Stephen Hawking Joins A Long Tradition Of Public Intellectuals Who Warned Us About Capitalism

Stephen Hawking Joins A Long Tradition Of Public Intellectuals Who Warned Us About Capitalism

During a Reddit Science Ask-Me-Anything session Thursday, Professor Stephen Hawking addressed a question about technological unemployment (the idea that increased automation will cause mass unemployment in the relatively near future). Dr. Hawking acknowledged that we will probably continue to see inequality rise in the future, as well as the fact that the strategy to combat that inequality is wealth redistribution, saying:

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

This news caused a litany of headlines, most of them something along the lines of “Stephen Hawking Says We Should Really Be Scared Of Capitalism, Not Robots”. It’s not really clear from that quote alone whether Dr. Hawking considers himself anti-capitalist or any shade of socialist. However, if that were the case, then he would certainly be in very god company. The count of geniuses that have made similar statements at various times is many. So here are a few times when some other very high-profile public intellectuals have fretted about technology, employment and the coming robot apocalypse (and what we should do about it).

Albert Einstein in his 1949 Essay “Why Socialism?”

Einstein believed that an innovative society was one where wealth inequality was not a dire threat to the average person, as well as a society which encouraged societal growth and health through investment in education, instead of profit-seeking. He also believed that massive accumulation of capital lead to economic woe:

“Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions.… I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.”

Carl Sagan in this 1989 CNN interview with Ted Turner

When asked whether he is a socialist, Carl Sagan responded:

“I’m not sure what a Socialist is. But I believe that the government has a responsibility to care for the people. I’m not talking about [the] dole – I’m talking about making people self-reliant… there are countries which are able to do that, the United States is an extremely rich country and is perfectly able to do that; it chooses not to. It chooses to have homeless people…”

On comparing the benefits of mass spending on Reagan’s Strategic Defense (“Star Wars”) initiative against direct social investment,  he says:

“I think it’s a disgrace! This country has vast wealth… think of what that money could be used for: to educate, to help, to bring people up to a sense of self-confidence, to improve not just the happiness of Americans but their economic standing. … We are using money for the wrong stuff.”

Maybe he does not know what a socialist is, (it can mean so many things) – but it’s clear that Sagan believed that putting money in the hands of people was the smart thing to do. But hey, what does that guy know from smart? He’s just the most celebrated Cosmologist since Einstein.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1967

More than 20 years before Carl Sagan wondered what would happen if we spent as much on peace as we do on war, Democratic Socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. was wondering the exact same thing:

“And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth… as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” …There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

MLK was a proponent of guaranteed jobs and a basic minimum income and (the most commonly proposed solution to technological unemployment). He once mused, on the relationship between racial equality and economic inequality: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

David Graeber’s Famous 2013 Essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”

David Graeber is a well-known public thinker, celebrated author, Anarchist-Anthropologist and a Professor at the London School of Economics. In his widely-lauded essay, he laments the loss of good paying and meaningful jobs, which he attributes to automation:

“Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away… But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing… These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

The implication is that “Bullshit Jobs”, as Graeber calls them, increase inequality because they are typically low-paying and hourly — meaning people with no choice but to take these jobs not only have very little income but also must fight to get enough hours. He calls this situation a kind of “profound psychological violence”.

Noam Chomsky in this 1991 Interview with Anarchy Magazine

Professor Chomsky teaches Linguistics at MIT and is possibly one of the most recognizable figures in America’s public dialogue today. When asked in an interview whether technological advancement in the economy could spell disaster, Chomsky echoes Dr. Hawking’s scary prediction in the sense that Hawking called the trend toward technology driven inequality an “option”. Chomsky reminds us that we are not subject to these innovations as external phenomenon, but are the architects of our own institutions and societies. And that means we have a choice, saying:

“Most of the assembly-line type of work could be eliminated with the appropriate use of high-technology, for example robotics. I mean that could eliminate a lot of the work that human beings shouldn’t do… In a hierarchic, oppressive society robotics will mean mass destruction. But the question is, what are the institutions? Robotics itself is neutral. Robotics itself could be used to eliminate degrading labor. It could be used to oppress people. And the question is in which social institutions is it going to develop?”

So there’s really no reason to fear automation in and of itself; but as all of these great thinkers have pointed, out we DO need to worry about the power and motivation behind those who get to drive the choice between Dr. Hawking’s two options.  He called these people “the machine-owners”. Well, machines are capital. And owners of capital are capitalists. It seems those headlines had it right all along — we should probably be afraid of capitalists. So, are we doomed to be subjects to institutions and people that use technology to wage “profound psychological violence” on workers?  Or are we going to demand technology work for the good of everybody? It’s not yet too late to demand and embrace the world that MLK, Sagan, Chomsky, Graeber, and many others thought possible — Hawking’s first option, a world where “the machine-produced wealth is shared”.


Image via Reuters

Lydia Alpural-Sullivan

Lydia Alpural-Sullivan

Lydia is a freelance writer on culture, politics and the economy currently residing in Denver, CO. When not dipping into an ink-well full of piss and vinegar, she enjoys walking her dog, sculpting, archery and being a general malcontent. You can follow her on Twitter @LydiaAlpural.