Elsewhere

In a piece titled "The Robots Are Coming," John Lanchester explains why technology may one day force us to choose between capitalism and democracy. The word "socialist" does not appear until the last sentence of the piece, but the drift of Lanchester's argument is clear. And compelling.

A great deal of modern economic discourse takes it as axiomatic that economic forces are the only ones that matter. This idea has bled into politics too, at least in the Western world: economic forces have been awarded the status of inexorable truths. The idea that a wave of economic change is so disruptive to the social order that a society might rebel against it – that has, it seems, disappeared from the realms of the possible. [...]

The scenario we’re given—the one being made to feel inevitable—is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there’s no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.) There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants. This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines. It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable. This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour. Except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.

A letter from Athens by the American poet A. E. Stallings:

So far, the fledgling government has been struggling to do what it was elected to do—to issue a “great No” to austerity. Now we are in Lent, a season of repentance and second thoughts. But the rhetoric on the banners of Athens would suggest that, even faced with sombre repercussions, the sea of people still thinks it is the right No.

Brenda Wineapple on the extraordinary life of Sybille Bedford:

To this day, I [...] remember her bright blue eyes, her mumbly voice, the bottles of dark wine lined up on the small wooden table in her very small but amply book-lined apartment. I remember that our first talk lasted far into the night. I remember that she was then and continued to be forthright, funny, and scrupulously frank. I remember thinking and then later writing, and considering even now, how remarkable it was that one of the finest stylists of the twentieth century, bar none, with a prose of incomparable precision and grace, would candidly acknowledge her daily battle against discouragement, distraction, and doubt. But that was typical.

I also remember that on September 11, 2001, she was the only friend from afar who telephoned to check on my husband and me. Then again, her life and her work were all about accountability. “Our capacities for suffering are not usually so extensible as are the means of inflicting it,” she once observed. "We bear, and may derive strength from having borne, comfort from being still there, comfort from any mercy: the faith of friends, the match struck by a stranger, discovery of reserves."

That is survival.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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