Why isn't technology making our lives easier?

September 2, 2016

Last month I read an article that first appeared in the Huffington Post titled "X Marks the Spot Where Inequality Took Root: Dig Here".

It explains how real wages in the US shadowed growth in productivity in the years after World War II. But in the mid-1970s wages growth completely stalled.

If wages had continued to shadow productivity growth they would now be double what they are today. This explains a lot about contemporary US society: all the gains of increased productivity have been absorbed by the rich.

We have seen a very similar process here in Australia, albeit not quite as brutal. In 1975 wages accounted for 75% of national income; it has now slumped to under 60%.

Wage growth is at historic lows and the minimum wage is around 44% of average full-time earnings, down from 60% 20 years ago.

If you worked for a cooperative enterprise of 100 workers and came up with a new labour-saving technology that increased production by 10%, you could all cut your work hours by 10% with no loss in pay. You and your family would be the winners.

However, that is not the reality for most of us. A private business owner will instead capture that 10% productivity increase for themselves by laying off 10 workers, or keeping all 100 workers on at the same pay but increasing production by 10%, or a combination of both.

This explains the perverse process whereby, despite all the advances in technology, people's lives are getting harder and they are often working longer hours. Workers usually have to fight tooth and nail to get any share of this productivity growth.

That is why it is incorrect to confine the term “class war” to particularly sharp workplace conflicts or fiery rhetoric used in the course of such disputes.

Class war is in fact just the simple description of everyday economic life. The sad reality for Australian workers is that the capitalists are mostly winning that war at the moment.

Far from being satisfied with capturing nearly all the gains of productivity growth, the employers and their servants in parliament want to drive down wages in absolute terms as well.

We see this in their constant clamour to get rid of penalty rates for the country's lowest paid workers — those who need them the most — and their endless efforts to tie up unions with more repressive legislation.

In some circles it is fashionable to talk about people no longer being “working class”, but that is only because such people think that working class means blue collar factory workers.

The modern day proletariat is you: staffing call centres, driving delivery vans, serving burgers and all the rest.

Organising the contemporary and mostly non-unionised working class to turn the tables on the capitalists may require new forms, but it can be done and it will need the old-fashioned guts and determination it always did.

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