The System Won’t Survive the Robots


It’s really just a matter of time; the working man’s deal with his overseers is half dead already. But there’s still inertia in the system, and even the losers are keeping the faith. Hope dies slowly, after all.

Nonetheless, the deal is collapsing and a new wave of robots will kill it altogether. Unless the overseers can pull back on technology – very fast and very hard – the deal that held through all our lifetimes will unwind.

We All Know the Deal

We usually don’t discuss what the “working man’s deal” is, but we know it just the same. It goes like this:

If you obey authority and support the system, you’ll be able to get a decent job. And if you work hard at your job, you’ll be able to buy a house and raise a small family.

This is what we were taught in school and on TV. It’s the deal our parents and grandparents clung to, and it’s even a fairly open deal. You can fight for the political faction of your choice and you can hold any number of religious and secular alliances, just as long as you stay loyal to the system overall.

This deal has been glamorized in many ways, such as, “Our children will be better off than we are,” “home ownership for everyone,” and of course, “the American Dream.” Except that it isn’t working anymore, or at least it isn’t working well enough.

Among current 20- and 30-year-olds, only about half are able to grasp the deal’s promises. That half is working like crazy, putting up with malignant corporatism and trying to keep ahead of the curve. The other half is dejected and discouraged, taking student loans to chase degrees (there’s more status in that than working at McDonald’s), or else they’re pacified with government handouts and distracted by Facebook.

The deal is plainly unavailable to about half of the young generation, but as I noted above, hope dies slowly and young people raised on promises are still waiting for the deal to kick in. It’s all they know.

Regardless, the deal has abandoned them. It has made them superfluous.

Here’s Why

Put very simply, the deal is dying because two things can no longer coexist:

#1: New technology.

#2: A system geared to old technology.

Let’s start with new technology: New machines and methods have made so many jobs obsolete that there aren’t enough to go around. Both North America and Europe are already filled with the unemployed or underemployed children of industrial workers. But at the same time, we are suffering no shortages; we have an overflow of stuff and a double overload of inane ads trying to sell it all. And there’s something important to glean from this:

Where goods abound, additional jobs are not required.

We don’t need more workers. Machines are producing plenty of stuff for us, and this becomes truer every day.

Item #2 is the system itself; let’s confront that directly too: The system was designed to reap the incomes of industrial workers. Everything from withholding taxes to government schools was put in place to maximize the take from an industrial workforce. Whether purposely or simply by trial and error, the Western world was structured to keep industrial workers moving in a single direction and to reap from them as they went. Call it “efficient rulership” if you like, but the system is a reaping machine.

Technology, however, has advanced beyond the limits of this machine; it has eliminated too many jobs. At the same time, regulations make it almost impossible for the superfluous class to adapt. Nearly everything requires certification and starting a business is out of the question; fail to file a form you’ve never heard of and the IRS will skin you alive.

This system, however, will not change; the big corps paid for the current regulatory regime, and they still own their congressmen.

Enter the Robots

You may have seen this image (it comes from NPR’s Planet Money), but look again anyway. I count 28 states in which “truck driver” is the most common job. As inexact as this map may be, it makes a point we can’t really ignore: What happens to all these truck drivers when self-driving trucks pile on to the roads? And you may count on it that they will; automated trucks will be safer and cheaper and will use less fuel. So, millions of truck drivers will be dropped out of the deal, and probably fairly soon.


On top of that, the very last refuge for the superfluous class – fast food – is experiencing its own robot invasion. Wendy’s just ordered 6,000 self-service ordering kiosks to be installed in the second half of 2016, and KFC’s first automated restaurant went live April 25.

Is There an Answer?

“The deal” is very clearly failing. At the same time, the system is utterly unwilling to change; the people in control are making too much money and hold too much power. The impoverishment of a hundred million people in flyover country won’t move them to give it up. Their system, after all, funnels the wealth of a continent to Washington, DC, in a steady stream… and they’ve bought access to that steam. The system will be defended.

So, forget about orderly reform. Certainly there will be talk of reform, and plenty of it… there will be promises, plans, and a small army of state intellectuals dedicated to keeping hope alive. But the system will not reform itself. Did Rome? Did Greece?

If there is to be an answer, it will have to come from the ‘superfluous’ people… but that discussion will have to wait for another day.

Don’t Blame the Robots

One last point: Don’t make the mistake of blaming technology for all of this. Technology is doing precisely what we want it to do: It’s killing scarcity. And that’s a very, very good thing. Without technology, we all go back to low-tech farming. And if that possibility doesn’t alarm you, you really should try it for a month or two.

Technology is moving forward and should move forward. The death of scarcity is to be welcomed. Our problem is that we’re chained to an archaic hierarchy of dominance with a deeply entrenched skimming class. Either we get past it or we go back to serfdom… or worse.

* * * * *

If you’ve enjoyed Free-Man’s Perspective or A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, you’re going to love Paul Rosenberg’s new novel, The Breaking Dawn.

It begins with an attack that crashes the investment markets, brings down economic systems, and divides the world. One part is dominated by mass surveillance and massive data systems: clean cities and empty minds… where everything is assured and everything is ordered. The other part is abandoned, without services, with limited communications, and shoved 50 years behind the times… but where human minds are left to find their own bearings.

You may never look at life the same way again.

Get it now at Amazon ($18.95) or on Kindle: ($5.99)


* * * * *

Paul Rosenberg

23 thoughts on “The System Won’t Survive the Robots”

  1. It seems like fast food always leads us to the edge of that slippery slope; and we begin to slide. DAMN those robots!
    Perhaps decentralization of some future industries like banking, will begin to reshape our population and create more individuals. From the immortal lyrics of Dennis DeYoung, until we meet again Mr. Roboto, “dōmo arigatō misutā Robōto, mata au hi made.”
    Great article Paul.

  2. With all due respect, truck drivers are pretty safe, now that the Google car has rear ended a non-Google car. I’m been a truck driver for over a quarter century, and I want to see a driverless tractor-trailer back itself in to a truck dock. The driverless truck that got all the attention in a recent news release only drove itself on the highway, being unable to steer and navigate off of a straightaway.
    A couple of decades ago, I was visiting my step family during home time from the longhaul, and one of my stepbrothers, who recently retired as a railroad engineer, told me that he thought I should be looking for another job, because he was hauling more containers all the time. I told him to let me know when there was a railroad siding up to every warehouse and store in the country, and I’d start thinking about worrying about my job.
    As long as we can unplug robots, there is no reason to fear them.

  3. You wrote “If there is to be an answer, it will have to come from the ‘superfluous’ people…” This is rather close to Orwell’s 1984, where Winston Smith wrote in his forbidden diary, ‘If there is hope, it lies in the proles.’
    Unfortunately Winston immediately followed it with the realisation that ‘Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.’ In short … Orwell’s view was that there’s no hope for bottom-up change from the ‘superfluous people’ because, as you put it, “the people in control are making too much money and hold too much power. The impoverishment of a hundred million people in flyover country won’t move them to give it up … we’re chained to … a deeply entrenched skimming class.”
    The question is, where’s the CTRL-ALT-DEL coming from to reboot this? From all the ‘superfluous people’ lolling on couches, anaesthetised by TV and Facebook, sustained mainly by government welfare, trained by The System to regard the state as provider and problem-solver?

    1. Good comment, Stuck. A couple of quick thoughts:
      1. I am a fan of small rebellions like Bitcoin and homeschooling. Those remain possible and practical. They are great ways to wake up.
      2. Your comment would work as advertising for my new book. 🙂

  4. So….you state the obvious, pretend to have a superior grasp on reality, and offer no new information or solutions. I guess that’s what ‘good blogging’ is all about. Can’t wait for the next enlightening installment. I wonder how long before ai start doing blogs ?

    1. AI programs are already writing lots of things… including comments.

  5. Paul Great article. I read everyone you ever send out. GOOD stuff. Thanks and please keep em coming!

  6. Hi Paul, I am a regular contributor to ZH as well. I like the article. There is something about the technology debate that stumps me. If there are no jobs and thus no income, do the robots purchase the goods and services? Or are we suggesting that capitalism now requires gov’t subsidies be paid to consumers to achieve revenue and thus profits for investment? And if that’s the case can’t we just forego production and consumption by printing money and handing it directly to investors? The concept of incomeless consumers seems to pervert the basis of capitalism. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Thad. Quick comments:
      Capitalism doesn’t really exist at the moment, save in the Bitcoin space. If we had actual capitalism, this would be a lot easier.
      The people of what I’m calling the superfluous class are more than capable of adapting and doing new things – they just can’t do it inside the existing system. Once that changes (and it will, even if it takes centuries) , they’ll be fine. The immense burden of the state will no longer crush them; prices will fall; ingenuity will return.

      1. On both counts I agree. We don’t currently have capitalism, which doesn’t allow for subsidizing profits. And secondly that withiin this system the superfluous are to have a rough go.
        But I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to simply move to a more pure system of capitalism, which allows for tachnological gains in productivity while balancing the natural requirement for income but doesn’t allow for profit subsidization, than to continue the subsidies while waiting for it all to collapse. For as you rightly point out that could take considerable time during which the superfluous shall be of some discomfort.
        In any case a very interesting topic.
        Thank you for the article and your additional insights here.

    2. If I may add a point: The idea of a ‘machine tax’ has been discussed for a long time. If nobody works, people will still need money (or rather goods) to live, so the logical thing would be to tax (robot) production and hand the money out to people as a Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Of course, if there’s no more scarcity, there’s not really a reason to still have money, either, which is just a way of allocating scarce resources. Whether or not the resulting system will still be capitalist remains to be seen.
      If you just print money not backed by anything, it will become worthless – the reason we need the (growing) real economy today is to serve as loan collateral.

  7. Interesting article, thanks.
    I have my doubts that the ‘superfluous’ people are likely to revolt, they’re mentally too deeply attached to the status quo, and the education system and the media make sure this doesn’t change. At the moment, my impression is that ‘the system’ will rather destroy itself through lack of innovation and growth – and thus ROI.

  8. First, the article ignores interference in the marketplace by psychopathic agents of the brainless abstraction called “government”. Second, I’m not a believer in the phenomenon called “technological unemployment”. It’s a scare tactic.
    Starting with #1, gentlemen with guns (urged on by cheerleaders from unionry) tend to march into peaceful entrepreneurships, brandish their weaponry, and force ineffective and inefficient and unprofitable work relations, before examining taxation (theft) and various other government encroachments.
    So, hordes of manufactures have and will continue to migrate to areas of the earth where the workforce is less costly, more favorable to manufacturing. That’s just one, but a primary, reason for “unemployment” — before we even address such scams as minimum wage laws.
    To illustrate #2, I am an old railroad telegrapher. Not only did government successfully kill off railroading, but technology ended telegraphy. After serving a “draft obligation” for the US Army, I became a skilled teletype operator. That, too, in time, went by the wayside — but it did not render me “unemployed”. I continued for some years in the field of information transmission, and eventually added a graduate degree in human communication.
    I’m not saying that technology is not presenting challenges, particularly to the undereducated (and those not motivated to develop their skills). “Unemployment Insurance” dampens innovation, fer sure fer sure (trucker talk). As does each and every form of government redistribution of wealth — “welfare”.
    And please, Paul, don’t interpret this as criticism of your essay. You cover my comment well with your “Item #2”. And your last point is very well taken also. “The Deal” is that dangerous superstition called “government”.

  9. I’m sorry to see such a smart young man get so wrapped up in Socialist Bull Crap. you are not wrong about the impact of robots but the way to keep an even keel so people can survive is to remind those who lead or own the companies using robots to do what people used to do, is people need to have the where-with-all to buy the output from this sort of manufacturing econony or neither side will survive. And above all we need to keep government out of the equasion all they do is add taxes and regulations that muddy the picture. If we the people work it out together it will be a much better result. Robotic manufacturing economy could most likely be a good outcome, more of us will have more free time and that will provide jobs in the entertainment and related industries and forward looking business and professional leaders will keep us producing enough to provide income enough for every one to survive and if working hard enough to prosper. I never want it to provide $ for doing nothing we currently have about half of the population in the US doing nothing and being paid for it by the rest of us. So if we lay out the future plan every one can survive to the degree they are willing to help each other work out.

    1. Capitalism has failed. This much is obvious, given the bailouts since the 80s of capitalist organizations by society.
      The promise was that capitalism would lift all boats but what strange tide lifts some boats more than others?

      1. What’s going on is NOT capitalism, DH. Call it Crony Capitalism, Corporatism, or whatever, the only authentic capitalism that currently exists is in black markets and the Bitcoin space.

  10. Good article. –The population continues to grow. So, what are you gonna do with all those people who don’t have jobs because of technology?

  11. The robots are coming and resistance is futile. The good news is that they are very good servants. Those who can come to understand, build, and manage them will be most likely to “live long and prosper”. People who chose to turn off the TV and actually read nonfiction, especially media about science, technology, history, finance, Christianity, and small industry will have the best chance. Personal manufacturing is exploding, currently in its own niche, but that niche is getting bigger and those who embrace such disruptive technologies stand a chance. Playing the old game is just plain stupid, but the new game of embracing robotics and making the machines YOUR servants is a winner. We could all end up masters over our own plantations of robotic servants, and that will be a very good thing. We just need to make it through the transition and play the old game only in “legacy-mode” and apply our own efforts to building up the new game. Eventually the tail will start wagging the dog.

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