In Sam Harris’ most recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast they discussed the rise of automation and the responses that are necessary to it. Harris has been discussing this issue for quite a while, sounding the alarm for the potential danger, while not attempting to spread panic. At the same time, Harris recognizes that our current financialized-monopoly capitalist system simply cannot continue under this new regime. He rightly notes that automation will result in one of two things. Either we institute some form of wealth re-distribution, or we slide into an unjustifiably outrageous inequality of wealth were those who have it must barricade themselves behind razor wire to avoid the prongs of angry former-workers.
Harris is rather sanguine about this issue though. He notes that surely there is some level of inequality that is unsustainable. Though Harris sees this position as being reached somewhere in the future, it notes that it is surely a principled position. How unequal can we really get?
“But even in the ideal case, where obvious value has been created, how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep? A trillion dollars? Ten trillion? (Fifty trillion is the current GDP of Earth.) Granted, there will be some limit to how fully wealth can concentrate in any society, for the richest possible person must still spend money on something, thereby spreading wealth to others. But there is nothing to prevent the ultra rich from cooking all their meals at home, using vegetables grown in their own gardens, and investing the majority of their assets in China.”
He argues that to address the consequences of automation, that we will need to come up with a system, potentially a universal basic income, where the wealth generated from the rise of the machines can be socially, rather than privately, beneficially.
Listen to the section here.
Harris has written on this before. But what you wont find from this is any serious discussion of the background philosophy that gives animation and foundation to his notions. He never discusses how wealth is generated in the first place, and how automation is merely the latest advance in a system that is partially based on a notion of “creative destruction” that has significantly destructive tendencies for human beings at the low end of ladder.
What I mean, of course, is Marx, specifically the Grundrisse. While Sam is certainly on to something, and his intuitions are certainly correct, his lack of dealing with the necessary philosophical background that gives the ideas motion is disappointing to say the least. Indeed, Marx discussed the improvement of technology under capitalism, praised it for its ability to destroy old paradigm of resource scarcity, but also outlined how, given the dynamics of private ownership and control of the means of production, these technological advancements are retooled to assist the continuation of the system.
It has been brought up to Sam and to Joe Rogan that they need to have guest trained in Marxism on their respective podcasts. Given the wide, inquisitive, and intelligent audiences that both Rogan and Harris have, it seems imperative that they have a guest on – such as Richard Wolff – who can sift through the propaganda that both Harris and Rogan wish to avoid by not using terms associated with Marxism, socialism, or communism.
But let us not kid ourselves here. What Sam Harris is proposing is, if not what Marx did, something close to it. He sees the contradictions of capitalism in front of him. He isn’t blind. But he is blinded by an education and social situation which allows even brilliant people like Harris, to ignore an entire tradition in western thought. Lacking this understanding is a serious hurdle to Harris’s views, because they do not address some fundamental civilizational questions and leave him unable to give any guidance that may convince more people to seek out formerly taboo ides, the kind that Harris is already no stranger.
While we enter a new era in capitalism, with Trump at the helm of the executive branch of the American government and the continued progress towards massive automation, the ideas of Marx are never more important. People like Rogan and Harris have been elevated to positions that have actual effects in the world. If either had a Marxist economist on their podcasts it would do a great deal towards shattering the taboo that still exists. It would get them credit with the younger generation who enjoy both podcasts and socialism. It would help themselves to realize that some arguments, so common today and even ones they employ, are actually quite poor and ought to be contested and shown how poor they are in public and in real time.
At the end of the day Harris (and even Rogan) is already 9/10th a socialist, he just needs to get over that last hurdle. I think Richard Wolff can assist doing that. Who wouldn’t love seeing Sam and Dr. Wolff, or Joe and Dr. Wolff discussing Marxism for 3 hours? Sign me up!