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In Belgium, we were shocked recently when the excellent automobile factory of Renault was closed. Then a Volkswagen factory followed suit, and more recently it was reported that a well-performing General Motors factory is also closing.
And the public does not understand why. The workers do not understand. The trade unions do not understand. Even the Belgian prime minister says he is astonished and truly shaken, because these factories were functioning well and were considered to have some of the best returns in Europe in terms of the ratio of salaries to quality of production.
One could report hundreds of similar stories from the other EU countries. Everywhere the tendency is the same. But the subject is taboo, and nobody dares approaching the true cause—that our industrial society has been killed by the progress in the form of robotic technology.
The “industrial society” is dead. We certainly continue to have a sector of industrial production, just as we still have one of agricultural production, but we no longer are in an industrial society. That is to say that industry will not be the primary one offering employment and, therefore, give its name to society.
Let us recall what Alvin Toeffler’s warned of in 197023, when he propounded the idea that we are on the way to create a new society—not a transformed, enlarged, greater-than-Nature version of the existing society, but a genuinely original and new society. It has taken 30 years for this simple warning to come to the forefront. And yet, if we do not heed it—if we do not understand its truth—we shall go straight to ruin, despite our efforts to face the future.
Toeffler observed that our civilization struggles in the anguish of revolutionary changes. In the 1920s and 1930s, communists were talking of the “general crisis of capitalism.” It is now obvious that they were short-sighted for what is happening is not a crisis of capitalism, but a crisis of the industrial society itself, regardless of its political organization format. It is a general crisis of industrialism. In fact, one could say that we are in a “super-industrial revolution.”
Toeffler’s warning was aimed at politicians and all those who might want to continue with the “business as usual” approach. Leaders, however intelligent, who ignore the warning not only do not understand the present situation but also to display a dangerous ignorance about the future. The lack of understanding often causes them to substitute simplistic guidelines for thoughtful analysis and action. They implicitly and naively presume that tomorrow’s bureaucracy will even be more powerful than today’s. This type of rectilinear extrapolation occupies a major part of what is currently said and written about the future and it causes them to lose sight of the true problems. According to Toeffler, most leaders do not seem to understand what is happening and continue to imagine a linear future similar to the present one.
This misunderstanding is both sad and dangerous.
The change to a post-industrial society manifests most clearly in the disappearance of industrial jobs. As Jeremy Rifkin24 states (and as Daniel Bell, the Harvard sociologist25, stated in 1973), it is at the level of manpower that things are changing. It becomes more and more obvious as time goes on that industrial factories will be obliged to replace human manpower by robots in order to exist. The trend is the same around the world.
Rifkin notes that this robotisation phenomenon is also happening in China26, since China did reduce its manpower requirements by 15% in seven years, which is enormous. In the West, we might believe that Chinese manpower is cheap, but in the end it is still more expensive than robots! At the global level, too, industrial manpower was reduced by 14% in seven years. And Rifkin adds that this “outsourcing“ accounts for a maximum of only 5% of the overall employment reduction.
This is one less argument for the political class to retain in favour of the status quo.
It is important to note that in the year 1900, 87% of the European population worked in agriculture. Today, farmers comprise only 4% of the European population. And their production is seven times greater than that of the 87% who worked in agriculture over one hundred years ago. Thus, the yield has increased geometrically, and agricultural employment has almost disappeared. This increase in productivity and loss of agricultural employment resulted in the end of the “agricultural society”, because agriculture is not anymore the main employment activity in Europe today.
Now, we are beginning to see similar trends in the field of industrial production. Indeed, as industrial employment diminishes, productivity increases, since robots can work day and night without lunch hours, vacations, or coffee breaks. Not too long ago, a sugar factory near Brussels employed 5000 workers. Today, it is totally robotised and uses only five specialised workers who supervise the computers that operate the robots. Manpower at the factory has been reduced a thousand-fold, and productivity has increased enormously.
In the coming years, we might have the following job situation in the EU:
Six percent in a more “bio-natural” agriculture (if the current trend for the subsidies of the “common agricultural policy” of the EU is changed. A few new positions (perhaps 2%) could be created for the bio farmers.
10% in industrial production
30% in services
As far as the rest goes, nobody knows. Nothing is said of these things because there is nothing to say except for hollow promises to “create employment positions.” The employment situation can only be truly confronted if one realises that the industrial society is dead. But, as a politician, this is not easy to say. The first one to tell the truth may be executed, as in the French song27! This is what Jacques Delors and the European Commission tried to say in the White Book of 1993 on employment by making intelligent propositions to prepare the 21st century. But, they have not been heard.
This may be the reason why he European Chiefs of States happily accepted the “Lisbon strategy,” which addresses the knowledge society and which I shall address in the second part of this book. Yes, the difficult problem that confronts the most expert politicians is precisely the one of employment in the post-industrial society in which we have already lived for some years.
But, things appear to be changing—if slowly. Romano Prodi, when he was President of the European Commission in Brussels, asked Jeremy Rifkin to be one of his advisors. And Angela Merkel, the head of the German Government, invited Jeremy Rifkin to Germany in 2005 to reflect on employment and the future.
For fifty years, we in the West promised “prosperity by development” to those countries that we modestly call “developing countries.” And, except for a few cases of excellent results, we must have the courage to declare that the concept itself of “catching up” conceived by the American economist Rostov28 and repeated ad nauseum by thousands of economists working for Euraid, the World Bank, or NGOs (non-governmental organizations) has not worked and does not work today.
Meanwhile, the development machine keeps functioning. Credits from the World Bank continue to be distributed. And Euraid, the aid for development offered by the EU (by far the most important globally) continues as if no report had taken place. This is understandable but sad, because so many lives are at stake.
The primary support propping up the old “industrial-society” paradigm is the idea that to discard it would leave a vacuum… there is no new concept to take its place. Thus, it continues to be used even though it has shown itself to be obsolete. It is imperative to create a new vision and thereby offer hope for 70% of the global population. But there is no new vision on the horizon, at least in the official circles. And, thus, the prospects are bleak for the majority of humankind. There is no hope on the horizon… in fact, it could be said that there is no horizon at all.
Certainly one might argue that the industrial-development model succeeded very well in China and in India, both of which heartily applaud globalization. Nevertheless, global public opinion, as well as that of some of the intellectuals in China, India and the West sides with the idea that this model of “growth” is driving us directly to a global ecological catastrophe.
Riding along on the coattails of this death of the development concept is the demise of the Western hegemony in the world. Having brought the “good” religion and the “good“ civilization to the rest of the world, the West followed up by bringing “good” development and “good” structural adjustment. The West possessed the “truth” and distributed it to the “underdeveloped.” There really was no room for any other points of view, other approaches, and other visions.
My thesis in this book is that this arrogant concept of Western truth—which has functioned for thousands of years—is dying along with the industrial society. It is an expression of the old saying of the Catholic Church “Extra ecclesia nulla salus“—that is, “Outside of the Church no salvation.” Were we conscious that we were manifesting this expression? Probably not. But those who were subject to Western arrogance have been perfectly aware of it for centuries. They sometimes pushed inward the oppression in the form of a societal inferiority complex, which has often taken often the form of an “underdevelopment” complex. And those so called “underdeveloped” have accepted, once for all, that the Western civilization should be the norm and the model for a sustainable development.
But in the face of its societal and environmental consequences, who can still dare to pretend such a thing?
Thus, we are confronted with the death throes of two things at the same time—the industrial society and the Western epistemology, a pyramidal and exclusive concept of the truth, that pretends to know what is best for cultures and continents (and economies) other than itself—both now and for the future.
In a global world, the Western concept of development no longer makes any sense. But it has yet to make its exit from the world stage.
The industrial society is dead. This does not mean that future societies will not have industries, anymore—only that industry will no longer rule society. With the death of the industrial society comes also the death of the concept of “catching-up development.” There is no global project anymore for the great majority of the people of the world. No more hope. This situation is potentially very dangerous politically because it can lead to despair and, thus, to violence.
We live in a difficult period. And the citizens of the world are right to be worried. But political discussions on this burning subject are few. This is understandable but pitiable. The death of these systems is not being talked about even though it affects the lives of every person on the planet.
The patient might die before it before it is even publicly acknowledged that he is sick.
Ces messieurs ont appelé dame Bess, dit-il; mais dame Bess n’est pas au cottage