Tuesday, 27 December 2016

New times?

This blog, at least, is now living in new times since regular readers will have seen that there has been a complete revamp of the site design, to reflect the new edition of my book. As well as the new imagery to match the fourth edition cover there are new sidebars showing followers (and do click on the follow button if you would like to), numbers of readers, a listing of the most read posts, a new search facility, a cloud of post labels and enhanced buttons at the end of each post to share on social media. Plus, there is now a new title: a fairly interesting and completely free blog about organizations.

On a rather grander scale, there seems to be an emerging consensus that we are living in new times, with 2016 having marked the end of the hegemony of global free market ideology – what I call the new capitalism in my book – that has held sway since the 1970s. Beyond, but associated with, that are notions from commentators on the left and on the right of a post-liberal era, a post-truth era, an age of anger  or an age of populism.

This analysis, born largely of the votes for Trump and Brexit, is tempting, and it’s one which to some extent I share. But I think there is a need for caution, too. In my book I discuss (pp. 93-95) reasons for scepticism about claims of the new era of globalization, and there are similar reasons for scepticism about its demise.

In relation to Trump’s victory I’ve pointed to the fact that he received support from many who were by no means the losers from globalization, and also to the continuity of many of his policies with those of the traditional free market right. That has subsequently been underscored by many of his appointments at least four of whom are alumni of investment bank Goldman Sachs, the high priests of the globalist order. Is this really a rupture with the elite establishment or with the neo-liberal hegemony? Similarly, if the Brexit vote was a rejection of globalization then the news hasn’t reached Brexiter ministers like Liam Fox who take it to be an endorsement of “the glorious joys of free trade”.

Perhaps what is in prospect is a sell-out of the voters and, for sure, it is clear that those who voted Trump or Brexit in anticipation of an end to globalization and free market economics are in for a very nasty shock. But I think that what is more to the point is that the votes in question had enormously mixed motivations, and they cannot be read as the neat story that commentators are developing as the new political truth.

In relation to Brexit, I have read or heard in conversation all kinds of reasons for voting to leave the EU. These have included a belief that heavy industry would return (which is closest to the anti-globalization narrative); hostility to immigration (which might in part be seen as part of anti-globalization sentiment, but which certainly pre-dates the neo-liberal period) including non-EU immigration (which would not be affected by the vote); a desire to give the government a good kicking; the idea that it would be interesting to see what happened; the belief that the remain side would win anyway so it was just a protest vote; the hope that it would mean more money for the NHS (presumably based on the Leave campaign’s headline slogan); the sense that ‘things aren’t going to well’ so it’s time for a change; the belief it was a vote against ‘austerity economics’ and so on and so on.

I don’t necessarily mean by this that those who voted leave had any worse reasons for doing so than those who voted remain (for example, I heard one remain voter explaining that he did so in the (erroneous) belief that that English football teams would not be able to play in Europe if we left the EU). The point is rather that the heterogeneous motivations to vote leave do not give licence to a homogenized analysis and explanation of the outcome of the vote.

To put it another way, both the Trump and the Brexit votes were very close; and in the US case, Trump actually lost the popular vote. So the outcomes could easily have been completely different, and if Clinton had narrowly won, and Remain had won 52-48 instead of the other way around, then commentators would be oh-so-wisely saying ‘when it came to it, people voted for the status quo’. Yet the politics and sociology of the vote would have been virtually identical: a few percentage points the other way. In those circumstances, we would be saying ‘nothing has changed’; as it is, we are saying ‘everything has changed’.

Those few percentage points matter hugely, of course, in terms of practicalities. Trump’s election and Brexit will have major consequences in the US, the UK, and around the world. But those consequences flow not from a seismic shift in society but from the way that a whole agglomeration of voting decisions can in certain voting systems have an effect. We mistake effect for cause if we imagine that the outcome of those particular and peculiar voting systems has a single meaning that adds up to the proposition that we are suddenly living in new times.

History does have patterns, which stand out sharp and clear, almost as banalities, in long retrospect; close up and immediate ascriptions of historical change are – almost inevitably – mistaken. Perhaps we should not be too impatient for meaning. The actress Carrie Fisher who died today aged 60 provided the quote that I used to introduce the chapter on contemporary capitalism in the second edition of my book: “instant gratification takes too long”. We may or may not be living in ‘new times’: time will tell.

Happy New Year.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Cyber insecurity

In the new edition of my book I mention (p.25) cyber security as an example of how organizational rules are often flouted, leading to risky behaviour such as inadequate passwords or clicking on links that contain malware.

This is a microcosm of a much wider set of issues which have been brought to the fore this week with the news that Yahoo suffered a cyber-attack which may have compromised the personal data of more than a billion user accounts. This is the latest of a string of high profile cases involving companies including Tesco Bank, mobile phone company TalkTalk, and infidelity dating site Ashley Madison.

Such cases are themselves a microcosm of an even wider set of issues around online frauds and scams. Today, UK consumer groups have criticised inadequate protection against bank transfer frauds where people are conned into making payments they are expecting to make to a legitimate recipient but which are diverted to a scammer.

It is for most of us a daily experience to receive emails that purport to come from banks or other organizations (‘phishing’), or from someone in our email contact list supposedly robbed whilst abroad and in need of our funds(the ‘sad news scam’), as well as the older scam of the message about money to be transferred if the victim first transfers a smaller sum (the ‘Nigeria 419 scam’ and variants). In all cases what is being sought is money, data, or the installation of malware which will allow these to be collected, with ‘ransomware’ being an increasingly common, and nasty, version. There are also numerous scams that are initiated by phone. Common examples include the bogus call from ‘Microsoft’ leading to remote control of your computer and/or demands for money to remove viruses.

It’s easy to think that only the extremely gullible are taken in by any of these things, but some of them are very convincing and the forms they take change, so it is easy to be caught out. Moreover, as new technologies emerge, such as contactless card payments, new possibilities for theft are created. The massively increased use mobile devices also creates new scams, and the immediacy of a mobile (compared with, say, an email on your PC) makes an instant, unconsidered response that much more likely. Plus the emergent ‘internet of things’ makes cyber security even more challenging.

Like any other crime, there are a mixture of personal, corporate and regulatory issues that may offer protection from or redress for cyber-crime. I like to think (but don’t we all?) that I am reasonably savvy about cyber security, partly because I worked on a research project about it recently. But what I find irritating is how we are increasingly pushed into exposing ourselves to the risk. Personally, I have never signed up for internet banking and I never use contactless card payment, but that has become more and more difficult to sustain. Telephone, let alone branch, banking is increasingly difficult, and banks seem amazed when people refuse to bank online. In shops, I have had contactless payments taken without consent. And, beyond that, I’ve recently had a couple of experiences where my bank has contacted me on a withheld number asking for security information in order to progress queries. They were, in fact, genuine calls, but I think it would have been easy for a fraudster to mimic them.

More generally, it’s all but impossible to live off-line to any great extent nowadays, or not without a huge amount of inconvenience. But the practices of organizations capitalise on this. Every single commercial and state organizations you deal with demands personal data – often way beyond what is needed for the transaction in question. The privacy policies of these organizations are far too complex to understand, and refusing to sign up to them renders it effectively impossible to access a huge swathe of services. Then again, I have never (knowingly) signed up to Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin, but I nevertheless get endless emails from each of these, and unsubscribing has no effect. Equally, I always tick the ‘no’ options on communications from internet sites I buy from, but often get communications nonetheless and often find that unsubscribing from these makes no difference.

So although we are bombarded with advice about how to protect ourselves from cybercrime and internet marketing, the reality is that there is relatively little that we, as individuals, can do. And the things we might consider, such as single password sites for multiple accounts, can make us more insecure as they concentrate sensitive data in one place.

Insecurity is endemic to the human condition – existentially, psychologically, socially, economically we are insecure. Today, we have to add a new insecurity, virtual or cyber insecurity, in which we may be bullied, blackmailed, lose at best our money and at worst our identity.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Rise of the robots

The de-skilling thesis associated with Harry Braverman’s classic work of labour process analysis, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) is a staple of organizational sociology (see p.36 of my book). I suppose, though, that it has come to be seen as rather dated in part, perhaps, because its Marxist framework was deemed obsolete when the Berlin Wall fell and the ‘end of history’ was proclaimed. Well, history has turned out not to be over and the triumph of globalised free-market capitalism that seemed to be the only game in town in the last three decades now faces challenge in all directions.

Equally, the de-skilling thesis, rooted in the analysis of Taylorism, came to seem outdated in the supposed shiny new world of knowledge work, empowerment, the war for talent and post-bureaucracy. And, in parallel, labour process analysis within organizational sociology got shunted to the side lines by glitzy postmodernism and the plethora of weird and wonderful theories that came in its wake, so that even work itself seemed to become marginal to organizational sociology and, in fact, to sociology itself.

All this millennialism is now itself coming to seem very dated. In particular, public debate is beginning to recognize that there are very profound and far-reaching transformations of work occurring due to a new wave of technological change associated with robotics and expert systems. These now have a greater capacity than ever before to replace both human manual labour but also professional and knowledge work. It is this replacement of labour with cheaper, more productive, more predictable and more controllable machines which, of course, was at the heart of Braverman’s de-skilling thesis.

Thus, for example, earlier this year it was reported that Foxconn, which supplies Apple and Samsung, had replaced 60,000 of its workers with robots; and last week Capita, the outsourcing firm, announced its intention to replace 2000 of its staff with robots. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – who is increasingly showing himself to be more thoughtful and effective than the politicians who are supposed to provide society’s leadership – made a major speech last week predicting the automation of 15 million jobs in the UK. For OECD countries as a whole 57% of jobs are predicted to be automated by 2020, reaching far into occupations previously thought to be immune to automation, because of the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

One way of approaching this issue is by reference to an early critique of Braverman’s de-skilling thesis, namely Andrew Friedman’s Industry and Labour (1977). The argument, to put it in its simplest form, was that what Braverman saw as a single, linear trend was not that, because it applied only to peripheral, low-skill, perhaps non-unionised, workers. Core workers, by contrast, retained responsible autonomy by virtue of their skills and bargaining power. From that perspective, we could say that the combination of the erosion of trade unionism and, crucially, the new technological possibilities of robotics and AI mean that the 'core' is now very rapidly decomposing. Thus the scope for de-skilling is much extended and Braverman's de-skilling thesis has a new lease of life.

If this is correct, the consequences are very far-reaching. The hollowing out of the middle-class and the deindustrialization of the developed world have already had significant political effects, most obviously in the election of Donald Trump. Continued automation can only accelerate this and, crucially, it renders ineffective the protectionist ‘America First’ solution Trump proposes. For that proposal is predicated on the idea that the flight of US jobs to cheaper labour countries like China can be reversed. But the threat of automation is not the replacement of expensive labour with cheap labour, but of labour with machines. Thus Chinese jobs are just as vulnerable as American jobs – more so, in fact, with some 77% of Chinese jobs thought to be at risk by 2020.

If this wholesale transformation of work occurs, it will very soon present massive political challenges and the need for completely new forms of social organization. At the moment, work is central to economic activity. If that ceases to be so, what happens to those whose work is no longer needed. That has moral and social implications: are they just to rot and die? But it also has economic implications: who will buy the products of robots if no one has an income from work? In this context, the movement for a citizens’ income, also known as a Universal Basic Income (UBI), paid unconditionally to every member of society is likely to become central to political discussion. In fact, after writing this post I learned that, just today, Prince Edward Island, a Province of Canada, has decided to trial a UBI scheme and, also today, the BBC has launched a UBI information resource.

So I sense that we are at the cusp of something important, and something which shows, moreover, the deep interconnections between work, organizations and politics which are so central to the kind of analysis I urge in my book. If so it is vital that the political decisions needed are made quickly: if they do not match or even anticipate what is happening in work organizations the consequences could be catastrophic, with mass unemployment on a scale never before seen.

Braverman, H. (1974) Labour and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Friedman, A. (1977) Industry and Labour. Class Struggle at Work and Monopoly Capitalism. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.