine if the poorest were able to access digitally the best legal advice—but it must be managed properly if this is to happen. With the decline of the old gatekeepers of expertise, there is a core role for government to play to ensure that legal, medical, financial information is opened up in a Wikipedia-style “commons” format and not privatised in a Facebook-esque arrangement where data-mining corporations could emerge as the “new gatekeepers.” I would personally call them, “the landlords of IPs.”
Right now the most fascinating debate for the next election I can imagine would be John McDonnell and George Osborne duelling over the Susskinds’ implications on national TV. Because what will our politics look like after the professions? For the Labour Party this opens up a whole new agenda to fight for: not only digital-rights, but pushing for government departments such as HMRC and the City’s professional guilds to make their knowledge and expertise radically accessible, publicly monitored and owned. For the Conservative Party this poses a new challenge: throwing Black Cab drivers under the bus (or rather the Uber…) when faced with technological change is one thing. Will they really be the party of the free market when lawyers and accountants are facing their Uber moment? Could the left come to embrace the results of the free market and technology if it meant a radical opening up of legal and financial expertise? Maybe it is time for “Socialism with an iPad” after all.