Vulnerable and demodernising futures

Il·lustració © Sonia Alins

The weak post-crisis recovery has left a polarised scenario in its wake, with an evident impoverishment of the middle and working classes. Digitisation will continue to alter the employment and production system, social relations, identities and power. We are entering a new era where human work will be massively expendable or have the capacity to be redefined. The question is under what conditions and limits.

In The Age of Diminished Expectations (1990), Paul Krugman analysed the major structural change posed by the combination of post-Fordism, new technologies and market freedom. He predicted that, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, children’s standard of living was not going to exceed that of their parents, challenging the persistent mentality of the social ladder and the growth of the middle classes. It gave way to a new era of diminished expectations with less redistribution of wealth and greater job and social precariousness.

Shortly after, Pierre Bourdieu and his team of young sociologists analysed the consequences of neoliberal globalisation in The Weight of the World (1993), envisaging the scars of vulnerability that would later become open wounds that could not be sewn. The desertion of urban peripheries, the xenophobia of the most vehement patriots and the shrinking and weakened welfare state, which does not tackle new social risks, are now contemporary socio-political patterns that Bourdieu knew how to sum up as the “abdication of the State” in the face of the new neoliberal order.

The “abdication of the State” was reinterpreted by Alain Touraine (1997) based on the concept of demodernisation. Historically, modernity balanced the connection between the state, the market and social actors with the thirty glorious years of welfare (1945-75) as the greatest exponent of a Keynesian pact between capital and labour, which now seems unique. Demodernisation is a process of decomposition and recurrent anomie, with a minimum-state that allows financial capital to reign in a world society with no rules of governance that lead to processes of accumulation and dispossession, on a scale unimaginable by Marx or by Adam Smith.

Later on, Colin Crouch (2004) spoke of “post-democracy” as a depreciating ebb of parliamentary democracy in which institutionality remains an empty shell, given that decisions are made in circles of power and polyarchies unconnected to citizenship and transparency. The crisis in the euro zone and the non-accountability of major banks and financial agencies were settled by exalting the dogma of austerity and deficit discipline as post-democratic fetishes. The loss of real sovereignty in the afflicted Southern Europe (Greece, Spain, Italy, etc.) resulted in vulnerability and dispossession, both of a material and symbolic nature, of a shocking magnitude that explains the scaling back of the former optimistic expectations of linear and incremental progress.

The recent publication by the OECD of the report Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class (2019a) confirms the theses of the new era of diminished expectations with a broken social ladder and the shrinking middle class in terms of size, income and status. Weak recovery after the deep recession has left a bleak landscape of greater inequality and social polarisation between high- and low-income households; it is more appropriate to speak of social decline and impoverishment for the middle classes as well as for workers and their respective children (Oxfam Intermón, 2019; Nachtwey, 2017; Martínez-Celorrio and Marín, 2016; Dobbs, 2016).

Social polarisation and the decline of the middle classes are harmful and stressful processes for democracy and community cohesion; they generate spaces of conflict and create an unclear malaise that is being capitalised by populisms of different kinds. Precisely illiberal populisms (with Trump at the head) are bringing us to the cusp of a new recession due to the geopolitical changes of the new world disorder. Everything seems to paint a big picture of what Ulrich Beck called “organised irresponsibility”. It is the same system of democratic governance that has collapsed by making unfettered globalisation unmanageable, which destroys jobs, local markets, communities and the planet’s own sustainable balance. If Max Weber raised his head, he would surely be appalled by the results of a rationalisation process that contributed to theorising and that has gone beyond the extremes of what is tolerable and what is legitimate.

The globalising disorder has turned the planet into a total market where even privacy has become a business for large technology firms. A privacy that appeared as an intimate and distinctive space for the 19th-century’s bourgeoisie and that was later democratised as lifestyles and preferences that are now parameterised by big data and artificial intelligence as another commodity. In 2014, the Government of China approved a mandatory social credit system as a civic score card that measures citizens’ credibility and reputation based on their behaviour in social networks and in public spaces. China has become the Orwellian Big Brother, introducing video surveillance cameras with artificial intelligence on the streets, biometric data for every citizen, control of web browsing histories, police with smart glasses that can identify every citizen and penalties for citizens with low scores on their social credit card. The dystopia of certain chapters of Black Mirror already outdoes fiction. China may be the first country to establish a caste system according to the digital stratification of its citizens’ behaviour.

In parallel, demodernisation is offset by the spell of technological triumphalism thanks to 5G technologies, which will have a connection 40 times faster than the current one and will facilitate a new infrastructure for the development of the fourth industrial revolution and the digitalisation of the economy and daily life. Digitisation is more than a technological leap, as were the steam engine, electricity, the piston engine or the chip that spread computing. It implies a disruptive shift that will further alter the employment, production and consumption system, as well as social relations, identities and power.

Manuel Castells (2019) warns us that in 2014 there were about 1.6 billion connected devices/machines, but this number is expected to rise to approximately 20 billion by 2020. Ultra-high speed interconnection will be feasible thanks to a huge density of mini-antennae whose electromagnetic fields will generate health risks not yet well assessed. But like so many other times, they will be minimised so as not to hinder progress or, rather, Weberian rationalisation, which blindly and determinedly runs to create the new capitalist method of digital production.

The introduction of 5G technologies will increase the convergence of technological advances and greater integration between artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, 5G surgery and quantum computing, to name the most important ones. All these technologies have been illuminated by the advancement of science and knowledge that have grown exponentially and that are now going to make giant leaps. In fact, 90% of the scientists who have told the history of mankind are now alive and are working to expand the boundaries of what is known and possible without discussing moral dilemmas that society as a whole cannot consider in time. Ulrich Beck (1998) pointed to research laboratories as Trojan horses of the anomic demodernisation that we cannot govern. Constant and turbo-accelerated innovation that Paul Virilio already envisaged is the new source of wealth, together with a cognitariate – or expert and creative class – that drives liquid globalisation with no counterweight.

According to the World Economic Forum’s report The Future of Jobs, 52% of all workplace tasks will be performed by machines by 2025 and, although millions of jobs are destroyed, there will be a net creation of 52 million jobs up to that year. For its part, the OECD (2019b) estimates that, with robotisation, 52% of employment in Spain is affected by the risk of either disappearing (22%) or undergoing significant changes (30%). According to a report by the Cotec Foundation (2017), 40% of Spaniards do not consider themselves qualified to compete in an automated labour market. Other reports indicate that 47% of Spanish workers believe that their capabilities will become obsolete in the next five years.

The robotisation of industry and services will increase productivity by 30% at the cost of reducing labour costs between 18% and 33%, according to certain estimates. Herein lies the crux of the issue. The history of capitalism is the history of its added value and its profit rate at the expense of human labour. Now we are at the cusp of a new era where human work will be massively expendable or have the capacity to be redefined. The question is under what conditions and limits. The new conditions make it necessary to define a new social contract, new forms of ownership and co-management in companies and a new fair taxation in which robots and technology giants also pay taxes. That is why debates and regulations must be instigated about the type of 4.0 society that is looming and the type of citizen sovereignty we wish to exercise.

Can we decide that it is time to divide working time, advance the retirement age, redistribute the huge capital gains of robotisation, guarantee co-management in companies and move towards a more ethical and environmentally more sustainable model of post-capitalism? The age of diminished expectations has already given rise to post-democracies with highly invasive populist viruses. It remains to be seen how they will be metabolised and what new phenomenon will replace them, because, despite Fukuyama’s claims, history never grinds to a halt and least of all do the historical forces of truth, dignity and justice.


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Krugman, P., The Age of Diminished Expectations. The MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1997.
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